“And if I could make sure that you two boys would behave yourselves and give me no trouble, possibly I might take you this year just for a treat.”
“Behave ourselves!” exclaimed Tod, indignantly. “Do you think we are two children, sir?”
“We would be as good as gold, sir,” I added, turning eagerly to the Squire.
“Well, Johnny, I’m not much afraid but that you would. Perhaps I’ll trust you both, then, Joe.”
“Thank you, father.”
“I shall see,” added the pater, thinking it well to put in a little qualification. “It’s not quite a promise, mind. But it must be two or three years now, I think, since you went to them.”
“It seems like six,” said Tod. “I know it’s four.”
We were talking of Worcester Races. At that period they used to take place early in August. Dr. Frost had an unpleasant habit of reassembling his pupils either the race-week or the previous one; and to get over to the races was almost as difficult for Tod and for me as though they had been run in California. To hear the pater say he might perhaps take us this year, just as the Midsummer holidays were drawing to an end, and say it voluntarily, was as good as it was unexpected. He meant it, too; in spite of the reservation: and Dr. Frost was warned that he need not expect us until the race-week was at its close.
The Squire drove into Worcester on the Monday, to be ready for the races on Tuesday morning, with Tod, myself, and the groom — Giles; and put up, as usual, at the Star and Garter. Sometimes he only drove in and back on each of the three race-days; or perhaps on two of them: this he could do very well from Crabb Cot, but it was a good pull for the horses from Dyke Manor. This year, to our intense gratification, he meant to stay in the town.
The Faithful City was already in a bustle. It had put on its best appearance, and had its windows cleaned; some of the shop-fronts were being polished off as we drove slowly up the streets. Families were, like ourselves, coming in: more would come before night. The theatre was open, and we went to it after dinner; and saw, I remember, “Guy Mannering” (over which the pater went to sleep), and an after-piece with a ghost in it.
The next morning I took the nearest way from the hotel to Sansome Walk, and went up it to call on one of our fellows who lived near the top. His friends always let him stay at home for the race-week. A maid-servant came running to answer my knock at the door.
“Is Harry Parker at home?”
“No, sir,” answered the girl, who seemed to be cleaning up for the races on her own account, for her face and arms were all “colly.” “Master Harry have gone down to Pitchcroft, I think.”
“I hope he has gone early enough!” said I, feeling disappointed. “Why, the races won’t begin for hours yet.”
“Well, sir,” she said, “I suppose there’s a deal more life to be seen there than here, though it is early in the day.”
That might easily be. For of all solitary places Sansome Walk was, in those days, the dreariest, especially portions of it. What with the overhanging horse-chestnut trees, and the high dead wall behind those on the one hand, and the flat stretch of lonely fields on the other, Sansome Walk was what Harry Parker used to call a caution. You might pass through all its long length from end to end and never meet a soul.
Taking that narrow by-path on my way back that leads into the Tything by St. Oswald’s Chapel, and whistling a bar of the sweet song I had heard at the theatre overnight, “There’s nothing half so sweet in life as love’s young dream,” some one came swiftly advancing down the same narrow path, and I prepared to back sideways to give her room to pass — a young woman, with a large shabby shawl on, and the remains of faded gentility about her.
It was Lucy Bird! As she drew near, lifting her sad sweet eyes to mine with a mournful smile, my heart gave a great throb of pity. Faded, worn, anxious, reduced! — oh, how unlike she was, poor girl, to the once gay and charming Lucy Ashton!
“Why, Lucy! I did not expect to see you in Worcester! We heard you had left it months ago.”
“Yes, we left last February for London,” she answered. “Captain Bird has only come down for the races.”
As she took her hand from under her shawl to respond to mine, I saw that she was carrying some cheese and a paper of cold cooked meat. She must have been buying the meat at the cook’s shop, as the Worcester people called it, which was in the middle of High Street. Oh! what a change — what a change for the delicately-bred Lucy Ashton! Better that her Master of Ravenswood had buried his horse and himself in the flooded land, as the other one did, than have brought her to this.
“Where are you going to, down this dismal place, Lucy?”
“Home,” she answered. “We have taken lodgings at the top of Sansome Walk.”
“At one of the cottages a little beyond it?”
“Yes, at one of those. How are you all, Johnny? How is Mrs. Todhetley?”
“Oh, she’s first-rate. Got no neuralgia just now.”
“Is she at Worcester?”
“No; at Dyke Manor. She would not come. The Squire drove us in yesterday. We are at the Star.”
“Ah! yes,” she said, her eyes taking a dreamy, far-off look. “I remember staying at the Star myself one race-week. Papa brought me. It was the year I left school. Have you heard or seen anything of my brothers lately, Johnny Ludlow?”
“Not since we were last staying at Crabb Cot. We went to Timberdale Church one day and heard your brother Charles preach; and we dined once with Robert at the Court, and he and his wife came once to dine with us. But — have you not seen your brother James here?”
“No — and I would rather not see him. He would be sure to ask me painful questions.”
“But he is always about the streets here, seeing after his patients, Lucy. I wonder you have not met him.”
“We only came down last Saturday: and I go out as little as I can,” she said; a hesitation in her tone and manner that struck me. “I did think I saw James’s carriage before me just now as I came up the Tything. It turned into Britannia Square.”
“I dare say. We met it yesterday in Sidbury as we drove in.”
“His practice grows large, I suppose. You say Charles was preaching at Timberdale?” she added: “was Herbert Tanerton ill?”
“Yes. Ailing, that is. Your brother came over to take the duty for the day. Will you call at the Star to see the Squire, Lucy? You know how pleased he would be.”
“N— o,” she answered, her manner still more hesitating; and she seemed to be debating some matter mentally. “I— I would have come after dark, had Mrs. Todhetley been there. At least I think I would — I don’t know.”
“You can come all the same, Lucy.”
