Mrs. Todhetley says that you may sometimes read a person’s fate in their eyes. I don’t know whether it’s true. She holds to it that when the eyes have a sad, mournful expression naturally, their owner is sure to have a life of sorrow. Of course such instances may be found: and Thomas Rymer’s was one of them.
You can look back and read what was said of him: “A thin, delicate-faced man, with a rather sad expression and mild brown eyes.” The sad expression was in the eyes: that was certain: thoughtful, dreamy, and would have been painfully sad but for its sweetness. But it is not given to every one to discern this inward sadness in the look of another.
It was of no avail to say that Thomas Rymer had brought trouble upon himself, and marred his own fortune. His father was a curate in Warwickshire, poor in pence, rich in children. Thomas was apprenticed to a doctor in Birmingham, who was also a chemist and druggist. Tom had to serve in the shop, take out teeth, make up the physic, and go round with his master to fevers and rheumatisms. Whilst he was doing this, the curate died: and thenceforth Thomas would have to make his own way in the world, with not a soul to counsel him.
Of course he might have made it. But Fate, or Folly, was against him. Some would have called it fate, Mrs. Todhetley for one; others might have said it was folly.
Next door to the doctor’s was a respectable pork and sausage shop, carried on by a widow, one Mrs. Bates. Rymer took to going in there of an evening when he had the time, and sitting in the parlour behind with Mrs. Bates and her two daughters. Failing money for theatres and concerts, knowing no friends to drop in to, young fellows drift anywhere for relaxation when work is done. Mrs. Bates, a good old motherly soul, as fat as her best pig, bade him run in whenever he felt inclined. Rymer liked her for her hearty kindness, and liked uncommonly the dish of hot sausages, or chops, that would come on the table for supper. The worst was, he grew to like something else — and that was Miss Susannah.
If it’s true that people are attracted by their contrasts, there might have been some excuse for Rymer. He was quiet and sensitive, with a refined mind and person, and retiring manners. Susannah Bates was free, loud, good-humoured, and vulgar. Some people, it was said, called her handsome then; but, judging by what she was later, we thought it must have been a very broad style of beauty. The Miss Bateses were intended by their mother to be useful; but they preferred being stylish. They played “Buy a broom” and other fashionable tunes on the piano, spent time over their abundant hair, wore silks for best, carried a fan to chapel on Sundays, and could not be persuaded to serve in the shop on the busiest day. Good Mrs. Bates managed the shop herself with the help of her foreman: a steady young man, whose lodgings were up a court hard by.
Well, Tom Rymer, the poor clergyman’s son, grew to be as intimate there as if it were his home, and he and Susannah struck up a friendship that continued all the years he was at the next door. Just before he was out of his time, Mrs. Bates died.
The young foreman somehow contrived to secure the business for himself, and married the elder Miss Bates off-hand. There ensued some frightful squabbling between the sisters. The portion of money said to be due to Miss Susannah was handed over to her with a request that she should find herself another home. Rymer came of age just then, and the first thing he did was to give her a home himself by making her his wife.
There was the blight. His prospects were over from that day. The little money she had was soon spent: he must provide a living how he could. Instead of qualifying himself for a surgeon, he took a situation as a chemist and druggist’s assistant: and, later, set up for himself in the shop at Timberdale. For the first ten years of his married life, he was always intending to pass the necessary examinations: each year saying it should be done the next. But expenses came on thick and fast; and that great need with every one, present wants, had to be supplied first. He gave up the hope then: went on in the old jog-trot line, and subsided into an obscure rural chemist and druggist.
The son, Benjamin, was intended for a surgeon. As a preliminary, he was bound apprentice to his father in order to learn the mysteries of drugs and chemicals. When out of his time, he was transferred to a chemist and druggist’s at Tewkesbury, who was also in practice as a medical man. There, Mr. Benjamin fell in with bad companions; a lapse that, in course of time, resulted in his coming home, changing the note in our letter for the stolen one, and then decamping from Timberdale. What with the blow the discovery itself was to Rymer, and what with the concealing of the weighty secret — for he had to conceal it: he could not go and inform against his own son — it pretty nearly did for him. Rymer tried to make reparation in one sense of the word — by the bringing of that five-pound bank-note to the Squire. For which the Squire, ignorant of the truth, thought him a downright lunatic.
For some months, after that evening, Thomas Rymer was to be seen in his shop as usual, growing to look more and more like a ghost. Which Darbyshire, the Timberdale doctor, said was owing to liver, and physicked him well.
