AN EMBARRASSING SITUATION.
IN spite of all
that could be said or done, George Stone persisted in his refusal to
join the County team. The club members dogged his footsteps
and waylaid him in all sorts of places. The Misses Bradshaw
sent for him to Highfield and used all their kindly blandishments.
The curate and Dick Frater, the son of the other mill-owner in the
village, remonstrated with him; even Tom Bradshaw, under pressure
from his sisters, tried to persuade him, but all in vain. Old
Mr. Bradshaw sent for him into the office, chaffed and scolded,
stormed and threatened, but he only laughed. Prominent local
cricketers appealed to his loyalty and public spirit, but he told
them some of his best stories, and sent them away laughing but
defeated; and, last of all, the schoolmistress tried her hand, and
gave him a"serious talking to." She did get more than the
others, for he hinted at reasons which, though ridiculous, and to
her utterly inadequate, were oddly in harmony with what she had seen
of him in the past; the graceless rogue pretended—it could be
nothing but pretence—that he was declining an offer which must have
been very tempting to him, because the new occupation would involve
Sunday travelling, and because it would mean, for more reasons than
one, the surrender of some little official position he held at the
Sunday-school. Carrie left him in disdainful pique—he was only
laughing at her as he had done at the others; but when she thought
of it afterwards it struck her that his persistence was after all
consistent with several similar actions of his. A few days
later, however, she learnt that, instead of dismissing George from
the works, as he had previously threatened, old Bradshaw had
promoted him to a much more responsible position—a position, in
fact, which would take him to Manchester on the business of the firm
two or three days in each week. Then Carrie made her first
generalisation as to George Stone. He was an interesting
variation upon a somewhat common local type, a class of which the
mill-owner himself was a specimen; persons in whose natures certain
odd prejudices—parochial, superstitious, or religious—were embedded
like fossils in limestone, and whose departures from common
consistency were attributable to one or other of the above-mentioned
influences. She did not stop to think just then how very wide
a generalisation this was, and how many of her Mollins"subjects" it
might include. It met the case as far as one of them was
concerned, and with that she was content.
Two months passed away, and the summer was now upon her.
The Bradshaw girls were at Llandudno, her other acquaintances were
preparing for their holidays, and she was making arrangements to
join a party of lady friends in a personally-conducted tour up the
Rhine. If only Tom Bradshaw would have let her alone, life
just then would have been very enjoyable, for the neighbourhood at
this season of the year was very attractive; only wherever she went
picnicing, and with whomsoever she went, the persistent young mill
manager was sure to turn up; and, though he never ventured to repeat
the scene in Stump Cross Lane, and had not accepted her hint to
write to her, it was clear that he would do something serious before
very long. Why he did not formally propose, and why he did not
write, she scarcely asked herself, for that would have involved the
making up of her own mind, and in her present condition she was
thankful not to be called upon to do that. The night before
she started for her trip, however, there arrived at Providence
Cottage an elaborately fitted lady's travelling bag; and the
discussion which its return to the donor, Tom Bradshaw, necessitated
with Mrs. Chorlton, brought out the annoying fact that her name was
being linked with the young manager's in a very significant way.
She left the station therefore next morning in a very uncertain
state of mind as to her return to Mollins; for, though delightfully
interesting, the place was certainly becoming somewhat inconvenient,
and, in fact, embarrassing.
One sultry summer's night, about a week after the
schoolmistress's departure, George Stone was returning across the
fields from Lopham Bridge with a broody hen under one arm and a fine
half-grown Wyandotte cockerel under the other. His bowler hat
was stuck on the back of his head, and he was freely perspiring.
His way lay through Hollison's plantation and along the top side of
the"lodge" or reservoir belonging to the mill. Strictly
speaking, there were three lodges, but two of them were near the
mill and inclosed; whilst the third, which was a sort of reserve
store, and had originally been a mere pond, had a much-used footpath
along its upper margin, which had been the cause of the only serious
dispute the Bradshaws had ever had with their hands. George
came through the plantation at a swinging pace, for the current of
his thoughts flowed with unusual rapidity. For more than a
month now he had been annoyed by hearing that his name and Netty
Swire's were linked together in village gossip, and that the girl
concerned was encouraging the rumour. Usually he would only
have laughed at the thing, but now it seemed to be causing him much
annoyance and giving rise within him to misgivings for which he
could not readily find a sufficient reason.
It was somewhat dark for the time of the year, and the trees
obscured what little light remained. As he reached the stile
he raised his head to look before him, and immediately drew back
with a start. At the far corner of the lodge, about a hundred
yards away, he could just make out a dark figure making towards the
other stile, and swaying about as though excited. It stopped;
he could hear faintly the sound of voices; the figure turned and
rushed straight for the waters. There was a cry, as from a
man's frightened voice; another cry from a woman, a splash—and the
dark figure had plunged into the black dam.
George, who was at the moment staring with amazed eyes and
clutching the fowls so tightly to his side that they protested
energetically, flung his feathery burden from him, dashed over the
stile and along the bank, and plunged into the lodge. As he
did so a figure appeared for a moment at the opposite stile, made a
dash towards the water, caught sight of George, and pulled up; stood
wavering there for an instant, and then, with a moan, dashed back
and disappeared in the gloom.
Sputtering, splashing, crying out, George was making his way
as rapidly as he could to the struggling figure. That it was a
woman he had already decided, and that if she intended to drown
herself she had already changed her mind was also clear. The
water was not deep enough to swim in, and the mud was so thick and
sticky that his progress was slow. A moment more and he had
her in his arms: then there was another shriek, and the crazy
creature was doing her best to escape from his grasp. Ah! the
frantic wretch caught sight of his face, sprang at him again with an
eager cry, and before he could balance himself they were overturned
and sank below the level of the filthy water. Another effort,
the tug of a giant, and then, though the mud seemed about to suck
them down, and the liquid was nauseous and foul, he rose softly to
his feet, his burden hugged to his breast, and staggered desperately
to the bank. The figure in his arms had become limp enough
now, and he did not need to be told that she had fainted; but when
he had climbed the sloping side of the lodge and deposited his
burden on the footpath, he raised himself and stood back with a sob
of horror, for the woman at his feet was Netty Swire.
A suspicion of the truth had already passed through his mind,
but the sight of her lying there sent a sickening chill through him;
for he realised, as no one else could have done, scapegrace though
he was, all that the terrible incident might mean. But there
was no time for reflection, so he drew a long breath, and dropping
upon his knees, picked up his burden and staggered towards the stile
from which she had come. Then he pulled up—No, not there!
Good God! where should he take her? He understood the Swires
well enough to know that she must not be taken home, and certainly
must not be taken there by him; if he took her anywhere else it
would mean letting others into the sad secret—which was not to be
thought of. He sighed heavily and looked helplessly round, and
as he did so he realised that he was leaving tracks behind him,
tracks that might not be dried when daylight came. He put his
foot upon the stile cross-bar, raised himself upon the low wall next
to it, dropped into a pasture and staggered across it, hugging the
dripping, malodorous form to his breast. Half-way across the
field, however, he pulled up again. What must he do, and where
must he take her? He was near what was called the Dog Entry,
which led to the high road, so that in a moment or two he might have
as much assistance as he needed. No, no! the thing must be
kept quiet at all costs; there was nothing else for it, and so he
plunged on again, wriggled his way under a barbed-wire fence,
crossed the top end of Welby's turnip field, forced a passage
Willy-nilly through the hedge at the top of his own garden, opened
the back door of"Squint Hall" by jamming his chin on the"sneck,"
staggered into the front room, and dropped his soaking burden upon
the long settle.
As he had struggled through field and hedge during the last
five minutes his mind had been a very hell of agonising
perplexities; but now the impossibility of delay had settled the
matter, the die was cast, and he had become calm, cool, and prompt.
He knocked upon the wooden staircase and called in thick whispers—
"Lyd! Lyd! come down sharp, woman! It's a life
and death matter!"
Without losing a moment, he snatched up the little lamp,
turned down as it still was, hurried into the back kitchen, flung
paper shavings and next morning's firewood into the grate, and in
briefest space of time there was a crackling fire. Then he
turned up the light and hastened to the foot of the stairs to meet
Lyd. The old creature was descending with surly grumbles,
hugging at an old grey shawl, which would not fall into place on her
"Marciful heavens!" she began, as she caught sight of his
dripping, ooze-soaked clothes; but his hand was upon her mouth, she
was led to the long settle, and whilst, with distended eyes, she
gazed horrified at the limp figure before her, George impressed upon
her the necessity of perfect silence and promptitude, and without a
word she set to work to restore the unconscious Netty. Brandy
was poured into the blue lips, the sodden garments were removed or
loosened, and she began to rub the inanimate creature's hands and
chest with all the skill of an experienced nurse. George
meanwhile was getting rid of his wet and befouled garments with
incredible speed, and when he reappeared at the foot of the stairs,
Lyd signalled to him that their patient was"coming to." For a
moment a fit of hesitation came over him, then in sudden decision he
stepped to the side of the settle, picked up the half-conscious
girl, and staggering upstairs placed her upon his own bed, Lyd
following with the light and a string of whispered exclamations and
instructions. Then he returned to the kitchen and began
preparing"composition tea," which was afterwards mixed with a
little brandy, and as he did so he heard a woman's voice that sent a
thrill through him.
"Oh, God, what a mess!" he groaned, and began to pace
nervously about the flagged floor. Twenty minutes later Lyd
called him upstairs, for Netty was getting unmanageable, and
"I'll do it! I'll do it! I'll end mysel' to spite
you! and her! You shall never have her—never!"
George stole up the creaking stairs to the door of the
bedroom, called old Lyd to him, and nipping her arm to impress what
he was saying upon her, whispered,"She's to stop here, mind!
She's to be quiet, an' nobody's to know!" and with another
punctuating pinch he released the old woman and descended again.
For several minutes he moved restlessly from kitchen to
parlour and back again, pausing every now and again to listen to
Netty's incoherent protestations, and at last he noiselessly
unlocked the front door and stepped into the road. It was now
an ideal summer night, the stars shone brightly down upon him, and
the soft, cool breeze fell soothingly upon his flushed cheeks.
It was just such a night as he would have enjoyed being out
in, but now he was oblivious to it all, and with hesitant steps
strolled musingly down the lane. He paused a moment in evident
uncertainty at the corner, crossed the Lopham Road, moved with
drooping head and sinking heart along the way, and presently pulled
up at the end house of a block of live, and began to scan the
windows anxiously. There was no sign of light upstairs or
down, and so he went round to the back, but with no better result.
He was inspecting the residence of the Swires, but after glancing it
over again and again, he heaved a long sigh and turned away.
At the cross roads, however, he stopped again with head on chest and
lips tightly nipped together; then with sudden decision he turned
back, and a moment later was knocking guardedly at the cottage door.
There was no answer, and so he knocked again, and put his ear to the
door to listen. No response. Then he guessed something
of the truth, and stooping down with his mouth to the key-hole, he
called,"Abe! Abe! It's me."
With a promptitude which told its own sad tale, the door was
flung open, and old Swire, fully-dressed, but very pale and stern,
peered out upon him.
"What does thou want, wastrel?"
"It's Netty, Abe—your Netty. She's ta'en rayther
A pathetic quiver agitated the lips and eyelids of the old
man, but he drew himself up, set his face hard, and replied—
"Our Netty's ta'en her own road, an' she mus' bide by it."
A window upstairs had been opened and a man's head put out,
but George was too intent upon his delicate mission to notice it.
"I found her in a—a bit of a faint, and had to take her into th' house."
"Thee? Thy house? My Lord!" and the old man
staggered against the half-opened door.
"Liar!" shouted a voice upstairs; there was a sound of angry
cries, a shaking of the bedroom floor, and a man in his shirt pushed
old Abe roughly aside, sprang fiercely out, and struck George a
heavy blow upon the mouth. A second man, similarly attired,
repeated the attack, and Stone, shaking them off, stepped back with
a painful smile, and cried soothingly—
"Hold on, chaps! dunnot be rash; listen to what I have to
His tones were gentle and pleading, but the two sons flung
themselves upon him again with yells of exasperation.
He caught one in his arms and held him like a baby to his
chest, then backing against the opposite wall, he put out his leg
and sent the second staggering back.
"Johnty! David! hear me now! It's all right if
you'll be quiet an' let me tell you."
"Come here, my lads, come away! he's too bad to touch!" cried
the old man from the doorway.
George flung the struggling David from him, and stepped into
the middle of the road again.