“But no — that would not have done,” she went on to herself, in a half-whisper. “I might have been seen. It would never have done to risk it. The truth is, Johnny, I ought to see Mrs. Todhetley on a matter of business. Though even if she were here, I do not know that I might dare to see her. It is — not exactly my own business — and — and mischief might come of it.”
“Is it anything I can say to her for you?”
“I— think — you might,” she returned slowly, pausing, as before, between her words. “I know you are to be trusted, Johnny.”
“That I am. I wouldn’t forget a single item of the message.”
“I did not mean in that way. I shall have to entrust to you a private matter — a disagreeable secret. It is a long time that I have wanted to tell some of you; ever since last winter: and yet, now that the opportunity has come that I may do it, I scarcely dare. The Squire is hasty and impulsive, his son is proud; but I think I may confide in you, Johnny.”
“Only try me, Lucy.”
“Well, I will. I will. I know you are true as steel. Not this morning, for I cannot stop — and I am not prepared. Let me see: where shall we meet again? No, no, Johnny, I cannot venture to the hotel: it is of no use to suggest that.”
“Shall I come to your lodgings?”
She just shook her head by way of dissent, and remained in silent thought. I could not imagine what it was she had to tell me that required all this preparation; but it came into my mind to be glad that I had chanced to go that morning to Harry Parker’s.
“Suppose you meet me in Sansome Walk this afternoon, Johnny Ludlow? Say at”— considering —“yes, at four o’clock. That will be a safe hour, for they will be on the racecourse and out of the way. People will, I mean,” she added hastily: but somehow I did not think she had meant people. “Can you come?”
“I will manage it.”
“And, if you don’t meet me at that time — it is just possible that I may be prevented coming out — I will be there at eight o’clock this evening instead,” she continued. “That I know I can do.”
“Very well. I’ll be sure to be there.”
Hardly waiting another minute to say good-morning, she went swiftly on. I began wondering what excuse I could make for leaving the Squire’s carriage in the midst of the sport, and whether he would let me leave it.
But the way for that was paved without any effort of mine. At the early lunch, the Squire, in the openness of his heart, offered a seat in the phaeton to some old acquaintance from Martley. Which of course would involve Tod’s sitting behind with me, and Giles’s being left out altogether.
“Catch me at it,” cried Tod. “You can do as you please, Johnny: I shall go to the course on foot.”
“I will also,” I said — though you, naturally, understand that I had never expected to sit elsewhere than behind. And I knew it would be easier for me to lose Tod in the crowd, and so get away to keep the appointment, than it would have been to elude the Squire’s questioning as to why I could want to leave the carriage.
Lunch over, Tod said he would go to the Bell, to see whether the Letstoms had come in; and we started off. No; the waiter had seen nothing of them. Onwards, down Broad Street we went, took the Quay, and so got on that way to Pitchcroft — as the racecourse is called. The booths and shows were at this end, and the chief part of the crowd. Before us lay stretched the long expanse of the course, green and level as a bowling-green. The grand-stand (comparatively speaking a new erection there) lay on the left, higher up, the winning-chair and distance-post facing it. Behind the stand, flanking all that side of Pitchcroft, the beautiful river Severn flowed along between its green banks, the houses of Henwick, opposite, looking down upon it from their great height, over their sloping gardens. It was a hot day, the blue sky dark and cloudless.
“True and correct card of all the running horses, gentlemen: the names, weights, and colours o’ the riders!” The words, echoing on all sides from the men who held these cards for sale, are repeated in my brain now; as are other sounds and sights. I was somewhat older then than I had been; but it was not very long since those shows, ranged round there side by side, a long line of them, held the greatest attraction for me in life. “Guy Mannering,” the past night, had been very nice to see, very enjoyable; but it possessed not the nameless charm of that first “play” I went to in Scowton’s Show on the racecourse. That charm could never come again. And I was but a lad yet.
The lightning with which the play opened had been real lightning to me; the thunder, real thunder. The gentleman who stood, when the curtain rose, gorgeously attired in a scarlet doublet slashed with gold (something between a king and a bandit), with uplifted face of terror and drawn sword, calling the war of the elements “tremendious,” was to me a greater potentate than the world could almost contain! The young lady, his daughter, in ringlets and spangles, who came flying on in the midst of the storm, and fell at his feet, with upraised arms and a piteous appeal, “Alas! my father, and will you not consent to my marriage with Alphonso?” seemed more lovely to me than the Sultanas in the “Arabian Nights,” or the Princesses in Fairyland. I sat there entranced and speechless. A new world had opened to me — a world of delight. For weeks and weeks afterwards, that play, with its wondrous beauties, its shifting scenes, was present to me sleeping and waking.
The ladies in spangles, the gentlemen in slashed doublets, were on the platforms of their respective shows today, dancing for the benefit of Pitchcroft. Now and again a set would leave off, the music ceasing also, to announce that the performance was about to commence. I am not sure but I should have gone up to see one, but for the presence of Tod and Harry Parker — whom we had met on the course. There were learned pigs, and spotted calves, and striped zebras; and gingerbread and cake stalls; and boat-swings and merry-go-rounds — which had made me frightfully sick once when Hannah let me go in one. And there was the ever-increasing throng, augmenting incessantly; carriages, horsemen, shoals of foot-passengers; conjurers and fortune-tellers; small tables for the game of “thimble-rig,” their owners looking out very sharply for the constables who might chance to be looking for them; and the movable exhibitions of dancing dolls and Punch and Judy. Ay, the sounds and the sights are in my brain now. The bands of the different shows, mostly attired in scarlet and gold, all blowing and drumming as hard as they could blow and drum; the shouted invitations to the admiring spectators, “Walk up, ladies and gentlemen, the performance is just a-going to begin;” the scraping of the blind fiddlers; the screeching of the ballad-singers; the sudden uproar as a stray dog, attempting to cross the course, is hunted off it; the incessant jabber and the Babel of tongues; and the soft roll of wheels on the turf.