But the physic did not answer. Of all obstinate livers, as Darbyshire said, Rymer’s was about the worst he had ever had to do with. Some days he could not go into the shop at all, and Margaret, his daughter, had to serve the customers. She could make up prescriptions just as well as he, and people grew to trust her. They had a good business. It was known that Rymer’s drugs were genuine; had direct from the fountain-head. He had given up the post-office, and the grocer opposite had taken to it — Salmon, who was brother to Salmon of South Crabb. In this uncertain way, a week ill, and a week tolerably well, Rymer continued to go on for about two years.
Margaret Rymer stood behind the counter: a neat little girl in grey merino. Her face was just like her father’s; the same delicate features, the sweet brown eyes, and the look of innate refinement. Margaret belonged to his side of the house; there was not an atom of the Brummagem Bateses in her. The Squire, who remembered her grandfather the clergyman, said Margaret took after him. She was in her nineteenth year now, and for steadiness you might have trusted her alone right across the world and back again.
She stood behind the counter, making up some medicine. A woman in a coarse brown cloak with a showy cotton handkerchief tied on her head was waiting for it. It had been a dull autumn day: evening was coming on, and the air felt chilly.
“How much be it, please, miss?” asked the woman, as Margaret handed her the bottle of mixture, done up in white paper.
“Eighteenpence. Thank you.”
“Be the master better?” the woman turned round from the door to inquire, as if the state of Mr. Rymer’s health had been an afterthought.
“I think he is a little. He has a very bad cold, and is lying in bed today. Thank you for asking. Good-night.”
When dusk came on, Margaret shut the street-door and went into the parlour. Mrs. Rymer sat there writing a letter. Margaret just glanced in.
“Mother, can you listen to the shop, please?”
“I can if I choose — what should hinder me?” responded Mrs. Rymer. “Where are you off to, Margaret?”
“To sit with my father for a few minutes.”
“You needn’t bother to leave the shop for that. I dare say he’s asleep.”
“I won’t stay long,” said Margaret. “Call me, please, if any one comes in.”
She escaped up the staircase, which stood in the nook between the shop and the parlour. Thomas Rymer lay back in the easy-chair by his bit of bedroom fire. He looked as ill as a man could look, his face thin and sallow, the fine nose pinched, the mild brown eyes mournful.
“Papa, I did not know you were getting up,” said Margaret, in a soft low tone.
“Didn’t you hear me, child?” was his reply, for the room was over the shop. “I have been long enough about it.”
“I thought it was my mother moving about.”
“She has not been here all the afternoon. What is she doing?”
“I think she is writing a letter.”
Mr. Rymer groaned — which might have been caused by the pain that he was always feeling. Mrs. Rymer’s letters were few and far between, and written to one correspondent only — her son Benjamin. That Benjamin was random and must be getting a living in any chance way, or not getting one at all, and that he had never been at home for between two and three years, Margaret knew quite well. But she knew no worse. The secret hidden between Mr. and Mrs. Rymer, that they never spoke of to each other, had been kept from her.
“I wish you had not got up,” said Margaret. “You are not well enough to come down to-night.”
He looked at her, rather quickly; and spoke after a pause.
“If I don’t make an effort — as Darbyshire tells me — it may end in my becoming a confirmed invalid, child. I must get down while I can.”
“You will get better soon, papa; Mr. Darbyshire says so,” she answered, quietly swallowing down a sigh.
“Ay, I know he does. I hope it will be so, please God. My life has been only a trouble throughout, Margaret; but I should like to struggle with it yet for all your sakes.”
Looking at him as he sat there, the firelight playing upon his worn face with its subdued spirit, you might have seen it was true — that his life had been a continuous trouble. Was he born to it? or did it only come upon him through marrying Susannah Bates? On the surface of things, lots seemed very unequally dealt out in this world. What had been the lot of Thomas Rymer? The poor son of a poor curate, he had known little but privation in his earlier years; then came the long drudgery of his apprenticeship, then his marriage, and the longer drudgery of his after-life. An uncongenial and unsuitable marriage — and he had felt it to the backbone. From twenty to thirty years had Rymer toiled in a shop late and early; never taking a day’s rest or a day’s holiday, for some one must always be on duty, and he had no help or substitute. Even on Sundays he must be at hand, lest his neighbours should be taken ill and want drugs. If he went to church, there was no certainty that his servant-maid — generally a stout young woman in her teens, with a black face and rough hair — would not astonish the congregation by flying up to his pew-door to call him out. Indeed the vision was not so very uncommon. Where, then, could have been Rymer’s pleasure in life? He had none; it was all work. And upon the work came the trouble.
Just as the daughter, Margaret, was like her father, so the son, Benjamin, resembled his mother. But for the difference of years, and that his red hair was short and hers long, he might have put on a lace cap, and sat for her portrait. He was the eldest of the children; Margaret the youngest, those between had died. Seven years between children makes a difference, and Margaret with her gentleness had always been afraid of rough Benjamin.
