The hall-clock was striking half-past five as we went out into the sharp night-air: Mr. and Mrs. Todhetley, I, and Tod. We were spending Christmas that year at Crabb Cot. Old Coney’s dinner was fixed for six: but country people don’t observe the fashion of dashing in at the last stroke of the hour. The weather was cold, and no mistake; the snow lay on the ground; the stars shone like silver. This was Tuesday, New Year’s Day; and tomorrow, the second of January, Jane Coney would be married to Robert Ashton of Timberdale. The Ashtons were to dine to-night at the Farm, and we had been asked to meet them. If every one stood upon his own level, we should shoot up some degrees over the Coneys’ heads in the scale of the world’s ladder; for old Coney was only a plain farmer; and you’ve learnt by this time what the Squire was. But the Coneys were right-down good people, and made the best neighbours in the world.
We had only to cross the road slantwise, and old Coney had had it swept for us. It was an old-fashioned farm-house, full of nooks and angles, with one ugly, big room in it, oak-panelled. The cloth was laid there for to-night, the breakfast would be for the morrow. Old Coney and Mrs. Coney came out of the drawing-room to meet us: that was small and snug, with a running pattern of pale roses on its white-watered walls. He was jolly; she, plain, homely, and sensible.
Jane was quiet, like her mother; very well she looked, standing on the carpet in her pretty blue silk dress. Her brother Tom, a tall, strong young fellow with a red face, lifted her out of the way by the waist, that he might shake hands all round. The eldest daughter, Mary West, was staying there with her nurse and baby; she looked ill, and got up only for a minute from her chair by the fire. Her husband was a lawyer, in practice at Worcester. Another young lady was sitting near, with light frizzed hair: Mrs. James Ashton.
Before we had settled down, wheels were heard. It was Robert Ashton’s dog-cart, bringing his two brothers, Charles and James; and Mary West’s husband. Miss Jane’s cheeks turned as red as a rose for nothing: Robert Ashton had not come with them.
I had better say who the Ashtons were. Old Ashton (the father) had lived at Timberdale Court always. It was one of the best farms in all Worcestershire. Old Ashton lived in good style, educated his children, and started them well in life. Lucy, the only girl, married a Captain Bird, who turned out to be a frightful scamp. Robert remained on the farm with his father; Charles was a clergyman; James a doctor in Worcester. Everybody respected Mr. Ashton. It was about three years now since he died, and he left a good pot of money behind him. Robert succeeded to the farm, and it was he who was to marry Jane Coney tomorrow.
They went upstairs with their carpet-bags, having come direct from Worcester by train; Robert Ashton’s dog-cart had been waiting, as arranged, at Timberdale Station to bring them on. Mrs. James Ashton came over earlier in the day with Mrs. West. Robert and Charles Ashton were both fine young men, but the doctor was slight and short. Now I hope all that’s clear; because it was necessary to say it.
What with talking and looking at the presents, the time passed. They were laid out on a table against the wall, on a snow-white damask cloth of rare beauty.
“Look here,” whispered Mrs. Coney, taking up a scented blue-and-white case of satin ribbon and beads for holding pocket-handkerchiefs. “Poor Lucy Bird sent this. She must have made it herself, a thing like this, bought, would be as much as fifteen or sixteen shillings. It came almost anonymously: ‘With best love and ever kind wishes for Robert and Jane,’ written on it; but we knew Lucy’s handwriting.”
“Where are they now?” asked Mrs. Todhetley, in the same mysterious whisper.
“I fancy they are staying somewhere in Worcester. We should have liked to have Lucy over for the wedding; but — you know how it is: we could not ask him.”
Mrs. Todhetley nodded. She wore her grey silk gown that night, which always seemed to make her look taller and thinner than ever, and a white lace cap with pink ribbons. A pink bow was in her light hair, and she had put on her beautiful earrings.
There is some thorn in most families, and Lucy was the one in that of Ashton. She was educated at the best school in Worcester, and came home at eighteen brimful of romance. It lay in her nature. You’d hardly have found so pretty and sentimental a girl in the county. Because her name was Lucy Ashton, she identified herself with Scott’s Lucy Ashton, and looked out for a Master of Ravenswood. These sentimental girls sometimes come to grief, for they possess only three parts of their share of plain common-sense. The Master of Ravenswood came in the shape of Captain Bird, a tall, dark man, with a flaming coat and fierce moustache. He paid court to Lucy, and she fell in love with him before a week was over. The Ashtons turned their backs upon him: there was something in the man they did not like, in spite of the red coat and the black moustache. But he won Lucy over — he had heard of her fortune, you see — and she promised to marry him. She was a gentle, yielding, timid girl then; but her love was strong, and she ran away. She ran away and was married the same morning at St. Helen’s church in Worcester, in which parish Bird had been staying. It was the talk of the county; but when the commotion had subsided, every one began to pity Lucy, saying she would have plenty of time and cause for repentance. After all, he was not a real captain now. He had sold out of the army; and there arose a rumour that he had done something wrong and was obliged to sell out.
