Lee had guessed rightly. When George found himself so thoroughly entrapped, and heard all his most secret relations with Lee so openly discussed before a third man, he was in utter despair, and saw no hope of extrication from his difficulties. But this lasted for a very short time. Even while Lee and Dick were still speaking, he was reflecting how to turn the tables on them, and already began to see a sparkle of hope glimmering afar.
Lee was a returned convict, George had very little doubt of that. A thousand queer expressions he had let fall in conversation had shown him that it was so. And now, if he could but prove it, and get Lee sent back out of the way. And yet that would hardly do after all. It would be difficult to identify him. His name gave no clue to who he was. There were a thousand or two of Lees hereabouts, and a hundred William Lees at least. Still it was evident that he was originally from this part of the country; it was odd no one had recognised him.
So George gave up this plan as hopeless. “Still,” said he, “there is a week left; surely I can contrive to bowl him out somehow.” And then he walked on in deep thought.
He was crossing the highest watershed in the county by an open, low-sided valley on the southern shoulder of Cawsand. To the left lay the mountain, and to the right tors of weathered granite, dim in the changing moonlight. Before him was a small moor-pool, in summer a mere reedy marsh, but now a bleak tarn, standing among dangerous mosses, sending ghostly echoes across the solitude, as the water washed wearily against the black peat shores, or rustled among the sere skeleton reeds in the shallow bays.
Suddenly he stopped with a jar in his brain and a chill at his heart. His breath came short, and raising one hand, he stood beating the ground for half a minute with his foot. He gave a stealthy glance around, and then murmured hoarsely to himself —
“Aye, that would do; that would do well. And I could do it, too, when I was half-drunk.”
Was that the devil, chuckling joyous to himself across the bog? No, only an innocent little snipe, getting merry over the change of weather, bleating to his companions as though breeding time were come round again.
Crowd close, little snipes, among the cup-moss and wolf’s-foot, for he who stalks past you over the midnight moor, meditates a foul and treacherous murder in his heart.
Yes, it had come to that, and so quickly. He would get this man Lee, who held his life in his hand, and was driving him on from crime to crime, to meet him alone on the moor if he could, and shoot him. What surety had he that Lee would leave him in peace after this next extortion? none but his word — the word of a villain like that. He knew what his own word was worth; what wonder if he set a small value on Lee’s? He might be hung as it was; he would be hung for something. Taw Steps was a wild place, and none were likely to miss either Lee or his friend. It would be supposed they had tramped off as they came. There could be no proof against him, none whatever. No one had ever seen them together. They must both go. Well, two men were no worse than one. Hatherleigh had killed four men with his own hand at Waterloo, and they gave him a medal for it. They were likely honest fellows enough, not such scoundrels as these two.
So arguing confusedly with himself, only one thing certain in his mind, that he was committed to the perpetration of this crime, and that the time for drawing back was passed long ago, he walked rapidly onwards towards the little village where he had left his horse in an outhouse, fearing to trust him among the dangerous bogs which he had himself to cross to gain the rendezvous at Taw Steps.
He rapidly cleared the moor, and soon gained the little grey street, lying calm and peaceful beneath the bright winter moon, which was only now and then obscured for a moment by the last flying clouds of the late storm hurrying after their fellows. The rill which ran brawling loud through the village, swollen by the late rains, at length forced on his perception that he was fearfully thirsty, and that his throat was parched and dry.
“This is the way men feel in hell, I think,” said he. “Lord! let me get a drink while I can. The rich man old Jack reads about couldn’t get one for all his money.”
He walked up to a stone horse-trough, a little off the road. He stooped to drink, and started back with an oath. What pale, wild, ghastly face was that, looking at him out of the cool calm water? Not his own, surely? He closed his eyes, and, having drunk deep, walked on refreshed. He reached the outhouse where his horse was tied, and, as he was leading the impatient animal forth, one of the children within the cottage adjoining woke up and began to cry. He waited still a moment, and heard the mother arise and soothe it; then a window overhead opened, and a woman said —
“Is that you, Mr. Hawker?”
“Aye,” said he, “it’s me. Come for the horse.”
