“I asked this of him for you, lads, and for mysen, and he turned upon me, cursed me for an owd fool, and ca’ed me the cause o’ all his troubles. He swore he did’n’ know nor keer where my poor bairn might be, and at last I comed awaya trembling all ower me, to wheer Tom Podmore here waited for me i’ street; for,” he continued, holding out his hands before him half-crooked, “if I’d ha’ stayed, I should ha’ throttled him wheer he stood; and for his moother’s sake, his dead father’s sake, and that o’ my poor lost bairn, I should ha’ repented it till I died.”
A low murmur ran through the room, and Sim Slee was about to rise and speak, but several of those present thrust him down, when, with a fierce and lowering countenance, the foreman turned upon him.
“Now,” he said, “speak out, mun, what are your plans?”
“The plan is mine,” said Sim; “and we go to work this how. We climb in by the little window in the lane, and then go into the low foundry and put two barrels o’ powther theer under the middle wall.”
Joe Banks nodded.
“Then we lay a train away to the leather, and put a slow match which we fires, comes awaya, and horny-handed labour triumps, and the wucks comes down.”
“Good!” said Banks, nodding his head. “It will destroy them.”
“That ’ll do, wean’t it?” continued Slee, eagerly.
“Yes, that will do,” said Banks, in the midst of silence. “And the powther?”
“That is one barrel,” said Barker; “the other is at Sim Slee’s. Hadn’t you better go on, Brother Slee, and make the arrangements?”
“Yes, brother sitterzens,” said Slee, “there’s the powther to place, and the train to lay. What do you say to Thuzday, this day week?”
“And when’s it to be fired?” said Tom Podmore.
“Same time,” said Sim; “it’s anniversary o’ last turn out, and we strikes for freedom. Who comes forward like a horny-handed hero to do the deed?”
“Not me,” said Big Harry. “I aint going to mak’ a Guy Fox o’ mysen.”
“Shame on you!” cried Sim. “Rise outer the slime in which you wallows, and in which the iron foot of the despot has crushed you. Rise, base coward, rise.”
“If thee ca’s me a coward, Sim Slee,” growled Harry, ominously, “dal me ef I don’t mak’ all thee bones so sore thee wean’t know thee sen. I’ll faight any two men i’ the room, but dal all barrels o’ powther.”
“Bah!” said Sim, contemptuously. “You’d be a martyr to a holy cause.”
“Come away, now,” whispered Tom Podmore, laying his hand on the foreman’s shoulder.
“Nay, let’s hear them out,” was the reply. “Ay, that’s all faine enew,” said Big Harry, “but I were in the blast when we cast that bell in the wet mowld.”
“Bah!” cried Sim.
“Well, lad, look here now,” said Big Harry, “you’re a fine chap to talk; s’pose you do all the martyr wuck your own sen.”
“I’m ashamed on you,” cried Sim, as this proposal was met by a burst of cheers. “Isn’t theer one on you as will rise out of his sloth and slime, and prove hissen a paytriot.
Here there was a dead silence, and Barker broke it by saying —
“Had they not better draw lots?”
“Yes,” said Sim, enthusiastically.
“Not if I knows it,” said Big Harry, thrusting his hands further into his pockets.
“Say the plan ower again, mun,” said Banks, in a low voice. “No mouthin’, but joost the plan.”
“To climb in at the little window.”
“Lay the powther under the middle wall.”
“Break open the staves to let it out – lay a good train – light a slow match close to the leather (ladder).”
“Run up and get out as you got in.”
“Yes,” said Joe Banks, softly, “or die.”
“And you understand?”
“And the wucks ’ll be blown to atoms.”
“And what are we to do for wuck then?” said Big Harry.
“You great maulkin, you get no wuck now,” cried Sim; and the big fellow grunted and looked uncomfortable.
“And you will do all this, Sim Slee?” said Banks quietly.
“Who? I?” cried Sim, shrinking away.
Joe Banks looked at him contemptuously, and then turned to the men.
“I’ll do it, my lads,” he said. “No one knows the old plaace as I know it, and if it’s to be blown down, mine’s the hand as shall do it. Thuzday night? Good! Be three or four of you theer with the powther under the window, and I’ll be ready to tak’ it in.”
There was a burst of applause at this, and the meeting broke up, the folded flags being carefully buttoned up in Barker’s breast, while Sim Slee walked stiffly home, with a sword down each leg of his trousers, and the hilts under his scarlet waistcoat, beneath his arms.
There was a week clear before the plot was to have effect, and the place was wonderfully quiet. The vicar, looking very pale and anxious, was sitting in his study on the morning after the meeting at the Bull, when a note was brought to him from the Big House, and he coloured slightly as he read it.
