They had gone through the snow to evening service at North Crabb, the Squire, Mrs. Todhetley, and Tod, leaving me at home with one of my splitting headaches. Thomas had come in to ask if I would have the lamp, but I told him I would rather be without it. So there I sat on alone, beside the fire, listening to Hannah putting the children to bed upstairs, and looking sleepily out at the snowy landscape.
As the fire became dim, sending the room into gloom, the light outside grew stronger. The moon was high; clear and bright as crystal; what with that, and the perfectly white snow that lay on everything, the night seemed nearly as light as day. The grass plat outside was a smooth white plain, the clustering shrubs beyond it being also white.
I knew the fire wanted replenishing: I knew that if I sat on much longer, I should fall asleep; but sit on I did, letting the fire go, too listless to move. My eyes were fixed dreamily on the plain of snow, with the still moonlight lying across it. The room grew darker, the landscape lighter.
And asleep, in another minute, I should inevitably have been, but for a circumstance that suddenly arose. All in a moment — I saw not how or whence it came — a dark figure appeared on the grass plat, close before the bank of shrubs, right in front of me; the figure of a man, wrapped in a big great-coat. He was standing still and gazing fixedly at the house. Gazing, as it seemed (though that was impossible) at me. I was wide awake at once, and sitting bolt upright in the chair.
Yes, there could be no mistake; and it was no delusion. The man appeared to be a tall man, strong and muscular, with a mass of hair on his face. What could he want? Was it a robber reconnoitring the premises; peering and peeping to ascertain whether all the world was at church, before he broke in to rifle the house?
No one, void of such an experience, can imagine how dark he looked standing there, amidst the whiteness of all the scene around. In one sense, he stood out plainer than he could have done by daylight, because the contrast was greater. But this sort of light did not show his features, which were shrouded in obscurity.
Presently he moved. Looking to right and left, he took a step forward. Evidently he was trying to see whether the parlour where I sat was empty or occupied. Should I go out to him? Or should I fling up the window and ask what he wanted? I was not frightened: don’t let any one think that: but watching him brought rather a creepy kind of sensation.
And, just then, as I left the chair quietly to open the window, I heard the catch of the garden-gate, and some one came whistling up the path. The man vanished as if by magic. Whilst I looked, he was gone. It seemed to me that I did not take my eyes off him; but where he went to, or what became of him, I knew not.
“Anybody at home?” called out Tom Coney, as he broke off his whistling and opened the hall-door.
“All right, Tom. Come along.”
And, to tell the truth, I was not sorry to see Tom’s hearty face. He had stayed away from evening service to sit with his mother.
“I say, Tom, did you see any fellow on the snow there, as you came in?”
“On the snow where?” asked Tom.
“There; just before the shrubs.” And I pointed the spot out to him, and told him what had happened. Tom, one of the most practical fellows living, more so, I think, than even Tod, and with less imagination than an ostrich, received the account with incredulity.
“You dropped asleep, Johnny, and fancied it.”
“I did not drop asleep, and I did not fancy it. When you came into the garden I was about to open the window and call to him.”
“Those headaches are downright stupefying things, Johnny. Jane has them, you know. One day I remember she fell asleep with a bad one, and woke up and said the sofa was on fire.”
“Tom, I tell you the man was there. A tall, strong-looking fellow, with a beard. He was staring at the house with all his might, at this room, as it seemed to me, wanting to come forward, I think, but afraid to. He kept close to the laurels, as if he did not wish to be seen, forgetting perhaps that they were white and betrayed him. When you opened the gate, he was there.”
“It’s odd, then, where he could have put himself,” said Tom Coney, not giving in an inch. “I’ll vow not a soul was there, man or woman, when I came up the path.”
“That’s true. He vanished in a moment. Whilst I was looking at him he disappeared.”
“Vanished! Disappeared! You talk as though you thought it a ghost, Johnny.”
“Ghost be hanged! It was some ill-doing tramp, I expect, trying to look if he might steal into the house.”
“Much you know of the ways of tramps, Johnny Ludlow! Tramps don’t come showing themselves on snow-lighted, open lawns, in the face and eyes of the front windows: they hide themselves in obscure hedges and byways. It’s a case of headachy sleep, young man, and nothing else.”
“Look here, Tom. If the man was there, his footprints will be there; if he was not, as you say, the snow will be smooth and level: come out and see.”
We went out at once, Tom catching up a stick in the hall, and crossed the lawn. I was right, and Tom wrong. Sure enough, there were the footprints, plenty of them, indented in the deep snow. Tom gave in then.
“I wish to goodness I had seen him! The fellow should not have got off scot-free, I can tell him that. What tremendous feet he must have! Just look at the size, Johnny. Regular crushers.”
“Don’t you go and say again I was asleep! He must have stepped back and got away through these laurels; yes, here are the marks. I say, Tom”— dropping my voice to a whisper —“perhaps he’s here now.”
