The genial Justice of the Peace — now, alas, no more — who made himself responsible for the facts of this story, used to begin in the good old-fashioned way with a bright moonlight night and a mysterious figure, an excellent stroke for an opening, even to this day, if well followed up.
The Christmas moon (he would say) was showing her cold face to the upland, the upland reflecting the radiance in frost-sparkles so minute as only to be discernible by an eye near at hand. This eye, he said, was the eye of a shepherd lad, young for his occupation, who stood within a wheeled hut of the kind commonly in use among sheep-keepers during the early lambing season, and was abstractedly looking through the loophole at the scene without.
The spot was called Lambing Corner, and it was a sheltered portion of that wide expanse of rough pastureland known as the Marlbury Downs, which you directly traverse when following the turnpike-road across Mid–Wessex from London, through Aldbrickham, in the direction of Bath and Bristol. Here, where the hut stood, the land was high and dry, open, except to the north, and commanding an undulating view for miles. On the north side grew a tall belt of coarse furze, with enormous stalks, a clump of the same standing detached in front of the general mass. The clump was hollow, and the interior had been ingeniously taken advantage of as a position for the before-mentioned hut, which was thus completely screened from winds, and almost invisible, except through the narrow approach. But the furze twigs had been cut away from the two little windows of the hut, that the occupier might keep his eye on his sheep.
In the rear, the shelter afforded by the belt of furze bushes was artificially improved by an inclosure of upright stakes, interwoven with boughs of the same prickly vegetation, and within the inclosure lay a renowned Marlbury–Down breeding flock of eight hundred ewes.
To the south, in the direction of the young shepherd’s idle gaze, there rose one conspicuous object above the uniform moonlit plateau, and only one. It was a Druidical trilithon, consisting of three oblong stones in the form of a doorway, two on end, and one across as a lintel. Each stone had been worn, scratched, washed, nibbled, split, and otherwise attacked by ten thousand different weathers; but now the blocks looked shapely and little the worse for wear, so beautifully were they silvered over by the light of the moon. The ruin was locally called the Devil’s Door.
An old shepherd presently entered the hut from the direction of the ewes, and looked around in the gloom. ‘Be ye sleepy?’ he asked in cross accents of the boy.
The lad replied rather timidly in the negative.
‘Then,’ said the shepherd, ‘I’ll get me home-along, and rest for a few hours. There’s nothing to be done here now as I can see. The ewes can want no more tending till daybreak —’tis beyond the bounds of reason that they can. But as the order is that one of us must bide, I’ll leave ‘ee, d’ye hear. You can sleep by day, and I can’t. And you can be down to my house in ten minutes if anything should happen. I can’t afford ‘ee candle; but, as ’tis Christmas week, and the time that folks have hollerdays, you can enjoy yerself by falling asleep a bit in the chair instead of biding awake all the time. But mind, not longer at once than while the shade of the Devil’s Door moves a couple of spans, for you must keep an eye upon the ewes.’
The boy made no definite reply, and the old man, stirring the fire in the stove with his crook-stem, closed the door upon his companion and vanished.
As this had been more or less the course of events every night since the season’s lambing had set in, the boy was not at all surprised at the charge, and amused himself for some time by lighting straws at the stove. He then went out to the ewes and new-born lambs, re-entered, sat down, and finally fell asleep. This was his customary manner of performing his watch, for though special permission for naps had this week been accorded, he had, as a matter of fact, done the same thing on every preceding night, sleeping often till awakened by a smack on the shoulder at three or four in the morning from the crook-stem of the old man.
It might have been about eleven o’clock when he awoke. He was so surprised at awaking without, apparently, being called or struck, that on second thoughts he assumed that somebody must have called him in spite of appearances, and looked out of the hut window towards the sheep. They all lay as quiet as when he had visited them, very little bleating being audible, and no human soul disturbing the scene. He next looked from the opposite window, and here the case was different. The frost-facets glistened under the moon as before; an occasional furze bush showed as a dark spot on the same; and in the foreground stood the ghostly form of the trilithon. But in front of the trilithon stood a man.
That he was not the shepherd or any one of the farm labourers was apparent in a moment’s observation — his dress being a dark suit, and his figure of slender build and graceful carriage. He walked backwards and forwards in front of the trilithon.
The shepherd lad had hardly done speculating on the strangeness of the unknown’s presence here at such an hour, when he saw a second figure crossing the open sward towards the locality of the trilithon and furze-clump that screened the hut. This second personage was a woman; and immediately on sight of her the male stranger hastened forward, meeting her just in front of the hut window. Before she seemed to be aware of his intention he clasped her in his arms.