Hark! The bell rings for the clearing of the course. People know what it means, and those who are cautious hasten at once to escape under the cords on either side. The gallop of a horse is heard, its rider, in his red coat and white smalls, loudly smacking his whip to effect the clearance. The first race is about to begin. All the world presses towards the environs of the grand-stand to get a sight of the several horses entered for it. Here they come; the jockeys in their distinguishing colours, trying their horses in a brisk canter, after having been weighed in the paddock. A few minutes, and the start is effected; they are off!
It is only a two-mile heat. The carriages are all drawn up against the cords; the foot-passengers press it; horsemen get where they can. And now the excitement is at its height; the rush of the racers coming in to the winning-post breaks on the ear. They fly like the wind.
At that moment I caught sight of the sharply eager face of a good-looking, dashing man, got up to perfection — you might have taken him for a lord at least. Arm-inarm with him stood another, well-got-up also, as a sporting country gentleman; he wore a green cut-away coat, top-boots, and a broad-brimmed hat which shaded his face. If I say “got-up,” it is because I knew the one, and I fancied I knew the other. But the latter’s face was partly turned from me, and hidden, as I have said, by the hat. Both watched the swiftly-coming racehorses with ill-concealed anxiety: and both, as well-got-up gentlemen at ease, strove to appear indifferent.
“Tod, there’s Captain Bird.”
“Captain Bird! Where? You are always fancying things, Johnny.”
“A few yards lower down. Close to the cords.”
“Oh, be shot to the scoundrel, and so it is! What a swell! Don’t bother. Here they come.”
“Blue cap wins!” “No! red sleeves gains on him!” “Yellow stripes is first!” “Pink jacket has it!” “By Jove! the bay colt is distanced!” “Purple wins by a neck!”
With a hubbub of these different versions from the bystanders echoing on our ears, the horses flew past in a rush and a whirl. Black cap and white jacket was the winner.
Amidst the crowding and the pushing and the excitement that ensued, I tried to get nearer to Captain Bird. Not to see him: it was impossible to look at him with any patience and contrast his dashing appearance with that of poor, faded Lucy’s: but to see the other man. For he put me in mind of the gentleman-detective Eccles, who had loomed upon us at Crabb Cot that Sunday afternoon in the past winter, polished off the sirloin of beef, crammed the Squire with anecdotes of his college life, and finally made off with the other earring.
You can turn back to the paper called “Mrs. Todhetley’s Earrings,” and recall the circumstances. How she lost an earring out of her ear: a pink topaz encircled with diamonds. It was supposed a tramp had picked it up; and the Squire went about it to the police at Worcester. On the following Sunday a gentleman called introducing himself as Mr. Eccles, a private detective, and asking to look at the other earring. The Squire was marvellously taken with him, ordered in the beef, not long gone out from the dinner, and was as eager to entrust the earring to him as he was to take it. That Eccles had been a gentleman once — at least, that he had mixed with gentlemen, was easy to be seen: and perhaps had also been an Oxford man, as he asserted; but he was certainly a swindler now. He carried off the earring; and we had never seen him, or it, from that day to this. But I did think I saw him now on the racecourse. In the side face, and the tall, well-shaped figure of the top-booted country gentleman, with the heavy bunch of seals hanging from his watch-chain, who leaned on that man Captain Bird’s arm, there was a great resemblance to him. The other earring, lost first, was found in the garden under a small fir-tree when the snow melted away, where it must have dropped unseen from Mrs. Todhetley’s ear, as she stopped in the path to shake the snow from the tree.
But the rush of people sweeping by was too great. Captain Bird and he were nowhere to be seen. In the confusion also I lost Tod and Harry Parker. The country gentleman I meant to find if I could, and went looking about for him.
The carriages were coming away from their standing-places near the ropes to drive about the course, as was the custom in those days. Such a thing as taking the horses out of a carriage and letting it stay where it was until the end of the day was not known on Worcester racecourse. You might count the carriages-and-four there then, their inmates exchanging greetings with each other in passing, as they drove to and fro. It was a sight to see the noblemen’s turn-outs; the glittering harness, the array of servants in their sumptuous liveries; for they came in style to the races. The meeting on the course was the chief local event of the year, when all the county assembled to see each other and look their best.
“Will you get up now, Johnny?”
The soft bowling of the Squire’s carriage-wheels arrested itself, as he drew up to speak to me. The Martley old gentleman sat with him, and there was a vacant place by Giles behind.
“No, thank you, sir. I would rather be on foot.”
“As you will, lad. Is your watch safe?”
“Somewhere about. He is with Harry Parker. I have only just missed them.”
“Missed them! Oh, and I suppose you are looking for them. A capital race, that last.”
“Mind you take care of yourself, Johnny,” he called back, as he touched up Bob and Blister, to drive on. I generally did take care of myself, but the Squire never forgot to remind me to do it.
The afternoon went on, and my search with it in the intervals of the racing. I could see nothing of those I wanted to see, or of Tod and Harry Parker. Our meeting, or not meeting, was just a chance, amidst those crowds and crowds of human beings, constantly moving. Three o’clock had struck, and as soon as the next race should be over — a four-mile heat — it would be nearly time to think about keeping my appointment with Lucy Bird.
And now once more set in all the excitement of the running. A good field started for the four-mile heat, more horses than had run yet.
I liked those four-mile heats on Worcester racecourse: when we watched the jockeys in their gay and varied colours twice round the course, describing the figure of eight, and coming in, hot and panting, at the end. The favourites this time were two horses named “Swallower” and “Master Ben.” Each horse was well liked: and some betters backed one, some the other. Now they are off!
The running began slowly and steadily; the two favourites just ahead; a black horse (I forget his name, but his jockey wore crimson and purple) hanging on to them; most of the other horses lying outside. The two kept together all the way, and as they came in for the final run the excitement was intense.
“Swallower has it by a neck!” “No! Master Ben heads him!” “Ben wins! Swallower loses!” “Swallower has it! Ben’s jockey is beat!” and so on, and so on. Amidst the shouts and the commotion the result was announced — a dead heat.
