The Mystery of Jessy Page


Ellen Wood

First published in March 1871.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The Mystery Of Jessy Page.

1.

Our old grey church at Church Dykely stood in a solitary spot. Servant maids (two of ours once, Hannah and Molly), and silly village girls went there sometimes to watch for the “shadows” on St. Mark’s Eve, and owls had a habit of darting out of the belfry at night. Within view of the church, though at some distance from it, stood the lonely, red-brick, angular dwelling-house belonging to Copse Farm. It was inhabited by Mr. Page, a plain worthy widower, getting in years; his three daughters and little son. Abigail and Susan Page, two experienced, sensible, industrious young women, with sallow faces and bunches of short dark curls, were at this period, about midway between twenty and thirty: Jessy, very much younger, was gone out to get two years’ “finishing” at a plain boarding-school; Charles, the lad, had bad health and went to school by day at Church Dykely.

Mr. Page fell ill. He would never again be able to get about much. His two daughters, so far as indoor work and management went, were hosts in themselves, Miss Abigail especially; but they could not mount a horse to superintend out-of-doors. Other arrangements were made. The second son of Mr. Drench, a neighbouring farmer and friend, came to the Copse Farm by day as overlooker. He was paid for his services, and he gained experience.

No sooner had John Drench, a silent, bashful young farmer, good-looking and fairly-well educated, been installed in his new post, than he began to show a decided admiration for Miss Susan Page—who was a few months younger than himself. The slight advances he made were favourably received; and it was tacitly looked upon that they were “as good as engaged.” Things went on pleasantly through the spring, and might have continued to go on so, but for the coming home at Midsummer of the youngest daughter, Jessy. That led to no end of complications and contrariety.

She was the sweetest flower you ever saw; a fair, delicate lily, with a mild countenance, blue eyes, and golden hair. Jessy had never been very strong; she had always been very pretty; and the consequence was that whilst her sisters had grown up to be useful, not to be idle a minute throughout the long day, Jessy had been petted and indulged, and was little except being ornamental. The two years’ schooling had not improved her taste for domestic occupation. To tell the truth, Jessy was given to being uncommonly idle.

To John Drench, who had not seen her since her early girlhood, she appeared as a vision of beauty. “It was like an angel coming in at the door,” he said of the day she first came home, when telling the tale to a stranger in after years. “My eyes were fairly dazzled.”

Like an angel! And unfortunately for John Drench, his heart was dazzled as well as his eyes. He fell desperately in love with her. It taught him that what he had felt for Miss Susan was not love at all; only esteem, and the liking that so often arises from companionship. He was well-meaning, but inexperienced. As he had never spoken to Susan, the utmost sign he had given being a look or a warmer handshake than usual, he thought there would be no difficulty in transferring his homage to the younger sister. Susan Page, who really loved him, and perhaps looked on with the keen eyes of jealousy, grew at last to see how matters were. She would have liked to put him in a corn-sack and give him a good shaking by way of cure. Thus the summer months went over in some silent discomfort, and September came in warm and fine.

Jessy Page stood at the open parlour window in her airy summer muslin, twirling a rose in her hand, blue ribbons falling from her hair: for Jessy liked to set herself off in little adornments. She was laughing at John Drench outside, who had appeared covered with mud from the pond, into which he had contrived partially to slip when they were dragging for eels.

“I think your picture ought to be taken, just as you look now, Mr. John.”

He thought hers ought to be: the bright fair face, the laughing blue eyes, the parted lips and the pretty white teeth presented a picture that, to him, had never had its equal.

“Do you, Miss Jessy? That’s a fine rose,” he shyly added. He was always shy with her.

She held it out. She had not the least objection to be admired, even by John Drench in an unpresentable state. In their hearts, women have all desired men’s flattery, from Eve downwards.

“These large roses are the sweetest of any,” she went on. “I plucked it from the tree beyond the grass-plat.”

“You are fond of flowers, I’ve noticed, Miss Jessy.”

“Yes, I am. Both for themselves and for the language they symbolise.”

“What language is it?”

“Don’t you know? I learnt it at school. Each flower possesses its own meaning, Mr. John Drench. This, the rose, is true love.”

“True love, is it, Miss Jessy!”

She was lightly flirting it before his face. It was too much for him, and he took it gently from her. “Will you give it me?” he asked below his breath.

“Oh, with great pleasure.” And then she lightly added, as if to damp the eager look on his face: “There are plenty more on the same tree.”

“An emblem of true love,” he softly repeated. “It’s a pretty thought. I wonder who invented——”

“Now then, John Drench, do you know that tea’s waiting. Are you going to sit down in those muddy boots and leggings?”

The sharp words came from Susan Page. Jessy turned and saw her sister’s pale, angry face. John Drench disappeared, and Miss Susan went out again, and banged the door.

“It is high time Jessy was put to some regular employment,” cried Susan, bursting into the room where Miss Page sat making the tea. “She idles away her time in the most frivolous and wasteful manner, never doing an earthly thing. It is quite sinful.”

“So it is,” acquiesced Miss Page. “Have you a headache, Susan? You look pale.”

“Never mind my looks,” wrathfully retorted Susan. “We will portion out some share of work for her from today. She might make up the butter, and undertake the pies and puddings, and do the plain sewing.”

William Page, a grey-haired man, sitting with a stick by his side, looked up. “Pretty creature!” he said, for he passionately loved his youngest daughter. “I’ll not have her hard-worked, Susan.”

“But you’d not have her sit with her hands before her from Monday morning till Saturday night, I suppose, father!” sharply returned Miss Susan. “She’ll soon be nineteen.”

“No, no; idleness brings nothing but evil in its train. I didn’t mean that, Susan. Let the child do what is suitable for her. Where’s John Drench?”

“In a fine mess—up to his middle in mud,” was Miss Susan’s tart answer. “One would think he had been trying to see how great an object he could make of himself.”

John Drench came in, somewhat improved, his coat changed and the rose in his button-hole. He took his seat at the tea-table, and was more shy and silent than ever. Jessy sat by her father, chattering gaily, her blue ribbons flickering before his loving eyes.

But the butter-making and the other light work was fated not to be inaugurated yet for Jessy. Charles Page, a tiresome, indulged lad of twelve, became ill again: he was subject to attacks of low fever and ague. Mr. Duffham, peering at the boy over his gold-headed cane, said there was nothing for it but a dose of good seaside air. Mr. Page, anxious for his boy, began to consult with his daughters as to how it might be obtained. They had some very distant connections named Allen, living at Aberystwith. To them Miss Page wrote, asking if they could take in Charles and one of his sisters to live with them for a month or so. Mrs. Allen replied that she would be glad to have them; since her husband’s death she had eked out a scanty income by letting lodgings.

It was Jessy who went with him. The house and farm could not have spared Abigail; Susan said neither should it spare her. Jessy, the idle and useless one had to go. Miss Susan thought she and John Drench were well rid of the young lady.

September was in its second week when they went; November was at its close when they returned. The improvement in Charles had been so marked and wonderful—as Mrs. Allen and Jessy both wrote to say—that Mr. Duffham had strongly urged his staying as long as the weather remained fine. It was a remarkably fine late autumn that year, and they stayed until the end of November.

Charles came home well and strong. Jessy was more beautiful than ever. But there was some change in her. The light-hearted, talking, laughing girl had grown rather silent: she was often heard singing snatches of love songs to herself in a low voice, and there was a light in her eyes as of some intense, secret happiness that might not be told. John Drench, who had begun to show signs of returning to his old allegiance (at least, Miss Susan so flattered herself), fell a willing captive again forthwith, and had certainly neither eyes nor ears for any one but Jessy. Susan Page came to the conclusion that a shaking in a sack would be far too good for him.

* * * * *

The way of dressing the churches for Christmas in those past days was quite different from the new style of “decoration” obtaining now. Sprays of holly with their red berries, of ivy with its brown clusters, were stuck, each alternately into the holes on the top of the pews. It was a better way than the present one, far more effective—though I, Johnny Ludlow, shall be no doubt laughed at for saying so. Your woven wreaths tied round the pulpit and reading-desk; your lettered scrolls; your artificial flowers, may be talked of as “artistic,” but for effect they all stand absolutely as nothing, in comparison with the more simple and natural way, and they are, perhaps, the least bit tawdry. If you don’t believe me, pay a visit to some rural church next Christmas morning—for the old fashion is observed in many a country district still—and judge for yourselves. With many another custom that has been changed by the folly and fashion of these later days of pretension, and not changed for the better, lies this one. That is my opinion, and I hold to it.

The dressing in our church was always done by the clerk, old Bumford. The sexton (called familiarly with us the grave-digger) helped him when his health permitted, but he was nearly always ill, and then Bumford himself had to be grave-digger. It was not much trouble, this manner of decoration, and it took very little time. They had only to cut off the sprays almost of the same size, trim the ends, and lodge them in the holes. In the last century when a new country church was rebuilt (though that did not happen often), the drilling of these holes in the woodwork of the pews, for the reception of the “Christmas,” was as much a matter of course as were the pews themselves. Our Christmas was supplied by Mr. Page with a liberal hand; the Copse Farm abounded with trees of holly and ivy; one of his men, Leek, would help Bumford to cut it, and to cart it in a hand-truck to the church. It took a good deal to do all the pews.