The lady released herself and drew back with some dignity.
‘You have come, Harriet — bless you for it!’ he exclaimed, fervently.
‘But not for this,’ she answered, in offended accents. And then, more good-naturedly, ‘I have come, Fred, because you entreated me so! What can have been the object of your writing such a letter? I feared I might be doing you grievous ill by staying away. How did you come here?’
‘I walked all the way from my father’s.’
‘Well, what is it? How have you lived since we last met?’
‘But roughly; you might have known that without asking. I have seen many lands and many faces since I last walked these downs, but I have only thought of you.’
‘Is it only to tell me this that you have summoned me so strangely?’
A passing breeze blew away the murmur of the reply and several succeeding sentences, till the man’s voice again became audible in the words, ‘Harriet — truth between us two! I have heard that the Duke does not treat you too well.’
‘He is warm-tempered, but he is a good husband.’
‘He speaks roughly to you, and sometimes even threatens to lock you out of doors.’
‘Only once, Fred! On my honour, only once. The Duke is a fairly good husband, I repeat. But you deserve punishment for this night’s trick of drawing me out. What does it mean?’
‘Harriet, dearest, is this fair or honest? Is it not notorious that your life with him is a sad one — that, in spite of the sweetness of your temper, the sourness of his embitters your days. I have come to know if I can help you. You are a Duchess, and I am Fred Ogbourne; but it is not impossible that I may be able to help you . . . By God! the sweetness of that tongue ought to keep him civil, especially when there is added to it the sweetness of that face!’
‘Captain Ogbourne!’ she exclaimed, with an emphasis of playful fear. ‘How can such a comrade of my youth behave to me as you do? Don’t speak so, and stare at me so! Is this really all you have to say? I see I ought not to have come. ’Twas thoughtlessly done.’
Another breeze broke the thread of discourse for a time.
‘Very well. I perceive you are dead and lost to me,’ he could next be heard to say, ‘“Captain Ogbourne” proves that. As I once loved you I love you now, Harriet, without one jot of abatement; but you are not the woman you were — you once were honest towards me; and now you conceal your heart in made-up speeches. Let it be: I can never see you again.’
‘You need not say that in such a tragedy tone, you silly. You may see me in an ordinary way — why should you not? But, of course, not in such a way as this. I should not have come now, if it had not happened that the Duke is away from home, so that there is nobody to check my erratic impulses.’
‘When does he return?’
‘The day after tomorrow, or the day after that.’
‘Then meet me again tomorrow night.’
‘No, Fred, I cannot.’
‘If you cannot tomorrow night, you can the night after; one of the two before he comes please bestow on me. Now, your hand upon it! To-morrow or next night you will see me to bid me farewell!’ He seized the Duchess’s hand.
‘No, but Fred — let go my hand! What do you mean by holding me so? If it be love to forget all respect to a woman’s present position in thinking of her past, then yours may be so, Frederick. It is not kind and gentle of you to induce me to come to this place for pity of you, and then to hold me tight here.’
‘But see me once more! I have come two thousand miles to ask it.’
‘O, I must not! There will be slanders — Heaven knows what! I cannot meet you. For the sake of old times don’t ask it.’
‘Then own two things to me; that you did love me once, and that your husband is unkind to you often enough now to make you think of the time when you cared for me.’
‘Yes — I own them both,’ she answered faintly. ‘But owning such as that tells against me; and I swear the inference is not true.’
‘Don’t say that; for you have come — let me think the reason of your coming what I like to think it. It can do you no harm. Come once more!’
He still held her hand and waist. ‘Very well, then,’ she said. ‘Thus far you shall persuade me. I will meet you tomorrow night or the night after. Now, let me go.’
He released her, and they parted. The Duchess ran rapidly down the hill towards the outlying mansion of Shakeforest Towers, and when he had watched her out of sight, he turned and strode off in the opposite direction. All then was silent and empty as before.
Yet it was only for a moment. When they had quite departed, another shape appeared upon the scene. He came from behind the trilithon. He was a man of stouter build than the first, and wore the boots and spurs of a horseman. Two things were at once obvious from this phenomenon: that he had watched the interview between the Captain and the Duchess; and that, though he probably had seen every movement of the couple, including the embrace, he had been too remote to hear the reluctant words of the lady’s conversation — or, indeed, any words at all — so that the meeting must have exhibited itself to his eye as the assignation of a pair of well-agreed lovers. But it was necessary that several years should elapse before the shepherd-boy was old enough to reason out this.
