It was the autumn after the birth of their boy; it had been a glorious summer, with bright, hot, sunny weather; and now the year was fading away as seasonably into mellow days, with mornings of silver mists and clear frosty nights. The blooming look of the time of flowers, was past and gone; but instead there were even richer tints abroad in the sun-coloured leaves, the lichens, the golden blossomed furze; if it was the time of fading, there was a glory in the decay.
Nest, in her loving anxiety to surround her dwelling with every charm for her husband’s sake, had turned gardener, and the little corners of the rude court before the house were filled with many a delicate mountain-flower, transplanted more for its beauty than its rarity. The sweetbrier bush may even yet be seen, old and gray, which she and Owen planted a green slipling beneath the window of her little chamber. In those moments Owen forgot all besides the present; all the cares and griefs he had known in the past, and all that might await him of woe and death in the future. The boy, too, was as lovely a child as the fondest parent was ever blessed with; and crowed with delight, and clapped his little hands, as his mother held him in her arms at the cottage-door to watch his father’s ascent up the rough path that led to Ty Glas, one bright autumnal morning; and when the three entered the house together, it was difficult to say which was the happiest. Owen carried his boy, and tossed and played with him, while Nest sought out some little article of work, and seated herself on the dresser beneath the window, where now busily plying the needle, and then again looking at her husband, she eagerly told him the little pieces of domestic intelligence, the winning ways of the child, the result of yesterday’s fishing, and such of the gossip of Penmorfa as came to the ears of the now retired Nest. She noticed that, when she mentioned any little circumstance which bore the slightest reference to Bodowen, her husband appeared chafed and uneasy, and at last avoided anything that might in the least remind him of home. In truth, he had been suffering much of late from the irritability of his father, shown in trifles to be sure, but not the less galling on that account.
While they were thus talking, and caressing each other and the child, a shadow darkened the room, and before they could catch a glimpse of the object that had occasioned it, it vanished, and Squire Griffiths lifted the door-latch and stood before them. He stood and looked — first on his son, so different, in his buoyant expression of content and enjoyment, with his noble child in his arms, like a proud and happy father, as he was, from the depressed, moody young man he too often appeared at Bodowen; then on Nest — poor, trembling, sickened Nest! — who dropped her work, but yet durst not stir from her seat, on the dresser, while she looked to her husband as if for protection from his father.
The Squire was silent, as he glared from one to the other, his features white with restrained passion. When he spoke, his words came most distinct in their forced composure. It was to his son he addressed himself:
“That woman! who is she?”
Owen hesitated one moment, and then replied, in a steady, yet quiet voice:
“Father, that woman is my wife.”
He would have added some apology for the long concealment of his marriage; have appealed to his father’s forgiveness; but the foam flew from Squire Owen’s lips as he burst forth with invective against Nest:—
“You have married her! It is as they told me! Married Nest Pritchard yr buten! And you stand there as if you had not disgraced yourself for ever and ever with your accursed wiving! And the fair harlot sits there, in her mocking modesty, practising the mimming airs that will become her state as future Lady of Bodowen. But I will move heaven and earth before that false woman darken the doors of my father’s house as mistress!”
All this was said with such rapidity that Owen had no time for the words that thronged to his lips. “Father!” (he burst forth at length) “Father, whosoever told you that Nest Pritchard was a harlot told you a lie as false as hell! Ay! a lie as false as hell!” he added, in a voice of thunder, while he advanced a step or two nearer to the Squire. And then, in a lower tone, he said —
“She is as pure as your own wife; nay, God help me! as the dear, precious mother who brought me forth, and then left me — with no refuge in a mother’s heart — to struggle on through life alone. I tell you Nest is as pure as that dear, dead mother!”
“Fool — poor fool!”
At this moment the child — the little Owen — who had kept gazing from one angry countenance to the other, and with earnest look, trying to understand what had brought the fierce glare into the face where till now he had read nothing but love, in some way attracted the Squire’s attention, and increased his wrath.