"Don't come near again, lads," he cried in a subdued but
distinctly menacing tone; and the brothers, knowing him, stood away,
foaming at the mouth and looking for a second opening.
"What's to do theer? for shame on yo'!"
The window of the next cottage had been thrown open, and a
woman's shrill voice was heard. George took in the situation
and its dangers in a moment. The Swires were particularly
sensitive about their reputation—good, godly men to whom their good
name was everything; and so, without a word, he wheeled round on his
heel and fled, at the top of his speed, towards home, whilst the
Swires apologetically pacified the angry neighbour and went indoors
to sit by the fireless grate and pour out their wrath upon the
tempter of their daughter and sister, and blend their heart-broken
lamentations over the disgrace which the reckless Netty had brought
upon them. It had been part of Netty's policy to encourage the
suspicions of her male relatives about George, in order to cover the
more successfully her intrigue with Tom Bradshaw.
When he got clear away, young Stone pulled up and dropped
into a slow walk. He was in a dilemma, if ever a man was, and
the only way out of it had been effectually blocked by the
unreasonable attitude of the Swires; though he confessed as he
looked all round the situation that they had provocation enough in
all conscience. His mouth was swollen and his lips bleeding,
but he did not notice them. His heart ached and his brain was
on fire, and these were quite novel sensations to him. That
Netty must be saved from public scandal if possible he was resolved;
but what had led to the mad act and how to put things right again,
were points that he could not decide at once. It came into his
head more than once to return to Netty's friends and make them hear
him, for if once daylight came, it would be too late. But he
knew so little, guessed so much, and might so easily do the wrong
thing, that he hesitated. He concluded that the first thing to
do was to have a talk with the girl herself, but when he arrived
home she was so excited and intractable that there seemed small hope
of that; and even when she became quieter she seemed afraid of old
Lyd, and, of course, he could not be alone with her. There was
a bright fire burning by this time, and Netty's jacket and hat were
drying in front of it.
"Has she said anything?" he asked, when old Lyd came down for
"She rambles a lot about Mestur Tom."
"Who?" and George was gaping at her in sudden horror.
"Mestur Tom; but what's to do with thy face?"
"Hush, woman! Not a word to a living soul, Lyd; does
she say owt about their folk?"
"She says he'll ha' to wed her now—she means Mestur Tom, I
George took the old woman by the shoulders, stared down into
her frightened old eyes, and almost hissed as he spoke, and with
such passion as the old creature had never seen in him—
"Lyd! from end to end of this job, however it goes and
whatever comes of it, that name's never to be mentioned! Du'st
The old woman stared at him with bulging eyes, and then as he
released her she gave a couple of slow, sagacious nods, and went
muttering off upstairs. For some time George stood in deepest
thought by the fire, and then he groped for a pipe on the
mantelpiece, stuck it absently into his mouth without charging it,
and, opening the back door, stepped into the garden. He sighed
heavily as he moved about; stared at the breaking light without
seeing it, poked his boot at the box edge of the flower bed, as
though he would count every one of its small leaves, drew himself
up, and then walked towards the imitation parish church, charged his
pipe, dropped heavily into a seat and folded his long arms to think.
His eyes twinkled in the shadows, his face grew darker and
darker, and his pipe went out. He began to tap the floor with
the toe of his boot and stopped without knowing it, and when the
dawn really broke he sat there, stiff and upright, wrestling with
such a problem as had never presented itself to him in his life
before. Suddenly he started, glanced desperately about him,
opened wide his eyes in a great amazement, and then shaking his head
much as a dog shakes water from its coat, he cried in an agony of
Presently he sank back again, puckered his brow, nipped his
eyes together, beat the floor first with one toe and then the other;
and then cried, as though to quell the clamouring horror within him,"There's nothing else for it!"
He started to his feet and stepped into the garden, where he
stood staring at the brightening sky; amazement and terror stood on
his white face, and he seemed suddenly to have gone ten years older.
But the mood passed, quiet self-control returned, and he went back
to the summer-house to think deliberately and in detail.
Old Abe Swire and his sons passed before his mind as he had
seen them outside their own door, and he remembered again what all
this would mean to them. Tom Bradshaw and his strained
relations with his father, things known to but few, next occupied
his mind, and from one to the other he passed, returned and repassed,
in those moments which were to leave their impressions upon him for
life. The Swires! the devil himself could not have invented
anything to humble them more effectually than Netty's impending
disgrace would do. The old man had never been hearty since his
wife died, and this would kill him. But oh! how the old man,
aye, and his stern sons, too, loved that old school-chapel!
Johnty was a local preacher, but would never go into a pulpit again;
David, it was equally certain, would send in his class-book as a
leader. Poor old man! poor, poor lads! and as pity and
sympathy swelled within him, George groaned aloud. Then his
thoughts went back to the giddy girl herself; she was in deadly
peril, he could not have done other than he had done, and wherever
else he had taken her he could not have prevented the dismal story
being known. All the same, that she was where she was
seriously complicated the situation; the village rumours connecting
his name with hers had been matters of amusement to him, but now
they seemed terrible difficulties. Her father had been stern
with her, or Mr. Tom had wanted to shake her off, and the flighty,
reckless little soul might now go headlong to shame. "It's
there!" he cried, with another weary shake of the head, and then he
added, after a long, silent study,"It's nobbut me!" But then
if it was as he feared, there were the Bradshaws to think of.
The young ladies were kindness itself, but as pure as sunlight.
The old man, though no saint, was very proud and had high notions
about his son's future. Then he thought of Tom and the
schoolmistress, and this seemed the most painful thing of all to
him. He almost smiled as he pictured to himself the lofty
silence of the little lady at the school if she knew of her would-be
lover's connection with Swire's girl. But she could help the
young man; she could save him and make him, if she cared. Oh!
what a woman that mistress was! He knew Tom Bradshaw better
than anybody in Mollins, his own family included, and he felt he
might make a grand success in life but for this.
And so he reasoned on with himself, going over the ground
again and again, and always arriving at the same enigmatical
conclusion,"It's nobbut me!" and when the daylight at last filled
the summer-house he rose to his feet, outwardly at any rate the same
imperturbable George as of old, and went back to the house
smothering down doubt and fear and everything else under a
constantly-repeated and inexorable"It's nobbut me!"
Two days later, when the schoolmistress returned from her
holiday, she found quiet Mollins ringing from end to end with the
paralysing intelligence that George Stone had that morning been
married by special licence to Netty Swire.
BRADSHAW returned from
his morning round of the mill with a sick heart and, without knowing
why, he locked the door of his private office when he entered.
Two looms in the old shed were standing: Netty Swire was not at her
post. Her father had greeted him civilly enough as he passed
him, and her brothers seemed much as usual; but where was the girl
herself? He dared not have asked after her for his life,
though he tried to assure himself that nothing was wrong, or that
the cunning little flirt had absented herself to scare him.
The night before, he had had what he intended to have been his last
interview with her, and even that was not of his own seeking.
She had compelled him to meet her, charged him with being in love
with the schoolmistress, and had made it abundantly clear that she
was not to be easily shaken off.
She was so excited and desperate, so tearful and yet pretty,
that he took her in his arms in the old back lane and kissed her,
trying with all the skill he could command to pacify and comfort
her. But Netty, with all her flighty nature, had a certain
Lancashire directness, and brought him back to the point with most
provoking persistence. He laughed at her fears, flattered her,
caressed her; but the more he talked the more plainspoken and
insistent did she become. Then he decided to defer the word he
had come to say and content himself with soothing her. But for
once this did not work; she was petulant, suspicious, even abusive.
A reckless word of hers stung him, and he blurted out the brutal
truth. She screamed, threatened to"raise the village," go to
his father, and finally to drown herself. A wiser and better
girl would have overcome him easily, but her excitement brought out
her coarseness: she stormed like a virago, rushed at him to scratch
his face, called him names which, coming from such pretty lips,
disgusted him, until at last he flung her rudely from him with an
oath, and rushed away.
"I'll drown myself! I'll drown myself!" she screamed but even
then he observed she was cautious enough not to call too loudly.
A field's length away, however, he stopped and hesitated: he could
still faintly hear her sobs. Then he came back to the stile he
had just passed, and was just in time to see her climbing the steps
that led into the enclosure where the top lodge was.
"Good heavens! she was never fulfilling her threat! With a
cry, half curse, half entreaty, he rushed towards the steps,
reminding himself as he went of the shallowness of the lodge.
There was a little scream, a dull splash. Good God! she was in
the water. Disgust vanishing before terrible alarm, he reached
the steps, sprang over the stile-bar, and in a moment more would
have been at least at the lodge side. But as he reached the
elevation of the stile-top he caught sight of another figure coming
from the opposite direction, and making for the struggling form in
the water. A terrified groan, a moment of maddening
hesitation, a rush of craven, coward fears, and he turned tail and
scurried from the spot at the top of his speed. Twice ere he
reached the old road he wavered and pulled up, but just as often,
after a moment of tormenting uncertainty, he resumed his flight.
The one thing to do now was to get safely indoors, but the moment he
reached his own room he began to feel it a sort of prison or trap,
and commenced to call himself coward and fool for not having stayed
near the scene of his quarrel with Netty and watched events.
He had soaked himself in brandy, tried to reason himself out of his
coward fears, gone sometime after midnight to bed, where he passed a
sleepless night; and now he discovered that Netty was not at her
looms, and began to wonder what there might be which, in the public
eye, would connect him with her disappearance. Mechanically he
drew the morning letters towards him, but though he read them over
and over again, he had no sort of idea of their meaning, and found
himself staring abstractedly out of the window.
Who was the person he had seen hastening to Netty's rescue,
and how had he succeeded? That it would not be easy for her to
drown he felt certain, but his craven fear robbed him of all
consolation from that fact. Oh, what a fool he had been to
leave her, and why couldn't he have had a little more patience!
It proved the longest, cruellest day of Tom Bradshaw's life.
Thrice he made imaginary business in the old shed where Netty
worked, and just as often came back with a stifling sickness at his
heart; for she was not there. He knew the Swires, both father
and sons, and realised that though they had worked at the mill most
of their lives, and the old man at any rate would not be able to get
work anywhere else, they would move heaven and earth against him if
anything happened to their girl. Telegrams were common enough
at the mill, but each one that was handed in that day brought a
clammy perspiration to his brow. His relationship with his
father had now become so strained by reason of discoveries of his
betting habits that the least thing would break them; and just when
he had resolved to wipe out old scores and put all right by marrying
the girl of his father's choice and settling down, this hideous
thing had turned up to mock him. Other fellows of his
acquaintance had gone much further than he and got off scot free,
and it looked as though he were to be ruined for life.
Then he tried to laugh the thing off; Netty was too shallow
and frivolous to seriously risk her life. He was funky, run
down, liverish and flat, and wanted a pick-me-up; and so he hurried
home, drank off a couple of stiff glasses of whisky and hastened to
the station for a night in Manchester.
But as he walked up the Mollins Street, though it was broad
daylight, every uncommon sound made him start, and in the railway
carriage he heard nothing but Netty's screaming threat,"I'll drown
myself! I'll drown myself!"
But he did not stay in Manchester; why, he could not have
explained. Business acquaintances who were hastening home as
he walked up to the warehouse stared oddly at him, he thought; the
sight of a policeman sent a cold chill to his heart, and wherever he
looked—"on 'Change," in the office, or at the hotel—he saw only the
old Mollins back lane, the red, angry eyes of Netty Swire, and the
dull, dark waters of the"lodge." He thanked his stars many a
time on that short journey home that his father and sisters were
away, and decided that he would go through the village to Highfield
and perhaps call at the Spinner's Arms; for by this means he would
see many of the hands and hear any news that might be stirring.
But when he got off the train he walked out of the station with his
hat over his eyes, turned into a bye-lane and went all round by
Stump Cross in sheer dread of being seen.
He had forgotten that he had told the servants that he would
not be home that night, and their surprised glances took away what
little appetite he had, and he was glad to hide in his own room and
assuage his fears with ardent spirits. But instead of
soothing, the liquors excited; he became so nervous that he could
not sit. A box of cigars he had not properly replaced fell
with a crash, and he sprang half way across the room. A sharp
scream from the kitchen made his heart stand still, and though the
cry was followed by a merry laugh he fell back into his chair with
white face, quivering lips, and teeth buried deep in the end of
his"smoke." This was intolerable—what a fool, what a miserable
coward he was! The room was stiflingly hot. Netty's eyes
seemed to meet him everywhere, and the very clock as it ticked
seemed to have caught the tones of her voice. He must do
something, he must go out; to know the very worst could not be more
maddening than this cruel torture. At the end of the mill lane
he noticed Bob Hopper, the yard foreman, and old Tib Slack, the
watchman. Bob sat on an old bench which stood against the
gable of the blacksmith's shop, smoking, and Tib was standing with
his lantern in his hand, though it was still light. Tom was
passing on with a curt nod, but with a sudden spurt of pluck he
"All right at the shop, Tibby?"
