You remember what I, Johnny Ludlow, said in the last paper — that on our way to Timberdale Court we met with an adventure, which I had not then time to tell of. It was this.
After our race through Crabb Ravine by moonlight, looking for Robert Ashton, we went on to Timberdale Court as fast as the snowy ground would admit of, Joseph Todhetley and Tom Coney rushing on in front, I after them — they were older and stronger than I was. Not by the ordinary highway, but over fields and hedges and ditches, straight as the crow flies, wishing to save time. Instead of saving time, we lost it, for though the road, had we taken it, was longer, the snow was beaten there; whereas it was lying deep across the country and had to be waded through. But you can’t always bring common-sense to bear at the moment it’s wanted. And if we had looked like three undertakers at a funeral, stalking after one another in the Ravine, with our dark coats showing out against the white snow, I’m sure we must have looked still more like it in the open ground.
At the far corner of the square meadow was a cow-shed, unused since the autumn, when Ashton of Timberdale had caused the fields about here to be ploughed. Beyond the shed, touching its walls, ran a brook; and it brought us up. We had meant to take it at a flying leap; but the snow had melted there, and the brook was swollen. It was not agreeable to run the chance of pitching in, and it seemed that we should have to make for the gate, lower down. Standing for a moment to reconnoitre, there broke on our ears a low moan; and then another.
“I say,” cried Tod, “is that the ghost?” I said in that last paper, as any one may see, that we had looked out for the ghost in the Ravine. The moaning came again.
“If I don’t believe it is in the cow-shed!” exclaimed Tom Coney. And he went round to the door and shook it open.
Pitch dark inside and the same moaning, soft and low. Tom Coney had some lights in his pocket, and struck one. Well! we were astonished. On the ground lay a woman — or girl — and a very little child. She had a young face, with anxious eyes and feverish cheeks. She said she was dying, and so answered our questions; but we had to kneel down to hear her. She had walked across the country from somewhere in Gloucestershire, carrying her baby of a fortnight old, but the weakness and fever overtook her. Two nights ago she had crept into the shed, and lain there, unsuspected, ever since.
“But why did you leave your home?” inquired Tod.
“I couldn’t stay for the shame,” was the nearly inaudible answer: and but that our ears were good ones, we should not have caught it. If we would but fetch her a drop of water for the love of Christ, she said, as we got up.
It was impossible to help wondering whether God had not allowed Robert Ashton to be lost on purpose to bring us round there. But for our passing, both she and the baby must very soon have died, for the shed was quite out of the reach of any road likely to be traversed. We must have seemed to her like angels of mercy. Perhaps we were made use of as such that night.
“Have you lain here all that time — two nights and days — without food?” asked Tod, in his softest voice.
“Without food, sir, and without drink. Oh, for a drop of water! If you could only bring it me, I should die easier.”
We got some clean snow and moistened her lips with it. She gave a sobbing cry as it trickled down her throat: Tom Coney said it was choking, but I thought it was joy. To a poor creature in a burning fever, lying without any sort of drink for days and nights, the fresh cold snow must have tasted like dew from heaven. She motioned that the baby should have some, but we were afraid: it looked to be dying.
What could be done with her? To carry her away was not practicable — and she seemed too ill besides. Tom Coney offered to cover up the baby under his coat and take it to the Court for food and shelter; but she clutched it closer to her side as it lay on her arm, and faintly said it couldn’t do without her. Shutting the shed door again, we got quickly to Timberdale Court, found Robert Ashton was not at home, as you heard, and asked for the housekeeper, Mrs. Broom.
She was sitting in her little carpeted room, off the big kitchen, with one of the maids. They were sewing white bows on a lot of caps, and wondering what had become of the master. To be burst in upon by us, all three telling the story at once of the woman and child, pretty nearly scared good old Mother Broom’s senses away.
“You are just playing a trick upon me, young gentlemen.”
“It is as true as that we are here, Mrs. Broom; it is true as gospel. They’ll both be dead if something’s not done for them.”
“Well, I never heard of such a thing,” she exclaimed, beginning to stir about. “Lying in that cow-shed for two days without help! You ought to have brought the poor baby away with you, sirs.”
“She wouldn’t let it come.”
“I wouldn’t have minded her saying that. A fortnight-old baby lying in the shed in this cold!”
“I don’t think it will make much difference in the long-run, whether the baby stays in the shed or comes out of it,” said Tom Coney. “If it sees tomorrow’s dawn, I shall wonder.”
“Well, this is a fine start!” cried Mother Broom. “And the master never to have come home — that’s another,” she went on. For, what to do, she didn’t know the least in the world, and was like a woman with a lost head.
We left the matter to her, carrying some things to the shed as we passed it on our way home — blankets and a pillow, fresh water, milk-and-water for the baby, and a candle and matches. One of the women-servants was to come after us, with hot broth and wine.
