“Don’t say ill, John Maine. The poor girl is in trouble about you; and I believe has some idea that you and Podmore have been mixed up with the disappearance of Daisy Banks.”
“Oh no, sir; no,” cried the young man warmly. “You don’t think that, sir?”
“Certainly not, Maine,” replied the vicar. “And – Jessie – did Miss Jessie confide this to you, sir?”
“Yes, John Maine. I don’t think, under the circumstances, it is any breach of confidence to say she did. People have a habit of confiding their troubles to me – as I have none of my own,” he added sadly. “And you, sir?”
“I told her she was mistaken,” remarked the vicar; “but she was not convinced. She could not understand you and Podmore being out together by night. She thought it – girl-like – connected with some dreadful mystery. Master Brough thought it had to do with poaching; and I – ”
“Yes, sir,” cried Maine eagerly. “Thought you were out for some good purpose, John Maine; and that if I let the matter rest, the explanation would come all in good time.”
“And so it has, sir,” said John; “but you knew all about me, sir.”
“To be sure I did, John Maine; and seeing the life you now lead, respected you for it. It is a hard matter for a man brought up honestly to run a straight course, while for such as you, John Maine, – there, I need only say that you have wonderfully increased the respect I have for you by coming to me with this frank avowal. My letter to you was to give you the opportunity, for your own sake, so as to remove the suspicion that your movements were exciting. There, I am proud to shake hands with a man possessed of such a love of the reputable as to fight the good fight as you have fought it; and of such command over self, as to make the confession you have made to-day.”
He stretched out his hand as he spoke, and John Maine wrung it in his – two strong palms meeting in a hearty grip for a few moments, while neither spoke.
Then John Maine turned away, and stood looking out of the window for a few moments.
“You’ve made me feel like a great girl, sir,” he said at last, huskily.
“I’ve made you feel like a true man, John Maine,” replied the vicar, “one without the false shame of custom about him.”
“Thanky, sir, thanky,” said the young fellow, recovering himself. “As to that night work, sir,” he continued, with a quiet smile, “that’s easily explained. I suspected those scoundrels, after seeing them hanging about the vicarage here, of meaning to have some of your silver cups.”
“And you watched the place by night, Maine?” said the vicar, eagerly.
“Well, sir, I did,” replied the young man, “till Miss Jessie warned me about how my place there at the farm depended on my not going out o’ nights, and then I put Tom Podmore on to the job.”
“And has he watched ever since?”
“Oh, yes, sir; you may depend on that – every night. Tom’s a trusty fellow, and when he takes to a man he’ll go through fire and water to serve him.
The vicar said nothing, but his eyes looked a little dim for a few moments, and he drew in a long breath.
“And now, sir, I think I do bring you news,” said Maine.
“Yes, sir. If I’m not very much mistook they mean to rob this place to-night.”
“You think so?” said the vicar, with his eyes sparkling; for here was what he had desired – something to call forth his energy, and serve to drown the thoughts that, in spite of his power over self, nearly drove him mad.
“Yes, sir, I think so,” replied Maine, “for they had a good look round the place when they came to the back door, and tried to wheedle Mrs Slee. Now they’ve been away and made their plans, and come back. I’ve seen one of them to-day.”
“This is news,” said the vicar, musing. “These are the men the police sought to overtake on the day after poor Daisy Banks’s disappearance; but if we set the police after them now, we shall scare them away. John Maine, we must catch these night-birds ourselves. Get Tom Podmore to come here.”
“I spoke to him before I came in, but he’s got something on his mind, and could not come.”
“Then we must do it ourselves. You’ll help me, Maine?”
“That I will, sir, with all my strength.”
“Good; then we can manage this little task without disturbing the police till to-morrow morning; when, if we are lucky, we shall be able to send for them to take charge of our prisoners.”
It was a very miserable breakfast at the farm the next morning, for old Bultitude was looking very black and angry, and it was quite evident that poor little Jessie had been in tears.
“What time did that scoundrel go out?” said the farmer, stabbing a piece of ham savagely with his fork, and after cutting a piece off as if it were a slice off an enemy, he knocked out the brains of an egg with a heavy dash of his tea-spoon.
“Don’t call him a scoundrel, uncle dear,” sobbed Jessie. “I don’t know.”
“I will, I tell ’ee,” cried the old man furiously. “I won’t hev him hanging about here any longer, a lungeing villain. Leaving his wuck and going off, and niver coming back all neet. Look thee here, Jess; if thee thinks any more about that lad, I’ll send thee away.”
“No, no, uncle dear, don’t say that,” cried the girl, going up and clinging to him. “He may have been taken ill, or a dozen things may have happened.”
“O’ coorse. Theer, I niver see such fools as girls are; the bigger blackguard a man is, the more the women tak’s his part. Sit thee down, bairn; theer, I aint cross wi’ you; I on’y want to do what’s best for you, for I wean’t see thee wed to a shack.”