But whether a child is ugly or handsome, it’s all the same to the parents, and for some years the only white spot in Thomas Rymer’s life had been the love of his little Benjamin. For the matter of that, as a child, Ben was rather pretty. He grew up and turned out wild; and it was just as great a blow as could have fallen upon Rymer. But when that horrible thing was brought home to him — taking the bank-note out of the letter, and substituting the stolen one for it — then Rymer’s heart gave in. Ever since that time it had been as good as breaking.
Well, that was Thomas Rymer’s lot in life. Some people seem, on the contrary, to have nothing but sunshine. Do you know what Mrs. Todhetley says? — that the greater the cloud here, the brighter will be the recompense hereafter. Looking at Thomas Rymer’s face as the fire played on it — its goodness of expression, almost that of a martyr; remembering his prolonged battle with the world’s cares, and his aching heart; knowing how inoffensive he had been towards his fellow-creatures, ever doing them a good turn when it lay in his power, and never an ill one — one could only hope that his recompense would be of the largest.
“Had many people in this afternoon, Margaret?”
“Pretty well, papa.”
Mr. Rymer sighed. “When I get stronger ——”
The loud coarse summons was Mrs. Rymer’s. Margaret’s spirit recoiled from it the least in the world. In spite of her having been brought up to the “shop,” there had always been something in her innate refinement that rebelled against it and against having to serve in it.
“A haperth o’ liquorish” was the extensive order from a small child, whose head did not come much above the counter. Margaret served it at once: the liquorice, being often in demand, was kept done up in readiness. The child laid down the halfpenny and went out with a bang.
“I may as well run over with the letter,” thought Margaret — alluding to an order she had written to London for some drug they were out of. “And there’s my mother’s. Mother,” she added, going to the parlour-door, “do you want your letter posted?”
“I’ll post it myself when I do,” replied Mrs. Rymer. “Ain’t it almost time you had the gas lighted? That shop must be in darkness.”
It was so, nearly. But the gas was never lighted until really needed, in the interests of economy. Margaret ran across the road, put her letter into the post in Salmon’s window, and ran back again. She stood for a moment at the door, looking at a huge lumbering caravan that was passing — a ménage on wheels, as seen by the light within its small windows. “It must be on its way to Worcester fair,” she thought.
“Is it you, Margaret? How d’ye do?”
Some great rough man had come up, and was attempting to kiss her. Margaret started back with a cry. She would have closed the door against him; but he was the stronger and got in.
“Why, what possesses the child! Don’t you know me?”
Every pulse in Margaret Rymer’s body tingled to pain as she recognized him. It was her brother Benjamin. Better, than this, that it had been what she fancied — some rude stranger, who in another moment would have passed on and been gone for ever. Benjamin’s coming was always the signal for discomfort at home, and Margaret felt half-paralyzed with dismay.
“How are the old folk, Maggie?”
“Papa is very ill,” she answered, her voice slightly trembling. “My mother is well as usual. I think she was writing to you this afternoon.”
“Governor ill! So I’ve heard. Upstairs a good deal, is he not?”
“Quite half his time, I think.”
“Who attends here?”
“You! — you little mite! Brought your knowledge of rhubarb to good use, eh? What’s the matter with papa?”
“He has not been well for a long while. I don’t know what it is. Mr. Darbyshire says”— she dropped her voice a little —“that he is sure there’s something on his mind.”
“Poor old dad! — just like him! If a woman came in with a broken arm, he’d take it to heart.”
“Benjamin, I think it is you that he has most at heart,” the girl took courage to say.
Mr. Benjamin laughed. “Me! He needn’t trouble about me. I am as steady as old Time, Maggie. I’ve come home to stay; and I’ll prove to him that I am.”
“Come home to stay!” faltered Margaret.
“I can take care of things here. I am better able to do it than you.”
“My father will not put me out of my place here,” said Margaret, steadily. “He has confidence in me; he knows I do things just as he does.”
“And for that reason he makes you his substitute! Don’t assume, Miss Maggie; you’d be more in your place stitching wristbands in the parlour than as the presiding genius in a drug-shop. How d’ye do, mother?”
The sound of his voice had reached Mrs. Rymer. She did not believe her own ears, and came stealing forth to look, afraid of what she might see. To give Madam Rymer her due, she was quite as honest-natured as her husband; and the matter of the bank-note, the wrong use made of the keys she was foolish enough to lend surreptitiously to Mr. Benjamin, had brought her no light shock at the time. Ill-conduct in the shape of billiards, and beer, and idleness, she had found plenty of excuse for in her son; but when it came to felony, it was another thing altogether.
