Major Buckley and his wife stood together in the verandah of their cottage, watching the storm. All the afternoon they had seen it creeping higher and higher, blacker and more threatening up the eastern heavens, until it grew painful to wait any longer for its approach. But now that it had burst on them, and night had come on dark as pitch, they felt the pleasant change in the atmosphere, and, in spite of the continuous gleam of the lightning, and the eternal roll and crackle of the thunder, they had come out to see the beauty and majesty of the tempest.
They stood with their arms entwined for some time, in silence; but after a crash louder than any of those which had preceded it, Major Buckley said:—
“My dearest Agnes, you are very courageous in a thunderstorm.”
“Why not, James?” she said; “you cannot avoid the lightning, and the thunder won’t harm you. Most women fear the sound of the thunder more than anything, but I suspect that Ciudad Rodrigo made more noise than this, husband?”
“It did indeed, my dear. More noise than I ever heard in any storm yet. It is coming nearer.”
“I am afraid it will shake the poor Vicar very much,” said Mrs. Buckley. “Ah, there is Sam, crying.”
They both went into the sitting-room; little Sam had petitioned to go to bed on the sofa till the storm was over, and now, awakened by the thunder, was sitting up in his bed, crying out for his mother.
The Major went in and lay down by the child on the sofa, to quiet him. “What!” said he, “Sammy, you’re not afraid of thunder, are you?”
“Yes! I am,” said the child; “very much indeed. I am glad you are come, father.”
“Lightning never strikes good boys, Sam,” said the Major.
“Are you sure of that, father?” said the little one.
That was a poser; so the Major thought it best to counterfeit sleep; but he overdid it, and snored so loud, that the boy began to laugh, and his father had to practise his deception with less noise. And by degrees, the little hand that held his moustache dropped feebly on the bedclothes, and the Major, ascertaining by the child’s regular breathing that his son was asleep, gently raised his vast length, and proposed to his wife to come into the verandah again.
“The storm is breaking, my love,” said he; “and the air is deliciously cool out there. Put your shawl on and come out.”
They went out again; the lightning was still vivid, but the thunder less loud. Straight down the garden from them stretched a broad gravel walk, which now, cut up by the rain into a hundred water channels, showed at each flash like rivers of glittering silver. Looking down this path toward the black wood during one of the longest continued illuminations of the lightning, they saw for an instant a dark, tall figure, apparently advancing towards them. Then all the prospect was wrapped again in tenfold gloom.
Mrs. Buckley uttered an exclamation, and held tighter to her husband’s arm. Every time the garden was lit up, they saw the figure, nearer and nearer, till they knew that it was standing before them in the darkness; the Major was about to speak, when a hoarse voice, heard indistinctly above the rushing of the rain, demanded:
“Is that Major Buckley?”
At the same minute the storm-light blazed up once more, and fell upon an object so fearful and startling that they both fell back amazed. A woman was standing before them, tall, upright, and bareheaded; her long black hair falling over a face as white and ghastly as a three days’ corpse; her wild countenance rendered more terrible by the blue glare of the lightning shining on the rain that streamed from every lock of her hair and every shred of her garments. She looked like some wild daughter of the storm, who had lost her way, and came wandering to them for shelter.
“I am Major Buckley,” was the answer. “What do you want? But in God’s name come in out of the rain.”
“Come in and get your things dried, my good woman,” said Mrs. Buckley. “What do you want with my husband such a night as this?”
“Before I dry my things, or come in, I will state my business,” said the woman, coming under the verandah. “After that I will accept your hospitality. This is a night when polecats and rabbits would shelter together in peace; and yet such a night as this, a man turns out of his house the woman who has lain beside him twenty years.”
“Who are you, my good soul?” said the Major.
“They call me Madge the Witch,” she said; “I lived with old Hawker, at the Woodlands, till to-night, and he has turned me out. I want to put you in possession of some intelligence that may save much misery to some that you love.”
“I can readily believe that you can do it,” said the Major, “but pray don’t stand there; come in with my wife, and get your things dried.”
“Wait till you hear what I have to say: George Hawker, my son —”
“Your son — good God!”
“I thought you would have known that. The Vicar does. Well, this son of mine has run off with the Vicar’s daughter.”
“Well, he has committed forgery. It’ll be known all over the country tomorrow, and even now I fear the runners are after him. If he is taken before he marries that girl, things will be only worse than they are. But never mind whether he does or not, perhaps you differ with me; perhaps you think that, if you could find the girl now, you could stop her and bring her home; but you don’t know where she is. I do, and if you will give me your solemn word of honour as a gentleman to give him warning that his forgery for five hundred pounds is discovered, I will give you his direction.”