He kissed poor Jessie affectionately, and bade her “make a good breakfast,” but the poor girl could not touch a morsel.
“Hillo! who’s this?” said the farmer, a few minutes later. “Oh, it’s young Brough. Come in, lad, come in.”
“Hooray, farmer!” he cried, all eagerness and delight. “I telled you so – I telled you so, and you wouldn’t believe it, and Miss Jessie theer turned like a wood cat, and was ready to scrat my eyes out.”
Jessie’s colour came and went as her little bosom heaved, and she turned her chair so as to avoid the keeper’s gaze.
“What did’st tell me?” said the farmer gruffly.
“Why, that John Maine was out ivery night skulking ’bout the vicarage whiles he should ha’ been at home i’ bed like an honest man. And I telled ye he was in co. wi’ a couple o’ poachers and thieves over here fro’ one o’ the big towns; and I telled you he weer nobbut a tramp hissen.”
“How dare you speak of him like that?” cried Jessie, starting up with flashing eyes, and stamping her foot. “You wouldn’t dare to speak so to John Maine’s face, for fear he should beat you.”
“Hoity, toity!” exclaimed the farmer. “Who told thee to speak, lass? Let the man finish.”
“I will not sit here and listen to such talk,” cried Jessie, angrily, and with an energy which plainly told her feelings towards the missing man. “Let him wait till John comes.”
“That wean’t niver be,” said the keeper, with a grin of satisfaction. “Because why? Just as I towd thee, farmer, there weer a robbery at the vicarage last night.”
“No!” cried old Bultitude, starting up with his mouth full.
“Ay, mun, but there weer,” cried Brough, in an exulting tone. “Just as I said theer’d be, all plotted and planned out to get parson’s silver cups and toots – all plotted and planned out by John Maine and his blackguard mates. Thank your stars, and you too, Miss Jessie, as you haven’t both been robbed and murdered.”
“I wean’t believe it,” cried the old farmer, angrily. “John Maine’s got a bit wrong somehow, but he isn’t the lad to rob nowt. He’s raight to a penny always wi’ his accounts.”
“That’s his artfulness,” sneered Brough.
“Yah!” cried the farmer. “You’ve got hold of a cock and bull story up town, wheer they’ll turn a slip on the causay into fower fatal accidents ’fore the news has got from the top of the High Street to the bottom.”
As he spoke Jessie crossed over to her uncle, laid her hands upon his shoulder, and stood with her eyes flashing indignant protest against the accuser of her lover.
“Hev it your own waya,” said Brough, quietly. “I were up at ’station, when parson comes in hissen, and tell’d Bowley that the party on ’em broke in at the vicarage last night, ’bout half-past twelve, and that he’d fote the men, and got ’em locked up, and John Maine wi’ ’em. Them’s parson’s own words; and if parson’s words arn’t true, dal it all, who’s is?”
“I’ll never, never believe it,” cried Jessie, with an angry burst of indignation; and then, bursting into tears, she ran out of the room, sobbing bitterly.
“Poor little lass!” said old Bultitude, softly; “she thinks a deal more o’ John Maine than she does o’ thee, my lad. But look here: I believe i’ John Maine after all, and shall go on believing in him, though I am a bit popped agen him, till I sees him foun’ guilty. Yow set me watching the lad one night, you know, Brough, and it all turned out a bam, for there he weer, safe in his bed. Just you let things bide till we know more ’bout ’em; and I don’t thank ye, young man, for coming and spoiling my brackfast.”
“Just as yow like, Master Bultitude,” said the keeper, sourly; “but just answer me one question, Weer John Maine at home all last night?”
“No,” said the farmer, savagely, “and he aint been back yet; but that don’t prove he weer lungeing ’bout parson’s. How do I know he wasn’t at Bosthorpe Dancing?”
“Bostrop Dancing weer day afore yesterday,” said the keeper, grinning as he made this retort about the village feast. “Oh, here comes parson.”
“Morning, Mr Bultitude,” said the vicar, coming in, looking rather grave. “Ah, Miss Jessie, how are you?” he continued, as, on hearing his voice, the girl stole back into the room. “Nice neighbours you are, to lie snug in bed and let your poor vicar be robbed, and murdered, and carried off in a cart.”
Jessie sank into a chair, looking as white as ashes, while Brough rubbed his hands joyously.
“Then it is all true?” said the farmer slowly.
“True? Oh, yes, true enough,” said the vicar. “I got the scoundrels safely locked up in the cellar.”
“Howd up, my lass, howd up,” whispered the farmer, kindly, as he laid his hand on Jessie’s shoulder; “be a woman and let’s hear the worst.” Then to the vicar: “An’ was John Maine wi’ ’em, sir?”