“Yes,” he continued, “poor, weak fool that you are, hugging the child of another as if it were your own offspring!” Owen involuntarily caressed the affrighted child, and half smiled at the implication of his father’s words. This the Squire perceived, and raising his voice to a scream of rage, he went on:
“I bid you, if you call yourself my son, to cast away that miserable, shameless woman’s offspring; cast it away this instant — this instant!”
In this ungovernable rage, seeing that Owen was far from complying with his command, he snatched the poor infant from the loving arms that held it, and throwing it to his mother, left the house inarticulate with fury.
Nest — who had been pale and still as marble during this terrible dialogue, looking on and listening as if fascinated by the words that smote her heart — opened her arms to receive and cherish her precious babe; but the boy was not destined to reach the white refuge of her breast. The furious action of the Squire had been almost without aim, and the infant fell against the sharp edge of the dresser down on to the stone floor.
Owen sprang up to take the child, but he lay so still, so motionless, that the awe of death came over the father, and he stooped down to gaze more closely. At that moment, the upturned, filmy eyes rolled convulsively — a spasm passed along the body — and the lips, yet warm with kissing, quivered into everlasting rest.
A word from her husband told Nest all. She slid down from her seat, and lay by her little son as corpse-like as he, unheeding all the agonizing endearments and passionate adjurations of her husband. And that poor, desolate husband and father! Scarce one little quarter of an hour, and he had been so blessed in his consciousness of love! the bright promise of many years on his infant’s face, and the new, fresh soul beaming forth in its awakened intelligence. And there it was; the little clay image, that would never more gladden up at the sight of him, nor stretch forth to meet his embrace; whose inarticulate, yet most eloquent cooings might haunt him in his dreams, but would never more be heard in waking life again! And by the dead babe, almost as utterly insensate, the poor mother had fallen in a merciful faint — the slandered, heart-pierced Nest! Owen struggled against the sickness that came over him, and busied himself in vain attempts at her restoration.
It was now near noon-day, and Ellis Pritchard came home, little dreaming of the sight that awaited him; but though stunned, he was able to take more effectual measures for his poor daughter’s recovery than Owen had done.
By-and-by she showed symptoms of returning sense, and was placed in her own little bed in a darkened room, where, without ever waking to complete consciousness, she fell asleep. Then it was that her husband, suffocated by pressure of miserable thought, gently drew his hand from her tightened clasp, and printing one long soft kiss on her white waxen forehead, hastily stole out of the room, and out of the house.
Near the base of Moel Gest — it might be a quarter of a mile from Ty Glas — was a little neglected solitary copse, wild and tangled with the trailing branches of the dog-rose and the tendrils of the white bryony. Toward the middle of this thicket a deep crystal pool — a clear mirror for the blue heavens above — and round the margin floated the broad green leaves of the water-lily, and when the regal sun shone down in his noonday glory the flowers arose from their cool depths to welcome and greet him. The copse was musical with many sounds; the warbling of birds rejoicing in its shades, the ceaseless hum of the insects that hovered over the pool, the chime of the distant waterfall, the occasional bleating of the sheep from the mountaintop, were all blended into the delicious harmony of nature.
It had been one of Owen’s favourite resorts when he had been a lonely wanderer — a pilgrim in search of love in the years gone by. And thither he went, as if by instinct, when he left Ty Glas; quelling the uprising agony till he should reach that little solitary spot.
It was the time of day when a change in the aspect of the weather so frequently takes place; and the little pool was no longer the reflection of a blue and sunny sky: it sent back the dark and slaty clouds above, and, every now and then, a rough gust shook the painted autumn leaves from their branches, and all other music was lost in the sound of the wild winds piping down from the moorlands, which lay up and beyond the clefts in the mountain-side. Presently the rain came on and beat down in torrents.
But Owen heeded it not. He sat on the dank ground, his face buried in his hands, and his whole strength, physical and mental, employed in quelling the rush of blood, which rose and boiled and gurgled in his brain as if it would madden him.