“It is him!” she muttered, as he saw her, and turned. “Where on earth have you sprung from?” demanded Mrs. Rymer.
“Not from the skies, mother. Hearing the governor was on the sick list, I thought I ought to come over and see him.”
“None of your lies, Ben,” said Mrs. Rymer. “That has not brought you here. You are in some disgraceful mess again.”
“It has brought me here — and nothing else,” said Ben: and he spoke truth. “Ashton of Timberdale ——”
A faint groan — a crash as of breaking glass. When they turned to look, there was Rymer, fallen against the counter in his shock of surprise and weakness. His arm had thrown down an empty syrup-bottle.
And that’s how Benjamin Rymer came home. His father and mother had never seen him since before the discovery of the trouble; for as soon as he had changed the bank-note in the letter, he was off. The affair had frightened him a little — that is, the stir made over it, of which he had contrived to get notice; since then he had been passably steady, making a living for himself in Birmingham as assistant to a surgeon and druggist. He had met Robert Ashton a short time ago (this was the account he now gave), heard from that gentleman rather a bad account of his father, and so thought it his duty to give up what he was about, and come home. His duty! Ben Rymer’s duty!!
Ben was a tall, bony fellow, with a passably liberal education. He might not have been unsteady but for bad companions. Ben did not aid in robbing the butcher’s till — he had not quite come to that — neither was he privy to it; but he did get persuaded into trying to dispose of one of the stolen notes. It had been the one desperate act of his life, and it had sobered him. Time, however, effaces impressions; from two to three years had gone on since then; nothing had transpired, never so much as a suspicion had fallen on Mr. Benjamin, and he grew bold and came home.
Timberdale rubbed its eyes with astonishment that next autumn day, when it woke up to see Benjamin Rymer in his father’s shop, a white apron on, and serving the customers who went in, as naturally as though he had never left it. Where had he been all that while? they asked. Improving himself in his profession, coolly avowed Ben with unruffled face.
And so the one chance — rest of mind — for the father’s return to health and life, went out. The prolonged time, passing without discovery, giving a greater chance day by day that it might never happen, could but have a beneficial effect on Mr. Rymer. But when Ben made his appearance, put his head, so to say, into the very stronghold of danger, all his sickness and his fear came back again.
Ben did not know why his father kept so poorly and looked so ill. Never a word, in his sensitiveness, had Mr. Rymer spoken to his son of that past night’s work. Ben might suspect, but he did not know. Mr. Rymer would come down when he was not fit to do so, and take up his place in the shop on a stool. Ben made fun of it: in sport more than ill-feeling: telling the customers to look at the old ghost there. Ben made himself perfectly at home; would sometimes hold a levée in the shop if his father was out of it, when he and his friends, young men of Timberdale, would talk and laugh the roof off.
People talk of the troubles of the world, and say their name is legion: poverty, sickness, disappointment, disgrace, debt, difficulty; but there is no trouble the human heart can know like that brought by rebellious children. To old Rymer, with his capacity for taking things to heart, it had been as a long crucifixion. And yet — the instinctive love of a parent cannot die out: recollect David’s grief for wicked Absalom: “Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Still, compared with what he used to be, Ben Rymer was steady. As the winter approached, there set in another phase of the reformation; for he pulled up even from the talking and laughing, and became as good as gold. You might have thought he had taken his dead grandfather, the clergyman, for a model, and was striving to walk in his steps. He went to church, read his medical works, was pleasant at home, gentle with Margaret, and altogether the best son in the world.
“Will it last, Benjamin?” his father asked him sorrowfully.
“It shall last, father; I promise it,” was the earnestly-spoken answer. “Forget the past, and I will never, I hope, try you again.”
Ben kept his promise throughout the winter, and seemed likely to keep it always. Mr. Rymer grew stronger, and was in business regularly, which gave Ben more leisure for his books. It was thought that a good time had set in for the Rymers; but, as Mrs. Todhetley says, you cannot control Fate.
One day, when we were again staying at Crabb Cot, I had to call at the shop for a box of “Household Pills,” Rymer’s own making. When any one was ailing at home, Mrs. Todhetley would administer a dose of these pills. But that Rymer was so conscientious a man, I should have thought they were composed of bread and pepper. Mrs. Todhetley pinned her faith to them, and said they did wonders.
Well, I had to go to Timberdale on other matters, and was told to call, when there, for a box of these delectable Household Pills. Mr. Rymer and his son stood behind the counter, the one making up his books, Ben pounding something in a mortar. Winter was just on the turn, and the trees and hedges were beginning to shoot into bud. Ben left his pounding to get the pills.