The third individual stood still for a moment, as if deep in meditation. He crossed over to where the lady and gentleman had stood, and looked at the ground; then he too turned and went away in a third direction, as widely divergent as possible from those taken by the two interlocutors. His course was towards the highway; and a few minutes afterwards the trot of a horse might have been heard upon its frosty surface, lessening till it died away upon the ear.
The boy remained in the hut, confronting the trilithon as if he expected yet more actors on the scene, but nobody else appeared. How long he stood with his little face against the loophole he hardly knew; but he was rudely awakened from his reverie by a punch in his back, and in the feel of it he familiarly recognized the stem of the old shepherd’s crook.
‘Blame thy young eyes and limbs, Bill Mills — now you have let the fire out, and you know I want it kept in! I thought something would go wrong with ‘ee up here, and I couldn’t bide in bed no more than thistledown on the wind, that I could not! Well, what’s happened, fie upon ‘ee?’
‘Ewes all as I left ’em?’
‘Any lambs want bringing in?’
The shepherd relit the fire, and went out among the sheep with a lantern, for the moon was getting low. Soon he came in again.
‘Blame it all — thou’st say that nothing have happened; when one ewe have twinned and is like to go off, and another is dying for want of half an eye of looking to! I told ‘ee, Bill Mills, if anything went wrong to come down and call me; and this is how you have done it.’
‘You said I could go to sleep for a hollerday, and I did.’
‘Don’t you speak to your betters like that, young man, or you’ll come to the gallows-tree! You didn’t sleep all the time, or you wouldn’t have been peeping out of that there hole! Now you can go home, and be up here again by breakfast-time. I be an old man, and there’s old men that deserve well of the world; but no I— must rest how I can!’
The elder shepherd then lay down inside the hut, and the boy went down the hill to the hamlet where he dwelt.
When the next night drew on the actions of the boy were almost enough to show that he was thinking of the meeting he had witnessed, and of the promise wrung from the lady that she would come there again. As far as the sheep-tending arrangements were concerned, to-night was but a repetition of the foregoing one. Between ten and eleven o’clock the old shepherd withdrew as usual for what sleep at home he might chance to get without interruption, making up the other necessary hours of rest at some time during the day; the boy was left alone.
The frost was the same as on the night before, except perhaps that it was a little more severe. The moon shone as usual, except that it was three-quarters of an hour later in its course; and the boy’s condition was much the same, except that he felt no sleepiness whatever. He felt, too, rather afraid; but upon the whole he preferred witnessing an assignation of strangers to running the risk of being discovered absent by the old shepherd.
It was before the distant clock of Shakeforest Towers had struck eleven that he observed the opening of the second act of this midnight drama. It consisted in the appearance of neither lover nor Duchess, but of the third figure — the stout man, booted and spurred — who came up from the easterly direction in which he had retreated the night before. He walked once round the trilithon, and next advanced towards the clump concealing the hut, the moonlight shining full upon his face and revealing him to be the Duke. Fear seized upon the shepherd-boy: the Duke was Jove himself to the rural population, whom to offend was starvation, homelessness, and death, and whom to look at was to be mentally scathed and dumbfoundered. He closed the stove, so that not a spark of light appeared, and hastily buried himself in the straw that lay in a corner.
The Duke came close to the clump of furze and stood by the spot where his wife and the Captain had held their dialogue; he examined the furze as if searching for a hiding-place, and in doing so discovered the hut. The latter he walked round and then looked inside; finding it to all seeming empty, he entered, closing the door behind him and taking his place at the little circular window against which the boy’s face had been pressed just before.
The Duke had not adopted his measures too rapidly, if his object were concealment. Almost as soon as he had stationed himself there eleven o’clock struck, and the slender young man who had previously graced the scene promptly reappeared from the north quarter of the down. The spot of assignation having, by the accident of his running forward on the foregoing night, removed itself from the Devil’s Door to the clump of furze, he instinctively came thither, and waited for the Duchess where he had met her before.
But a fearful surprise was in store for him to-night, as well as for the trembling juvenile. At his appearance the Duke breathed more and more quickly, his breathings being distinctly audible to the crouching boy. The young man had hardly paused when the alert nobleman softly opened the door of the hut, and, stepping round the furze, came full upon Captain Fred.
‘You have dishonoured her, and you shall die the death you deserve!’ came to the shepherd’s ears, in a harsh, hollow whisper through the boarding of the hut.
