“You have gone and done a fine thing, Master Johnny Ludlow!”
The salutation came from Clerk Bumford. He was standing at the church-door on Sunday morning, looking out as if he expected me, his face pale and stern. I had run on betimes: in fact, before the bell began.
“What have I done, Bumford?”
“Why, you just went and left this here church open last night! You never locked it up! When I come in but now, I found the door right on the latch; never as much as shut!”
Beginning to protest till all was blue that I had shut and locked the door — as I knew too well — caution pulled me up, and whispered me to take the blame.
“I’m sure I thought I locked it, Bumford. I never left it unlocked before, and I’ll take care I never leave it so again.”
“Such a thing as having the church open for a night was never heered of,” he grumbled, turning away to ring out the first peal of the bell. “Why, I might have had all my store o’ candles stole! there’s nigh a pound on ’em, in here. And my black gownd — and the parson’s gownd — and his surplice! Besides the grave-digging tools, and other odds and ends.”
Shutting himself into his den underneath the belfry, and tugging away at the cords, the bell tinkled out, warning the parish that it was time to start for morning service. The bell-ringer was a poor old man named Japhet, who was apt to be a little late. Upon which Bumford would begin the ringing, and blow Japhet up when he came.
Not a soul was yet in church. I went down the middle aisle softly calling Fred Westerbrook’s name. He did not answer; and I hoped to my heart he had got clear away. The open entrance-door seemed to indicate that he had; and I thought he might have left it undone in case he had to make a bolt back again. Nevertheless, I could not shake off the remembrance of my unpleasant dream.
Of all troublesome idiots, that Bumford was the worst. When I went back, after passing by all the remote nooks and corners, Japhet had taken his place at the bell, and he was telling the parson of my sins.
“Right on the latch all the blessed night, your reverence,” protested Bumford. “We might have found the whole church ransacked this morning.”
Mr. Holland, a mild man, with stout legs, and cares of his own, looked at me with a half-smile. “How was it, Johnny?”
“I have assured Bumford, sir, that it shall not happen again. I certainly thought I had locked it when I took him back the key. No harm has come of it.”
“But harm might ha’ come,” persisted Bumford. “Look at all them candles in there! and the gownds and surplices! Pretty figures we should ha’ cut, saving his reverence’s presence, with nothing to put upon our backs this here blessed morning!”
“Talking of the key, I missed mine this morning,” remarked Mr. Holland. “Have you taken it away for any purpose, Bumford?”
“What, the t’other church-key!” exclaimed Bumford. “Not I, sir. I’d not be likely to fetch that key when I’ve got my own — and without your reverence’s knowledge either!”
“Well, I cannot find it anywhere,” said Mr. Holland. “It generally lies on the mantelpiece at home, and it is not there this morning.”
He went into the vestry with the last words. To hear that the church-key generally lay on the mantelpiece, was nothing; for the parson’s house was not noticeable for order. There would have been none in it at all but for Edna.
Close upon that, arrived Shepherd, a folded paper in his hand. It contained a request that Gisby might be prayed for in the Litany.
“What, ain’t he dead yet?” asked Bumford.
“No,” returned Shepherd. “The doctors be afraid that internal inflammation’s a-setting in now. Any way, he is rare and bad, poor man.”
Next came in my set of singers, chiefly boys and girls from the parish school. But they sang better than such children generally sing; and would have sung very well indeed with an organist who had his head on his shoulders the proper way. Mrs. Todhetley had long taken pains with them, but latterly it had all been upset by Richards’s crotchets.
“Now, look here,” said I, gathering them before me. “We are not going to have any shrieking today. We sing to praise God, you know, and He is in the church with you and hears you; He is not a mile or two away, that you need shout out to be heard all that distance.”
“Please, sir, Mr. Richards tells us to sing out loud: as loud as ever we can. Some on us a’most cracks our voices at it.”
“Well, never mind Mr. Richards today. I am going to play, and I tell you to sing softly. If you don’t, I shall stop the organ and let you shout by yourselves. You won’t like that. To shout and shriek in church is more irreverent than I care to talk about.”
“Please, sir, Mr. Richards plays the organ so loud that we can’t help it.”
“I wish you’d let Mr. Richards alone. You won’t hear the organ loud today. Do you say your prayers when you go to bed at night?”
This question took them aback. But at last the whole lot answered that they did.
“And do you say your prayers softly, or do you shout them out at the top of your voices? To my mind, it is just as unseemly to shout when singing in church, as it would be when praying. This church has been like nothing lately but the ranter’s chapel. There, take your seats, and look out the places in your Prayer-books.”
I watched the different groups walk into church. Our people were pretty early. Tod slipped aside as they went up the aisle to whisper me a question — Had Fred got clear away? I told him I thought so, hearing and seeing nothing to the contrary. When the parson’s children came in, Mrs. Holland was with them, so that Edna Blake was enabled to join the singers, as she did when she could. But it was not often Mrs. Holland came to church. Edna had dark circles round her eyes. They looked out at mine with a painful inquiry in their depths.
“Yes, I think it is all right,” I nodded in answer.
“Mr. Holland has missed his church-key,” she whispered. “Coming along to church, Charley suddenly called out that he remembered hiding it in Mr. Fred Westerbrook’s coat-pocket. Mrs. Holland seemed quite put out about it, and asked me how I could possibly have allowed him to come into the study and sit there.”
“There’s old Westerbrook, Edna! Just look! His face is fiercer than usual.”
Mrs. Westerbrook was with him, in a peach-coloured corded-silk gown. She made a point of dressing well. But she was just one of those women that no attire, good or bad, would set off: her face common, her figure stumpy. And so, one after another, the congregation all came in, and the service began. It caused quite a sensation when Mr. Holland made a pause, after turning to the Litany, and read out the announcement: “Your prayers are requested for Walter Gisby, who is dangerously ill.” Men’s heads moved, and bonnets fluttered.