“We’ll soon see that,” said Tom Coney, plunging amidst the laurels with a crash, and beating about with the stick.
But there was no trace of him. Tom came out presently, covered with the beaten snow, and we went indoors; he veering round partly to his first opinion, and a little incredulous, in spite of the footprints.
“If any man was there, Johnny, how did he get away? I don’t see, for my part, what he could possibly want. A thief would have gone to work in a different manner.”
“Well, let it be so. I shall say nothing about it to them when they come home. Mrs. Todhetley’s timid, you know, she would fancy the man was outside still, and be lying awake all night, listening for the smashing in of doors and windows.”
Cracking the fire into a blaze; as much of a blaze, that is, as its dilapidated state allowed; I called Thomas to light the lamp and shut the shutters. When I told him of the affair, bidding him not mention it, he took a different view of it altogether, and put it down to the score of one of the younger maid-servants.
“They’ve got sweethearts, Master Johnny, the huzzies have; lots of sweethearts. One or the t’other of ’em is always a sidling sheepfaced up to the house, as though he didn’t dare to say his soul was his own.”
They came in from church before the fire had burnt up, and the Squire scolded me for letting it go so low. The coal we get in Worcestershire is the Staffordshire coal; it does not burn up in a minute as London coal does, but must have time.
Nothing of course was said about the man; I and Tom Coney — who stayed supper — held our tongues, as agreed upon. But I told Tod in going up to bed. He was sleepy, and did not think much of it. The fact was, as I could plainly perceive, that to any of them, when related, it did not seem to be much. They had not seen it as I had.
Timberdale Rectory, a cosy, old-fashioned house, its front walls covered with ivy, stood by itself amidst pasture-land, a field’s length from the church. Mrs. Todhetley sent me there on the Monday morning, to invite the Rector, Herbert Tanerton, and his wife to dine with us the next evening, for we had a prime codfish sent as a present from London. The Squire and Tod had gone out shooting. It was January weather; cold and bright, with a frosty sky. Icicles drooped from the trees, and the snow in Crabb Ravine was above my ankles. The mater had said to me, “I should go the road way, Johnny;” but I did not mind the snow.
In Timberdale I met Margaret Rymer. She had her black cloak on, and her natty little black bonnet; and the gentle and refined face under it, with its mild brown eyes, put me more than ever in mind of her dead father.
Does any one remember her? I told something about her and her people early in this volume. When Thomas Rymer died, partly of a broken heart, Benjamin had again gone off, and Margaret continued to keep the business going. She understood the drugs thoroughly. During all the months that had elapsed since, the son had not made his appearance at home. Timberdale would say, “Why does not Benjamin come back to carry on affairs in his father’s place?” but it had no satisfactory answer. Latterly, Timberdale had let Benjamin alone, and busied itself with Margaret.
Six months ago, the Reverend Isaac Sale had come to Timberdale as curate. He was a plain, dark little man of sterling worth, and some thirty years of age — older than the Rector. Margaret Rymer met him at the Sunday School, where she taught regularly, and he fell desperately in love with her — if it’s not wrong to say that of a parson. As a rule, men and women like contrasts; and perhaps the somewhat abrupt-mannered man with the plain and rugged features had been irresistibly attracted by the delicate face of Margaret, and by her singularly gentle ways. In position she was not his equal; but Mr. Sale made no secret of his attachment, or that he wanted Margaret to be his wife. Mrs. Rymer entirely opposed it: how was the business to be kept going without Margaret, she demanded; or herself, either?
Mr. Sale had taken the curacy as a temporary thing. He was waiting for some expected appointment abroad. When it fell to him, Margaret Rymer would have to choose between sailing with him as his wife, or staying at home and giving him up for good. So said Timberdale.
After standing to talk a bit with Margaret, who had come out on an errand for her mother, I ran on to the Rectory. Mr. Tanerton and his wife were in the snug little bow-windowed front-room. He, spare and colourless, young yet, with cold grey eyes and thin light whiskers, sat by the blazing fire of wood and coal, that went roaring and sparkling up the chimney. Somehow Herbert Tanerton gave you the idea of being always in a chill. Well meaning, and kind in the main, he was yet severe, taking too much note of offences, and expecting all the world, and especially his own flock, to be better than gold.
His wife, kind, genial, and open-hearted, sat at the window, stitching a wristband for one of her husband’s new shirts — he was as particular over them as he was over the parish sins — and glancing cheerfully out between whiles at the snowy landscape. When she was Grace Coney, and niece at the farm, we were very intimate; a nice, merry-hearted, capable girl, rather tall and slender, with bright dark hazel eyes, and a wide mouth that seemed always to be smiling to show its pretty white teeth. Seeing me coming, she ran to open the porch-door. As yet, she and Herbert had no children.
“Come in, Johnny! Is it not a lovely day? Herbert thinks it the coldest morning we have had; but I tell him that is because he does not feel very well. And he has been put out a little.”