"Ay, Mestur Tom; all right."
Tom was moving on with a sigh of relief, when Bob drawled out
in a lackadaisical way,"Ther's summat rayther queer about th' top
"Indeed. What now?" Tom was trying hard to look easy,
but Bob, after a pull at his pipe and a very deliberate spit, raised
his head to reply, and then stopped to gaze with surprise at the
young manager's face.
"Mestur Tom, are you bad?"
"No, no! What's wrong with the top lodge?"
Bob removed his eyes from his master, fastened them
meditatively upon the blue hill-top far behind the village, puffed
and spat again, and then, with a little side jerk of his head, he
"Oh, there's nowt wrong wi' th' lodge."
"Well, what is it, then?" and Tom, whose brain was on fire with
fear and suspense, had to struggle to keep himself in hand.
Bob, the imperturbable, took two long draws, whilst his eyes
wandered lazily over his employer's person, seemed about to reply,
but did not and just when the tormented manager was losing his last
shred of self-control, he turned to Tib and remarked,"It's happen
nowt after all."
"Out with it, man! Ought or nought, let us have it."
Bob was mildly surprised. This was his hour of ease;
the hurry of the day was over, the air was warm and soothing, and
the information he had was really of no moment that he knew of.
Why was the master in such a hurry?
"I went up to look at t' sluicecocks this mornin', and just when I
wur comin' away I seed as somebody must ha' been in t' water."
"How could you tell that?" and Tom's voice was thick and his lips
"There wur a lot o' slush trailed out up o' th' bank, an' some up
o' th' footpath."
"Well, those lads must have been there, amateur dredging as usual.
Is that all?"
But the suggestion was a new thought to Bob. He turned
it over, watching the rings of smoke from his pipe for a moment, and
then, glancing round at Tib, he remarked—
"By Jabus! I niver thowt of that."
"Was there nothing else? No feetmarks or anything?"
Bob had another lapse into meditation, and presently, turning
to the watchman, he cried with new surprise—
"Tib, there wur feetmarks, an' big' uns. They wurna
"Not women's, were they?"
What a fool Tom felt himself the moment the question was out!
Even the slow-witted Bob noticed his eagerness, and looked up at him
in lazy wonder. Remembering the question asked, however, he
gave himself up to another course of mental discussion, and at
length shook his head and said,"They were not clogs, onyway."
But here Tib brought back all Tom's sick-hearted fear by
"It was a woman I heard shrike out las' night."
"A woman? You heard a woman scream?" and Tom's lips would
scarcely part to let out his words.
"Ay, about eleven o'clock, or happen a bit afore; but I thowt it
wur nobbut Peter Lindley welting his wife." Bob shook his head
"That wastrel 'ull drive her to summat, as sure as I'm wick."
"Ger out wi' thee! I seed her at dinner-time."
"Were the footmarks towards the lodge or away from it?" demanded
Tom, with a gesture of impatience at their garrulity.
Bob sank into profoundest cogitation, pulled at his pipe
again, and then, raising his head in sudden conviction, he cried
"They wur oather—wun o' t'other, that's sartin."
"Yes, but which, man? Hurry up!"
Bob stared before him and scratched his head; then he screwed
up his face into a complicated pucker, opening temporarily first one
eye and then the other, and at last he shook his head deprecatingly
and drawled out,"I niver hed no mem'ry—niver!"
But his excessive deliberation had given Tom time to collect
himself; and so, with an affectation of indifference, he remarked,"I
dare say it was those lads. The young scamps will be getting
in some fine day. Goodnight, men."
But when he had got several yards away, Bob had a sudden
flash of memory.
"Oh! Heigh, Mr. Tom. Here!"
Tom returned reluctantly, and stood there, the prey of
maddening thoughts, whilst Tom fumbled first in one pocket and then
"Well, what now?"
With the pipe hanging perilously out of his mouth, Bob
continued to explore the recesses of his clothes, and at length,
after going over all the pockets two or three times, produced a
small gold-plated brooch, and holding it out on his big palm, he
"That looks like a woman, chuse how."
"Did you find that at the lodge?" and Tom was struggling between a
mesmerising dread of the trinket and a maddening desire to snatch it
"N—o!" drawled Bob.
"Then what are you showing it to me for?"
"I found it up o' th' footpath at the side of a lump of puddle."
"H—u—m! Ha! Girls as well as boys, it seems.
We'll have a notice board put up. I'll take the brooch."
The hand he stretched out trembled, but the slow Bob did not
notice, and surrendered his spoil without a word.
Tom hastened away, thanking his stars he had secured one
awkward bit of evidence against him, but excited also at the
justification of his fears concerning Netty. Taking a
circuitous route, he found himself, when the long shadows were
crossing his track, near the lodge. He went along cautiously,
glanced round to make sure that he was not observed, dropped upon
his knees on the bank, and began to examine one by one the little
patches of grey-green mud. There were no footprints; the mud
had fallen in roundish droppings, and gave no sign of impressions.
Ah! there were two marks on the stones, indistinctly rimmed with
But just then he heard the murmur of distant voices. A
couple of courters appeared at the stile on the Lopham side of the
enclosure, and so, crouching as low as he could, and breathing a
fervent"Thank God!" as he saw the lovers linger a moment with their
backs to him, he started to scud along the slope of the lodge until
he reached the near corner, where, creeping with a groan through the
hedge, he vanished down the Dog Entry.
Back in his own room, he began to curse himself for all the
folly he had committed. The toils were gathering round him.
Bob and Tib could tell what they had seen and heard; the lodge might
be dragged, and the little brooch he had flung into the turbid
waters as he fled discovered, and the person who had gone to Netty's
rescue might be anybody, and know by this time anything. As
these thoughts crowded in upon him in remorseless succession, a
sense of overwhelming shame rushed upon him, followed by the weak
man's inevitable self-pity; and, utterly overcome, he buried his
head in his hands and sobbed as though his heart would break.
But the break-down relieved him, quieter thoughts returned, and
common-sense reasserted itself. After all, he was not a
murderer, even in thought; at the worst, it would only be a nasty
scandal, which would blow over somehow. His father was in no
mood for further disappointments, certainly; but Netty was hardly
the sort of girl to commit suicide, and there was no evidence so far
that she had done so. If she had been missing, would not the
Swires have raised the alarm before this? What a fool he was!
Netty was ill, or foxing to frighten him. He would go home and
rest, and so an hour later he was drowning his thoughts about the
deserted girl, and the accusations of a still tolerably active
conscience, in spirits, and finally fell into a drunken sleep.
As he was the only member of the family at home, his meals
were served in his own room, and the dainty spread that waited for
him next morning would have given appetite to a dyspeptic. But
Tom glanced at it with loathing; it was not the first time he had
felt like that during last two years, and no great surprise would
have been caused if he had left his breakfast untouched. But
this morning he carefully made his cup of tea, and then, listening
at the door until he felt it was safe to do so, he carried it to the
lavatory washbowl on the landing, poured the contents away, and
carefully carried his cup back to the table. Then he looked at
the juicy ham, and from that to the fireless grate, took a piece or
two of the flesh and a few bits of toast, made a parcel of them, and
put them carefully into his jacket pocket, finishing the operation
by smearing the drip over his plate, so as to leave every appearance
of having made an ordinary meal. A stiff glass of whisky,
which he held to his lips with a hand that shook alarmingly, and he
turned to go to the mill. But he could not; the very thought
of facing the world again appalled him, and yet he could not rest
until he knew whether Netty had reappeared.
And so he loitered in the garden, accepted gruffly the
buttonhole proffered him by the gardener, and at last, nearly two
hours after his usual time, started for the office. Everything
was going on there as usual. George Stone passed him in the
lobby with placid indifference, and the same laconic greeting.
The Swires looked gloomy, he thought, but not at him, and but for
the fact that Netty was still absent he would have felt considerably
relieved. The business prepared for him by the clerks seemed
to suggest the necessity of a journey to town; but he had no heart
for that; to-morrow, if nothing occurred, he might be able to attend
to it, but to-day he would linger about and wait. For some
time he managed to give some little attention to business, but he
grew more and more restless and apprehensive every moment, and
returned to Highfield half an hour before his usual time.
There he learnt that the family were returning that very day, and
the information proved unaccountably disturbing. What would
his father do if anything came out? He knew only too well that
his days of grace were all but ended, and that if anything of this
present episode came out there would be a rupture. The thought
made him sick again, and the reflection that his sisters might soon
know brought blushes that seemed to burn down to his very soul.
Wandering aimlessly to the breakfast-room window, he observed that
the workpeople, returning from their midday meal, were gathering in
the mill-yard in little groups, evidently discussing some more than
commonly interesting piece of news. He felt his heart sinking
within him, his mouth became dry and hot, and with a guilty groan he
hastened upstairs to his own room, and flung himself into his chair
with a gasp and a shuddering sob. An hour later, with averted
eyes and unsteady tones, he sent the gardener to the mill for the
confidential clerk, that he might finish the day's business, so that
his father would find all things in order when he returned, and with
the hope also of getting some information.
GEORGE STONE'S COWARDICE.
WOONER, the clerk,
answered Mr. Tom's summons with due promptitude, and came to
Highfield with "Great News" written all over his narrow little face.
He was a fussy little fellow, with a fidgety manner and an ornate
wig, and had recently conceived a violent jealousy of George Stone,
who was getting far too deep into the old master's confidence for
his liking. Tom affected indolent unconcern, and began to ask
about the letters. Ralph, who was bursting with desire to
communicate what he knew, answered nervously, "Yes, Mr. Tom, but
isn't it a rum go?"
"What do you mean, I'm only a bit seedy."
Ralph obviously did not understand.
"Oh, yes, sartinly! Beg pardon, it isn't you, sir, it's
"Why, George, sir."
"George again? What now?" and to hide his agitation,
the young master got up and opened the window.
"Hay! he does look a sight! Who'd 'a' thought it.
Fancy a littly chap like Johnty punching him all over the place!"
"What are you talking about, Wooner? What's been to
"Why, sir, you know as Netty Swire's missing—Lord, sir, are
"N—o! Go on! What about Netty?"
"She's gone, sir; left home, and at dinner time to-day her
brother Johnty came into the warehouse an' started kicking George
all over the shop."
"Well?"—and Tom could scarcely get the monosyllable
"Well, he let him! That big bag-a-bones let that little
fellow blacken his shins an' bung one eye up."
"H—u—m! And what did George?"
"Did? That's it! he did nowt, sir, just nowt. He
stood there an' grinned an' grinned, an' never said chirp, an' all
t' warehouse cryin' shame on him!"
There was a moment's pause; Tom was struggling for
"Then Netty Swire has disappeared, you say?"
But this part of the tale was of no interest to the jealous
clerk, and so, with a wave of the hand to dismiss it, he went on—
"Ay! had some words with her father about staying out—but
what do you think of a big bully like George, Mr. Tom?"
"But is George supposed to have something to do with Netty?"
"I reacon so, summat o' that sort; but isn't he a chicken
heart? Why, Mr. Tom, a woman would have hitten back to a thing
Tom was for the moment immensely relieved; Netty was missing,
but he was in no way connected with her. Suspicion had fallen
upon the one person he was growing to hate, and the person above all
others of whom the villagers would believe almost anything, and who
would take the least care to repudiate the charge. For half an
hour he made some pretence of attending to business, and then
dismissed Ralph with summary instructions about the correspondence
and the excuse that his headache was returning. Night,
however, brought back his terrors; he sounded the maids, sent for
Wooner, and got all the additional particulars that worthy could
supply. Then he took a hasty walk through the village, but
dared not stop to ask the questions he was dying to have answered,
and found himself when the darkness began to gather fighting over
again the ghostly fears that were marring life to him, and going
over again and again the various phases of the complicating and
He appeared in his rooms next morning with unsteady steps,
shaking hands, dry, burning lips, and blood-shot eyes. He was
almost glad his father and the girls would be home that day, for the
strain, if it lasted much longer, would kill him, and anything was
better than this maddening suspense. But the nearer the hour
of their arrival came the less he liked the prospect, and he was
strongly tempted to go off to town and stay until something should
happen to recall him. But fears of he knew not what paralysed
his resolution, and prevented definite steps. He would have
liked to go to the station to meet his relatives, but his heart went
sick at the thought of it, and he decided to go down to the office
and return when they should have arrived. There, however, he
realised that his own work was so far behind that his methodical
father, especially now that he had become suspicious, would grow
angry at once if he discovered the condition of affairs, and so he
spent the afternoon struggling doggedly with his correspondence, and
watching through the office window for any sign of the return of his
family. He blamed himself now for his habitual indifference to
the movements of his friends; it would have been a great relief to
him to remember whether this was the time originally fixed for their
return, but he could not, and the uncertainty was an additional
torment; whilst the thought that perhaps Netty had obtained his
father's address from the servants and written him filled him with
He saw the train arrive at last, and making a desperate
plunge hurried up the yard and met the carriage at the gate.
