A Day in Briar Wood


Ellen Wood

First published in 1877.

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A Day in Briar Wood.

That day, and its events, can never go out of my memory. There are epochs in life that lie upon the heart for ever, marking the past like stones placed for retrospect. They may be of pleasure, or they may be of pain; but there they are, in that great store-field locked up within us, to be recalled at will as long as life shall last.

It was in August, and one of the hottest days of that hot month. A brilliant day: the sun shining with never a cloud to soften it, the sky intensely blue. Just the day for a picnic, provided you had shade.

Shade we had. Briar Wood abounds in it. For the towering trees are dark, and their foliage thick. Here and there the wood opens, and you come upon the sweetest little bits of meadow-land scenery that a painter’s eye could desire. Patches of green glade, smooth enough for fairy revels; undulating banks, draped with ferns and fragrant with sweet wild-flowers; dells dark, and dim, to roam in and fancy yourself out of the world.

Briar Wood belonged to Sir John Whitney. It was of a good length but narrow, terminating at one end in the tangled coppice which we had dashed through that long-past day when we played at hare and hounds, and poor Charles Van Rheyn had died, in that same coppice, of the running. The other and best end, up where these lonely glades lie sheltered, extends itself nearly to the lands belonging to Vale Farm—if you have not forgotten that place. The wood was a rare resort for poachers and gipsies, as well as picnic parties, and every now and again Sir John would declare that it should be rooted up.

We were staying at Whitney Hall. Miss Deveen was there on a visit (Cattledon included, of course), and Sir John wrote over to invite us for a few days to meet her: the Squire and Mrs. Todhetley, I and Tod. And, there we were, enjoying ourselves like anything.

It was Sir John himself who proposed the picnic. He called it a gipsy-party: indeed, the word “picnic” had hardly come in then, for this happened many a year ago. The weather was so hot indoors that Sir John thought it might be an agreeable change to live a day in the open air; and lie in the shade and look up at the blue sky through the flickering trees. So the cook was told to provide fowls and ham and pigeon pies, with apple puffs, salads, and creams.

“The large carriage and the four-wheeled chaise shall take the ladies,” observed Sir John, “and I dare say they can make room for me and the Squire amongst them; it’s a short distance, and we shan’t mind a little crowding. You young men can walk.”

So it was ordained. The carriages started, and we after them, William and Henry Whitney disputing as to which was the best route to take: Bill holding out for that by Goose Brook, Harry for that by the river. It ended in our dividing: I went with Bill his way; the rest of the young Whitneys and Tod the other, with Featherston’s nephew; an overgrown young giant of seventeen, about six feet high, who had been told he might come.

Barring the heat, it was a glorious walk: just as it was a glorious day. Passing Goose Brook (a little stream meandering through the trees, with a rustic bridge across it: though why it should bear that name I never knew), we soon came to the coppice end of the wood.

“Now,” said Bill to me, “shall we plunge into the wood at once, and so onwards right through it; or skirt round by the Granary?”

“The wood will be the shadiest,” I answered.

“And pleasantest. I’m not at all sure, though, Johnny, that I shan’t lose my way in it. It has all kinds of bewildering tricks and turnings.”

“Never mind if you do. We can find it again.”

“We should have been safe to meet some of those Leonards had we gone by the Granary,” observed Bill, as we turned into the wood, where just at present the trees were thin, “and they might have been wanting to join us, pushing fellows that they are! I don’t like them.”

“Who are those Leonards, I wonder? Who were they before they came here?”

“Old Leonard made a mint of money in India, and his sons are spending it for him as fast as they can. One day when he was talking to my father, he hinted that he had taken this remote place, the Granary, and brought them down here, to get them out of the fast lives they were leading in London. He got afraid, he said.”

“Haven’t the sons any professions, Bill?”

“Don’t seem to have. Or anything else that’s good—money excepted?”

“What do they do with their time?”

“Anything. Idle it away. Keep dogs; and shoot, and fish, and lounge, and smoke, and—— Halloa! look yonder, Johnny!”

Briar Wood had no straight and direct road through it; but plenty of small paths and byways and turnings and windings, that might bring you, by good luck, to landing at last; or might take you unconsciously back whence you came. Emerging from a part, where the trees grew dark and dense and thick, upon one of those delightful glades I spoke of before, we saw what I took to be a small gipsy encampment. A fire of sticks, with a kettle upon it, smoked upon the ground; beside it sat a young woman and child; a few tin wares, tied together, lay in a corner, and some rabbits’ skins were stretched out to dry on the branches of trees.

Up started the woman, and came swiftly towards us. A regular gipsy, with the purple-black hair, the yellow skin, and the large soft gleaming eyes. It was a beautiful young face, but worn and thin and anxious.

“Do you want your fortunes told, my good young gentlemen? I can——”

“Not a bit of it,” interrupted Bill. “Go back to your fire. We are only passing through.”

“I can read the lines of your hands unerringly, my pretty sirs. I can forewarn you of evil, and prepare you for good.”