Mr. Ashton had loved Lucy better than all his children. He forgave the marriage for Lucy’s sake, and had them home on a visit, and presented her with a handsome sum. But he made a great mistake — I’ve heard the Squire say it often — in not settling it upon her. Bird spent it as soon as he well could; and he would have spent some more that came to Lucy when her father died, only that it was left in Robert Ashton’s hands to be paid to her quarterly. People called Bird a blackleg: said he was about the worst man that ever stepped. Robert had offered Lucy a home at Timberdale Court, but she would not leave her husband: she had married him, she said, for better or worse. If he came to be transported — and he was going on for it — the chances were that Lucy would follow him to Van Diemen’s Land.
“I say, there’s six o’clock!” exclaimed Mr. Coney, as the hour struck. “Jane, what have you done with Robert?”
“Not anything, papa. He said he should be here half-an-hour before dinner.”
“And it will soon be half-an-hour after it,” returned old Coney. “If he does not make haste, we shall sit down without him.”
The clock on the mantelpiece went ticking on, and struck half-past six. Dinner. The Squire led off the van with Mrs. Coney. Tod laid hold of Jane.
“I’ll take Robert’s place whilst I can, Jenny.”
The oak-room was a surprise. It looked beautiful. The dark walls were quite covered with holly and ivy, mixed with the blossoms of laurustinus and some bright flowers. Old Thomas (borrowed from us) and the maids stood by the sideboard, which glittered with silver. The Coneys had their stores as well as other people, and did things well when they did them at all. On the table was a large codfish, garnished with horse-radish and lemon. Our names were before our places, and we took them without bustle, Robert Ashton’s, next to Jane, being left vacant.
“For what ——”
A faint shriek interrupted the Reverend Mr. Ashton, and the grace was interrupted. Lifting his head towards the quarter whence the shriek came, he saw his sister-in-law with a scared face.
“We are thirteen!” exclaimed Mrs. James Ashton. “I beg your pardon, Charles — I beg everybody’s pardon; but indeed we must not sit down thirteen to dinner on New Year’s Day. I would not for any money.”
“What nonsense, my dear!” cried her husband, rather crossly. “Robert will be here directly.”
It was of no use. The ladies took her part, saying they ought not to sit down. And there we all stood, uncertain what to do, the dinner hovering in mid-air like Mahomet’s coffin, and not to be eaten.
“There are two days in the year when it is not well to sit down thirteen: New Year’s Day and Christmas Day,” said Mrs. Todhetley, and the rest held with her.
“Are we all to go back to the drawing-room, and leave our dinner?” demanded old Coney, in wrath. “Where the plague is Robert? Look here: those that won’t sit down thirteen can go, and those that don’t mind it can stop.”
“Hear, hear!” cried the Squire.
But Jane Coney went gliding to her mother’s side. “I will wait for Robert in the drawing-room, mamma, and you can sit down twelve. Yes, please; it is best so. Indeed I could not eat anything if I stayed.”
“Shall we send you some dinner in, child?” asked Mr. Coney.
“No, thank you, papa. I should like best to take it with Robert when he comes.”
“All right,” said old Coney. “Johnny, you go over to that side, to make the table even. We’ll have the grace now, parson.”
And the parson said it.
It was a dinner that pleased the Squire’s heart. He had a mortal objection to what he called kickshaws, meaning the superfluous dishes you find at a modern entertainment. The Coneys never had kickshaws, only a plain, substantial dinner, the best of its kind.
“Coney, I never taste such oyster-sauce as yours, go where I will,” cried the Squire. “It can’t be matched.”
Old Coney winked, as much as to say he knew it. “The missis gives an eye to that, you see, Squire,” he answered, in a side whisper. “She had been in the kitchen till you came.”
The Squire took another ladleful. He went once or twice to every dish, and drank champagne with all of us. But still Robert Ashton did not come.
I slipped round to Mrs. Coney when the plum-pudding appeared, whispering that I would take a slice to Jane.
“So you shall, Johnny,” she said, giving me some on a plate, and putting a mince-pie beside it. “She will have no luck unless she eats a little of both pudding and pie on the first day of the year.”