On this Christmas that I am telling you of, it fell out that Clerk Bumford and the sexton were both disabled. Bumford had rheumatic gout so badly that getting him into church for the morning service the past three Sundays had been a marvel of dexterity—while the sexton was in bed with what he called catarrh. At first it seemed that we should not get the church dressed at all: but the Miss Pages, ever ready and active in a good work, came to the rescue, and said they would do it themselves, with John Drench’s help. The Squire was not going to be behind-hand, and said we boys, for Tod and I were just home for the holidays, should help too.

And when Christmas Eve came, and Leek had wheeled up the holly, and we were all in the cold church (not I think that any of us cared whether it was cold or warm), we enjoyed the work amazingly, and decided that old Bumford should never be let do it again, gout or no gout.

Jessy Page was a picture to look at. The two elder ladies had on tight dark cloth dresses, like a riding-habit cut short, at the ankles: Jessy was in a bright blue mantle edged with swans-down, and a blue bonnet on her pretty head. She came in a little late, and Miss Susan blew her up sharply, for putting on that “best Sunday cape” to dress a church in: but Jessy only laughed good-naturedly, and answered that she would take care not to harm it. Susan Page, trimming the branches, had seen John Drench’s eyes fixed on the girl: and her knife worked away like mad in her vexation.

“Look here,” said Jessy: “we have never had any Christmas over the pulpit; I think old Bumford was afraid to get up to do it; let us put some. It would hide that ugly nail in the wall.”

“There are no holes up in the wall,” snapped Miss Susan.

“I meant a large bunch; a bunch of holly and ivy mixed, Susan. John Drench could tie it to the nail: it would look well.”

“I’ll do it, too,” said John. “I’ve some string in my pocket. The parson won’t know himself. It will be as good as a canopy over him.”

Miss Page turned round: she and Charley had their arms full of the branches we had been cutting.

“Put a bunch there, if you like, but let us finish the pews first,” she said. “If we go from one thing to another we shall not finish while it’s daylight.”

It was good sense: she rarely spoke anything else. Once let darkness overtake us, and the dressing would be done for. The church knew nothing about evening service, and had never felt the want of means to light itself up.

“I shall pick out the best sprays in readiness,” whispered Jessy to me, as we sat together on the bench by the big christening bowl, she choosing branches, I trimming them. “Look at this one! you could not count the berries on it.”

“Did you enjoy your visit to Aberystwith, Jessy?”

I wondered what there was in my simple question to move her. The branch of holly went anywhere; her hands met in a silent clasp; the expression of her face changed to one of curious happiness. In answering, her voice fell to a whisper.

“Yes, I enjoyed it.”

“What a long time you stayed away! An age, Mrs. Todhetley says.”

“It was nearly eleven weeks.”

“Eleven weeks! How tedious!”

Her face was glowing, her eyes had a soft light in them. She caught up some holly, and began scattering its berries.

“What did you do with yourself, Jessy?”

“I used to sit by the sea—and to walk about. It was very fine. They don’t often have it like that in November, Mrs. Allen said.”

“Did Mrs. Allen sit and walk with you?”

“No. She had enough to do with the house and her lodgers. We only saw her at meal times.”

“The Miss Allens, perhaps?”

“There are no Miss Allens. Only one little boy.”

“Why, then, you had no one but Charley!”

“Charley? Oh, he used to be always about with little Tom Allen—in a boat, or something of that sort. Mrs. Allen thought the sea breezes must be so good for him.”

“Well, you must have been very dull!”

Jessy looked rather foolish. She was a simple-minded girl at the best. The two elder sisters had all the strong sense of the family, she the simplicity. Some people called Jessy Page “soft”: perhaps, contrasted with her sisters, she was so: and she was very inexperienced.

The dusk was gathering, and Charley had gone out tired, when John Drench got into the pulpit to tie the bunch of holly to the wall above it. Tod was with him. Drench had his hands stretched out, and we stood watching them in a group in the aisle below, when the porch-door was burst open, and in leaped Charles.

“Jessy! I say! Where’s Jessy?”

“I am here,” said Jessy, looking round. “What do you want?”

“Here’s Mr. Marcus Allen.”

Who Mr. Marcus Allen might be, Charles did not say. Jessy knew: there was no doubt of that. Her face, just then close to mine, had flushed as red as a June rose.

A tall, dark, imposing man came looming out of the dusk. His handsome, furred great-coat was open, his waistcoat was of crimson velvet; he wore two chains, three rings, and an eye-glass. And I’ll leave you to judge of the effect this vision of grandeur made, dropping down on us plain church-dressers in our every-day clothes. John Drench leaned over the pulpit cushion, string in hand; the two Miss Pages stood staring; Jessy turned white and red with the unexpected amazement. It was to her he approached, and spoke.

“How do you do, Miss Jessy?”

She put her hand out in answer to his; but seemed to have been struck as dumb as the old stone image on the monument against the wall.

“These are your sisters, I presume, Miss Jessy? Will you do me the honour of introducing me to them?”

“Mr. Marcus Allen,” murmured Jessy. “My sister Abigail; my sister Susan.”

Mr. Marcus Allen, bowing over his hat, said something about the pleasure it gave him to make their acquaintance personally, after hearing so much of them from Miss Jessy at Aberystwith, and begged to be allowed to shake their hands. Miss Page, when the hand-shaking was over, said in her straightforward way that she did not know who he was, her young sister never having mentioned him. Jessy, standing like a little simpleton, her eyes bent down on the aisle bricks, murmured in confusion that she “forgot it.” John Drench had his face over the cushion all that time, and Tod’s arms began to ache, holding up the bunch of green.

Mr. Marcus Allen, it turned out, was related in some way to the Allens of Aberystwith: he happened to go to the town soon after Jessy Page and her brother went there, and he stayed until they left it. Not at the Allens’ house: he had lodgings elsewhere. Mrs. Allen spoke of him to Jessy as a “grand gentleman, quite above them.” An idea came over me, as we all now stood together, that he had been Jessy’s companion in the walking and the sitting by the sea.

“I told Miss Jessy that I should be running down some day to renew my acquaintanceship with her and make that of her family,” said Mr. Marcus Allen to Miss Page. “Having no particular engagement on my hands this Christmas time, I came.”

He spoke in the most easy manner conceivable: his accent and manner were certainly those of a gentleman. As to the fashionable attire and the rings and chains, rather startling though they looked to us in the dark church on that dark and busy evening, they were all the rage for dandies in the great world then.

Noticing the intimation that he had come purposely to see them, Miss Page supposed that she ought, in hospitably good manners, to invite him to stay a day or two at the farm, but doubted whether so imposing a gentleman would condescend to do so. She said nothing about it then, and we all went out of the church together; except John Drench, who stayed behind with Leek to help clear up the litter for the man to carry away. It was light outside, and I took a good look at the stranger: a handsome man of seven-or-eight-and-twenty, with hard eyes, and black whiskers curled to perfection.

“In what way is he related to the Allens of Aberystwith, Jessy?” questioned Miss Page, drawing her sister away, as we went through the coppice.

“I don’t quite know, Abigail. He is some distant cousin.”

“How came you never to speak of him?”

“I—I did not remember to do so.”

“Very careless of you, child. Especially if he gave you cause to suppose he might come here. I don’t like to be taken by surprise by strangers; it is not always convenient.”

Jessy walked along in silence, meek as a lamb.

“What is he?—in any profession, or trade?”

“Trade? Oh, I don’t think he does anything of that kind, Abigail. That branch of the family would be above it, Mrs. Allen said. He has a large income, she says; plenty of money.”

“I take it, then, that he is above us,” reasoned Miss Page.

“Oh dear, yes: in station. Ever so much.”

“Then I’m sure I don’t care to entertain him.”

Miss Page went straight into the best kitchen on arriving at home. Her father sat in the large hearth corner, smoking his pipe. She told him about the stranger, and said she supposed they must ask him to stay over the morrow—Christmas–Day.

“Why shouldn’t we?” asked Mr. Page.

“Well, father, he seems very grand and great.”

“Does he? Give him the best bedroom.”

“And our ways are plain and simple, you know,” she added.

“He must take us as he finds us, Abigail. Any friend of Mrs. Allen’s is welcome: she was downright kind to the children.”

We had a jolly tea. Tod and I had been asked to it beforehand. Pork-pies, Miss Susan’s making, hot buttered batch-cakes, and lemon cake and jams. Mr. Marcus Allen was charmed with everything: he was a pleasant man to talk to. When we left, he and Mr. Page had gone to the best kitchen again, to smoke together in the wide chimney corner.

* * * * *

You Londoners, who go in for your artistic scrolls and crosses, should have seen the church on Christmas morning. It greeted our sight, as we entered from the porch, like a capacious grove of green, on which the sun streamed through the south windows. Old Bumford’s dressing had never been as full and handsome as this of ours, for we had rejected all niggardly sprays. The Squire even allowed that much. Shaking hands with Miss Page in the porch after service, he told her that it cut Clerk Bumford out and out. Mr. Marcus Allen, in fashionable coat, with the furred over-coat flung back, light gloves, and big white wristbands, was in the Pages’ pew, sitting between old Page and Jessy. He found all the places for her in her Prayer-book (a shabby red one, some of the leaves loose); bowing slightly every time he handed her the book, as if she had been a princess of the blood royal. Such gallantry was new in our parts: and the congregation were rather taken off their devotions watching it. As to Jessy, she kept flushing like a rose.