He was startled at the sound of his own voice. It was like another man’s. But like the voice of some one he seemed to know, too. A new acquaintance.
“It will be morn soon,” resumed the woman. “The child is much worse to-night, and I think he’ll go before daybreak. Well, well — much sorrow saved, maybe. I’ll go to bed no more to-night, lest my boy should be off while I’m sleeping. Good night, sir. God bless you. May you never know the sorrow of losing a first-born.”
Years after he remembered those random words. But now he only thought that if the brat should die, there would be only one pauper less in Bickerton. And so thinking, mounted and rode on his way.
He rode fast, and was soon at home. He had put his horse in the stable, and, shoeless, was creeping up to bed, when, as he passed his father’s door, it opened, and the old man came out, light in hand.
He was a very infirm old man, much bent, though evidently at one time he had been of great stature. His retreating forehead, heavy grey eyebrows, and loose sensual mouth, rendered him no pleasing object at any time, and, as he stood in the doorway now, with a half drunken satyr-like leer on his face, he looked perfectly hideous.
“Where’s my pretty boy been?” he piped out. “How pale he looks. Are you drunk, my lad?”
“No! wish I was,” replied George. “Give me the keys, dad, and let me get a drink of brandy. I’ve been vexed, and had nought to drink all night. I shall be getting the horrors if I don’t have something before I go to bed.”
The old man got him half a tumbler of brandy from his room, where there was always some to be had, and following him into his room, sat down on the bed.
“Who’s been vexing my handsome son?” said he; “my son that I’ve been waiting up for all night. Death and gallows to them, whoever they are. Is it that pale-faced little parson’s daughter? Or is it her tight-laced hypocrite of a father, that comes whining here with his good advice to me who know the world so well? Never mind, my boy. Keep a smooth face, and play the humbug till you’ve got her, and her money, and then break her impudent little heart if you will. Go to sleep, my boy, and dream you are avenged on them all.”
“I mean to be, father, on some of them, I tell you,” replied George.
“That’s right, my man. Good night.”
“Good night, old dad,” said George. As he watched him out of the room, a kinder, softer, expression came on his face. His father was the only being he cared for in the world.
He slept a heavy and dreamless sleep that night, and when he woke for the first time, the bright winter’s sun was shining into his room, and morning was far advanced.
He arose, strengthened and refreshed by his sleep, with a light heart. He began whistling as he dressed himself, but suddenly stopped, as the recollection of the night before came upon him. Was it a reality, or only a dream? No; it was true enough. He has no need to whistle this morning. He is entangled in a web of crime and guilt from which there is no escape.
He dressed himself, and went forth into the fresh morning air for a turn, walking up and down on the broad gravel walk before the dark old porch.
A glorious winter’s morning. The dismal old stonehouse, many-gabled, held aloft its tall red chimneys towards the clear blue sky, and looked bright and pleasant in the sunshine. The deep fir and holly woods which hemmed it in on all sides, save in front, were cheerful with sloping gleams of sunlight, falling on many a patch of green moss, red fern, and bright brown last year’s leaves. In front, far below him, rolled away miles of unbroken woodland, and in the far distance rose the moor, a dim cloud of pearly grey.
A robin sat and sung loud beside him, sole songster left in the wintry woods, but which said, as plain as bird could say, could he have understood it, “See, the birds are not all dead in this dreary winter time. I am still here, a pledge from my brothers. When yon dim grey woods grow green, and the brown hollows are yellow with kingcups and primroses, the old melody you know so well shall begin again, and the thrush from the oak top shall answer to the goldentoned blackbird in the copse, saying —‘Our mother is not dead, but has been sleeping. She is awake again — let all the land rejoice.’”
Little part had that poor darkened mind in such thoughts as these. If any softening influence were upon him this morning, he gave no place to it. The robin ceased, and he only heard the croak of a raven, an old inhabitant of these wild woods, coming from the darkest and tallest of the fir-trees. Then he saw his father approaching along the garden walk.
One more chance for thee, unhappy man. Go up to him now, and tell him all. He has been a kind father to you, with all his faults. Get him on your side, and you may laugh Lee to scorn. Have you not the courage to tell him?
