“Johnny, you will have to take the organ on Sunday.”
The words gave me a surprise. I turned short round on the music-stool, wondering whether Mrs. Todhetley spoke in jest or earnest. But her face was quite serious, as she sat, her hands on her lap, and her lame finger — the fore-finger of the left hand — stretched out.
“I take the organ, good mother! What’s that for?”
“Because I was to have taken it, Johnny, and this accident to my finger will prevent it.”
We had just got home to Dyke Manor from school for the Michaelmas holidays. Not a week of them: for this was Wednesday afternoon, and we should go back the following Monday. Mrs. Todhetley had cut her finger very seriously in carving some cold beef on the previous day. Old Duffham had put it into splints.
“Where’s Mr. Richards?” I asked, alluding to the church organist.
“Well, it is rather a long tale, Johnny. A good deal of dissatisfaction has existed, as you know, between him and the congregation.”
“Through his loud playing.”
“Just so. And now he has resigned in a huff. Mr. Holland called yesterday morning to ask if I would help them at the pinch by taking the organ for a Sunday or two, until matters were smoothed with Richards, or some fresh organist was found; and I promised him I would. In the evening, this accident happened to my finger. So you must take it in my place, Johnny.”
“And if I break down?”
“Not you. Why should you?”
“I am out of practice.”
“There’s plenty of time to get up your practice between now and Sunday. Don’t make objections, my dear. We should all do what little we can to help others in a time of need.”
I said no more. As she observed, there was plenty of time between now and Sunday. And, not to lose time, I went off there and then.
The church stood in a lonely spot, as I think you know, and I took the way across the fields to it. Whistling softly, I went along, fixing in my mind upon the chants and hymns. Ours was rather a primitive service. The organ repertoire included only about a dozen chants and double that number of hymns. It had this advantage — that they were all familiar to the congregation, who could join in the singing at will, and the singers had no need to practise. Mr. Richards had lately introduced a different style of music, and it was not liked.
“Let me see: I’ll make it just the opposite of Richards’s. For the morning we will have the thirty-seventh psalm, ‘Depend on God:’ there’s real music in that; and ‘Jerusalem the Golden.’ And for the afternoon, ‘Abide with me,’ and the Evening Hymn. Mornington’s Chant; and the Grand Chant; and the —— Halloa, Fred! Is it you?”
A lithe, straight-limbed young fellow was turning out of the little valley: on his way (as I guessed) from the Parsonage. It was Fred Westerbrook: old Westerbrook’s nephew at the Narrow Dyke Farm — or, as we abbreviated it, the N. D. Farm.
“How are you, Johnny?”
His face and voice were alike subdued as he shook hands. I asked after Mr. and Mrs. Westerbrook.
“They are both well, for anything I know,” he answered. “The N. D. Farm is no longer my home, Johnny.”
Had he told me the Manor was no longer mine, I could not have been more surprised.
“Why, how is that, Fred?”
“They have turned me out of it.”
“What — this morning?”
“This morning — no. Two months ago.”
“And why? I never thought it would come to that.”
“Because they wanted to get rid of me, that’s why. Gisby has been the prime mover in it — the chief snake in the grass. He is worse than she is.”
“And what are you doing?”
“Nothing: except knocking about. I’d be off to America tomorrow and try my luck there if I had a fifty-pound note in my pocket. I went up to the farm last week, and made an appeal to my uncle to help me to it, and be rid of me ——”
“And would he?” I interrupted, too eager to let him finish.
“Would he!” repeated Fred, savagely. “He bade me go to a place unmentionable. He threatened to drive me off the premises if ever I put foot on them again.”
“I am very sorry. What shall you do?” I asked.
“Heaven knows! Perhaps turn poacher.”
“Is it nonsense!” he retorted, taking off his low-crowned hat and passing his hand passionately over his wavy, auburn hair — about the nicest hair I ever saw. People said Fred was proud of it. He was a good-looking young fellow altogether; with a clear, fresh face, and steady grey eyes.
“You don’t know what it is to be goaded, Johnny,” he said. “I can tell you I am ripe for any mischief. And a man must live. But for one thing, I swear I wouldn’t keep straight.”
I knew what thing he meant quite well. “What does she say about it?” I asked.
“What can she say? My uncle has insulted her to her face, and made me out at the Parsonage to be a downright scamp. Oh, I go in for all that’s bad, according to him, I assure you, Johnny Ludlow.”
“Do you never see her?”
“It is chiefly by chance if I do. I have just been up there now, sitting for half-an-hour with her in the old study. There was no opportunity for a private word, though; the young ones were dodging around, playing at ‘Salt Fish’— if you know the delectable game. Good-bye, Johnny lad.”
He strode off with an angry fire in his eye. I felt very sorry for him. We all liked Fred Westerbrook. He had his faults, I suppose, but he was one of the most open-natured fellows in the world.
Dashing in at Clerk Bumford’s for the key of the church, I sat down to the organ: an antiquated instrument, whose bellows were worked by the player’s feet, as are some of the modern harmoniums; but, as far as tone went, it was not bad — rather rich and sweet. All through the practice my mind was running on Fred Westerbrook and his uncle. The parish had said long ago they would come to a blow-up some time.