“Is this Mr. Rymer’s? Halloa, Ben! All right. How goes it, old boy?”
The door had been opened with a burst, and the above words met our ears, in a tone not over-steady. They came from a man who wore sporting clothes, and his hat very much on one side. Ben Rymer stared in surprise; his mouth dropped.
But that it was early in the day, and one does not like to libel people, it might have been thought the gentleman had taken a little too much of something strong. He swaggered up to the counter, and held out his hand to Ben. Ben, just then wrapping up the box of pills, did not appear to see it.
“Had a hunt after you, old fellow,” said the loud-voiced stranger. “Been to Birmingham and all kinds of places. Couldn’t think where you’d hid yourself.”
“You are back pretty soon,” growled Ben, who certainly did not seem to relish the visit.
“Been back a month. Couldn’t get on in the New World; its folks are too down for me. I say, I want a word with you. Can’t say it here, I suppose?”
“No,” returned Ben, rather savagely.
“Just come out a bit, Ben,” resumed the stranger, after a short pause.
“I can’t,” replied Ben — and his tone sounded more like I won’t. “I have my business to attend to.”
“Bother business! Here goes, then: it’s your fault if you make me speak before people. Gibbs has come out of hiding, and is getting troublesome ——”
“If you will go outside and wait, I’ll come to you,” interrupted Ben at this, very quickly.
The man turned and swaggered out. Ben gave me the pills with one hand, and took off his apron with the other. Getting his hat, he was hastening out, when Mr. Rymer touched his arm.
“Who is that man, Benjamin?”
“A fellow I used to know in Tewkesbury, father.”
“What’s his name?”
“Cotton. I’ll soon despatch him and be back again,” concluded Ben, as he disappeared.
I put down half-a-crown for the pills, and Mr. Rymer left his place to give me the change. There had been a sort of consciousness between us, understood though not expressed, since the night when I had seen him giving way to his emotion in Crabb Ravine. This man’s visit brought the scene back again. Rymer’s eyes looked into mine, and then fell.
“Ben is all right now, Mr. Rymer.”
“I could not wish him better than he is. It’s just as though he were striving to atone for the past. I thought it would have killed me at the time.”
“I should forget it.”
“Forget it I never can. You don’t know what it was, Mr. Johnny,” he continued in a sort of frightened tone, a red spot coming into his pale thin cheeks, “and I trust you never will know. I never went to bed at night but to lie listening for a summons at my door — the officers searching for my son, or to tell me he was taken. I never rose in the morning but my spirit fainted within me, as to what news the day might bring forth.”
Mr. Benjamin and his friend were pacing side by side in the middle of the street when I went out, probably to be out of the reach of eavesdroppers. They did not look best pleased with each other; seemed to be talking sharply.
“I tell you I can’t and I won’t,” Ben was saying, as I passed them in crossing over. “What do you come after me for? When a fellow wants to be on the square, you won’t let him. As to Gibbs ——”
The voices died out of hearing. I went home with the pills, and thought no more about the matter.
Spring weather is changeable, as we English know only too well. In less than a week, a storm of sleet and snow was drifting down. In the midst of it, who should present himself at Crabb Cot at midday but Lee, the letter-carrier. His shaky old legs seemed hardly able to bear him up against the storm, as he came into the garden. I opened the door, wondering what he wanted.
“Please can I see the Squire in private, sir?” asked Lee, who was looking half angry, half rueful. Lee had never been in boisterous spirits since the affair of the bank-note took place. Like a great many more people, he grew fanciful with years, and could not be convinced but that the suspicion in regard to it lay on him.
“Come in out of the storm, Lee. What’s up?”
“Please, Mr. Ludlow, sir, let me get to see the Squire,” was all his answer.
The Squire was in his little room, hunting for a mislaid letter in the piece of furniture he called his bureau. As I shut old Lee in, I heard him, Lee, begin to say something about the bank-note and Benjamin Rymer. An instinct of the truth flashed over me — as sure as fate something connecting Ben with it had come out. In I shot again, to make one at the conference. The Squire was looking too surprised to notice me.
“It was Mr. Rymer’s son who took out the good note and put in the bad one?” he exclaimed. “Take care what you say, Lee.”
Lee stood near the worn hearthrug; his old hat, covered with snow-flakes, held between his hands. The Squire had put his back against the bureau and was staring at him through his spectacles, his nose and face a finer red than ordinary.
The thing had been tracked home to Benjamin Rymer by the man Cotton, Lee explained in a rambling sort of tale. Cotton, incensed at Rymer’s not helping him to some money — which was what he had come to Timberdale to ask for — had told in revenge of the past transaction. Cotton had not been connected with it, but knew of the part taken in it by Rymer.