“What about?” I asked, as the Rector turned in his chair to shake hands with me. For she had said all that in his hearing.
“Oh, there are one or two things. Sam Mullett ——”
“Where’s the use of talking of the stupid old man, Grace?” cried the parson, crossly. “He is getting too old for his place.”
“And Mr. Sale is going to leave,” added Mrs. Tanerton, as I sat down by the table, after delivering the invitation. “The appointment he expected has been offered to him; it is a chaplaincy at the Bahama Islands. Mr. Sale has known of it for a week, and never told Herbert until yesterday.”
“He spoke to me in the vestry after morning service,” said the Rector, in an injured tone. “And he said at the same time that he was not sure he should accept it; it did not quite depend upon himself. I saw as clearly what he meant to imply as though he had avowed it; that it depended upon that girl, Margaret Rymer. It is a preposterous thing. The idea of a clergyman and a gentleman wanting to marry her! She keeps a chemist’s shop!”
“It was her father who kept it,” I said eagerly, for I liked Margaret Rymer, and did not care to hear her disparaged. “And he was a gentleman born.”
“What has that to do with it?” retorted the parson, who was in one of his most touchy humours. “Had her grandfather been a duke, it would make no difference to what she is. Look at the mother!”
“Margaret is a lady in mind, in looks, and in manners,” I persisted. “If I loved Margaret Rymer, I would marry her, though I were an archdeacon.”
“That’s just like you, Johnny Ludlow! you have no more sense than a child in some things,” said the parson, crustily. Grace glanced up from her work and laughed; and looked as if she would like to take part with me.
“I never could have suspected Sale of such folly,” went on the Rector, warming his hands over the blaze. “Grace, do you think that soup’s ready?”
“I will see,” answered Grace, putting the wristband on the little work-table; and she touched my shoulder playfully in passing.
Herbert Tanerton sat in silence; knitting his brow into lines. I took the chair on the other side the fireplace opposite to him, thinking of this and that, and fingering the tongs to help me: a habit I was often scolded for at home — that of fingering things.
“Look here, Mr. Tanerton. If they go all the way out to settle at the Bahamas, it will not signify there who Margaret has been here. Whether she may have helped in her father’s business, or whether she may have been — as you said — a duke’s granddaughter, and brought up accordingly, it will be all one to the Bahamas. Mr. Sale need not say to the Bahamas, ‘My wife used to sell pennyworths of rhubarb and magnesia.’”
“It is not that,” crossly responded the Rector —“what people will think or say; it is for Sale’s own sake that I object. He cannot like the connection. A clergyman should marry in his own sphere.”
“I suppose men are differently constituted, clergymen as well as others,” said I, with deprecation, remembering that I was a plain, inexperienced lad, and he was the Rector of Timberdale. “Some persons don’t care for social distinctions as others do, don’t even see them: perhaps Mr. Sale is one.”
“He cares for probity and honour — he would not choose to ally himself to crime, to disgrace,” sternly spoke the Rector. “And he would do that in marrying Margaret Rymer. Remember what the son did, that ill-doing Benjamin,” added he, dropping his voice. “You know all about it, Johnny. The affair of the bank-note, I mean.”
And if Herbert Tanerton had said to me the affair of the moon and planets, I could not have been more surprised. “How did you get to know of it?” I asked, when speech came to me.
“Mr. Rymer told me on his death-bed. I was attending him spiritually. Of course, I have never spoken of it, even to my wife — I should not think of speaking of it; but I consider that it lies in my duty to disclose the facts to Mr. Sale.”
“Oh no, don’t — don’t, please, Mr. Tanerton!” I cried out, starting up in a sort of distress, for the words seemed to take hold of me. “No one knows of it: no one but the Squire, and I, as you say, and Mrs. Rymer, and you, and Ben himself; Jelf’s dead, you know. It need never be brought up again in this world; and I dare say it never will be. Pray don’t tell Mr. Sale — for Margaret’s sake.”
“But I have said that I consider it my duty to tell him,” replied the parson, steadily. “Here he comes!”
I turned to the window, and saw Sale trudging up to the parsonage through the snowy field pathway, his black hair and red rugged face presenting a sort of contrast to the white glare around. Ugly, he might be called; but it was a face to be liked, for all that. And the ring of his voice was true and earnest.
The affair of the bank-note had helped to kill Thomas Rymer, and sent Mr. Ben off on his wanderings again. It was a bit of ill-luck for Ben, for he had really pulled up, was reading hard at his medical books, and become as steady as could be. Never since then — some ten months ago now — had Ben been heard of; never had it been spoken of to man or woman. Need Herbert Tanerton disclose it to the curate? No: and I did not think he would do it.
“We were just talking of you,” was the Rector’s greeting to Mr. Sale, as the curate came into the room. “Bring a chair to the front of the fire: Johnny, keep your seat. I’m sure it’s cold enough to make one wish to be in the fire today, instead of before it.”
