The carriage started with the old man in it as soon as the horses could be harnessed; but on the Folking causeway it met the fly which was bringing John Caldigate to his home — so that the father and son greeted each other in the street amidst the eyes of the villagers. To them it did not much matter, but the squire had certainly been right in saving Hester from so public a demonstration of her feelings. The two men said hardly a word when they met, but stood there for a moment grasping each other’s hands. Then the driver of the fly was paid, and the carriage was turned back to the house. ‘Is she well?’ asked Caldigate.
‘She will be well now.’
‘Has she been ill?’
‘She has not been very happy, John, while you have been away from her.’
‘And the boy?’
‘He is all right. He has been spared the heart-breaking knowledge of the injury done to him. It has been very bad with you, I suppose.’
‘I do not like being in jail, sir. It was the length of the time before me that seemed to crush me. I could not bring myself to believe that I should live to see the end of it.’
‘The end has come, my boy,’ said his father, again taking him by the hand, ‘but the cruelty of the thing remains. Had there been another trial as soon as the other evidence was obtained, the struggle would have kept your heart up. It is damnable that a man in an office up in London should have to decide on such a matter, and should be able to take his own time about it!’ The grievance was still at the old squire’s heart in spite of the amenity of Mr. Brown’s letter; but John Caldigate, who was approaching his house and his wife, and to whom, after his imprisonment even the flat fields and dykes were beautiful, did not at the moment much regard the anomaly of the machinery by which he had been liberated.
Hester in the meantime had donned her silk dress, and had tied the gay bow round her baby’s frock, who was quite old enough to be astonished and charmed by the unusual finery in which he was apparelled. Then she sat herself at the window of a bedroom which looked out on to the gravel sweep, with her boy on her lap, and there she was determined to wait till the carriage should come.
But she had hardly seated herself before she heard the wheels. ‘He is here. He is coming. There he is!’ she said to the child. ‘Look! look! It is papa.’ But she stood back from the window that she might not be seen. She had thought it out with many fluctuations as to the very spot in which she would meet him. At one moment she had intended to go down to the gate, then to the hall-door, and again she had determined that she would wait for him in the room in which his breakfast was prepared for him. But she had ordered it otherwise at last. When she saw the carriage approaching, she retreated back from the window, so that he should not even catch a glimpse of her; but she had seen him as he sat, still holding his father’s hand. Then she ran back to her own chamber and gave her orders as she passed across the passage. ‘Go down, nurse, and tell him that I am here. Run quick, nurse; tell him to come at once.’
But he needed no telling. Whether he had divined her purpose, or whether it was natural to him to fly like a bird to his nest, he rushed upstairs and was in the room almost before his father had left the carriage She had the child in her hands when she heard him turn the lock of the door; but before he entered the boy had been laid in his cradle — and then she was in his arms.
For the first few minutes she was quite collected, not saying much, but answering his questions by a word or two. Oh yes; she was well; and baby was well — quite well. He, too, looked well, she said, though there was something of sadness in his face. ‘But I will kiss that away — so soon, so soon.’ She had always expected that he would come back long, long before the time that had been named. She had been sure of it, she declared, because that it was impossible that so great injustice should be done. But the last fortnight had been very long. When those wicked people had been put in prison she had thought that then surely he would come. But now he was there, with his arms round her, safe in his own home, and everything was well. Then she lifted the baby up to be kissed again and again, and began to dance and spring in her joy. Then, suddenly, she almost threw the child into his arms, and seated herself, covered her face with her hands and began to sob with violence. When he asked her, with much embracing to compose herself, sitting close to her, kissing her again and again, she shook her head as it lay upon his shoulder, and then burst out into a fit of laughter. ‘What does it matter,’ she said after a while, as he knelt at her knees; —‘what does it matter? My boy’s father has come back to him. My boy has got his own name, and he is an honest true Caldigate; and no one again will tell me that another woman owns my husband, my own husband, the father of my boy. It almost killed me, John, when they said that you were not mine. And yet I knew that they said it falsely. I never doubted for a moment. I knew that you were my own, and that my boy had a right to his father’s name. But it was hard to hear them say so, John. It was hard to bear when my mother swore that it was so!’
At last they went down and found the old squire waiting for his breakfast. ‘I should think,’ said he, ‘that you would be glad to see a loaf of bread on a clean board again, and to know that you may cut it as you please. Did they give you enough where you were?’
‘I didn’t think much about it, sir.’
‘But you must think about it now,’ said Hester. ‘To please me you must like everything; your tea, and your fresh eggs, and the butter and the cream. You must let yourself be spoilt for a time just to compensate me for your absence.’
‘You have made yourself smart to receive him at any rate,’ said the squire, who had become thoroughly used to the black gown which she had worn morning, noon, and evening while her husband was away.