“How I wish you played for us always, Johnny!” cried Miss Susan Page, looking in upon me to say it, as she passed out from her pew, when the service was over.
“Why, my playing is nothing, Miss Susan!”
“Perhaps not. I don’t know. But it has this effect, Johnny — it sends us home with a feeling of peace in our hearts. What with Richards’s crashing and the singers’ shouting, we are generally turned out in a state of irritation.”
After running through the voluntary, I found a large collection of people in the churchyard. Old Westerbrook was holding forth on the subject of Fred’s iniquities to a numerous audience, the Squire making one of them. Mrs. Westerbrook looked simply malicious.
“No, I do not know where he is hiding,” said the master of the N. D. Farm in answer to a question. “I wish I did know: I would hang him with all the pleasure in life. An ungrateful, reckless —— What’s that, Squire? You’d recommend me to increase the reward? Why, I have increased it. I have doubled it. Old Jones has my orders to post up fresh bills.”
“If all’s true that’s reported, he can’t escape very far; he had no money in his pocket,” put in young Mr. Stirling, of the Court, who sometimes came over to our church. “By the way, who has been playing today?”
“Oh, have you, Johnny?” he said, turning to me. “It was very pleasant. And so was the singing.”
“It would have been better had Mrs. Todhetley played — as she was to have done,” I said, wishing they wouldn’t bring me up before people, and knowing that my playing was just as simple as it could be, neither florid nor flowery.
“I have seen what Frederick Westerbrook was, this many a year past,” broke in Mrs. Westerbrook in loud tones, as if resenting the drifting of the conversation from Fred’s ill-doings. “Mr. Westerbrook knows that I have given him my opinion again and again. Only he would not listen.”
“How could I believe that my own brother’s son was the scamp you and Gisby made him out to be?” testily demanded old Westerbrook, who in his way was just as unsophisticated and straightforward as the Squire: and would have been as good-natured, let alone. “I’m sure till the last year or two Fred was as steady and dutiful as heart could wish.”
“You had better say he is still,” said she.
“But — hang it! — I don’t say it, ma’am,” fired old Westerbrook. “I should be a fool to say it. Unfortunately, I can’t say it. I have lived to find he is everything that’s bad — and I say that hanging’s too good for him.”
Mr. Holland came out of the church and passed us, halting a moment to speak. “I am on my way to pray by poor Gisby,” he said. “They have sent for me.”
“Gisby must need it,” whispered Tod to me. “He has been a worse sinner than Fred Westerbrook: full of hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.”
And so he had been — in regard to Fred.
“Help! Thieves! — Robbers! Help!”
The shouts came from our yard, as we were sitting down to breakfast on Monday morning, and we rushed out. There stood Mack, in the greatest state of excitement possible; his eyes lifted, his arms at work, and his breath gone. The servants ran out before we did.
“Why! what on earth’s the matter, Ben Mack?” demanded the Squire. “Have you gone mad?”
“We’ve had thieves in the barn, sir! Thieves! All my clothes is stole.”
“Them what I left in’t o’ Saturday night, Squire. My smock-frock and my boots, and my spotted cotton neck-handkecher. They be gone, they be.”
“Nonsense!” said the Squire, whilst I and Tod kept our faces. “We have not had thieves here, man.”
“But, ‘deed, and the things be gone, Squire. Clean gone! Not so much as a shred on ’em left! Please come and see for yourself, sir.”
He turned, and went striding across the yard. The Squire followed, evidently at fault for comprehension; and the rest of us after him.
“It’s a mercy as the horses and waggons bain’t took!” cried Mack, plunging into the barn. “And the harness! look at it, a-hanging up; and that there wheelbarrer ——”
“But what do you say is taken, Mack?” interrupted the Squire, cutting him short, and looking round the barn.
“All my traps, sir. My best smock-frock; and my boots, and my spotted cotton neck-handkecher. A beautiful pair o’ boots, Squire, that I generally keeps here, in case I be sent off to Alcester, or Evesham, or where not, and have to tidy myself up a bit.”
Tod backed out of the barn doubled up. Nearly choking at the “beautiful” boots.
“But why do you think they are stolen, Mack?” the Squire was asking.
“I left ’em safe here o’ Saturday evening, sir, when I locked up the barn. The things be all gone now; you may see as they be, Squire. There bain’t a vestige of ’em.”
“Have any of the men moved them?”
“’Twas me as unlocked the barn myself but now, Squire. The key on’t was on the nail where I put it Saturday night. If any of the men had unlocked it afore me this morning, they’d not ha’ shut it up again. We’ve all been away at work too on t’other side o’ the land since we come on at six o’clock. No, sir, it’s thieves — and what will become of me? A’most a new smock-frock, and the beautifulest pair o’ strong boots: they’d ha’ lasted me for years.”
Tod shrieked out at last, unable to help himself. Mack cast a reproachful glance at him, as if he thought the merriment too cruel.
“You must have been drinking on Saturday, Ben Mack, and fancied you left ’em here,” put in Molly, tartly.
“Me been a-drinking!” retorted poor bereaved Mack, ready to cry at the aspersion. “Why, I’d never had a drop o’ nothing inside my lips since dinner-time, save a draught of skim milk as the dairy-maid gave me. They was in that far corner, them boots; and the smock-frock was laid smooth across the shaft of this here cart, the handkecher folded a-top on’t.”