The meeting somehow brought him near to tears, for his father was so
kind and his sisters so eager that he had to struggle to keep back
unusual signs. He answered the old man's questions about the
business as well as he could, smiled forcedly at his sisters'
clamorous desire that he should admire their satisfactorily browned
faces, and then sprang upon the "dicky" by the side of the
gardener-coachman to escape their sudden exclamations at his wan and
seedy looks. In the house there were the usual bustlings and
merry greetings, and Lena bounced off into the kitchen, where she
was a prime favourite. "Father" began to ask embarrassing
questions, and was most unpleasantly persistent about Tom's looks.
But just then there was a sharp cry from the back premises, a
fluttery of light drapery, and Lena bounded into the room, crying in
great excitement: "Oh, Jess, Jess! George Stone has eloped
with Netty Swire!"
A volley of sharp exclamations, something like an oath from
the old gentleman, a gasp and a groan, and a heavy fall, and all
turned round quickly, to behold the son and heir lying limply in the
arm-chair, in a dead faint.
Never since the great boiler explosion in 1877 had Mollins
been so excited as it was about George Stone's wedding, and never so
hopelessly divided in its verdict. The news was made known
during the dinner hour, and the hands hastened back to the mill-yard
to discuss the staggering intelligence. The dominant feeling
was that of indignation. The men called George a ―― fool, and
banned him to unnameable regions, whilst those who had previously
defended him, and prophesied hopefully about his common sense and
business capacity, were completely nonplussed.
The women for the most part waxed wroth against Netty,
calling her a crafty schemer and an underhand slyboots; expressing
pity for George in one breath and unbounded astonishment in the
next. Those who had always prophesied evil concerning him,
went about amongst the gossiping groups with their heads elevated in
righteous pride at their own prescience. The chapel men asked
each other, with long faces, how the Swires would take the matter,
and the younger women jeered a little maliciously at those of their
number to whom George had ever shown any special regard. But
when the clamour was at its highest, the cry was raised that George
himself was coming. A great hush fell upon them all, and every
eye was turned towards the gate. Stone came along with his
usual easy swing, the only cool person within sight. A little
crowd of boys and girls, "bobbiners and tenters," gathered at his
heels, and followed him with jibes and ironical inquiries after the
health and happiness of "Mrs. Stone." George apparently
neither saw nor heard, but wore the same placid half-grin, and the
same funny twinkle in his deep eyes, to which they were all so well
accustomed. There was not a sign of a wedding about him, and
it seemed difficult to realise that the man coming thus, in ordinary
attire and at the usual moment, to work, had done a deed that
morning which had made him the talk of the town.
Instinctively, the women and girls standing round the mill-door
moved to let him pass, laughs, hisses, and groans coming meanwhile
from the men who lined the engine-house wall. A lane was made
as he approached the entrance, and the females crowded nearer and
"Give us a bit o' bridecake!" cried some.
"Pay thy footin'!" jeered others.
George lounged along with his unfailing smirk, and composedly
nodded at, or saluted by name, first one and then another of his
fellow-workers. Then some women behind the little crowd pushed
two girls right into his way; they screamed, and then turned to face
it out. Quick as thought the new bridegroom had them round
their waists, and was lifting them up to kiss them when they
wriggled out of his grasp, to an accompaniment of delighted screams,
and cries of "Impidence!" whilst George smilingly passed into the
As usual in such cases, the Swires were the last to hear of
the great event. Old Abe, after two days of fiercest internal
conflict, had gone home at noon, and without taking so much as a
bite of food, was dressing himself in his Sunday blacks, to go off
in search of his daughter.
But his sons had taken dinner in the mill, and heard the
news, and so they came hurrying to him to announce the amazing
intelligence. The old man, stunned to helplessness, went white
and then almost black in the face, struggled chokingly to get his
breath, and then revealed the secret fears of his own soul by a
fervent "Thank God!" dropping almost instantly upon the hearthstone
in a swoon. With the help of neighbourly women, he was soon
restored to consciousness, and then burst out into a reckless abuse
of his hardhearted sons, and this was followed by equally fierce
denunciations of his new son-in-law. The sons, after seeing
that the old father was really himself again, hurried back to the
mill, where the younger of them committed that assault upon the
offender which Ralph Wooner had described to Tom Bradshaw.
This latter incident, whilst it robbed George of the credit
of one of his few reputed virtues, and branded him with the infamy
of cowardice, gave the more thoughtful of the villagers, and
especially the schoolmistress, one more difficult nut to crack.
"Well, what is there fresh in Mollins, Mrs. Chorlton?" asked
the schoolmistress, as, bonny and bright with the recuperative
influence of holiday and travel, she drew up to her dainty
A mysterious, complicated, prodigiously elongated groan.
Carrie looked up with quickened interest.
"Bless me! Has something dreadful happened?"
Mrs. Chorlton was gazing at the window curtains, like a judge
at a guilty but utterly hardened criminal. Carrie reminded
herself of the landlady's peculiarities, and waited patiently; and
at last, in deep, sepulchral tones came the staggering sentence:
"A fearful and horrible thing is committed in the land!
This was so like the Mrs. Chorlton she had described to her
travelling companions, during her holidays, that Carrie laughed with
new relish. "Why, whatever is the matter?"
But the unrepentant curtains still absorbed all the
landlady's attention. Without giving the slightest sign that
she had heard the last question, she eyed them over with stoniest
severity, and remarked, "I said of laughter, it is mad."
"I beg your pardon, but, good gracious! has somebody
The merry mistress, the singing kettle, the toothsome little
dishes, were apparently non-existent as far as the good housekeeper
was concerned; she saw those guilty, reprobate curtains, and nothing
else. Her sense of the enormity of their crime kept her
speechless for a time, but at last, still gazing at them in
unbending severity, and dropping out her words with weighty
reproachfulness, she remarked, "There is things worse than murder!"
"Bless me! What can be the matter? Go on, for
The thrice convicted curtains were at last released from that
awful gaze, the same stern glance swept quickly over the person of
the schoolmistress and the appointments of the tea-table; a sigh of
portentous solemnity rose from the depths of the landlady's
consciousness, and she answered awesomely, "There is marriages that
is wickeder than murder!"
"Marriage? Somebody got married! Oh, who is it?"
Mrs. Chorlton was now dreely examining the willow-patterned
plate in her hand. Presently she raised her head, shot a
glance of terrible warning at the curtains, stepped tragically to
the kitchen door, and then announced, just as she vanished, "George
Stone was married this morning to Netty Swire!"
Mrs. Chorlton and her eccentric brother knew perfectly well
that the schoolmistress took a—to them—extraordinary interest in
George, but if they had been watching her just then they would have
been disappointed; her holiday had taken the edge off her interest
in Mollins matters, and so for the moment her manner showed nothing
but quick astonishment. Slowly, however, the impression made
by the information just conveyed deepened, the Rhine and its many
charms faded slowly away from her mind, she was back in the village
again and was realising afresh its interests and peculiarities.
Absorbed in these reflections, she did not observe what was going on
at the door that led to the kitchen. The sneck had been softly
lifted, and the door pushed the least bit open. A pair of
sharp eyes looked in upon her, and somebody sniffed with quite
unnecessary energy. She saw nothing, however, and so the door
was pushed a little further in, and a smothered apology for a cough
was made. As this failed to attract attention a distinctly
challenging "A-h-e-m!" followed, but with no better result.
Then there was a whispered altercation, a brief sound of struggle,
and, ruffled and flurried, but still truculent, Lot Crumblehulme was
precipitated into the room. He had met the schoolmistress at
the station, but the topic he now came to discuss was much too
important to be debated in the open air, and ever since they had
returned he had been boiling over with impatience to communicate his
That his sister had forestalled him was a matter of no
importance, the event illustrated great principles; only he could
expound them, and only the schoolmistress could appreciate their
value. Moreover, the teacher was accepted in the village as a
sort of oracle, and it added to his importance to be the medium for
the communication of her opinion to the less privileged community.
That his own respect for her acuteness led him to adopt her views
and defend them against all comers, in spite of his fierce
opposition of them with her, was a mere detail, and consistency was
a virtue he most heartily despised.
She did not move even when he entered, so he straddled before
the fire-grate, put his hands under his coat tails, and began to
prepare his first shot:
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!"
The teacher knew that nothing disappointed and disconcerted
him so much as agreement, and so, slowly raising her head and
realising what was expected of her, she accepted the gage of battle
and replied smilingly:
"And by so doing prove themselves wiser than the angels
Lot hitched up his tails, tightened his lips with complacent
relish, threw back his head reflectingly, and rejoined:
"Woe to them that call good evil and evil good!"
"And woe to them that call nothing good. Charity
thinketh no evil."
"Marry in haste and repent at leisure."
"Happy is the wooing that's not long a-doing."
Lot secretly hugged himself; the mistress was in fine form
to-night, and he was supremely happy.
"When a silly lad weds a sillier wench, he throws t' rope
after t' bucket."
"He who tries to please everybody, pleases nobody and hurts
"George Stone's thrown away his last chance."
"A man cannot throw away what he never had."
Lot did not quite follow; his head was thrown back
disdainfully and his mouth drawn into a big, round "oh?" of
interrogation, and so, to assist him, Carrie explained:
"According to universal opinion, George never had a chance."
"Bosh! Blashment! Who says he never had a
"Mr. Lot Crumblehulme, for one."
Lot winced, stared fiercely at his opponent, made a
gesture—half scorn, half despair—and then plunged suddenly for the
kitchen door. Arrived there, however, he whisked round, glared
at her a moment, sprang back at her, and, punctuating every word
with a fierce little tap on the tea-table, he demanded:
"Is that there a reasonable marriage or is it not?"
"That depends what you mean by reasonable."
Lot gloated: she was weakening, but, being more anxious for
the excitement of battle than the glory of conquest, he paused a
second or two, spun round on his heel towards the long-cased clock,
and, addressing that venerable marker of time, he cried, "Is this
argyment? Is this logic? Evasion! subterfuge!" and then,
turning to the table and repeating his emphatic series of taps, he
cried, "Is this 'ere a reasonable marriage or is it not?"
"The worst marriages often turn out the best."
"Ho, ho! ha, ha! they do, do they? Figs grow on
thistles, do they? Grapes come on thorns! Logic, 'argyment,'
compressed philosophy! Ha, ha!" Lot's triumphant scorn was a
sight to see.
"Mr. Crumblehulme, you and the villagers are always
prophesying evil of George Stone, and yet when he fulfils, or only
appears to fulfil your predictions, you are scandalised. Now,
I don't know much about him, or of Netty Swire either, and the
marriage may be as mad as you seem to suppose, but, if I know
anything of character, it may be proved some day, and proved by this
very George, that figs do sometimes grow on thistles, and that
crooked roots produce straight trees."
The schoolmistress said this very seriously, and there was
perhaps more of hope than faith in her predictions, but she sat
leaning back in her chair and looking at her opponent with a
comfortable assurance that staggered him. He had not got what
he sought, but he had got the mistress's notions about George, which
were the next best things, and with that he must evidently content
himself. Nothing of this appeared in his face, of course; he
wore the look of one listening to the wildest vagaries of human
folly, and pitying them. He stood where he was for a full
half-minute, and then, with a start and a curious, half-disappointed
sigh, he fell for the moment into his sister's manner, retreated
towards the door, and just as he disappeared he flung out—
"Rhyme and reason, reason and rhyme,
To argy with woman's a waste of time!"