‘Why should I not be smart,’ she said, ‘when my man has come to me? For whose eyes shall I put on the raiment that is his own but for his? I was much lower than a widow in the eyes of all men; but now I have got my husband back again. And my boy shall wear the very best that he has, so that his father may see him smile at his own gaudiness. Yes, father, I may be smart now. There were moments in which I thought that I might never wear more the pretty things which he had given me.’ Then she rose from her seat again, and hung on his neck, and wept and sobbed till he feared that her heart-strings would break with joy.
So the morning passed away among them till about eleven o’clock, when the servant brought in word that Mr. Holt and one or two other of the tenants wanted to see the young master. The squire had been sitting alone in the back room so that the husband and wife might be left together; but he had heard voices with which he was familiar, and he now came through to ask Hester whether the visitors should be sent away for the present. But Hester would not have turned a dog from the door which had been true to her husband through his troubles. ‘Let them come,’ she said. ‘They have been so good to me, John, through it all! They have always known that baby was a true Caldigate.’
Holt and the other farmers were shown into the room, and Holt as a matter of course became the spokesman. When Caldigate had shaken hands with them all round, each muttering his word of welcome, then Holt began: ‘We wish you to know, squoire, that we, none of us, ain’t been comfortable in our minds here at Folking since that crawling villain Crinkett came and showed himself at our young squire’s christening.’
‘That we ain’t,’ said Timothy Purvidge, another Netherden farmer.
‘I haven’t had much comfort since that day myself, Mr. Purvidge,’ said Caldigate — ‘not till this morning.’
‘Nor yet haven’t none of us,’ continued Mr. Holt, very impressively. ‘We knowed as you had done all right. We was as sure as the church tower. Lord love you, sir, when it was between our young missus — who’ll excuse me for noticing these bright colours, and for saying how glad I am to see her come out once again as our squire’s wife should come out — between her and that bedangled woman as I seed in the court, it didn’t take no one long to know what was the truth!’ The eloquence here was no doubt better than the argument, as Caldigate must have felt when he remembered how fond he had once been of that ‘bedangled woman.’ Hester, who, though she knew the whole story, did not at this moment join two and two together, thought that Mr. Holt put the case uncommonly well. ‘No! we knew,’ he continued, with a wave of his hand. ‘Butthejury weren’t Netherden men — nor yet Utterden, Mr. Halfacre,’ he added, turning to a tenant from the other parish. ‘And they couldn’t tell how it all was as we could. And there was that judge, who would have believed any miscreant as could be got anywhere, to swear away a man’s liberty — or his wife and family, which is a’most worse. We saw how it was to be when he first looked out of his eye at the two post-office gents, and others who spoke up for the young squoire. It was to be guilty. We know’d it. But it didn’t any way change our minds. As to Crinkett and Smith and them others, we saw that they were ruffians. We never doubted that. But we saw as there was a bad time coming to you, Mr. John. Then we was unhappy; unhappy along of you, Mr. John — but a’most worse as to this dear lady and the boy.’
‘My missus cried that you wouldn’t have believed,’ said Mr. Purvidge. ‘“If that’s true,” said my missus, “she ain’t nobody; and it’s my belief she’s as true a wife as ever stretched herself aside her husband.”’ Then Hester bethought herself what present, of all presents, would be most acceptable to Mrs. Purvidge, who was a red-faced, red-armed, hard-working old woman, peculiarly famous for making cheeses.
‘We all knew it,’ said Mr. Holt, slapping his thigh with great energy. ‘And now, in spite of ’em all, judge, jury, and lying witnesses — the king has got his own again.’ At this piece of triumphant rhetoric there was a cheer from all the farmers. ‘And so we have come to wish you all joy, and particularly you, ma’am, with your boy. Things have been said of you, ma’am, hard to bear, no doubt. But not a word of the kind at Folking, nor yet in Netherden; — nor yet at Utterden, Mr. Halfacre. But all this is over, and we do hope that you, ma’am, and the young squoire ‘ll live long, and the young ’un of all long after we are gone to our rest — and that you’ll be as fond of Folking as Folking is of you. I can’t say no fairer.’ Then the tray was brought in with wine, and everybody drank everybody’s health, and there was another shaking of hands all round. Mr. Purvidge, it was observed, drank the health of every separate member of the family in a separate bumper, pressing the edge of the glass securely to his lips, and then sending the whole contents down his throat at one throw with a chuck from his little finger.
The two Caldigates went out to see their friends as far as the gate, and while they were still within the grounds there came a merry peal from the bells of Netherden church-tower. ‘I knew they’d be at it,’ said Mr. Holt.