“Tell the messenger I will be up directly,” he said; and as the maid left the room, “what is wrong now? Come, come, be a man.”
He smiled to himself as he took up his hat and stick, and walked up the street, to be greeted here and there with friendly nods.
He was shown at once into the drawing-room, where Mrs Glaire was seated with Eve, and after a kindly, sad greeting, the latter left the room.
“I have good news for you, Mr Selwood,” said Mrs Glaire, smiling, but looking worn and pale.
“I’m very glad,” said the vicar, pressing her hand.
“Richard has promised me that if the men do not come in, he will give way and reopen the works.”
“And when?” said the vicar, joyfully.
“He will call the men together this day week, for the furnaces to be lit, so as to begin work on the Monday.”
“Mrs Glaire, this is indeed good news,” said the vicar. “May I see him and congratulate him?”
“I think it would be better not,” said Mrs Glaire. “But,” she continued, watching his face as she spoke, “I have other news for you.”
The vicar bowed.
“Yes,” she said; “but first of all, though, these communications are made to you in strict confidence. You must not let the matter be known in the town, because my son would rather that the men gave way.”
“If they do not, he really will?”
“He has given me his faithful promise,” said Mrs Glaire, “and he will keep it now.”
“I will not doubt him,” said the vicar. “I am very, very glad. And your other news?” he said, smiling.
“My son will be married very shortly.”
“Married?” said the vicar, starting; “and to Daisy Banks?”
“No!” exclaimed Mrs Glaire, in a short thick voice, a spasm seeming to catch her, as she spoke. “To his cousin, to whom he is betrothed.”
There was a dead silence as the vicar, whose face was of an ashen pallor, looked straight before him at vacancy, while Mrs Glaire sat watching him, with her hand placed to her side.
“You do not congratulate me,” she said at last in a piteous tone. “Mr Selwood, dear friend – the only friend I can fly to in this time of trouble – you will help me?”
“Help you?” he said in a stony way. “How can I help you?”
“I have striven so for this,” she continued, speaking hastily. “They have long been promised to each other, and it will be for the best.”
“For the best,” he said, slowly repeating her words.
“Richard has been very wild, but he has given me his word now. He has not been what he should, but this marriage will sober and save him. Eve is so sweet, and pure, and good.”
“So sweet – and pure – and good,” he repeated softly.
“She will influence him so – it will make him a good man.”
“If woman’s power can redeem, hers will,” he said, in the same low tone.
“But you hardly speak – you hardly say a word to me,” cried Mrs Glaire, piteously; “and I have striven so for this end. I prevailed upon him to end this lock-out, and he has given way to me, and all will be well.”
“Mrs Glaire,” said the vicar, sternly, “do you believe that your son has inveigled away that poor girl?”
“No, no,” she cried, “I am as certain of his innocence as that I sit here.”
“And Miss Pelly – what does she believe?”
“That he is innocent,” exclaimed Mrs Glaire.
“And – and – does she consent to this union?”
“Yes, yes,” cried Mrs Glaire eagerly. “She feels hurt, and knows that she makes some sacrifice after my son’s ill-treatment; but she forgives him, knowing that it will save poor Richard, and it is for my sake too.”
“Poor girl!” he said, beneath his breath.
“God bless her! She is a good, good girl,” cried Mrs Glaire.
“God bless her!” he said softly. “Mrs Glaire, do you think she loves him?”
“Yes, yes; she has told me so a dozen times.”
“And you feel that this is for the best? Would it not be better to let there be a year’s term of probation first? It is a solemn thing this linking of two lives together.”
“Oh, yes, it is for the best, Mr Selwood – dear friend; and they must not wait. The wedding must be next week.”
The vicar rose with the same stony look upon Iiis face; and, knowing what she did, Mrs Glaire’s heart bled for him, and the tears stole down her cheeks, as she caught his hand and pressed it, but he seemed to heed it not, for he was face to face with a great horror. He had told himself that he could master his passion, and that it was mastered; but now – now that he was told that the woman he dearly loved was to become the wife of another, and of such a man, he felt stunned and helpless, and could hardly contain his feelings as he turned and half staggered towards the door.
“Mr Selwood, you are shocked, you are startled,” cried Mrs Glaire, clinging to his hand. “You must not go like this.”
He turned to look at her with a sad smile, but he did not speak.
“Eve wishes to see you,” she faltered, hardly daring to say the words.
“To see me?” he cried hoarsely; and her words seemed to galvanise him into life. Then, to himself, “I could not bear it – I could not bear it.”
At that moment the door opened, and he made another effort over himself to regain his composure, as Eve came forward, holding out her hand, which he reverently kissed.
“Aunt has told you, Mr Selwood,” she said, in a low constrained tone.
“My child,” he said softly, and speaking as a father would to his offspring, “yes.”