The N. D. Farm stood about three-quarters of a mile on the other side the church, beyond Mr. Page’s. It had a good house upon it, and consisted of two or three hundred acres of land. But its owner, Mr. Westerbrook, rented a great deal more land that lay contiguous to it, which rendered it altogether one of the most considerable farms round about. Up to fifty years of age, Mr. Westerbrook had not married. Fred, his dead brother’s son, had been adopted by him, and was regarded as his heir. The farm had been owned by the Westerbrooks for untold-of years, and it was not likely a stranger in blood and name would be allowed to inherit it. So Fred had lived there as the son and heir, and been made much of.
But, to the surprise of every one, Mr. Westerbrook took it into his head to marry, although he was fifty years old. It was thought to be a foolish act, and the parish talked freely. She was a widow without children, of a grasping nature, and not at all nice in temper. A high-spirited boy of fourteen, as Fred was, would be hardly likely to get on with her. She interfered with him in the holidays, and thwarted him, and told sneaking tales of him to his uncle. It went on pretty smoothly enough, however, until Fred left school, which he did at eighteen, to take up his abode at home for good and busy himself about the farm. Upon the death of the bailiff some three years later, she sent for one Gisby, from a distance, and got Mr. Westerbrook to instal him in the bailiff’s vacant place. This Gisby was a dark little man of middle age, and was said to be distantly related to her. He proved to be an excellent farmer and manager, and did his duty well; but from the first he and Fred were just at daggers-drawn. Presuming upon his relationship to the mistress, Gisby treated Fred in an off-hand manner, telling him sometimes to do this and not to do the other, as he did the men. Of course, Fred did not stand that, and offered to pitch him into next week unless he kept his place better.
But, as the years went on, the antagonism against Fred penetrated to Mr. Westerbrook. She was always at work with her covert whispers, as was Gisby with his outspoken accusations of him, and with all sorts of tales of his wrong-doing. They had the ear of the master, and Fred could not fight against it. Perhaps he did not try to do so. Whispering, and meanness, and underhand doing of any kind, were foreign to his nature; he was rather too outspoken, and he turned on his enemies freely and gave them plenty of abuse. It was Gisby who first told Mr. Westerbrook of the intimacy, or friendship, or whatever you may please to call it, though I suppose the right word would be love, between Fred and Edna Blake. Edna was one of a large family, and had come, a year or two ago, to live at the Parsonage, being niece to Mrs. Holland, the parson’s wife. Mrs. Holland was generally ill (and frightfully incapable), and Edna had it all on her hands: the housekeeping, and the six unruly children, and the teaching and the mending, and often the cooking. They paid her twenty pounds a-year for it. But she was a charming girl, with one of the sweetest faces ever seen, and the gentlest spirit. Fred Westerbrook had found that out, and the two were deeply in love with one another. Old Mr. Westerbrook went into one of his passions when he heard of it, and swore at Fred. Edna was not his equal, he told him; Fred must look higher: she had no money, and her friends, as was reported, were only tradespeople. Fred retorted that Edna was a mine of wealth and goodness in herself, and he had never troubled himself to ask what her friends might be. However, to make short of the story, matters had grown more unpleasant for Fred day by day, and this appeared to be the end of it, turning him out of house and home. He was just twenty-four now. I don’t wish to imply that Fred was without faults, or that he did nothing to provoke his uncle. He had been wild the last year or two, and tumbled into a few scrapes; but the probability is that he would have kept straight enough under more favourable circumstances. The discomfort at home drove him out, and he got associating with anything but choice company.
Making short work of my playing, I took the key back to Bumford’s, and ran home. Tod was in the dining-room with the mother, and I told them of the meeting with Fred Westerbrook. Mrs. Todhetley seemed to know all about it, and said Fred had been living at the Silver Bear.
“What an awful shame of old Westerbrook!” broke out Tod. “To turn a fellow away from his home!”
“I am afraid there are faults on both sides,” sighed Mrs. Todhetley, in her gentle way. “Fred has not borne a good character of late.”
“And who could expect him to bear a good one?” fired Tod. “If I were turned out like a dog, should I care what I did? No! Old Westerbrook and that precious wife of his ought to be kicked. As to Gisby, the sneak, hanging would be too good for him.”
“Don’t!” retorted Tod. “But I do. They deserve all the abuse that can be given them. I can see her game. She wants Westerbrook to leave the property to her: that’s the beginning and the end of it; and to cut off poor Fred with a shilling.”
“Of course we are all sorry for Fred, Joseph,” resumed the mother. “Very sorry. I know I am. But he need not do reckless things, and lose his good name.”
“Bother his good name!” cried Tod. “Look at their interference about Edna Blake. That news came out when we were at home at Midsummer. Edna is as good as they are.”
“It is a hopeless case, I fear, Joseph. Discarded by his uncle, all his prospects are at an end. He has been all on the wrong track lately, and done many a sad thing.”
“I don’t care what he has done. He has been driven to it. And I’ll stand up for him through thick and thin.”
Tod flung out of the room with the last words. It was just like him, putting himself into a way for nothing. It was like somebody else too — his father. I began telling Mrs. Todhetley of the chants and hymns I had thought of, asking her if they would do.
“None could be better, Johnny. And I only wish you might play for us always.”
A fine commotion arose next morning. We were at breakfast, when Thomas came in to say old Jones, the constable, wanted to see the Squire immediately. Old Jones was bade to enter; he appeared all on the shake, and his face as white as a sheet. There had been murder done in the night, he said. Master Fred Westerbrook had shot Gisby: and he had come to get a warrant signed for Fred’s apprehension.