‘And quite right too,’ said Mr. Halfacre. ‘We’d rung over at Utterden, only we’ve got nothing but that little tinkling thing as is more fitter to swing round a bullock’s neck than on a church-top.’
‘I told ’em as they should have beer,’ said Mr. Brownby, whose house stood on Folking Causeway, ‘and they shall have beer!’ Mr. Brownby was a silent man, and added nothing to this one pertinent remark.
‘As to beer,’ said Mr. Halfacre, ‘we’d ‘ave found the beer at Utterden. There wouldn’t have been no grudging the beer, Mr. Brownby, no more than there is in the lower parish; but you can’t get up a peal merely on beer. You’ve got to have bells.’
While they were still standing at the gate, Mr. Bromley the clergyman joined them, and walked back towards the house with the two Caldigates. He, too, had come to offer his congratulations, and to assure the released prisoner that he never believed the imputed guilt. But he would not go into the house, surmising that on such a day the happy wife would not care to see many visitors. But Caldigate asked him to take a turn about the grounds, being anxious to learn something from the outside world. ‘What do they say to it all at Babington?’
‘I think they’re a little divided.’
‘My aunt has been against me, of course.’
‘At first she was, I fancy. It was natural that people should believe till Shand came back.’
‘Poor, dear old Dick. I must look after Dick. What about Julia?’
‘Spretæ injuria formæ!’ said Mr. Bromley. ‘What were you to expect?’
‘I’ll forgive her. And Mr. Smirkie? I don’t think Smirkie ever looked on me with favourable eyes.’
Then the clergyman was forced to own that Smirkie too had been among those who had believed the woman’s story. ‘But you have to remember how natural it is that a man should think a verdict to be right. In our country a wrong verdict is an uncommon occurrence. It requires close personal acquaintance and much personal confidence to justify a man in supposing that twelve jurymen should come to an erroneous decision. I thought that they were wrong. But still I knew that I could hardly defend my opinion before the outside world.’
‘It is all true,’ said Caldigate; ‘and I have made up my mind that I will be angry with no one who will begin to believe me innocent from this day.’
His mind, however, was considerably exercised in regard to the Boltons, as to whom he feared that they would not even yet allow themselves to be convinced For his wife’s happiness their conversion was of infinitely more importance than that of all the outside world beyond. When the gloom of the evening had come, she too came out and walked with him about the garden and grounds with the professed object of showing him whatever little changes might have been made. But the conversation soon fell back upon the last great incident of their joint lives.
‘But your mother cannot refuse to believe what everybody now declares to be true,’ he argued.
‘Mamma is so strong in her feelings.’
‘She must know they would not have let me out of prison in opposition to the verdict until they were very sure of what they were doing.’
Then she told him all that had occurred between her and her mother since the trial — how her mother had come out to Folking and had implored her to return to Chesterton, and had then taken herself away in dudgeon because she had not prevailed. ‘But nothing would have made me leave the place,’ she said, ‘after what they tried to do when I was there before. Except to go to church, I have not once been outside the gate.’
‘Your brothers will come round, I suppose. Robert has been very angry with me, I know. But he is a man of the world and a man of sense.’
‘We must take it as it will come, John. Of course it would be very much to me to have my father and mother restored to me. It would be very much to know that my brothers were again my friends. But when I remember how I prayed yesterday but for one thing, and that now, to-day, that one thing has come to me; — how I have got that which, when I waked this morning, seemed to me to be all the world to me, the want of which made my heart so sick that even my baby could not make me glad, I feel that nothing ought now to make me unhappy. I have got you, John, and everything else is nothing.’ As he stooped in the dark to kiss her again among the rose-bushes, he felt that it was almost worth his while to have been in prison.
After dinner there came a message to them across the ferry from Mr. Holt. Would they be so good as to walk down to the edge of the great dike, opposite to Twopenny Farm, at nine o’clock? As a part of the message, Mr. Holt sent word that at that hour the moon would be rising. Of course they went down to the dike — Mr. Caldigate, John Caldigate, and Hester there, outside Mr. Holt’s farmyard, just far enough to avoid danger to the hay-ricks and corn-stacks there was blazing an enormous bonfire. All the rotten timber about the place and two or three tar-barrels had been got together, and there were collected all the inhabitants of the two parishes. The figures of the boys and girls and of the slow rustics with their wives could be seen moving about indistinctly across the water by the fluttering flame of the bonfire. And their own figures, too, were observed in the moonlight, and John Caldigate was welcomed back to his home by a loud cheer from all his neighbours.
‘I did not see much of it myself,’ Mr. Holt said afterwards, ‘because me and my missus was busy among the stacks all the time, looking after the sparks. The bonfire might a’ been too big, you know.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01