When we reached Crabb Cot, the dismay there at hearing Robert Ashton had not turned up, was diversified by this news, which we told of. Not that they thought very much of it: the woman was only a poor tramp, they said; and such things — fevers, and that — happen to poor tramps every day.
“Do you think the baby’s dying?” asked Charles Ashton, the parson.
“I’m nearly sure it is,” said Tom Coney.
“That’s a kind of woman, you know, that ought to be committed for fourteen-days’ hard labour,” observed the Squire, fiercely, who was in a frightfully cross mood with the various mishaps and uncertainties of the evening. “Seems to be very sickly and humble, you say, Mr. Johnny! Hold your tongue, sir; what should you know about it? These women tramps bring death on their infants through exposure.”
“And that’s true,” said old Coney. “I’d punish ’em, Squire, if I were a magistrate like you.”
But what do you think Parson Ashton did? When the dog-cart had taken him and Mr. and Mrs. James Ashton to the Court — where they were to stay all night — he started off for the shed, and did not come away from it until he had baptized the baby.
We heard nothing more about it until the next day — and I don’t suppose any one has forgotten what sort of a miserable day that was, at old Coney’s Farm. How the wedding never took place, and Robert Ashton was still missing, and Jane Coney was dressed in her bridal robes for nothing, and the breakfast could not be eaten, and we guests staring in each other’s faces like so many helpless dummies. What news we had of it then, came from Charles Ashton: he had been to the shed again that morning. Whilst the carriages stood waiting at the gate, the post-boys’ scarlet jackets flaming in the sun, and the company indoors sat looking hopelessly for the bridegroom, Parson Ashton talked about it in a corner to Mrs. Coney and the Squire’s wife: both of them in their grand silk plumage then, one plum-coloured, the other sea-green, with feathers for top-knots.
The little baby was dead, Charles Ashton said. The mother had been removed to a shelter in Timberdale village, and was being cared for. The doctor, called in to her, Darbyshire, thought she might get over it.
“You baptized the child, I hear, Charles?” said Mrs. Coney, to the parson.
“What did you name it?”
“Lucy. Something in the mother’s face put me in mind of my sister, and it was the name I first thought of. I asked the mother what she would have it called. Anything, she answered; it did not matter. Neither did it, for the little thing was dying then. Hot-water bottles and other remedies were tried last night as soon as they could be had, to get warmth into the child — to renew its life, in fact; but nothing availed.”
“Where was the woman taken to?”
“To Jael Batty’s. Jael consented to take her in.”
“I suppose it is but another case of the old, sad story?” groaned Mrs. Todhetley.
“Nothing else. And she, poor thing, is not much more than a girl.”
“Now, Charles, I tell you what. It may be all very consistent for you clergymen — men of forgiveness, and that — to waste your compassion over these poor stray creatures, but I think it might do more good sometimes if you gave them blame,” spoke Mrs. Coney, severely.
“There are times and seasons when you cannot express blame, however much it may be deserved,” he answered. “The worst of it in these cases is, that we rarely know there exists cause for censure before it is too late for any censure to avail, or avert the evil.”
What with the astounding events of the day, connected with the interrupted wedding, nothing more was said or thought of the affair. Except by Jane. When she and I were in the big dining-room together — I trying to blow up the fire, and she in full dread that Robert Ashton would have to be tried for his life at the Worcester Spring Assizes, and lie in prison until then — she suddenly spoke of it, interrupting the noise made by the crackling of the wood.
“So that poor baby’s dead, Johnny! What a happy fate — not to grow up to trouble. Charles named it Lucy, I hear. I should like to see the poor mother.”
“See her for what, Jane?”
“She is in distress, and so am I. I don’t suppose she has a corner to turn to for comfort in the wide world. I have not.”
It was not so very long after this that her distress was over. Robert Ashton arrived in triumph, and so put an end to it. One might suppose Jane would no longer have remembered that other one’s distress; what with the impromptu dinner, where we had no room for our elbows, and the laughter, and the preparations for the next day’s wedding.
But the matter had taken hold of Jane Coney’s mind, and she reverted to it on the morrow before going away. When the wedding-breakfast was over, and she — nevermore Jane Coney, but Jane Ashton — had changed her dress and was saying good-bye to her mother upstairs, she suddenly spoke of it.
“Mamma, I want to ask you to do something for me.”
“Well, my dear?”
“Will you see after that poor young woman who was found in the shed?”
Naturally Mrs. Coney was taken by surprise. She didn’t much like it.
“After that young woman, Jane?”
“Yes; for me.”
“Mrs. Broom has seen to her,” returned Mrs. Coney, in a voice that sounded very frozen.
“Mother, dear,” said Jane, “I was comparing myself with her yesterday; wondering which of us was the worst off, the more miserable. I thought I was. I almost felt that I could have changed places with her.”