“Goodness bless me!” cried the Squire, dropping his knife and fork, and turning to face old Jones. “How on earth did it happen?”
“Well, your worship, ’twere a poaching affray,” returned Jones. “Gisby the bailiff have had his suspicions o’ the game, and he went out last night with a man or two, and met the fellows in the open field on this side the copse. There they was, in the bright moonlight, as bold as brass, with a bag o’ game, Master Fred Westerbrook the foremost on ’em. A fight ensued — Gisby don’t want for pluck, he don’t, though he be undersized, and he attacked ’em. Master Fred up with his gun and shot him.”
“Is Gisby dead?”
“No, sir; but he’s a-dying.”
“What a fool that Fred Westerbrook must be!” stormed the Squire. “And I declare I liked the young fellow amazingly! It was only last night, Jones, that we were talking of him here, taking his part against his uncle.”
“He haven’t been after much good, Squire, since he went to live at that there Silver Bear. Not but what the inn’s as respectable ——”
“Respectable! — I should like to know where you would find a more respectable inn, or one better conducted?” put in Tod, with scant ceremony. “What do you mean, old Jones? A gentleman can take up his abode at the Silver Bear, and not be ashamed of it.”
“I have nothing to say again’ it, sir; nor against Rimmer neither. It warn’t the inn I was reflecting on, but on Master Fred himself.”
“Anyway, I don’t believe this tale, Jones.”
“Not believe it!” returned Jones, aghast at the bold assertion. “Why, young Mr. Todhetley, the whole parish is a-ringing with it. There’s Gisby a-dying at Shepherd’s — which was the place he were carried to, being the nearest; and Shepherd himself saw young Mr. Fred fire off the gun.”
“What became of the rascally poachers?” asked the Squire. “Who were they?”
“They got clean off, sir, every one on ’em. And they couldn’t be recognized; they had blackened their faces. Master Fred was the only one who had not disguised hisself, which was just like his boldness. They left the game behind ’em, your worship: a nice lot o’ pheasants and partridges. Pheasants too, the miscreants! — and October not in.”
There was not much more breakfast for us. Tod rushed off, and I after him. As Jones had said, the whole parish was ringing with the news, and we found people standing about in groups to talk. The particulars appeared to be as old Jones had related. Gisby, taking Shepherd — who was herdsman on the N. D. Farm — with him, and another man named Ford, had gone out to watch for poachers; had met half-a-dozen of them, including Fred Westerbrook, and Fred had shot Gisby.
The Silver Bear stood in the middle of Church Dykely, next door to Perkins the butcher’s. It was kept by Henry Rimmer. We made for it, wondering whether Rimmer could tell us anything. He was in the tap-room, polishing the taps.
“Oh, it’s true enough, young gentlemen!” he said, as we burst in upon him with questions. “And a dreadful thing it is. One can’t help pitying young Mr. Westerbrook.”
“Look here, Rimmer: do you believe he did it?”
“Why, in course he did, Master Johnny. There was no difficulty in knowing him: he was the only one of ’em not disguised. Shepherd says the night was as light as day. Gisby and him and Ford all saw young Mr. Westerbrook, and knew him as soon as the lot came in sight.”
“Was he at home here last evening?” asked Tod.
“He was at home here, sir, till after supper. He had been out in the afternoon, and came in to his tea between five and six. Then he stayed in till supper-time, and went out afterwards.”
“Did he come in later?”
“No, never,” replied Rimmer, lowering his voice, as a man sometimes does when speaking very seriously. “He never came in again.”
“They say Gisby can’t recover. Is that true, or not?”
“It is thought he’ll not live through the day, sir.”
“And where can Westerbrook be hiding himself?”
“He’s safe inside the hut of one or other of the poachers, I should say,” nodded the landlord. “Not that that would be safe for him, or for them, if it could be found out who the villains were. I think I could give a guess at two or three of them.”
“So could I,” said Tod. “Dick Standish was one, I know. And Jelf another. Of course, their haunts will be searched. Don’t you think, Rimmer, Mr. Fred Westerbrook would rather make off, than run the risk of concealing himself in any one of them?”
Rimmer shook his head. “I don’t know about that, sir. He might not be able to make off. It’s thought he was wounded.”
“Gisby fired his own gun in the act of falling, and Shepherd thinks the charge hit young Mr. Westerbrook. The poachers were running off then, and Shepherd saw them halt in a kind of heap like, and he is positive that the one on the ground was Mr. Westerbrook. For that reason, sir, I should say the chances are he is somewhere in the neighbourhood.”
Of course it looked like it. Strolling away to pick up anything else that people might be saying, we gave Fred our best wishes for his escape — in spite of the shot — and for effectually dodging old Jones and the rest of the Philistines. Tod made no secret of his sentiments.
“It’s a thing that might have happened to you or to me, you see, Johnny, were we turned out of doors and driven to bay as Fred has been.”
By the afternoon, great staring hand-bills were posted about, written in enormous text-hand, offering a reward of twenty pounds for the apprehension of Frederick Westerbrook. When old Westerbrook was incensed, he went in for the whole thing, and no mistake.
What with the bustle the place was in, and the excitement of the chase — for all the hedges and ditches, the barns and the suspected dwellings were being looked up by old Jones and a zealous crowd, anxious for the reward — it was not until after dinner in the evening that I got away to practice. Going along, I met Duffham, and asked after Gisby.
“I am on my way to Shepherd’s now,” he answered. “I suppose he is still alive, as they have not sent me word to the contrary.”