Jane sat in a low elbow-chair before the fire, her head leaning on her hand, her hair a little tumbled. It was very pretty hair, dark chestnut, and her eyes were hazel. Robert Ashton was fair-haired and blue-eyed; Saxon all over, and very good-looking.
“I have brought you some pudding, Jane.”
“Oh, Johnny! why did you leave the table? I can’t eat it.”
“But Mrs. Coney says you are to; and some mince-pie also, or you’ll have no luck.”
As if in obedience she ate a little of the pudding, cut a quarter of the mince-pie with her fork, and ate that.
“There, Johnny, that’s quite enough for ‘luck.’ Go back now to your dinner; I dare say you’ve not had any pudding yourself.”
“I’ll stay with you, and finish this: as it is going begging.”
She neither said yes nor no. She was looking frightfully uneasy.
“Are you vexed that Robert Ashton’s not here, Jane?”
“I am not vexed, because I know he would have been here if he could. I think something has happened to him.”
I stared at her. “What! because he is a little late in coming? Why, Jane, you must be nervous.”
She kept looking into the fire, her eyes fixed. I sat on a stool on the other side of the hearth; the empty pudding-plate standing on the rug between us, where I had put it.
“Robert was sure to come for this dinner, Johnny, all being well, and to be in time.”
“Tell me what you fear, Jane — and why?”
“I think I will tell you,” she said, after a pause. “I should like to tell some one. I wish I had told Robert when he called this morning; but I was afraid he would laugh at me. You will laugh too.”
And Jane Coney told it. In a low, dread voice, her eyes staring into the fire as before, just as though they could see through the blaze into the future.
Early that morning she had had a dream; a disagreeable, ugly dream about Robert Ashton. She thought he was in some frightful peril, that she cried to him to avoid it, or it would stop their marriage. He seemed not to take the least notice of her, but to go right on to it, and in the alarm this brought her, she awoke. I listened in silence, saying nothing to the end; no, nor then.
“The dream was so intensely real, Johnny. It seemed to be today; this very day then dawning; and we both of us knew that it was; the one before our marriage. I woke up in a fever; and but that it was night and not day, should have had difficulty in persuading myself at first that we were not really enacting the scene — it was, as I say, so vividly real. And Robert went out to the peril, never heeding me.”
“What was the peril?”
“That’s what I can’t tell. A consciousness lay upon me that it was something very bad and frightful; but of its nature I saw nothing. I did not go to sleep again: it must have been about six o’clock, but the mornings are very dark, you know. I got up soon: what with this dinner-party and other things, there has been a great deal to do today, and I soon forgot my dream. Robert called after breakfast, and the sight of him put me in mind of it. I felt a great inclination to tell him to take especial care of himself; but he would only have laughed at me. He drove away direct to the Timberdale Station, to take the train for Worcester.”
She did not say, though, what he had gone for to Worcester. To get the ring and licence.
“I have not felt the smallest fear of the dream all along, Johnny, since I awoke. Excepting for the few minutes Robert was here, I don’t remember even to have thought of it. But when his brothers and Mr. West came in without him to-night, it flashed into my mind like a dart. I felt sure then that something had happened. I dare say we shall never be married now.”
“Well, Johnny Ludlow, I think it.”
To me it seemed to be growing serious. There might be nothing at all in what she had said; most people would have said there was nothing; but, sitting there in the quiet room listening to her earnest voice, seeing her anxious face, a feeling came over me that there was. What had become of Robert Ashton? Where could he be?
“I wish you would give me that shawl of mamma’s,” she said, pointing to one on a chair. “I feel cold.”
She was shivering when I put it over her pretty white shoulders and arms. And yet the fire was roaring to the very top of the grate.
“Alone here, while you were at dinner, I went over all sorts of probabilities,” she resumed, drawing the shawl round her as if she were out in the snow. “Of course there are five hundred things that might happen to him, but I can only think of one.”
“Well?” for she had stopped. She seemed to be speaking very unwillingly.
“If he walked he would be almost sure to take the near way, across the Ravine.”
Was she ever coming to the point? I said nothing. It was better to let her go on in her own way.
“I dare say you will say the idea is far-fetched, Johnny. What I think is, that he may have fallen down the Ravine, in coming here.”
Well, I did think it far-fetched. I’d as soon have expected her to say fallen down the chimney.
“Those zigzag paths are not very safe in good weather, especially the one on the Timberdale side,” she went on. “With the snow on them, perhaps ice, they are positively dangerous. One false step at the top — and the fall might kill him.”
Put in this way, it seemed feasible enough. But yet — somehow I did not take to it.
“Robert Ashton is strong and agile, Jane. He has come down the zigzag hundreds of times.”