“Now, look you here,” cried Bill, turning upon her good-humouredly, as she followed up with a lot of the like stuff, “I can forewarn you of it, unless you are content to leave us alone. This wood belongs to Sir John Whitney, as I dare say all your fraternity know, and his keepers wage war against you when they find you are encamped here, and that I am sure you know. Mind your own affairs, and you may stay here in peace, for me: keep on bothering us, and I go straight to Rednal and give him a hint. I am Sir John’s son.”

He threw her a sixpence, and the woman’s face changed as she caught it. The persuasive smile vanished as if by magic, giving place to a look of anxious pain.

“What’s the matter?” said he.

“Do you know my husband, sir?” she asked. “It’s more than likely that you do.”

“And what if I do?” cried Whitney.

The woman took the words as an affirmative answer. She drew near, and laid her small brown finger on his coat-sleeve.

“Then, if you chance to meet him, sir, persuade him to come back to me, for the love of Heaven. I can read the future: and for some days past, since we first halted here, I have foreseen that evil is in store for him. He won’t believe me; he is not one of us; but I scent it in the air, and it comes nearer and nearer; it is drawing very close now. He may listen to you, sir, for we respect Sir John, who is never hard on us as some great owners of the land are; and oh, send him back here to me and the child! Better that it should fall on him when by our side than when away from us.”

“Why—what do you mean?” cried Whitney, surprised out of the question, and hardly understanding her words or their purport. And he might have laughed outright, as he told me later, but for the dreadful trouble that shone forth from her sad, wild eyes.

“I don’t know what I mean: it’s hidden from me,” she answered, taking the words in a somewhat different light from what he meant to imply. “I think it may be sudden sickness; or it may be trouble: whatever it is, it will end badly.”

Whitney nodded to her, and we pursued our way. I had been looking at the little girl, who had drawn shyly up to gaze at us. She was fair as a lily, with a sweet face and eyes blue as the sky.

“What humbugs they are!” exclaimed Whitney, alluding to gipsies and tramps in general. “As to this young woman, I should say she’s going off her head!”

“Do you know her husband?”

“Don’t know him from Adam. Johnny, I hope that’s not a stolen child! Fair as she is, she can’t be the woman’s: there’s nothing of the gipsy in her composition.”

“How well the gipsy appears to speak! With quite a refined accent.”

“Gipsies often do, I’ve heard. Let us get on.”

What with this adventure, and dawdling, and taking a wrong turn or two, it was past one o’clock when we got in, and they were laying the cloth for dinner. The green, mossy glade, with the sheltering trees around, the banks and the dells, the ferns and wild-flowers, made a picture of a retreat on a broiling day. The table (some boards, brought from the Hall, and laid on trestles) stood in the middle of the grass; and Helen and Anna Whitney, in their green-and-white muslins, were just as busy as bees placing the dishes upon it. Lady Whitney (with a face redder than beetroot) helped them: she liked to be always doing something. Miss Cattledon and the mater were pacing the dell below, and Miss Deveen sat talking with the Squire and Sir John.

“Have they not got here?” exclaimed William.

“Have who not got here?” retorted Helen.

“Todhetley and the boys.”

“Ages ago. They surmised that you two must be lost, stolen, or strayed.”

“Then where are they?”

“Making themselves useful. Johnny Ludlow, I wish you’d go after them, and tell them of all things to bring a corkscrew. No one can find ours, and we think it is left behind.”

“Why, here’s the corkscrew, in my pocket,” called out Sir John. “Whatever brings it there? And—— What’s that great thing, moving down to us?”

It was Tod with a wooden stool upon his head, legs upwards. Rednal the gamekeeper lived close by, and it was arranged that we should borrow chairs, and things, from his cottage.

We sat down to dinner at last—and a downright jolly dinner it was. Plenty of good things to eat; cider, lemonade, and champagne to drink: and every one talking together, and bursts of laughter.

“Look at Cattledon!” cried Bill in my ear. “She is as merry as the rest of us.”

So she was. A whole sea of smiles on her thin face. She wore a grey gown as genteel as herself, bands of black velvet round her pinched-in waist and long throat. Cattledon looked like vinegar in general, it’s true; but I don’t say she was bad at heart. Even she could be genial today, and the rest of us were off our head with jollity, the Squire’s face and Sir John’s beaming back at one another.

If we had only foreseen how pitifully the day was to end! It makes me think of some verses I once learnt out of a journal—Chambers’s, I believe. They were written by Mrs. Plarr.

“There are twin Genii, who, strong and mighty,

Under their guidance mankind retain;

And the name of the lovely one is Pleasure,

And the name of the loathly one is Pain.

Never divided, where one can enter

Ever the other comes close behind;

And he who in Pleasure his thoughts would centre

Surely Pain in the search shall find!

“Alike they are, though in much they differ—

Strong resemblance is ’twixt the twain;

So that sometimes you may question whether

It can be Pleasure you feel, or Pain.

Thus ’tis, that whatever of deep emotion

Stirreth the heart—be it grave or gay

Tears are the Symbol—from feeling’s ocean

These are the fountains that rise today.