So the race must be run again. I looked at my watch (which you may be sure I had kept carefully buttoned up under my jacket), wondering whether I could stay for it. That was uncertain; there was no knowing how long an interval would be allowed for breathing-time.
Suddenly there arose a frightful commotion above all the natural commotion of the course. People rushed towards one point; horsemen galloped thither, carriages bowled cautiously in their wake. The centre of attraction appeared to be on the banks of the river, just beyond the grand-stand. What was it? What had occurred? The yells were deafening; the pushing fearful. At last the cause was known: King Mob was ducking some offender in the Severn.
To get near, so as to see anything of the fun, was impossible; it was equally impossible to gather what he had done; whether picked a pocket, or cheated at betting. Those are the two offences that on Pitchcroft were then deemed deserving of the water. This time, I think, it was connected with betting.
Soon the yells became louder and nearer. Execrations filled the air. The crowd opened, and a wretched-looking individual emerged out of it on the hard run, his clothes dripping, his hair hanging about his face like rat’s tails.
On he came, the mob shouting and hallooing in his wake, and brushed close past me. Why! it was surely the country gentleman I had seen with Bird! I knew him again at once. But whether it was the man Eccles or not, I did not see; he tore by swiftly, his head kept down. A broad-brimmed hat came flying after him, propelled by the feet of the crowd. He stooped to catch it up, and then kept on his way right across the course, no doubt to make his escape from it. Yes, it was the same man in his top-boots. I was sure of that. Scampering close to his heels, fretting and yelling furiously, was a half-starved white dog with a tin kettle tied to its tail. I wondered which of the two was the more frightened — the dog or the man.
And standing very nearly close to me, as I saw then, was Captain Bird. Not running, not shouting; simply looking on with a countenance of supreme indifference, that seemed to express no end of languid contempt of the fun. Not a sign of recognition crossed his face as the half-drowned wight swept past him: no one could have supposed he ever set eyes on him before. And when the surging crowd had passed, he sauntered away in the direction of the saddling-place.
But I lost the race. Though I stayed a little late, hoping to at last see the horses come out for the second start, and to count how many of the former field would compete for it, the minutes flew all too swiftly by, and I had to go, and to put the steam on. Making a bolt across Pitchcroft and up Salt Lane, went I, full split, over the Tything, and so down to Sansome Walk. St. Oswald’s clock was tinkling out four as I reached it.
Lucy did not come. She had indicated the spot where the meeting should be; and I waited there, making the best I could of it; cooling myself, and looking out for her. At half-past four I gave her up in my own mind; and when five o’clock struck, I knew it was useless to stay longer. So I began to take my way back slower than I had come; and on turning out by St. Oswald’s, I saw the carriages and people flocking up on their way from Pitchcroft. The first day’s racing was over.
There was a crowd at the top of Salt Lane, and I had to wait before I could get across. In the wake of a carriage-and-four that was turning out of it came Captain Bird, not a feather of his plumage ruffled, not a speck (except dust) on his superfine coat, not a wristband soiled. He had not been ducked, if his friend had.
“How d’ye do, Master Ludlow?” said he, with a grandly patronizing air, and a flourish of his cane, as if it were a condescension to notice me. And I answered him civilly; though he must have been aware I knew what a scamp he was.
“I wish he’d steal away to America some moonlight night,” ran my thoughts, “and leave poor Lucy in peace.”
The Squire’s carriage dashed up to the hotel as I reached it, Tod sitting behind with Giles. I asked which of the two horses had won. Swallower: won by half-a-neck. The Squire was in a glow of satisfaction, boasting of the well-contested race.
And now, to make things intelligible, I must refer again for a minute or two to that past paper. It may be remembered that when “Detective Eccles” called on us that Sunday afternoon, asking to look at the fellow-earring to the one lost, Mrs. Todhetley had gone in to the Coneys’, and the Squire sent me for her. When I arrived there, Lucy Bird was in the drawing-room alone, the mater being upstairs with Mrs. Coney. Poor Lucy told me she had been spending a day or two at Timberdale Court (her happy childhood’s home), and had come over to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Coney, who were always kind to her, she added with a sigh; but she was going back to Worcester by the next train. I told her what I had come for — of the detective’s visit and his request to see the other earring. Mrs. Todhetley felt nervous at meeting a real live detective, and asked me no end of questions as to what this particular one was like. I said he was no tiger to be afraid of, and described him as well as I could: a tall, slender, gentlemanly man, well-dressed; gold studs, a ring on his finger, a blue necktie, and a black moustache. Lucy (I had noticed at the time) seemed struck with the description; but she made no remark. Before we turned in at our gate we saw her leave the Coneys’ house, and come stepping through the snow on her way to the station. Since then, until now, we had not seen anything of Lucy Bird.
The stars flickered through the trees in Sansome Walk as I turned into it. A fine trouble I had had to come! Some entertainment was in full swing that evening at the Saracen’s Head — a sort of circus, combined with rope-dancing. Worcester would be filled with shows during the race-week (I don’t mean those on Pitchcroft), and we went to as many as we could get money for. We had made the bargain with Harry Parker on the course to go to this one, and during the crowded dinner Tod asked the Squire’s leave. He gave it with the usual injunctions to take care of ourselves, and on condition that we left our watches at home. So, there I was in a fix; neither daring to say at the dinner-table that I could not go, nor daring to say what prevented it, for Lucy had bound me to secrecy.
“What time is this thing going to be over to-night, Joe?” had questioned the Squire, who was drinking port wine with some more old gentlemen at one end of the table, as we rose to depart.
“Oh, I don’t know,” answered Tod. “About ten o’clock, I dare say.”
“Well, mind you come straight home, you two. I won’t have you getting into mischief. Do you hear, Johnny?”
“What mischief do you suppose, sir, we are likely to get into?” fired Tod.