The Major hesitated for a moment, thinking.
“If you reflect a moment, you must see how straightforward my story is. What possible cause can I have to mislead you? I know which way you will decide, so I wait patiently.”
“I think I ought to say yes, my love,” said the Major to his wife; “if it turned out afterwards that I neglected any opportunity of saving this poor girl (particularly if this tale of the forgery be true), I should never forgive myself.”
“I agree with you, my dear,” said Mrs. Buckley. “Give your promise, and go to seek her.”
“Well, then,” said the Major; “I give you my word of honour that I will give Hawker due warning of his forgery being discovered, if you will give me his direction. I anticipate that they are in London, and I shall start to-night, to be in time for the morning coach. Now, will you give me the address?”
“Yes!” said Madge. “They are at the Nag’s Head, Buckingham Street, Strand, London; can you remember that?”
“I know where the street is,” said the Major; “now will you go into the kitchen, and make yourself comfortable? My dear, you will see my valise packed? Ellen, get this person’s clothes dried, and get her some hot wine. By-the-bye,” said he, following her into the kitchen, “you must have had a terrible quarrel with Hawker, for him to send you out such a night as this?”
“It was about this matter,” she said: “the boy forged on his father, and I knew it, and tried to screen him. My own son, you know.”
“It was natural enough,” said the Major. “You are not deceiving me, are you? I don’t see why you should, though.”
“Before God, I am not. I only want the boy to get warning.”
“You must sleep here to-night,” said the Major; “and tomorrow you can go on your way, though, if you cannot conveniently get away in the morning, don’t hurry, you know. My house is never shut against unfortunate people. I have heard a great deal of you, but I never saw you before; you must be aware, however, that the character you have held in the place is not such as warrants me in asking you to stay here for any time.”
The Major left the kitchen, and crossed the yard. In a bedroom above the stable slept his groom, a man who had been through his campaigns with him from first to last. It was to waken him that the Major took his way up the narrow stairs towards the loft.
“Jim,” he said, “I want my horse in an hour.”
The man was out of bed in a moment, and while he was dressing, the Major continued:—
“You know Buckingham Street, Strand, Jim, don’t you? When you were recruiting you used to hang out at a public-house there, unless I am mistaken.”
“Exactly so, sir! We did; and a many good chaps we picked up there, gents and all sorts. Why, it was in that werry place, Major, as we ‘listed Lundon; him as was afterwards made sergeant for being the first man into Sebastian, and arterwards married Skettles; her as fell out of eighteen stories at Brussels looking after the Duke, and she swore at them as came to pick her up, she did; and walked in at the front door as bold as brass.”
“There, my good lad,” said the Major; “what’s the good of telling such stories as that? Nobody believes them, you know. Do you know the Nag’s Head there? It’s a terribly low place, is it not?”
“It’s a much changed if it ain’t, sir,” said Jim, putting on his breeches. “I was in there not eighteen months since. It’s a fighting-house; and there used to be a dog show there, and a reunion of vocal talent, and all sorts of villanies.”
“Well, see to the horse, Jim, and I’ll sing out when I’m ready,” said the Major, and went back into the house.
He came back through the kitchen, and saw that Madge was being treated by the maids with that respect that a reputed witch never fails to command; then, having sat for some time talking to his wife, and finding that the storm was cleared off, he kissed his sleeping child and its mother, and, mounting his horse in the stable-yard, rode off towards Exeter.
In the morning, when Mrs. Buckley came down stairs, she inquired for Madge. They told her she had been up some time, and, having got some breakfast, was walking up and down in front of the house. Going there, Mrs. Buckley found her. Her dress was rearranged with picturesque neatness, and a red handkerchief pinned over her rich dark hair, that last night had streamed wild and wet in the tempest. Altogether, she looked an utterly different being from the strange, storm-beaten creature who had craved their hospitality the night before. Mrs. Buckley admired the bold, upright, handsome figure before her, and gave her a cheery “good morning.”
“I only stayed,” said Madge, “to wish you goodbye, and thank you for your kindness. When they who should have had some pity on me turned me out, you took me in!”
“You are heartily welcome,” said Mrs. Buckley. “Cannot I do more for you? Do you want money? I fear you must!”
“None, I thank you kindly,” she replied; “that would break the spell. Good-bye!”
“Good-bye!” said Mrs. Buckley.
Madge stood in front of the door and raised her hand.