Mr. Marcus Allen remained more than a week, staying over New–Year’s Day. He made himself popular with them all, and enjoyed what Miss Abigail called their plain ways, just as though he had been reared to them. He smoked his pipe in the kitchen with the farmer; he drove Miss Susan to Alcester in the tax-cart; he presented Miss Abigail with a handsome work-box; and gave Charley a bright half-sovereign for bullseyes. As to Jessy, he paid her no more attention than he did her sisters; hardly as much: so that if Miss Susan had been entertaining any faint hope that his object in coming to the Copse was Jessy, and that in consequence John Drench might escape from bewitching wiles, she found the hope fallacious. Mr. Marcus Allen had apparently no more thought of Jessy than he had of Sally, the red-armed serving-girl. “But what in the world brought the man here at all?” questioned Miss Susan of her sister. “He wanted a bit of country holiday,” answered Miss Page with her common sense.

One day during the week the Squire met them abroad, and gave an impromptu invitation to the Manor for the evening. Only the three Miss Pages came. Mr. Marcus Allen sent his compliments, and begged to be excused on the score of headache.

One evening at dusk we met him and Jessy. She had been out on some errand, and he overtook her in the little coppice path between the church and the farm. Tod, dashing through it to get home for dinner, I after him, nearly dashed right upon them. Mr. Marcus Allen had his face inside her bonnet, as if he were speaking in the ear of a deaf old lady of seventy. Tod burst out laughing when we got on.

“That fellow was stealing a sly kiss in the dark, Johnny.”

“Like his impudence.”

“Rubbish,” retorted Tod. “It’s Christmas-tide, and all fair. Didn’t you see the bit of mistletoe he was holding up?” And Tod ran on, whistling a line of a song that the Squire used to sing in his young days:

“We all love a pretty girl, under the rose.”

Mr. Marcus Allen left the Copse Farm with hearty thanks for its hospitality. He promised to come again in the summer, when the fields should be sweet with hay and the golden corn was ripening.

No sooner had he gone than John Drench asked Jessy to promise to be his wife. Whether he had felt any secret jealousy of Mr. Marcus Allen and his attractions, and deemed it well to secure Jessy as soon as the coast was clear, he spoke out. Jessy did not receive the honour kindly. She tossed her pretty head in a violent rage: the idea, she said, of her marrying him. Jessy had never flirted with John Drench since the Aberystwith journey, or encouraged him in any way—that was certain. Unpleasantness ensued at the farm. Mr. Page decidedly approved of the suitor: he alone had perceived nothing of Susan’s hopes: and, perhaps for the first time in his life, he spoke sharply to Jessy. John Drench was not to be despised, he told her; his father was a wealthy man, and John would have a substantial portion; more than double enough to put him into the largest and best farm in the county: Mr. Drench was only waiting for a good one to fall in, to take it for him. No: Jessy would not listen. And as the days went on and John Drench, as she said, strove to further his suit on every opportunity, she conceived, or professed, a downright aversion to him. Sadly miserable indeed she seemed, crying often; and saying she would rather go out as lady’s-maid to some well-born lady than stay at home to be persecuted. Miss Susan was in as high a state of rapture as the iniquity of false John Drench permitted; and said it served the man right for making an oaf of himself.

“Let be,” cried old Page of Jessy. “She’ll come to her senses in time.” But Miss Abigail, regarding Jessy in silence with her critical eyes, took up the notion that the girl had some secret source of discomfort, with which John Drench had nothing to do.

It was close upon this, scarcely beyond the middle of January, when one Monday evening Duffham trudged over from Church Dykely for a game at chess with the Squire. Hard weather had set in; ice and snow lay on the ground. Mrs. Todhetley nursed her face by the fire, for she had toothache as usual; Tod watched the chess; I was reading. In the midst of a silence, the door opened, and old Thomas ushered in John Drench, a huge red comforter round his neck, his hat in his hand.

“Good-evening, Squire; good-evening, ma’am,” said he in his shy way, nodding separately to the rest of us, as he unwound the comforter. “I’ve come for Miss Jessy, please.”

“Come for Miss Jessy!” was the Squire’s surprised echo. “Miss Jessy’s not here. Take a seat, Mr. John.”

“Not here?” cried Drench, opening his eyes in something like fear, and disregarding the invitation to sit down. “Not here! Why where can she have got to? Surely she has not fallen down in the snow and ice, and disabled herself?”

“Why did you think she was here?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, after a pause, during which he seemed to be lost. “Miss Jessy was not at home at tea: later, when I was leaving for the night, Miss Abigail asked me if I would come over here first and fetch Jessy. I asked no questions, but came off at once.”

“She has not been here,” said Mrs. Todhetley. “I have not seen Jessy Page since yesterday afternoon, when I spoke to her coming out of church.”

John Drench looked mystified. That there must have been some misapprehension on Miss Page’s part; or else on his, and he had come to the wrong house; or that poor Jessy had come to grief in the snow on her way to us, seemed certain. He drank a glass of ale, and went away.

They were over again at breakfast time in the morning, John Drench and Miss Abigail herself, bringing strange news. The latter’s face turned white as she told it. Jessy Page had not been found. John Drench and two of the men had been out all night in the fields and lanes, searching for her. Miss Abigail gave us her reasons for thinking Jessy had come to Dyke Manor.

On the Sunday afternoon, when the Miss Pages went home from church, Jessy, instead of turning indoors with them, continued her way onwards to the cottage of a poor old woman named Matt, saying Mrs. Todhetley had told her the old granny was very ill. At six o’clock, when they had tea—tea was always late on Sunday evenings, as Sally had leave to stay out gossiping for a good hour after service—it was discovered that Jessy had not come in. Charley was sent out after her, and met her at the gate. She had a scolding from her sister for staying out after dark had fallen; but all she said in excuse was, that the old granny was so very ill. That passed. On the Monday, soon after dinner, she came downstairs with her things on, saying she was going over to Dyke Manor, having promised Mrs. Todhetley to let her know the real state of Granny Matt. “Don’t thee get slipping in the snow, Jessy,” said Mr. Page to her, half jokingly. “No danger, father,” she replied: and went up and kissed him. As she did not return by tea-time, Miss Page took it for granted she was spending the evening with us. Since that, she had not been seen.

It seemed very odd. Mrs. Todhetley said that in talking with Jessy in the porch, she had incidentally mentioned the sickness of Granny Matt. Jessy immediately said she would go there and see her; and if she found her very ill would send word to Dyke Manor. Talk as they would, there was no more to be made of it than that: Jessy had left home to come to us, and was lost by the way.

Lost to her friends, at any rate, if not to herself. John Drench and Miss Page departed; and all day long the search after Jessy and the speculation as to what had become of her continued. At first, no one had glanced at anything except some untoward accident as the sole cause, but gradually opinions veered round to a different fear. They began to think she might have run away!

Run away to escape Mr. John Drench’s persevering attentions; and to seek the post of lady’s-maid—which she had been expressing a wish for. John stated, however, that he had not persecuted her; that he had resolved to let a little time go by in silence, and then try his luck again. Granny Matt was questioned, and declared most positively that the young lady had not stayed ten minutes with her; that it was only “duskish” when she went away. “Duskish” at that season, in the broad open country, with the white snow on the ground, would mean about five o’clock. What had Jessy done with herself during the other hour—for it was past six when she reached home,—and why should she have excused her tardiness by implying that Granny Matt’s illness had kept her?

No one could fathom it. No one ever knew. Before that first day of trouble was over, John Drench suggested worse. Deeply mortified at its being said that she might have run away from him, he breathed a hasty retort—that it was more likely she had been run away with by Mr. Marcus Allen. Had William Page been strong enough he had certainly knocked him down for the aspersion. Susan heard it with a scared face: practical Miss Abigail sternly demanded upon what grounds he spoke. Upon no grounds in particular, Drench honestly answered: it was a thought that came into his mind and he spoke it on the spur of the moment. Any way, it was most unjust to say he had sent her.

The post-mistress at the general shop, Mrs. Smail, came forward with some testimony. Miss Jessy had been no less than twice to the shop during the past fortnight, nay, three times, she thought, to inquire after letters addressed J. P. The last time she received one. Had she been negotiating privately for the lady’s-maid’s situation, wondered Abigail: had she been corresponding with Mr. Marcus Allen, retorted Susan, in her ill-nature; for she did not just now hold Jessy in any favour. Mrs. Smail was asked whether she had observed, amongst the letters dropped into the box, any directed to Mr. Marcus Allen. But this had to be left an open question: there might have been plenty directed to him, or there might not have been a single one, was the unsatisfactory answer: she had “no ‘call’ to examine the directions, and as often did up the bag without her spectacles as with ’em.”

All this, put together, certainly did not tend to show that Mr. Marcus Allen had anything to do with the disappearance. Jessy had now and then received letters from her former schoolfellows addressed to the post-office—for her sisters, who considered her but a child, had an inconvenient habit of looking over her shoulder while she read them. The whole family, John Drench included, were up to their ears in agony: they did not know in what direction to look for her; were just in that state of mind when straws are caught at. Tod, knowing it could do no harm, told Miss Abigail about the kiss in the coppice. Miss Abigail quite laughed at it: kisses under the mistletoe were as common as blackberries with us, and just as innocent. She wrote to Aberystwith, asking questions about Marcus Allen, especially as to where he might be found. In answer, Mrs. Allen said she had not heard from him since he left Aberystwith, early in December, but had no doubt he was in London at his own home: she did not know exactly where that was, except that it was “somewhere at the West End.”