“Well, well, we must inquire after the things,” remarked the Squire, turning to go back to breakfast. “I don’t believe they are stolen, Mack: they’ll be found somewhere. If you had lost yourself, you could not have made more noise over it. I’m sure I thought the ricks must be on fire.”
Tod could hardly eat his breakfast for laughing. Every now and then he came out with the most unexpected burst. The pater demanded what there was to laugh at in Mack’s having mislaid his clothes.
But, as the morning went on, the Squire changed his tone. When no trace could be discovered of the articles, high or low, he took up the opinion that we had been visited by tramps, and sent off for old Jones the constable. Jones sent back his duty, and he would come across as soon as he could, but he was busy organizing the search after Master Westerbrook, and posting up the fresh bills.
“Johnny, we must dispose of that hair of Fred’s in some way,” Tod whispered to me in the course of the morning. “To let any one come upon it would never do: they might fish and ferret out everything. Come along.”
We went up, bolted ourselves in his room, and undid the hair. Fine, silky hair, not quite auburn, not quite like chestnut, something between the two, but as nice a colour as you would wish to see.
“Better burn it,” suggested Tod.
“Won’t it make an awful smell?”
“Who cares? You can go away if you don’t like the smell.”
“I shall save a piece for Edna Blake.”
“Rubbish, Johnny! What good will it do her?”
“She may like to have it. Especially if she never sees him again.”
“Make haste, then, and take a lock. It’s quite romantic. I am going to put a match to it.”
I chose the longest piece I could see, put it into an envelope, and fastened it up. Tod turned the hair into his wash-hand basin, and set it alight: the grate was filled up with the summer shavings. A frizzling and fizzing set in at once: and very soon a rare smell of singeing.
“Open the window, Johnny.”
I had hardly opened it, when the handle of the door was turned and turned, and the panel thumped at. Hannah’s voice came shrieking through the keyhole.
“Mr. Joseph! — Master Johnny! Are you both in there? What’s the matter?”
“What should be the matter?” called back Tod, putting his hand over my mouth that I should not speak. “Go back to your nursery.”
“There’s something burning! My goodness! it’s just as if all the blankets in the house were singeing! You’ve been setting your blankets on fire, Mr. Joseph!”
“And if I have!” cried Tod, blowing away at the hair to make it burn the quicker. “They are not yours.”
“Good patience! you’ll burn us all up, sir! Fire — fire!” shrieked out Hannah, frightened beyond her wits. “For goodness’ sake, Miss Lena, keep away from the keyhole! Here, ma’am! Ma’am! Here’s Mr. Joseph with all his blankets on fire!”
Mrs. Todhetley ran up the stairs, and her terrified appeal came to our ears through the door. Tod threw it open. The hair had burnt itself out.
“Why don’t you go off for the parish engine?” demanded Tod of Hannah, as they came sniffing in. “Well, where’s the fire?”
“But, my dears, something must be singeing,” said Mrs. Todhetley. “Where is it? — what is it?”
“It can’t be anything but the blankets,” cried Hannah, choking and stifling. “Miss Lena, then, don’t I tell you to keep outside, out of harm’s way? Well, it is strong!”
Mrs. Todhetley put her hand on my arm. “Johnny, what is it? Where is the danger?”
“There’s no danger at all,” struck in Tod. “I suppose I can burn some old fishing-tackle rubbish in my basin if I please — horsehair, and that. You should not have the grates filled with paper, ma’am, if you don’t like the smell.”
She went to the basin, found the smell did come from it, and then looked at us both. I was smiling, and it reassured her.
“You might have taken it to the kitchen and burnt it there, Joseph,” she said mildly. “Indeed, I was very much alarmed.”
“Thanks to Hannah,” said Tod. “You’d have known nothing about it but for her. I wish you’d just order her to mind her own business.”
“It was my business, Mr. Joseph — smelling all that frightful smell of singeing! And if —— Why, whose boots are these?” broke off Hannah.
Opening the closet to get out the hair, we had left Fred’s boots exposed. Hannah’s eyes, ranging themselves round in search of the singeing, had espied them. She answered her own question.
“You must have brought them from school in your box by mistake. Mr. Joseph. These are men’s boots, these are!”
“I can take them back to school again,” said Tod, carelessly.
So that passed off. “And it is the best thing we can do with the boots, Johnny, as I think,” he said to me in a low tone when we were once more left to ourselves. “We can’t burn them. They’d make a choicer scent than the hair made.”
“I suppose they wouldn’t fit Mack?”
“If he kept those other ‘beautiful boots’ for high days and holidays, what would he not keep these for? No, Johnny; they are too slender for Mack’s foot.”
“I wonder how poor Fred likes his clumsy ones? — how he contrives to tramp it in them?”
“I would give something to know that he was clear out of the country.”
Dashing over to the Parsonage under pretence of saying good-bye to the children, I gave the envelope containing the lock of hair to Edna, telling her what it was. The colour rushed into her face, the tears to her eyes.
“Thank you, Johnny,” she said softly. “Yes, I shall like to keep it — just a little memorial of him. Most likely we shall never meet again.”
“I should just take up the other side of the question, Edna, and look forward to meeting him.”
“Not here, at any rate,” she answered. “How could he ever come back to England with this dreadful charge hanging over him? Good luck to you this term, Johnny Ludlow. Sometimes I think our school-days are our happiest.”
We were to dine in the middle of the day, and start for school at half-past two. Tod boldly asked the Squire to give him a sovereign, apart from any replenishing of his pockets that might take place at starting. He wanted it for a particular purpose, he said.
And the pater, after holding forth a bit about thrift versus extravagance, handed out the sovereign. Tod betook himself to the barn. There sat Mack on the inverted wheelbarrow, at his dinner of cold bacon and bread, and looking most disconsolate.