“Should not this teach us calmly to welcome

Pleasure when smiling our hearths beside?

If she be the substance, how dark the shadow;

Close doth it follow, the near allied.

Or if Pain long o’er our threshold hover,

Let us not question but Pleasure nigh

Bideth her time her face to discover,

Rainbow of Hope in a clouded sky.”

Yes, it was a good time. To look at us round that dinner-table, you’d have said there was nothing but pleasure in the world. Not but that ever and anon the poor young gipsy woman’s troubled face and her sad wild eyes, and the warning some subtle instinct seemed to be whispering to her about her husband, would rise between me and the light.

The afternoon was wearing on when I got back to the glade with William Whitney (for we had all gone strolling about after dinner) and found some of the ladies there. Mrs. Todhetley had gone into Rednal’s cottage to talk to his wife, Jessy; Anna was below in the dell; all the rest were in the glade. A clean-looking, stout old lady, in a light cotton gown and white apron, a mob cap with a big border and bow of ribbon in front of it, turned round from talking to them, smiled, and made me a curtsy.

The face seemed familiar to me: but where had I seen it before? Helen Whitney, seeing my puzzled look, spoke up in her free manner.

“Have you no memory, Johnny Ludlow? Don’t you remember Mrs. Ness!—and the fortune she told us on the cards?”

It came upon me with a rush. That drizzling Good Friday afternoon at Miss Deveen’s, long ago, and Helen smuggling up the old lady from downstairs to tell her fortune. But what brought her here? There seemed to be no connection between Miss Deveen’s house in town and Briar Wood in Worcestershire. I could not have been more at sea had I seen a Chinese lady from Pekin. Miss Deveen laughed.

“And yet it is so easy of explanation, Johnny, so simple and straightforward,” she said. “Mrs. Ness chances to be aunt to Rednal’s wife, and she is staying down here with them.”

Simple it was—as are most other puzzles when you have the clue. The old woman was a great protégée of Miss Deveen’s, who had known her through her life of misfortune: but Miss Deveen did not before know of her relationship to Rednal’s wife or that she was staying at their cottage. They had been talking of that past afternoon and the fortune-telling in it, when I and Bill came up.

“And what I told you, miss, came true—now didn’t it?” cried Mrs. Ness to Helen.

“True! Why, you told me nothing!” retorted Helen. “There was nothing in the fortune. You said there was nothing in the cards.”

“I remember it,” said Mother Ness; “remember it well. The cards showed no husband for you then, young lady; they might tell different now. But they showed some trouble about it, I recollect.”

Helen’s face fell. There had indeed been trouble. Trouble again and again. Richard Foliott, the false, had brought trouble to her; and so had Charles Leafchild, now lying in his grave at Worcester: not to speak of poor Slingsby Temple. Helen had got over all those crosses now, and was looking up again. She was of a nature to look up again from any evil that might befall her, short of losing her head off her shoulders. All dinner-time she had been flirting with Featherston’s nephew.

This suggestion of Mrs. Ness, “the cards might tell different now,” caught hold of her mind. Her colour slightly deepened, her eyes sparkled.

“Have you the cards with you now, Mrs. Ness?”

“Ay, to be sure, young lady. I never come away from home without my cards. They be in the cottage yonder.”

“Then I should like my fortune told again.”

“Oh, Helen, how can you be so silly!” cried Lady Whitney.

“Silly! Why, mamma, it is good fun. You go and fetch the cards, Mrs. Ness.”

“I and Johnny nearly had our fortune told today,” put in Bill, while Mrs. Ness stood where she was, hardly knowing what to be at. “We came upon a young gipsy woman in the wood, and she wanted to promise us a wife apiece. A little girl was with her that may have been stolen: she was too fair to be that brown woman’s child.”

“It must have been the Norths,” exclaimed Mrs. Ness. “Was there some tinware by ’em, sir; and some rabbit skins?”

“Yes. Both. The rabbit skins were hanging out to dry.”

“Ay, it’s the Norths,” repeated Mrs. Ness. “Rednal said he saw North yesterday; he guessed they’d lighted their campfire not far off.”

“Who are the Norths? Gipsies?”

“The wife is a gipsy, sir; born and bred. He is a native of these parts, and superior; but he took to an idle, wandering life, and married the gipsy girl for her beauty. She was Bertha Lee then.”

“Why, it is quite a romance,” said Miss Deveen, amused.

“And so it is, ma’am. Rednal told me all on’t. They tramp the country, selling their tins, and collecting rabbit skins.”

“And is the child theirs?” asked Bill.

“Ay, sir, it be. But she don’t take after her mother; she’s like him, her skin fair as alabaster. You’d not think, Rednal says, that she’d a drop o’ gipsy blood in her veins. North might ha’ done well had he only turned out steady; been just the odds o’ what he is—a poor tramp.”

“Oh, come, never mind the gipsies,” cried Helen, impatiently. “You go and bring the cards, Mrs. Ness.”