“Jane!” angrily interjected Mrs. Coney.
“I did. She knew the extent of her trouble, she could see all that it involved; I did not see the extent of mine. I suppose it is always thus — that other people’s sorrows seem light when compared with our own. The reason must no doubt be that we cannot realize theirs, whilst we realize ours only too keenly.”
“My dear, I don’t care to talk of this.”
“Nor I much — but hear me for a minute, mother. God has been so merciful to me, and she is still as she was, that I— I should like to do what I can for her when we come back again, and comfort and keep her.”
“Keep her from want, I mean.”
“But, child, she has been — you don’t know what she has been,” gravely rebuked Mrs. Coney.
“I think I do, mother.”
“She is a poor outcast, Jane; with neither home to go to, nor friends to look upon her.”
Jane burst into tears: they had been hardly kept down since she had begun to speak.
“Just so, mother. But what was I yesterday? If Robert had been tried for his life, and condemned, I should have felt like an outcast; perhaps been looked upon as no better than one by the world.”
“Goodness, Jane, I wish you’d exercise your common sense,” cried Mrs. Coney, losing patience. “I tell you she is an outcast, and has forfeited home and friends. She has been a great sinner.”
“Mother, if she had a home and friends, there would be no need to succour her. As to sin — perhaps we can save her from that for the future. My gratitude for the mercy shown to me is such that I feel as if I could take her to my bosom; it seems to my mind that I ought to do something for her, that she has been thrown in my way that I should do it. Mother, it is my last petition to you: see after her a little for me until we come back again.”
“Very well, dear; as you make this point of it,” concluded Mrs. Coney, relenting just a little. And then Jane began to cry hysterically; and Tom Coney knocked at the door, saying time was up.
Mrs. Coney was not a hard-hearted woman, just the opposite: but only those who live in rural parts of the country can imagine the tricks and turns of regular tramps, and what a bad lot some of them are. They deceive you with no end of a plausible tale, and stare pitifully in your face whilst they tell it. Not long before this, a case had happened where both our house and the Coneys’ had been taken in. A woman in jagged widows’ garments presented herself at the door of Crabb Cot and asked to see the Squire. Her shoes wanted mending, and one side of her face was bandaged up. Mrs. Todhetley went to her. Of all pitiable tales that poor woman told the most: it would have melted a heart of stone. She came from near Droitwich, she said: her husband had worked under Sir John Pakington; that is, had been a labourer on part of his estate, Westwood Park. She lost her husband and grown-up son the past autumn with fever; she caught it herself, and was reduced to a skeleton, lost her cottage home through the things being seized for rent, and went to live with a married daughter in Oxfordshire. Cancer had appeared in her cheek, the daughter could not keep her, for she and all her children were down with sickness, and the husband had no work — and she, the widow, was making her way by easy walking-stages to Worcester, there to try and get into the infirmary. What she wanted at Crabb Cot was — not to beg, either money or food: money she could do without, food she could not eat — but to implore the gentleman (meaning the Squire) to give her a letter to the infirmary doctors, so that they might take her in.
I can tell you that she took us in-every one of us. The Squire, coming up during the conference, surrendered without fight. Questions were put to her about Droitwich and Ombersley, which she answered at once. There could be no mistaking that she knew all the neighbourhood about there well, and Sir John and Lady Pakington into the bargain. I think it was that that threw us off our guard. Mrs. Todhetley, brimming over with compassion, offered her some light refreshment, broth or milk. She said she could not swallow either, “it went against her,” but she’d be thankful for a drink of water. Molly, the greatest termagant to tramps and beggars in general, brought out a half-pint bottle of store cordial, made by her own hands, of sweetened blackberry juice and spice, for the woman to put in her pocket and sip, on her journey to Worcester. Mrs. Todhetley gave her a pair of good shoes and some shillings, and two old linen handkerchiefs for the face; and the Squire, putting on his writing spectacles, wrote a letter to Mr. Carden, begging him to see if anything, in the shape of medical aid, could be done for the bearer. The woman burst into tears of thankfulness, and went away with her presents, including the letter, Molly the cross-grained actually going out to open the back-gate for her.
And now would anybody believe that this woman had only then come out of the Coneys’ house — where she had been with the same tale and request, and had received nearly the same relief? We never saw or heard of her again. The note did not reach Mr. Carden; no such patient applied to the infirmary. She was a clever impostor; and we got to think that the cheek had only been rubbed up with a little blistering-salve. Many another similar thing I could tell of — and every one of them true. So you must not wonder at Mrs. Coney’s unwillingness to interfere with this latest edition in the tramp line.