For a moment he hesitated, but the dread of his father’s burst of anger kept him silent. He hardened his heart, and, whistling, waited for the old man to come up.
“How is he this morning?” said his father. “What has he got his old clothes on for, and such fine ones as he has in his drawer?”
“Why should I put on my best clothes this day, father?”
“Aint’ee going down to revils?”
“True,” said George. “I had forgotten all about it. Yes; I shall go down, of course.”
“Are you going to play (wrestle)?” asked the father.
“Maybe I may. But come in to breakfast. Where’s Madge?”
“In-doors,” said the father, “waiting breakfast — mortal cross.”
“Curse her crossness,” said George. “If I were ye, dad, I’d kick her out in the lane next time she got on one of her tantrams.”
A tall woman about forty stepped out of the house as he uttered these words. “Ye hear what he says, William Hawker,” she said. “Ye hear what ye’re own lawful son says. He’d kick me out in the lane. And ye’d stand there and let him, ye old dog; I don’t doubt.”
“Hush, George,” said the old man. “You don’t know what you’re saying, boy. Go in, Madge, and don’t be a fool; you bring it on yourself.”
The woman turned in a contemptuous way and walked in. She was a very remarkable looking person. Tall and upright, at least six feet high, with swarthy complexion, black eyes, and coal-black hair, looped up loosely in a knot behind. She must have been very beautiful as a young girl, but was now too fierce and hawkish looking, though you would still call her handsome. She was a full-blooded gipsy, of one of the best families, which, however, she totally denied. When I say that she bore the worst of characters morally, and had the reputation besides of being a witch of the highest acquirements — a sort of double first at Satan’s university — I have said all I need to say about her at present.
These three sat down to breakfast, not before each of them, however, had refreshed themselves with a dram. All the meal through, the old man and Madge were quarrelling with one another, till at length the contest grew so fierce that George noticed it, a thing he very seldom took the trouble to do.
“I tell thee,” said the old man, “ye’ll get no more money this week. What have ‘ee done with the last five pounds?”
George knew well enough, she had given it to him. Many a time did she contrive to let him have a pound or two, and blind the old man as to where it was gone. The day before he had applied to her for some money and she had refused, and in revenge, George had recommended his father to turn her out, knowing that she could hear every word, and little meaning it in reality.
“Ye STINGY OLD BEAST,” she replied, very slowly and distinctly, “I wish ye were dead and out of the way. I’ll be doing it myself some of these odd times.” And looking at him fixedly and pointing her finger, she began the Hebrew alphabet — Aleph, Beth, &c. from the 119th Psalm.
“I won’t have it,” screamed the old man. “Stop, or I’ll kill you, I will —! George, you won’t see your father took before your eyes. Stop her!”
“Come, quiet, old girl; none of that;” said George, taking her round the waist and putting his hand before her mouth. “Be reasonable now.” She continued to look at the old man with a smile of triumph for a short time, and then said, with a queer laugh:
“It’s lucky you stopped me. Oh, very lucky indeed. Now, are you going to give the money, you old Jew?”
She had carried the day, and the old man sulkily acquiesced. George went up stairs, and having dressed himself to his taste, got on horseback and rode down to the village, which was about three miles.
This was the day of the Revels, which corresponds pretty well with what is called in other parts of England a pleasure fair; that is to say, although some business might be done, yet it was only a secondary object to amusement.
The main village of Drumston was about a mile from the church which I have before noticed, and consisted of a narrow street of cob-houses, whitewashed and thatched, crossing at right angles, by a little stone bridge, over a pretty, clear trout-stream. All around the village, immediately behind the backs of the houses, rose the abrupt red hills, divided into fields by broad oak hedges, thickly set with elms. The water of the stream, intercepted at some point higher up, was carried round the crown of the hills for the purposes of irrigation, which, even at this dead season, showed its advantages by the brilliant emerald green of the tender young grass on the hill-sides. Drumston, in short, was an excellent specimen of a close, dull, dirty, and, I fear, not very healthy Devonshire village in the red country.