“I don’t know,” answered the Squire. “When I was a young lad — younger than you — staying here for the races with my father — but we stayed at the Hop-pole, next door, which was the first inn then — I remember we were so wicked one night as to go about ringing and knocking at all the doors ——”
“You and your father, sir?” asked Tod, innocently.
“My father! no!” roared the Squire. “What do you mean, Joe? How dare you! My father go about the town knocking at doors and ringing at bells! How dare you suggest such an idea! We left my father, sir, at the hotel with his friends at their wine, as you are leaving me with my friends here now. It was I and half-a-dozen other young rascals who did it — more shame for us. I can’t be sure how many bell-wires we broke. The world has grown wiser since then, though I don’t think it’s better; and — and mind you walk quietly home. Don’t get into a fight, or quarrel, or anything of that kind. The streets are sure to be full of rough people and pickpockets.”
Harry Parker was waiting for us in the hotel gateway. He said he feared we should be late, and thought we must have been eating dinner for a week by the time we took over it.
“I’m not coming with you, Tod,” I said; “I’ll join you presently.”
Tod turned round and faced me. “What on earth’s that for, Johnny?”
“Oh, nothing. I’ll come soon. You two go on.”
“Suppose you don’t get a place!” cried Parker to me.
“Oh, I shall get one fast enough: it won’t be so crowded as all that.”
“Now, look here, lad,” said Tod, with his face of resolution; “you are up to some dodge. What is it?”
“My head aches badly,” I said — and that was true. “I can’t go into that hot place until I have had a spell of fresh air. But I shall be sure to join you later, if I can.”
My headaches were always allowed. I had them rather often. Not the splitting, roaring pain that Tod would get in his head on rare occasions, once a twelvemonth, or so, when anything greatly worried him; but bad enough in all conscience. He said no more; and set off with Harry Parker up the street towards the Saracen’s Head.
The stars were flickering through the trees in Sansome Walk, looking as bright as though it were a frosty night in winter. It was cool and pleasant: the great heat of the day — which must have given me my headache — had passed. Mrs. Bird was already at the spot. She drew me underneath the trees on the side, looking up the walk as though she feared she had been followed. A burst of distant music crashed out and was borne towards us on the air: the circus band, at the Saracen’s Head. Lucy still glanced back the way she had come.
“Are you afraid of anything, Lucy?”
“There is no danger, I believe,” she answered; “but I cannot help being timid: for, if what I am doing were discovered, I— I— I don’t know what they would do to me.”
“You did not come this afternoon.”
“No. I was very sorry, but I could not,” she said, as we paced slowly about, side by side. “I had my shawl and bonnet on, when Edwards came in-a friend of my husband’s, who is staying with him. He had somehow got into the Severn, and looked quite an object, his hair and clothes dripping wet, and his forehead bruised.”
“Why, Lucy, he was ducked!” I cried excitedly. “I saw it all. That is, I saw the row; and I saw him when he made his escape across Pitchcroft. He had on a smart green cut-away coat, and top-boots.”
“Yes, yes,” she said; “I was sure it was something of that kind. When my husband came home later they were talking together in an undertone, Edwards cursing some betting-man, and Captain Bird telling Edwards that it was his own fault for not being more cautious. However, I could not come out, Johnny, though I knew you were waiting for me. Edwards asked, as impertinently as he dared, where I was off to. To buy some tea, I answered, but that it did not matter particularly, as I had enough for the evening. They think I have come out to buy it now.”
“Do you mean to say, Lucy, that Captain Bird denies you free liberty? — watches you as a cat does a mouse?”
“No, no; you must not take up wrong notions of my husband, Johnny Ludlow. Bad though the estimation in which he is held by most people is, he has never been really unkind to me. Trouble, frightful trouble he does bring upon me, for I am his wife and have to share it, but personally unkind to me he has never yet been.”
“Well, I should think it unkind in your place, if I could not go out when I pleased, without being questioned. What do they suspect you would be after?”
“It is not Captain Bird; it is Edwards. As to what he suspects, I am sure he does not know himself; but he seems to be generally suspicious of every one, and he sees I do not like him. I suppose he lives in general fear of being denounced to the police, for he is always doing what he calls ‘shady’ things; but he must know that he is safe with us. I heard him say to my husband the day before we left London, ‘Why do you take your wife down?’ Perhaps he thinks my brothers might be coming to call on me, and of course he does not want attention drawn to the place he may chance to be located in, whether here or elsewhere.”
“What is his name, Lucy?”
“His name? Edwards.”
“It’s not Eccles, is it?”
She glanced quickly round as we walked, searching my face in the dusk.
“Why do you ask that?”
“Because, when I first saw him today on the racecourse with Captain Bird, he put me in mind of the fine gentleman who came to us that Sunday at Crabb Cot, calling himself Detective Eccles, and carried off Mrs. Todhetley’s other earring.”
Mrs. Bird looked straight before her, making no answer.
“You must remember that afternoon, Lucy. When I ran over to old Coney’s for Mrs. Todhetley, you were there, you know; and I told you all about the earrings and the detective officer, then making his dinner of cold beef at our house while he waited for the mother to come home and produce the earring. Don’t you remember? You were just going back to Worcester.”
Still she said not a word.
“Lucy, I think it is the same man. Although his black moustache is gone, I feel sure it is he. The face and the tall slender figure are just like his.”
“How singular!” she exclaimed, in a low tone to herself. “How strangely things come about!”
“But is it Eccles?”
“Johnny Ludlow,” she said, catching my arm, and speaking in an excited, breathless whisper, “if you were to bring harm on me — that is, on him or on my husband through me, I should pray to die.”
“But you need not be afraid. Goodness me, Lucy! don’t you know that I wouldn’t bring harm on any one in the world, least of all on you? Why, you said to me this morning that I was true as steel.”