The apathetic and taciturn boy was excited enough to run the risk of rising and looking from the window, but he could see nothing for the intervening furze boughs, both the men having gone round to the side. What took place in the few following moments he never exactly knew. He discerned portion of a shadow in quick muscular movement; then there was the fall of something on the grass; then there was stillness.
Two or three minutes later the Duke became visible round the corner of the hut, dragging by the collar the now inert body of the second man. The Duke dragged him across the open space towards the trilithon. Behind this ruin was a hollow, irregular spot, overgrown with furze and stunted thorns, and riddled by the old holes of badgers, its former inhabitants, who had now died out or departed. The Duke vanished into this depression with his burden, reappearing after the lapse of a few seconds. When he came forth he dragged nothing behind him.
He returned to the side of the hut, cleansed something on the grass, and again put himself on the watch, though not as before, inside the hut, but without, on the shady side. ‘Now for the second!’ he said.
It was plain, even to the unsophisticated boy, that he now awaited the other person of the appointment — his wife, the Duchess — for what purpose it was terrible to think. He seemed to be a man of such determined temper that he would scarcely hesitate in carrying out a course of revenge to the bitter end. Moreover — though it was what the shepherd did not perceive — this was all the more probable, in that the moody Duke was labouring under the exaggerated impression which the sight of the meeting in dumb show had conveyed.
The jealous watcher waited long, but he waited in vain. From within the hut the boy could hear his occasional exclamations of surprise, as if he were almost disappointed at the failure of his assumption that his guilty Duchess would surely keep the tryst. Sometimes he stepped from the shade of the furze into the moonlight, and held up his watch to learn the time.
About half-past eleven he seemed to give up expecting her. He then went a second time to the hollow behind the trilithon, remaining there nearly a quarter of an hour. From this place he proceeded quickly over a shoulder of the declivity, a little to the left, presently returning on horseback, which proved that his horse had been tethered in some secret place down there. Crossing anew the down between the hut and the trilithon, and scanning the precincts as if finally to assure himself that she had not come, he rode slowly downwards in the direction of Shakeforest Towers.
The juvenile shepherd thought of what lay in the hollow yonder; and no fear of the crook-stem of his superior officer was potent enough to detain him longer on that hill alone. Any live company, even the most terrible, was better than the company of the dead; so, running with the speed of a hare in the direction pursued by the horseman, he overtook the revengeful Duke at the second descent (where the great western road crossed before you came to the old park entrance on that side — now closed up and the lodge cleared away, though at the time it was wondered why, being considered the most convenient gate of all).
Once within the sound of the horse’s footsteps, Bill Mills felt comparatively comfortable; for, though in awe of the Duke because of his position, he had no moral repugnance to his companionship on account of the grisly deed he had committed, considering that powerful nobleman to have a right to do what he chose on his own lands. The Duke rode steadily on beneath his ancestral trees, the hoofs of his horse sending up a smart sound now that he had reached the hard road of the drive, and soon drew near the front door of his house, surmounted by parapets with square-cut battlements that cast a notched shade upon the gravelled terrace. These outlines were quite familiar to little Bill Mills, though nothing within their boundary had ever been seen by him.
When the rider approached the mansion a small turret door was quickly opened and a woman came out. As soon as she saw the horseman’s outlines she ran forward into the moonlight to meet him.
‘Ah dear — and are you come?’ she said. ‘I heard Hero’s tread just when you rode over the hill, and I knew it in a moment. I would have come further if I had been aware —’
‘Glad to see me, eh?’
‘How can you ask that?’
‘Well; it is a lovely night for meetings.’
‘Yes, it is a lovely night.’
The Duke dismounted and stood by her side. ‘Why should you have been listening at this time of night, and yet not expecting me?’ he asked.
‘Why, indeed! There is a strange story attached to that, which I must tell you at once. But why did you come a night sooner than you said you would come? I am rather sorry — I really am!’ (shaking her head playfully) ‘for as a surprise to you I had ordered a bonfire to be built, which was to be lighted on your arrival tomorrow; and now it is wasted. You can see the outline of it just out there.’
The Duke looked across to a spot of rising glade, and saw the faggots in a heap. He then bent his eyes with a bland and puzzled air on the ground, ‘What is this strange story you have to tell me that kept you awake?’ he murmured.
‘It is this — and it is really rather serious. My cousin Fred Ogbourne — Captain Ogbourne as he is now — was in his boyhood a great admirer of mine, as I think I have told you, though I was six years his senior. In strict truth, he was absurdly fond of me.’
‘You have never told me of that before.’