But she had given her promise: perhaps, as Jane put it, she could not do otherwise. And on the morning after the wedding she went over to Timberdale. I was sliding in the Ravine — for there was ice still in that covered spot, though the frost had nearly disappeared elsewhere — when I saw Mrs. Coney come down the zigzag by the help of her umbrella, and her everyday brown silk gown on.
“Are you here, Johnny! Shall I be able to get along?”
“If I help you, you will, Mrs. Coney.”
“Take care. I had no idea it would be slippery here. But it is a long way round to walk by the road, and the master has taken out the pony-chaise.”
“What wind is blowing you to Timberdale today?”
“An errand that I’m not at all pleased to go upon, Johnny; only Jane made a fuss about it before leaving yesterday. If I told the master he would be in a fine way. I am going to see the woman that you boys found in the shed.”
“I fancied Jane seemed to think a good deal about her.”
“Jane did think a good deal about her,” returned Mrs. Coney. “She has not had the experience of this sort of people that I have, Johnny; and girls’ sympathies are so easily aroused.”
“There was a romance about it, you see.”
“Romance, indeed!” wrathfully cried Mrs. Coney. “That’s what leads girls’ heads away: I wish they’d think of good plain sense instead. It was nothing but romance that led poor Lucy Ashton to marry that awful man, Bird.”
“Why does Lucy not leave him?”
“Ah! it’s easier to talk about leaving a man than to do it, once he’s your husband. You don’t understand it yet, Johnny.”
“And shall not, I suppose, until I am married myself. But Lucy has never talked of leaving Bird.”
“She won’t leave him. Robert has offered her —— Goodness me, Johnny, don’t hurry along like that! It’s nothing but ice here. If I were to get a tumble, I might be lamed for life.”
“Nonsense, Mrs. Coney! It would be only a Christmas gambol.”
“It’s all very well to laugh, Johnny. Christmas gambols mean fun to you young fellows with your supple limbs; but to us fifty-year-old people they may be something else. I wish I had tied some list round my boots.”
We left the ice in the Ravine, and she came up the zigzag path easily to the smooth road. I offered to take the umbrella.
“Thank you, Johnny; but I’d rather carry it myself. It’s my best silk one, and you might break it. I never dare trust my umbrellas to Tom: he drives them straight out against trees and posts, and snaps the sticks.”
She turned into Timberdale Court, and asked to see Mrs. Broom. Mrs. Broom appeared in the parlour with her sleeves turned up to the elbow, and her hands floury. She had been housekeeper during old Mr. Ashton’s time.
“Look here,” said Mrs. Coney, dropping her voice a little: “I’ve come to ask a word or two about that woman — from the shed, you know. Who is she? — and what is she?”
But the dropping of Mrs. Coney’s voice was as nothing to the dropping of the housekeeper’s face. The questions put her out uncommonly.
“I wish to my very heart, ma’am, that the woman — she’s but a poor young thing at best! — had chosen any part to fall ill in but this! It’s like a Fate.”
“Like a what?” cried Mrs. Coney.
“And so it is. A Fate for this house. ’Tis nothing less.”
“Why, what do you mean, Broom?”
Mother Broom bent her head forward, and said a word or two in Mrs. Coney’s ear. Louder, I suppose, than she thought for, if she had intended me not to hear.
“Raves about Captain Bird!” repeated Mrs. Coney.
“He is all her talk, ma’am-George Bird. And considering that George Bird, blackleg though he has turned out to be, married the young lady of this house, Miss Lucy Ashton, why, it goes against the grain for me to hear it.”
Mrs. Coney sat down in a sort of bewilderment, and gave me the silk umbrella. Folding her hands, she stared at Mother Broom.
“It seems as though we were always hearing fresh news about that man, Broom; each time it is something worse than the last. If he took all the young women within his reach, and — and — cut their heads off, it would be only like him.”
“‘George!’ she moans out in her sleep. That is, in her dreaming, or her fever, or whatever it is. ‘George, you ought not to have left me; you should have taken care of me.’ And then, ma’am, she’ll be quiet a bit, save for turning her head about; and begin again, ‘Where’s my baby? where’s my baby?’ Goodness knows ‘twould be sad enough to hear her if it was anybody’s name but Bird’s.”
“There might be worse names than his, in the matter of giving us pain,” spoke Mrs. Coney. “As to poor Lucy — it is only another cross in her sad life.”
“I’ve not told this to anybody,” went on Mother Broom. “Jael Batty’s three parts deaf, as the parish knows, and may not have caught Bird’s name. It will vex my master frightfully for Miss Lucy’s sake. The baby is to be buried today. Mr. Charles has stayed to do it.”
“Oh, indeed!” snapped Mrs. Coney, and got up, for the baby appeared to be a sore subject with her. “I suppose the girl was coming across the country in search of Bird?”
Broom tossed her head. “Whether she was or not, it’s an odd thing that this house should be the one to have to succour her.”