“Oh yes, he was with them,” said the vicar, wondering.
“Theer, I telled you so,” cried Brough exultantly, “I know’d how he’d turn out.”
The vicar smiled slightly at this, as he noticed the malice of the man, and he repeated slowly —
“Yes, John Maine was there.”
The last trace of colour faded out of Jessie’s cheeks, and a dull look of stony despair came over her countenance, while the old farmer shifted his position and began to dig a fork savagely into the deal table.
“Dal me – ” began the old man, but he stopped short.
“Just as I telled thee,” said Brough, eagerly.
“Dal thee! don’t set thee clapper going at me,” roared the old man. “I know it, don’t I?”
“Yes,” said the vicar, smiling, as he took and patted Jessie’s hand; “John Maine was there, and a braver ally I never had.”
“What?” roared the farmer.
“After watching my house, and setting young Podmore to watch it,” said the vicar, “he came and warned me about his suspicions, and – ”
“Dal me!” cried old Bultitude, “you kep’ him there all night, parson, to help you?”
“I did,” said the vicar.
“And took the rascals?”
“Yes, with John Maine’s help.”
“It’s a-maazing,” said the old man, slapping his thigh, and bursting into a tremendous series of chuckles. “Oh, parson, you are a one-er, and no mistake.”
The vicar was conscious of two looks as Jessie ran from the room – one of black indignation, directed at Brough; the other a soft, tender glance of thankfulness at himself, ere the poor girl once more ran up into her own room to “have a good cry.”
“Let me see,” said old Bultitude, dryly; “I don’t think theer was owt else as you wanted to tell me, was theer, Master Brough?”
“Not as I knows on, farmer,” said the keeper, looking from one to the other.
“Because, being churchwarden, theer’s a thing or two I want to talk ower wi’ parson – calling a meeting for next week, like.”
“Oh, I can go,” said the keeper, in an offended tone – “I can go if it comes to that;” and then, as no one paid any attention to him, he strode out, his departure being made plain by a loud yelping noise outside, and the voice of one of the labourers being heard to exclaim —
“I shouldn’t ha’ thowt yow’d kick a dog like that, Master Brough.”
While the vicar sat down and told the adventures of the past night.
As soon as John Maine had promised to stay with him, the vicar sat down, and seemed for a few minutes to be thinking.
“I should like,” he said at last, “to have a regular good stand-up fight with these scoundrels if they come; but I’m a man of peace now, Maine, and must act accordingly.”
“I’ll do the fighting, sir,” said Maine, excitedly.
“No, that will not do either, my man. We must have no fighting. We must bring the wisdom of the serpent to bear. You must not stir from here, or we shall alarm the enemy. They may have seen you come, but that’s doubtful; but if I let you go and come back again, the chances are that they may have scouts out, and then they must see you. Let the farm people fidget about you for one night. Old Bultitude will get in a rage, and Miss Jessie will cast you off; but I’ll go and smooth all that to-morrow. Mrs Slee will go home, and we’ll send the girl to bed as usual. If I keep you out of sight, she will think you are gone. By the way, who’s that?”
He slipped behind one of the window curtains, and watched as a decrepit old man, carrying some laces and kettle-holders for sale in one hand, a few tracts in the other, came slowly up the garden path, to stand as if hesitating which way to go; but glancing keenly from window to door, making observations that would not have been noticed at any other time, before slinking painfully round to the back of the house, where Mrs Slee’s sharp voice was soon after heard, and the old man came back at last with a good-sized piece of bread and meat.
“You old rascal!” said the vicar, as he shook his fist at the departing figure. “That scoundrel, Maine, not only tries to rob the rich, but through his trickery he indirectly steals from the poor by hardening the hearts of the charitable. There’s no doubt about what you say, John Maine; that fellow’s a spy from the enemy’s camp – the siege has commenced.”
The time flew by: evening came, and at last the hour for prayers. All had seemed quiet in the town, and at last the vicar rang, and Mrs Slee and the maid came in.
“You’ll stay to prayers, Maine?” said the vicar, quietly; and the young man knelt with the rest, while in a low, calm voice, the evening supplications for protection and thanks for the past were offered up – as quietly as if nothing was expected to shortly occur and quicken the pulses.
“Good night, Mrs Slee,” said the vicar; then, “I’ll see to the front door myself.”
Then the fastening of shutters was heard, followed by the closing of the back door, and its fastening, Mrs Slee’s steps sounding plainly on the gravel path, as she went to her cottage. Lastly, the maid was heard upon the stairs, and her door closed.
At the same time John Maine followed the vicar into the hall, the latter talking to him loudly for a few minutes, and then the front door was noisily opened and shut.
“The girl will think you have gone now,” said the vicar; “so come into the study, and pull off those heavy boots.”