The phantom of his dead child rose ever before him, and seemed to cry aloud for vengeance. And when the poor young man thought upon the victim whom he required in his wild longing for revenge, he shuddered, for it was his father!
Again and again he tried not to think; but still the circle of thought came round, eddying through his brain. At length he mastered his passions, and they were calm; then he forced himself to arrange some plan for the future.
He had not, in the passionate hurry of the moment, seen that his father had left the cottage before he was aware of the fatal accident that befell the child. Owen thought he had seen all; and once he planned to go to the Squire and tell him of the anguish of heart he had wrought, and awe him, as it were, by the dignity of grief. But then again he durst not — he distrusted his self-control — the old prophecy rose up in its horror — he dreaded his doom.
At last he determined to leave his father for ever; to take Nest to some distant country where she might forget her firstborn, and where he himself might gain a livelihood by his own exertions.
But when he tried to descend to the various little arrangements which were involved in the execution of this plan, he remembered that all his money (and in this respect Squire Griffiths was no niggard) was locked up in his escritoire at Bodowen. In vain he tried to do away with this matter-of-fact difficulty; go to Bodowen he must: and his only hope — nay his determination — was to avoid his father.
He rose and took a by-path to Bodowen. The house looked even more gloomy and desolate than usual in the heavy down-pouring rain, yet Owen gazed on it with something of regret — for sorrowful as his days in it had been, he was about to leave it for many many years, if not for ever. He entered by a side door opening into a passage that led to his own room, where he kept his books, his guns, his fishing-tackle, his writing materials, et cetera.
Here he hurriedly began to select the few articles he intended to take; for, besides the dread of interruption, he was feverishly anxious to travel far that very night, if only Nest was capable of performing the journey. As he was thus employed, he tried to conjecture what his father’s feelings would be on finding that his once-loved son was gone away for ever. Would he then awaken to regret for the conduct which had driven him from home, and bitterly think on the loving and caressing boy who haunted his footsteps in former days? Or, alas! would he only feel that an obstacle to his daily happiness — to his contentment with his wife, and his strange, doting affection for the child — was taken away? Would they make merry over the heir’s departure? Then he thought of Nest — the young childless mother, whose heart had not yet realized her fulness of desolation. Poor Nest! so loving as she was, so devoted to her child — how should he console her? He pictured her away in a strange land, pining for her native mountains, and refusing to be comforted because her child was not.
Even this thought of the home-sickness that might possibly beset Nest hardly made him hesitate in his determination; so strongly had the idea taken possession of him that only by putting miles and leagues between him and his father could he avert the doom which seemed blending itself with the very purposes of his life as long as he stayed in proximity with the slayer of his child.
He had now nearly completed his hasty work of preparation, and was full of tender thoughts of his wife, when the door opened, and the elfish Robert peered in, in search of some of his brother’s possessions. On seeing Owen he hesitated, but then came boldly forward, and laid his hand on Owen’s arm, saying,
“Nesta yr buten! How is Nest yr buten?”
He looked maliciously into Owen’s face to mark the effect of his words, but was terrified at the expression he read there. He started off and ran to the door, while Owen tried to check himself, saying continually, “He is but a child. He does not understand the meaning of what he says. He is but a child!” Still Robert, now in fancied security, kept calling out his insulting words, and Owen’s hand was on his gun, grasping it as if to restrain his rising fury.
But when Robert passed on daringly to mocking words relating to the poor dead child, Owen could bear it no longer; and before the boy was well aware, Owen was fiercely holding him in an iron clasp with one hand, while he struck him hard with the other.
In a minute he checked himself. He paused, relaxed his grasp, and, to his horror, he saw Robert sink to the ground; in fact, the lad was half-stunned, half-frightened, and thought it best to assume insensibility.
Owen — miserable Owen — seeing him lie there prostrate, was bitterly repentant, and would have dragged him to the carved settle, and done all he could to restore him to his senses, but at this instant the Squire came in.