“Found the things, Mack?”
“Me found ’em, Mr. Joseph! No, sir; and I bain’t ever likely to find ’em, that’s more. They are clean walked off, they are. When I thinks o’ them there beautiful boots, and that there best smock-frock, I be fit to choke, I be!”
Tod was fit to choke, keeping his countenance. “What was their value, Mack?”
“They were of untold val’e, sir, to me. I’d not hardly ha’ lost ’em for a one-pound note.”
“Would a pound replace them?”
Mack, drawing his knife across the bread and bacon, looked up. Tod spoke more plainly.
“Could you buy new ones with a pound?”
“Bless your heart, sir, and where be I to get a pound from? I was just a-calkelating how long it ‘ud take me to save enough money up ——”
“I wish you’d answer my question, Mack. Would a pound replace the articles that have been stolen?”
“Why, in course it would, sir,” returned Mack, staring. “But where be I——”
“Don’t bother. Look here: there’s a pound”— tossing the sovereign to him. “Buy yourself new ones, and think no more of the old ones.”
Mack could not believe his eyes or ears. “Oh, Mr. Joseph! Well, I never! Sir, you be ——”
“But now, understand this much, Mack. I only give you the money on one condition — that you say nothing about it. Tell nobody.”
“Well, I never, Mr. Joseph! A whole golden pound! Why, sir, it’ll set me up reg’lar in ——”
“If you don’t attend to what I am saying, Mack, I’ll take it away again. You are not to tell any one that you have had it, do you hear?”
“Sir, I’ll never tell a blessed soul.”
“Very well. I shall expect you to keep your word. Once let it be known that your lost clothes have been replaced, and we should have the rest of the men losing theirs on speculation. So keep a silent tongue in your head; to the Squire as well as to others.”
“Bless your heart, Mr. Joseph! I’ll take care, sir. Nobody shan’t know on’t from me. When the wife wants to ferret out where I got ’em, I’ll swear to her I’ve went in trust for ’em. And I’m sure I thank ye, sir, with all my ——”
Tod walked away, cutting the thanks short.
As we were turning out at the gates on our way back to school, Tod driving Bob and Blister (which he much liked to do, though it was not always the Squire trusted him) and Giles sitting behind us, Duffham was coming along on his horse. Tod pulled up, and asked what was the latest news of Gisby.
“Well, strange to say, we are beginning to have some faint hopes of him,” replied the doctor. “There’s no doubt that at mid-day he was a trifle easier and better.”
“That’s good news,” said Tod. “The man is a detestable sneak, but of course one does not want him to die. Save him if you can, Mr. Duffham — for Fred Westerbrook’s sake. Good-bye.”
“God-speed you both,” returned Duffham. “Take care of those horses. They are fresh.”
Tod gently touched the two with the whip, and called back a saucy word. He particularly resented any reflection on his driving.
A year went by. We were at home for the Michaelmas holidays again. And who should chance to call at the Manor the very day of our arrival but old Westerbrook.
Changes had taken place at the N. D. Farm. Have you ever observed that when our whole heart is set upon a thing, our entire aims and actions are directed to bringing it about, it is all quietly frustrated by that Finger of Fate that none of us, whether prince or peasant, can resist? Mrs. Westerbrook had been doing her best to move heaven and earth to encompass the deposition of Fred Westerbrook for her own succession, and behold she could not. Just as she had contrived that Fred should be crushed, and she herself put into old Westerbrook’s will in his place, as the inheritor of the N. D. Farm and all its belongings, Heaven rendered her work nugatory by taking her to itself.
Yes, Mrs. Westerbrook was dead. She was carried off after a rather short illness: and Mr. Westerbrook was a widower, bereaved and solitary.
He was better off without her. The home was ten times more peaceful. He felt that: but he felt it to be very lonely; and he more than once caught himself wishing Fred was back again. Which of course meant wishing that he had never gone away, and never turned out to be a scamp.
Gisby did not die. Gisby had recovered in process of time, and was now more active on the farm than ever. Rather too active, its master was beginning dimly to suspect. Gisby seemed to haunt him. Gisby assumed more power than was at all necessary; and Gisby never ceased to pour into Mr. Westerbrook’s ear reiterations of Fred’s iniquity. Altogether, Mr. Westerbrook was growing a bit tired of Gisby. He had taken to put him down with curtness; and once when Gisby ventured to hint that it might be a convenient arrangement if he took up his abode in the house, Mr. Westerbrook swore at him. As to Fred, he was still popularly looked upon as cousin-german to the fiend incarnate.
Nothing had been heard of him. Nothing of any kind since that moonlight night when he had made his escape. Waiting for news from him so long, and waiting in vain, I, and Tod with me, had at last made up our minds that nothing more ever would be heard of him in this world. In short, that he had slipped out of it. Perhaps been starved out of it. Starved to death.
Well, Mr. Westerbrook called at the Manor within an hour of our getting home for Michaelmas, just twelve months after the uproar.
To me, he looked a good deal changed: his manner was quiet and subdued, almost as though he no longer took much interest in life; his hair had turned much greyer, and he complained of a continual pain in the left leg, which made him stiff, and sometimes prevented him from walking. Duffham called it a touch of rheumatism. Mr. Westerbrook fancied it might be an indication of something worse.
“But you have walked here, Westerbrook!” remarked the Squire.
“And shall walk back again — round by the village,” he said. “It seems to me to be just this, Squire — that if I do not make an effort to walk while I can, I may be laid aside for good.”
He gave a deep sigh as he spoke, as if he had the care of the whole parish upon him. The Squire began talking of the crop of oats on the N. D. Farm, saying what a famous crop it was.