This oracular conclusion notwithstanding, Lot spent the whole
of the next day rehearsing as he went about his boiler-house the
words of the schoolmistress, and carefully storing them in his
memory for future use.
Left to herself, Carrie sank into a brown study. Lot
and his perverse inconsistencies occupied her thoughts for a moment
or two only, and in a short time she was deep in the larger problem
suggested by the news she had just heard. She knew that George
was impulsive; she saw also that his curious pessimism as to himself
must have dangerous tendencies, but that he should have been so
utterly inconsiderate in the most important step a human being ever
takes seemed impossible. She had decided that his freakish
escapades were mere overflowings of animal spirits, and that at
bottom he had strong common sense and sturdy, if twisted,
principles. He was so oddly susceptible upon some points that
she could easily imagine him being carried away by a pathetic
situation or appeal; but she knew from Netty herself that he was
worse than indifferent to her, and she could not think of anything
that could have happened during her holidays to explain so very
decided a change. There was no worldly motive that she could
imagine for the act, and, if there had been, George was the person
to whom it would have appealed least. Another and sadder
motive occurred to her more than once, but she dismissed it
instantly as an insult to the man she was studying, thereby
betraying herself unconsciously, and demonstrating that she was
already unfitted to criticise him impartially. Deeper and
deeper she sank in thought, gradually realising that here was a task
worthy of her best powers—an intricate and complicated problem in
character. That the problem was one of motive rather than
character, and that the latter is often only one element in the
former, she did not quite see, which proves that, with all her
cleverness and deep interest, she was as yet an amateur in the most
absorbing and subtle of the sciences.
A METHODIST MEETING.
School-chapel in Mollins was worked on somewhat irregular lines.
It had been founded originally as an undenominational Sunday-school,
but as in course of time the chief workers became more and more
Methodistic in their sympathies, they had eventually established a
Wesleyan society in connection with it. By the time at which
our story opens, the original unsectarian character of the
institution had been almost forgotten, but the church was still
worked as a subordinate department, and the management was of a very
independent and, from the Wesleyan standpoint, irregular character.
Mollins was some distance from the Circuit town to which it was
Connexionally attached, and though the railway had brought it in
recent times much nearer, it still maintained much of its remoteness
and a strong preference for exclusive self-management. Lot
Crumblehulme and old Abe Swire were the leading men, and had been
for over twenty years inseparable friends; but the wedding of George
Stone seemed to threaten a rupture—at least, so it appeared to the
tripe-merchant. Miss Hambridge's views on the matter had
almost immediately become his, but he saw plainly enough that to
defend Stone would be to give mortal offence to the Swires, and that
at a time when they had most need of, and claim upon, his sympathy.
The day after the schoolmistress's return, therefore, was spent by
Lot in very serious dubitations, and when the time for the meeting
which had been called to consider what should be done with George
came, Lot would have been glad for any reasonable excuse to stay
The old three-cornered room in which the business meetings
were usually held was already full when he arrived, every female
teacher on the books being present, whilst quite a long array of
male officials lined the seat against the opposite wall. Abe
Swire, whose once yellow hair was now almost white, leaned on a
stick in the corner furthest from the door, his sons sitting one on
one side and the other on the other. Paul Hulse, the fat,
heavy treasurer, had already been voted to the chair, and the
secretary was on his feet to introduce the business. Lot
looked round for a vacant place, and ultimately had to perch himself
on the edge of the form just inside the door. Abe and his sons
tried to make room for him near to them, and two junior teachers got
up and offered him their seats. Lot did not even notice these
kindly manifestations, but crowded himself into a space much too
narrow for him, and fixed his eyes upon the ceiling.
"The secretary will read the minutes of last meeting and the
chairman, elbow to side and finger-tip to fingertip, looked round
with owlish solemnity.
"Is it necessary to read the minutes? This is a special
meeting," remarked the red-haired librarian.
"Yes!" "No!" "Yes!" "No!"
"I move the minutes be read."
"I move they be not read." ("Hear, hear! ")
There was a pause. The combatants glared as fiercely at
each other as though the whole terrible question they had come to
settle were involved in the decision. The chairman sat still
as a statue, the girls tittered, the young men winked across the
room at their sweethearts in anticipation of fun, when a harsh,
creaking voice broke the silence, and Lot, his eyes still uplifted,
commanded in tones of rusty sternness, "Let all things be done
decently and in order!"
The record having been read and endorsed by the chairman,
another pause occurred; and then, at a nod from the chair, the
secretary announced, "This meeting is called to consider the conduct
of Brother George Stone!"
"Brother!" shouted the wrathful and excited Johnny Swire.
"Brother!" eched two of his supporters.
"He's a disgrace!"
"He's a wastrel!"
"He's nothin' but a scoundrel!"
The chairman pursed out his lips and shook his head
dubiously, and two or three sprang to their feet to protest; but at
that instant there came from the seat near the door a second
oracular croak, "And such were some of you!"
A sob of something like dismay broke from the lips of old
Swire, in spite of the restraint he had imposed upon himself.
His old colleague was never deserting him in his trying hour!
And he rocked about with his chin on the handle of his stick, the
picture of distressful disappointment.
"He's an eloper!"
"He's a kidnapper!"
"He's a double-dyed deceiver!"
"We've put up with him too long!"
"He ought to have been turned out long sin'!"
And once more from the door corner came the same tuneless,
grating sound,"He that is without sin amongst you let him cast the
first stone." There was an outraged snort from one of the
Swires, a piteous cry from the old father, and then the lacerated
Johnty sprang to his feet, snatched away his father's stick, and
tugging at the old man's arm, in painful agitation he cried, "Come
on! Come on! This is no place for us."
Awed and spell-bound, the teachers watched the two as they
hobbled across the room towards the door. That a fearful
tragedy was being enacted in one poor, trembling soul was now
painfully clear. No one spoke, no one seemed even to breathe,
but just as the two reached the exit, Johnty, with voice quivering
with indignation and a sense of injury, turned to his father and
cried, "Cast the dust off your feet! Cast it off for ever!"
But Lot sprang up, banged his back fiercely against the door, faced
round to his ancient friend, and cried in voice that trembled
strangely, "Is this argyment, Abe Swire? Is this logic?
Is this charity?"
With a quick movement and a bitter cry, Abe disengaged
himself from his son's support, turned almost savagely upon his
friend, and with drawn face and brandished stick demanded, "Has thou
iver hed an only daughter? Has thou a little ewe lamb?
It's brokken my heart, man! It's brokken my heart!"
Amid cries of "Order!" "Sit down! Chair! the Swires were
dragged back to their seats, and the ponderous chairman rose to
enforce discipline. "Brethering!" he grunted solemnly in that
out-of-breath manner usual to him, whilst he pressed his finger-tips
together again, "What saith the little hymn? What saith the
little hymn, brethering? Whate'er brawls disturb the street,
there should be peace at—that is, at a meeting! Let us have
Old Abe was still struggling with the heart-breaking
discovery that his friend of thirty years had deserted him; and Lot,
still outwardly pugnacious, set his back against the door and glared
round in haughty defiance. But the rapid blinking of his eyes
and the uneasy sidelong glances he was constantly casting on Abe,
betrayed the real feeling that was strongest within him.
"Brethering, let us perceed to business, but let us do it
peaceful. The secretary will interjuce the question."
But the secretary had a mortal dread of Lot, and so, with a
repudiatory murmur, he glanced from the man at the door to the
Swires, and from them back again to the tripe-dresser, and
stammered, "The question is—er—a—painful—I had to call the
meetin'"—and then with a sudden inspiration, "Perhaps Brother
Jonathan will raise the point."
But the chairman saw here an opportunity of magnifying his
office; he dared not regulate the old chiefs, but the secretary was
a different thing, and so, closing his eyes and pressing his
finger-points together, he wagged his head with stately solemnity
and announced: "The secretary is the secretary, and Brother Jonathan
is Brother Jonathan. The secretary will proceed."
In the act of rising, the badgered scribe caught a sudden
movement on the part of the man at the door, and so he stammered,
"I'd rather not, sir!" and dropped into his seat again amid a chorus
of feminine titters.
"Mr. Chairman!" Johnty Swire was on his feet, and the members
sat up in quickened interest. Lot folded his arms and smiled
sardonically. "Mr. Chairman, I charge George Stone with
running away with my sister, and I hereby and herewith demand that
he be instantly turned out."
There was a momentary silence, and then Phoebe Timms, an
elderly female, added: "Such a thing has niver happened in this
school sin' it were built!"
"It's a scandalous disgrace!" cried another.
"We shall be t' talk of the village!" said a third.
Lot stood at the door, silent and stern as ever.
"This is what comes of encouraging wastrels; I never expected
nothin' else!" This from Phoebe Timms.
"He's a bad 'un, a thorough bad 'un, by, with, an' through!"
shouted David Swire, who had not previously spoken. Lot, stony
and immovable, gave not the slightest sign.
"I move that he be and hereby is expelled!" said a young man,
with white hair and long, effeminate face. "I second it!"
Still no sign from the sphinx-like Lot, though interrogatory
glances were directed towards him from all parts of the room.
Abe Swire was sitting with cold, white face, and hands that trembled
until the stick they held waved like a reed in the wind. Then
he shook his head, bit his lips, tried to speak and choked, resisted
a gentle effort to pull him back, and rising slowly and speaking to
Lot as though they two were the only persons present: "She was the
apple of my eye, the comfort of my old age! O Lot, Lot! how
can thou?" It seemed as if he had done, but after drawing a
long, sighing breath and looking appealingly round, he went on:
"Haven't I stood up for him through thick and thin for many a year?
Haven't me an' my old friend there"—a sudden tremor in the rigid
figure against the door—"screened him an' pleaded for him, an'
prayed for him time and time again? And now I'm paid back, am
not I—paid back at a bonny price. I've nossed a viper in my
bosom an' it's stung me, stung me to death!" And then, with a
long, clinging look of pleading, passionate reproach, he cried: "It
is thou—thou, my own fameeliar friend!" and dropped into his seat.
There was a hasty blowing of noses, and many a reproachful
glance at the still inexorable Lot; whilst several cried in husky
In the painful emotion of the moment some of them had
forgotten the tripe-dresser; but when the chairman inquired in his
breathless way whether they were ready to vote, and several answered
promptly, "Yes!" there was a sudden, drill-like sound of "Stop!" and
Lot, grave, earnest, and solemn, stepped into the middle of the
"Mr. Chairman, will this 'ere resolution undo what's done?
Will it give Abe Swire his daughter back again? Will it help
either him or her to face life? Will it save 'em from running
with the giddy multitude? Has that lad iver had owt to help
him but this school? Would any of us 'a' been any better if
we'd had his upbringing? Have we any faith in our own prayers
an' work? Are we goin' to cut him off from his only chance of
salvation? He's no father nor mother nor dacent friends, but
he's a sowl, and the Lord redeemed him. Oh, give t' poor lad a
chance; give him just one chance more!"
Old Abe, shaking with conflicting emotions, had started
across the room towards his old companion. It looked as though
they would fall on each other's necks and embrace; but just as they
drew together a sudden shyness fell upon them, and Netty's father
stopped, with struggling face and hand held timidly out.
Another moment and the thing would have been settled, but just then
the fascinated spectators heard hurrying feet and a banging door.
Johnty Swire's place was empty, and his brother David was pushing
past Lot to follow. The old men, indifferent to anything but
their own tender business, sank back into seats and struggled to
suppress their emotions. The chairman, with wooden stolidity,
put the resolution to the meeting, and though several did not vote
either way he declared it carried, and next day George Stone
received a brief note informing him that he was henceforth cut off
from the only influence that had been helpful in his life.
Tom Bradshaw's faint produced the usual temporary excitement, and in
a moment he was lying limp and helpless on the couch, whilst his
sisters were fussing about him, loosening his collar, fanning his
face, and rubbing his chill hands; and the domestics were flying
about the house in search of restoratives. He returned to
consciousness presently, and in a few minutes Jessie, with a gnawing
pain at her heart, stood back, whilst her more demonstrative and
less reflective sister lavished caresses on the invalid and
inveighed indignantly against "that nasty old mill." But
Jessie, with other thoughts in her mind, stepped mechanically back
from the sofa until she could get a glance at her father's face.
As she half expected, it was set, stern, and almost bitter. He
must have felt her looking, for he turned abruptly and their eyes
met. She dropped hers instantly, and turned to the fainting
man again to avoid another such encounter; her father's eyes had
told her all she feared, and more.