This letter was not more satisfactory than anything else. Everything seemed vague and doubtful. Miss Page read it to her father when he was in bed: Susan had just brought up his breakfast, and he sat up with the tray before him, his face nearly as white as the pillow behind him. They could not help seeing how ill and how shrunken he looked: Jessy’s loss had told upon him.

“I think, father, I had better go to London, and see if anything’s to be learnt there,” said Miss Page. “We cannot live on, in this suspense.”

“Ay; best go,” answered he, “I can’t live in it, either. I’ve had another sleepless night: and I wish that I was strong to travel. I should have been away long ago searching for the child——.”

“You see, father, we don’t know where to seek her; we’ve no clue,” interrupted Abigail.

“I’d have gone from place to place till I found her. But now, I’ll tell ye, Abigail, where you must go first—the thought has been in my mind all night. And that is to Madame Caron’s.”

“To Madame Caron’s!” echoed both the sisters at once. “Madame Caron’s!”

“Don’t either of you remember how your mother used to talk of her? She was Ann Dicker. She knows a sight of great folks now—and it may be that Jessy’s gone to her. Bond Street, or somewhere near to it, is where she lives.”

In truth they had almost forgotten the person mentioned. Madame Caron had once been plain Ann Dicker, of Church Dykely, intimate with William Page and his wife. She went to London when a young woman to learn the millinery and dress-making; married a Frenchman, and rose by degrees to be a fashionable court-milliner. It struck Mr. Page, during the past night-watch, that Jessy might have applied to Madame Caron to help her in getting a place as lady’s-maid.

“It’s the likeliest thing she’d do,” he urged, “if her mind was bent that way. How was she to find such a place of herself?—and I wish we had all been smothered before we’d made her home here unhappy, and put her on to think of such a thing.”

“Father, I don’t think her home was made unhappy,” said Miss Page.

To resolve and to do were one with prompt Abigail Page. Not a moment lost she, now that some sort of clue was given to act upon. That same morning she was on her way to London, attended by John Drench.

* * * * *

A large handsome double show-room. Brass hooks on the walls and slender bonnet-stands on the tables, garnished with gowns and mantles and head-gear and fal-lals; wide pier-glasses; sofas and chairs covered with chintz. Except for these articles, the room was empty. In a small apartment opening from it, called “the trying-on room,” sat Madame Caron herself, taking a comfortable cup of tea and a toasted muffin, after the labours of the day were over. Not that the labours were great at that season: people who require court millinery being for the most part out of town.

“You are wanted, if you please, madame, in the show-room,” said a page in buttons, coming in to disturb the tea.

“Wanted!—at this hour!” cried Madame Caron, as she glanced at the clock, and saw it was on the stroke of six. “Who is it?”

“It’s a lady and gentleman, madame. They look like travellers.”

“Go in and light the gas,” said madame.

“Passing through London and requiring things in a hurry,” thought she, mentally running through a list of some of her most fashionable customers.

She went in with a swimming curtsy—quite that of a Frenchwoman—and the parties, visitors and visited, gazed at each other in the gaslight. They saw a very stylish lady in rich black satin that stood on end, and lappets of point lace: she saw two homely country people, the one in a red comforter, muffled about his ears, the other in an antiquated fur tippet that must originally have come out of Noah’s ark.

“Is it—Madame Caron?” questioned Miss Abigail, in hesitation. For, you see, she doubted whether it might not be one of Madame Caron’s duchesses.

“I have the honour to be Madame Caron,” replied the lady with her grandest air.

Thus put at ease in regard to identity, Miss Page introduced herself—and John Drench, son of Mr. Drench of the Upland Farm. Madame Caron—who had a good heart, and retained amidst her grandeur a vivid remembrance of home and early friends—came down from her stilts on the instant, took off with her own hands the objectionable tippet, on the plea of heat, conducted them into the little room, and rang for a fresh supply of tea and muffins.

“I remember you so well when you were a little thing, Abigail,” she said, her heart warming to the old days. “We always said you would grow up like your mother, and so you have. Ah, dear! that’s something like a quarter-of-a-century ago. As to you, Mr. John, your father and I were boy and girl sweethearts.”

Over the refreshing tea and the muffins, Abigail Page told her tale. The whole of it. Her father had warned her not to hint a word against Jessy; but there was something in the face before her that spoke of truth and trust; and, besides, she did not see her way clear not to speak of Marcus Allen. To leave him out altogether would have been like bargaining for a spring calf in the dark, as she said later to John Drench.

“I have never had a line from Jessy in all my life: I have neither seen her nor heard of her,” said madame. “As to Mr. Marcus Allen, I don’t know him personally myself, but Miss Connaway, my head dressmaker, does: for I have heard her speak of him. I can soon find out for you where he lives.”

Miss Page thought she should like to see the head dressmaker, and a message was sent up for her. A neat little middle-aged woman came down, and was invited to the tea-table. Madame turned the conversation on Mr. Marcus Allen; telling Miss Connaway that these country friends of hers knew him slightly, and would be glad to get his address to call upon him; but she did not say a syllable about Jessy.

Mr. Marcus Allen had about two hundred a year of his own, and was an artist in water-colours. The certain income made him idle; and he played just as much as he worked. The few pictures he completed were good, and sold well. He shared a large painting-room somewhere with a brother artist, but lived in chambers. All this Miss Connaway told readily; she had known him since he was a child.

Late though it was, Miss Abigail and her cavalier proceeded to Marcus Allen’s lodgings; or “chambers,” as they were ostentatiously called, and found him seated at dinner. He rose in the utmost astonishment at seeing them; an astonishment that looked thoroughly genuine.

Jessy missing! Jessy left her home! He could but reiterate the words in wondering disbelief. Abigail Page felt reassured from that moment; even jealous John Drench in his heart acquitted him. He had not written to Jessy, he said; he had nothing to write to her about, therefore it could not have been his letter she went to receive at the post-office; and most certainly she had not written to him. Miss Abigail—willing perhaps to offer some excuse for coming to him—said they had thought it possible Jessy might have consulted him about getting a lady’s-maid’s place. She never had consulted him, he answered, but had once told him that she intended to go out as one. He should imagine, he added, it was what she had done.

Mr. Marcus Allen pressed them to sit down and partake of his dinner, such as it was; he poured out glasses of wine; he was altogether hospitable. But they declined all. He then asked how he could assist them; he was most anxious they should find her, and would help in any way that lay in his power.

“He knows no more about her than we know,” said John Drench as they turned out into the lighted streets, on their way back to the inn they had put up at, which had been recommended to them by Mr. Page. “I’m sorry I misjudged him.”

“I am sorry too, John Drench,” was Miss Abigail’s sorrowful answer. “But for listening to the words you said, we should never have had such a wicked thought about her, poor child, and been spared many a bitter moment. Where in the wide world are we to look for her now?”

The wide world did not give any answer. London, with its teeming millions, was an enormous arena—and there was no especial cause for supposing Jessy Page had come to it.

“I am afraid it will be of no use to stay here any longer,” said Miss Abigail to John Drench, after another unsatisfactory day had gone by, during which Marcus Allen called upon them at the inn and said he had spoken to the police. It was John Drench’s own opinion.

“Why, you see, Miss Abigail, that to look for her here, not knowing where or how, is like looking for a needle in a bottle of hay,” said John.

They reached home none too soon. Two unexpected events were there to greet them. The one was Mr. Page who was lying low in an attack of paralysis; the other was a letter from Jessy.

It gave no clue to where she was. All she said in it was that she had found a situation, and hoped to suit and be happy in it; and she sent her love to all.

And the weeks and the months went on.

2.

Snow was falling. At one of the windows of the parlour at Copse Farm, stood Susan Page, her bunch of short dark curls fastened back with a comb on both sides of her thin face, her trim figure neat in a fine crimson merino gown. Her own portion of household-work was already done, though it was not yet mid-day, and she was about to sit down, dressed for the day, to some sewing that lay on the work-table.

“I was hoping the snow was over: the morning looked so clear and bright,” she said to herself, watching the large flakes. “Leek will have a job to get the truck to the church.”

It was a long, narrow room. At the other end, by the fire, sat Mr. Page in his arm-chair. He had dropped asleep, his cheek leaning on his hand. As Miss Susan sat down and took up her work, a large pair of scissors fell to the ground with a crash. She glanced round at her father, but he did not wake. That stroke of a year ago had dulled his faculties.

“I should uncommonly like to know who did this—whether Sally or the woman,” she exclaimed, examining the work she had to do. One of Mr. Page’s new shirts had been torn in the washing, and she was about to mend the rent. “That woman has a heavy hand: and Sally a careless one. It ought not to have been ironed.”

The door opened, and John Drench came in. When he saw that Mr. Page was asleep, he walked up the room towards Miss Susan. In the past twelvemonth—for that amount of time had rolled on since the trouble about Jessy and her mysterious disappearance—John Drench had had time to return to his first allegiance (or, as Miss Susan mentally put it, get over his folly); and he had decidedly done it.