“You’ll net a good penny by them this year, Westerbrook.”
“Passable,” was the indifferent reply. “Good crops no longer bring me the satisfaction they did, Squire. I’ve nobody to save for now. Will you spend a day with me before you go back, young gentlemen?” he went on, turning to us. “Come on Friday. It is pretty lonely there. It wants company to enliven it.”
And we promised we would go.
He said good-bye, and I went with him, to help him over the stile into the lane, on account of his stiffness — for that was the road he meant to take to Church Dykely. In passing the ricks he laid his hand on my shoulder.
“You won’t mind a lonely day with a lonely old man?”
“We shall like it, sir. We will do our best to enliven you.”
“It is not much that will do that now, Johnny Ludlow,” said he. “When a man gets to my age, and feels his health and strength failing, it seems hard to be left all alone.”
“No doubt it does, sir. I wish you had Fred back again!” I boldly added.
“Hush, Johnny! Fred is lost to me for good. He made his own bed, you know, and is lying on it. As I have to lie on mine — such as it is. Such as he left to me!”
“Do you know where Fred is, sir?”
“Do I know where Fred is?” he repeated in a tart tone. “How should I be likely to know? How could I know? I have never heard tidings of him, good or bad, since that wretched night.”
We had reached the stile. Old Westerbrook rested his arms upon the top of it instead of getting over, tapping the step on the other side with his thick walking-stick.
“Gisby’s opinion is that Fred threw himself into the first deep pond that lay in his way that night, and so put an end to his career for good,” said he. “My late wife thought so too.”
“Don’t you believe anything of the kind, sir,” said I, in hot impulse.
“It is what Gisby is always dinning into me, Johnny. I hate to hear him. With all Fred’s faults, he was not one to fly to that extremity, under ——”
“I am quite sure he was not, sir. And did not.”
“Under ordinary circumstances, I was about to say,” went on the old gentleman, with apathy, as he put one foot on the stile. “But when a man has the crime of murder upon his soul, there’s no answering for what he may be tempted to do in his remorse and terror.”
“It was not murder at all, sir. Gisby is well again.”
“But it was thought to be murder at the time. Who would have given a brass button for Gisby’s life that night? Don’t quibble, Master Johnny.”
“Gisby was shot, sir; there’s no denying that, or that he might have died of it; but I am quite sure it was not Fred who shot him.”
“Tush!” said he, testily. “Help me over.”
I wished I dared tell him all. Jumping across myself, I assisted him down. Not that it would have answered any end if I did tell.
“Shall I walk with you as far as the houses, sir?”
“No, thank ye, lad. I want to be independent as long as I can. Come you both over in good time on Friday. Perhaps we can get an hour or two’s shooting.”
Friday came, and we had rather a jolly day than not, what with shooting and feasting. Gisby drew near to join us in the cover, but his master civilly told him that he was not wanted and need not hinder his time in looking after us. Never a word did old Westerbrook say that day of Fred, and he put on his best spirits to entertain us.
But in going away at night, when Tod had gone round to get the bag of partridges, which old Westerbrook insisted on our taking home, he suddenly spoke to me. We were standing at his front-door under the starlight.
“What made you say the other day that Fred was not guilty?”
“Because, sir, I feel sure he was not. I am as sure of it as though Heaven had shown it to me.”
“He was with the gang of poachers: Gisby saw him shoot,” said the old man, with emphasis.
“Gisby may have been mistaken. And Fred’s having been with the poachers at the moment was, I think, accidental.”
“Then why, if not guilty, did he go away?”
“Fear sent him. What would his word have been against Gisby’s dying declaration? You remember what a hubbub there was, sir — enough to frighten any man away, however innocent he might be.”
“Allow, for argument’s sake, that your theory is correct, and that he was frightened into going into hiding, why does he not come out of it? Gisby is alive and well again.”
Ah, I could not speak so confidently there. “I think he must be dead, sir,” I said, “and that’s the truth. If he were not, some of us would surely have heard of him.”
“I see,” said the old gentleman, looking straight up at the stars. “We are both of the same mind, Johnny — that he is dead. I say he might have died that night: you think he went away first and died afterwards. Not much difference between us, is there?”
I thought there was a great deal; but I could not tell him why. “I wish we could hear of him, sir — and be at some certainty.”
“So do I, Johnny Ludlow. He was brought up at my knee; as my own child.”
On our way home, Tod with the bag of game slung over his shoulder, we came upon Mr. Holland near the Parsonage, with Edna Blake and the children. They had been to Farmer Page’s harvest-home. Whilst the parson talked to Tod, Edna snatched a moment with me.
“Have you heard any news, Johnny?”
“Of him? Never. We can’t make it out.”
“Perhaps we never shall hear,” she sighed. “Even if he reached the coast in safety, he may not have got over to the other side. A great many wrecks took place about that time: our weekly paper was full of them. It was the time of the equinoctial gales, and ——”
“Come along, Johnny!” called out Tod, at this juncture. “We must get on. Good-night, Edna: good-night, you youngsters.”
The next day, Saturday, we went to Worcester, the Squire driving us, and there saw Gisby as large as life. The man had naturally great assumption of manner, and latterly he had taken to dress in the fashion. He was looming up High Street, booted and spurred, his silver-headed whip in his hand. Taking off his hat with an air, he wished the Squire a loud good-morning, as if the town belonged to him, and we were only subjects in it.
“I should think Westerbrook has never been fool enough to make his will in Gisby’s favour!” remarked the Squire, staring after him. “Egad, though, it looks like it!”
“It is to be hoped, sir, that he would make it in Fred’s,” was Tod’s rejoinder. And the suggestion put the pater out.
