“What was that?” she exclaimed.
Eve made no reply, but the two women remained listening, while it seemed to them that the sound had also been heard by Dick, who apparently crossed the room, and opened his window.
“He has gone to see what it means,” said Mrs Glaire in a whisper. “I hope the strike people are not out.”
Her head was running upon certain proceedings that had taken place many years before, during her husband’s lifetime, when they had literally been besieged; but her alarm was unnecessary, for had she been in her son’s bedroom, she would have seen that worthy open his window and utter a low cough, with the result that Sim Slee threw up a note attached to a stone, which the young man glanced at, and then said, “All right; no answer,” and Slee went quickly off.
Richard opened the note, glanced through it, and read passages half aloud.
“H’m, h’m. So sorry to leave you as I did. – Heart very sore. – Oughtn’t to meet like that any more. – Pray let her tell father. – They would soon agree if all known. – Will not come any more to be deceitful.”
“Won’t you, my dear?” said Dick, aloud. “We’ll see about that. I think I can turn you round my finger now, Miss Daisy. If not I’m very much mistaken. But we’ll see.”
He finished the note by twisting it up and using it to re-light his cigar, which he sat smoking, and listening as at last he heard his mother and Eve pass his room on their way to bed – the former for the first time in his life, without saying “Good night” to her son.
“What, my lively boy.”
“Look at his velveteens.”
“And a silk hankercher too. Arn’t he tip top?”
“Arn’t you down glad to see your old mates again, Johnny?”
“Course he is; look at the tears in his eyes.”
“Hey, mun, why don’t you say you’re glad to see us?”
“And why don’t you speak?”
“Because,” said John Maine, speaking slowly, as he stopped leaning on his thick staff in the middle of the road, “I’m not glad to see you, and I don’t want to speak.”
He looked very stern and uncompromising this young man, half bailiff, half farm servant in appearance, as he stood there in the lane, about a mile from Joe Banks’s house, and facing the men who had kept up the conversational duet, for they were about as ill-looking a pair of scoundrels as a traveller was likely to meet in a day’s march.
The elder of the two carried a common whip, and wore a long garment, half jacket, half vest in appearance, inasmuch as it was backed and sleeved with greasy fustian, and faced with greasy scarlet and purple plush, hanging low over his tightly-fitting cord trousers, buttoned at the ankles over heavy boots, while his head was covered with a ragged fur cap.
The younger man, whose hair was very short, wore the ordinary smock-frock euphoniously termed a “cow-gown,” but as he was journeying, it was tucked up round his hips.
Taking them together, they seemed to be men who could manage a piece of horse-stealing, poach, rob a hen-roost, or pay a visit night or day to any unprotected house; and if “gaol” was not stamped legibly on each face, it was because nature could not write it any plainer than she had.
“He’s gotten high in the instep, Ike,” said the last man; “and what’s he got to be proud on?”
“Ah, to be sure, what’s he got to be proud on?” chuckled the other. “He wasn’t always a stuck up one, was he?”
“I say, Johnny,” said the first speaker, “keep that dog o’ yourn away wilt ta, or I might give him something as wouldn’t do him no good.”
“Here, Top, down dog!” said the young man, and a rough-looking dog which had been snuffing round the two strangers showed his teeth a little and then lay down in the dusty road. “I don’t want,” continued the young man, “to be rough on men I used to know.”
“Rough, lad; no, I should think not,” said Ike, of the whip; and he gave it a lash, cutting off the heads of some nettles. “I knew he was all raight, Jem.”
“I said,” continued the young man, “that I didn’t want to be surly to men as I used to know, and if you want a shilling or two to help you on the road, here they are. As for me, I’ve dropped all your work, and taken to getting an honest living.”
“Oh, ho, ho!” laughed Ike, of the whip, giving it another flick, and making the dog jump. “Dost ta hear that, Jem?”
“Ay, lad, I hear him,” said Jem, of the smock-frock, hugging himself as if afraid to lose what he considered particularly good; “I’m hearing of him. But come along, John; we won’t be hard on such a honest old boy. Show us the way to the dram-shop, or the nearest public, and we’ll talk old times over a gill or two o’ yale.”
“You are going one way. I’m going the other,” said John Maine, uneasily, for just then Tom Podmore passed him, with big Harry, both of whom stared hard, nodded to him, and went on.
“Just hark at him, Ike,” said Jem. “He’s a strange nice un, he is. Why, I’m so glad to see him that if he goes off that-a-way I shall stop in Dumford and ask all about him, and where he lives and what he’s a doing.”
John Maine turned cold, while the perspiration stood upon his forehead, for just then Sim Slee came along in the other direction, eyed the party all over, and evidently took mental notes of what he saw.