“I am going,” said Mrs. Coney, “and I half wish I had never come in. Broom, I am sorry to have hindered you. You are busy.”
“I am making my raised pies,” said Broom. “It’s the second batch. What with master’s coming marriage, and one thing and another, I did not get ’em done before the new year. Your Molly says hers beat mine, Master Ludlow; but I don’t believe it.”
“She does, does she! It’s just like her boasting. Mrs. Todhetley often makes the pork-pies herself.”
“Johnny,” said Mrs. Coney, as we went along, she in deep thought: “that poor Lucy Bird might keep a stick for cutting notches — as it is said some prisoners used to do, to mark their days — and notch off her dreadful cares, that are ever recurring. Why, Johnny, what’s that crowd for?”
The church stood on the right between Timberdale Court and the village. A regular mob of children seemed to be pressing round the gate of the churchyard. I went to look, leaving Mrs. Coney standing.
Charles Ashton was coming out of the church in his surplice, and the clerk, old Sam Mullet, behind him, carrying a little coffin. The grave was in the corner of the burial-ground, and Mr. Ashton went straight to it, and continued the service begun in the church. If it had been a lord’s child, he could not have done it all in better order.
But there were no mourners, unless old Mullet could be called one. He put the coffin on the grass, and was in a frightful temper. I took off my hat and waited: it would have looked so to run away when there was no one else to stand there: and Mrs. Coney’s face, as cross as old Mullet’s, might be seen peering through the hedge.
“It’s come to a pretty pass, when tramps’ brats have to be put in the ground like honest folks’s,” grunted Sam, when Mr. Ashton had walked away, and he began to fling in the spadefuls of earth. “What must he needs go and baptize that there young atom for? — he ain’t our parson; he don’t belong to we in this parish. I dun-no what the world be a-coming to.”
Mr. Ashton was talking to Mrs. Coney when I got up. I told him what a way Sam Mullet was in.
“Yes,” said he. “I believe what I did has not given satisfaction in all quarters; so I waited to take the service myself, and save other people trouble.”
“In what name is the dead child registered, Charles?” asked Mrs. Coney.
“Lucy Bird! Bird?”
“It was the name the mother gave me in one of her lucid intervals,” answered the clergyman, shortly.
He hastened away, saying he must catch a train, for that his own parish was wanting him; but I fancied he did not care to be further questioned. Mrs. Coney stood still to stare after him, and would have liked to ask him how much and how little he knew.
Lucy Bird! It did sound strange to hear the name — as if it were the real Lucy Bird we knew so well. I said so to Mrs. Coney.
“The impudence of the woman must pass all belief,” she muttered to herself. “Let us get on, Johnny? I would rather run a mile any other way than go to see her.”
Leaving me on the wooden bench outside Jael Batty’s door, she went in. It was remarkably lively: the farrier’s shop opposite to look at, five hay-ricks, and a heap of children who strolled after us from the churchyard, and stayed to stare at me. Mrs. Coney came out again soon.
“It’s of no use my remaining, Johnny. She can’t understand a word said to her, only lies there rambling, and asking people to bring her baby. If she had any sense left in her, she might just go down on her knees in thankfulness that it’s gone. Jael Batty says she has done nothing else but wail for it all the blessed morning.”
“Well, it is only natural she should.”
“Natural! Natural to mourn for that baby! Don’t you say stupid things, Johnny. It’s a great mercy that it has been taken; and you must know that as well as any one.”
“I don’t say it isn’t; babies must make no end of noise and work; but you see mothers care for them.”
“Don’t be a simpleton, Johnny. If you take to upholding tramps and infants dying in sheds, goodness knows what you’ll come to in time.”
At the end of a fortnight, Ashton of Timberdale and his wife came home. It was a fine afternoon in the middle of January, but getting dusk, and a lot of us had gone over to the Court to see them arrive. Jane looked as happy as a queen.
“Johnny,” she whispered, whilst we were standing to take some tea that Mother Broom (with a white cockade in her cap) brought in upon a silver tray, “how about that poor woman? She is not dead, I hope?”
I told Jane that she was better. The fever had gone down, but she was so weak and reduced that the doctor had not allowed her to be questioned. We knew no more of who she was than we had known before. Mrs. Coney overheard what I was saying, and took Jane aside.
There seemed to be a bit of a battle: Mrs. Coney remonstrating with a severe face, Jane holding out and flushing a little. She was telling Jane not to go to Jael Batty’s, and representing why she ought not to go. Jane said she must go — her heart was set upon it: and began to retie her bonnet-strings.
“Mother dear, don’t be angry with me in this the first hour of entering on my new home — it would seem like a bad omen for me. You don’t know how strongly I have grown to think that my duty lies in seeing this poor woman, in comforting her if I can. It cannot hurt me.”