Probably, when the household at Bodowen rose that morning, there was but one among them ignorant of the heir’s relation to Nest Pritchard and her child; for secret as he tried to make his visits to Ty Glas, they had been too frequent not to be noticed, and Nest’s altered conduct — no longer frequenting dances and merry-makings — was a strongly corroborative circumstance. But Mrs. Griffiths’ influence reigned paramount, if unacknowledged, at Bodowen, and till she sanctioned the disclosure, none would dare to tell the Squire.
Now, however, the time drew near when it suited her to make her husband aware of the connection his son had formed; so, with many tears, and much seeming reluctance, she broke the intelligence to him — taking good care, at the same time, to inform him of the light character Nest had borne. Nor did she confine this evil reputation to her conduct before her marriage, but insinuated that even to this day she was a “woman of the grove and brake”— for centuries the Welsh term of opprobrium for the loosest female characters.
Squire Griffiths easily tracked Owen to Ty Glas; and without any aim but the gratification of his furious anger, followed him to upbraid as we have seen. But he left the cottage even more enraged against his son than he had entered it, and returned home to hear the evil suggestions of the stepmother. He had heard a slight scuffle in which he caught the tones of Robert’s voice, as he passed along the hall, and an instant afterwards he saw the apparently lifeless body of his little favourite dragged along by the culprit Owen — the marks of strong passion yet visible on his face. Not loud, but bitter and deep were the evil words which the father bestowed on the son; and as Owen stood proudly and sullenly silent, disdaining all exculpation of himself in the presence of one who had wrought him so much graver — so fatal an injury — Robert’s mother entered the room. At sight of her natural emotion the wrath of the Squire was redoubled, and his wild suspicions that this violence of Owen’s to Robert was a premeditated act appeared like the proven truth through the mists of rage. He summoned domestics as if to guard his own and his wife’s life from the attempts of his son; and the servants stood wondering around — now gazing at Mrs. Griffiths, alternately scolding and sobbing, while she tried to restore the lad from his really bruised and half-unconscious state; now at the fierce and angry Squire; and now at the sad and silent Owen. And he — he was hardly aware of their looks of wonder and terror; his father’s words fell on a deadened ear; for before his eyes there rose a pale dead babe, and in that lady’s violent sounds of grief he heard the wailing of a more sad, more hopeless mother. For by this time the lad Robert had opened his eyes, and though evidently suffering a good deal from the effects of Owen’s blows, was fully conscious of all that was passing around him.
Had Owen been left to his own nature, his heart would have worked itself to doubly love the boy whom he had injured; but he was stubborn from injustice, and hardened by suffering. He refused to vindicate himself; he made no effort to resist the imprisonment the Squire had decreed, until a surgeon’s opinion of the real extent of Robert’s injuries was made known. It was not until the door was locked and barred, as if upon some wild and furious beast, that the recollection of poor Nest, without his comforting presence, came into his mind. Oh! thought he, how she would be wearying, pining for his tender sympathy; if, indeed, she had recovered the shock of mind sufficiently to be sensible of consolation! What would she think of his absence? Could she imagine he believed his father’s words, and had left her, in this her sore trouble and bereavement? The thought madened him, and he looked around for some mode of escape.
He had been confined in a small unfurnished room on the first floor, wainscoted, and carved all round, with a massy door, calculated to resist the attempts of a dozen strong men, even had he afterward been able to escape from the house unseen, unheard. The window was placed (as is common in old Welsh houses) over the fire-place; with branching chimneys on either hand, forming a sort of projection on the outside. By this outlet his escape was easy, even had he been less determined and desperate than he was. And when he had descended, with a little care, a little winding, he might elude all observation and pursue his original intention of going to Ty Glas.