Lena was now laughing at Tom's mock confession, that he was
overcome with the joy of their return; but Jessie only lingered long
enough to recover her self-possession, and then hurried away
upstairs to take off her "things." It was hours, however,
before she could get the leisure she longed for; but when tea was
over, and her father and Tom were discussing—a little constrainedly,
she noticed—the cotton markets, and Lena had gone to distribute the
servants' presents, she escaped to the garden summer-house, and
there in the cool evening gave herself up to her painful
meditations. The depth of her own disappointment at George
Stone's marriage startled and annoyed her; and the fact that the
worst prognostications of others were more than fulfilled, whilst
her own generous faith in him was discredited, added much to her
regrets. But these, after all, were mere surface matters; what
did it all mean? What could have induced George to act as he
had done and why had her brother fainted upon hearing the news?
That the marriage was a premeditated one, or that George had gone
into it deliberately and of his own free choice, she could not admit
for a moment; but if it had been suddenly decided upon and carried
out, why? That Tom had been for a long time trifling with
Netty she knew too well, but that he could ever have been in love
with her, or that he had shown the feeling he had shown out of mere
disappointment, seemed impossible. It was the most
extraordinary and mysterious thing she had ever known in her life,
and no adequate explanation was forthcoming. A horrible idea
came up now and again in the revolutions of her mind, but she
dismissed it incredulously again and again. But the thing came
back and back with increasing frequency and insistence, and at last
she was compelled to face it.
She knew, as no one else did, the closeness of the
relationship which had once existed between her brother and George
Stone, a relationship which she had in fact partly fostered and
shared. She knew, at least she had heard, that young men of
position did occasionally get rid of young females who no longer
interested them by the use of the purse but the suggestion that
George Stone had married Netty to relieve Tom, now that he was after
the schoolmistress, and for a mere financial consideration, she
repelled with loathing.
It was curious, but she was thinking all this time more about
the new bridegroom than her brother; it might be pride in her own
sagacity, it might be cowardly reluctance to look upon a shattered
idol; but this man, whom in her girlhood she idealised into a
veritable hero of romance, and whose image in later years she had
nursed secretly in her heart, should prove to be a money lover, was
too horrible to be entertained. There must be some other and
more reasonable explanation. That her brother, if he found it
necessary, would be unscrupulous in the use of pressure to gain his
ends, and that George would be amenable to such influences she found
it easy to think, and that Netty could be very fascinating in her
little way if she chose, she did not doubt; but that George had of
his own free will entered into this alliance she could not for a
The longer she thought of it the more mysterious the
situation seemed: anger at the wickedness of Tom was followed in her
mind by acute self-reproach for thinking evil, and every few moments
she found herself shedding soft tears of pitiful sympathy for the
young bridegroom. To think that she had been always and
altogether mistaken in her village hero was intolerable; and to feel
that the cheap, easy prophets of evil had been right in their
estimate of George was impossible. Still, the facts were
there; all her reasonings would not unmarry him, and she felt that
one of life's pleasantest, if most unsubstantial, dreams was over;
and she was the poorer for her bitter knowledge. More than
once she thought of unbosoming herself to the schoolmistress; she
had insight and mental independence, and talked a good deal about
studying character; but then she could not make anyone see things as
she saw them without appearing to incriminate her own brother, and
that, of course, was not to be thought of for an instant.
There was nothing for it but to wait and watch; but that George was
being misunderstood and misrepresented she felt certain, and at any
rate she would never, never rest until she knew the worst—or the
THE day after the
return of the Bradshaws, the schoolmistress came to Highfield to
tea. The three girls had so many things to talk about, and so
many holiday adventures to relate, that their gay chatter occupied
the whole afternoon, and it was not until Jessie and her friend were
walking towards Stump Cross that the village scandal was first
mentioned. As the weather was soft and cool, they had taken
what was called the top road; that is, the by-road round by the
"lodge" and the back lanes.
"What do you think about this affair of George Stone's?"
asked Jessie, with a studiously indifferent air.
"Think! I cannot think; it just stops the machinery as
soon as I begin. That he should have married that vulgar
little creature is incomprehensible to me."
"Then how do you explain it?"
"I tell you I don't explain it; I give it up."
They walked on a few paces in silence, and there was a
curious restraint upon them both. Jessie knew that George was
the mistress's favourite "study," but she had her own precious
little secret to take care of, and could not show too much interest
in the doings of one of her father's workmen.
Carrie had plucked a sprig of red bramble-berries, and as she
examined them she remarked, "I'm woefully disappointed in him, if
that is any consolation to you."
"And so am I. I cannot get it out of my head. Do
you—do you think that people in their class look at things as we
Jessie was doing her best to preserve that tone of
half-indifference in which such people generally discuss the affairs
of those beneath them.
"Human nature is human nature all the world over," asserted
the democratic Carrie.
"But why did he do it?"
"I tell you, dear, I've given the riddle up: it reflects so
severely upon my judgment."
"He can't have—a—loved her."
"Didn't! how do you know?"
"She told me so herself not three months ago."
They walked along musingly for a moment or two, and then
Jessie remarked, with a compromising little sigh that alarmed her:
"He's acted on some sudden impulse and will have to suffer
for it all his life."
"Yes, I suspect that is the explanation of everything.
He interests me because I'm always looking for the hidden springs,
the underlying principles of his conduct, when the fact is, he
hasn't any; he's only a bundle of impulses."
"Well, it is nothing to us, of course, but I should like to
know what his motive was."
"Supposing he had any."
"Oh, that is too easy and prosaic; I prefer to think that he
had a reason, and I may as well confess I should like to know what
"And thus get disillusionised; the mysterious is interesting,
but the truth is often dreadfully tame."
A sudden sense of reserve fell upon them, and each was
wondering diffidently what was in the other's mind. Carrie
found the problem intellectually stimulating, but Jessie revolved it
with a dull pain at her heart. On her way home after they
parted, Miss Bradshaw came upon a party of mill-girls, her own
Sunday-school scholars, and from them, after some conversation about
her holidays, she heard the story of George Stone's cowardice under
the assault of Johnty Swire. It made her feel a little sick
and ashamed. Whatever else he was, the George Stone whom she
had known so well as a boy was not a coward. At home she found
the house in a buzz of gentle excitement with the news that Mr. Tom
had been ordered off for a cruise in the Mediterranean by the
doctor, and was to have at least two months' complete rest.
The atmosphere of the house was chilly, her father short and almost
snappy, and Tom ceremoniously polite.
"Dad," she said, when Tom had lounged off to his den, "is it
true that George Stone allowed himself to be kicked about the
warehouse by little Johnty Swire?"
Old Bradshaw put down his newspaper, took off his
eye-glasses, rubbed them long and carefully, so that she began to
think he was not going to reply, and then, raising his head and
looking searchingly at her, he said:
"Jess, he kicked him about like a football, and the big sod
never lifted a hand."
"But why? Is he such a coward?"
"Coward? Are you a Dutchman? Jess, there was some
reason for what he did—or didn't, and by heaven! I'd give a solid
thousand to know what it was."
James Bradshaw did not often talk seriously even to Jessie,
but his look as he stared at her was more than serious; he was
uneasy, apprehensive, and fiercely suspicious.
Jessie had a difficult part to play. She would have
given much to know what was in his mind, and maiden modesty
restrained her; but her father so evidently wanted to talk that she
must say something, and so she ventured:
"Well, he always was a queer mixture."
"Queer! Ay, but he's not softheaded, Jess; he's got his
head screwed on rightly, I can tell you. See you, girl!—he's
worth a score of Tom for business gumption."
"Y-e-s," said Jessie, musing dubiously and cautiously, "I've
heard it said that strong-minded men are often odd and silly in
"Love! Confound it, woman, talk sense! George
Stone's 'nousey' I tell you! he's as 'cute as they make em; that's
the licker about it!"
"And yet he's always been freakish and eccentric, you know."
"Ay, ay! in marlocks and mischief, never nothing like this.
It's not him, Jess, he's never done it! There's summat behind
this—there's mischief, there's devilment, somewhere."
Jessie was used to the rough language of her father, and did
"Well, it certainly is strange."
"Strange! it's too strange! it's suspicious! it's ugly!"
Jessie stood for a moment or two hesitating, then she sighed
resignedly and turned to leave the room.
"Well, never mind, dad; after all, it is his own lookout, and
But when she had gone, after expressing a sentiment as far as
possible from her actual thoughts, the old man sat staring at the
closed door in dark, brooding anger, and presently he murmured, "I'm
not so sure, lass I'm not so sure! I'm dreadfully afraid it is
our look-out—but if it is—" And here he stopped his mouth with a
glass of whiskey.
When Jessie had reached the top of the stairs on her way to
her own room she nearly ran against Tom in the twilight. At
her exclamation he put out one arm and gently drew her into his
sanctum. He laughed a little forcedly at her protesting sniffs
against the fumes of tobacco, and guiding her to his wicker chair,
remarked in a rather anxious tone, "What's up with the dad? he's
Everybody in that house went to the gentle Jessie when in
trouble. She was not clever, or very wise, except with that
most precious of all wisdom which always goes with a pure heart and
an earnest purpose to be helpful. She leaned back, but clasped
her hands behind her head and remarked, more to quiz than to
comfort: "I think he's pottered about George Stone; he was always
rather gone on him, you know."
"Oh, hang George Stone! the dad's cracked about the lubber.
Look here, Jess; I'm in love!"
"Now, don't! there's a good girl. I mean it this time,
and it's making me positively ill."
He stood, hands in pockets, leaning against the mantelpiece,
and Jessie looked up to him with a quick mistrustfulness. Was
he pretending to be confidential only to throw dust in her eyes
about his recent faint?
"Who is it this time?"
"Jess, you're cruel! you know as well as I do. I've
loved her for months, and you must have seen it."
"Well, it's a frost; she is either shy or most confoundedly
"Carrie Hambridge could never be sly!"
"Well, then, dash it—I beg your pardon—I'm out of sorts.
What can she have against me?"
"Have you proposed?" Jessie was not anything like as
sympathetic as he desired.
"In a way I have."
"In a way?"
"Well, hang it! what does she want? Is a fellow to
commit suicide before he knows where he is?"
"You'll have to do it if you ever get her,"
"Well, I will; I want to do so. I've tried this two
months, and the little vixen doesn't give me a chance."
"Perhaps she doesn't—er—a—care for you?"
Jessie was conscious of not a little unsisterly contempt, and
Tom began to chafe under it.
"Care for me! Why, girl, she's nobody, a mere employee!
I can make a lady of her."
"Ah, that explains it."
"Explains! What does it explain?"
"Don't you see, you stupid, that she realises all that, and
it makes her extremely cautious?"
"Cautious! but she needn't be a fool; I've shown her plainly
enough what I mean."
Jessie was shaking her head seriously.
"You're on wrong lines altogether, Tom; Carrie Hambridge
wouldn't marry a duke for anything but love."
With a fling and a snort he spun round upon his heel and
began pacing the room, inveighing the while at the incomprehensible
ways and wiles of women. Presently he came back to his old
position against the mantelpiece.
"Look here, Jess; I'm going to have her, and I want you to
"Nobody can help you, dear, until you change your tactics
"Well, how then?"
"You must begin by realising that she is your equal—excuse me
saying it, but she's more than your equal; not merely in education
but in the wider culture of life and in pure strength of brain.
For aught we know she may be of even better family than we are, and
well off. Look how she dresses—at any rate, she is
independent; proud, if you like, but a dear, good girl, fit for the
best man in the land."
After a short, reflective pause, Tom said:
"Then you like her yourself, Jess—really?"
"How can I help? She's high-minded, transparent as
glass, clever and as true as steel. Tom, I would go down on my
knees to her to make her my sister."
Tom gnawed savagely at his moustache. What a fuss they
all made about a mere teacher! In his view, his people, Jess
especially, had always been lacking in real dignity. Having
lost self-respect, outward dignity had become very important in his
eyes. In his philosophy money and position covered all
personal weaknesses, and to have them simply ignored, or at least
made little of, seemed a personal affront. They were all he
had left. But he guessed only too shrewdly that marriage with
the schoolmistress would be the surest way of rehabilitating himself
in his father's eyes, a thing that was now becoming cruelly
imperative, and so he resumed:
"I'm not going to be played with, and made to beg like a
cripple at a gate to a mere board school teacher. I could have
twenty girls for lifting my finger; jolly girls, and rich too, and
you know it, Jess."
"I thought you said you were in love with Carrie?"
"Well, I am, but I'm not going to eat dirt for her.