“I seem to see him lying there, at the bottom of the Ravine,” she said, staring as before into the fire. “I— wish — some of you would go and look for him.”
“Perhaps we had better. I’ll make one. Who’s this?”
It was Tom Coney. His mother had sent him to see after me. I thought I’d tell him — keeping counsel about the dream — that Robert Ashton might have come to grief in the Ravine.
“What kind of grief?” asked Tom.
“Turned a summersault down the zigzag, and be lying with a leg broken.”
Tom’s laugh displayed his small white teeth: the notion amused him excessively. “What else would you like to suppose, Johnny?”
“At any rate, Jane thinks so.”
She turned round then, the tears in her eyes, and went up to Tom in an outburst of grief. It took him aback.
“Tom! Tom! if no one goes to see after him, I think I must go myself. I cannot bear the suspense much longer!”
“Why, Jenny girl, what has taken you?”
That had taken her. The fear that Robert Ashton might be lying disabled, or dead, in the Ravine. Tom Coney called Tod quietly out of the dining-room, and we started. Putting on our dark great-coats in silence, we went out at the back-door, which was nearest the Ravine. Jane came with us to the gate. I never saw eyes so eager as hers were, as she gazed across the snow in the moonlight.
“Look here,” said Tom, “we had better turn our trousers up.”
The expedition was not pleasant, I can assure you, especially the going down the zigzag. Jane was right about its being slippery: we had to hold on by the trees and bushes, and tread cautiously. When pretty near the bottom, Tod made a false step, and shot down into the snow.
“Murder!” he roared out.
“Any bones broken?” asked Tom Coney, who could hardly speak for laughing. Tod growled, and shied a handful of snow at him.
But the slip brought home to us the probability of the fear about Robert Ashton. To slip from where Tod did was fun; to slip from the top of the opposite zigzag, quite another thing. The snow here at the bottom was up to our calves, and our black evening trousers got rolled up higher. The moonlight lay cold and white on the Ravine: the clustering trees, thick in summer, were leafless now. Had any fellow been gazing down from the top, we must have looked, to him, like three black-coated undertakers, gliding along to a funeral.
“I’ll tell you what,” cried Tod: “if Ashton did lose his footing, he wouldn’t come to such mortal grief. The depth of snow would save him.”
“I don’t believe he did fall,” said Tom Coney, stoutly. “Bob Ashton’s as sure-footed as a hare. But for Jane’s being so miserable, I’d have said, flatly, I wouldn’t come out on any such wild-goose errand.”
On we went, wading through the snow. Some of us looked round for the ghost’s light, and did not see it. But rumour said that it never came on a bright moonlit night. Here we were at last! — at the foot of the other zigzag. But Robert Ashton wasn’t here. And, the best proof that he had not fallen, was the unbroken surface of the snow. Not so much as a rabbit had scudded across to disturb it.
“I knew it,” said Tom Coney. “He has not come to grief at all. It stands to reason that a fellow must have heaps to do the day before his wedding, if it’s only in burning his old letters from other sweethearts. Bob had a heap of them, no doubt; and couldn’t get away in time for dinner.”
“We had better go on to the Court, and see,” I said.
“Oh, that be hanged!” cried the other two in a breath.
“Well, I shall. It’s not much farther. You can go back, or not, as you like.”
This zigzag, though steeper than the one on our side, was not so slippery. Perhaps the sun had shone on it in the day and melted the snow. I went up it nearly as easily as in good weather. Tod and Coney, thinking better of the turning back, came after me.
We should have been at Timberdale Court in five minutes, taking the short-cut over hedges and ditches, but for an adventure by the way, which I have not just here space to tell about. It had nothing to do with Robert Ashton. Getting to the Court, we hammered at it till the door was opened. The servant started back in surprise.
“Goodness me!” said she, “I thought it was master.”
“Where is the master?” asked Tom.
“Not come home, sir. He has not been in since he left this morning.”
It was all out. Instead of pitchpolling into Crabb Ravine and breaking his limbs, Bob Ashton had not got back from Worcester. It was very strange, though, what could be keeping him, and the Court was nearly in a commotion over it.
When we got back to the Farm, they were laying the table for the wedding-breakfast. Plenty of kickshaws now, and some lovely flowers. The ladies, helping, had their gowns turned up. This helping had not been in the evening’s programme; but things seemed to have been turned upside down, and they were glad to seize upon it. Jane and her sister, Mrs. West, sat alone by the drawing-room fire, never saying a word to one another.
“Johnny, I don’t half like this,” whispered Mrs. Todhetley to me.
“Like what, good mother?”
“This absence of Robert Ashton.”
I don’t know that I liked it either.