She gave a sigh of relief, looking at his cold, sad face, as if she wished to read that which was written beneath a mask of stone.
“Aunt thinks it would be for the best,” she said, speaking slowly, and with a firmness she did not possess. “And it is to be soon.”
He bowed his head, in token of assent.
“I have a favour to ask of you – Mr Selwood,” said Eve, holding out her trembling hand once more, but he did not take it.
“Yes?” he said, in a low constrained way.
“I want you to forgive Richard, and be friends.”
“Yes, yes; of course,” he said hastily.
“And you will marry us, Mr Selwood,” continued Eve.
“I? I?” he exclaimed, with a look of horror upon his face. “Oh, no, no: I could not.”
Eve looked at him in a strangely startled way, and for the moment her calmness seemed to have left her, when Mrs Glaire interposed.
“For both our sakes; pray do not say that,” she cried; and a curious look passed over the vicar’s face.
“Do you wish it, Miss Pelly?” he said softly.
“Yes; indeed, yes,” exclaimed Eve, gazing in his eyes; and then there was silence for a few moments, when, making a mighty effort over himself, the vicar took a step forward, bent down, and kissed her forehead, and said —
“God bless you! May you be very happy.”
“And you will?” exclaimed Mrs Glaire.
“Yes,” he said, after a moment’s pause, and with his eyes half closed. “I will perform the ceremony.”
“Thank you – thank you,” exclaimed Mrs Glaire, as she caught his hand. “Richard, here is Mr Selwood.”
“How do?” said Richard, entering from the garden; and he held out his hand sulkily, which the vicar took, and held for a moment.
He was about to speak, to say some words of congratulation – words that he had won a great prize, and that his duty to her was to make amends for the past – but the words would not come, and, bowing, he left the room, and walked hastily from the house, watched by Richard Glaire’s malicious eyes. For it was sweet revenge to him to know that the hopes he was sure the vicar felt had been blasted, and that he alone would possess Eve Pelly’s love.
“He thought to best me,” muttered Richard; and he smiled to himself, the feeling of mastering the man he looked upon as his enemy adding piquancy to a marriage that had seemed to him before both troublesome and tame.
Meanwhile the vicar went slowly down the street, with a strange, dazed look; and more than one observer whispered to his neighbour – “Say, lad; parson hasn’t been takking his drop, sewerly.”
“Nay, nay; I’d sooner believe he was ill. It can’t be that,” was the reply.
That same day, when busy out in the fields, sick at heart, and worried, after a short interview with Tom Podmore, John Maine was standing alone, and thinking of the past and present. Of the respite that had come to him, since the two men had visited the town, and of the miserable life he led at the farm, and the way in which Jessie behaved to him now; for, to his sorrow, it seemed to him that she looked upon him with a kind of horror, and avoided all communication. The keeper, Brough, came pretty frequently, and certainly she was more gracious to him than to the man who lived with her in the same house and ate at the same table.
Then he recalled that he had had a note from the vicar requesting him to call at the vicarage; but he had not been, partly from dread, partly from shame.
“But I’ll go,” he said. “I’ll be a man and go; go at once, and tell him the whole secret; and be at rest, come what may. Tom says it will be best.”
He sat down beneath a hedge bottom to secure the strap of one of his leggings, when, raising his head, he saw in the distance, crossing one of the stiles, a figure which he knew at a glance was that of one of the men he dreaded – one of those who had done their best to make him another of the Ishmaelites who war against society.
A cold chill passed over him, followed by a hot perspiration, as he watched till the figure passed out of sight, and then he began to muse.
“Come at last, then. It must be with an object.”
“Let me see,” he thought; “it will be perfectly dark to-night. Nearly new moon. He has come down to see how the land lies, and before morning, unless he’s checkmated, the vicarage will be wrecked, and if anybody opposes them, his life will be in danger.”
“It’s only a part of one’s life,” he said, bitterly, as he started up. “I’ve been a scoundrel, and I thowt I’d grown into a honest man, when I was only a coward. Now the time has come to show myself really honest, and with God’s help I’ll do it.”
Not long after, the vicar was seated with his head resting upon his hand, strengthening himself as he termed it, and fighting hard to quell the misery in his breast, when Mrs Slee came to the door.
“Yes,” he said, trying to rouse himself, and wishing for something to give him a strong call upon the strength, energy, and determination lying latent in his breast. “Yes, Mrs Slee?”
“Here’s John Maine fro’ the farm wants to see thee, sir.”
“Show him in the study, Mrs Slee; I’ll be with him in five minutes.” And those minutes he spent in bathing his temples and struggling against his thoughts.
The time had scarcely expired, when he entered the library, to find his visitor standing there, hat in hand, resting upon a stout oak sapling.