“Did you want anything?” asked Susan in a cold tone. For she made a point of being short with him—for his own benefit.

“I wanted to ask the master whether he’d have that ditch made, that he was talking about,” was the answer. “There’s no hurry about it: not much to be done anywhere while this weather lasts.”

She made no reply. John Drench stood, waiting for Mr. Page to wake, looking alternately at the snow and at Miss Susan’s steel thimble and nimble fingers. Very deftly was she doing the work, holding the linen gingerly, that the well-ironed bosom and wristbands might not get creased and unfit the shirt for wear. He was thinking what a good wife she would make: for there was nothing, in the shape of usefulness, that Susan Page could not put her hand to, and put it well.

“Miss Susan, I was going to ask you a question,” he began, standing uncomfortably on one leg. “I’ve been wanting to do it for a good bit now, but——”

“Pick up my cotton,” said Miss Susan tartly, dropping a reel purposely.

“But I believe I have wanted courage,” resumed he after doing as he was bid. “It is a puzzling task to know how to do it for the best, and what to say. If you——”

Open flew the door, and in came Miss Page, in her white kitchen apron. Her sleeves were rolled above her elbows, her floured hands were lightly wiped. John Drench, interrupted, thought he should never have pluck to speak again.

“Susan, do you know where that old red receipt-book is?” she asked, in a low tone, glancing at her sleeping father. “I am not certain about the proportions for the lemon cake.”

“The red receipt-book?” repeated Susan. “I have not seen it for ever so long.”

“Nor I. I don’t think I have had occasion to use it since last Christmas–Eve. I know I had to look at it then for the lemon-cake. Sally says she’s sure it is somewhere in this room.”

“Then you had better send Sally to find it, Abigail.”

Instead of that, Miss Page began searching herself. On the book-shelves; on the side-board; in all the nooks and corners. It was found in the drawer of an unused table that stood against the wall.

“Well, I declare!” she exclaimed, as she drew it out. “I wonder who put it in here?”

In turning over the leaves to look for what she wanted, a piece of paper, loosely folded, fell to the ground. John Drench picked it up.

“Why!” he said, “it is a note from Jessy.”

It was the letter written to them by Jessy, saying she had found a situation and hoped to suit and be happy in it. The one letter: for no other had ever come. Abigail, missing the letter months ago, supposed it had got burnt.

“Yes,” she said with a sigh, as she glanced over the few lines now, standing by Susan’s work-table, “it is Jessy’s letter. She might have written again. Every morning of my life for weeks and weeks, I kept looking for the letter-man to bring another. But the hope died out at last, for it never came.”

“She is a heartless baggage!” cried Miss Susan. “In her grand lady’s-maid’s place, amongst her high people, she is content to forget and abandon us. I’d never have believed it of her.”

A pause ensued. The subject was a painful one. Mortifying too: for no one likes to be set at nought and forgotten by one that they have loved and cherished and brought up from a little child. Abigail Page had tears in her eyes.

“It’s just a year ago today that she came into the church to help us to dress it,” said John Drench, his tender tone of regret grating on Miss Susan’s ear. “In her blue mantle she looked sweeter and brighter than a fairy.”

“Did you ever see a fairy, pray?” asked Miss Susan, sharply taking him up. “She acted like a fairy, didn’t she?”

“Best to forget her,” interposed Abigail, suppressing a sigh. “As Susan says, she is heartless. Almost wicked: for what is worse than ingratitude? Never to write: never to let us know where her situation is and with what people: never to ask or care whether her poor father, who had nothing but love for her, is living or dead? It’s best to forget her.”

She went out of the room with the note and receipt-book as she spoke, softly closing the door behind her, as one does who is feeling trouble. Miss Susan worked on with rapid and angry stitches; John Drench looked out on the low-lying snow. The storm had passed: the sky was blue again.

Yes. Christmas–Eve had come round, making it just a year since Jessy in her pretty blue mantle had chosen the sprays of holly in the church. They had never had from her but that one first unsatisfactory letter: they knew no more how she went, or why she went, or where she was, than they had known then. Within a week or two of the unsatisfactory journey to London of Miss Abigail and John Drench, a letter came to the farm from Mr. Marcus Allen, inquiring after Jessy, expressing hopes that she had been found and was at home again. It was not answered: Miss Page, busy with her father’s illness, neglected it at first, and then thought it did not matter.

Mr. Page had recovered from his stroke: but he would never be good for anything again. He was very much changed; would sit for hours and never speak: at times his daughters thought him a little silly, as if his intellect were failing. Miss Page, with John Drench’s help, managed the farm: though she always made it a point of duty to consult her father and ask for his orders. In the month of June they heard again from Mr. Marcus Allen. He wrote to say that he was sorry not to fulfil his promise (made in the winter’s visit) of coming to stay with them during the time of hay-making, but he was busy finishing a painting and could not leave it: he hoped to come at some other time. And this was now December.

Susan Page worked on: John Drench looked out of the window. The young lady was determined not to break the silence.

“The Dunn Farm is to let,” said he suddenly.

“Is it?” slightingly returned Miss Susan.

“My father has some thoughts of taking it for me. It’s good land.”

“No better than other land about here.”

“It’s very good, Susan. And just the place I should like. There’s an excellent house too, on it.”

Susan Page began rummaging in the deep drawer of the work-table for her box of buttons. She had a great mind to hum a tune.

“But I couldn’t take it, or let father take it for me, unless you’d promise to go to it with me, Susan.”

“Promise to go to it with you, John Drench!”

“I’d make you as good a husband as I know how. Perhaps you’ll think of it.”

No answer. She was doubling her thread to sew on the button.

Will you think of it, Miss Susan?”

“Well—yes, I will,” she said in a softer tone, “And if I decide to bring my mind to have you, John Drench, I’ll hope to make you a good and faithful wife.”

He held out his hand to shake hers upon the bargain. Their eyes met in kindliness: and John Drench knew that the Dunn Farm would have its mistress.

* * * * *

We were going to dress the church this year as we did the last. Clerk Bumford’s cough was bad, and the old sexton was laid by as usual. Tod and I got to the church early in the afternoon, and saw the Miss Pages wading their way through the coppice, over their ankles in snow: the one lady having finished her cake-making and the other her shirt-mending.

“Is Leek not here yet?” cried they in surprise. “We need not have made so much haste.”

Leek with his large truck of holly was somewhere on the road. He had started, as Miss Page said, while they were at dinner. And he was not to be seen!

“It is all through his obstinacy,” cried Susan. “I told him he had better take the highway, though it was a little further round; but he said he knew he could well get through the little valley. That’s where he has stuck, truck and all.”

John Drench came up as she was speaking. He had been on some errand to Church Dykely; and gave a bad account of the snow on the roads. This was the third day of it. The skies just now were blue as in spring; the sun, drawing towards the west, was without a cloud. After waiting a few minutes, John Drench started to meet Leek and help him on; and we cooled our heels in the church-porch, unable to get inside. As it was supposed Leek would be there sooner than any one else, the key of the church had been given to him that he might get the holly in. There we waited in the cold. At last, out of patience, Tod went off in John Drench’s wake, and I after him.

It was as Miss Susan surmised. Leek and his truck had stuck fast in the valley: a low, narrow neck of land connecting a byeway to the farm with the lane. The snow was above the wheels: Leek could neither get on nor turn back. He and John Drench were hard at work, pulling and pushing; and the obstinate truck refusing to move an inch. With the help of our strength—if mine was not worth much, Tod’s was—we got it on. But all this caused ever so much delay: and the dressing was begun when it ought to have been nearly finished. I could not help thinking of the other Christmas–Eve; and of pretty Jessy who had helped—and of Miss Susan scolding her for coming in her best blue mantle—and of the sudden looming upon us of the stranger, Marcus Allen. Perhaps the rest were thinking about it as I was. One thing was certain—that there was no liveliness in this year’s dressing; we were all as silent as mutes and as dull as ditch-water. Charley Page, who had made enough noise last year, was away this. He went to school at Worcester now, and had gone to spend the Christmas with some people in Gloucestershire, instead of coming home.

The work was in progress, when who should look in upon us but Duffham. He was passing by to visit some one ill in the cottages. “Rather late, shan’t you be?” cried he, seeing that there was hardly any green up yet. And we told him about the truck sticking in the snow.

“What possessed Leek to take it through the valley?” returned Duffham.

“Because he is fonder of having his own way than a mule,” called out Miss Susan from the aisle.

Duffham laughed. “Don’t forget the gala bunch over the parson’s head; it looked well last year,” said he, turning to go out. And we told him there was no danger of forgetting it: it was one of our improvements on old Bumford’s dressing.

Darkness overtook us before half the work was done. There was nothing for it but to get candles from the Copse Farm to finish by. No one volunteered to fetch them: a walk through the snow did not look lively in prospective to any one of us, and Leek had gone off somewhere. “I suppose it must be me,” said John Drench, coming out from the holly to start: when Miss Page suddenly bethought herself of what the rest of us were forgetting—that there might be candles in the church. On a winter’s afternoon, when it grew dark early and the parson could not see through his spectacles to finish his sermon, Clerk Bumford would go stumping into the place under the belfry, and reappear with a lighted candle and hand it up to the pulpit. He ought to have a stock of candles in store.