On this day the main street, usually in a state of ancle-deep mud six months in the year, was churned and pounded into an almost knee-deep state, by four or five hundred hobnail shoes in search of amusement. The amusements were various. Drinking (very popular), swearing (ditto), quarrelling, eating pastry ginger-bread and nuts (female pastime), and looking at a filthy Italian, leading a still more filthy monkey, who rode on a dog (the only honest one of the three). This all day, till night dropped down on a scene of drunkenness and vice, which we had better not seek to look at further. Surely, if ever man was right, old Joey Bender, the methodist shoemaker, was right, when he preached against the revels for four Sundays running, and said roundly that he would sooner see all his congregation leave him and go up to the steeplehouse (church) in a body, than that they should attend such a crying abomination.
The wrestling, the only honest sensible amusement to be had, was not in much favour at Drumston. Such wrestling as there was was carried on in a little croft behind the principal of the public-houses, for some trifling prize, given by the publicans. In this place, James Stockbridge and myself had wandered on the afternoon of the day in question, having come down to the revel to see if we could find some one we wanted.
There was a small ring of men watching the performances, and talking, each and all of them, not to his neighbour, or to himself, but to the ambient air, in the most unintelligible Devonshire jargon, rendered somewhat more barbarous than usual by intoxication. Frequently one of them would address one of the players in language more forcible than choice, as he applauded some piece of FINESSE, or condemned some clumsiness on the part of the two youths who were struggling about in the centre, under the impression they were wrestling. There were but two moderate wrestlers in the parish, and those two were George Hawker and James Stockbridge. And James and myself had hardly arrived on the ground two minutes, before George, coming up, greeted us.
After a few common-place civilities, he challenged James to play. “Let us show these muffs what play is,” said he; “it’s a disgrace to the county to see such work.”
James had no objection; so, having put on the jackets, they set to work to the great admiration of the bystanders, one of whom, a drunken tinker, expressed his applause in such remarkable language that I mildly asked him to desist, which of course made him worse.
The two wrestlers made very pretty play of it for some time, till James, feinting at some outlandish manoeuvre, put George on his back by a simple trip, akin to scholar’s-mate at chess.
George fell heavily, for they were both heavy men. He rose from the ground and walked to where his coat was, sulkily. James thinking he might have been hurt, went up to speak to him; but the other, greeting him with an oath, turned and walked away through the crowd.
He was in a furious passion, and he went on to the little bridge that crossed the stream. We saw him standing looking into the water below, when a short light-looking man came up to him, and having spoken to him for a few minutes, walked off in the direction of Exeter, at a steady, rapid pace.
That man was Dick, the companion of Lee, (I knew all this well afterwards). George was standing as I have described on the bridge, when he came up to him, and touching him, said:
“I want to speak to you a moment, Mr. Hawker.”
George turned round, and when he saw who it was, asked, angrily,
“What the — do you want?”
“No offence, sir. You see, I’m in trouble, there’s a warrant out against me, and I must fly. I am as hardup as a poor cove could be; can you give me a trifle to help me along the road?”
Here was a slice of good luck; to get rid of this one so easily. George gave him money, and having wished him farewell, watched him striding steadily up the long hill towards Exeter with great satisfaction; then he went back to the public-house, and sat drinking an hour or more. At last he got out his horse to ride homeward.
The crowd about the public-house door was as thick as ever, and the disturbance greater. Some of the women were trying to get their drunken husbands home, one man had fallen down dead-drunk beside the door in the mud, and his wife was sitting patiently beside him. Several girls were standing wearily about the door, dressed in their best, each with a carefully folded white pocket-handkerchief in her hand for show, and not for use, waiting for their sweethearts to come forth when it should suit them; while inside the tap all was a wild confusion of talk, quarrelling, oaths, and smoke enough to sicken a scavenger.
These things are changed now, or are changing, year by year. Now we have our rural policeman keeping some sort of order, and some show of decency. And indeed these little fairs, the curse of the country, are gradually becoming extinct by the exertions of a more energetic class of county magistrates; and though there is probably the same amount of vice, public propriety is at all events more respected. I think I may say that I have seen as bad, or even worse, scenes of drunkenness and disorder at an English fair, as ever I have in any Australian mining town.