“What do you suppose Robert would say? It is to him you owe obedience now, Jane, not to me.”
“To him first, and to you next, my mother; and I trust I shall ever yield it to you both. But Robert is quite willing that I should go: he knows all I think about it.”
“Jane, I wouldn’t have said a word against it; indeed I had made up my mind that it was a good wish on your part; but now that we have discovered she is in some way connected with — with the Birds — why, I don’t think Robert will like you to meddle with it. I’m sure I shrink from telling him.”
Jane Coney — Ashton I mean: one can’t get out of old names all at once — looked down in distress, thinking of the pain it would cause her husband for his sister’s sake. Then she took her mother’s hand.
“Tell Robert what you have told me, mamma. He will still let me go, I think; for he knows how much I wish it.”
They had their conference away from us; Mrs. Coney, Robert Ashton, and Jane. Of course he was frightfully put out; but Jane was right — he said she should go all the same. Mrs. Coney shut her lips tight, and made no further comment.
“I promised her, you see, Mrs. Coney,” he urged. “She has an idea in her head that — I’m sure I scarcely know what it is, except that her going is connected with Gratitude and Duty, and — and Heaven’s blessing. Why, do you know we might have stayed away another week, but for this? I could have spared it; but she would come home.”
“I never knew Jane take a thing up like this before,” said Mrs. Coney.
“Any way, I suppose it is I who shall have to deal with it — for the sake of keeping it from Lucy,” was Robert’s answer. “I wish with all my heart Bird had been at the bottom of the sea before his ill-omened steps brought him to Timberdale! There’s not, as I believe, another such scamp in the world.”
Jane waited for nothing else. Shielded by the dusk of the evening, she went hastening to Jael Batty’s and back again.
“I’ll go down for her presently,” said Robert. But she was back again before he started.
“I came back at once to set the misapprehension right,” said Jane, her eyes bright with eagerness, her cheeks glowing. “Mother dear — Robert — Johnny — listen, all of you: that poor sick woman is George Bird’s sister.”
“Indeed she is. Captain Bird used to talk to Lucy of his little sister Clara — I have heard you say so, Robert — in the old days when he first came here. It is she who is lying at Jael Batty’s — Clara Bird.”
The company sat down like so many lambs, Mrs. Coney’s mouth and eyes alike opening. It sounded wonderful.
“But — Jane, child — there was still the baby!”
“Well — yes — I’m afraid so,” replied Jane, in an uncomfortable hurry. “I did not like to ask her about that, she cries so. But she is Clara Bird; Captain Bird’s sister, and Lucy’s too.”
“Well, I never!” cried Mrs. Coney, rubbing her face. “Poor misguided young thing — left to the guardianship of such a man as that, he let her go her own way, no doubt. This accounts for what Broom heard her say in the fever —‘George, you should have taken care of me.’”
“Is she being taken care of now in her sickness, down at Jael Batty’s?” spoke up Robert.
“Yes. For Jael, though three-parts deaf, is a kind and excellent nurse.”
Robert Ashton wrote that night to Worcester; a sharp letter; bidding Captain Bird come over and see to his sister. The poor thing took to Jane wonderfully, and told her more than she’d have told any one else.
“I am twenty,” she said, “and George is six-and-thirty; there is all that difference between us. Our father and mother were dead, and I lived with my aunt in Gloucestershire: where George lived, I did not know. He had been adopted by a wealthy relative in London, and went into the army. My mother had been a lady, but married beneath her, and it was her family who took to George and brought him up a gentleman. Mine was a hard, dull life. My aunt — she was my father’s sister — counted ever-so-many children, and I had to nurse and see to them. Her husband was a master plumber and glazier. One day — it is fifteen months ago now — I shall never forget it — my brother George arrived. I did not know him: I had not seen him since I was thirteen, and then he was a fine handsome gentleman in an officer’s regimentals. He was rather shabby now, and he had come to see if he could borrow money, but my aunt’s husband would not lend him any; he told him he had much ado to keep his own family. I cried a good deal, and George said he would take me to London to his wife. I think he did it to spite them, because of their not lending the money, as much as to please me — he saw that I should be a loss there. We went up — and oh how nice I thought his wife! She was a kind, gentle lady, formerly Miss Lucy Ashton; but nearly always ailing, and afraid of George. George had gay acquaintances, men and women, and he let me go to theatres and balls with them. Lucy said it was wrong, that they were not nice friends for me; but I grew to like the gaiety, and she could do nothing. One night, upon going home from church, I found both George and Lucy gone from the lodgings. I had been spending the Sunday with some people they knew, the quietest of all their friends. There lay a note on the table from Lucy, saying they were obliged to leave London unexpectedly, and begging me to go at once — on the morrow — back to Gloucestershire, for which she enclosed a sovereign. I did not go: one invited me, and another invited me, and it was two months, good, before I went down. Ah me! I heard no more of George; he had got into some trouble in London, and was afraid to let it be known where he was. I have never heard of him or his wife to this hour. My aunt was glad to see me for the help I should be to her; but I felt ill always and could not do so much as I used. I didn’t know what ailed me; I didn’t indeed; I did not think it could be much; and then, when the time went on and it all happened, and they knew, and I knew, I came away with the baby because of the reproach and the shame. But George ought not to have left me to myself in London.”