“I don’t believe a syllable of it,” said the Squire, stoutly, flinging himself into his bureau chair, which he twisted round to face the fire. “You can sit down, Lee. Where did you say you heard this?”
Lee had heard it at the Plough and Harrow, where the man Cotton had been staying. Jelf, the landlord, had been told it by Cotton himself, and Jelf in his turn had whispered it to Lee. That was last night: and Lee had come up with it now to Mr. Todhetley.
“I tell you, Lee, I don’t believe a syllable of it,” repeated the Squire.
“It be true as gospel, sir,” asserted Lee. “Last night, when I went in to Jelf’s for a drop of beer, being stiff all over with the cold, I found Jelf in a passion because a guest had gone off without paying part of his score, leaving nothing but a letter to say he’d send it. Cotton by name, Jelf explained, and a sporting gent to look at. A good week, Jelf vowed he’d been there, living on the best. And then Jelf said I had no cause to be looked down upon any longer, for it was not me that had done that trick with the bank-notes, but Benjamin Rymer.”
“Now just stop, Lee,” interrupted the Squire. “Nobody looked down upon you for it, or suspected you: neither Jelf nor other people. I have told you so times enough.”
“But Jelf knows I thought they did, sir. And he told me this news to put me a bit at my ease. He ——”
“Jelf talks at random when his temper’s up,” cried the Squire. “If you believe this story, Lee, you’ll believe anything.”
“Ben Rymer was staying at home at the time, sir,” urged Lee, determined to have his say. “If he is steady now, it’s known what he was then. He must have got access to the letters somehow, while they lay at his father’s that night, and opened yours and changed the note. Cotton says Mr. Ben had had the stolen note hid about him for ever so long, waiting an opportunity to get rid of it.”
“Do you mean to accuse Mr. Ben of being one of the thieves who robbed the butcher’s till?” demanded the Squire, growing wrathful.
“Well, sir, I don’t go as far as that. The man told Jelf that one of the stolen notes was given to young Rymer to pass, and he was to have a pound for himself if he succeeded in doing it.”
The Squire would hardly let him finish.
“Cotton said this to Jelf, did he? — and Jelf rehearsed it to you?”
“Yes, sir. Just that much.”
“Now look you here, Lee. First of all, to whom have you repeated this tale?”
“Not to anybody,” answered Lee. “I thought I’d better bring it up here, sir, to begin with.”
“And you’d better let it stop here to end with,” retorted the Squire. “That’s my best advice to you, Lee. My goodness! Accuse a respectable man’s son of what might transport him, on the authority of a drunken fellow who runs away from an inn without paying his bill! The likeliest thing is that this Cotton did it himself. How else should he know about it? Don’t you let your tongue carry this further, Lee, or you may find yourself in the wrong box.”
Lee looked just a little staggered. A faint flush appeared in his withered face. The Squire’s colour was at its fiercest. He was hard at the best of times to take in extraordinary tales, and utterly scouted this one. There was no man he had a greater respect for than Thomas Rymer.
“I hoped you might be for prosecuting, sir. It would set me right with the world.”
“You are a fool, Lee. The world has not thought you wrong yet. Prosecute! I! Upon this cock-and-bull story! Mr. Rymer would prosecute me in turn, I expect, if I did. You’d better not let this get to his ears: you might lose your post.”
“Mr. Rymer, sir, must know how wild his son has been.”
“Wild! Most of the young men of the present day are that, as it seems to me,” cried the Squire, in his heat. “Mine had better not let me catch them at it, though. I’d warm their ears well beforehand if I thought they ever would —— Do you hear, Mr. Johnny?”
I had been leaning on the back of a chair in the quietest corner for fear of being sent away. When the Squire put himself up like this, he would say anything.
“To be a bit wild is one thing, Lee; to commit felony quite another: Rymer’s son would be no more guilty of it than you would. It’s out of all reason. And do you take care of your tongue. Look here, man: suppose I took this up, as you want me, and it was found to have been Cotton or some other gaol-bird who did it, instead of young Rymer: where would you be? In prison for defamation of character, if the Rymers chose to put you there. Be wise in time, Lee, and say no more.”
“It might have been as you say, sir — Cotton himself; though I’m sure that never struck me,” returned Lee, veering round to the argument. “One thing that made me believe it, was knowing that Ben Rymer might easily get access to the letters.”
“And that’s just the reason why you should have doubted it,” contradicted the Squire. “He would be afraid to touch them because of the ease with which he could do it. Forgive you for coming up, you say?” added the Squire, as Lee rose with some humble words of excuse. “Of course I will. But don’t forget that a word of this, dropped abroad, might put your place, as postman, in jeopardy.”