“Is he sure to die, Mr. Duffham?”
“I fear so, Johnny. I don’t see much chance of saving him.”
“What a dreadful thing for Fred Westerbrook! They may bring it in wilful murder.”
“That they will be sure to do. Good-evening, lad; I have no time to linger with you.”
Bumford was probably looking out for the fugitive (and the reward) on his own score, as he was not to be seen; but I found the key inside the knife-box on the kitchen dresser, his store-place for it, opened the door, and went into the church.
On one side the church-door, as you entered, was an enclosed place underneath the belfry, that did for the vestry and for Clerk Bumford’s den. He kept his store of candles in it, his grave-digging tools (for he was sexton as well as clerk), his Sunday black gown, and other choice articles. On the other side of the door, not enclosed, was the nook that contained the organ. I sat down at once. But I had come too late; for in half-an-hour’s time the notes of the music and the keys were alike dim. Just then Bumford entered.
“Oh, you be here, be you!” said he, treating me, as he did the rest of the world, with slight ceremony. “I thought I heered the organ a-going, so I come on to see.”
“You were not indoors, Bumford, when I called for the key.”
“I were only in the field at the back, a-getting up some dandelion roots,” returned old Bumford, in his usual resentful tone. “There ain’t no obligation in me to be shut in at home everlasting.”
“Who said there was?”
“Ain’t it a’most too dark for you?”
“Yes, I shall have to borrow one of your candles.”
Bumford grunted at this. The candles were not strictly his; they were paid for by the parish; but he set great store by them, and would have denied me one if he could. Not seeing his way clear to doing this, he turned away, muttering to himself. I took my fingers off the keys — for I had been playing while I talked to him — and followed. Bumford went out of the church, shutting the door with a bang, and I proceeded to search for the candlestick.
That was soon found: it always stood on the shelf; but it had no candle in it, and I opened the candle-box to take one out. All the light that came in was from the open slits in the belfry above. The next thing was to find the matches.
Groping about quietly with my hands on the shelf, for fear of knocking down some article or another, and wondering where on earth the match-box had gone to, I was interrupted by a groan. A dismal groan, coming from the middle of the church.
It nearly made me start out of my skin. My shirt-sleeves went damp. Down with us, the ghosts of the buried dead are popularly supposed to haunt the churches at night.
“It must have been the pulpit creaking,” said I, gravely to myself. “Oh, here’s the match ——”
An awful groan! Another! Three groans altogether! I stood as still as death; calling up the recollection that God was with me inside the church as well as out of it. Frightened I was, and it is of no use to deny it.
“I wonder what the devil is to be the ending of this!”
The unorthodox words burst upon my ears, bringing a reassurance, for dead people don’t talk, let alone their natural objection (as one must suppose) to mention the arch-enemy. The tones were free and distinct; and — I knew them for Fred Westerbrook’s.
“Fred, is that you?” I asked in a half-whisper, as I went forward.
No sound; no answer.
“Fred! it’s only I.”
Not a word or a breath. I struck a match, and lighted a candle.
“You need not be afraid, Fred. Come along. I’ll do anything I can for you. Don’t you know me? — Johnny Ludlow.”
“For the love of Heaven, put that light out, Johnny!” he said, feeling it perhaps useless to hold out, or else deciding to trust me, as he came down the aisle in a stooping position, so that the pews might screen him from the windows. And I put it out.
“I thought you had gone out of the church with old Bumford,” said he. “I heard you both come away from the organ, and then the door was slammed, leaving the church to silence.”
“I was searching after the candle and matches. When did you come here, Fred? How did you get in?”
“I got in last night. Is there much of a row, Johnny?”
“Pretty well. How came you to do it?”
“To do what?”
“It was not I that shot him.”
“But — people are saying it was you. You were with the poachers.”
“I was with the poachers; and one of them, like the confounded idiot that he was, pointed his gun and fired it. I recognized the cry for Gisby’s, and knew that the charge must have struck him. I never had a gun in my hand at all, Johnny.”
Well, I felt thankful for that. We sat down on the bench, and Fred told his tale.
After supper the previous night, he strolled out and met some fellow he knew, who lived two or three miles away. (A black sheep in public estimation, like himself.) It was a beautiful night. Fred chose to see him home, and stayed there, drinking a glass or two, till he knew not what hour. Coming back across the fields, he fell in with the poachers. Instead of denouncing them, he told them half in joke, half in earnest, that he might be joining their band himself before the winter was over. Close upon that, they fell in with the watchers, Gisby and the rest. Fred knew he was recognized, for Gisby called out his name; and that, Fred did not like: it made things look black against him. Gisby attacked them; a scuffle ensued, and one of the poachers used his gun. Then the poachers turned to run, Fred with them; a shot was fired after them and hit one of their body — but not Fred, as Rimmer had supposed. The man tripped as the shot struck him, and caused Fred to trip and fall; but both were up, and off, the next moment. Where the rest escaped to, Fred did not know; chance led him past the church: on the spur of the moment he entered it for refuge, and had been there ever since.
“And it is a great and good thing you did enter it, Fred,” I said eagerly. “Gisby swears it was you who shot him, and he is dying; and Shepherd swears it too.”
“He is. I met Duffham as I came here; he told me there was little, if any, chance of his life; he had been expecting news of his death all the afternoon. They have posted handbills up, offering a reward of twenty pounds for your apprehension, Fred; and — and I am afraid, and so is Duffham, that they will try you for wilful murder. The whole neighbourhood is being searched for you for miles round.”