“What were you saying about me?” asked Mr. Sale, drawing forward the chair to sit down, as bidden, and giving me a nod in his short way.
“Have you come to tell me your decision — to go or stay?” asked the Rector, neglecting to answer the question.
“Not this morning. My decision is not yet made. I came to tell you how very ill Jael Batty is. I’m not at all sure that she will get over this bout.”
“Oh,” said the Rector, in a slighting tone, as if Jael Batty had no right to intrude herself into more momentous conversation. “Jael Batty is careless and indifferent in her duties, anything but what she ought to be, and makes her deafness an excuse for not coming to church. I’ll try and get out to see her in the course of the day. She is always having these attacks. What we were speaking of was your friendship with Miss Rymer.”
Herbert Tanerton, as I have said, meant to be kind, and I believe he had people’s welfare at heart; but he had a severe way of saying things that seemed to take all the kindness out of his words. He was a great stickler for “duty,” and if once he considered it was his duty to tell a fellow of his faults, tell he did, face to face, in the most uncompromising manner. He had decided that it was his duty to hold forth to Mr. Sale, and he plunged into the discourse without ceremony. The curate did not seem in the least put out, but talked back again, quietly and freely. I sat balancing the tongs over the fender and listening.
“Miss Rymer is not my equal, you say,” observed Sale. “I don’t know that. Her father was a curate’s son: I am a curate’s son. Circumstances, it would seem, kept Mr. Rymer down in the world. Perhaps they will keep me down — I cannot tell.”
“But you are a gentleman in position, a clergyman; Rymer served customers,” retorted Mr. Tanerton, harping upon that bête noire of his, the chemist’s shop. “Can’t you perceive the difference? A gentleman ought to be a gentleman.”
“Thomas Rymer was a gentleman, as I hear, in mind and manners and conduct; educated, and courteous, and ——”
“He was one of the truest gentlemen I ever met,” I could not help putting in, though it interrupted the curate. “For my part, when speaking with him I forgot the counter he served at.”
“And a true Christian, I was about to say,” added Mr. Sale.
There was a pause. Herbert Tanerton, who had been fidgeting in his chair, spoke:
“Am I mistaken in assuming that your acceptance of this chaplaincy depends upon Miss Rymer?”
“No, you are not mistaken,” said Sale, readily. “It does depend upon her. If she will go with me — my wife — I shall accept it; if she will not, I remain at home.”
“Margaret is as nice as her father was; she is exactly like him,” I said. “Were I you, Mr. Sale, I should just take her out of the place and end it.”
“But if she won’t come with me?” returned he, with a half-smile.
“She is wanted at home,” observed Herbert Tanerton, casting a severe look at me with his cold light eyes. “That shop could not get on without her.” But Sale interrupted:
“I cannot imagine why the son is not at home to attend to things. It is his place to be there doing it, not his sister’s. He is inclined to be wild, it is said, and given to roving.”
“Wildness is not Benjamin Rymer’s worst fault, or roving either,” cried the Rector, in his hardest voice, though he dropped it to a low key. And forthwith he opened the ball, and told the unfortunate story in a very few words. I let the tongs fall with a rattle.
“I would not have mentioned this,” pursued he, “but that I consider it lies in my duty to tell you of it. To any one else it would never be allowed to pass my lips; it never has passed them since Mr. Rymer disclosed it to me a day or two before he died. Margaret Rymer may be desirable in herself; but there’s her position, and — there’s this. It is for your own sake I have spoken, Mr. Sale.”
Sale had sat still and quiet while he listened. There was nothing outward to show that the tale affected him, but instinct told me that it did. Just a question or two he put, as to the details, and then he rose to leave.
“Will you not let it sway you?” asked the Rector, perseveringly, as he held out his hand to his curate. And I was sure he thought he had been doing him the greatest good in the world.
“I cannot tell,” replied Mr. Sale.
He went out, walked across the garden, and through the gate to the field, with his head down. A dreadful listlessness — as it seemed to me — had taken the place of his brisk bearing. Just for a minute I stood in the parlour where I was, feeling as though I had had a shower of ice thrown down upon me and might never be warm again. Saying a short good-morning, I rushed out after him, nearly upsetting Mrs. Tanerton in the hall, and a basin of soup she was carrying in on a plate. How cruel it seemed; how cruel! Why can’t people let one another alone? He was half-way across the field when I overtook him.
“Mr. Sale, I want to tell you — I ought to tell you — that the story, as repeated to you by Mr. Tanerton, bears a worse aspect than the reality would warrant. It is true that Benjamin Rymer did change the note in the letter; but that was the best and the worst of it. He had become mixed up with some reckless men when at Tewkesbury, and they persuaded him to get the stolen note changed for a safe one. I am sure he repented of it truly. When he came home later to his father’s, he had left all his random ways and bad companions behind him. Nobody could be steadier than he was; kind to Margaret, considerate to his father and mother, attentive to business, and reading hard all his spare time. It was only through an ill fellow coming here to hunt him up — one Cotton, who was the man that induced him to play the trick with the note — that he was disturbed again.”