One can’t go in for stilts at a picnic, or for wisdom either; and when Mrs. Ness brought her cards (which might have been cleaner) none of them made any objection. Even Cattledon looked on, grimly tolerant.

“But you can’t think there’s anything in it—that the cards tell true,” cried Lady Whitney to the old woman.

“Ma’am, be sure they do. I believe in ’em from my very heart. And so, I make bold to say, would everybody here believe, if they had read the things upon ’em that I’ve read, and seen how surely they’ve come to pass.”

They would not contradict her openly; only smiled a little among themselves. Mother Ness was busy with the cards, laying them out for Helen’s fortune. I drew near to listen.

“You look just as though you put faith in it,” whispered Bill to me.

“I don’t put faith in it. I should not like to be so foolish. But, William, what she told Helen before did come true.”

Well, Helen’s “fortune” was told again. It sounded just as uneventful as the one told that rainy afternoon long ago—for we were now some years older than we were then. Helen Whitney’s future, according to the cards, or to Dame Ness’s reading of them, would be all plain sailing; smooth and easy, and unmarked alike by events and by care. A most desirable career, some people would think, but Helen looked the picture of desolation.

“And you say I am not to be married!” she exclaimed.

Dame Ness had her head bent over the cards. She shook it without looking up.

“I don’t see a ring nowhere, young lady, and that’s the blessed truth. There ain’t one, that’s more. There ain’t a sign o’ one. Neither was there the other time, I remember: that time in London. And so—I take it that there won’t never be.”

“Then I think you are a very disagreeable story-telling old woman!” flashed Helen, all candour in her mortification. “Not be married, indeed!”

“Why, my dear, I’d be only too glad to promise you a husband if the cards foretelled it,” said Dame Ness, pityingly. “Yours is the best fortune of all, though, if you could but bring your mind to see it. Husbands is more plague nor profit. I’m sure I had cause to say so by the one that fell to my share, as that there dear good lady knows,” pointing to Miss Deveen.

In high dudgeon, Helen pushed the cards together. Mrs. Ness, getting some kind words from the rest of us, curtsied as she went off to the cottage to see about the kettles for our tea.

“You are a nice young lady!” exclaimed Bill. “Showing your temper because the cards don’t give you a sweetheart!”

Helen threw her fan at him. “Mind your own business,” returned she. And he went away laughing.

“And, my dear, I say the same as William,” added Lady Whitney. “One really might think that you were—were anxious to be married.”

“All cock-a-hoop for it,” struck in Cattledon: “as the housemaids are.”

“And no such great crime, either,” returned Helen, defiantly. “Fancy that absurd old thing telling me I never shall be!”

“Helen, my dear, I think the chances are that you will not be married,” quietly spoke Miss Deveen.

“Oh, do you!”

“Don’t be cross, Helen,” said her mother. “Our destinies are not in our own hands.”

Helen bit her lip, laughed, and recovered her temper. She was like her father; apt to flash out a hot word, but never angry long.

“Now—please, Miss Deveen, why do you think I shall not be?” she asked playfully.

“Because, my dear, you have had three chances, so to say, of marriage, and each time it has been frustrated. In two of the instances by—if we may dare to say it—the interposition of Heaven. The young men died beforehand in an unexpected and unforeseen manner: Charles Leafchild and Mr. Temple——”

“I was never engaged to Mr. Temple,” interrupted Helen.

“No; but, by all I hear, you shortly would have been.”

Helen gave no answer. She knew perfectly well that she had expected an offer from Slingsby Temple; that his death, as she believed, alone prevented its being made. She would have said Yes to it, too. Miss Deveen went on.

“We will not give more than an allusion to Captain Foliott; he does not deserve it; but your marriage with him came nearest of all. It may be said, Helen, without exaggeration, that you have been on the point of marriage twice, and very nearly so a third time. Now, what does this prove?”

“That luck was against me,” said Helen, lightly.

“Ay, child: luck, as we call it in this world. I would rather say, Destiny. God knows best. Do you wonder that I have never married?” continued Miss Deveen in a less serious tone.

“I never thought about it,” answered Helen.

“I know that some people have wondered at it; for I was a girl likely to marry—or it may be better to say, likely to be sought in marriage. I had good looks, good temper, good birth, and a good fortune: and I dare say I was just as willing to be chosen as all young girls are. Yes, I say that all girls possess an innate wish to marry; it is implanted in their nature, comes with their mother’s milk. Let their station be high or low, a royal princess, if you will, or the housemaid Jemima Cattledon suggested just now, the same natural instinct lies within each—a wish to be a wife. And no reason, either, why they should not wish it; it’s nothing to be ashamed of; and Helen, my dear, I would rather hear a girl avow it openly, as you do, than pretend to be shocked at its very mention.”

Some gleams of sunlight flickered on Miss Deveen’s white hair and fine features as she sat under the trees, her bronze-coloured silk gown falling around her in rich folds, and a big amethyst brooch fastening her collar. I began to think how good-looking she must have been when young, and where the eyes of the young men of those days could have been. Lady Whitney, looking like a bundle in her light dress that ill became her, sat near, fanning herself.