George Hawker was so hemmed in by the crowd that he was unable to proceed above a foot’s-pace. He was slowly picking his way through the people, when he felt some one touching him on the leg, and, looking round, saw Lee standing beside him.
“What, Lee, my boy, you here!” said he; “I have just seen your amiable comrade — he seems to be in trouble.”
“Dick’s always in trouble, Mr. Hawker,” replied he. “He has no care or reason; he isn’t a bad fellow, but I’m always glad when he is out of my way; I don’t like being seen with him. This is likely to be his last time, though. He is in a serious scrape, and, by way of getting out of it, he is walking into Exeter, along the high road, as if nothing was the matter. There’s a couple of traps in Belston after him now, and I came down here to keep secure. By-the-bye, have you thought of that little matter we were talking about the other night? To tell you the truth, I don’t care how soon I am out of this part of the country.”
“Oh! ah!” replied George, “I’ve thought of it, and it’s all right. Can you be at the old place the day after tomorrow?”
“That can I,” said Lee, “with much pleasure.”
“You’ll come alone this time, I suppose,” said George. “I suppose you don’t want to share our little matter with the whole country?”
“No fear, Mr. George; I will be there at eight punctual, and alone.”
“Well, bye-bye,” said George, and rode off.
It was getting late in the evening when he started, and ere he reached home it was nearly dark. For the last mile his road lay through forest-land: noble oaks, with a plentiful under-growth of holly, over-shadowed a floor of brown leaves and red fern; and at the end of the wood nearest home, where the oaks joined their own fir plantations, one mighty gnarled tree, broader and older than all the rest, held aloft its withered boughs against the frosty sky.
This oak was one of the bogie haunts of the neighbourhood. All sorts of stories were told about it, all of which George, of course, believed; so that when his horse started and refused to move forward, and when he saw a dark figure sitting on the twisted roots of the tree, he grew suddenly cold, and believed he had seen a ghost.
The figure rose, and stalked towards him through the gathering gloom; he saw that it held a baby in its arms, and that it was tall and noble-looking. Then a new fear took possession of him, not supernatural; and he said in a low voice —“Ellen!”
“That was my name once, George Hawker,” replied she, standing beside him, and laying her hand upon his horse’s shoulder. “I don’t know what my name is now, I’m sure; It surely can’t remain the same, and me so altered.”
“What on earth brings you back just at this time, in God’s name?” asked George.
“Hunger, cold, misery, drunkenness, disease. Those are the merry companions that lead me back to my old sweetheart. Look here, George, should you know him again?”
She held up a noble child about a year old, for him to look at. The child, disturbed from her warm bosom, began to wail.
“What! cry to see your father, child?” she exclaimed. “See what a bonnie gentleman he is, and what a pretty horse he rides, while we tread along through the mire.”
“What have you come to me for, Ellen?” asked George. “Do you know that if you are seen about here just now you may do me a great injury?”
“I don’t want to hurt you, George,” she replied; “but I must have money. I cannot work, and I dare not show my face here. Can’t you take me in to-night, George, only just to-night, and let me lie by the fire? I’ll go in the morning; but I know it’s going to freeze, and I do dread the long cold hours so. I have lain out two nights, now, and I had naught to eat all day. Do’ee take me in, George; for old love’s sake, do!”
She was his own cousin, an orphan, brought up in the same house with him by his father. Never very strong in her mind, though exceedingly pretty, she had been early brought to ruin by George. On the birth of a boy, about a year before, the old man’s eyes were opened to what was going on, and in a furious rage he turned her out of doors, and refused ever to see her again. George, to do him justice, would have married her, but his father told him, if he did so, he should leave the house with her. So the poor thing had gone away and tried to get needlework in Exeter, but her health failing, and George having ceased to answer all applications from her, she had walked over, and lurked about in the woods to gain an interview with him.
She laid her hand on his, and he felt it was deadly cold. “Put my coat over your shoulders, Nelly, and wait an instant while I go and speak to Madge. I had better let her know you are coming; then we shan’t have any trouble.”