She's not the only pebble on the beach."
Jessie sighed a little wearily. She was willing, even
anxious, that he should succeed, and would be ready to do a great
deal to bring such an engagement about but Carrie Hambridge was just
the one to resent courtship by deputy, and yet, whilst he had these
ideas, it was much safer for him than doing it himself.
"Well, what do you want me to do?"
"I'm going away on this beastly holiday, and—well, I thought
that perhaps you and Lena might pave the way for me a little."
"Can't you get it settled before you go—to-morrow, for
instance? she generally knows her own mind."
"Jessie, she is not ready for it, and avoids me, and—well,
for one thing I should like to find out why; and—well, you might
speak a good word for a fellow."
Jessie, struggling with rising scorn, reflected for a moment
and then said:
"We both want it so much that you may rely upon our doing our
best, but please understand that neither your sisters nor your
position nor anything else will have weight with her; she wants to
be sure what you are like yourself."
This was the last thing Tom wanted to be told, and his look
revealed his shrinking from any such scrutiny as was implied in what
his sister had said. He mused moodily whilst she adjusted her
hair, and just as she was rising to leave he grumbled:
"You are not very sympathetic, Jess. Honestly, now,
what do you think of my chances?"
"I think you ought to get her and might, but—"
"Do you want the honest truth?"
"Of course; out with it!"
"Well, I'm very much afraid you won't!"
She was sorry the moment it was out, but at any rate she saw
by the look on his face that he was in grim earnest, and so she
hastened to add:
"If you sue her as a gentleman ought to sue a lady you may
succeed, but you have got a fixed idea, and if you propose to her as
though you were a master offering a better situation to a favourite
servant, you will never get her."
Tom would have liked to be angry, but Jessie was necessary to
him for more reasons than one just then, and so he swallowed his
chagrin and said after a long fit of abstraction:
"Can she have heard anything against me?"
"Tut! that doesn't matter a fig! She'll study you and
read you through and through herself; and, when she's made up her
mind, the more others slander you the more she will stick to you."
Tom wriggled uncomfortably; the prospect of being thus
searchingly studied did not attract him, and at last he said:
"Well, the long and the short of it is, I must have her!
So do your best for me, dear girl, and keep me posted up whilst I'm
Jessie nodded her consent, moving to the door the while, and
Tom followed her with hungry, anxious eyes, as though he had
something else to say but could not muster courage to introduce it.
As she closed the door he called out:
"Oh, here! Jess, old girl, here! a moment."
She turned round and stood with the door in her hand.
"Come here! shut the door and come here!" And his voice
had become hushed, and his manner embarrassed. "Jess, old
girl, have you any spare tin?"
She opened her eyes in irritated alarm. When they were
younger she had been kept very bare financially by her constant
loans to him, but since he came of age the trouble had ceased, to
her great relief. She recognised his old manner when in a
corner, and said reluctantly:
"Yes, a little, but you don't need—"
"How much have you?"
"Thirty or forty pounds, perhaps."
Tom betrayed himself by a gesture of petulant disappointment,
and after biting at his moustache fretfully for several moments, he
"Has Lena—can she lend me anything?"
"I don't know; I dare say she will have some. How much
do you want?"
"Jess, I'm in a hole; to tell you the truth, I must have
three hundred pounds before I can go away."
Jessie gave a horrified little gasp and sank into a chair.
Three hundred pounds was not much to them, neither was their father
stingy in his allowances. That her brother should be so much
in debt was a shocking thing, and three hundred pounds for a mere
private purpose was a large sum, and it came to her in a lurid flash
that it was the price of George Stone's service in taking off the
"Oh, how could you? How could you?" she gasped.
"How could I what? Bless me! three hundred pounds is
not a life-and-death matter! And I don't want to steal it."
"But it's wrong, it is wicked, it is a crime! Oh, how
"What on earth is the girl talking about?"
With a great effort she steadied herself. She was
fighting with an overpowering impulse to spring her now confident
suspicion upon him and get at the truth. But she could see
easily enough he would brazen it out, would deny it, would lie or do
anything to cover himself. What should she do?
He stood glaring at her in indignant impatience, and she
"I'll get it from father if you like."
"Father! Good God, woman! are you mad?"
Then she was right; he did want it for the purpose she
feared. He had had too many scenes recently with his father to
want to face him again. What else could she conclude?
"It's a sudden thing, Jessie, something never expected and
quite unavoidable; but have the money I must."
There was a long, painful pause, and then he added:
"What is the utmost you could raise between you?"
Slowly and faintly, with thoughts on something else, she
"Seventy or perhaps eighty pounds."
"And you could get a cheque from dad?"
"He gave us money not a week ago; there is no help there."
As she spoke she hardened: he was asking her to assist in a
dastardly act, and was not even frank about it.
"Can't you think of something else, Jess, dear?"
He was pale now, and perspiring with agitation, but her heart
grew harder, and she shook her head.
"I'm ruined! Oh, Jess, Jess! have pity on me."
A gush of womanly compassion drowned the hardness within her,
and with a long sigh and eyes all dim with tears she rose to leave
"I'll do what I can; give me time to think, and speak to me
Tom drew her to him with a grateful hug and a kiss, and she
walked slowly away.
But in the security of her own room all her fears and
horrible suspicions came back, and she felt defiled. Her
brother was dragging her blindfold into his wickedness, in spite of
herself. Why was he so fearful of asking her father for the
money? He was not niggardly or prying, and why did he need it
so imperiously? Why was he so desperate about it, and why, oh!
why had he wrecked her beautiful, harmless dream, and transformed
her humble hero into a sordid, money-loving trafficker in the holy
mystery of marriage?
For a couple of hours she lay tossing about upon the outside
of her bed, until her eyes burned and her temples throbbed; and
presently there was a gentle tap, and she lay still to listen.
The tap was repeated.
"It is I, Jessie—Tom; I want to speak to you."
In a moment she had turned up the light and admitted him.
His face was white, and his eyes glinted with keen eagerness.
"Jess, who's got the deeds of the houses Aunt Annie left
"Father has them; that is, they are in the safe."
"Which safe? at the mill or the house?"
"The house, I should think."
"I could raise the money on them, and it is only for a few
weeks at most."
"But father keeps the keys."
"Well, couldn't you make an excuse and get them from him for
a little while?"
"I don't see—oh yes, the extra plate was put in when we went
away, and it has not been taken out yet."
"Oh, lucky! you'll help a poor fellow, won't you, dear soul?"
Jessie was fighting with scorn, indignation, and deadly
"I'll help you upon one condition."
"What is that?"
"That you sit down there and tell me what you want it for.
I'm your sister, you know."
A gesture of angry impatience, a frown of black wrath, and
then a sudden change. Her last word had helped him, and so,
dashing at it without the least suspicion of the interpretation she
would put upon it, he said:
"Jess, don't you understand? That is the very reason I
cannot tell you—you're a woman."
She was looking at him as though she would read his soul, but
slowly her eyes, fell, a deep blush rose upon her neck and travelled
to her face, her lips quivered with pitiful, helpless hesitation and
tenderness, and at last she said:
"Leave me; I'll do what I can, but leave me."
In spite of a sleepless night, Jessie looked fresh enough
when she appeared at the breakfast table next morning, and obtained
the key of the home safe from her father without the slightest
difficulty. She had a long struggle with her brother, however,
before she would give him admittance to documents he wanted, but he
had spent the night in arranging his plans, and eventually overcame
her reluctance. She had had many a bitter half-hour about this
brother of hers during her life, but now a new feeling was beginning
to manifest itself: she was struggling against a sense of personal
defilement, and the sweet sense of sacrifice which sustains women
sometimes in the most perilous services was not with her now.
She had entered upon a course she could not see the end of, and for
the first time in her life was afraid to meet her father. How
it would all end she did not see, but that she had suddenly become
older and sadder was very clear.
MASTER AND SERVANT.
BRADSHAW rang his office
bell, and went on writing.
"Send George here," he commanded, when his summons was
answered, and two minutes later, young Stone, with a mark over his
eye, came sauntering into the office, cool, smiling, and
The master went on with his correspondence, as though he were
alone, and his servant stood leaning on his left leg, and placidly
waiting. Presently he ventured upon a slight cough, and his
employer whisked round and looked at him. Then he put down his
pen, swung round in his seat, put on a manner of bullying gruffness,
"Well, have you nothing to say?"
"What about, sir?"
"About? thou blundering scamp, about that crazy wedding of
"No use crying over spilt milk, sir."
"Spilt milk? it's spilt fortune, man! Dost know thou's
"I'm not t' first that's done that."
Bradshaw flashed a sharp glance; was the impudent fellow
daring to hint at a similar circumstance in his own life?
"Impidence! Dost know that thou's scandalised
everybody, and brought trouble on respectable folk?"
George's face clouded for a moment at this allusion to the
Swires, but in an instant the old, bland, provoking grin came back,
and he answered, as he changed his legs
"They'll get over that in time, you'll see."
"Yes, they'll get over it sooner than you will, blockhead;
it's a life matter, man! Whatever frantic notion made you
marry a thing like that?" And the old man was concealing keen
interest under a light, scolding manner.
George had a brief fit of uneasiness, and then he steadied
himself, and answered doggedly—
"She's as good as me—an' better."
"That's saying a lot, isn't it? But thou'rt right; she
wouldn't have let herself be punched about t' warehouse by a fellow
half her size."
"Oh, that's nowt."
"Nowt! thou duffing scamp; dust call that nowt?"
"It pleased him, an' didn't hurt me, as t' chap said when his
wife thrashed him."
Bradshaw glared at his man with a fierceness that was mostly
assumed, eyed him over deliberately, and then changing his tone, he
"For two pins I'd sack thee!"
There was no answer, only the least suspicion of a smirk
flickered for an instant at the off corner of the man-servant's
"What art grinning there for? Thou'll grin at t'other
side of thy face if I kick thee out."
George, for all the world like a naughty schoolboy before his
master, struggled to control his features, and as the mirth
suppressed at his mouth danced out of his eyes, he dropped his head
to conceal them, but did not answer.
"Open thy mouth, man; why shouldn't I sack thee?"
Altercations of this kind were not unfrequent between these
two, but George could control himself no longer, and so, striving to
keep the fun out of his eyes, he said:
"I wish you would."
"What! Cheeky! What's the meaning of that?"
"I've had a better shop offered to me."
"Confound thy lying, impudent face!—who's offered it?"
"Boggis and Grimshaw offer me fifteen shillings a week more."
The old master was astonished indeed, but much more alarmed
than surprised, and so he stared at his subordinate with a puzzled
frown, and then, springing from his chair and pointing doorwards, he
cried, with a sternness which was put on to cover other emotions:
"Take thy brazened face out of this office, and come again
when thou'rt sent for."
Unruffled and easy, the warehouseman went back to his desk,
two blocks away, but before he could resume his task the summons
which he was evidently expecting was repeated. When he reached
the master's presence he found him cool and business-like, though
traces of the recent storm, real or assumed, still lingered on his
"Bring that book of thine. How's t' stock getting on?"
"It gets bigger, master, and prices are dropping."
"Let 'em drop! I'll not sell at a loss for neither thee
nor anybody else."
"You needn't make a loss, and—raw cotton's coming down."
"What's thou know about cotton?"
"I read about it in the evening papers a bit."
A gratified smile began to form round the old man's mouth,
but in the interests of discipline it was instantly suppressed.
It was not to be supposed for a moment that an experienced cotton
lord should want the opinion of a mere understrapper, and such a
one. He covered the smile, therefore, with a prodigious frown,
and, dropping into a sarcastic strain, he asked: "And thou'd clear
t' stocks out, I reacon?"
"I would that, master! and we shall have to come to it sooner
or later;" and George took a long, dree look at his stock book.
"Come to what? Bankruptcy?"
"No, no, master, you know what I mean; we shall have to come
to smaller profits and more business."
"Oh, we shall, shall we, wiseacre? Well, thee mind thy
warehouse, and I'll mind t' stock—shunt!"
As George closed the door with the same unfailing grin on his
face, the master fished out a cigar, flung himself into an
easy-chair, put his feet on the coal-scuttle, and gave himself up to
his reflections. This was not the first discussion he had had
with his young employee, but though he received all George's
suggestions with the loftiest contempt, he had long ago discovered
the young fellow's shrewdness; and so, as trade really was as bad as
trade could be with the firm, he spent some time in turning this
last suggestion over in his mind. Then he remembered George's
offer of a better berth, frowned darkly for a moment, and ultimately
dismissed it. In any case, he knew perfectly well that Stone
had a whimsical but very powerful attachment to the firm, and was
not likely to leave without very strong inducements; but he saw with
equal clearness that he ought not to be the loser by staying where
he was. It would be contrary to all his practices to make an
immediate change, lest George should begin to think himself
important. He had threatened to dismiss him, perhaps, a score
of times before, but both of them understood it perfectly.