John Drench struck some matches, and we went to explore Bumford’s den—a place dimly lighted by the open slits in the belfry above. The first thing seen was his black gown hanging up, next a horn lantern on the floor and the grave-digging tools, then an iron candlestick with a candle end in it, then a stick half-a-mile long that he menaced the boys with if they laughed in church; and next a round tin candlebox on a nail in the wall. It was a prize.

There were ten candles in it. Leaving one, in case it should be wanted on the morrow afternoon, the nine others were lighted. One was put into the iron candlestick, the rest we stuck upright in melted tallow, wherever one was wanted: how else could they be set up? It was a grand illumination: and we laughed over Clerk Bumford’s dismay when he should find his store of candles gone.

That took time: finding the candles, and dropping the tallow, and talking and laughing. In the midst of it the clock struck five. Upon that, Miss Abigail told us to hinder no more time, or the work would not be done by midnight. So we set to with a will. In a couple of hours all the dressing was finished, and the branches were ready to be hung over the pulpit. John Drench felt for the string. He seemed to take his time over it.

“Where on earth is it?” cried he, searching his pockets. “I’m sure I brought some.”

He might have brought it; but it was certain he had not got it then. Miss Abigail, who had no patience with carelessness, told him rather sharply that if he had put it in his pockets at all, there it would be now.

“Well, I did,” he answered, in his quiet way. “I put it in on purpose. I’m sure I don’t know where it can have got to.”

And there we were: at a standstill for a bit of string. Looking at one another like so many helpless noodles, and the flaring candles coming to an end! Tod said, tear a strip off the tail of Bumford’s gown; he’d never miss it: for which Miss Abigail gave it him as sharply as if he had proposed to tear it off the parson’s.

“I might get a bit of string at old Bumford’s,” I said. “In a few minutes I’ll be back with it.”

It was one of the lightest nights ever seen: the air clear, the moon bright, the ground white with snow. Rushing round the north and unfrequented side of the church, where the grass on the graves was long and no one ever walked, excepting old Bumford when he wanted to cut across the near way to his cottage, I saw something stirring against the church wall. Something dark: that seemed to have been looking in at the window, and now crouched down with a sudden movement behind the buttress, as if afraid of being seen.

“Is that you, Leek?” I called out.

There was no answer: no movement: nothing but a dark heap lying low. I thought it might be a fox; and crossed over to look.

Well—I had had surprises in my life, but never one that so struck upon me as this. Foxes don’t wear women’s clothes: this thing did. I pulled aside the dark cloak, and a face stood out white and cold in the moonlight—the face of Jessy Page.

You may fancy it is a slice of romance this; made up for effect out of my imagination: but it is the real truth, as every one about the place can testify to, and its strangeness is talked of still. Yet there are stranger coincidences in life than this. On Christmas–Eve, a year before, Jessy Page had been helping to dress the church, in her fine blue mantle, in her beauty, in her light-hearted happiness: on this Christmas–Eve when we were dressing it again, she reappeared. But how changed! Wan, white, faint, wasted! I am not sure that I should have known her but for her voice. Shrinking, as it struck me, with shame and fear, she put up her trembling hands in supplication.

“Don’t betray me!—don’t call!” she implored in weak, feverish, anxious tones. “Go away and leave me. Let me lie here unsuspected until they have all gone away.”

What ought I to do? I was just as bewildered as it’s possible for a fellow to be. It’s no exaggeration to say that I thought her dying: and it would never do to leave her there to die.

The stillness was broken by a commotion. While she lay with her thin hands raised, and I was gazing down on her poor face, wondering what to say, and how to act, Miss Susan came flying round the corner after me.

“Johnny Ludlow! Master Johnny! Don’t go. We have found the string under the unused holly. Why!—what’s that?”

No chance of concealment for Jessy now. Susan Page made for the buttress, and saw the white face in the moonlight.

“It’s Jessy,” I whispered.

With a shriek that might have scared away all the ghosts in the churchyard, Susan Page called for Abigail. They heard it through the window, and came rushing out, thinking Susan must have fallen at least into the clutches of a winter wolf. Miss Susan’s voice trembled as she spoke in a whisper.

“Here’s Jessy—come back at last!”

Unbelieving Abigail Page went down on her knees in the snow to trace the features, and convince herself. Yes, it was Jessy. She had fainted now, and lay motionless. Leek came up then, and stood staring.

Where had she come from?—how had she got there? It was just as though she had dropped from the skies with the snow. And what was to be done with her?

“She must—come home,” said Abigail.

But she spoke hesitatingly, as though some impediment might lie in the way: and she looked round in a dreamy manner on the open country, all so white and dreary in the moonlight.

“Yes, there’s no other place—of course it must be the farm,” she added. “Perhaps you can bring her between you. But I’ll go on and speak to my father first.”

It was easy for one to carry her, she was so thin and light. John Drench lifted her and they all went off: leaving me and Leek to finish up in the church, and put out the candles.

William Page was sitting in his favourite place, the wide chimney-corner of the kitchen, quietly smoking his pipe, when his daughter broke in upon him with the strange news. Just in the same way that, a year before, she had broken in upon him with that other news—that a gentleman had arrived, uninvited, on a visit to the farm. This news was more startling than that.

“Are they bringing her home?—how long will they be?” cried the old man with feverish eagerness, as he let fall his long churchwarden pipe, and broke it. “Abigail, will they be long?”

“Father, I want to say something: I came on to say it,” returned Miss Page, and she was trembling too. “I don’t like her face: it is wan, and thin, and full of suffering: but there’s a look in it that—that seems to tell of shame.”

“To tell of what?” he asked, not catching the word.

“May Heaven forgive me if I misjudge her! The fear crossed me, as I saw her lying there, that her life may not have been innocent since she left us: why else should she come back in this most strange way? Must we take her in all the same, father?”

“Take her in!” he repeated in amazement. “YES. What are you thinking of, child, to ask it?”

“It’s the home of myself and Susan, father: it has been always an honest one in the sight of the neighbours. Maybe, they’ll be hard upon us for receiving her into it.”

He stared as one who does not understand, and then made a movement with his hands, as if warding off her words and the neighbours’ hardness together.

“Let her come, Abigail! Let her come, poor stray lamb. Christ wouldn’t turn away a little one that had strayed from the fold: should her own father do it?”

And when they brought her in, and put her in an easy-chair by the sitting-room fire, stirring it into a blaze, and gave her hot tea and brandy in it, William Page sat down by her side, and shed fast tears over her, as he fondly stroked her hand.

* * * * *

Gay and green looked the church on Christmas morning, the sun shining in upon us as brightly as it shone a year before. The news of Jessy Page’s return and the curious manner of it, had spread; causing the congregation to turn their eyes instinctively on the Pages’ pew. Perhaps not one but recalled the last Christmas—and the gallant stranger who had sat in it, and found the places in the Prayer-book for Jessy. Only Mr. Page was there today. He came slowly in with his thick stick—for he walked badly since his illness, and dragged one leg behind the other. Before the thanksgiving prayer the parson opened a paper and read out a notice. Such things were uncommon in our church, and it caused a stir.

“William Page desires to return thanks to Almighty God for a great mercy vouchsafed to him.”

We walked to the Copse Farm with him after service. Considering that he had been returning thanks, he seemed dreadfully subdued. He didn’t know how it was yet; where she had been, or why she had come home in the manner she did, he told the Squire; but, anyway, she had come. Come to die, it might be; but come home, and that was enough.

Mrs. Todhetley went upstairs to see her. They had given her the best bed, the one they had given to Marcus Allen. She lay in it like a lily. It was what Mrs. Todhetley said when she came down: “like a lily, so white and delicate.” There was no talking. Jessy for the most part kept her eyes shut and her face turned away. Miss Page whispered that they had not questioned her yet; she seemed too weak to bear it. “But what do you think?” asked Mrs. Todhetley in return. “I am afraid to think,” was all the answer. In coming away, Mrs. Todhetley stooped over the bed to kiss her.

“Oh don’t, don’t!” said Jessy faintly: “you might not if you knew all. I am not worth it.”

“Perhaps I should kiss you all the more, my poor child,” answered Mrs. Todhetley. And she came downstairs with red eyes.

But Miss Susan Page was burning with impatience to know the ins and outs of the strange affair. Naturally so. It had brought more scandal and gossip on the Copse Farm than even the running away of the year before. That was bad enough: this was worse. Altogether Jessy was the home’s heartsore. Mr. Page spoke of her as a lamb, a wanderer returned to the fold, and Susan heard it with compressed lips: in her private opinion, she had more justly been called an ungrateful girl.

“Now, then, Jessy; you must let us know a little about yourself,” began Susan on this same afternoon when she was with her alone, and Jessy lay apparently stronger, refreshed with the dinner and the long rest. Abigail had gone to church with Mr. Page. Susan could not remember that any of them had gone to church before on Christmas–Day after the morning service: but there was no festive gathering to keep them at home today. Unconsciously, perhaps, Susan resented the fact. Even John Drench was dining at his father’s. “Where have you been all this while in London?”

Jessy suddenly lifted her arm to shade her eyes; and remained silent.

“It is in London, I conclude, that you have been? Come: answer me.”

“Yes,” said Jessy faintly.

“And where have you been? In what part of it?—who with?”