The storm had abated, and watery sunbeams were gilding the bay, as Owen descended from the window, and, stealing along in the broad afternoon shadows, made his way to the little plateau of green turf in the garden at the top of a steep precipitous rock, down the abrupt face of which he had often dropped, by means of a well-secured rope, into the small sailing-boat (his father’s present, alas! in days gone by) which lay moored in the deep sea-water below. He had always kept his boat there, because it was the nearest available spot to the house; but before he could reach the place — unless, indeed, he crossed a broad sun-lighted piece of ground in full view of the windows on that side of the house, and without the shadow of a single sheltering tree or shrub — he had to skirt round a rude semicircle of underwood, which would have been considered as a shrubbery had any one taken pains with it. Step by step he stealthily moved along — hearing voices now, again seeing his father and stepmother in no distant walk, the Squire evidently caressing and consoling his wife, who seemed to be urging some point with great vehemence, again forced to crouch down to avoid being seen by the cook, returning from the rude kitchen-garden with a handful of herbs. This was the way the doomed heir of Bodowen left his ancestral house for ever, and hoped to leave behind him his doom. At length he reached the plateau — he breathed more freely. He stooped to discover the hidden coil of rope, kept safe and dry in a hole under a great round flat piece of rock: his head was bent down; he did not see his father approach, nor did he hear his footstep for the rush of blood to his head in the stooping effort of lifting the stone; the Squire had grappled with him before he rose up again, before he fully knew whose hands detained him, now, when his liberty of person and action seemed secure. He made a vigorous struggle to free himself; he wrestled with his father for a moment — he pushed him hard, and drove him on to the great displaced stone, all unsteady in its balance.
Down went the Squire, down into the deep waters below — down after him went Owen, half consciously, half unconsciously, partly compelled by the sudden cessation of any opposing body, partly from a vehement irrepressible impulse to rescue his father. But he had instinctively chosen a safer place in the deep seawater pool than that into which his push had sent his father. The Squire had hit his head with much violence against the side of the boat, in his fall; it is, indeed, doubtful whether he was not killed before ever he sank into the sea. But Owen knew nothing save that the awful doom seemed even now present. He plunged down, he dived below the water in search of the body which had none of the elasticity of life to buoy it up; he saw his father in those depths, he clutched at him, he brought him up and cast him, a dead weight, into the boat, and exhausted by the effort, he had begun himself to sink again before he instinctively strove to rise and climb into the rocking boat. There lay his father, with a deep dent in the side of his head where the skull had been fractured by his fall; his face blackened by the arrested course of the blood. Owen felt his pulse, his heart — all was still. He called him by his name.
“Father, father!” he cried, “come back! come back! You never knew how I loved you! how I could love you still — if — Oh God!”
And the thought of his little child rose before him. “Yes, father,” he cried afresh, “you never knew how he fell — how he died! Oh, if I had but had patience to tell you! If you would but have borne with me and listened! And now it is over! Oh father! father!”
Whether she had heard this wild wailing voice, or whether it was only that she missed her husband and wanted him for some little every-day question, or, as was perhaps more likely, she had discovered Owen’s escape, and come to inform her husband of it, I do not know, but on the rock, right above his head, as it seemed, Owen heard his stepmother calling her husband.
He was silent, and softly pushed the boat right under the rock till the sides grated against the stones, and the overhanging branches concealed him and it from all not on a level with the water. Wet as he was, he lay down by his dead father the better to conceal himself; and, somehow, the action recalled those early days of childhood — the first in the Squire’s widowhood — when Owen had shared his father’s bed, and used to waken him in the morning to hear one of the old Welsh legends. How long he lay thus — body chilled, and brain hard-working through the heavy pressure of a reality as terrible as a nightmare — he never knew; but at length he roused himself up to think of Nest.