And when Jane Ashton repeated all this to Robert, he said Bird deserved to be hanged and quartered.
There came no answer from Captain Bird. Perhaps Ashton of Timberdale did not really expect any would come.
But on the Sunday afternoon, from the train that passed Timberdale from Worcester about the time folks came out of church, there descended a poor, weak woman (looking like a girl too) in a worn shawl that was too thin for the weather. She waited until the roads should be clear, as if not wanting to be seen, and then wrapped the shawl close around her arms and went out with her black veil down. It was Lucy Bird. And she was so pretty still, in spite of the wan thin cheeks and the faded clothes! There were two ways of getting to Jael Batty’s from the station. She took the long and obscure one, and in turning the corner of the lane between the church and Timberdale Court, she met Robert Ashton.
But for her own movement, he might never have noticed her. It was growing dusk; and when she saw him coming, she turned sharp off to a stile and stood as if looking for something in the field. There’s not much to stare at in a ploughed field at dusk, as Ashton of Timberdale knew, and he naturally looked at the person who had gone so fast to do it. Something in the cut of the shoulders struck him as being familiar, and he stopped.
“Lucy! Is it you?”
Of course it was no use her saying it was not. She burst into tears, trembling and shaking. Robert passed round her his good strong arm. He guessed what had brought her to Timberdale.
“Lucy, my dear, have you come over from Worcester?”
“Yes,” she sobbed. “I shall be better in a minute, Robert. I am a little tired, and the train shook me.”
“You should have sent me word, and I would have had a fly at the station.”
Sent him word! It was good of Robert to pretend to say that; but he knew that she wouldn’t have presumed to do it. It was that feeling on Lucy’s part that vexed him so much. Since Bird had turned out the villain that he had, Lucy acted, even to her own family, as though she had lost caste, identifying herself with her husband, and humbling herself to them. What though she was part and parcel with the fellow, as Robert said, she was not responsible for his ill-doings.
“Lean on me, Lucy. You must have a good rest.”
“Not that way,” she said at the bottom of the lane, as he was turning to the Court. “I am going to Jael Batty’s.”
“When you have had some rest and refreshment at home.”
“I cannot go to your home, Robert.”
“Indeed but you can; and will,” he answered, leading her on.
“I would rather not. Your wife may not care to receive me.”
“Come and try her.”
“Robert, I am not fit to see any one: I am not indeed. My spirits are low now, and I often burst into tears for nothing. I have been praying, all the way over, not to meet you. After what was done to you at our house but a week or two ago, I did not expect ever to have been noticed by you again. Jane must hate me.”
“Does she! Jane and I have been concocting a charming little plot about you, Lucy. We are going to have your old room made ready, and the sweet-scented lavender sheets put on the bed, and get you over to us. For good, if you will stop; long enough to recruit your health if you will not. Don’t you remember how you used to talk in the holidays about the home sheets; saying you only got them smelling of soap at school?”
A faint smile, like a shade, flitted over Lucy Bird’s face at the reminiscence.
“I should not know the feel of fine white linen sheets now: coarse calico ones have had to content me this many a day. Let me turn, Robert! For my own sake, I would rather not meet your wife. You cannot know how I feel about seeing old friends; those who — who ——”
Those who once knew me, she meant to say; but broke down with a sob. Robert kept walking on. Lucy was a great deal younger than he, and had been used to yield to him from the time she was a child. Well for her would it have been, that she had yielded to his opinion when Captain Bird came a-courting to Timberdale.
“You have company at your house, perhaps, Robert?”
“There’s not a soul but Jane and me. The Coneys asked us to dine there today, but we thought we’d have the first Sunday to ourselves. We went to church this morning; and I came out after dinner to ask after old Arkwright: they fear he is dying.”
She made no further opposition, and Robert took her into the Court, to the warm dining-room. Jane was not there. Robert put her into the arm-chair that used to be their father’s, and brought her a glass of wine.
“No, thank you,” she faintly said.
“You must take it, Lucy.”
“I am afraid. My head is weak.”
“A sign you want something good to strengthen it,” he urged; and she drank the wine.
“And now take off your bonnet, Lucy, and make yourself at home, whilst I go to seek Jane,” said he.
“Lucy is here,” he whispered, when he had found his wife. “The merest shadow you ever saw. A wan, faded thing that one’s heart bleeds to look upon. We must try and keep her for a bit, Jane.”