“The blessing of God,” she said, “shall be upon the house of the Buckleys, and more especially upon you and your husband, and the boy that is sleeping inside. He shall be a brave and a good man, and his wife shall be the fairest and best in the country side. Your kine shall cover the plains until no man can number them, and your sheep shall be like the sands of the sea. When misfortune and death and murder fall upon your neighbours, you shall stand between the dead and the living, and the troubles that pass over your heads shall be like the shadow of the light clouds that fly across the moor on a sunny day. And when in your ripe and honoured old age you shall sit with your husband, in a garden of your own planting, in the lands far away, and see your grandchildren playing around you, you shall think of the words of the wild, lost gipsy woman, who gave you her best blessing before she went away and was seen no more.”
Mrs. Buckley tried to say “Amen,” but found herself crying. Something there was in that poor creature, homeless, penniless, friendless, that made her heart like wax. She watched her as she strode down the path, and afterwards looked for her reappearing on a high exposed part of the road, a quarter of a mile off, thinking she would take that way. But she waited long, and never again saw that stern, tall figure, save in her dreams.
She turned at last, and one of the maids stood beside her.
“Oh, missis,” she said, “you’re a lucky woman today. There’s some in this parish would have paid a hundred pounds for such a fortune as that from her. It’ll come true — you will see!”
“I hope it may, you silly girl,” said Mrs. Buckley; and then she went in and knelt beside her sleeping boy, and prayed that the blessing of the gipsy woman might be fulfilled.
It was quite late on the evening of his second day’s journey that the Major, occupying the box-seat of the “Exterminator,” dashed with comet-like speed through so much of the pomps and vanities of this wicked world as showed itself in Piccadilly at half-past seven on a spring afternoon.
“Hah!” he soliloquized, passing Hyde-park Corner, “these should be the folks going out to dinner. They dine later and later every year. At this rate they’ll dine at half-past one in twenty years’ time. That’s the Duke’s new house; eh, coachman? By George, there’s his Grace himself, on his brown cob; God bless him! There are a pair of good-stepping horses, and old Lady E—— behind ’em, by Jove! — in her war-paint and feathers — pinker than ever. She hasn’t got tired of it yet. She’d dance at her own funeral if she could. And there’s Charley Bridgenorth in the club balcony — I wonder what he finds to do in peace time? — and old B—— talking to him. What does Charley mean by letting himself be seen in the same balcony with that disreputable old fellow? I hope he won’t get his morals corrupted! Ah! So here we are! eh?”
He dismounted at the White Horse Cellar, and took a hasty dinner. His great object was speed; and so he hardly allowed himself ten minutes to finish his pint of port before he started into the street, to pursue the errand on which he had come.
It was nearly nine o’clock, and he thought he would be able to reach his destination in ten minutes. But it was otherwise ordered. His evil genius took him down St. James Street. He tried to persuade himself that it was the shortest way, though he knew all the time that it wasn’t. And so he was punished in this way: he had got no further than Crockford’s, when, in the glare of light opposite the door of that establishment, he saw three men standing, one of whom was talking and laughing in a tone perhaps a little louder than it is customary to use in the streets nowadays. Buckley knew that voice well (better, perhaps, among the crackle of musketry than in the streets of London), and, as the broad-shouldered owner of it turned his jolly, handsome face towards him, he could not suppress a low laugh of satisfaction. At the same moment the before-mentioned man recognised him, and shouted out his name.
“Busaco Buckley, by the Lord,” he said, “revisiting once more the glimpses of the gas-lamps! My dear old fellow, how are you, and where do you come from?”
The Major found himself quickly placed under a lamp for inspection, and surrounded by three old and well-beloved fellow-campaigners. What could a man do under the circumstances? Nothing, if human and fallible, I should say, but what the Major did — stay there, laughing and joking, and talking of old times, and freshen up his honest heart, and shake his honest sides with many an old half-forgotten tale of fun and mischief.
“Now,” he said at last, “you must let me go. You Barton (to the first man he had recognised), you are a married man; what are you doing at Crockford’s?”
“The same as you are,” said the other — “standing outside the door. The pavement’s free, I suppose. I haven’t been in such a place these five years. Where are you staying, old boy?”
The Major told them, and they agreed to meet at breakfast next morning. Then, after many farewells, and callings back, he pursued his way towards the Strand, finding to his disgust that it was nearly ten o’clock.
He, nevertheless, held on his way undiscouraged, and turning by degrees into narrower and narrower streets, came at last on one quieter than the others, which ended abruptly at the river.