“Pleasant!” said Fred, after a brief silence. “I had meant to go out to-night and endeavour to ascertain how the land lay. Of course I knew that what could be put upon my back would be put; and there’s no denying that I was with the poachers. But I did not think matters would be as bad as this. Hang it all!”
“But, Fred, how did you get in here?”
“Well,” said he, “we hear talk of providential occurrences: there’s nothing Mr. Holland is fonder of telling us about in his sermons than the guiding finger of God. If the means that enabled me to take refuge here were not providential, Johnny, I must say they looked like it. When I met you yesterday afternoon, you must remember my chancing to say that the little Hollands were playing at ‘Salt Fish’ in the study, while I sat there, talking to Edna?”
Of course I remembered it.
“Directly after I left you, Johnny,” resumed Fred Westerbrook, “I put my hand in my coat-tail pocket for my handkerchief, and found a large key there. It was the key of the church, that the children had been hiding at their play; and I understood in a moment that Charley, whose turn it was to hide last, had made a hiding-place of my pocket. The parson keeps one key, you know, and Bumford the other ——”
“But, Fred,” I interrupted, the question striking me, “how came the young ones to let you come away with it?”
“Because, lad, their attention got diverted to something else. Ann brought in the tea-things, with a huge plate of bread-and-treacle: they screamed out in delight, and scuffled to get seats round the table. Well, I let the key lie in my pocket,” went on Fred, “intending to take it back today. In the night, when flying from pursuit, not knowing who or how many might be after me, I felt this heavy key strike against me continually; and, in nearing the church, the thought flashed over me like an inspiration: What if I open it and hide there? Just as young Charley had hidden the key in my pocket, so I hid myself, by its means, in the church.”
Taking a minute to think over what he said, it did seem strange. One of those curious things one can hardly account for; the means for his preservation were so simply natural and yet almost marvellous. Perhaps the church was the only building where he could have found secure refuge. Private dwellings would refuse to shelter him, and other places were sure to be searched.
“You are safe here, Fred. No one would ever think of seeking you here.”
“Safe, yes; but for how long? I can’t live without food for ever, Johnny. As it is, I have eaten none since last night.”
My goodness! A shock of remorse came over me. When I was at old Bumford’s knife-box, a loaf of bread stood on the dresser. If I had only secured it!
“We must manage to bring you something, Fred. You cannot stir from here.”
Fred had taken the key out, having returned it to his pocket in the night when he locked himself in. He sat looking at it as he balanced it on his finger.
“Yes, you have served me in good need,” he said to the key. “I shall turn out for a stroll during some quiet hour of the night, Johnny. To keep my restless legs curbed indoors for a whole day and night would be quite beyond their philosophy.”
“Well, take care of yourself, if you do. There’s not a soul in the place but is wild for the reward; and I dare say they will look for you by night more than by day. How about getting you in something to eat?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “It would never do for you to be seen coming in here at night.”
I knew that. Old Bumford would be down on me if no one else was. I sat turning over possibilities in my mind.
“I will come in betimes tomorrow morning under the plea of practising, Fred, and bring what I can. You must do battle with your hunger until then.”
“I suppose I must, Johnny. Mind you lock the door when you come in, or old Bumford might pounce upon us. When I heard you unlock it on coming in this evening, I can tell you I shivered in my shoes. Fate is very hard,” he added, after a pause.
“Why, yes. I have been a bit wild lately, perhaps, savage too, but I declare before Heaven that I have committed no crime, and did not mean to commit any. And now, to have this serious thing fastened upon my back! The world will say I have gone straight over to Satan.”
I did not see how he would get it off his back either. Wishing him good-night and a good heart, I turned to go.
“Wait a moment, Johnny. Let me go back to my hiding-place first.”
He went swiftly up the aisle, lighter now than it had been, for the moonlight was streaming in at the windows. Locking the church safely, I crossed the graveyard to old Bumford’s. He was seated at his round table at supper: bread-and-cheese, and beer.
“Oh, Mr. Bumford, as I have to come into the church very early in the morning, or I shall never get my music up for Sunday, I will take the key home with me. Good-night.”
He shouted out fifteen denials: How dared I think of taking the key out of his custody! But I was conveniently deaf, rushed off, and left him shouting.
“What a long practice you have been taking, Johnny!” cried Mrs. Todhetley. “And how hot you look. You must have run very fast.”
The Squire turned round from his arm-chair. “You’ve been joining in the hunt after that scamp, Mr. Johnny; — you’ve not been in the church, sir, all this time. I hear there’s a fine pack out, scouring the hedges and ditches.”
“I got a candle from old Bumford’s den,” said I, evasively. And presently I contrived to whisper unseen to Tod — who sat reading — to come outside. Standing against the wall of the pigeon-house, I told him all. For once in his life Tod was astonished.
“What a stunning thing!” he exclaimed. “Good luck, Fred! we’ll help you. I knew he was innocent, Johnny. Food? Yes, of course; we must get it for him. Molly, you say? Molly be shot!”
“Well, you know what Molly is, Tod. Let half a grain of suspicion arise, and it might betray him. If she saw us rifling her larder, she would go straight to the Squire; and what excuse should we have?”
“Look here, Johnny. I’ll go out fishing tomorrow, you understand, and order her to make a lot of meat pasties.”