“Yes, I do wonder, now I think of it, that you never married,” said Helen.

“To tell you the truth, I wonder myself sometimes,” replied Miss Deveen, smiling. “I think—I believe—that, putting other advantages aside, I was well calculated to be a wife, and should have made a good one. Not that that has anything to do with it; for you see the most incapable women marry, and remain incapable to their dying day. I could mention wives at this moment, within the circle of my acquaintance, who are no more fitted to be wives than is that three-legged stool Johnny is balancing himself upon; and who in consequence unwittingly keep their husbands and their homes in a state of perpetual turmoil. I was not one of these, I am sure; but here I am, unmarried still.”

“Would you marry now?” asked Helen briskly: and we all burst into a laugh at the question, Miss Deveen’s the merriest.

“Marry at sixty! Not if I know it. I have at least twenty years too many for that; some might say thirty. But I don’t believe many women give up the idea of marriage before they are forty; and I do not see why they should. No, nor then, either.”

“But—why did you not marry, Miss Deveen?”

“Ah, my dear, if you wish for an answer to that question, you must ask it of Heaven. I cannot give one. All I can tell you is, that I did hope to be married, and expected to be married, waited to be married; but here you see me in my old age—Miss Deveen.”

“Did you—never have a chance of it—an opportunity?” questioned Helen with hesitation.

“I had more than one chance: I had two or three chances, just as you have had. During the time that each ‘chance’ was passing, if we may give it the term, I thought assuredly I should soon be a wife. But each chance melted away from this cause or that cause, ending in nothing. And the conclusion I have come to, Helen, for many a year past, is, that God, for some wise purpose of His own, decreed that I should not marry. What we know not here, we shall know hereafter.”

Her tone had changed to one of deep reverence. She did not say more for a little time.

“When I look around the world,” she at length went on, “and note how many admirable women see their chances of marriage dwindle down one after another, from unexpected and apparently trifling causes, it is impossible not to feel that the finger of God is at work. That——”

“But now, Miss Deveen, we could marry if we would—all of us,” interrupted Helen. “If we did not have to regard suitability and propriety, and all that, there’s not a girl but could go off to church and marry somebody.”

“If it’s only a broomstick,” acquiesced Miss Deveen, “or a man no better than one. Yes, Helen, you are right: and it has occasionally been done. But when we fly wilfully in the teeth of circumstances, bent on following our own resolute path, we take ourselves out of God’s hands—and must reap the consequences.”

“I—do not—quite understand,” slowly spoke Helen.

“Suppose I give you an instance of what I mean, my dear. Some years ago I knew a young lady——”

“Is it true? What was her name?”

“Certainly it is true, every detail of it. As to her name—well, I do not see any reason why I should not tell it: her name was Eliza Lake. I knew her family very well indeed, was intimate with her mother. Eliza was the third daughter, and desperately eager to be married. Her chances came. The first offer was eligible; but the two families could not agree about money matters, and it dropped through. The next offer Eliza would not accept—it was from a widower with children, and she sent him to the right-about. The third went on smoothly nearly to the wedding-day, and a good and suitable match it would have been, but something occurred then very unpleasant though I never knew the precise particulars. The bridegroom-elect fell into some trouble or difficulty, he had to quit his country hastily, and the marriage was broken off—was at an end. That was the last offer she had, so far as I knew; and the years went on, Eliza gadding out to parties, and flirting and coquetting, all in the hope to get a husband. When she was in her thirtieth year, her mother came to me one day in much distress and perplexity. Eliza, she said, was taking the reins into her own hands, purposing to be married in spite of her father, mother, and friends. Mrs. Lake wanted me to talk to Eliza; she thought I might influence her, though they could not; and I took an opportunity of doing so—freely. It is of no use to mince matters when you want to save a girl from ruin. I recalled the past to her memory, saying that I believed, judging by that past, that Heaven did not intend her to marry. I told her all the ill I had heard of the man she was now choosing; also that she had absolutely thrown herself at him, and he had responded for the sake of the little money she possessed; and that if she persisted in marrying him she would assuredly rue it. In language as earnest as I knew how to choose, I laid all this before her.”

“And what was her answer to you?” Helen spoke as if her breath was short.

“Just like the reckless answer that a blinded, foolish girl would make. ‘Though Heaven and earth were against me, I should marry him, Miss Deveen. I am beyond the control of parents, brothers, sisters, friends; and I will not die an old maid to please any of you.’ Those were the wilful words she used; I have never forgotten them; and the next week she betook herself to church.”

“Did the marriage turn out badly?”

“Ay, it did. Could you expect anything else? Poor Eliza supped the cup of sorrow to its dregs: and she brought bitter sorrow and trouble also on her family. That, Helen, is what I call taking one’s self out of God’s hands, and flying determinedly in the face of what is right and seemly, and evidently appointed.”

“You say yourself it is hard not to be married,” quoth Helen.