“And that would never do,” said Lee, shaking his head.
“I should think not. It’s cold today, isn’t it?”
“Frightful cold, sir.”
“And you could come through it with this improbable story! Use your sense another time, Lee. Here, Johnny, take Lee into the kitchen, and tell them to give him some cold beef and beer.”
I handed him over, with the order, to Molly; who went into one of her tantrums at it, for she was in the midst of pastry-making. The Squire was sitting with his head bent, looking as perplexed as an owl, when I got back to the room.
“Johnny — shut the door. Something has come into my mind. Do you recollect Thomas Rymer’s coming up one evening, and wanting to give me a five-pound note?”
“Quite well, sir.”
“Well; I— I am not so sure now that there’s nothing in this fresh tale.”
I sat down; and in a low voice told him all. Of the fit of sobbing in which I had found Rymer that same night in the Ravine; and that I had known all along it was the son who had done it.
“Bless my heart!” cried the Squire, softly, very much taken aback. “It’s that, perhaps, that has been making Rymer so ill.”
“He said it was slowly killing him, sir.”
“Mercy on him! — poor fellow! An ill-doing scapegrace of a rascal! Johnny, how thankful we ought to be when our sons turn out well, and not ill! But I think a good many turn out ill nowadays. If you should live to have sons, sir, take care how you bring them up.”
“I think Mr. Rymer must have tried to bring Ben up well,” was my answer.
“Yes; but did the mother?” retorted the Squire. “More responsibility lies with them than with the father, Johnny; and she spoilt him. Take care, sir, how you choose a wife when the time comes. And there was that miserable lot the lad fell in with at Tewkesbury! Johnny, that Cotton must be an awful blackguard.”
“I hope he’ll live to feel it.”
“Look here, we must hush this up,” cried the Squire, sinking his voice and glancing round the room. “I wouldn’t bring fresh pain on poor Rymer for the world. You must forget that you’ve told me, Johnny.”
“Yes, that I will.”
“It’s only a five-pound note, after all. And if it were fifty pounds, I wouldn’t stir in it. No, nor for five hundred; be hanged if I would! It’s not I that would bring the world about Thomas Rymer’s ears. I knew his father and respected him, Johnny; though his sermons were three-quarters of an hour long, sometimes; and I respect Thomas Rymer. You and I must keep this close. And I’ll make a journey to Timberdale when this snow-storm’s gone, Johnny, and frighten Jelf out of his life for propagating libellous tales.”
That’s where it ought to have ended. The worst is, “oughts” don’t go for much in the world; as perhaps every reader of this paper has learned to know.
When Lee appeared the next morning with the letters as usual, I went out to him. He dropped his voice to speak, as he put them in my hand.
“They say Benjamin Rymer is off, sir.”
“Somewhere out of Timberdale.”
“Off for what?”
“I don’t know, sir. Jelf accused me of having carried tales there, and called me a jackass for my pains. He said that what he had told me wasn’t meant to be repeated again, and I ought not to have gone telling it about, especially to the Rymers themselves; that it might not be true ——”
“As the Squire said yesterday, you know, Lee.”
“Yes, sir. I answered Jelf that it couldn’t have been me that had gone talking to the Rymers, for I had not as much as seen them. Any way, he said, somebody had, for they knew of it, and Benjamin had gone off in consequence. Jelf’s as cross over it as two sticks. It’s his own fault; why did he tell me what wasn’t true?”
Lee went off — looking cross also. After breakfast I related this to the Squire. He didn’t seem to like it, and walked about thinking.
“Johnny, I can’t stir in it, you see,” he said presently. “If it got abroad, people might talk about compromising a felony, and all that sort of rubbish: and I am a magistrate. You must go. See Rymer: and make him understand — without telling him in so many words, you know — that there’s nothing to fear from me, and he may call Ben back again. If the young man has begun to lead a new life, Heaven forbid that I, having sons myself, should be a stumbling-block in the way of it.”
It was striking twelve when I reached Timberdale. Margaret said her father was poorly, having gone out in the storm of the previous day and caught a chill. He was in the parlour alone, cowering over the fire. In the last few hours he seemed to have aged years. I shut the door.
“What has happened?” I whispered. “I have come on purpose to ask you.”
“That which I have been dreading all along,” he said in a quiet, hopeless tone. “Benjamin has run away. He got some information, it seems, from the landlord of the Plough and Harrow, and was off the next hour.”
“Well, now, the Squire sent me to you privately, Mr. Rymer, to say that Ben might come back again. He has nothing to fear.”