“But he must have something to eat tomorrow morning, Tod: he might die of hunger, else, before night.”
Tod nodded. He had little more diplomacy than the Squire, and would have liked to perch himself upon the highest pillar in the parish there and then, and proclaim Fred Westerbrook’s innocence.
We stole round to the kitchen. Supper was over, but the servants were still at the table; no chance of getting to the larder then. Molly was in one of her tempers, apparently blowing up Thomas. There might be more chance in the morning.
Morning light. Tod went downstairs with the dawn, and I followed him. Not a servant was yet astir. He laid hold of a great tray, lodged it on the larder-floor, and began putting some things upon it — a cold leg of mutton and a big round loaf.
“I can’t take in all that, Tod. It is daylight, you know, and eyes may be about: old Bumford’s are sure to be. I can only take in what can be concealed in my pockets.”
“Oh, bother, Johnny! You’d half famish him.”
“Better half famish him than betray him. Some slices of bread and meat will be best — thick sandwiches, you know.”
We soon cut into the mutton and the bread. Wrapping them in paper, I stowed the thick slices away in my pockets, leaving the rest of the loaf and meat on the shelves again.
“How I wish I could smuggle him in a bottle of beer!”
“And so you can, Johnny. Swear to old Bumford it is for your own drinking.”
“He would know better.”
“Wrap a sheet of music round the bottle, then. He could make nothing of that.”
Hunting out a bottle, we went down to the cellar. Tod stooped to fill it from the tap. I stood watching the process.
“I’ve caught you, Master Johnny, have I! What be you about there, letting the ale run, I’d like to know?”
The words were Molly’s. She had come down and found us out: suspecting something, I suppose, from seeing the cellar-door open. Tod rose up.
“I am drawing some beer to take out with me. Is it any business of yours? When it is, you may interfere.”
I was nobody in the household — never turning upon them. She’d have gone on at me for an hour, and probably walked off with the beer. Tod was altogether different. He held his own authority, even with Molly. She went up the cellar-stairs, grumbling to herself.
“I want a cork for this bottle,” said bold Tod, following her. And Molly, opening some receptacle of hers with a jerk, perforce found him one.
“Oh, and I shall want some meat pasties made today, for I think of going fishing,” went on Tod. “Let them be ready by lunch-time. I have cut myself some slices of meat to go on with — if you chance to miss any mutton.”
Molly, never answering, left her kitchen-grate, where she was beginning to crack up the huge flat piece of coal that the fire had been raked with the previous night, and stalked into the larder to see what depredations had been done. We tied up the bottle in paper on the parlour-table, and then wrapped it in a sheet of loose music. It looked a pretty thick roll; but nobody would be likely to remark that.
“I have a great mind to go with you and see him, Johnny,” said Tod, as we went together down the garden-path.
“Oh, don’t, Tod!” I cried. “For goodness’ sake, don’t. You know you never do go in with me, and it might cause old Bumford to wonder.”
“Then, I’ll leave it till after dark to-night, Johnny. Go in then, I shall.”
Bumford was astir, but not down yet. I heard him coughing, through his open casement; for I went with a purpose round the path by his house, and called out to him. He looked out in his shirt-sleeves and a cotton night-cap.
“You see how early I am this morning. I’ll bring you the key when I leave.”
“Eugh!” growled Bumford. “No rights to ha’ took it.”
Locking the church-door securely after me, I went down the aisle, calling softly to Fred. He came forward from a dark, high-walled pew behind a pillar, where he had slept. You should have seen him devour the bread and meat, if you’d like to know what hunger means, and drink the bottle of beer. I sat down to practise. Had old Bumford not heard the sound of the organ, he might have come thundering at the door to know what I was about, and what the silence meant. Fred came with me, and we talked whilst I played. About the first question he asked was whether Gisby was dead; but I could not tell him. He said he had gone out cautiously in the night and walked about the churchyard for an hour, thinking over what he could do. “And I really had an unpleasant adventure, Johnny,” he added.
“What was it?”
“I was pacing the path under the hedge towards Bumford’s, when all at once there arose the sound of voices and steps on the other side of it — fellows on the look-out for me, I suppose.”
I held my breath. “What did you do?”
“Crouched down as well as I could — fortunately the hedge is high — and came softly and swiftly over the grass and the graves to the porch. I only slipped inside just in time, Johnny: before I could close the door, the men were in the churchyard. The key has a trick of creaking harshly when turned in the lock, you know; and I declare I thought they must have heard it then, for it made a fearful noise, and the night was very still!”
“And they did not hear it?”
“I suppose not. But it was some minutes, I can tell you, before my pulses calmed down to their ordinary rate of beating.”
He went on to say that the only plan he could think of was to endeavour to get away from the neighbourhood, and go out of the country. To stand his trial was not to be thought of. His word, that he had not been the guilty man, had never even had a gun in his hand that night, would go for nothing, against Gisby’s word and Shepherd’s. Whatever came of it, he would have to be out of the church before Sunday. The great question was: how could he get away unseen? I told him Tod was coming with me at night, and we would consult together. Locking up the church again, and the prisoner in it, I gladdened Bumford’s heart by handing over the key, and ran home to breakfast.
Life yet lingered in Gisby; but the doctors thought he could not live through the day. The injury he had received was chiefly internal, somewhere in the region of the lungs. Fresh parties went out with fresh ardour to scour the country after Fred Westerbrook; and so the day passed. Chancing to meet Shepherd late in the afternoon, he told me Gisby still lived.