It was a quiet street, save at one point, and that was where a blaze of gas (then recently introduced, and a great object of curiosity to the Major) was thrown across the street, from the broad ornamented windows of a flash public-house. Here there was noise enough. Two men fighting, and three or four more encouraging, while a half-drunken woman tried to separate them. From the inside, too, came a noise of singing, quarrelling, and swearing, such as made the Major cross the road, and take his way on the darker side of the street.
But when he got opposite the aforesaid public-house, he saw that it was called the “Nag’s Head,” and that it was kept by one J. Trotter. “What an awful place to take that girl to!” said the Major. “But there may be some private entrance, and a quiet part of the house set by for a hotel.” Nevertheless, having looked well about him, he could see nothing of the sort, and perceived that he must storm the bar.
But he stood irresolute for a moment. It looked such a very low place, clean and handsome enough, but still the company about the door looked so very disreputable. “J. Trotter!” he reflected. “Why, that must be Trotter the fighting-man. I hope it may be; he will remember me.”
So he crossed. When he came within the sphere of the gas lamps, those who were assisting at the fight grew silent, and gazed upon him with open eyes. As he reached the door one of them remarked, with a little flourish of oaths as a margin or garland round his remark, that “of all the swells he’d ever seen, that ’un was the biggest, at all events.”
Similarly, when they in the bar saw that giant form, the blue coat and brass buttons, and, above all, the moustache (sure sign of a military man in those days), conversation ceased, and the Major then and there became the event of the evening. He looked round as he came in, and, through a door leading inwards, he saw George Hawker himself, standing talking to a man with a dog under each arm.
The Major was not deceived as to the identity of J. Trotter. J. Trotter, the hero of a hundred fights, stood himself behind his own bar, a spectacle for the gods. A chest like a bull, a red neck, straight up and down with the back of his head, and a fist like a seal’s flipper, proclaimed him the prize-fighter; and his bright grey eye, and ugly laughing face, proclaimed him the merry, good-humoured varlet that he was.
What a wild state of amazement he was in when he realized the fact that Major Buckley of the — th was actually towering aloft under the chandelier, and looking round for some one to address! With what elephantine politeness and respect did he show the Major into a private parlour, sweeping off at one round nearly a dozen pint-pots that covered the table, and then, shutting the door, stand bowing and smiling before his old pupil!
“And so you are gone into business, John, are you?” said the Major. “I’m glad to see it. I hope you are doing as well as you deserve.”
“Much better than that,” said the prize-fighter. “Much better than THAT, sir, I assure you.”
“Well, I’m going to get you to do something for me,” said the Major. “Do you know, John, that you are terribly fat?”
“The business allus does make flesh, sir. More especially to coves as has trained much.”
“Yes, yes, John, I am going from the point. There is a young man of the name of Hawker here?”
The prize-fighter remained silent, but a grin gathered on his face. “I never contradicts a gentleman,” he said. “And if you say he’s here, why, in course, he is here. But I don’t say he’s here; you mind that, sir.”
“My good fellow, I saw him as I came in,” said the Major.
“Oh, indeed,” said the other; “then that absolves me from any responsibility. He told me to deny him to anybody but one, and you ain’t she. He spends a deal of money with me, sir; so, in course, I don’t want to offend him. By-the-bye, sir, excuse me a moment.”
The Major saw that he had got hold of the right man, and waited willingly. The fighting-man went to the door, and called out, “My dear.” A tall, goodlooking woman came to the bar, who made a low curtsey on being presented to the Major. “My dear,” repeated Trotter, “the south side.” “The particular, I suppose,” she said. “In course,” said he. So she soon appeared with a bottle of Madeira, which was of such quality that the Major, having tasted it, winked at the prize-fighter, and the latter laughed, and rubbed his hands.
“Now,” said the Major, “do you mind telling me whether this Hawker is here alone?”
“He don’t live here. He only comes here of a day, and sometimes stays till late. This evening a pretty young lady — yes, a LADY— come and inquired for him in my bar, and I was struck all of a heap to see such a creature in such a place, all frightened out of her wits. So I showed her through in a minute, and up stairs to where my wife sits, and she waited there till he come in. And she hadn’t been gone ten minutes when you come.”
The Major swore aloud, without equivocation or disguise. “Ah,” he said, “if I had not met Barton! Pray, Trotter, have you any idea where Hawker lives?”
“Not the least in the world, further than it’s somewhere Hampstead way. That’s a thing he evidently don’t want known.”