Drawing out a great sail, he covered up the body of his father with it where he lay in the bottom of the boat. Then with his numbed hands he took the oars, and pulled out into the more open sea toward Criccaeth. He skirted along the coast till he found a shadowed cleft in the dark rocks; to that point he rowed, and anchored his boat close in land. Then he mounted, staggering, half longing to fall into the dark waters and be at rest — half instinctively finding out the surest foot-rests on that precipitous face of rock, till he was high up, safe landed on the turfy summit. He ran off, as if pursued, toward Penmorfa; he ran with maddened energy. Suddenly he paused, turned, ran again with the same speed, and threw himself prone on the summit, looking down into his boat with straining eyes to see if there had been any movement of life — any displacement of a fold of sail-cloth. It was all quiet deep down below, but as he gazed the shifting light gave the appearance of a slight movement. Owen ran to a lower part of the rock, stripped, plunged into the water, and swam to the boat. When there, all was still — awfully still! For a minute or two, he dared not lift up the cloth. Then reflecting that the same terror might beset him again — of leaving his father unaided while yet a spark of life lingered — he removed the shrouding cover. The eyes looked into his with a dead stare! He closed the lids and bound up the jaw. Again he looked. This time he raised himself out of the water and kissed the brow.
“It was my doom, father! It would have been better if I had died at my birth!”
Daylight was fading away. Precious daylight! He swam back, dressed, and set off afresh for Penmorfa. When he opened the door of Ty Glas, Ellis Pritchard looked at him reproachfully, from his seat in the darkly-shadowed chimney-corner.
“You’re come at last,” said he. “One of our kind (i.e., station) would not have left his wife to mourn by herself over her dead child; nor would one of our kind have let his father kill his own true son. I’ve a good mind to take her from you for ever.”
“I did not tell him,” cried Nest, looking piteously at her husband; “he made me tell him part, and guessed the rest.”
She was nursing her babe on her knee as if it was alive. Owen stood before Ellis Pritchard.
“Be silent,” said he, quietly. “Neither words nor deeds but what are decreed can come to pass. I was set to do my work, this hundred years and more. The time waited for me, and the man waited for me. I have done what was foretold of me for generations!”
Ellis Pritchard knew the old tale of the prophecy, and believed in it in a dull, dead kind of way, but somehow never thought it would come to pass in his time. Now, however, he understood it all in a moment, though he mistook Owen’s nature so much as to believe that the deed was intentionally done, out of revenge for the death of his boy; and viewing it in this light, Ellis thought it little more than a just punishment for the cause of all the wild despairing sorrow he had seen his only child suffer during the hours of this long afternoon. But he knew the law would not so regard it. Even the lax Welsh law of those days could not fail to examine into the death of a man of Squire Griffith’s standing. So the acute Ellis thought how he could conceal the culprit for a time.
“Come,” said he; “don’t look so scared! It was your doom, not your fault;” and he laid a hand on Owen’s shoulder.
“You’re wet,” said he, suddenly. “Where have you been? Nest, your husband is dripping, drookit wet. That’s what makes him look so blue and wan.”
Nest softly laid her baby in its cradle; she was half stupefied with crying, and had not understood to what Owen alluded, when he spoke of his doom being fulfilled, if indeed she had heard the words.
Her touch thawed Owen’s miserable heart.
“Oh, Nest!” said he, clasping her in his arms; “do you love me still — can you love me, my own darling?”
“Why not?” asked she, her eyes filling with tears. “I only love you more than ever, for you were my poor baby’s father!”
“But, Nest — Oh, tell her, Ellis! YOU know.”
“No need, no need!” said Ellis. “She’s had enough to think on. Bustle, my girl, and get out my Sunday clothes.”
“I don’t understand,” said Nest, putting her hand up to her head. “What is to tell? and why are you so wet? God help me for a poor crazed thing, for I cannot guess at the meaning of your words and your strange looks! I only know my baby is dead!” and she burst into tears.