“Make it in Fred’s,” he retorted, going into one of his heats, and turning sharply round on the crowded pavement near the market-house, by which he came into contact with two women and their big butter-baskets. “What do you mean by that, sir? Fred Westerbrook is beyond the pale of wills, and all else. It’s not respectable to mention his name. He — bless the women! What on earth are these baskets at?”
They seemed to be playing at bumps with the Squire; baskets thick and threefold. Tod went in to the rescue, and got him out.
It was a strange thing. It really was. Considering that for the past day or two something or other had arisen to bring up thoughts of Fred Westerbrook, it was strange that the strangest of all things in connection with him was yet to come.
Sitting round the fire after supper, upon getting home from Worcester — it is a long drive, you know — and Tod had gone up to bed, dead tired, who should walk in but Duffham. He would not sit down, had no time; but told his business hastily. Dick Standish was dying, and had something on his conscience.
“I would have heard his confession,” said Duffham, “as I have heard that of many another dying man; but he seems to wish to make it to a magistrate. Either to a magistrate, or to old Mr. Westerbrook, he urged. But there’s no time to go up to the N. D. Farm, so I came for you, Squire.”
“Bless me!” cried the Squire, starting up in a commotion — for he thought a great deal of his magisterial duties, and this was a very unusual call. “Dick Standish dying! What can he have to say? He has been nothing but a poacher all his life, poor fellow! And what has Westerbrook to do with him?”
“Well,” said Duffham, in his equable way, “it strikes me that what he wants to say may affect Fred. Perhaps Standish can clear him.”
“Clear Fred Westerbrook! — clear an iniquitous young man who could turn poacher and murderer! What next will you say, Duffham? Here, Johnny, get my hat and coat. Dear me! Take down a confession! I wonder whether there’ll be any ink there?”
“Let me go with you, sir!” I said eagerly. “I will take my little pocket-inkstand — and some paper — and — and — everything likely to be wanted. Please let me go!”
“Well, yes, you can, Johnny. Don’t forget a Bible. Ten to one if he has one.”
There were three brothers of these Standishes, Tom, Jim, and Dick, none of them particularly well-doing. Tom was no better than a sort of tramp, reappearing in the village only by fits and starts; Jim, who had married Mary Picker, was likewise given to roving abroad, until found and brought back by the parish; Dick, as the Squire phrased it, was nothing but a poacher, and made his home mostly with Jim and Mary. The cottage — a tumble-down lodgment that they did not trouble themselves to keep in repair — was at our end of the parish half-a-mile away, and we put our best feet foremost.
Dick lay upon the low bed in the loft. His illness had been very short and sharp; it was scarcely a week yet since he was taken with it. Duffham had done his best; but the man was dying. Jim Standish was off on one of his roving expeditions, neither the parish nor the public knowing whither.
The Squire sat by the bed, taking down the man’s confession at a small table, by the light of a small candle. I and Duffham stood to hear it; Mary Standish was sent down to the kitchen. What he said cleared Fred Westerbrook — Duffham had no doubt gathered so much before he came for the Squire.
Just what Fred had told us of the events of the night, Dick Standish confirmed now. He and other poachers were out, he said, his brother Tom for one. They had bagged some game, and were about to disperse when they encountered Mr. Fred Westerbrook. He stayed talking with them, walking the same way that they did, when lo! they all fell into the ambush planned by Gisby. A fight ensued; and he — he, Dick Standish, now speaking, conscious that he was dying — he fired his gun at them, and the shot entered Gisby. They ran away then and were not pursued; a gun was fired after them, and it struck his brother Tom, but not to hurt him very much: not enough to disable him. He and Tom made themselves scarce at once, before daylight; and they did not come back till danger was over, and Gisby about again. Old Jones and other folks had come turning the cottage inside out at the time in search of him (Dick), but his brother Jim swore through thick and thin that Dick had not been at home for ever so long. The Squire took all this down; and Dick signed it.
I was screwing the little inkstand up to return it to my pocket, when Mr. Holland entered, Mary Standish having sent for him. Leaving him with the sick man, we came away.
“Johnny, do you know, we might almost have made sure Fred Westerbrook was not guilty,” said the Squire, quite humbly, as we were crossing the turnip-field. “But why on earth did he run away? Where is he?”
“I think he must be dead, sir. What news this will be for Mr. Westerbrook.”
“Dear me yes! I shall go to him with it in the morning.”
When the morning came — which was Sunday — the Squire was so impatient to be off that he could hardly finish his breakfast. The master of the N. D. Farm, who no longer had energy or health to keep the old early hours, was only sitting down to his breakfast when the Squire got there. In his well-meaning but hot way, he plunged into the narrative so cleverly that old Westerbrook nearly had a fit.
“Not guilty!” he stammered, when he came to himself. “Fred not guilty! Only met the poachers by accident! — was not the man that shot Gisby! Why, that’s what Johnny Ludlow was trying to make me believe only a day or two ago!”
“Johnny was? Oh, he often sees through a stone wall. It’s true, anyway, Westerbrook. Fred never had a gun in his hand that night.”
“Then — knowing himself innocent, why on earth does he stay away?”
“Johnny thinks he must be dead,” replied the Squire.
Old Westerbrook gave a groan of assent. His trembling hands upset a cupful of coffee on the table-cloth.
They came on to church together arm-inarm. Mr. Holland joined them, and told the news — Dick Standish was dead: had died penitent. Penitent, so far as might be, in the very short time he had given to repentance, added the clergyman.