“What is it you want of me?” said the young man, hoarsely.
“Want, lad?” said Ike; “we don’t want nowt of him, do we, Jem? We’re only so glad to see an old mate again, that we don’t know hardly how to bear it.”
“That’s it, Ike,” said Jem. “And don’t you think as he’s stuck up, mind you. See how glad he is to see his owd mates again. Say, Johnny, ‘It’s my delight of a shiny night,’ eh?”
“Hush!” exclaimed John Maine, starting.
“All right,” said Jem. “Got a pipe o’ ’bacco ’bout you?”
John Maine took a tobacco-pouch from his pocket, and held it out to the speaker, who refilled his dirty pipe, looked the pouch all over, and then transferred it to his pocket.
“Look here, Ike,” said the fellow then, “we won’t keep Johnny any longer. He’s off out courting – going to see his lass. Don’t you see the bood in his button-hole. He’ll see us again when he comes to look us up, for we shall pitch down in one of the pooblics.”
“Raight you are, lad; he’ll find us out. Do anything now, Johnny? Ought to be a few hares and fezzans about here. Good-bye, Johnny, lad; give my love to her.”
The two men went off laughing and talking, leaving John Maine gazing after them, till they disappeared round a bend of the lane on the way to Dumford, when brushing the perspiration from his face with one hand, he staggered away, kicking up the dust at every step till he reached a stile, upon which he sank down as if the elasticity had been taken out of his muscles. His head went down upon his hands, his elbows upon his knees, and there he remained motionless, with the dog sitting down and watching him intently, after trying by pawing and whining to gain his master’s attention.
Neither John Maine nor his ill-looking companions had gone far, before a head and shoulders were raised slowly up over the hedge, so that their owner could peer over and look up and down the lane. The countenance revealed was that of Thomas Brough, the keeper, who had evidently been sitting on the other side, partaking of his rural lunch, or dinner; for as he parted the green growth, to get a better view, it was with a big clasp knife, while his other hand held a lump of bread, ornamented with bacon.
He spoke the next moment with his mouth full, but his words were quite audible as he said —
“I thowt that thar dog would ha’ smelt the rat, but a didn’t. So I hadn’t got you now, Jack Maine, hadn’t I? I’m a rogue, am I, Jack? I sold the Squire’s rabbuds, did I? and pocketted t’ money, did I? Wires, eh? Fezzans and hares, eh? Now, what’ll old Bultitude and Miss Jess say to this? I’ll just find out what’s your little game.”
He strode hastily off, parting the hazels, and making a short cut across the copse, while John Maine sat on the stile thinking.
What was he to do – what was he to do? Were all his struggles to be an honest man to be in vain? Yes, he had joined parties in poaching, down about Nottingham, but he had left it all in disgust, and for years he had been trying to be, and had been, an honest man. He had lived here at Dumford four years – had saved money – was respected and trusted – he was old Bultitude’s head man; and now these two scoundrels – men who knew of his old life – had found him out, they would expose him, and he should have to go off right away to begin the world afresh.
“I’ve tried enew; I’ve tried very hard,” he groaned. “I left all that as soon as I saw to what it tended, and knew better; and now, after all this struggle, here is the end.”
What was the use? he asked himself; why had he tried? What were honesty and respectability, and respect to such as he, that he should have fought for them so hard, knowing that, sooner or later, it must come to this?
What should he do? The words kept repeating themselves in his brain, and he asked himself again, What?
Suppose he told them all at the farm – laid bare the whole of his early life, how he had found himself as a boy thrown amongst poachers. It had been no fault of his, for he had hated it – loathed it all. Suppose he told Mr Bultitude – what then?
Yes, what then? Old Bultitude would say – “We’re all very sorry for you here, but if it got about that I’d kept a regular poacher on my farm, what would the squire say? And what about my lease?” And Tom Brough! Good heavens, if Tom Brough should learn it all!
It was of no use; that man would blast his character gladly, and the end of it all was that he must go!
Yes, but where? Where should he go? Somewhere to work for awhile, and get on, and then live a life of wretchedness, expecting to see some old associate turn up and blast his prospects. No; there was no hope for such as he! All he could do was to join some regiment at Lincoln or Sheffield, enlist – get on foreign service, and be a soldier. A man did not want a character to become a good soldier.
And about Jessie?
His head went lower, and he groaned aloud as this thought flashed across his mind, for his load seemed more than he could bear.
“Anything the matter, John Maine?”
The young man leaped up to find himself face to face with Mr Selwood, whose steps had been inaudible in the dusty road, and John Maine’s thoughts had been too much taken up for him to notice the whine of recognition by the dog, who had leaped up and ran forward to welcome the vicar.
“Bit of a headache, sir, bad headache – this heat, sir,” stammered the young man.