“No, I do not,” laughed Miss Deveen. “I say that it appears hard to us when our days of youth are passing, and when we see our companions chosen and ourselves left: but, rely upon it, Helen, as we advance in years, we acquiesce in the decree; many of us learning to be thankful for it.”

“And you young people little think what great cause you have to be thankful for it,” cried Lady Whitney, all in a heat. “Marriage brings a bushel of cares: and no one knows what anxiety boys and girls entail until they come.”

Miss Deveen nodded emphatically. “It is very true. I would not exchange my present lot with that of the best wife in England; believe that, or not, as you will, Helen. Of all the different states this busy earth can produce, a lot such as mine is assuredly the most exempt from trouble. And, my dear, if you are destined never to marry, you have a great deal more cause to be thankful than rebellious.”

“The other day, when you were preaching to us, you told us that trouble came for our benefit,” grumbled Helen, passing into rebellion forthwith.

“I remember it,” assented Miss Deveen, “and very true it is. My heart has sickened before now at witnessing the troubles, apparently unmerited, that some people, whether married or single, have to undergo; and I might have been almost tempted to question the loving-kindness of Heaven, but for remembering that we must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom.”

Anna interrupted the silence that ensued. She came running up with a handful of wild roses and sweetbriar, gathered in the hedge below. Miss Deveen took them when offered to her, saying she thought of all flowers the wild rose was the sweetest.

“How solemn you all look!” cried Anna.

“Don’t we!” said Helen. “I have been having a lecture read to me.”

“By whom?”

“Every one here—except Johnny Ludlow. And I am sure I hope he was edified. I wonder when tea is going to be ready!”

“Directly, I should say,” said Anna: “for here comes Mrs. Ness with the cups and saucers.”

I ran forward to help her bring the things. Rednal’s trim wife, a neat, active woman with green eyes and a baby in her arms, was following with plates of bread-and-butter and cake, and the news that the kettle was “on the boil.” Presently the table was spread; and William, who had come back to us, took up the baby’s whistle and blew a blast, prolonged and shrill.

The stragglers heard it, understood it was the signal for their return, and came flocking in. The Squire and Sir John said they had been sitting under the trees and talking: our impression was, they had been sleeping. The young Whitneys appeared in various stages of heat; Tod and Featherston’s nephew smelt of smoke. The first cups of tea had gone round, and Tod was making for Rednal’s cottage with a notice that the bread-and-butter had come to an end, when I saw a delicate little fair-haired face peering at us from amid the trees.

“Halloa!” cried the Squire, catching sight of the face at the same moment. “Who on earth’s that?”

“It’s the child we saw this morning—the gipsy’s child,” exclaimed William Whitney. “Here, you little one! Stop! Come here.”

He only meant to give her a piece of cake: but the child ran off with a scared look and fleet step, and was lost in the trees.

“Senseless little thing!” cried Bill: and sat down to his tea again.

“But what a pretty child it was!” observed the mater. “She put me in mind of Lena.”

“Why, Lena’s oceans of years older,” said Helen, free with her remarks as usual. “That child, from the glimpse I caught of her, can’t be more than five or six.”

“She is about seven, miss,” struck in Rednal’s wife, who had just come up with a fresh supply of tea. “It is nigh upon eight years since young Walter North went off and got married.”

“Walter North!” repeated Sir John. “Who’s Walter North? Let me see? The name seems familiar to me.”

“Old Walter North was the parish schoolmaster over at Easton, sir. The son turned out wild and unsteady; and at the time his father died he went off and joined the gipsies. They had used to encamp about here more than they do now, as Rednal could tell you, Sir John; and it was said young North was in love with a girl belonging to the tribe—Bertha Lee. Any way, they got married. Right-down beautiful she was—for a gipsy; and so young.”

“Then I suppose North and his wife are here now—if that’s their child?” remarked Sir John.

“They are here sure enough, sir; somewhere in the wood. Rednal has seen him about this day or two past. Two or three times they’ll be here, pestering, during the summer, and stop ten or twelve days. Maybe young North has a hankering after the old spots he was brought up in, and comes to see ’em,” suggestively added Rednal’s wife; whose tongue ran faster than any other two women’s put together. And that’s saying something.

“And how does this young North get a living?” asked Sir John. “By poaching?—and rifling the poultry-yards?”

“Like enough he do, Sir John. Them tramps have mostly light fingers.”

“They sell tins—and collect rabbit skins,” struck in William. “Johnny Ludlow and I charged the encampment this morning, and nearly got our fortunes told.”

Jessy Rednal’s chin went up. “They’d better let Rednal catch ’em at their fortune-telling!—it was the wife, I know, sir, did that. When she was but a slip of a girl she’d go up as bold as brass to any gentleman or lady passing, and ask them to cross her hand with silver.”

With this parting fling at the gipsies, Rednal’s wife ran off to the cottage for another basin of sugar. The heat made us thirsty, and we wanted about a dozen cups of tea apiece.

But now, I don’t know why it was, I had rather taken a fancy to this young woman, Bertha North, and did not believe the words “as bold as brass” could be properly applied to her. Gipsy though she was, her face, for good feeling and refinement, was worth ten of Jessy Rednal’s. It’s true she had followed us, wanting to tell our fortunes, but she might have been hard up for money.