Morning came. In an uncertainty such as this, people go to each other’s houses indiscriminately. The first train came in from Worcester before it was well light; but it did not bring Robert Ashton. As to the snow on the ground, it was pretty well beaten now.
“He wouldn’t travel by that slow parliamentary thing: he’ll come by the express to South Crabb Junction,” said Tom Coney, thinking he would cheer away the general disappointment. Jane we had not seen.
The express would be at the Junction between nine and ten. A whole lot of us went down there. It was not farther off than Timberdale Station, but the opposite way. I don’t think one of us was more eager than another, unless it was the Squire. The thing was getting serious, he told us; and he went puffing about like a man looking for his head.
To witness the way he seized upon the doors when the express steamed in, and put his old red nose inside all the carriages, looking for Robert Ashton, was a rare sight. The guard laid hold of his arm, saying he’d come to damage. But Robert Ashton was not in the train.
“He may come yet,” said old Coney, looking fit to cry. “There’ll be a train in again at Timberdale. Or, he may drive over.”
But every one felt that he would not come. Something told us so. It was only making believe to one another, saying he would.
“I shall go to Worcester by the next down train,” said the Squire to old Coney.
“The next does not stop here.”
“They’d better stop it for me,” said the Squire, defiantly. “You can’t come, Coney. You must remain to give Jane away.”
“But if there’s no bridegroom to give her to?” debated old Coney.
“There may be. You must remain on the strength of it.”
The down train came up, and obeyed the signal to stop made by the station-master. The Squire, Tod, and Tom Coney got in, and it steamed on again.
“Now mind, I shall conduct this search,” the Squire said to the others with a frown. “You young fellows don’t know your right hand from your left in a business of this sort. We must go about it systematically, and find out the different places that Robert Ashton went to yesterday, and the people he saw.” Tod and Tom Coney told us this later.
When they arrived at Worcester, the first man they saw at Shrubb Hill Station was Harry Coles, who had been seeing somebody off by the train, which was rather curious; for his brother, Fred Coles, was Robert Ashton’s great chum, and was to be groom’s-man at the wedding. Harry Coles said his brother had met Ashton by appointment the previous day, and went with him to the Registrar’s office for the marriage licence — which was supplied to them by Mr. Clifton himself. After that, they went to the jeweller’s, and chose the wedding-ring.
“Well, what after that?” cried the impatient Squire.
Harry Coles did not know what. His brother had come back to their office early in the afternoon — about one o’clock — saying Ashton was going, or had gone, home.
“Can’t you tell which he said — going, or gone?” demanded the Squire, getting red.
“No, I can’t,” said Harry Coles. “I was busy with some estimates, and did not pay particular attention to him.”
“Then you ought to have paid it, sir,” retorted the Squire. “Your brother? — where is he?”
“Gone over to Timberdale ages ago. He started the first thing this morning, Squire; a big coat thrown over his wedding toggery.”
The Squire growled, as a relief to his feelings, not knowing what in the world to do. He suddenly said he’d go to the Registrar’s office, and started for Edgar Street.
Mr. Clifton was not there, but a clerk was. Yes, Mr. Ashton of Timberdale had been there the previous day, he said, in answer to the Squire, and had got his licence. The governor (meaning Mr. Clifton, who knew the Ashtons and the Coneys well) had joked a bit with young Ashton, when he gave it. As to telling where Ashton of Timberdale and Mr. Coles had gone to afterwards, the clerk did not know at all.
So there was nothing to be gathered at the Registrar’s office, and the Squire turned his steps up the town again, Tod and Coney following him like two tame lambs; for he wouldn’t let them make a suggestion or put in a word edgeways. He was on his way to the jeweller’s now: but as he had omitted to ask Harry Coles which of the jewellers’ shops the ring was bought at, he took them all in succession, and hit upon the right one after some difficulty.
He learnt nothing there, either. Mr. Ashton of Timberdale had bought the ring and keeper, and paid for them, the master said. Of course every one knew the young lady was Miss Jane Coney: he had brought one of her rings as a guide for size: a chased gold ring, with small garnet stones in it.
“I am not asking for rings and stones,” interrupted the Squire, wrathfully. “I want to know if Mr. Ashton said where he was going to afterwards?”
“He said never a word about it,” returned the master. “When they went out of here — young Fred Coles was with him — they took the way towards the Hop Market.”
The Squire went to the Crown next — the inn used by the Ashtons of Timberdale. Robert Ashton had called in the previous day, about one o’clock, the waiter said, taking a little bread-and-cheese, observing that he had no time for anything else, and a glass of table-beer. Mr. Coles had come down Broad Street with him, as far as the inn door, when they shook hands and parted; Mr. Coles going back again. The waiter thought Mr. Ashton was not in the house above five minutes at the most.