He rode quickly through the plantation, and gave his horse to a boy who waited in front of the door. In the kitchen he found Madge brooding over the fire, with her elbows on her knees, and without raising her head or turning round, she said:
“Home early, and sober! what new mischief are you up to?”
“None, Madge, none! but here’s the devil to pay. Ellen’s come back. She’s been lying out these three nights, and is awful hard up. It’s not my fault, I have sent her money enough, in all conscience.”
“Where is she?” inquired Madge, curtly.
“Outside, in the plantation.”
“Why don’t you bring her in, you treacherous young wolf?” replied she. “What did you bring her to shame for, if you are going to starve her?”
“I was going to fetch her in,” said George, indignantly; “only I wanted to find out what your temper was like, you vicious old cow. How did I know but what you would begin some of your tantrums, and miscall her?”
“No fear o’ that! no fear of pots and kettles with me! lead her in, lad, before she’s frozen!”
George went back for her, and finding her still in the same place, brought her in. Madge was standing erect before the fire, and, walking up to the unfortunate Ellen, took her baby from her, and made her sit before the fire.
“Better not face the old man,” said she; “he’s away to the revels, and he’ll come home drunk. Make yourself happy for to-night, at all events.”
The poor thing began to cry, which brought on such a terrible fit of coughing that Madge feared she would rupture a blood-vessel. She went to get her a glass of wine, and returned with a candle, and then, for the first time, they saw what a fearful object she was.
“Oh!” she said to George, “you see what I am now. I ain’t long for this world. Only keep me from worse, George, while I am alive, and do something for the boy afterwards, and I am content. You’re going to get married, I know, and I wish you well. But don’t forget this poor little thing when it’s motherless. If you do, and let him fall into vice, you’ll never be lucky, George.”
“Oh, you ain’t going to die, old Nelly,” said George; “not for many years yet. You’re pulled down, and thin, but you’ll pick up again with the spring. Now, old girl, get some supper out before he comes home.”
They gave her supper, and put her to bed. In the morning, very early, George heard the sound of wheels below his bedroom window; and looking out, saw that Madge was driving out of the yard in a light cart, and, watching her closely, saw her pick up Ellen and the child just outside the gate. Then he went to bed again, and, when he awoke, he heard Madge’s voice below, and knew she was come back.
He went down, and spoke to her. “Is she gone?” he asked.
“In course she is,” replied Madge. “Do you think I was going to let her stay till the old man was about?”
“How much money did you give her, besides what she had from me?”
“I made it five pounds in all; that will keep her for some time, and then you must send her some more. If you let that wench starve, you ought to be burnt alive. A MAN would have married her in spite of his father.”
“A likely story,” said George, “that I was to disinherit myself for her. However, she shan’t want at present, or we shall have her back again. And that won’t do, you know.”
“George,” said Madge, “you promise to be as great a rascal as your father.”
The old man had, as Madge prophesied, come home very drunk the night before, and had lain in bed later than usual, so that, when he came to breakfast, he found George, gun in hand, ready to go out.
“Going shooting, my lad?” said the father. “Where be going?”
“Down through the hollies for a woodcock. I’ll get one this morning, it’s near full moon.”
All the morning they heard him firing in the bottom below the house, and at one o’clock he came home, empty-handed.
“Why, George!” said his father, “what hast thee been shooting at? I thought ‘ee was getting good sport.”
“I’ve been shooting at a mark,” he replied.
“Who be going to shoot now, eh, George?” asked the old man.
“No one as I know of,” he replied.
“Going over to Eggesford, eh, Georgey? This nice full moon is about the right thing for thee. They Fellowes be good fellows to keep a fat haunch for their neighbours.”
George laughed, as he admitted the soft impeachment of deer-stealing, but soon after grew sullen, and all the afternoon sat over the fire brooding and drinking. He went to bed early, and had just got off his boots, when the door opened, and Madge came in.
“What’s up to now, old girl?” said George.
“What are you going to be up to, eh?” she asked, “with your gun?”
“Only going to get an outlying deer,” said he.