‘Then it was your sister I told — yes, it was. Well, you know I have not seen him for many years, and naturally I had quite forgotten his admiration of me in old times. But guess my surprise when the day before yesterday, I received a mysterious note bearing no address, and found on opening it that it came from him. The contents frightened me out of my wits. He had returned from Canada to his father’s house, and conjured me by all he could think of to meet him at once. But I think I can repeat the exact words, though I will show it to you when we get indoors.
“MY DEAR COUSIN HARRIET,” the note said, “After this long absence you will be surprised at my sudden reappearance, and more by what I am going to ask. But if my life and future are of any concern to you at all, I beg that you will grant my request. What I require of you, is, dear Harriet, that you meet me about eleven to-night by the Druid stones on Marlbury Downs, about a mile or more from your house. I cannot say more, except to entreat you to come. I will explain all when you are there. The one thing is, I want to see you. Come alone. Believe me, I would not ask this if my happiness did not hang upon it — God knows how entirely! I am too agitated to say more — Yours. FRED.”
‘That was all of it. Now, of course I ought have gone, as it turned out, but that I did not think of then. I remembered his impetuous temper, and feared that something grievous was impending over his head, while he had not a friend in the world to help him, or any one except myself to whom he would care to make his trouble known. So I wrapped myself up and went to Marlbury Downs at the time he had named. Don’t you think I was courageous?’
‘When I got there — but shall we not walk on; it is getting cold?’ The Duke, however, did not move. ‘When I got there he came, of course, as a full grown man and officer, and not as the lad that I had known him. When I saw him I was sorry I had come. I can hardly tell you how he behaved. What he wanted I don’t know even now; it seemed to be no more than the mere meeting with me. He held me by the hand and waist — O so tight — and would not let me go till I had promised to meet him again. His manner was so strange and passionate that I was afraid of him in such a lonely place, and I promised to come. Then I escaped — then I ran home — and that’s all. When the time drew on this evening for the appointment — which, of course, I never intended to keep, I felt uneasy, lest when he found I meant to disappoint him he would come on to the house; and that’s why I could not sleep. But you are so silent!’
‘I have had a long journey.’
‘Then let us get into the house. Why did you come alone and unattended like this?’
‘It was my humour.’
After a moment’s silence, during which they moved on, she said, ‘I have thought of something which I hardly like to suggest to you. He said that if I failed to come to-night he would wait again tomorrow night. Now, shall we tomorrow night go to the hill together — just to see if he is there; and if he is, read him a lesson on his foolishness in nourishing this old passion, and sending for me so oddly, instead of coming to the house?’
‘Why should we see if he’s there?’ said her husband moodily.
‘Because I think we ought to do something in it. Poor Fred! He would listen to you if you reasoned with him, and set our positions in their true light before him. It would be no more than Christian kindness to a man who unquestionably is very miserable from some cause or other. His head seems quite turned.’
By this time they had reached the door, rung the bell, and waited. All the house seemed to be asleep; but soon a man came to them, the horse was taken away, and the Duke and Duchess went in.
There was no help for it. Bill Mills was obliged to stay on duty, in the old shepherd’s absence, this evening as before, or give up his post and living. He thought as bravely as he could of what lay behind the Devil’s Door, but with no great success, and was therefore in a measure relieved, even if awe-stricken, when he saw the forms of the Duke and Duchess strolling across the frosted greensward. The Duchess was a few yards in front of her husband and tripped on lightly.
‘I tell you he has not thought it worth while to come again!’ the Duke insisted, as he stood still, reluctant to walk further.
‘He is more likely to come and wait all night; and it would be harsh treatment to let him do it a second time.’
‘He is not here; so turn and come home.’
‘He seems not to be here, certainly; I wonder if anything has happened to him. If it has, I shall never forgive myself!’
The Duke, uneasily, ‘O, no. He has some other engagement.’
‘That is very unlikely.’
‘Or perhaps he has found the distance too far.’
‘Nor is that probable.’
‘Then he may have thought better of it.’
‘Yes, he may have thought better of it; if, indeed, he is not here all the time — somewhere in the hollow behind the Devil’s Door. Let us go and see; it will serve him right to surprise him.’
‘O, he’s not there.’
‘He may be lying very quiet because of you,’ she said archly.
‘O, no — not because of me!’
‘Come, then. I declare, dearest, you lag like an unwilling schoolboy to-night, and there’s no responsiveness in you! You are jealous of that poor lad, and it is quite absurd of you.’
‘I’ll come! I’ll come! Say no more, Harriet!’ And they crossed over the green.