“And don’t you know where he went to next?” urged the Squire.
“No,” the waiter replied. The impression on his mind was, that Mr. Ashton’s business in Worcester was over, and that he was returning home again.
The Squire moved slowly up Broad Street, more gloomy than an owl, his hands in his pockets, his nose blue. He boasted of his systematic abilities, as applied to seekings and searchings, but he knew no more what to be at next than the man in the moon. Turning up the Cross, he came to an anchor outside the linen-draper’s shop; propping his back against the window, as if the hanging silks had offended him. There he stood staring up at St. Nicholas’s clock opposite.
“Tom,” said he, virtually giving in, “I think we had better talk to the police. Here’s one coming along now.”
When the policeman was abreast, the Squire took his hands from his pockets, and pinned the man by his button-hole.
“Mr. Ashton of Timberdale? — oh, he has got into trouble, sir,” was the man’s ready answer. “He is before the magistrates now, on a charge of ——”
The railway omnibus, coming along at the moment, partially drowned the word.
“Charge of what?” roared the Squire.
The policeman repeated it. The omnibus was making a frightful rattle, and the Squire only just caught it now. With a great cry he dashed over to the fly-stand, got into one, and ordered it to gallop away with him. Tom Coney and Tod barely escaped having to hang on behind.
“Drive like mad!” stamped the Squire.
“Yes, sir,” said the man, obeying. “Where to?”
“Go on, will you, sir! To the deuce.”
“To the police-court,” corrected Tom Coney.
Arrived there, the Squire left them to pay the fare, and fought his way inside. The first thing his spectacles caught sight of distinctly was the fair Saxon face and fine form of Robert Ashton, standing, a prisoner, in the criminal dock.
At the Farm, things were in a state more easily imagined than described. The carriages came bowling up, bringing the guests. The four bridesmaids wore pale-blue silk, trimmed with white fur. Jane was dressed. In passing her door, I saw her. They had sent me up to fetch something from Tom’s room.
“Is it not a mockery, Johnny?” she said, letting me enter. And her poor pale face looked more fit for a burying than a wedding, and her eyes had dark circles round them.
“If you mean your dress, Jane, I never saw anything less like a mockery, or more like a princess’s in a fairy tale.”
It was of rich white silk; a delicate wreath of myrtle and orange-blossoms on her chestnut hair. The veil lay upon the bed.
“You know what I mean, Johnny. There will be no wedding at North Crabb Church today — and nothing can have been more foolish than to prepare me for it. Oh, Johnny! if I could only go to sleep till ten years hence, and never wake up between!”
Before the gate waited the carriages, their postillions in scarlet jackets; the company, in their fine plumage, jostled each other in the nooks and corners of the house; the maids, wearing a bright uniform of purple gowns and white muslin aprons, ran about wildly. Every two minutes, old Coney went up to a staircase window that faced Timberdale, looking out to see whether Robert Ashton was coming — like Sister Anne, in “Bluebeard.”
Twelve o’clock! It was like a knell booming out; and the carriages went away with the company. A fine ending to a wedding!
I was standing at the back-door, disconsolate as the moaning wind, when the Timberdale Station fly came rattling along. A gentleman put his head out of it, to tell the driver to stop. He got down, and came limping up to me. It was Mr. West’s partner, old Lawyer Cockermuth, who had declined an invitation to the wedding, because of gout.
“Look here,” said he, catching me by the shoulder, “I want to say half-a-dozen words to Mr. Coney. Can you manage to bring him out to me, or smuggle me into any little place where we can be alone? I suppose the house is chock-full of wedding-people.”
“You have brought bad news of Robert Ashton!” I said, in sudden conviction. “What is it?”
“Well, so I have,” he answered confidentially. “It will soon be known to every one, but I should like to break it to Coney first. I’ve come over to do it. Robert Ashton is in custody for murder!”
I felt my face turn as pale as a girl’s. “For murder?”
Old Cockermuth’s face grew long as he nodded. “He is in custody for nothing less than the murder of his brother-in-law, Bird. Yesterday ——”
A smothered cry behind us, and I turned sharply. There stood Jane. She had seen Cockermuth’s arrival, and came down, knowing he must have brought bad news. The white robe and wreath were gone, and she wore an everyday dress of violet merino.
“Now, my dear! my dear, be calm!” cried the old lawyer, in a fright. “For goodness’ sake shut us in somewhere, Johnny Ludlow! We shall have the whole pack out upon us.”
Some of the pack did come, before he could be shut up. And there we were — hearing that Robert Ashton had been taken up for murder.