“Don’t ask me,” was the low reply, given with a suppressed sob.

“Not ask you! But we must ask you. And you must answer. Where have you been, and what have you been doing?”

“I—can’t tell,” sobbed Jessy. “The story is too long.”

“Story too long!” echoed Susan quickly, “you might say in half-a-dozen words—and leave explanations until tomorrow. Did you find a place in town?”

“Yes, I found a place.”

“A lady’s-maid’s place?—as you said.”

Jessy turned her face to the wall, and never spoke.

“Now, this won’t do,” cried Miss Susan, not choosing to be thwarted: and no doubt Jessy, hearing the determined tone, felt something like a reed in her hands. “Just you tell me a little.”

“I am very ill, Susan; I can’t talk much,” was the pleading excuse. “If you’d only let me be quiet.”

“It will no more hurt you to say in a few words where you have been than to make excuses,” persisted Miss Susan, giving a flick to the skirt of her new puce silk gown. “Your conduct altogether has been most extraordinary, quite baffling to us at home, and I must hear some explanation of it.”

“The place I went to was too hard for me,” said Jessy after a pause, speaking out of the pillow.

“Too hard!”

“Yes; too hard. My heart was breaking with its hardness, and I couldn’t stop in it. Oh, be merciful to me, Susan! don’t ask any more.”

Susan Page thought that when mysterious answers like these were creeping out, there was all the greater need that she should ask for more.

“Who found you the place at first, Jessy?”

Not a word. Susan asked again.

“I—got it through an advertisement,” said Jessy at length.

Advertisements in those days, down in our rural district, were looked upon as wonderful things, and Miss Susan opened her eyes in surprise. A faint idea was upon her that Jessy could not be telling the truth.

“In that letter that you wrote to us; the only one you did write; you asserted that you liked the place.”

“Yes. That was at first. But afterwards—oh, afterwards it got cruelly hard.”

“Why did you not change it for another?”

Jessy made no answer. Susan heard the sobs in her throat.

“Now, Jessy, don’t be silly. I ask why you did not get another place, if you were unable to stay in that one?”

“I couldn’t have got another, Susan. I would never have got another.”

“Why not?” persisted Susan.

“I—I—don’t you see how weak I am?” she asked with some energy, lifting her face for a moment to Susan.

And its wan pain, its depth of anguish, disarmed Susan. Jessy looked like a once fair blossom on which a blight had passed.

“Well, Jessy, we will leave these matters until later. But there’s one thing you must answer. What induced you to take this disreputable mode of coming back?”

A dead silence.

“Could you not have written to say you were coming, as any sensible girl would, that you might have been properly met and received? Instead of appearing like a vagabond, to be picked up by anybody.”

“I never meant to come home—to the house.”

“But why?” asked Susan.

“Oh, because—because of my ingratitude in running away—and never writing—and—and all that.”

“That is, you were ashamed to come and face us.”

“Yes, I was ashamed,” said Jessy, shivering.

“And no wonder. Why did you go?”

Jessy gave a despairing sigh. Leaving that question in abeyance, Susan returned to the former one.

“If you did not mean to come home, what brought you down here at all?”

“It didn’t matter where I went. And my heart was yearning for a look at the old place—and so I came.”

“And if we had not found you under the church wall—and we never should but for Johnny Ludlow’s running out to get some string—where should you have gone, pray?”

“Crawled under some haystack, and let the cold and hunger kill me.”

“Don’t be a simpleton,” reproved Susan.

“I wish it had been so,” returned Jessy. “I’d rather be dying there in quiet. Oh, Susan, I am ill; I am indeed! Let me be at peace!”

The appeal shut up Susan Page. She did not want to be too hard upon her.

Mr. Duffham came in after church. Abigail had told him that she did not like Jessy’s looks; nor yet her cough. He went up alone, and was at the bedside before Jessy was aware. She put up her hand to hide her face, but not in time: Duffham had seen it. Doctors don’t get shocks in a general way: they are too familiar with appearances that frighten other people: but he started a little. If ever he saw coming death in a face, he thought he saw it in that of Jessy Page.

He drew away the shading hand, and looked at her. Duffham was pompous on the whole and thought a good deal of his gold-headed cane, but he was a tender man with the sad and sick. After that, he sat down and began asking her a few things—where she had been, and what she had done. Not out of curiosity, or quite with the same motive that Miss Susan had just asked; but because he wished to find out whether her illness was more on the body or the mind. She would not answer. Only cried softly.

“My dear,” said Duffham, “I must have you tell me a little of the past. Don’t be afraid: it shall go no further. If you only knew the strange confidences that are sometimes placed in me, Jessy, you would not hesitate.”

No, she would not speak of her own accord, so he began to pump her. Doing it very kindly and soothingly: had Jessy spent her year in London robbing all the banks, one might have thought she could only have yielded to his wish to come to the bottom of it. Duffham listened to her answers, and sat with a puzzled face. She told him what she had told Susan: that her post of lady’s-maid had been too hard for her and worn her to what she was; that she had shrunk from returning home on account of her ingratitude, and should not have returned ever of her own will. But she had yearned for a sight of the old place, and so came down by rail, and walked over after dark. In passing the church she saw it lighted up; and lingered, peeping in. She never meant to be seen; she should have gone away somewhere before morning. Nothing more.

Nothing more! Duffham sat listening to her. He pushed back the pretty golden hair (no more blue ribbons in it now), lost in thought.

Nothing more, Jessy? There must have been something more, I think, to have brought you into this state. What was it?”

“No,” she faintly said: “only the hard work I had to do; and the thought of how I left my home; and—and my unhappiness. I was unhappy always, nearly from my first entering. The work was hard.”

“What was the work?”

“It was——”

A long pause. Mr. Duffham, always looking at her, waited.

“It was sewing; dress-making. And—there was sitting up at nights.”

“Who was the lady you served? What was her name?”

“I can’t tell it,” answered Jessy, her cheeks flushing to a wild hectic.

The surgeon suddenly turned the left hand towards him, and looked at the forefinger. It was smooth as ivory.

“Not much sign of sewing there, Jessy.”

She drew it under the clothes. “It is some little time since I did any; I was too ill,” she answered. “Mr. Duffham, I have told you all there is to tell. The place was too hard for me, and it made me ill.”

It was all she told. Duffham wondered whether it was, in substance, all she had to tell. He went down and entered the parlour with a grave face: Mr. Page, his daughters, and John Drench were there. The doctor said Jessy must have perfect rest, tranquillity, and the best of nourishment; and he would send some medicine. Abigail put a shawl over her head, and walked with him across the garden.

“You will tell me what your opinion is, Mr. Duffham.”

“Ay. It is no good one, Miss Abigail.”

“Is she very ill?”

“Very. I do not think she will materially rally. Her chest and lungs are both weak.”

“Her mother’s were before her. As I told you, Jessy looks to me just as my mother used to look in her last illness.”

Mr. Duffham went through the gate without saying more. The snow was sparkling like diamonds in the moonlight.

“I think I gather what you mean,” resumed Abigail. “That she is, in point of fact, dying.”

“That’s it. As I truly believe.”

They looked at each other in the clear light air. “But not—surely, Mr. Duffham, not immediately?”

“Not immediately. It may be weeks off yet. Mind—I don’t assert that she is absolutely past hope; I only think it. It is possible that she may rally, and recover.”

“It might not be the happier for her,” said Abigail, under her breath. “She is in a curiously miserable state of mind—as you no doubt saw. Mr. Duffham, did she tell you anything?”

“She says she took a place as lady’s-maid; that the work proved too hard for her; and that, with the remorse for her ingratitude towards her home, made her ill.”

“She said the same to Susan this afternoon. Well, we must wait for more. Good-night, Mr. Duffham: I am sure you will do all you can.”

Of course Duffham meant to do all he could; and from that time he began to attend her regularly.

Jessy Page’s coming home, with, as Miss Susan had put it, the vagabond manner of it, was a nine days’ wonder. The neighbours went making calls at the Copse Farm, to talk about it and to see her. In the latter hope they failed. Jessy showed a great fear of seeing any one of them; would put her head under the bed-clothes and lie there shaking till the house was clear; and Duffham said she was not to be crossed.

Her sisters got to know no more of the past. Not a syllable. They questioned and cross-questioned her; but she only stuck to her text. It was the work that had been too much for her; the people she served were cruelly hard.

“I really think it must be so; that she has nothing else to tell,” remarked Abigail to Susan one morning, as they sat alone at breakfast, “But she must have been a downright simpleton to stay.”

“I can’t make her out,” returned Susan, hard of belief. “Why should she not say where it was, and who the people are? Here comes the letter-man.”

The letter-man—as he was called—was bringing a letter for Miss Page. Letters at the Copse Farm were rare, and she opened it with curiosity. It proved to be from Mrs. Allen of Aberystwith; and out of it dropped two cards, tied together with silver cord.

Mrs. Allen wrote to say that her distant relative, Marcus, was married. He had been married on Christmas–Eve to a Miss Mary Goldbeater, a great heiress, and they had sent her cards. Thinking the Miss Pages might like to see the cards (as they knew something of him) she had forwarded them.

Abigail took the cards up. “Mr. Marcus Allen. Mrs. Marcus Allen.” And on hers was the address: “Gipsy Villas, Montgomery Road, Brompton.” “I think he might have been polite enough to send us cards also,” observed Abigail.