“The Squire knows it, then?”
“Yes. Lee came up about it yesterday: Jelf had talked to him. Mr. Todhetley did not believe a word of it: he blew up Lee like anything for listening to such a tale; he means to blow up Jelf for repeating anything said by a vagabond like Cotton. Lee came round to his way of thinking. Indeed there’s nothing to be afraid of. Jelf is eating his words. The Squire would not harm your son for the world.”
Rymer shook his head. He did not doubt the Squire’s friendly feeling, but thought it was out of his hands. He told me all he knew about it.
“Benjamin came to me yesterday morning in a great flurry, saying something was wrong, and he must absent himself. Was it about the bank-note, I asked — and it was the first time a syllable in regard to it had passed between us,” broke off Rymer. “Jelf had given him a friendly hint of what had dropped from the man Cotton — you were in the shop that first day when he came in, Mr. Johnny — and Benjamin was alarmed. Before I had time to collect my thoughts, or say further, he was gone.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. I went round at once to Jelf, and the man told me all. Jelf knows the truth; that is quite clear. He says he has spoken only to Lee; is sorry now for having done that, and he will hush it up as far as he can.”
“Then it will be quite right, Mr. Rymer. Why should you be taking it in this way?”
“I am ill,” was all he answered. “I caught a chill going round to the Plough and Harrow. So far as mental illness goes, we may battle with it to the end, strength from above being given to us; but when it takes bodily form — why, there’s nothing for it but giving in.”
Even while we spoke, he was seized with what seemed to be an ague. Mrs. Rymer appeared with some scalding broth, and I said I would run for Darbyshire.
A few days went on, and then news came up to Crabb Cot that Mr. Rymer lay dying. Robert Ashton, riding back from the hunt in his scarlet coat and white cords on his fine grey horse (the whole a mass of splashes with the thaw) pulled up at the door to say How d’ye do? and mentioned it amidst other items. It was just a shock to the Squire, and nothing less.
“Goodness preserve us! — and all through that miserable five-pound note, Johnny!” he cried in a wild flurry. “Where’s my hat and top-coat?”
Away to Timberdale by the short cut through the Ravine, never heeding the ghost — although its traditional time of appearing, the dusk of evening, was drawing on — went the Squire. He thought Rymer must be ill through fear of him; and he accused me of having done my errand of peace badly.
It was quite true — Thomas Rymer lay dying. Darbyshire was coming out of the house as the Squire reached it, and said so. Instead of being sorry, he flew in a passion and attacked the doctor.
“Now look you here, Darbyshire — this won’t do. We can’t have people dying off like this for nothing. If you don’t cure him, you had better give up doctoring.”
“How d’you mean for nothing?” asked Darbyshire, who knew the Squire well.
“It can’t be for much: don’t be insolent. Because a man gets a bit of anxiety on his mind, is he to be let die?”
“I’ve heard nothing about anxiety,” said Darbyshire. “He caught a chill through going out that day of the snow-storm, and it settled on a vital part. That’s what ails him, Squire.”
“And you can’t cure the chill! Don’t tell me.”
“Before this time tomorrow, Thomas Rymer will be where there’s neither killing nor curing,” was the answer. “I told them yesterday to send for the son: but they don’t know where he is.”
The Squire made a rush through the shop and up to the bedroom, hardly saying, “With your leave,” or, “By your leave.” Thomas Rymer lay in bed at the far end; his white face whiter than the pillow; his eyes sunken; his hands plucking at the counterpane. Margaret left the room when the Squire went in. He gave one look; and knew that he saw death there.
“Rymer, I’d almost have given my own life to save you from this,” cried he, in the shock. “Oh, my goodness! what’s to be done?”
“I seem to have been waiting for it all along; to have seen the exposure coming,” said Thomas Rymer, his faint fingers resting in the Squire’s strong ones. “And now that it’s here, I can’t battle with it.”
“Now, Rymer, my poor fellow, couldn’t you —couldn’t you make a bit of an effort to live? To please me: I knew your father, mind. It can’t be right that you should die.”
“It must be right; perhaps it is well. I can truly say with old Jacob that few and evil have the days of my life been. Nothing but disappointment has been my lot here; struggle upon struggle, pain upon pain, sorrow upon sorrow. I think my merciful Father will remember it in the last great account.”
He died at five o’clock in the morning. Lee told us of it when he brought up the letters at breakfast-time. The Squire let fall his knife and fork.
“It’s a shame and a sin, though, Johnny, that sons should inflict this cruel sorrow upon their parents,” he said later. “Rymer has been brought down to the grave by his son before his hair was grey. I wonder how their accounts will stand at the great reckoning?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55