“Oh, Robert, if we can! And nurse her into health.”
“And deliver her from that brute she calls husband — as I should prefer to put it, Jane. Her life with him must be something woeful.”
When they got in, she was leaning forward in the chair, crying silently. In the clear old room, with all its familiar features about her, memory could only have its most painful sway. Her grand old father with his grand old white hair used to sit where she was sitting; her brothers had each his appointed place; and she was a lovely bright child amongst them, petted by all; the sentimental girl with her head as brimful of romance as ever the other Lucy Ashton’s had been, when she went out to her trysts with the Master of Ravenswood. Which had been the more bitter fate in after-life — that Lucy’s or this one’s?
Mrs. Ashton went quietly up, put her arms round Lucy, and kissed her many times. She untied the bonnet, which Lucy had not done, and gave it with the shawl to Robert, standing behind. The bright hair fell down in a shower — the bonnet had caught it — and she put her feeble hand up as if to feel the extent of the disaster. It made her look so like the sweet young sister they had all prized, that Robert turned to the window and gave a few stamps, as if his boots were cold.
How she cried! — tears that came from the very heart. Putting her face down on the arm of the chair, she let her grief have its way. Jane held her hand and stroked it lovingly. Robert felt inclined to dash his arms through the dark window-panes on which the fire-light played, in imaginary chastisement of the scamp, Bird.
“Could you lend me a shawl of your own, Jane?” she asked, by-and-by, when Robert said they would have tea in-and she glanced down at her shabby brown gown. “I don’t wish the servants to see me like this.”
Jane flew out and brought one. A handsome cashmere of scarlet and gold-colour, that her mother had given her before the wedding.
“Just for an hour or two, until I leave,” said Lucy, as she covered herself up in it.
“You will not go out of this house to-night, Lucy.”
“I must, Robert. You can guess who it was I came to Timberdale to see.”
“Of course I can. She is going on all right and getting stronger; so there’s no immediate haste about that. Mr. Bird would not — not come, I suppose.”
Lucy did not answer. Robert was right — Bird would not come: his young sister might die where she was or be sheltered in the workhouse, for all the concern he gave himself. For one thing, the man was at his wits’ end for money, and not too sure of his own liberty. But Lucy’s conscience had not let her be still: as soon as she had scraped together the means for a third-class ticket, she came over.
“The poor girl has lain like a weight upon my mind, since the time when we abandoned her in London,” confessed Lucy.
“Why did you abandon her?”
“It was not my fault,” murmured Lucy; and Robert felt vexed to have asked the hasty question. “I hoped she went home, as I desired her; but I did not feel sure of it, for Clara was thoughtless. And those unsuspicious country girls cannot take care of themselves too well. Robert, whatever has happened I regard as our fault,” she added, looking up at him with some fever in her eyes.
“As Mr. Bird’s fault; not yours,” corrected Robert — who, strange perhaps to say, observed courtesy of speech towards Bird when talking with Lucy: giving him in general a handle to his name. It might have sounded ironical, but that he couldn’t help. “Did you never write to ascertain what had become of her, Lucy?”
“My husband would not let me. He is often in difficulties: and we never have a settled home, or address. What will be done with her, Robert?”
“She will stay where she is until she is strong; Jane wishes it; and then we shall see about the future. Something will turn up for her in some place or other, I’ve little doubt.”
Jane glanced at her husband and smiled. Robert had given her a promise to help the girl to an honest living. But, as he frankly told his wife, had he known it was a sister of Bird’s, he might never have done so.
“About yourself, Lucy; that may be the better theme to talk of just now,” he resumed. “Will you remain here for good in your old home?”
The hot tears rushed to her eyes, the hot flush to her cheeks. She looked deprecatingly at both, as if craving pardon.
“I cannot. You know I cannot.”
“Shall I tell you what Bird is, Lucy? And what he most likely will be?”
“To what end, Robert?” she faintly asked. “I know it without.”
“Then you ought to leave him — for your own sake. Leave him before you are compelled to do so.”
“Not before, Robert.”
“Oh, Robert, don’t you see?” she answered, breaking down. “He is my husband.”
And nothing else could they get from her. Though she cried and sobbed, and did not deny that her life was a fear and a misery, yet she would go back to him; go back on the morrow; it was her duty. In the moment’s anger Robert Ashton said he would wash his hands of her as well as of Bird. But Jane and Lucy knew better.
“What can have induced you and Robert to take up this poor Clara in the way you are doing — and mean to do?” she asked when she was alone with Jane at the close of the evening.
“I— owe a debt of gratitude; and I thought I could best pay it in this way,” was Mrs. Ashton’s timid and rather unwilling answer.
“A debt of gratitude! To Clara?”
“No. To Heaven.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55