“He grew frightened, I mean, and went away. That fellow Cotton deserved hanging. When he found that Ben Rymer would have nothing more to do with him, or with the rest of the bad lot, he, in revenge, told Jelf, the landlord of the Plough and Harrow (where Cotton ran up a score, and decamped without paying), saying that it was Ben Rymer who had changed the note — for, you see, it had always remained a mystery to Timberdale. Jelf — he is dead now — was foolish enough to let Ben Rymer know what Cotton had said, and Ben made off in alarm. In a week’s time Mr. Rymer was dead. He had been ailing in mind and body for a long while, and the new fear finished him up.”
A pause ensued. Sale broke it. “Did Miss Rymer know of this?”
“Of Ben and the bank-note? I don’t believe she knows of it to this hour.”
“No, I feel sure she does not,” added Sale, speaking more to himself than to me. “She is truth and candour itself; and she has repeatedly said to me she cannot tell why her brother keeps away; cannot imagine why.”
“You see,” I went on, “no one knows of it, except myself, but Squire Todhetley and Mr. Tanerton. We should never, never think of bringing it up, any one of us; Mr. Tanerton only spoke of it, as he said, because he thought he ought to tell you; he will never speak of it again. Indeed, Mr. Sale, you need not fear it will be known. Benjamin Rymer is quite safe.”
“What sort of a man is he, this Benjamin?” resumed Sale, halting at the outer gate of the field as we were going through it. “Like the father, or like the mother?”
“Like the mother. But not as vulgar as she is. Ben has been educated; she was not; and though he does take after her, there’s a little bit of his father in him as well. Which makes a great difference.”
Without another word, Mr. Sale turned abruptly off to the right, as though he were going for a country ramble. I shut the gate, and made the best of my way home, bearing back the message from the Rector and Grace — that they would come and help eat the codfish.
The Reverend Isaac Sale was that day sorely exercised in mind. The story he had heard shook his equanimity to the centre. To marry a young lady whose brother stood a chance of being prosecuted for felony looked like a very black prospect indeed; but, on the other hand, Margaret at least was innocent, and he loved and respected her with his whole heart and soul. Not until the evening was his mind made up; he had debated the question with himself in all its bearings (seated on the stump of a snowy tree); and the decision he arrived at, was — to take Margaret all the same. He could not leave her.
About nine o’clock he went to Mrs. Rymer’s. The shop was closed, and Mr. Sale entered by the private door. Margaret sat in the parlour alone, reading; Mrs. Rymer was out. In her soft black dress, with its white frilling at the throat, Margaret did not look anything like her nearly twenty years. Her mild brown eyes and tale-telling cheeks lighted up at the entrance of the curate. Letting her nervous little hand meet his strong one, she would have drawn a chair forward for him, but he kept her standing by him on the hearthrug.
“I have come this evening to have some final conversation with you, Margaret, and I am glad your mother is out,” he began. “Will you hear me, my dear?”
“You know I am always glad to hear you,” she said in low, timid tones. And Mr. Sale made no more ado, but turned and kissed her. Then he released her hand, sat down opposite to her on the other side of the hearth, and entered on his argument.
It was no more, or other, than she had heard from him before — the whole sum and substance of it consisted of representations why he must accept this chaplaincy at the Bahamas, and why she must accompany him thither. In the midst of it Margaret burst into tears.
“Oh, Isaac, why prolong the pain?” she said. “You know I cannot go: to refuse is as painful to me as to you. Don’t you see that I have no alternative but to remain here?”
“No, I do not see it,” replied Mr. Sale, stoutly. “I think your mother could do without you. She is an active, bustling woman, hardly to be called middle-aged yet. It is not right that you should sacrifice yourself and your prospects in life. At least, it seems to me that it is not.”
Margaret’s hand was covering her face; the silent tears were dropping. To see him depart, leaving her behind, was a prospect intensely bitter. Her heart ached when she thought of it: but she saw no hope of its being otherwise.
“It is a week and a day since I told you that the promotion was at length offered me,” resumed Mr. Sale, “and we do not seem to be any nearer a decision than we were then. I have kept it to myself and said nothing about it abroad, waiting for you to speak to me, Margaret; and the Rector — to whom I at length spoke yesterday — is angry with me, and says I ought to have told him at once. In three days from this — on Thursday next — I must give an answer: accept the post, or throw it up.”
Margaret took her hand from her face. Mr. Sale could see how great was the conflict at work within her.
“There is nothing to wait for, Isaac. I wish there was. You must go by yourself, and leave me.”
“I have told you that I will not. If you stay here, I stay.”
“Oh, pray don’t do that! It would be so intense a disappointment to you to give it up.”
“The greatest disappointment I have ever had in life,” he answered. “You must go with me.”