At sundown I went in to practise again, and took a big mould-candle with me, showing it to Bumford, that he might not be uneasy on the score of his stock in the vestry. As soon as dusk came on, and before the tell-tale moon was much up, I left the organ, opened the church-door, and stood at it, according to the plan concerted with Tod. He came swiftly up with his basket of provisions which he had got together by degrees during the day; and then we locked the door again. After Fred had regaled himself, we consulted together. Fred was to steal out of the church about one o’clock on Sunday morning, and make off across the country. But to do this with safety it was necessary he should be disguised. By that time the ardour of the night-searching might have somewhat passed; and the hour, one o’clock in the morning, was as silent and lonely a one as could be expected. It was most essential that he should not be recognized by any person who might chance to meet him.
“But you must manage one thing for me,” said Fred, after this was settled. “I will not go away without seeing Edna. She can come in here with you tomorrow night.”
We both objected. “It will be very hazardous, Fred. Old Bumford would be sure to see her: his eyes are everywhere.”
“Tell him you want her to sing over the chants with you, Johnny. Tell him anything. But go away for an indefinite period, without first seeing her and convincing her that it is not guilt that sends me, I will not.”
So there was no more to be said.
Getting provisions together seemed to have been easy compared with what we should have to get up now — a disguise. A smock-frock, say, and the other items of a day-labourer’s apparel. But it was more easy to decide than to procure them.
“Mack leaves belongings of his in the barn occasionally,” said Tod to me, as we walked home together. “We’ll look tomorrow night.”
It was our best hope. Failing that, there would be no possibility of getting a smock-frock anywhere; and Fred would have to escape in his coat turned inside out, or something of that sort. His own trousers, braced up high, and plastered with mud at the feet, would do very well, and his own wideawake hat, pulled low down on his face. There would be no more trouble about provisions, for what Tod had taken in would be enough.
Saturday. And Tod and I with our work before us. Gisby was sinking fast.
Late in the afternoon I went to the Parsonage, wondering how I should get to see Edna Blake alone. But Fortune favoured me — as it seemed to have favoured us throughout. The children were all at play in the nearest field. Edna was in what they called the schoolroom in her lilac-print dress, looking over socks and stockings, about a wheelbarrow-full. I saw her through the window, and went straight in. Her large dark eyes looked as sad and big as the hole she was darning; and her voice had a hopeless ring in it.
“Oh, Johnny, how you startled me! Nay, don’t apologize. It is my fault for being so nervous and foolish. I can’t think what has ailed me the last few days: I seem to start at shadows. Have — have you come to tell me anything?”
By the shrinking voice and manner, I knew what she feared — that Fred Westerbrook was taken. Looking round the room, I asked whether what we said could be heard.
“There’s no one to hear,” she answered. “Poor Mrs. Holland is in bed. Mr. Holland is out; and Anne is shut up, cleaning the kitchen.”
“Well, then,” I said, dropping my voice, “I have brought you a message from Fred Westerbrook.”
Down went the socks in a heap. “Oh, Johnny!”
“Hush! No: he is not taken; he is in safe hiding. What’s more, Edna, he is no more guilty than I am. He met the poachers accidentally that night just before the affray, and he never had a gun in his hands at all.”
A prolonged, sobbing sigh, as if she were going to faint, and then a glad light in her eyes. She took up her work again. I went over to the seat next her, and told her all. She was darning all the while. With such a heap of mending the fingers must not be idle.
“To America!” she repeated, in answer to what I said. “What is he going to do for money to carry him there?”
“He talks of working his passage over. He has enough money about him, he says, to take him to the coast. Unfortunately, neither Tod nor I can help him in that respect. We have brought empty pockets from school, and shall have no money before the time of going back again. Will you go in and see him, Edna?”
“Yes,” she said, after a minute’s consideration. “And I will bring a roll of music in my hand, as you suggest, Johnny, for the satisfaction of Clerk Bumford’s curiosity. I will be at the stile as near eight o’clock as I can, if you will come out there to meet me: but it is Saturday night, you know, when there’s always a great deal to do.”
Dinner was made later than usual that night at home: it had struck half-past seven before we got out, having secured another bottle of beer. The moon was rising behind the trees as we went into the barn.
Tod struck a match, and we looked about. Yes, Fortune was with us still. Hanging on the shaft of the cart, was Mack’s smock-frock. It was anything but clean; but beggars can’t be choosers. Next we descried a cotton neckerchief and a pair of boots; two clumsy, clod-hopping boots, with nails in the soles, and the outside leather not to be seen for patches.
“They must do,” said Tod, with a rueful look. “But just look at the wretches, Johnny. I must smuggle these and the smock-frock into the church-porch, whilst you go round to old B.‘s for the key.”
“I have the key. I flung him a shilling this morning instead of the key, saying I might be wanting to practise at any hour today, and would give it him back to-night.”
Going by the most solitary way, I let Tod into the church, and went to meet Edna Blake. She was already there, the roll of music in her hand. Bumford shot out of his house, and crossed our path.
“Good-evening, Mr. Bumford!” said she, cheerily. “I am come to try the hymns for tomorrow, with Johnny Ludlow.”
“They’d need to be sum’at extra, they had, with all this here fuss of practising,” returned Bumford, ungraciously. “Is the parson at home, Miss Blake?”
“Yes. He is in the little room, writing.”
“‘Cause I want to see him,” said the clerk; and he stalked off.