“Yes, yes,” she said, bursting into tears. “We have always been good friends, have we not. Johnny, since you, a little mite of a child in a tunic and turned-down frill, came to see me one day at school, a nearly grown-up young lady, and wanted to leave me your bright sixpence to buy gingerbread? Oh, Johnny, if all people were only as loyal and true-hearted as you are!”
“Then, Lucy, why need you doubt me?”
“Do you not see the shadows of those leaves playing on the ground cast by the light of that gas-lamp?” she asked. “Just as many shadows, dark as those, lie in the path of my life. They have taught me to fear an enemy where I ought to look for a friend; they have taught me that life is so full of unexpected windings and turnings, that we know not one minute what new fear the next may bring forth.”
“Well, Lucy, you need not fear me. I have promised you to say nothing of having met you here; and I will say nothing, or of what you tell me.”
“Promise it me again, Johnny. Faithfully.”
Just a shade of vexation crossed me that she should think it needful to reiterate this; but I would not let my face or voice betray it.
“I promise it again, Lucy. Faithfully and truly.”
“Ever since last winter I have wanted to hold communication with one of you at your home, and to restore something that had been lost. But it had to be done very, very cautiously, without bringing trouble on me or on any one connected with me. Many a solitary hour, sitting by myself in our poor lodgings in London, have I deliberated whether I might venture to restore this, and how it was to be done: many a sleepless night have I passed, dwelling on it. Sometimes I thought I would send it anonymously by the post, but it might have been stolen by the way; sometimes it would occur to me to make a parcel of it and despatch it in that way. I never did either. I waited until some chance should bring me again near Mrs. Todhetley. But today I saw that it would be better to trust you. She is true also, and kind; but she might not be able to keep the secret from the Squire, and he — he would be sure to betray it, though perhaps not intentionally, to all Timberdale, and there’s no knowing what mischief might come of it.”
Light flashed upon me as she spoke. As surely as though it were already before me in black and white, I knew what she was about to disclose.
“Lucy, it is the lost earring! The man staying with you is Eccles.”
“Hush!” she whispered in extreme terror, for a footstep suddenly sounded close to us. Lucy glided behind the tree we were passing, which in a degree served to hide her. How timid she was! — what induced it?
The intruder was a shop-boy with an apron on, carrying a basket of grocery parcels to one of the few houses higher up. He turned his head and gave us a good stare, probably taking us for a pair of lovers enjoying a stolen ramble by starlight. Setting up a shrill whistle, he passed on.
“I don’t know what has come to me lately; my heart seems to beat at nothing,” said poor Mrs. Bird, coming from behind the tree with her hand to her side. “And it was doubly foolish of me to go there; better that I had kept quietly walking on with you, Johnny.”
“What is it that you are afraid of, Lucy?”
“Only of their seeing me; seeing me with you. Were they to do so, and it were to come out that the earring had been returned, they would know I had done it. They suspected me at the time — at least, Edwards did. For it is the earring I am about to restore to you, Johnny.”
She put a little soft white paper packet in my hand, that felt as if it had wool inside it. I hardly knew whether I was awake or asleep. The beautiful earring that we had given up for good, come back again! And the sound of the drums and trumpets burst once more upon our ears.
“You will give it to Mrs. Todhetley when you go home, Johnny. And I must leave it to your discretion to tell her what you think proper of whence you obtained it. Somewhat of course you must tell her, but how much or how little I leave with you. Only take care you bring no harm upon me.”
“I am sure, Lucy, that Mrs. Todhetley may be trusted.”
“Very well. Both of you must be secret as the grave. It is for my sake, tell her, that I implore it. Perhaps she will keep the earring by her for a few months, saying nothing, so that this visit of ours into Worcestershire may be quite a thing of the past, and no suspicion, in consequence of it, as connected with the earring, may arise in my husband’s mind. After that, when months have elapsed, she must contrive to let it appear that the earring is then, in some plausible way or other, returned to her.”
“Rely upon it, we will take care. It will be managed very easily. But how did you get the earring, Lucy?”
“It has been in my possession ever since the night of the day you lost it; that Sunday afternoon, you know. I have carried it about with me everywhere.”
“Do you mean carried it upon you?”
“Yes; upon me.”
“I wonder you never lost it — a little thing like this!” I said, touching the soft packet that lay in my jacket pocket.
“I could not lose it,” she whispered. “It was sewn into my clothes.”
“But, Lucy, how did you manage to get it?”
She gave me the explanation in a few low, rapid words, glancing about her as she did it. Perhaps I had better repeat it in my own way; and to do that we must go back to the Sunday afternoon. At least, that will render it more intelligible and ship-shape. But I did not learn one-half of the details then; no, nor for a long time afterwards. And so, we go back again in imagination to the time of that January day, when we were honoured by the visit of “Detective Eccles,” and the snow was lying on the ground, and Farmer Coney’s fires were blazing hospitably.
Lucy Bird quitted the warm fires and her kind friends, the Coneys, and followed us out — me and Mrs. Todhetley — she saw us turn in at our own gate, and then she picked her way through the snow to the station at South Crabb. It was a long walk for her in that inclement weather; but she had been away from home (if the poor lodgings they then occupied in Worcester could be called home) two days, and was anxious to get back again. During her brief absences from it, she was always haunted by the fear of some ill falling on that precious husband of hers, Captain Bird; but he was nothing but an excaptain, as you know. All the way to the station she was thinking about the earrings, and of my description of Detective Eccles. The description was exactly that of her husband’s friend, Edwards, both as to person and dress; not that she supposed it could be he. When she left Worcester nearly two days before, Edwards had just arrived. She knew him to be an educated man, of superior manners, and full of anecdote, when he chose, about college life. Like her husband, he had, by recklessness and ill-conduct, sunk lower and lower in the world, until he had to depend on “luck” or “chance” for a living.