When we had swallowed as much tea as the kettles would produce, and cleared the plates of the eatables, Sir John suggested that it would soon be time to move homewards, as the evening would be coming on. This had the effect of scattering some of us at once. If they did not get us, they could not take us. “Home, indeed! as early as this!” cried Helen, wrathfully—and rushed off with her brother Harry and Featherston’s nephew.

I was ever so far down one of the wood paths, looking about, for somehow I had missed them all, when sounds of wailing and crying from a young voice struck my ear. In a minute, that same fair little child came running into view, as if she were flying for her life from some pursuing foe, her sobs wild with terror, her face white as death.

What she said I could not make out, though she made straight up to me and caught my arm; the language seemed strange, the breath gone. But there was no mistaking the motions: she pulled me along with her across the wood, her little arms and eyes frantically imploring.

Something must be amiss, I thought. What was it? “Is there a mad bull in the way, little one? And are you making off with me to do battle with him?”

No elucidation from the child: only the sobs, and the words I did not catch. But we were close to the outskirts of the wood now (it was but narrow), and there, beyond the hedge that bordered it, crouched down against the bank, was a man. A fair-faced, good-looking young man, small and slight, and groaning with pain.

No need to wonder who he was: the likeness between him and the child betrayed it. How like they were! even to the expression in the large blue eyes, and the colour of the soft fair hair. The child’s face was his own in miniature.

“You are Walter North,” I said. “And what’s to do?”

His imploring eyes in their pitiful pain looked up to mine, as if he would question how I needed to ask it. Then he pulled his fustian coat aside and pointed to his side. It made me start a step back. The side was steeped in blood.

“Oh dear, what is it?—what has caused it? An accident?”

“I have been shot,” he answered—and I thought his voice sounded ominously weak. “Shot from over yonder.”

Looking across the field in front of us, towards which he pointed, I could see nothing. I mean, nothing likely to have shot him. No men, no guns. Off to the left, partly buried amidst its grounds, lay the old house called the Granary; to the right in the distance, Vale Farm. The little child was stretched on the ground, quiet now, her head resting on his right shoulder; it was the left side that was injured. Suddenly he whispered a few words to her; she sprang up with a sob and darted into the wood. The child, as we heard later, had been sent out by her mother to look for her father: it was in seeking for him that she had come upon our tea-party and peeped at us. Later, she found him, fallen where he was now, just after the shot which struck him was fired. In her terror she was flying off for assistance, and met me. The man’s hat lay near him, also an old drab-coloured bag, some tin basins, and a Dutch-oven.

“Can I move you, to put you easier?” I asked between his groans. “Can I do anything in the world to help you?”

“No, no, don’t touch me,” he said, in a hopeless tone. “I am bleeding to death.”

And I thought he was. His cheeks and lips were growing paler with every minute. The man’s diction was as good as mine; and, tramp though he was, many a gentleman has not half as nice a face as his.

“If you don’t mind being left, I will run for a doctor—old Featherston.”

Before he could answer yes or no, Harry Vale, who must have espied us from their land, came running up.

“Why—what in the world——” he began. “Is it you, North? What? Shot, you say?”

“From over yonder, sir; and I’ve got my death-blow: I think I have. Perhaps if Featherston——”

“I’ll fetch him,” cried Harry Vale. “You stay here with him, Johnny.” And he darted away like a lamplighter, his long legs skimming the grass.

I am nothing but a muff; you know that of old. And never did I feel my own deficiencies come home to me as they did then. Any one else might have known how to stop the bleeding—for of course it ought to be stopped—if only by stuffing a handkerchief into the wound. I did not dare attempt it; I was worse at any kind of surgery than a born imbecile. All in a moment, as I stood there, the young gipsy-woman’s words of the morning flashed into my mind. She had foreseen some ill for him, she said; had scented it in the air. How strange it seemed!

The next to come upon the scene was the Squire, crushing through the brambles when he heard our voices. He and Sir John, in dire wrath at our flight, had come out to look for us and to marshal us back for the start home. I gave him a few whispered words of explanation.

“What!” cried he. “Dying?” and his face went as pale as the man’s. “Oh, my poor fellow, I am sorry for this!”

Stooping over him, the Squire pulled the coat aside. The stains were larger now, the flow was greater. North bent his head forward to look, and somehow got his hand wet in the process. Wet and red. He snatched it away with a kind of horror. The sight seemed to bring upon him the conviction that his minutes were numbered. His minutes. Which is the last and greatest terror that can seize upon man.

“I’m going before God now, and I’m not fit for it,” he cried, a shrieking note, born of emotion, in his weakening voice. “Can there be any mercy for me?”

The Squire seemed to feel it—he has said so since—as one of the most solemn moments of his life. He took off his spectacles—a habit of his when much excited—dropped them into his pocket, and clasped his hands together.