But knowing that Fred was innocent seemed to have renewed his uncle’s lease of life. He was altogether a different man. The congregation felt quite electrified by some words read out by Mr. Holland before the General Thanksgiving: “Thomas Westerbrook desires to return thanks to Almighty God for a great mercy vouchsafed to him.” Whispering to one another in their pews, under cover of the drooped heads, they asked what it meant, and whether Fred could have come home? The report of Dick Standish’s confession had been heard before church: and Gisby and Shepherd received some hard words for having so positively laid the deed on Fred.
“I declare to goodness I thought it was Mr. Fred that fired!” said Shepherd, earnestly. “Moonlight’s deceptive, in course: but I know he was close again’ the gun.”
Yes, he was close to the gun: Dick Standish had said that much. Mr. Fred was standing next him when he fired; Mr. Fred had tried to put out his arm to stop him, but wasn’t quick enough, and called him a villain for doing it.
I was taking the organ again that day, if it concerns any one to know it, and gave them the brightest chants and hymns the books contained. The breach with Mr. Richards had never been healed, and the church had no settled organist. Sometimes Mrs. Holland took it; sometimes Mrs. Todhetley; once it was a stranger, who volunteered, and broke down over the blowing; and during the holidays, if we spent them at the Manor, it was chiefly turned over to me.
The Squire made old Westerbrook walk back to dine with us. Sitting over a plate of new walnuts afterwards — there was not much time for dessert on Sundays, before the afternoon service — Tod, calling upon me to confirm it, told all about Fred’s hiding in the church, and how he had got away. But we did not say anything of the money given him by Edna Blake: she might not have liked it. The Squire stared with surprise, and seemed uncertain whether to praise us or to blow us up sharply.
“Shut up in the church for three days and nights! Nothing to eat, except what you could crib for him! Got away at last in Mack’s smock-frock and boots! Well, you two are a pair of pretty conjurers, you are!”
“God bless ’em both for it!” cried old Westerbrook.
“But they ought to have told me, you know, Westerbrook. I could have managed much better — helped the poor fellow off more effectually.”
Tod gave me a kick under the table. He was nearly splitting, at hearing the Squire say this.
The first thing Mr. Westerbrook did was to insert sundry advertisements in the Times and other newspapers, about a hundred of them, begging and imploring his dear nephew (sometimes he worded it his “dear boy”) to return to him. Always underneath this advertisement wherever it appeared was inserted another: stating that all the particulars of the poaching affray which took place on a certain date (mentioning it) were known; that the poacher, Richard Standish, who shot Walter Gisby had confessed the crime, and that Gisby had not died of his wounds, but recovered from them. This was done with the view of letting Fred know that he might come back with safety. But he never came. The advertisements brought forth no answer of any kind.
The master of the N. D. Farm became very short with his bailiff as time went on. There was no reason to suppose that Gisby had intentionally accused Fred of the shot — he had really supposed it to come from Fred; nevertheless, Mr. Westerbrook took a great dislike to him, and was very short and crusty with him. Gisby did not like that, and they had perpetual rows. When we got home for the Christmas holidays, it was thought that Gisby would not be long on the N. D. Farm.
“Johnny, I want to tell you! I have had a letter. From him.”
The whisper came from Edna Blake. It was Christmas Eve; and we were in the church, a lot of us, sticking the branches of holly in the pews. The leaves had never seemed so green or the berries so red.
“Not from Fred?”
“Yes, I have. It came addressed to me about a week ago, with a ten-pound Bank of England note enclosed. There was only a line or two, just saying he had not been able to return it before, but that he hoped he was at length getting on: and that if he did get on, he should be sure to write again later. It was signed F. W. That was all. Neither his name was mentioned, nor mine, nor any address.”
“Where did it come from?”
“London, I think.”
“From London! Nonsense, Edna!”
“The post-mark was London. You are welcome to see the letter. I have brought it with me.”
Drawing the letter from her pocket under cover of her mantle, I took it to the porch. True enough; the letter had undoubtedly been posted in London. Calling Tod, we talked a little, and then told Edna that we both thought she ought to disclose this to Mr. Westerbrook.
“I think so too,” she said, “but I should not like to tell him myself — though his manner to me lately has been very kind. Will you tell him, Johnny? I will lend you the letter to show him. He will be sure to want to see it.”
“And he will have to know about the gold, Edna. The loan of that night.”
“Yes; it cannot be helped. I have thought it all over, and I see that there’s no help for its being known now. The letter alludes to it, you perceive.”
After that the advertisements were resumed. Mr. Westerbrook put some solicitor in London to work, and they were inserted in every known paper. Also in some of the American and Australian papers. Inquiries were made after Fred in London. But nothing came of it. As to old Westerbrook, he seemed to grow better, as if the suspense had stirred him up.
The months went on. Neither Fred nor news of him turned up. That he was vegetating somewhere beyond the pale of civilization, or else was at length really dead, appeared to be conclusive.
July. And we boys at home again for the holidays. The first news told us was, that Mr. Westerbrook and his bailiff had parted company. Gisby had said farewell to the N. D. Farm.
In the satisfaction of finding himself sole master, which he had not been for many a year, and to celebrate Gisby’s departure, Mr. Westerbrook gave a syllabub feast, inviting to it old and young, grown people and children. Syllabub feasts were tolerably common with us.
It was an intensely hot day; the lawn was dotted with guests; most of them gathered in groups under the trees in the shade. Old Westerbrook, the Squire and Mrs. Todhetley, Parson and Mrs. Holland and Mr. Brandon were together under the great horse-chestnut tree. Edna Blake, of course, had the trouble of the parson’s children, and I was talking to her. Little tables with bowls of syllabub on them and cakes and fruit stood about. By-and-by, at sunset or so, we were to go in to a high tea.