Barely had Lucy reached the station, walking slowly, when the train shot in. She took her seat; and, after a short halt the train moved on again. At that moment there strode into the station that self-same man, Edwards, who began shouting furiously for the train to stop, putting up his hands, running and gesticulating. The train declined to stop; trains generally do decline to stop for late passengers, however frantically adjured; and Edwards was left behind. His appearance astonished Lucy considerably. Had he, in truth, been passing himself off as a detective officer to Squire Todhetley? If so, with what motive? Lucy could not see any motive, and still thought it could not be; that Edwards must be over here on some business of his own. The matter passed from her mind as she drew near Worcester, and reached their lodgings, which were down Lowesmoor way.
Experience had taught Lucy not to ask questions. She was either not answered at all, or the answer would be sure to give her trouble. Captain Bird had grown tolerably careless as to whether his hazardous doings reached, or did not reach, the ears of his wife, but he did not willingly tell her of them. She said not a word of having seen Edwards, or of what she had heard about the loss of Mrs. Todhetley’s earring, or of the detective’s visit to Crabb Cot. Lucy’s whole life was one of dread and fear, and she never knew whether any remark of hers might not bear upon some dangerous subject. But while getting the tea, she did just inquire after Edwards.
“Has Edwards left?” she asked carelessly.
“No,” replied Captain Bird, who was stretched out before the fire in his slippers, smoking a long pipe, and drinking spirits. “He is out on the loose, though, somewhere, today.”
It was late at night when Edwards entered. He was in a rage. Trains did not run frequently on Sundays, and he had been kept all that time at South Crabb Junction, waiting for one. Lucy went upstairs to bed, leaving Edwards and her husband drinking brandy-and-water. Both of them had had quite enough already.
The matter of the earrings and the doubt whether Mr. Edwards had been playing at amateur detectiveship would have ended there, but for the accident of Lucy’s having to come downstairs again for the small travelling-bag in which she had carried her combs and brushes. She had put it just inside the little back parlour, where a bed on chairs had been extemporized for Edwards, their lodgings not being very extensive. Lucy was picking up the bag in the dark, when some words in the sitting-room caught her ear; the door between the two rooms being partly open. Before a minute elapsed she had heard too much. Edwards, in a loud, gleeful, boasting tone, was telling how he had been acting the detective, and done the old Squire and his wife out of the other earring. Lucy, looking in through the opening, saw him holding it up; she saw the colours of the long pink topaz, and the diamonds flash in the candle-light.
“I thought I could relieve them of it,” he said. “When I read that advertisement in the paper, it struck me there might be a field open to do a little stroke of business; and I’ve done it.”
“You are a fool for your pains,” growled Captain Bird. “There’s sure to be a row.”
“The row won’t touch me. I’m off to London tomorrow morning, and the earring with me. I wonder what the thing will turn us in? Twenty pounds. There, put it in the box, Bird, and get out the dice.”
The dice on a Sunday night!
Lucy felt quite sick as she went back upstairs. What would be the end of all this? Not of this one transaction in particular, but of all the other disgraceful transactions with which her husband was connected? It might come to some public exposure, some criminal trial at the Bar of Justice; and of that she had a horrible dread ever haunting her like a nightmare.
She undressed, and went to bed. One hour passed, two hours passed, three hours passed. Lucy turned and turned on her uneasy pillow, feeling ready to die. Besides her own anguish arising from their share in it, she was dwelling on the shameful wrong it did their kind friends at Crabb Cot.
The fourth hour was passing. Captain Bird had not come up, and Lucy grew uneasy on that score. Once, when he had taken too much (but as a general rule the excaptain’s delinquencies did not lie in that direction), he had set his shirt-sleeve on fire, and burnt his hands badly in putting it out. Slipping out of bed, Lucy put on her slippers and the large old shawl, and crept down to see after him.
Opening the sitting-room door very softly, she looked in. The candles were alight still, but had burnt nearly down to the socket; the dice and some cards were scattered on the table.
Edwards lay at full length on the old red stuff sofa; Captain Bird had thrown himself outside the bed in the other room, the door of which was now wide open, neither of them having undressed. That both were wholly or partially intoxicated, Lucy felt not a doubt of.
Well, she could only leave them as they were. They would come to no harm asleep. Neither would the candles: which must soon burn themselves out. Lucy was about to shut the door again, when her eye fell on the little pasteboard box that contained the earring.
Without a moment’s reflection, acting on the spur of impulse, she softly stepped to the table, lifted the lid, and took the earring out.
“I will remedy the wrong they have done Mrs. Todhetley,” she said to herself. “They will never suspect me.”
Up in her room again, she lighted her candle and looked about for some place to conceal the earring; and, just as the idea to secure it had come unbidden to her, so did that of a safe place of concealment. With feverish hands she undid a bit of the quilting of her petticoat, one that she had but just made for herself out of an old merino gown, slipped the earring into the wadding, and sewed it up again. It could neither be seen nor suspected there; no, nor even felt, let the skirt be examined as it might. That done, poor Lucy went to bed again and at length fell asleep.
She was awakened by a commotion. It was broad daylight, and her husband (not yet as sober as he might be) was shaking her by the arm. Edwards was standing outside the door, calling out to know whether Mrs. Bird had “got it.”
“What is the matter, George?” she cried, starting up in a fright, and for the moment completely forgetting where she was, for she had been aroused from a vivid dream of Timberdale.
“Have you been bringing anything up here from the sitting-room, Lucy?” asked Captain Bird.
“No, nothing,” she replied promptly, and he saw that she spoke with truth. For Lucy’s recollection had not come to her; she remembered nothing yet about the earring.
“There’s something missing,” said Captain Bird, speaking thickly.
“It has disappeared mysteriously off the sitting-room table. You are sure you have not been down and collared it, Lucy?”
The earring and the theft — her own theft — flashed into her memory together. Oh, if she could only avert suspicion from herself! And she strove to call up no end of surprise in her voice.
“Why, how could I have been down, George? Did you not see that I was fast asleep? What have you missed? Some money?”