It appeared that, after quitting the Crown on the previous day, he met his sister’s husband, Captain Bird — from habit, people still accorded him his title. Captain Bird told him Lucy was dangerously ill, and asked him to go and see her. Robert went at once to their lodgings. What exactly happened there, no one as yet knew; but Robert and Bird got quarrelling. Robert did not come out again. In the morning (this morning) the neighbours heard a hue-and-cry; and on the door being opened by two policemen, Bird was found lying in the passage dead, as was supposed, and Robert Ashton was given into custody for his murder.
Jane touched me on the arm, and I followed her into the large, empty dining-room. That miserable breakfast! waiting for those who could not sit down to it. The evergreens on the walls seemed to look faded; the flowers on the table to have lost their first freshness.
“You see I was right, Johnny,” she said. “That dream was a dream of warning. And sent as one.”
It did look like it. But dreams are things you can’t lay hold of; no, nor altogether believe in. Standing by the cold grate, she began to shiver. In the confusion, the servants had let the fire go out.
“I would forget the dream, if I were you, Jane. Where’s the use of people having dreams ——”
“Say warnings, Johnny.”
“—— if they cannot see how to make use of them? Call them warnings, an you like the word better. They are of no good at all.”
“Oh, Johnny, if I could only die! It was hard enough to bear when he was only missing; but now ——”
It was just as though she never meant to leave off shivering. I went to hunt for some sticks, and saw our cook, Molly, in the kitchen amongst the maids. Trust her for being in the thick of any gossip. Bringing the sticks back, I pushed them in, and they soon crackled up into a blaze. Jane sat down and watched them.
“I wouldn’t be afraid, Jane, if I were you. There must be some mistake.”
“I’m not afraid — in one sense. That Robert has done nothing wrong willingly, I know. But — he is rather passionate; and there’s no telling how they might provoke him. If there is much prolonged suspense; a trial, or anything of that sort — well, I suppose I shall live through it.”
How hopeless she looked! her head bent, her eyes cast down. Just then there was a cry outside for Jane. “Jane!”
“Go out, Johnny, and say I am all right. Pray to them to leave me alone. Tell mamma not to come in; I am easier by myself — and the fire’s burning up. They have gone calling upstairs; they wouldn’t think I am here.”
Was there anything incoherent in her words? I looked at her narrowly. I suppose that they sounded something like it.
“One has been coming to soothe me, and another has been coming; I haven’t known how to bear it. They mean it in kindness — great kindness; but I would so much rather be alone. You go now, Johnny.”
So I shut her in. And whispered to Mrs. Coney that she was praying to be left.
I don’t know how the day went on, except that it was miserably uncomfortable. We had some cold beef in the everyday dining-room, and old Coney, after saying he’d have given a thousand pounds out of his pocket for it not to have happened, went and smoked a pipe with Cockermuth in the best kitchen. Dusk began to come on.
Why! who was that — driving up in Robert Ashton’s dog-cart? Robert! Robert himself? Yes, it was; and the Squire, and Tod, and Tom Coney with him. The dog-cart had gone to the station to wait for the Squire and the other two: they came, bringing Robert Ashton.
“Is it all right, Mr. Ashton?”
“Quite right, Johnny. You did not think it could be wrong, did you?”
“You are out on bail?”
“Out for good. There has been no real damage done. I wonder where Jane is?”
“I’ll take you to her. She has been wishing she was dead.”
No one in the house scented his presence. I opened the door of the large oak-room. Jane was kneeling on the hearthrug, her face buried in the cushion of the arm-chair. She started up at the noise, and stood like one turned to stone.
I do believe she thought it was not real — his ghost, or something. He went up in silence, slightly smiling — he was always a quiet-mannered man — and holding out his hand.
“It is I, myself, Jane. You look as though you doubted it.”
With a great cry she fell forward. Robert caught her to his breast. I was going away when he hastily called to me. For the first time in her life she had fainted away. The thing had been too much for her.
“Get some water, Johnny. Don’t call any one. She’ll soon come to.”
There was water on the table; wine too. He gave Jane some of both. And then she listened to his story, leaning on his arm, and crying as softly and peacefully as a little child.
Those outside were listening to the wonderful tale. When I went out, they had gathered in the best kitchen, round the Squire, who had gone there in search of old Coney. The Squire’s glowing face was a sight to be seen. Mrs. Coney had sat down on the mahogany bench; her hands lifted. Coney stood with his pipe held at arm’s-length. As to Mrs. Todhetley, the tears were running down her cheeks in a stream.