The vicar set the example, placing his afterwards at the foot of the stairs in the hall, and hiding; those of John Maine in an out-of-the-way cupboard.
“Now then, we’ll have these two in case of accident,” he said, detaching a couple of Australian waddies from the wall; “but I don’t think we shall want them. I’ll prepare for the rascals in the study, for that’s where they will break in, and we must not be long before my light goes up to my room. They know all my habits by this time, I’ll be bound.”
There was a neat, bright little copper kettle on the hob in the study, and on returning, the vicar unlocked his cabinet, placed a cut lemon on the table, and a sugar-glass, a knife with which he cut some slices of lemon, placing one in a tumbler, pouring in a little water, and macerating the slice after it had been well stirred. Then by the side he placed a half-smoked cigar and an ashpan, sprinkled some of the ash upon the cloth, and finished all off with the presence of a quaint little silver-tipped bottle labelled “Gin.”
“They’ll give me the credit of having been enjoying myself to-night, Maine,” said the vicar, smiling, as he held the bottle up to the light, took out the silver-mounted cork, and from one side of the cabinet, amongst a row of medicine phials, he took a small blue flask, removed the stopper, measured a certain quantity in a graduated glass, and poured the clear pleasant-smelling fluid into the gin.
“I see now, sir,” said Maine, who had been puzzled at the vicar’s movements, as he re-corked the spirit-bottle, and placed back the glass and tiny flask – movements which seemed indicative of arrangements for passing a comfortable night.
“To be sure,” said the vicar. “Let them only sit down to a glass apiece of that – as they certainly will, for the rogues can’t pass drink – and all we shall have to do will be to bundle them neck and crop down into the cellar to sleep it off, ready for the attendance of the police in the morning. There will be four in the gang – three to come here, and a fourth to wait somewhere handy with a horse and cart. It will only be a glass apiece.”
“What makes you think that they will break in here, sir?” asked John Maine.
“Because there are no iron bars to the window, and no one sleeps overhead. Now, then, all’s ready, so we’ll go upstairs.”
“But won’t you stay and stop them from getting in, sir?”
“Certainly not, Maine. Let them walk into the trap, and we will keep awake as well as we can in the dark.”
Lighting a chamber candle, the vicar turned out the lamps, and led the way to his bedroom, where, after placing an easy chair for his companion, he apparently busied himself for a quarter of an hour in undressing, taking care to cast his shadow several times upon the window-blind, then placing matches ready, and the door open, he extinguished the light.
“Half-past ten, Maine,” he whispered. “Now for a long watch. Can you keep awake?”
“I think so, sir,” was the reply. “Good; then listen attentively, and warn me of the slightest sound, but no word must be spoken above a whisper. No conversation.”
One hour in the solemn silence of the night, and no sound was heard. Once the vicar stretched out his hand to have it pressed in reply by way of showing that his companion was on the alert.
Another hour passed, and all was perfectly still. The vicar had had no difficulty in keeping awake, for his thoughts were upon the scene that had taken place up at the House; and though he strove to drive away the remembrance, and to nerve himself for the struggle that must be his for weeks to come, there was Eve Pelly’s sweet gentle face before him, seeming to ask him wistfully to accede to her wish.
At last John Maine, believing him to be asleep, touched his arm.
“Yes,” was the whispered answer. “I heard them five minutes ago. There they are.”
At that moment a singular low grating noise was heard.
“Diamond cutting glass,” said the vicar, with his lips close to his companions ear.
A sharp crack.
“There goes the pane,” whispered the vicar.
Then there was the creak – creak – creak of a window being softly raised, after the fastening had been thrust back. Then, again, perfect silence, succeeded at last by a gentle rustling noise; but so quietly had the entry been made that but for a faint glimmer of light seen now and then through the open door, there was nothing to indicate that anything below was wrong.
The watchers sat listening with their hearts beating with a heavy dull pulsation, till at length a stair creaked, as if from the weight of some one ascending, and they fancied they could hear the hard breathing of some listener. This ceased in a very short time, and they instinctively knew that the burglar had returned to the study, where the clink of a glass warned them that the bait had proved sufficient attraction for the wolves.
There was another pause and a faint whisper or two, followed by the soft rustling made by the men crossing the little hall to the dining-room, from whence arose the metallic sound of silver touching silver. Then there came more rustling and chinking, and John Maine whispered,
“Pray, let’s go and stop them, sir: they’ll get away with the plate.”
“Oh, no,” said the vicar in the same tone. “Wait.”
They waited, and the rustling made by the men crossing the hall back to the study was again heard, and then, for some little time, there was silence.
“They must be gone, sir,” whispered Maine, but almost as he spoke there came up from below a dull, heavy, stertorous snore, which was soon after accompanied by the heavy hard breathing of a sleeper, and an occasional snort and muttering, as of some one talking in his slumber.