It was getting on for two years since the night of Fred Westerbrook’s departure; and Edna was looking five times two years older. Worn and patient were the lines of her face. She was dressed rather poorly, as usual. She had never dressed much otherwise: but since that unlucky night her clothes had been made to last as I should think nobody else’s clothes ever lasted. Whether that ten pounds had absorbed all her funds (as it most likely had), or whether Edna had been saving up for that visionary, possible voyage to America and the home with Fred that was to follow it, I knew not, but one never saw her in new things now. To-day she wore a muslin that once had had rose-red spots on it, but repeated washings had diluted them to a pale pink; and the pink ribbons on her hat had faded too. Not but that, in spite of all, she looked a lady.
“Have you a headache, Edna?”
“Just a little,” she answered, putting her hand to her head. “Charley and Tom would race about as we came along, and I had to run after them. To be much under a blazing sun often gives me a headache now.”
I wondered to myself why the parson and his wife could not have ordered Charley and Tom to be still. Fathers and mothers never think their children can tire people.
“I want some more syllabub, Edna,” cried Charley, just then.
“And me too,” put in little Miles Stirling.
She got up patiently; ladled some of the stuff into two of the custard-cups, and gave one to each of the children, folding her handkerchief under little Stirling’s chin to guard his velvet dress. They stood at the table, two eager little cormorants, taking it in with their tea-spoons.
At that moment, the gate behind us opened, and a gentleman came in. We turned round to see who was arriving so late. A stranger. Some good-looking fellow, with auburn hair, a beard that shone like soft silk in the sun, and a bronzed face. To judge by his movements, he was struck with surprise at sight of the gay company, and stood in evident hesitation.
The low, half-terrified exclamation came from Edna. I turned to her. Her eyes were strained on the stranger; her face had turned white as death. He saw us then, and came towards us. We were the nearest to him.
“Do you know me, Edna?”
I knew him then: knew his voice. Ay, and himself also, now that I saw him distinctly. Edna did not faint; though she was white enough for it: she only put her hands together as one does in prayer, a joyous thankfulness dawning in her eyes.
“Yes, my darling. How strange that you should be the first to greet me! And you, Johnny, old fellow! You have grown!”
His two hands lay for a time in mine and Edna’s. No one had observed him yet: we were at the end of the lawn, well under the trees.
“More syllabub, Edna!” shrieked out that greedy young Charley.
“And me want more, too,” added little Miles; “me not had enough.”
Edna drew her hand away to go to the table, a happy light shining through her tears. Fred put his arm within mine, and we went across the grass together.
The first to see him was Mr. Brandon. He took in the situation at once, and in a degree prepared Mr. Westerbrook. “Here’s some bronzed young man coming up, Westerbrook,” said he. “Looks like a traveller. I should not be surprised if it is your nephew; or perhaps one who brings news of him.”
Old Westerbrook fell back in his chair, as Fred stood there with his two hands stretched out to him. Then he sprang up, burst into tears, and clasped Fred in his arms. Of all commotions! Mr. Brandon walked away out of it into the sun, putting his yellow silk handkerchief on his head. The Squire stared as if he had never seen a bronzed man before; Tod came leaping up, and the best part of the company after him.
“Edna, Edna!” called out Mr. Westerbrook, sitting back in his chair again, and holding Fred tightly. “Edna, I want you instantly.”
She advanced modestly, blushing roses, her hat held in her hand by its faded strings. Mr. Westerbrook looked at her through his tears.
“Here he is, my dear — do you see? — come back to us at last. We must both welcome him. The homestead is yours from this day, Fred; I will have only just a corner in it. I am too old now for a busy life: you must be the acting master. And, Edna, my child, you will come here to be his helpmeet in it, and to take care of me in my declining years — my dear little daughter! Thank God for all things!”
Fred gave us just a brief summary of the past. Getting over to America without much difficulty, he had sought there for some remunerative work, and sought in vain. One of those panics that the Americans go in for had recently occurred in the States, and numbers of men were unable to get employment. After sundry adventures, and some semi-starvation, he at length made his way to the West Indies. A cousin of his late mother was, he knew, settled somewhere within the regions of British Guiana. He found him in Berbice, a small merchant of New Amsterdam. To him Fred told his whole story; and the old cousin gave him a berth in his counting-house. Office-work was new to Fred; but he did his best; and with the first proceeds of his pay he enclosed the ten pounds to Edna; the house forwarding the letter to their agents in London, to be posted there. Some months later, he chanced to see the advertisement for him in an English newspaper. As soon as he was able, he came off to answer it in person; and — here he was.
“All’s well that ends well,” remarked Mr. Brandon, in his dry way.
“And don’t you go fraternizing with poachers again, Mr. Fred!” cried out the Squire. “See what it brought you to the last time.”
“No, Squire; never again,” answered Fred, pushing back his auburn hair (very long again), with a smile. “This one time has been quite enough.”
“But you cannot have Edna, you know,” said Mrs. Holland to him, with a disturbed face. “The Parsonage could not possibly get on without her.”
“I am afraid the Parsonage will have to try, Mrs. Holland.”
“I shall be obliged to keep my bed; that will be the end of it,” said Mrs. Holland, gloomily. “Nobody can manage the children but Edna. When she is otherwise occupied, their noise is frightful: ten times more distracting than the worst toothache.”
Fred said nothing further; she was looking so ruefully woebegone. Putting his arm into mine, he turned into a shady walk.
“Will you be my groomsman at the wedding, Johnny? But for you, my good friend, I don’t know that I should have been saved to see this day.”
“Nay, Fred, I think it was the key of the church that saved you. I will be your groomsman if you really and truly prefer to pitch upon me, rather than on some one older and better.”
“Yes, you are right,” he answered, lifting his hat, and glancing upwards. “It was the key of the church — under God.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55