It was quite true that Lucy Bird was very ill. Robert saw her in bed. As he was leaving, Bird began upon the old grievance — that he should have some of Lucy’s money advanced in a lump. He wanted it for his cards and dice, you see. Robert told him, No: as he had told him all along. An associate of Bird’s was there; a very bad man, named Dawler. They got Robert to take a friendly glass of wine — which purported to be sherry: and from that moment he lost all power, and partly consciousness. The wine was drugged. Their object, no doubt, had been to partly stupefy him, and so induce him to sign an undertaking to hand over the money to Bird. But they had made the potion a trifle too strong, not calculating the effect it would take on a young and habitually sober man. Robert fell into a deep sleep, from which it was impossible to arouse him all night: as to writing, his hands were as if dead. Late in the morning he awoke; and, bit by bit, realized where he was and what had passed. He was a little stupid even then, but sensible enough to remember that it was his wedding-day, and to foresee that he might have some trouble to get away from the house. On attempting to leave, Bird and Dawler placed themselves in the passage to prevent him. There was a hot contest. Robert Ashton, a stronger man than either of the others, but aware that all his strength was not then at his own command, seized a knotted stick, or club, that was lying in a corner, and lifted it to fight his way through. Dawler struck at it, to get it out of his hand, and struck it against Bird’s head with frightful force. The fellow dropped as one dead, and the door was burst open by the neighbours and policemen. The excitement, perhaps the exertion, acting on Robert Ashton’s only partly recovered state, turned him stupid again: the people took him to be drunk, and Dawler gave him in charge for murder.
That was the history. When the Squire had got into the police-court, Robert Ashton (who was nearly himself again through the remedies the doctor had given him in the police-station) was telling his tale. Dawler was contradicting him, and swearing hard and fast that it was a case of deliberate murder. The magistrates invited the Squire to a seat beside them: and the first thing he did was to break into a hot tantrum, vowing Robert Ashton couldn’t be guilty. How it would have terminated no one knew, but Lucy saved him.
Lucy saved him. A wan, haggard young woman wrapped in an old shawl, staggered into the justice-room, to the front of the room. It was Lucy Bird. She had come crawling through the streets to tell the truth.
“My brother Robert did not attempt to strike any one,” she said in low, weak, earnest tones. “He only held the club in his hand. I saw it all, for I stood by. It was Dawler who threw his weight upon the club, and struck down my husband. Robert fell too; pushed down by Dawler. This is the sole truth, before Heaven!”
They believed her. The best was, that Bird was not dead at all, only stunned; and the next to appear in court was himself, with a big white plaister on his forehead. Discovering his wife’s flight to the magistrates, he thought it well to go after her: there was no knowing what plots might be in the wind. He had the grace to acknowledge that the blow was an accident. The whole bench shook hands with Robert Ashton, telling Bird and the other man significantly that they had better take care what they were about for the future: and the Squire brought him home in triumph.
“But where is Robert?” asked old Coney and the rest. Why, in there with Jane: where else should he be? They burst into the oak-room in a body, and found him trying on the ring.
“Why shouldn’t we have a dinner to-night?” asked old Coney. “Last night’s was only half a dinner, through one bother or another.”
“Hear, hear!” cried the Squire. “Why not?”
The only thing against it was — as Mrs. Coney said — that no dinner was prepared. Unless they could put up with a cold one.
“And glad to do so,” spoke up everybody. So the cold meats were brought from the larder, and the fowls from the breakfast-table, and laid in the everyday dining-parlour. The ladies were in their ordinary gowns, and there was no room for elbows, but we made up with laughter. Sixteen this evening; Fred Coles being there, and old Cockermuth, who sat down in spite of the gout. Afterwards we went off by the light of the stars to summon the company to the morrow’s wedding; it was good to go knocking at the doors with the news. Whilst the servants at the Farm, with Molly to help them, began cooking fresh fowls for the breakfast-table.
And that’s about all. There was never a better wedding seen, and the scarlet jackets of the post-boys dazzled one’s eyes in the morning sun. Robert Ashton was calm and quiet in church; Jane too, and not a bit nervous. The chief speech at the breakfast was undertaken by the Squire, so you may give a guess what it was like; but it didn’t spoil the wedding-cake.
Jane was shut up with her mother when the time came for starting, and came out in a flood of tears. She was leaving her childhood’s home, you see. Robert would have hurried her straight to the carriage, but the company wouldn’t be done out of their leave-taking. I was the last.
“Thank you for all, Johnny,” she cried, wringing my hand as she went down the path. “They were all very kind to me yesterday, but it seemed that you were kindest.”
In the next minute, both of them, with the door shut, and the carriage away towards South Crabb Junction. The people cheered, the cocks crew, and the old shoes flew after them in a shower.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55