“I wish I could! I wish I could! But it is impossible. My duty lies here, Isaac. I wish you could see that fact as strongly as I see it. My poor father always enjoined me to do my duty, no matter at what personal cost.”
“It is your brother’s duty to be here, Margaret; not yours. Where is he?”
“In London, I believe,” she replied, and a faint colour flew into her pale face. She put up her handkerchief to hide it.
It had come to Margaret’s knowledge that during the past few months her mother had occasionally written to Benjamin. But Mrs. Rymer would not allow Margaret to write or give her his address. It chanced, however, that about a fortnight ago Mrs. Rymer incautiously left a letter on the table addressed to him, and her daughter saw it. When, some days subsequently, Mr. Sale received the offer of the chaplaincy, and laid it and himself before Margaret, urging her to accompany him, saying that he could not go without her, she took courage to write to Benjamin. She did not ask him to return and release her; she only asked him whether he had any intention of returning, and if so, when; and she gave him in simple words the history of her acquaintanceship with Mr. Sale, and said that he wanted her to go out with him to the Bahamas. To this letter Margaret had not received any answer. She therefore concluded that it had either not reached her brother, or else that he did not mean to return at all to Timberdale; and so she gave up all hopes of it.
“Life is not very long, Margaret, and God has placed us in it to do the best we can in all ways; for Him first, for social obligations afterwards. But He has not meant it to be all trial, all self-denial. If you and I part now, the probability is that we part for ever. Amidst the world’s chances and changes we may never meet again, howsoever our wills might prompt it.”
“True,” she faintly answered.
“And I say that you ought not to enforce this weighty penance upon me and yourself. It is for your brother’s sake, as I look upon it, that you are making the sacrifice, and it is he, not you, who ought to be here. Why did he go away?”
“I never knew,” said Margaret, lifting her eyes to her lover’s, and speaking so confidingly and earnestly that, had he needed proof to convince him she was ignorant of the story he had that day been regaled with, it would have amply afforded it. “Benjamin was at home, and so steady and good as to be a comfort to papa; when quite suddenly he left without giving a reason. Papa seemed to be in trouble about it — it was only a few days before he died — and I have thought that perhaps poor Benjamin was unexpectedly called upon to pay some debt or other, and could not find the money to do it. He had not always been quite so steady.”
“Well, Margaret, I think ——”
A loud bang of the entrance-door, and a noisy burst into the room, proclaimed the return of Mrs. Rymer. Her mass of scarlet curls garnished her face on either side, and looked particularly incongruous with her widow’s cap and bonnet. Mr. Sale, rising to hand her a chair, broke off what he had been about to say to Margaret, and addressed Mrs. Rymer instead; simply saying that the decision, as to her going out with him, or not going, could no longer be put off, but must be made.
“It has been made,” returned Mrs. Rymer, disregarding the offered chair, and standing to hold her boots, one after the other, to the fire. “Margaret can’t go, Mr. Sale; you know it.”
“But I wish her to go, and she wishes it.”
“It’s a puzzle to me what on earth you can see in her,” cried Mrs. Rymer, flinging her grey muff on the table, and untying her black bonnet-strings to tilt back the bonnet. “Margaret won’t have any money. Not a penny piece.”
“I am not thinking about money,” replied the curate; who somehow could never keep his temper long in the presence of this strong-minded Amazon. “It is Margaret that I want; not money.”
“And it’s Margaret, then, that you can’t have,” she retorted. “Who is to keep the shop on if she leaves it? — it can’t go to rack and ruin.”
“I see you serving in it yourself sometimes.”
“I can serve the stationery — and the pickles and fish sauce — and the pearl barley,” contended she, “but not the drugs. I don’t meddle with them. When a prescription comes in to be made up, if I attempted to do it I might put opium for senna, and poison people. I have not learnt Latin, as Margaret has.”
“But, Mrs. Rymer ——”
“Now we’ll just drop the subject, sir, if it’s all the same to you,” loudly put in Mrs. Rymer. “I have told you before that Margaret must stay where she is, and keep the business together for me and her brother. No need to repeat it fifty times over.”
She caught up her muff, and went out of the room and up the stairs as she delivered this final edict. Mr. Sale rose.
“You see how it is,” said Margaret, in a low tone of emotion, and keeping her eyelids down to hide the tears. “You must go without me. I cannot leave. I can only say, God speed you.”
“There are many wrongs enacted in this world, and this is one,” he replied in a hard voice — not hard for her — as he took her hands in his, and stood before her. “I don’t know that I altogether blame you, Margaret; but it is cruel upon you and upon me. Good-night.”
He went out quite abruptly without kissing her, leaving her alone with her aching heart.
Tuesday afternoon, and the ice and the snow on the ground still. We were to dine at five o’clock — the London codfish and a prime turkey — and the Coneys were coming in as well as the Rector and his wife.