“Come, Nest! go and fetch him a change, quick!” and as she meekly obeyed, too languid to strive further to understand, Ellis said rapidly to Owen, in a low, hurried voice —
“Are you meaning that the Squire is dead? Speak low, lest she hear. Well, well, no need to talk about how he died. It was sudden, I see; and we must all of us die; and he’ll have to be buried. It’s well the night is near. And I should not wonder now if you’d like to travel for a bit; it would do Nest a power of good; and then — there’s many a one goes out of his own house and never comes back again; and — I trust he’s not lying in his own house — and there’s a stir for a bit, and a search, and a wonder — and, by-and-by, the heir just steps in, as quiet as can be. And that’s what you’ll do, and bring Nest to Bodowen after all. Nay, child, better stockings nor those; find the blue woollens I bought at Llanrwst fair. Only don’t lose heart. It’s done now and can’t be helped. It was the piece of work set you to do from the days of the Tudors, they say. And he deserved it. Look in yon cradle. So tell us where he is, and I’ll take heart of grace and see what can be done for him.”
But Owen sat wet and haggard, looking into the peat fire as if for visions of the past, and never heeding a word Ellis said. Nor did he move when Nest brought the armful of dry clothes.
“Come, rouse up, man!” said Ellis, growing impatient. But he neither spoke nor moved.
“What is the matter, father?” asked Nest, bewildered.
Ellis kept on watching Owen for a minute or two, till on his daughter’s repetition of the question, he said —
“Ask him yourself, Nest.”
“Oh, husband, what is it?” said she, kneeling down and bringing her face to a level with his.
“Don’t you know?” said he, heavily. “You won’t love me when you do know. And yet it was not my doing: it was my doom.”
“What does he mean, father?” asked Nest, looking up; but she caught a gesture from Ellis urging her to go on questioning her husband.
“I will love you, husband, whatever has happened. Only let me know the worst.”
A pause, during which Nest and Ellis hung breathless.
“My father is dead, Nest.”
Nest caught her breath with a sharp gasp.
“God forgive him!” said she, thinking on her babe.
“God forgive ME!” said Owen.
“You did not —” Nest stopped.
“Yes, I did. Now you know it. It was my doom. How could I help it? The devil helped me — he placed the stone so that my father fell. I jumped into the water to save him. I did, indeed, Nest. I was nearly drowned myself. But he was dead — dead — killed by the fall!”
“Then he is safe at the bottom of the sea?” said Ellis, with hungry eagerness.
“No, he is not; he lies in my boat,” said Owen, shivering a little, more at the thought of his last glimpse at his father’s face than from cold.
“Oh, husband, change your wet clothes!” pleaded Nest, to whom the death of the old man was simply a horror with which she had nothing to do, while her husband’s discomfort was a present trouble.
While she helped him to take off the wet garments which he would never have had energy enough to remove of himself, Ellis was busy preparing food, and mixing a great tumbler of spirits and hot water. He stood over the unfortunate young man and compelled him to eat and drink, and made Nest, too, taste some mouthfuls — all the while planning in his own mind how best to conceal what had been done, and who had done it; not altogether without a certain feeling of vulgar triumph in the reflection that Nest, as she stood there, carelessly dressed, dishevelled in her grief, was in reality the mistress of Bodowen, than which Ellis Pritchard had never seen a grander house, though he believed such might exist.
By dint of a few dexterous questions he found out all he wanted to know from Owen, as he ate and drank. In fact, it was almost a relief to Owen to dilute the horror by talking about it. Before the meal was done, if meal it could be called, Ellis knew all he cared to know.
“Now, Nest, on with your cloak and haps. Pack up what needs to go with you, for both you and your husband must be half way to Liverpool by tomorrow’s morn. I’ll take you past Rhyl Sands in my fishing-boat, with yours in tow; and, once over the dangerous part, I’ll return with my cargo of fish, and learn how much stir there is at Bodowen. Once safe hidden in Liverpool, no one will know where you are, and you may stay quiet till your time comes for returning.”
“I will never come home again,” said Owen, doggedly. “The place is accursed!”