“Liver out of order – liver – not a doubt about it,” said the vicar. “What a strange thing it is nature couldn’t make a man without a liver and save him all his sufferings from bile. Come along with me to the Vicarage. I’m getting in order there now, and I’ll doctor you, and go and tell Mr Purley myself that I’ve been poaching on his preserves. Why, what’s the matter, man?”
John Maine had started as if stung at certain of his latter words.
“Bit giddy, sir; strange and bad now it’s come on,” he stammered.
“That’s right; you’re better now. Sitting with your head down. I’ll doctor you – no secrets: tincture of rhubarb, citrate of magnesia, and a little brandy. I’ll soon set you right. You mustn’t be ill. This is cricket night, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir; but they haven’t played since the strike.”
“Perhaps they will to-night, and I shall come to the field. Well, come along.”
“But really, sir – I – that is – ”
“Now look here, John Maine, I’m the spiritual head of the parish, and you must obey me. I can’t help being a man of only your own age – I shall get the better of that. Now if I had been some silver-headed old gentleman, you would have come without a word; so come along. I’ll go back. You are decidedly ill – there’s no mistake about it.”
To John Maine’s great surprise, the vicar took his arm, and half led him back towards Dumford, chattering pleasantly the while.
“I met Mr Simeon Slee as I came along, and he cut me dead. He’s a very nice man in his way, but I’m afraid he works so hard with his tongue, it takes all the strength out of his arms.”
“He’s strange and fond o’ talking, sir,” said John Maine.
“Yes; but words are only words after all, and if they are light and chaffy, they don’t grow like good grain. Bad thing this strike in the town, Maine. Lasted a month now.”
“Very bad, sir.”
“Ah, yes. You agricultural gentlemen don’t indulge in those luxuries, and I’m glad to see that the farm people are very sober.”
“Yes, sir, ’cept at the stattice and the fair.”
“Stattice?” said the vicar, inquiringly.
“Yes, sir, status – statute-hiring, you know, when the servants leave. They call it ‘pag-rag’ day here.”
“Ha, do they?” said the vicar; “well, I suppose I shall learn all in time. What may ‘pag-rag’ mean?”
“They call it so here, sir,” said the young man, smiling. “They say a man pags a sack on his back, and I suppose it means they carry off their clothes then.”
“I see,” said the vicar; “and you have some strange characters about at such times? By the way, I saw a nice respectable couple turn in at the Bull and Cucumber, as I came by. They’d got poacher stamped on their faces plainly. – Head bad?”
“Sudden stab, sir, that’s all,” said John Maine, holding his hands to his head and shuddering.
“Ah, you must go back and lie down as soon as I have done with you, or else I must find you a sofa for an hour. We’ll see how you are. Perhaps we’ll walk home together.”
“No, no, sir, I shall be all right directly. Don’t do that, sir. Mr Bultitude – ”
“Mr Bultitude has too much respect for you, John Maine, to let you go about in a state of suffering; so just hold your tongue, sir, for you’re my patient.”
A few minutes after he laid his hand on the gate, with the effect of making Jacky Budd start up from his seat on the bottom of a large flower-pot, and begin vigorously hoeing at some vegetables in the now trim garden.
The vicar saw him and laughed to himself, as he led the way up to the door, glancing up the street as he did so, and seeing, with a feeling of uneasiness, that there were knots of men standing about in conversation, as if discussing some important subject.
The door stood wide open, as if inviting entrance, and flowers were now blooming in profusion on every side, for what with the rough work of Tom Podmore and Big Harry, supplemented by the efforts of Jacky Budd and the parson himself, the garden was what the sexton called a “pictur.”
“Come in here, Maine,” said the vicar, opening the door of his study; and the young man followed, peering round as he did so, for this was his first visit to the vicar’s dwelling, and the result of a month’s residence was shown in the change that had come over the place.
But at the end of the first fortnight, one of Mr Bultitude’s waggons had been run down to the station three times to fetch “parson’s traps,” and “parson’s traps” were visible on all sides, the Reverend Murray Selwood being, to use his own words, “rather cursed with wealth.”
The place was now the beau ideal of a well-to-do bachelor’s home. The low-roofed entrance-hall was bright with oak furniture, quaint china, trophies of old arms, and savage weapons, with flowers, for the most part sent by Mrs Glaire, placed wherever there was light and sunshine for them to break up into long sheaves on the clean stone floor. Through an open door could be seen the dining-room, whose oaken sideboard was half covered with massive plate, college cups, and trophies won by muscular arms and legs guided by a clear-thinking and solid brain; but the study itself took John Maine’s attention, with its cases full of books, great bronze clock, and vases on the mantelpiece, with statuettes on brackets.