But Mrs. Coney did not come; old Coney and Tom brought in word that she was not feeling well enough; and the Tanertons only drove up on the stroke of five. As I helped Grace down from the pony-chaise, muffled up to the chin in furs, for the cold was enough to freeze an Icelander’s nose off, I told her her aunt was not well enough to come.
“Aunt Coney not well enough to come!” returned Grace. “What a pity! Have I time to run in to see her before dinner, Johnny?”
“That you’ve not. You are late, as it is. The Squire has been telling us all that the fish must be in rags already.”
Grace laughed as she ran in; her husband followed her unwinding the folds of his white woollen comforter. There was a general greeting and much laughter, especially when old Coney told Grace that her cheeks were as purple as his Sunday necktie. In the midst of it Thomas announced dinner.
The codfish came up all right, and the oyster sauce was in Molly’s best style — made of cream, and plenty of oysters in it. The turkey was fine: the plum-pudding better than good. Hugh and Lena sat at the table; and altogether we had a downright merry dinner. Not a sober face amongst us, except Herbert Tanerton’s: as to his face — well, you might have thought he was perpetually saying “For what we are going to receive ——” It had struck eight ever so long when the last nut was eaten.
“Will you run over with me to my aunt’s, Johnny?” whispered Grace as she passed my chair. “I should like to go at once, if you will.”
So I followed her out of the room. She put her wraps on, and we went trudging across the road in the moonlight, over the crunching snow. Grace’s foot went into a soft rut, and she gave a squeal.
“I shall have to borrow a shoe whilst this dries,” said she. “Do you care to come in, Johnny?”
“No, I’ll go back. I can run over for you presently.”
“Don’t do that. One of the servants will see me safe across.”
“All right. Tell Mrs. Coney what a jolly dinner it was. We were all sorry she did not come.”
Grace went in and shut the door. I was rushing back through our own gate, when some tall fellow glided out of the laurels, and put his hand on my arm. The moonlight fell upon his face and its reddish beard — and, to my intense surprise, I recognized Benjamin Rymer. I knew him then for the man who had been dodging in and out of the shrubs the night but one before.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “It is, as I am well aware, a very unusual and unceremonious way of accosting you, or any one else, but I want particularly to speak with you, in private, Mr. Ludlow.”
“You were here on Sunday night!”
“Yes. I saw the Squire and the rest of them go out to church, but I did not see you go, and I was trying to ascertain whether you were at home and alone. Tom Coney’s coming in startled me and sent me away.”
We had been speaking in a low key, but Ben Rymer dropped his to a lower, as he explained. When he went away ten months before, it was in fear and dread that the truth of the escapade he had been guilty of, in regard to the bank-note, was coming out to the world, and that he might be called upon to answer for it. His mother had since assured him he had nothing to fear; but Ben was evidently a cautious man, and preferred to ascertain that fact before showing himself openly at Timberdale. Knowing I was to be trusted not to injure a fellow (as he was pleased to say), he had come down here to ask me my opinion as to whether the Squire would harm him, or not. There was no one else to fear now Jelf was dead.
“Harm you!” I exclaimed in my enthusiasm, my head full of poor, patient Margaret; “why, the Squire would be the very one to hold you free of harm, Mr. Rymer. I remember his saying, at the time, Heaven forbid that he, having sons of his own, should put a stumbling-block in your path, when you were intending to turn over a new leaf. He will help you on, instead of harming you.”
“It’s very good of him,” said Ben. “I was an awful fool, and nothing else. That was the only dangerous thing I ever did, and I have been punished severely for it. I believe it was nothing but the fear and remorse it brought that induced me to pull up, and throw ill ways behind me.”
“I’m sure I am glad that you do,” I answered, for something in Ben’s tone seemed to imply that the bad ways were thrown behind him for good. “Are you thinking of coming back to Timberdale?”
“Not until I shall have passed for a surgeon — which will not be long now. I have been with a surgeon in London as assistant, since I left here. It was a letter from Margaret that induced me to come down. She — do you know anything about her, Mr. Johnny?”
“I know that a parson wants her to go out with him to the Bahamas; he is Tanerton’s curate; and that the pills and powders stand in the way of it.”
“Just so. Is he a good fellow, this parson?”
“Good in himself. Not much to look at.”
“Maggie shall go with him, then. I should be the last to stand willingly in her way. You see, I have not known whether it was safe for me at Timberdale: or I should never have left Maggie to the shop alone. Does any one know of the past — my past — besides you and the Squire?”
“Yes; Herbert Tanerton knows of it; and — and the curate, Mr. Sale.” And I told him what had passed only on the previous day, softening the Rector’s speeches — and it seemed a curious coincidence, taken with this visit of Ben’s, that it should have passed. His mouth fell as he listened.
“It is another mortification for me,” he said. “I should like to have stood as well as might be with Margaret’s husband. Perhaps, knowing this, he will not think more of her.”