Wondering what they would do, the young shepherd left the hut, and doubled behind the belt of furze, intending to stand near the trilithon unperceived. But, in crossing the few yards of open ground he was for a moment exposed to view.
‘Ah, I see him at last!’ said the Duchess.
‘See him!’ said the Duke. ‘Where?’
‘By the Devil’s Door; don’t you notice a figure there? Ah, my poor lover-cousin, won’t you catch it now?’ And she laughed half-pityingly. ‘But what’s the matter?’ she asked, turning to her husband.
‘It is not he!’ said the Duke hoarsely. ‘It can’t be he!’
‘No, it is not he. It is too small for him. It is a boy.’
‘Ah, I thought so! Boy, come here.’
The youthful shepherd advanced with apprehension.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Keeping sheep, your Grace.’
‘Ah, you know me! Do you keep sheep here every night?’
‘Off and on, my Lord Duke.’
‘And what have you seen here to-night or last night?’ inquired the Duchess. ‘Any person waiting or walking about?’
The boy was silent.
‘He has seen nothing,’ interrupted her husband, his eyes so forbiddingly fixed on the boy that they seemed to shine like points of fire. ‘Come, let us go. The air is too keen to stand in long.’
When they were gone the boy retreated to the hut and sheep, less fearful now than at first — familiarity with the situation having gradually overpowered his thoughts of the buried man. But he was not to be left alone long. When an interval had elapsed of about sufficient length for walking to and from Shakeforest Towers, there appeared from that direction the heavy form of the Duke. He now came alone.
The nobleman, on his part, seemed to have eyes no less sharp than the boy’s, for he instantly recognized the latter among the ewes, and came straight towards him.
‘Are you the shepherd lad I spoke to a short time ago?’
‘I be, my Lord Duke.’
‘Now listen to me. Her Grace asked you what you had seen this last night or two up here, and you made no reply. I now ask the same thing, and you need not be afraid to answer. Have you seen anything strange these nights you have been watching here?’
‘My Lord Duke, I be a poor heedless boy, and what I see I don’t bear in mind.’
‘I ask you again,’ said the Duke, coming nearer, ‘have you seen anything strange these nights you have been watching here?’
‘O, my Lord Duke! I be but the under-shepherd boy, and my father he was but your humble Grace’s hedger, and my mother only the cinder-woman in the back-yard! I fall asleep when left alone, and I see nothing at all!’
The Duke grasped the boy by the shoulder, and, directly impending over him, stared down into his face, ‘Did you see anything strange done here last night, I say?’
‘O, my Lord Duke, have mercy, and don’t stab me!’ cried the shepherd, falling on his knees. ‘I have never seen you walking here, or riding here, or lying-inwait for a man, or dragging a heavy load!’
‘H’m!’ said his interrogator, grimly, relaxing his hold. ‘It is well to know that you have never seen those things. Now, which would you rather — see me do those things now, or keep a secret all your life?’
‘Keep a secret, my Lord Duke!’
‘Sure you are able?’
‘O, your Grace, try me!’
‘Very well. And now, how do you like sheep-keeping?’
‘Not at all. ’Tis lonely work for them that think of spirits, and I’m badly used.’
‘I believe you. You are too young for it. I must do something to make you more comfortable. You shall change this smock-frock for a real cloth jacket, and your thick boots for polished shoes. And you shall be taught what you have never yet heard of; and be put to school, and have bats and balls for the holidays, and be made a man of. But you must never say you have been a shepherd boy, and watched on the hills at night, for shepherd boys are not liked in good company.
‘Trust me, my Lord Duke.’
‘The very moment you forget yourself, and speak of your shepherd days — this year, next year, in school, out of school, or riding in your carriage twenty years hence — at that moment my help will be withdrawn, and smash down you come to shepherding forthwith. You have parents, I think you say?’
‘A widowed mother only, my Lord Duke.’
‘I’ll provide for her, and make a comfortable woman of her, until you speak of — what?’
‘Of my shepherd days, and what I saw here.’
‘Good. If you do speak of it?’
‘Smash down she comes to widowing forthwith!’
‘That’s well — very well. But it’s not enough. Come here.’ He took the boy across to the trilithon, and made him kneel down.
‘Now, this was once a holy place,’ resumed the Duke. ‘An altar stood here, erected to a venerable family of gods, who were known and talked of long before the God we know now. So that an oath sworn here is doubly an oath. Say this after me: “May all the host above — angels and archangels, and principalities and powers — punish me; may I be tormented wherever I am — in the house or in the garden, in the fields or in the roads, in church or in chapel, at home or abroad, on land or at sea; may I be afflicted in eating and in drinking, in growing up and in growing old, in living and dying, inwardly and outwardly, and for always, if I ever speak of my life as a shepherd boy, or of what I have seen done on this Marlbury Down. So be it, and so let it be. Amen and amen.” Now kiss the stone.’