Susan put the cards on the waiter when she went upstairs with her sister’s tea. Jessy, looking rather more feverish than usual in a morning, turned the cards about in her slender hands.

“I have heard of her, this Mary Goldbeater,” said Jessy, biting her parched lips. “They say she’s pretty, and—and very rich.”

“Where did you hear of her?” asked Susan.

“Oh, in-let me think. In the work-room.”

“Now what do you mean by that?” cried Miss Susan. “A work-room implies a dressmaker’s establishment, and you tell us you were a lady’s-maid.”

Jessy seemed unable to answer.

“I don’t believe you were at either the one place or the other. You are deceiving us, Jessy.”

“No,” gasped Jessy.

“Did you ever see Mr. Marcus Allen when you were in town?”

“Mr. Marcus Allen?” repeated Jessy after a pause, just as if she were unable to recall who Mr. Marcus Allen was.

“The Mr. Marcus Allen you knew at Aberystwith; he who came here afterwards,” went on Susan impatiently. “Are you losing your memory, Jessy?”

“No, I never saw the Marcus Allen I knew here—and there,” was Jessy’s answer, her face white and still as death.

“Why!—Did you know any other Marcus Allen, then?” questioned Susan, in surprise. For the words had seemed to imply it.

“No,” replied Jessy. “No.”

“She seems queerer than usual—I hope her mind’s not going,” thought Susan. “Did you ever go to see Madame Caron, Jessy, while you were in London?”

“Never. Why should I? I didn’t know Madame Caron.”

“When Marcus Allen wrote to excuse himself from visiting us in the summer, he said he would be sure to come later,” resumed Susan. “I wonder if he will keep his promise.”

“No—never,” answered Jessy.

“How do you know?”

“Oh—I don’t think it. He wouldn’t care to come. Especially now he’s married.”

“And you never saw him in town, Jessy? Never even met him by chance?”

“I’ve told you—No. Do you suppose I should be likely to call upon Marcus Allen? As to meeting him by chance, it is not often I went out, I can tell you.”

“Well, sit up and take your breakfast,” concluded Susan.

A thought had crossed Susan Page’s mind—whether this marriage of Marcus Allen’s on Christmas–Eve could have had anything to do with Jessy’s return and her miserable unhappiness. It was only a thought; and she drove it away again. As Abigail said, she had been inclined throughout to judge hardly of Jessy.

* * * * *

The winter snow lay on the ground still, when it became a question not of how many weeks Jessy would live, but of days. And then she confessed to a secret that pretty nearly changed the sober Miss Pages’ hair from black to grey. Jessy had turned Roman Catholic.

It came out through her persistent refusal to see the parson, Mr. Holland, a little man with shaky legs. He’d go trotting up to the Copse Farm once or twice a-week; all in vain. Miss Abigail would console him with a good hot jorum of sweet elder wine, and then he’d trot back again. One day Jessy, brought to bay, confessed that she was a Roman Catholic.

There was grand commotion. John Drench went about, his hands lifted in the frosty air; Abigail and Susan Page sat in the bedroom with (metaphorically speaking) ashes on their heads.

People have their prejudices. It was not so much that these ladies wished to cast reflection on good Catholics born and bred, as that Jessy should have abandoned her own religion, just as though it had been an insufficient faith. It was the slight on it that they could not bear.

“Miserable girl!” exclaimed Miss Susan, looking upon Jessy as a turncoat, and therefore next door to lost. And Jessy told, through her sobs, how it had come to pass.

Wandering about one evening in London when she was very unhappy, she entered a Catholic place of worship styled an “Oratory.”—The Miss Pages caught up the word as “oratorio,” and never called it anything else.—There a priest got into conversation with Jessy. He had a pleasant, kindly manner that won upon her and drew from her the fact that she was unhappy. Become a Catholic, he said to her; it would bring her back to happiness: and he asked her to go and see him again. She went again; again and again. And so, going and listening to him, she at length did turn, and was received by him into his church.

“Are you the happier for it?” sharply asked Miss Abigail.

“No,” answered Jessy with distressed eyes. “Only—only——”

“Only what, pray?”

“Well, they can absolve me from all sin.”

“Oh, you poor foolish misguided child!” cried Abigail in anguish; “you must take your sins to the Saviour: He can absolve you, and He alone. Do you want any third person to stand between you and Him?”

Jessy gave a sobbing sigh. “It’s best as it is, Abigail. Anyway, it is too late now.”

“Stop a bit,” cried sharp Miss Susan. “I should like to have one thing answered, Jessy. You have told us how hard you were kept to work: if that was so, pray how did you find leisure to be dancing abroad to Oratorios? Come?”

Jessy could not, or would not, answer.

“Can you explain that!” said Miss Susan, some sarcasm in her tone.

“I went out sometimes in an evening,” faltered Jessy. And more than that could not be drawn from her.

They did not tell Mr. Page: it would have distressed him too much. In a day or two Jessy asked to see a priest. Miss Abigail flatly refused, on account of the scandal. As if their minister was not good enough!

One afternoon I was standing by Jessy’s bed—for Miss Abigail had let me go up to see her. Mrs. Todhetley, that first day, had said she looked like a lily: she was more like one now. A faded lily that has had all its beauty washed out of it.

“Good-bye, Johnny Ludlow,” she said, opening her eyes, and putting out her feeble hand. “I shall not see you again.”

“I hope you will, Jessy. I’ll come over tomorrow.”

“Never again in this world.” And I had to lean over to catch the words, and my eyes were full.

“In the next world there’ll be no parting, Jessy. We shall see each other there.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You will be there, Johnny; I can’t tell whether I shall be. I turned Roman Catholic, you see; and Abigail won’t let a priest come. And so—I don’t know how it will be.”

The words struck upon me. The Miss Pages had kept the secret too closely for news of it to have come abroad. It seemed worse to me to hear it than to her to say it. But she had grown too weak to feel things strongly.

“Good-bye, Johnny.”

“Good-bye, Jessy dear,” I whispered. “Don’t fear: God will be sure to take you to heaven if you ask Him.”

Miss Abigail got it out of me—what she had said about the priest. In fact, I told. She was very cross.

“There; let it drop, Johnny Ludlow. John Drench is gone off in the gig to Coughton to bring one. All I hope and trust is, that they’ll not be back until the shades of night have fallen upon the earth! I shouldn’t like a priest to be seen coming into this door. Such a reproach on good Mr. Holland! I’m sure I trust it will never get about!”

We all have our prejudices, I repeat. And not a soul amongst us for miles round had found it necessary to change religions since the Reformation.

Evening was well on when John Drench brought him in. A mild-faced man, wearing a skull-cap under his broad-brimmed hat. He saw Jessy alone. Miss Page would not have made a third at the interview though they had bribed her to it—and of course they wouldn’t have had her. It was quite late when he came down. Miss Page stopped him as he was going out, after declining refreshment.

“I presume, sir, she has told you all about this past year—that has been so mysterious to us?”

“Yes; I think all,” replied the priest.

“Will you tell me the particulars?”

“I cannot do that,” he said. “They have been given to me under the seal of confession.”

“Only to me and to her sister Susan,” pleaded Abigail. “We will not even disclose it to our father. Sir, it would be a true kindness to us, and it can do her no harm. You do not know what our past doubts and distress have been.”

But the priest shook his head. He was very sorry to refuse, he said, but the tenets of his Church forbade his speaking. And Miss Page thought he was sorry, for he had a benevolent face.

“Best let the past lie,” he gently added. “Suffice it to know that she is happy now, poor child, and will die in peace.”

* * * * *

They buried her in the churchyard beside her mother. When the secret got about, some said it was not right—that she ought to have been taken elsewhere, to a graveyard devoted to the other faith. Which would just have put the finishing stroke on old Page—broken all that was left of his heart to break. The Squire said he didn’t suppose it mattered in the sight of God: or would make much difference at the Last Day.

And that ended the life of Jessy Page: and, in one sense, its episode of mystery. Nothing more was ever heard or known of where she had been or what she had done. Years have gone by since then; and William Page is lying beside her. Miss Page and Charley live on at the Copse Farm; Susan became Mrs. John Drench ages ago. Her husband, a man of substance now, was driving her into Alcester last Tuesday (market-day) in his four-wheeled chaise, two buxom daughters in the back seat. I nodded to them from Mr. Brandon’s window.

The mystery of Jessy Page (as we grew to call it) remained a mystery. It remains one to this day. What the secret was—if there was a secret—why she went in the way she did, and came back in what looked like shame and fear and trembling, a dying girl—has not been solved. It never will be in this world. Some old women put it all down to her having changed her religion and been afraid to tell: while Miss Abigail and Miss Susan have never got rid of a vague doubt, touching Marcus Allen. But it may be only their fancy; they admit that, and say to one another when talking of it privately, that it is not right to judge a man without cause. He keeps a carriage-and-pair now; and gives dinners, and has handsome daughters growing up; and is altogether quite up to the present style of expensive life in London.

And I never go into church on a Christmas morning—whether it may be decorated in our simple country fashion, or in accordance with your new “artistic” achievements—but I think of Jessy Page. Of her sweet face, her simplicity, and her want of guile: and of the poor wreck that came back, broken-hearted, to die.

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