“Do you know how Gisby is?” Edna asked me in a whisper.
“Dead by this time, I dare say. But I have not heard.”
They were at the top of the church when we got in, laughing in covert tones; I guessed it was over those dreadful boots. Edna stood by me whilst I locked the door, and then we went at once to the organ and began the hymn. Old Bumford could not be too far off yet to catch the sounds. Presently Fred Westerbrook and Edna went into the aisle, and paced it arm-inarm. I kept on playing; Tod, not knowing what to do with himself, whistled an accompaniment.
“How long shall I be away, Edna!” exclaimed Fred, in answer to her question. “Why, how can I tell? It may be for years; it may be for ever. I cannot come back, I suppose, whilst this thing is hanging over my head.”
She was in very low spirits, and the tears began to drop from her eyes. Fred could see that much, as they paced through one of the patches of moonlight.
“You may not succeed in getting away.”
“No, I may not. And do you know, Edna, there are moments when I feel half inclined not to attempt it, but to give myself up instead, and let the matter take its course. If I do get away, and get on in the States, so as to make myself a home, will you come out and share it with me?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“I may do it. I think I shall. Few people know more about the cultivation of land than I do, and I will take care to put my shoulder to the wheel. Practical farmers get on well there if they choose, though they have to rough it at first. Be very sure of one thing, Edna: all my hopes and aims will be directed to one end — that of making a home for you.”
She could not speak for crying.
“It may not be a luxurious home, neither may I make anything of a position. But if I make enough for comfort, you will come out to it?”
“I will,” she said with a sob.
Echo bore the words to us, softly though they were spoken. I played a crashing chord or two, after the manner of Richards.
“You may not hear from me,” continued Fred. “I must not give any clue to where I am, and therefore cannot write — at least, not at present. Men accused of murder can be brought home from any part of the world. Only trust me, Edna. Trust me! though it be for years.”
No fear but she would. She put a small packet in his hand.
“You must take it, Frederick. It is my last half-year’s salary — ten pounds — and I chance to have it by me: a loan, if you will; but take it you shall. Knowing that you have a few pounds to help you away and to fall back upon, will make things a little less miserable for me.”
“But, Edna ——”
“I declare I will throw it away if you do not take it,” she returned, warmly. “Do not be cruel to me, Frederick. If you knew how it will lighten my doubts and fears, you would not for a moment hesitate.”
“Be it so, Edna. It will help me onwards. Truth to say, I did not see how I should have got along, even to the coast, unless I had begged on my way. It is a loan, Edna, and I will contrive to repay it as soon as may be.”
So his boast of having money to take him to the coast had been all a sham. Poor Fred! They began to take leave of one another, Edna sobbing bitterly. I plunged into the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Tod let her out, and watched her safely across the churchyard. Then we locked the door again for the dressing-up, I playing a fugue between whiles. The first operation was that of cutting his hair short, for which we had brought the mater’s big scissors. No labourer would be likely to possess Fred’s beautiful hair, or wear it so long. Tod did it well; not counting a few notches, and leaving him as good as none on his head.
It was impossible to help laughing when we took a final look at him in the moonlight, Fred turning himself about to be inspected: his hair, clipped nearly to the roots, suggesting a suspicion that he had just come out of prison; his trousers, not reaching to the ankle, showing off the heavy, patched, disreputable boots; the smock-frock; and Mack’s spotted cotton neckerchief muffled round his chin!
“Your own mother wouldn’t know you, Fred.”
“What a figure I shall cut if I am dropped upon and brought back!”
“Take heart, man!” cried Tod. “Resolve to get off, and you will get off.”
“Yes, Fred, I think you will. You have been so helped hitherto, that I think you will be helped still.”
“Thank you, Johnny. Thank you both. I will take heart. And if I live to return, I hope I shall thank you better.”
Later we dared not stay; it was past nine now. I bade Fred good-bye, and God-speed.
“Between half-past twelve and one, mind, will be your time; you’ll hear the clock strike,” was Tod’s parting injunction, given in a whisper. “Good luck to you, old fellow! I hope and trust you’ll dodge the enemy. And as soon as you are clear of the churchyard, make off as if the dickens were behind you.”
“Here’s the key, Mr. Bumford,” I said, while Tod stole off with his bundle the other way, Fred’s boots, and hair, and all that. “You won’t be bothered for it next week, for I shall be off to school again.”
“Thought you’d took up your lodging inside for the night,” grunted Bumford. “Strikes me, Master Ludlow, it’s more play nor work with you.”
“As it is with a good many of us, Bumford. Good-night!”
We walked home in the moonlight, silent enough, Tod handing me the bundles to carry. The Squire attacked us, demanding whether we had stayed out to look at the moon.
And I tossed and turned on my restless bed till the morning hours, thinking of poor Fred Westerbrook, and of whether he would get away. When sleep at last came, it brought me a very vivid dream of him. I thought he did not get away: he was unable to unlock the church-door. Whether Tod and I had double-locked it in leaving, I knew not; but Fred could not get it open. When Clerk Bumford entered the church in the morning, and the early comers of the congregation with him, there stood Fred, hopelessly waiting to be taken. I saw him as plainly in my dream as I had ever seen him in reality: with the dirty smock-frock, and the patched boots, and the clipped hair. Shepherd, who seemed to follow me in, darted forward and seized him; and in the confusion I awoke. Just for a minute I thought it was true — a scene actually enacted. Would it prove so?
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55