The trembling boy repeated the words, and kissed the stone, as desired.
The Duke led him off by the hand. That night the junior shepherd slept in Shakeforest Towers, and the next day he was sent away for tuition to a remote village. Thence he went to a preparatory establishment, and in due course to a public school.
On a winter evening many years subsequent to the above-mentioned occurrences, the ci-devant shepherd sat in a well-furnished office in the north wing of Shakeforest Towers in the guise of an ordinary educated man of business. He appeared at this time as a person of thirty-eight or forty, though actually he was several years younger. A worn and restless glance of the eye now and then, when he lifted his head to search for some letter or paper which had been mislaid, seemed to denote that his was not a mind so thoroughly at ease as his surroundings might have led an observer to expect.
His pallor, too, was remarkable for a countryman. He was professedly engaged in writing, but he shaped not word. He had sat there only a few minutes, when, laying down his pen and pushing back his chair, he rested a hand uneasily on each of the chair-arms and looked on the floor.
Soon he arose and left the room. His course was along a passage which ended in a central octagonal hall; crossing this he knocked at a door. A faint, though deep, voice told him to come in. The room he entered was the library, and it was tenanted by a single person only — his patron the Duke.
During this long interval of years the Duke had lost all his heaviness of build. He was, indeed, almost a skeleton; his white hair was thin, and his hands were nearly transparent. ‘Oh — Mills?’ he murmured. ‘Sit down. What is it?’
‘Nothing new, your Grace. Nobody to speak of has written, and nobody has called.’
‘Ah — what then? You look concerned.’
‘Old times have come to life, owing to something waking them.’
‘Old times be cursed — which old times are they?’
‘That Christmas week twenty-two years ago, when the late Duchess’s cousin Frederick implored her to meet him on Marlbury Downs. I saw the meeting — it was just such a night as this — and I, as you know, saw more. She met him once, but not the second time.’
‘Mills, shall I recall some words to you — the words of an oath taken on that hill by a shepherd-boy?’
‘It is unnecessary. He has strenuously kept that oath and promise. Since that night no sound of his shepherd life has crossed his lips — even to yourself. But do you wish to hear more, or do you not, your Grace?’
‘I wish to hear no more,’ said the Duke sullenly.
‘Very well; let it be so. But a time seems coming — may be quite near at hand — when, in spite of my lips, that episode will allow itself to go undivulged no longer.’
‘I wish to hear no more!’ repeated the Duke.
‘You need be under no fear of treachery from me,’ said the steward, somewhat bitterly. ‘I am a man to whom you have been kind — no patron could have been kinder. You have clothed and educated me; have installed me here; and I am not unmindful. But what of it — has your Grace gained much by my stanchness? I think not. There was great excitement about Captain Ogbourne’s disappearance, but I spoke not a word. And his body has never been found. For twenty-two years I have wondered what you did with him. Now I know. A circumstance that occurred this afternoon recalled the time to me most forcibly. To make it certain to myself that all was not a dream, I went up there with a spade; I searched, and saw enough to know that something decays there in a closed badger’s hole.’
‘Mills, do you think the Duchess guessed?’
‘She never did, I am sure, to the day of her death.’
‘Did you leave all as you found it on the hill?’
‘What made you think of going up there this particular afternoon?’
‘What your Grace says you don’t wish to be told.’
The Duke was silent; and the stillness of the evening was so marked that there reached their ears from the outer air the sound of a tolling bell.
‘What is that bell tolling for?’ asked the nobleman.
‘For what I came to tell you of, your Grace.’
‘You torment me it is your way!’ said the Duke querulously. ‘Who’s dead in the village?’
‘The oldest man — the old shepherd.’
‘Dead at last — how old is he?’
‘And I am only seventy. I have four-and-twenty years to the good!’
‘I served under that old man when I kept sheep on Marlbury Downs. And he was on the hill that second night, when I first exchanged words with your Grace. He was on the hill all the time; but I did not know he was there — nor did you.’
‘Ah!’ said the Duke, starting up. ‘Go on — I yield the point — you may tell!’