“Do you think it likely that he and that young lady live in the same house? I need not disguise from you that I am come after her, to endeavour to get her back to her family.”
“I know they don’t live in the same house,” said Trotter, “because I heard her say, to-night, before she went away, ‘Do look round, George,’ she says, ‘at my house, for ten minutes, before you go home.’”
“You have done me a great kindness,” said the Major, “in what you have told me. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“It’s only one,” said the prize-fighter, “in return for a many you done me; and you are welcome to it, sir. Now, I expect you’d like to see this young gent; so follow me, if you please.”
Through many passages, past many doors, he followed him, until they left the noise of the revelry behind, and at last, at the end of a long dark passage, the prizefighter suddenly threw open a door, and announced —“Major Buckley!”
There were four men playing at cards, and the one opposite to him was George Hawker. The Major saw at a glance, almost before anyone had time to speak, that George was losing money, and that the other three were confederates.
The prize-fighter went up to the table and seized the cards; then, after a momentary examination, threw both packs in the fire.
“When gents play cards in my house, I expect them to use the cards I provides at the bar, and not private packs, whether marked or not. Mr. Hawker, I warned you before about this; you’ll lose every sixpence you’re worth, and then you will say it was done at my house, quite forgetting to mention that I warned you of it repeatedly.”
But George took no notice of him. “Really, Major Buckley,” he began, “this is rather —”
“Rather an intrusion, you would say — eh, Mr. Hawker?” said the Major; “so it is, but the urgency of my business must be my apology. Can you give me a few words alone?”
George rose and came out with them. The prizefighter showed them into another room, and the Major asked him to stand in the passage, and see that no one was listening; “you see, John,” he added, “we are very anxious not to be overheard.”
“I am not at all particular myself,” said George Hawker. “I have nothing to conceal.”
“You will alter your mind before I have done, sir,” said the Major.
George didn’t like the look of affairs. — How came it that the Major and the prize-fighter knew one another so well? What did the former mean by all this secrecy? He determined to put a bold face on the matter.
“Miss Thornton is living with you, sir, I believe?” began the Major.
“Not at all, sir; Miss Thornton is in lodgings of her own. I have the privilege of seeing her for a few hours every day. In fact, I may go as far as to say that I am engaged to be married to her, and that that auspicious event is to come off on Thursday week.”
“May I ask you to favour me with her direction?” said the Major.
“I am sorry to disoblige you, Major Buckley, but I must really decline;” answered George. “I am not unaware how disinclined her family are to the connexion; and, as I cannot but believe that you come on their behalf, I cannot think that an interview would be anything but prejudicial to my interest. I must remind you, too, that Miss Thornton is of age, and her own mistress in every way.”
While George had been speaking, it passed through the Major’s mind: “What a checkmate it would be, if I were to withhold the information I have, and set the runners on him, here! I might save the girl, and further the ends of justice; but my hands are tied by the promise I gave that woman — how unfortunate!”
“Then, Mr. Hawker,” he said aloud, “I am to understand that you refuse me this address?”
“I am necessitated to refuse it most positively, sir.”
“I am sorry for it. I leave it to your conscience. Now, I have got a piece of intelligence to give you, which I fear will be somewhat unpalatable — I got your address at this place from a woman of the name of Madge —”
“You did!” exclaimed George.
“Who was turned out of doors by your father, the night before last, in consequence, I understood, of some misdeeds of hers having come to light. She came immediately to my house, and offered to give me your direction, on condition of my passing my word of honour to deliver you this message: ‘that the forgery (500 pounds was the sum mentioned, I think) was discovered, and that the Bank was going to prosecute.’ I of course form no judgment as to the truth or falsehood of this: I leave you to take your own measures about it — only I once again ask you whether you will give me an interview with Miss Thornton?”
George had courage enough left to say hoarsely and firmly, “No!”
“Then,” replied the Major, “I must call you to witness that I have performed my errand to you faithfully. I beg, also, that you will carry all our kindest remembrances to Miss Thornton, and tell her that her poor father was struck with paralysis when he missed her, and that he is not expected to live many weeks. And I wish you good night.”
He passed out, and down the stairs; as he passed the public parlour-door, he heard a man bawling out a song, two or three lines of which he heard, and which made him blush to the tips of his ears, old soldier as he was.
As he walked up the street, he soliloquised: “A pretty mess I’ve made of it — done him all the service I could, and not helped her a bit — I see there is no chance of seeing her, though I shall try. I will go round Hampstead tomorrow, though that is a poor chance. In Paris, now, or Vienna, one could find her directly. What a pity we have no police!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10