“Money, no. It was — something of Edwards’s. Had it close by him on the table when he went to sleep, he says — he lay on the sofa last night, and I had his bed — and this morning it was gone. I thought the house was on fire by the way he came and shook me.”
“I’ll look for it when I come down, if you tell me what it is,” said poor Lucy. “How late I have slept! It must have been the cold journey.”
“She has not got it,” said Captain Bird, retreating to his friend outside, and closing the door on Lucy. “Knows nothing about it. Was asleep till I awoke her.”
“Search the room, you fool,” cried the excited Edwards. “I’d never trust the word of a woman. No offence to your wife, Bird, but it is not to be trusted.”
“Rubbish!” said Captain Bird.
“Either she or you must have got it. It could not disappear without hands. The people down below have not been to our rooms, as you must know.”
“She or I— what do you mean by that?” retorted Captain Bird; and a short sharp quarrel ensued. That the captain had not touched the earring, Edwards knew full well. It was Edwards who had helped him to reach the bed the previous night: and since then Bird had been in the deep sleep of stupor. But Edwards did think the captain’s wife had. The result was that Captain Bird reentered; and, ordering Lucy to lie still, he made as exact a search of the room as his semi-sobered faculties allowed. Lucy watched it from her bed. Amidst the general hunting and turning-over of drawers and places, she saw him pick up her gown and petticoats one by one and shake them thoroughly, but he found no signs of the earring.
From that time to this the affair had remained a mystery. There had been no one in the house that night, except the proprietor and his wife, two quiet old people who never concerned themselves with their lodgers. They protested that the street-door had been fast, and that no midnight marauder could have broken in and slipped upstairs to steal a pearl brooch (as Edwards put it) or any other article. So, failing other sources of suspicion, Edwards continued to suspect Lucy. There were moments when Bird did also: though he trusted her, in regard to it, on the whole. At any rate, Lucy was obliged to be most cautious. The quilted skirt had never been off her since, except at night: through the warm genial days of spring and the sultry heat of summer she had worn the clumsy wadded thing constantly: and the earring had never been disturbed until this afternoon.
“You see how it is, Johnny,” she said to me, with one of her long-drawn sighs.
But at that moment the grocer’s young man in the white apron came back down the walk, swinging his empty basket by the handle; and he took another good stare at us in passing.
“I mean as to the peril I should be in if you suffer the restoration of the earring to transpire,” she continued in a whisper, when he was at a safe distance. “Oh, Johnny Ludlow! do you and Mrs. Todhetley take care, for my poor sake.”
“Lucy, you need not doubt either of us,” I said earnestly. “We will be, as you phrased it today, true as steel — and as cautious. Are you going back? Let me walk up to the top with you.”
“No, no; we part here. Seeing us together might arouse some suspicion, and there is no absolute certainty that they may not come out, though I don’t think they will. Edwards is for ever thinking of that earring: he does not feel safe about it, you perceive. Go you that way: I go this. Farewell, Johnny Ludlow; farewell.”
“Good-night, Lucy. I am off to the circus now.”
She went with a brisk step up the walk. I ran out by St. Oswald’s, and so on to the Saracen’s Head. The place was crammed. I could not get near Tod and Harry Parker; but they whistled at me across the sawdust and the fancy steeds performing on it.
We sat together in Mrs. Todhetley’s bedroom at Dyke Manor, the door bolted against intruders: she, in her astonishment at the tale I told, hardly daring to touch the earring. It was Saturday morning; we had come home from Worcester the previous evening; and should now be off to school in an hour. Tod had gone strolling out with the Squire; which gave me my opportunity.
“You see, good mother, how it all is, and the risk we run. Do you know, I had half a mind to keep the earring myself for some months and say never a word to you; only I was not sure of pitching on a safe hiding-place. It would be so dreadful a thing for Lucy Bird if it were to get known.”
“Poor Lucy, poor Lucy!” she said, the tears on her light eyelashes. “Oh, Johnny, if she could only be induced to leave that man!”
“But she can’t, you know. Robert Ashton has tried over and over again to get her back to the Court — and tried in vain. See how it glitters!”
I was holding the earring so that the rays of the sun fell upon it, flashing and sparkling. It seemed more beautiful than it used to be.
“I am very, very glad to have it back, Johnny; the other was useless without it. You have not,” with a tone of apprehension in her voice, “told Joseph?”
I shook my head. The truth was, I had never longed to tell anything so much in my life; for what did I ever conceal from him? It was hard work, I can assure you. The earring burning a hole in my pocket, and I not able to show Tod that it was there!
“And now, mother, where will you put it?”
She rose to unlock a drawer, took from it a small blue box in the shape of a trunk, and unlocked that.
“It is in this that I keep all my little valuables, Johnny. It will be quite safe here. By-and-by we must invent some mode of ‘recovering the earring,’ as poor Lucy said.”
Lifting the lid of a little pasteboard box, she showed me the fellow-earring, lying in a nest of cotton. I took it out.
“Put them both into your ears for a minute, good mother! Do!”
She smiled, hesitated; then took out the plain rings that were in her ears, and put in those of the beautiful pink topaz and diamonds. Going to the glass to look at herself, she saw the Squire and Tod advancing in the distance. It sent us into a panic. Scuffling the earrings out of her ears, she laid them together on the wool in the cardboard box, put the lid on, and folded it round with white paper.
“Light one of the candles on my dressing-table, Johnny. We will seal it up for greater security: there’s a bit of red sealing-wax in the tray.” And I did so at her direction: stamping it with the seal that had been my father’s, and which with his watch they had only recently allowed me to take into wearing.
“There,” she said, “should any one by chance see that packet, though it is not likely, and be curious to know what it contains, I shall say that I cannot satisfy them, as it concerns Johnny Ludlow.”
“Are you upstairs, Johnny? What in the world are you doing there?”
I went leaping down at Tod’s call. All was safe now.
That’s how the other earring came back. And “Eccles” had to be let off scot free. But I was glad he had the ducking.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55