‘I heard this afternoon that he was at the point of death. It was that which set me thinking of that past time — and induced me to search on the hill for what I have told you. Coming back I heard that he wished to see the Vicar to confess to him a secret he had kept for more than twenty years —“out of respect to my Lord the Duke”— something that he had seen committed on Marlbury Downs when returning to the flock on a December night twenty-two years ago. I have thought it over. He had left me in charge that evening; but he was in the habit of coming back suddenly, lest I should have fallen asleep. That night I saw nothing of him, though he had promised to return. He must have returned, and — found reason to keep in hiding. It is all plain. The next thing is that the Vicar went to him two hours ago. Further than that I have not heard.’
‘It is quite enough. I will see the Vicar at daybreak tomorrow.’
‘What to do?’
‘Stop his tongue for four-and-twenty years — till I am dead at ninety-four, like the shepherd.’
‘Your Grace — while you impose silence on me, I will not speak, even though nay neck should pay the penalty. I promised to be yours, and I am yours. But is this persistence of any avail?’
‘I’ll stop his tongue, I say!’ cried the Duke with some of his old rugged force. ‘Now, you go home to bed, Mills, and leave me to manage him.’
The interview ended, and the steward withdrew. The night, as he had said, was just such an one as the night of twenty-two years before, and the events of the evening destroyed in him all regard for the season as one of cheerfulness and goodwill. He went off to his own house on the further verge of the park, where he led a lonely life, scarcely calling any man friend. At eleven he prepared to retire to bed — but did not retire. He sat down and reflected. Twelve o’clock struck; he looked out at the colourless moon, and, prompted by he knew not what, put on his hat and emerged into the air. Here William Mills strolled on and on, till he reached the top of Marlbury Downs, a spot he had not visited at this hour of the night during the whole score-and-odd years.
He placed himself, as nearly as he could guess, on the spot where the shepherd’s hut had stood. No lambing was in progress there now, and the old shepherd who had used him so roughly had ceased from his labours that very day. But the trilithon stood up white as ever; and, crossing the intervening sward, the steward fancifully placed his mouth against the stone. Restless and self-reproachful as he was, he could not resist a smile as he thought of the terrifying oath of compact, sealed by a kiss upon the stones of a Pagan temple. But he had kept his word, rather as a promise than as a formal vow, with much worldly advantage to himself, though not much happiness; till increase of years had bred reactionary feelings which led him to receive the news of to-night with emotions akin to relief.
While leaning against the Devil’s Door and thinking on these things, he became conscious that he was not the only inhabitant of the down. A figure in white was moving across his front with long, noiseless strides. Mills stood motionless, and when the form drew quite near he perceived it to be that of the Duke himself in his nightshirt — apparently walking in his sleep. Not to alarm the old man, Mills clung close to the shadow of the stone. The Duke went straight on into the hollow. There he knelt down, and began scratching the earth with his hands like a badger. After a few minutes he arose, sighed heavily, and retraced his steps as he had come.
Fearing that he might harm himself, yet unwilling to arouse him, the steward followed noiselessly. The Duke kept on his path unerringly, entered the park, and made for the house, where he let himself in by a window that stood open — the one probably by which he had come out. Mills softly closed the window behind his patron, and then retired homeward to await the revelations of the morning, deeming it unnecessary to alarm the house.
However, he felt uneasy during the remainder of the night, no less on account of the Duke’s personal condition than because of that which was imminent next day. Early in the morning he called at Shakeforest Towers. The blinds were down, and there was something singular upon the porter’s face when he opened the door. The steward inquired for the Duke.
The man’s voice was subdued as he replied: ‘Sir, I am sorry to say that his Grace is dead! He left his room some time in the night, and wandered about nobody knows where. On returning to the upper floor he lost his balance and fell downstairs.’
The steward told the tale of the Down before the Vicar had spoken. Mills had always intended to do so after the death of the Duke. The consequences to himself he underwent cheerfully; but his life was not prolonged. He died, a farmer at the Cape, when still somewhat under forty-nine years of age.
The splendid Marlbury breeding flock is as renowned as ever, and, to the eye, seems the same in every particular that it was in earlier times; but the animals which composed it on the occasion of the events gathered from the Justice are divided by many ovine generations from its members now. Lambing Corner has long since ceased to be used for lambing purposes, though the name still lingers on as the appellation of the spot. This abandonment of site may be partly owing to the removal of the high furze bushes which lent such convenient shelter at that date. Partly, too, it may be due to another circumstance. For it is said by present shepherds in that district that during the nights of Christmas week flitting shapes are seen in the open space around the trilithon, together with the gleam of a weapon, and the shadow of a man dragging a burden into the hollow. But of these things there is no certain testimony.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51