“There’s mercy with God through the Lord Jesus always,” he said, bending over the troubled face. “He pardoned the thief on the Cross. He pardoned all who came to Him. If you are Walter North, as they tell me, you must know all this as well as I do. Lord God have mercy upon this poor dying man, for Christ’s sake!”

And perhaps the good lessons that North had learnt in childhood from his mother, for she was a good woman, came back to him then to comfort him. He lifted his own hands towards the skies, and half the terror went out of his face.

Some one once said, I believe, that by standing stock still in the Strand, and staring at any given point, he could collect a crowd about him in no time. In the thronged thoroughfares of London that’s not to be surprised at; but what I should like to know is this—how is it that people collect in deserts? They do, and you must have seen it often. Before many minutes were over we had quite a levee: Sir John Whitney, William, and Featherston’s nephew; three or four labourers from Vale Farm; Harry Vale, who had met Featherston, and outrun him; and one of the tall sons of Colonel Leonard. The latter, a young fellow with lazy limbs, a lazy voice, and supercilious manner, strolled up, smacking a dog-whip.

“What’s the row here?” cried he: and William Whitney told him. The man had been shot: by whom or by what means, whether wilfully or accidentally, remained to be discovered.

“Did you do it—or your brothers?” asked Harry Vale of him in a low tone. And Herbert Leonard whirled round to face Vale with a haughty stare.

“What the devil do you mean? What should we want to shoot a tramp for?”

“Any way, you were practising with pistols at your target over yonder this afternoon.”

Leonard did not condescend to reply. The words had angered him. By no possibility could a shot, aimed at their target, come in this direction. The dog-whip shook, as if he felt inclined to use it on Harry Vale for his insolent suggestion.

“Such a fuss over a tramp!” cried Leonard to Sir John, not caring who heard him. “I dare say the fellow was caught thieving, and got served out for his pains.”

But he did not well know Sir John—who turned upon him like lightning.

“How dare you say that, young man! Are you not ashamed to give utterance to such sentiments?”

“Look here!” coolly retorted Leonard.

Catching hold of the bag to shake it, out tumbled a dead hen with ruffled feathers. Sir John looked grave. Leonard held it up.

“I thought so. It is still warm. He has stolen it from some poultry-yard.”

I chanced to be standing close to North as Leonard said it, and felt a feeble twitch at my trousers. Poor North was trying to attract my attention; gazing up at me with the most anxious face.

“No,” said he, but he was almost too faint to speak now. “No. Tell them, sir, No.”

But Harry Vale was already taking up the defence. “You are wrong, Mr. Herbert Leonard. I gave that hen myself to North half-an-hour ago. Some little lads, my cousins, are at the farm today, and one of them accidentally killed the hen. Knowing our people would not care to use it, I called to North, who chanced to be passing at the time, and told him he might take it if he liked.”

A gleam of a smile, checked by a sob, passed over the poor man’s face. Things wear a different aspect to us in the hour of death from what they do in lusty life. It may be that North saw then that theft, even of a fowl, was theft, and felt glad to be released from the suspicion. Sir John looked as pleased as Punch: one does not like to hear wrong brought home to a dying man.

Herbert Leonard turned off indifferently, strolling back across the field and cracking his whip; and Featherston came pelting up.

The first thing the doctor did, when he had seen North’s face, was to take a phial and small glass out of his pocket, and give him something to drink. Next, he made a clear sweep of us all round, and knelt down to examine the wound, just as the poor gipsy wife, fetched by the child, appeared in sight.

“Is there any hope?” whispered the Squire.

“Hope!” whispered back Featherston. “In half-an-hour it will be over.”

“God help him!” prayed the Squire. “God pardon and take him!”

Well, well—that is about all there is to tell. Poor North died, there as he lay, in the twilight; his wife’s arm round his neck, and his little girl feebly clasped to him.

What an end to the bright and pleasant day! Sir John thanked Heaven openly that it was not we who had caused the calamity.

“For somebody must have shot him, lads,” he observed, “though I dare say it was accidental. And it might have chanced to be one of you—there’s no telling: you are not too cautious with your guns.”

The “somebody” turned out to be George Leonard. Harry Vale (who had strong suspicions) was right. When they dispersed after their target practising, one of them, George, went towards Briar Wood, his pistol loaded. The thick trees afforded a promising mark, he thought, and he carelessly let off the pistol at them. Whether he saw that he had shot a man was never known; he denied it out and out: didn’t know one was there, he protested. A waggoner, passing homewards with his team, had seen him fire the pistol, and came forward to say so; or it might have been a mystery to the end. “Accidental Death,” decided the jury at the inquest; but they recommended the supercilious young man (just as indifferent as his brothers) to take care what he fired at for the future. Mr. George did not take the rebuke kindly.

For these sons had hard, bad natures; and were doing their best to bring down their father’s grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.


But how strange it seemed altogether! The poor young gipsy-wife’s subtle instinct that evil was near!—and that the shot should just have struck him instead of spending itself harmlessly upon one of the hundreds of trees! Verily there are things in this world not to be grasped by our limited understandings.

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