There were traces of the owner’s polished taste in every direction, but at the same time samples of his love of out-door sports. For instance, in one corner there stood a polished canoe-paddle with a fascine of fishing-rods; in another corner a gun-case and a couple of cricket-bats; lying on a side-table, its handle carefully bound with string, was about the biggest croquet mallet that ever drove ball over a velvet lawn. A half-written sermon lay on the writing-table, and by it a cigar-box; while on the chimney-piece and in brackets were pipes, from the humble clay, through briars, to the tinted brown meerschaum with its amber tube. The greatest incongruity in the place, however, seeing that it was the snuggery of a man of peace, was a trophy of single-sticks, foils, masks and gloves, crossed by a couple of bows, in front of which were a sheaf of arrows and two pairs of boxing-gloves.
“Looking at the gloves, Maine?” said the vicar, smiling. “Ah, I used to be a bit of a don with those at one time. You and I will put them on together some day. Just touch that bell.”
John Maine obeyed, while the young vicar found his keys, and opened a cabinet which was in two compartments, the one displaying a regular array of medicines, the other spirits, wine, and glasses.
“Bring in some water, Mrs Slee,” said the vicar.
“And a sponge and a rag and the ragjack oil?” said Mrs Slee, eagerly.
“No, Mrs Slee. It’s medicine, not surgery to-day;” and the woman backed out, looking a little less angular and sad than a few weeks before.
“I’m a regular quack, Maine, you see,” said the vicar, smiling, as he poured into a great soda-water glass a certain quantity of tincture, added to it a couple of table-spoonfuls of brandy, and so much granulated magnesia, to which, when Mrs Slee returned, he poured about half a pint of pure cold well water. “There’s a dose for you, my man,” he said, as he passed it to John Maine, “that will set you right in an hour. Now, Mrs Slee, any one been?”
“Yes, Bulger’s girl’s been here with a bottle for some wine,” said Mrs Slee shortly, for “sir” and a respectful tone were still strangers to her tongue.
“Bring the bottle in. Any one else?”
“Maidens’s boy says you promised his mother some tea.”
“So I did,” said the vicar, opening a large canister, from which he took a packet which scented the room with its fragrance. “There it is. Now then, who else?”
“Old Mumby’s wife has come for some more wine.”
“Then she’ll go back without it, Mrs Slee. Do you see that,” he continued, giving her a strange look; “that’s the peculiar sign that used to be in vogue amongst the ancients. That’s the gnostic wink, Mrs Slee, and means too much. I won’t send a spoonful. That wicked old woman drank every drop of the last herself, Mrs Slee, I’ll make affidavit. She wouldn’t stir across the room to wait on her poor old husband, and yet she’ll come nearly a mile to fetch that wine. I’ll take it myself, and give it the poor old boy, and see him drink it before I come away. Tell her I’ll bring it down, Mrs Slee; but don’t say I called her a wicked old woman.”
“Oh, I’m not going to chatter. Do you think I should be such a ghipes?” said Mrs Slee, rudely.
“Not knowing what a ghipes is, I cannot say, Mrs Slee,” said the vicar; “but you are not perfect, Mrs Slee – not perfect. Soup. You have that last soup on your conscience!”
“Well, I’m sure I should ha’ been glad on a few not long back, and it was quite good enew to gie away to people.”
“And I’m sure it was not, Mrs Slee: the poor people are hungry, and want food. This strike’s a terrible thing.”
“Then they shouldn’t strike,” growled Mrs Slee.
“I quite agree with you, Mrs Slee, so I don’t give soup to the men who did strike; but the women and children did not strike, and if you knew what it was to be hungry – I beg your pardon, Mrs Slee,” he added hastily, as he saw his housekeeper flush up. “There, I did not think. But this soup. We had a capital French cook at my college, and he gave me lessons. I’m a capital judge of soup, and I’ll taste the fresh. Bring me in a basin, and send these people away.”
Mrs Slee muttered and went out, looking rather ungracious, and the vicar turned to his guest, who was fidgetting about and seemed rather uneasy.
“I’m rather proud of our soup here at the vicarage – broth, the people call it,” said the vicar.
“I’ve heerd tell of it, sir,” said John Maine, who wanted to go.
“But I have hard work to keep the water out. I always tell Mrs Slee that the people can add as much of that as they like. But, I say, Maine, there’s something wrong with you!”
“Oh, no, sir; nothing at all, sir; but it’s time I was going, sir, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Well, well, good-bye, Maine. I hope,” he added significantly, “your head will be better. Mind this, though, I’m not one of the confessional parsons, and insist upon no man’s confidence; but bear this in mind, I look upon myself as the trusted, confidential friend of every man in the parish. I shall be over your way soon.”