“Glad to see you, Maine,” said the vicar, kindly. “Could you not find a chair?”
“Thanky, sir, no; I would rather stand. I ought to have been here before, but, like all things we don’t want to do, I put it off. I want to tell you something, sir. I want to confess.”
“Confess, Maine!” said the vicar, smiling; “any one would think this was Ireland, and that I was the parish priest.”
“I have got something heavy on my conscience, sir,” continued Maine, in a hesitating way.
“If I can help you, Maine, I am sure you may trust me,” said the vicar.
“I know that, sir; I know that,” cried Maine, eagerly. “I want to speak out, but the thoughts of that poor gill keep me back.”
“That poor girl!” exclaimed the vicar, looking at the young man’s anguish-wrung countenance, and feeling startled for the moment. “Do you mean Daisy Banks?”
“No, no, sir; no, no. Miss Jessie there at the farm. I can’t bear for her to know. There, sir,” he exclaimed, hurriedly, “it’s got to come out, and I must speak, or I shall never get it said. You see, sir, when I was quite a boy, I was upon my own hands by the death of my father and mother. Then I drifted to Nottingham, where I was thrown amongst the lowest of the low; was mixed with poachers, and thieves, and scoundrels of every shape; always trying to get to something better, but always dragged back to their own level by my companions, who sneered at my efforts, and bullied me till my life was a curse, and I grew to feel more like an old man at eighteen than a boy.
“To make a long story short, sir, I could bear it no longer. I ran away from home – from that,” he said, grimly, “that was my home – and kept away, working honestly for a couple of years, when some of the old lot came across me to jeer me, laugh at me, and end by proposing that I should rob my employer and run off with them. I was seen talking to the wretches, dismissed in disgrace from my situation, and went back to blackguardism and scoundreldom for a whole year, because no one would give me a job of decent labour to do. Mr Selwood, sir, you don’t know how hard it is to climb the hill where honest people live – to get to be classed as one who is not always watched with suspicious eyes. It was a fearful fight I had to get there, against no one knows what temptations and efforts to drag me back. Sir, I got to honest work at last, and from that place came on here, where for years I’ve worked hopefully, and begun to feel that I need not blush when I looked an honest man in the face, nor dread to meet the police lest they should have learned something about my former life. In short, sir, I was beginning to feel that I need not go about always feeling that I had made a mistake in trying to leave my old life.”
The vicar sat at the table with his head resting upon his hand, and face averted, feeling that he was not the only man in Dumford whose heart was torn with troubles, and he listened without a word as John Maine went on.
“There, sir, I can’t tell you all the hopes and fears I have felt, as I have striven hard for years, hopefully too, thinking that after all there might be a bright future in store for me, and rest out here at the pleasant old farm; and now, sir,” he continued huskily, and with faltering voice —
“Some of the old lot have turned up and found you again, eh, Maine?”
“Yes, sir, that’s what it is,” said the young man, starting; “and I thought I’d make a clean breast of it to you, and ask you, sir, to give me a bit of advice.”
“I’m a poor one to ask for advice just now, Maine,” said the vicar, sadly; “but I’ll do my best for you.”
“Thanky, sir; I thought you would.”
“So you meant to give me some news?” continued the vicar, dryly.
“Yes, sir,” said John Maine, “if you call it news,” and he spoke bitterly.
“Well, no,” said the vicar, making an effort to forget self; “I don’t call it news. I knew all this some time ago.”
“You knew it, sir?”
“Why, my good fellow, yes. Some weeks back, about as dirty an old cadger as it has ever been my fate to encounter, pointed you out to me on the road, and told me the greatest part of your history.”
“He did, sir?”
“Oh, yes, poor old fellow,” said the vicar, bitterly, “I suppose he felt as if he could not die comfortably without doing somebody else an ill turn.”
“Yes, he was very ill: could hardly crawl, and I sent him on to Ranby Union, where he died.”
“And you knew all this, sir?” faltered John Maine.
“Knew it, Maine? How could I help it? Mr Keeper Brough, too, made a point of telling me that he had seen you talking to a couple of disreputable-looking scoundrels, evidently trading poachers. Don’t you remember what a bad headache it gave you, Maine?”
The young man stared at the speaker, and could not find a word.
“He has been very busy I find, too, at the farm,” continued the vicar, forgetting his own troubles in those of his visitor. “Mr Bultitude does not like it, and he has been in a good deal of trouble about your nocturnal wanderings, friend John Maine.”
“I can explain all that, sir,” said Maine.
“Of course you can,” said the vicar, coolly.
“But you knew of all this, sir?” faltered the young man.
“To be sure I did, John, and respected you for it; but I fear you have been giving poor Jessie a good deal of suffering through your want of openness.”
“I’m afraid she thinks ill of me, sir.”