“Hoot! be guided by me, man. Why, it was but an accident, after all! And we’ll land at the Holy Island, at the Point of Llyn; there is an old cousin of mine, the parson, there — for the Pritchards have known better days, Squire — and we’ll bury him there. It was but an accident, man. Hold up your head! You and Nest will come home yet and fill Bodowen with children, and I’ll live to see it.”
“Never!” said Owen. “I am the last male of my race, and the son has murdered his father!”
Nest came in laden and cloaked. Ellis was for hurrying them off. The fire was extinguished, the door was locked.
“Here, Nest, my darling, let me take your bundle while I guide you down the steps.” But her husband bent his head, and spoke never a word. Nest gave her father the bundle (already loaded with such things as he himself had seen fit to take), but clasped another softly and tightly.
“No one shall help me with this,” said she, in a low voice.
Her father did not understand her; her husband did, and placed his strong helping arm round her waist, and blessed her.
“We will all go together, Nest,” said he. “But where?” and he looked up at the storm-tossed clouds coming up from windward.
“It is a dirty night,” said Ellis, turning his head round to speak to his companions at last. “But never fear, we’ll weather it?” And he made for the place where his vessel was moored. Then he stopped and thought a moment.
“Stay here!” said he, addressing his companions. “I may meet folk, and I shall, maybe, have to hear and to speak. You wait here till I come back for you.” So they sat down close together in a corner of the path.
“Let me look at him, Nest!” said Owen.
She took her little dead son out from under her shawl; they looked at his waxen face long and tenderly; kissed it, and covered it up reverently and softly.
“Nest,” said Owen, at last, “I feel as though my father’s spirit had been near us, and as if it had bent over our poor little one. A strange chilly air met me as I stooped over him. I could fancy the spirit of our pure, blameless child guiding my father’s safe over the paths of the sky to the gates of heaven, and escaping those accursed dogs of hell that were darting up from the north in pursuit of souls not five minutes since.
“Don’t talk so, Owen,” said Nest, curling up to him in the darkness of the copse. “Who knows what may be listening?”
The pair were silent, in a kind of nameless terror, till they heard Ellis Pritchard’s loud whisper. “Where are ye? Come along, soft and steady. There were folk about even now, and the Squire is missed, and madam in a fright.”
They went swiftly down to the little harbour, and embarked on board Ellis’s boat. The sea heaved and rocked even there; the torn clouds went hurrying overhead in a wild tumultuous manner.
They put out into the bay; still in silence, except when some word of command was spoken by Ellis, who took the management of the vessel. They made for the rocky shore, where Owen’s boat had been moored. It was not there. It had broken loose and disappeared.
Owen sat down and covered his face. This last event, so simple and natural in itself, struck on his excited and superstitious mind in an extraordinary manner. He had hoped for a certain reconciliation, so to say, by laying his father and his child both in one grave. But now it appeared to him as if there was to be no forgiveness; as if his father revolted even in death against any such peaceful union. Ellis took a practical view of the case. If the Squire’s body was found drifting about in a boat known to belong to his son, it would create terrible suspicion as to the manner of his death. At one time in the evening, Ellis had thought of persuading Owen to let him bury the Squire in a sailor’s grave; or, in other words, to sew him up in a spare sail, and weighting it well, sink it for ever. He had not broached the subject, from a certain fear of Owen’s passionate repugnance to the plan; otherwise, if he had consented, they might have returned to Penmorfa, and passively awaited the course of events, secure of Owen’s succession to Bodowen, sooner or later; or if Owen was too much overwhelmed by what had happened, Ellis would have advised him to go away for a short time, and return when the buzz and the talk was over.
Now it was different. It was absolutely necessary that they should leave the country for a time. Through those stormy waters they must plough their way that very night. Ellis had no fear — would have had no fear, at any rate, with Owen as he had been a week, a day ago; but with Owen wild, despairing, helpless, fate-pursued, what could he do?
They sailed into the tossing darkness, and were never more seen of men.
The house of Bodowen has sunk into damp, dark ruins; and a Saxon stranger holds the lands of the Griffiths.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55