“That’s folly enough, but there’s a worse folly than that. It’s worse folly to wipe out money-scores in blood. It’s a worse folly if you are in a difficulty to put yourself in a harder one to get out of the first. Its a worse —”
“Why, you’re mad,” broke in George. “Do you think I am fool enough to make away with one of the keepers?”
“I don’t know what you are fool enough to do. Only mind my words before it’s too late.”
She went out, and left him sitting moodily on the bed. “What a clever woman she is,” he mused. “How she hits a thing off. She’s been a good friend to me. I’ve a good mind to ask her advice. I’ll think about it tomorrow morning.”
But on the morrow they quarrelled about something or another, and her advice was never asked. George was moody and captious all day; and at evening, having drank hard, he slipped off, and, gun in hand, rode away through the darkening woods towards the moor.
It was dark before he had got clear of the labyrinth of lanes through which he took his way. His horse he turned out in a small croft close to where the heather began; and, having hid the saddle and bridle in a hedge, strode away over the moor with his gun on his shoulder.
He would not think; he would sooner whistle; distance seemed like nothing to him; and he was surprised and frightened to find himself already looking over the deep black gulf through which the river ran before he thought he was half-way there.
He paused to look before he began to descend. A faint light still lingered in the frosty sky to the southwest, and majestic Yestor rose bold and black against it. Down far, far beneath his feet was the river, dimly heard, but not seen; and, as he looked to where it should be, he saw a little flickering star, which arrested his attention. That must be Lee’s fire — there he began to descend.
Boldly at first, but afterwards more stealthily, and now more silently still, for the fire is close by, and it were well to give him no notice. It is in the old place, and he can see it now, not ten yards before him, between two rocks.
Nearer yet a little, with cat-like tread. There is Lee, close to the fire, sitting on the ground, dimly visible, yet clearly enough for his purpose. He rests the gun on a rock, and takes his aim.
He is pinioned from behind by a vigorous hand, and a voice he knows cries in his ear —“Help, Bill, or you’ll be shot!”
The gun goes off in the scuffle, but hurts nobody, and Lee running up, George finds the tables completely turned, and himself lying, after a few desperate struggles, helplessly pinioned on the ground.
Dick had merely blinded him by appearing to go to Exeter. They both thought it likely that he would attack Lee, but neither supposed he would have stolen on him so treacherously. Dick had just noticed him in time, and sprung upon him, or Lee’s troubles would have been over for ever.
“You treacherous young sweep, you shall hang for this,” were Lee’s first words. “Ten thousand pounds would not save you now. Dick, you’re a jewel. If I had listened to you, I shouldn’t have trusted my life to the murdering vagabond. I’ll remember to-night, my boy, as long as I live.”
Although it appeared at first that ten thousand pounds would not prevent Lee handing George over to justice, yet, after a long and stormy argument, it appeared that the lesser sum of five hundred would be amply sufficient to stay any ulterior proceedings, provided the money was forthcoming in a week. So that ultimately George found himself at liberty again, and, to his great astonishment, in higher spirits than he could have expected.
“At all events,” said he to himself, as he limped back, lame and bruised, “I have not got THAT on my mind. Even if this other thing was found out, there is a chance of getting off. Surely my own father wouldn’t prosecute — though I wouldn’t like to trust to it, unless I got Madge on my side.”
His father, I think I have mentioned, was too blind to read, and George used to keep all his accounts; so that nothing would seem at first to look more easy than to imitate his father’s signature, and obtain what money he wished. But George knew well that the old man was often in the habit of looking through his banker’s book, with the assistance of Madge, so that he was quite unsafe without her. His former embezzlement he had kept secret, by altering some figure in the banker’s book; but this next one, of such a much larger amount, he felt somewhat anxious about. He, however, knew his woman well, and took his measures accordingly.
On the day mentioned, he met Lee, and gave him the money agreed on; and having received his assurances that he valued his life too much to trouble him any more, saw him depart, fully expecting that he should have another application at an early date; under which circumstances, he thought he would take certain precautions which should be conclusive.
But he saw Lee no more. No more for many, many years. But how and when they met again, and who came off best in the end, this tale will truly and sufficiently set forth hereafter.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10