“I don’t believe he will let it make any difference. I don’t think he is the man to let it. Perhaps — if you were to go to him — and show him how straight things are with you now — and ——”
I broke down in my hesitating suggestion. Ben was years older than I, miles taller and broader, and it sounded like the mouse attempting to help the lion.
“Yes, I will go to him,” he said slowly. “It is the only plan. And — and you think there’s no fear that Herbert Tanerton will get talking to others?”
“I’m sure there’s none. He is indoors now, dining with us. I am sure you are quite safe in all respects. The thing is buried in the past, and even its remembrance will pass away. The old postman, Lee, thinks it was Cotton; the Squire persuaded him into the belief at the time. Where is Cotton?”
“Where all such rogues deserve to be-transported. But for him and his friends I should never have done much that’s wrong. Thank you for the encouragement you give me.”
He half put out his hand to endorse the thanks, and drew it back again; but I put mine freely into his. Ben Rymer was Ben Rymer, and no favourite of mine to boot; but when a man has been down and is trying to get up again, he deserves respect and sympathy.
“I was about here all last evening, hoping to get sight of you,” he remarked, as he went out at the gate. “I never saw such light nights in all my life as these few last have been, what with the moon and the snow. Good-night, Mr. Johnny. By the way, though, where does the curate live?”
“At Mrs. Boughton’s. Nearly the last house, you know, before you come to the churchyard.”
Ben Rymer went striding towards Timberdale, putting his coat-collar well up, that he might not be recognized when going through the village, and arrived at the curate’s lodgings. Mr. Sale was at home, sitting by the fire in a brown study, that seemed to have no light at all in it. Ben, as I knew later, sat down by him, and made a clean breast of everything: his temptation, his fall, and his later endeavours to do right.
“Please God, I shall get on in the world now,” he said; “and I think make a name in my profession. I don’t wish to boast — and time of course will alone prove it — but I believe I have a special aptitude for surgery. My mother will be my care now; and Margaret — as you are good enough to say you still wish for her — shall be your care in future. There are few girls so deserving as she is.”
“I know that,” said the curate. And he shook Ben’s hand upon it as heartily as though it had been a duke royal’s.
It was close upon ten when Ben left him. Mrs. Rymer about that same time was making her usual preparations before retiring — namely, putting her curls in paper by the parlour fire. Margaret sat at the table, reading the Bible in silence, and so trying to school her aching heart. Her mother had been cross and trying all the evening: which did not mend the inward pain.
“What are you crying for?” suddenly demanded Mrs. Rymer, her sharp eyes seeing a tear fall on the book.
“For nothing,” faintly replied Margaret.
“Nothing! Don’t tell me. You are frizzling your bones over that curate, Sale. I’m sure he is a beauty to look at.”
Margaret made no rejoinder; and just then the young servant put in her head.
“Be there anything else wanted, missis?”
“No,” snapped Mrs. Rymer. “You can be off to bed.”
But, before the girl had shut the parlour-door, a loud ring came to the outer one. Such late summonses were not unusual; they generally meant a prescription to be made up. Whilst the girl went to the door, Margaret closed the Bible, dried her eyes, and rose up to be in readiness.
But instead of a prescription, there entered Mr. Benjamin Rymer. His mother stood up, staring, her hair a mass of white corkscrews. Ben clasped Margaret in his arms, and kissed her heartily.
“My goodness me!” cried Mrs. Rymer. “Is it you, Ben?”
“Yes, it is, mother,” said Ben, turning to her. “Maggie, dear, you look as though you did not know me.”
“Why, what on earth have you come for, in this startling way?” demanded Mrs. Rymer. “I don’t believe your bed’s aired.”
“I’ll sleep between the blankets — the best place to-night. What have I come for, you ask, mother? I have come home to stay.”
Margaret was gazing at him, her mild eyes wide open, a spot of hectic on each cheek.
“For your sake, Maggie,” he whispered, putting his arm round her waist, and bending his great red head (but not so red as his mother’s) down on her. “I shall not much like to lose you, though, my little sister. The Bahamas are further off than I could have wished.”
And, for answer, poor Margaret, what with one thing and another, sank quietly down in her chair, and fainted. Ben strode into the shop — as much at home amongst the bottles as though he had never quitted them — and came back with some sal volatile.
They were married in less than a month; for Mr. Sale’s chaplaincy would not wait for him. The Rector was ailing as usual, or said he was, and Charles Ashton came over to perform the ceremony. Margaret was in a bright dark silk, a light shawl, and a plain bonnet; they were to go away from the church door, and the boxes were already at the station. Ben, dressed well, and looking not unlike a gentleman, gave her away; but there was no wedding-party. Mrs. Rymer stayed at home in a temper, which I dare say nobody regretted: she considered Margaret ought to have remained single. And after a day or two spent in the seaport town they were to sail from, regaling their eyes with the ships crowding the water, the Reverend Isaac Sale and his wife embarked for their future home in the Bahama Isles.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55