Then he fell to musing about his son and successor in the business,
and found himself wishing that George, with all his eccentricities,
were to be the next owner of the concern: for James Bradshaw's world
was his cotton mill; he was not a selfish man by any means, or a
money-grubber, but the highest glory of life to him was to control a
great establishment, and the qualities he most valued in others were
those that would be most helpful in commerce. He had guessed,
by sympathetic instinct, that Stone had business qualities amounting
almost to genius.
Meanwhile, his eldest daughter was considering the task she
had set herself. It gave her pain to think of George as she
felt she now must, and the sordid motives she expected soon to
discover made the work very repugnant. But, somehow, the more
she shrank from the tasks the more she seemed constrained to pursue
it, being puritan enough to believe that the measure of a duty's
unpleasantness was the measure of its obligation. The second
branch of her undertaking was very much more to her mind. She
was a woman, and had a woman's delight in match-making. She
liked, almost loved Carrie Hambridge, and saw in the projected match
the almost certain salvation of her very unsatisfactory brother.
To this, therefore, she devoted herself with whole-hearted
enthusiasm, commencing naturally with her sister.
"Tom is awfully smitten with Carrie, Lena."
"Humph! The Dutch have taken Holland!"
Jessie glanced up from her work inquiringly, but, suspecting
nothing, she went on—
"He wants us to help him to get her."
"Does he?" This with ironical contempt.
"It would be very nice if when he came back he had nothing to
do but propose; we must do our best, and I was thinking you might—"
"Jess, I shall have nothing whatever to do with it."
"I shall not! The softy! Cannot he do his own
courting? I'm ashamed of him. Would you like to be
courted by deputy?"
Lena was quite excited in her pretty but evidently very
genuine indignation, but she never did anything by halves, and her
sister sat up and looked her over with dismay.
"Lena, I thought you wanted it!"
"So I do. And I'm utterly ashamed of myself for wanting
it. It is not right."
"Jessie, if Carrie were your sister, and you knew all you do
know about Tom, would you want her to accept him?"
"But Tom is our brother."
"And Carrie is our friend, and a dear, noble-hearted girl.
Are we to betray her?"
"Betray? What strong language you use! You said
yourself that it would be the salvation of him."
"And the degradation of her. No, I've thought it all
over, and if I can prevent myself from warning her against him I
shall have done all I can or ought to do."
But, dear, think what good she might do him. Many young
fellows in his position are—loose until they get married, and then
they settle down all right."
Lena did not answer; she was mending a piece of music, and
seemed entirely absorbed in it. Suddenly, however, she turned
and looked out of the window, and as she did so she dropped her
voice and asked in guarded tones—
"Jessie, do you know what they say?"
"No; who? What do they say?"
Lena bent her head over her work again, evidently to hide her
face, and then she said:
"They say that George Stone married that girl for a
consideration, and to take her out of somebody else's way."
"Lena! Who says it? How dare they?" and Jessie,
her face covered with tingling blushes, had risen to her feet.
"They do say it. It is the common talk of the
village; and if it is true, and she hears it, she would never speak
to Tom again, or come where he is; she would leave the place."
"She's not the girl to be influenced by mere gossip.
You have said so yourself."
Holding her face still down Lena waited for a moment, and
"There is a little hope in that, certainly; but—Jessie, do
you think there is anything in it?"
Jessie was in a tight place, but, realising that hesitation
would betray her, she cried hastily—
"Lena, what an idea!"
"You do; I can see it in your face, and yet you would let her
"But, my dear, we don't know, and until we do we have no
right to act on mere gossip and suspicion. Besides, what is
done is done, and, if once she got influence over him, she could
make a man of him, and she's very strong-minded."
"There is a very wise young lady of my acquaintance who has a
favourite maxim to the effect that the girl who marries a man to
save him is lost."
Jessie was losing heart; she usually found this impulsive
young sister of hers very tractable, but her words were so exactly
the re-echo of her own feelings that she was embarrassed.
"Lena, do be reasonable! You admit that on one side, at
any rate, the arrangement is ideal; it is better than we could ever
have hoped for, and it seems like flying in the face of Providence
to oppose it."
She paused, and her sister's absorbed, brooding attitude
encouraged her to proceed. "He's awfully smitten with her.
Dad dotes on her, and would forgive Tom a great deal for her.
We like her, and, after all—though I wouldn't mention this to any
one but you—it is a much better chance than she is ever likely to
get again. It would give her the sphere she is best fitted
for, and at best, you know, every marriage is more or less a risk."
"Jessie, if you were not Tom's sister, and Carrie came to you
for advice, knowing what you know, could you say yes?"
Jessie did not choose to answer; she sighed helplessly,
looked with anxious perplexity into Lena's face, and then said—
"But I've promised to help Tom, and it is the least I can do.
Blood is thicker than water, after all, and I feel certain it will
all come out right."
"The before-mentioned wise young lady has another proverb
about doing evil that good may come."
Jessie was beaten. The two looked into each other's
faces for a moment, and then, with the light of a sudden new idea in
her eyes, Lena burst into a hard, little laugh.
"Why, dearie, what geese we are!" And as her sister
looked at her with dull resignation she went on: "Fancy us
influencing Carrie Hambridge!"
"Why not! Why, girlie, she would see through us in
double-quick-sticks; she has more brains than both of us put
"Well, don't you see, if once she smelt a rat—and she would,
you know—it would be U P with the whole thing."
After a pause, so long that it seemed as though the subject
had been abandoned, Jessie asked abruptly—
"Lena, do you think she cares for him?"
"I don't think she's smitten, if that's what you mean.
I dare say she likes the idea, likes dad and us, and perhaps the
position, but I shouldn't be surprised if she hesitates just where
"You speak as if we knew something really bad about the poor
fellow; at most it is only a suspicion, and we, at any rate, ought
to give him the benefit of the doubt."
"Jessie, you and I know enough about Tom without —er—that—"
"But if this suspicion were removed?"
"If any other explanation of that fantastic marriage is
forthcoming, I'll do what I can; but, oh! it is aggravating. I
should just love to go into it with my whole heart and soul."
The announcement of a visitor broke up the conversation at
this point, and Jessie, "on hospitable thoughts intent," went away.
They were, of course, greatly exaggerating any services they might
be able to render in such a case, but the fact that her sister had
arrived at similar fears to her own increased Jessie's uneasiness,
and when three days later she learnt that George Stone had bought a
pretty cottage in Linking Lane for three hundred pounds, her heart
gave a great jump, and she went to rest full of the most distressing
Through a long, dreary, never-ending night she wrestled with
her doubts and fears. Once she conceived the idea of going to
George Stone and surprising the truth out of him by a sudden
straight question. Then she thought of making a confidant of
her father, and then she decided to go to the schoolmistress and
tell her the village gossip, and see how she took it. The
disillusioning daylight, however, made her see objections to all
these heroic plans, and she went to her daily duties, and tried to
teach herself the hard lesson of patience. It was trying work,
however, and as the day wore on she was attacked by a tormenting
restlessness, and longed to do something, if only to pacify her own
Lena went to Manchester by the noon train, and so, left
alone, Jessie found her uneasiness increasing every moment.
She really was making herself ridiculous about the matter, she told
herself again and again; but that did not bring any consolation, and
so, in the middle of the afternoon, she started for a walk.
She was not going anywhere particularly, and had decided to dismiss
her dubious fears and anxieties; but though she started out in an
exactly opposite direction, she soon found herself turning down the
lane that would lead her past "Squint Hall," George Stone's
residence. She had never been in the fantastic dwelling-place,
and had not spoken to old Lyd Partington for months. Netty,
the new bride, was known to her slightly, but she had no great
desire for her further acquaintance. And yet, as she
approached the cottage, she dropped unconsciously into a slower
walk, and began to wonder whether she could find any plausible
excuse for making a brief casual sort of call.
The freakish building and its tawdry decorations occupied her
for a moment as she drew near, and though she gradually edged off to
the other side of the road, and had assumed the air of one who was
merely passing, she noticed, without turning her head, that some one
was in the doorway. She expected that the figure would vanish
at her approach, as village village folk so often did, but this
person, whoever it might be, remained. A shy, sidelong glance.
Yes; it was Netty Swire, and not ashamed, not embarrassed, but
certainly not defiant; it was not merely the naturally easy attitude
of a Lancashire mill-girl, and she stood in the doorway most
obviously trying to attract the passer's attention. Jessie was
compelled to turn her head; their eyes met across the open space in
the road, and then, with a hypocritical little start of surprise,
she turned aside and stepped to the cottage door. A sudden
shyness fell on the girl she was approaching; she blushed prettily,
even proudly, and when she was sure of her visitor's intention, she
took a step forward to meet her.
"Oh, Netty, you naughty, sly girl!" and Jessie smiled and
shook her head in arch, playful banter. Providence was
favouring her, and she must make the most of her opportunity.
Netty put out her hand shyly, drew her visitor forward, and then,
turning a radiant face up to Jessie's, she cried:
"It's all right, miss; go on! I can stand it; them
laughs that wins, don't they?" And still retaining her hold,
she drew the visitor into the cottage.
Miss Bradshaw glanced round with curiosity that soon became
gratification; the arrangements and furniture were as motley and odd
as she had been led to expect from the whimsical reputation of their
owner—but spotlessly clean. On the hearthstone sat old Lyd,
with a pipe in her mouth, but so well dressed that Jessie did not at
first recognise her. The old creature turned and grinned as
she was saluted, but made no answer, except a series of mysterious
"Well, Netty, I suppose I must wish you happiness, although—"
"Oh, ay, miss; but you cannot wish me more than I have.
I'm that happy I can hardly bide. Sit you down, do!"
Old Lyd had turned her shoulder to them, and was indulging in
a sarcastic snigger to herself as she puffed away.
"But, Netty, how clever and sly you were! Nobody knew
anything about it, I hear."
"Hay, bless you, miss, no!" and glancing suspiciously at Lyd,
she dropped into a low undertone, and added: "I didn't know myself,
but I didn't need axin twice, I can tell you."
Was there ever such a silly bride! really the girl was most
ridiculously happy. And how pretty she was! Jessie could
see now, as she had never seen before, where the attraction had been
"You didn't know yourself?" she asked with amused surprise,
and dropping unconsciously into Netty's confidential undertone.
"Hay, no! suddin!" and here the delighted girl came closer,
and speaking in a wondering whisper she went on: "I wouldn't tell
anybody, especially"—and here she nodded mysteriously towards
Lyd—"but would you believe! he axed me one night, he brought t'
paper—t' licence next day, and we were married t' morning after!
Netty stepped back to enjoy the full effect of this amazing
intelligence upon her visitor, and Jessie had as much as she could
do to hide her real feelings. She wished she had never come
now, the effect of this lightheaded creature's garrulity was most
painful. To think that George Stone, whom nobody seemed to
know but herself, should be tied to a flighty thing like this for
life! But at this moment there was a creaking of the chair
near the empty grate and old Lyd looked round for a moment: "Big
fools can allus find bigger!" and she grinned again up the chimney.
Netty began to wink, but remembering her manners, she smiled
indulgently and tapped her head.
"But, Netty, do you mean to say there was no courting at
"Not a day, bless you! he never took no more notice of me nor
of old Lyd there;" and then with another fall in her voice which
implied great confidence, she added, "I allus thought he wur sweet
upo' t' schoolmistress. Hay, what am I thinkin' on! you'll
have a glass of wine an' some cake, won't you, miss?"
Jessie was glad of any excuse just then to hide her feelings
and so she accepted the glass of "British port," and bending over
her bit of cake she asked:
"But weren't you afraid to take him on such short notice,
"Afraid! I was afraid o'nothin'—only of him changin'
Jessie laughed in spite of herself, took a sip at the wine
with the usual polite wish, and then, pursuing a branch of the topic
not by any means as important as the one she had intended to follow,
"Well, it is just like George; he never was like anybody
else, was he?"
"George! he isn't that! He's a fine sight better nor
"What a delightful bride you are, Netty! He ought to be
a proud and happy man."
There was an odd pause, and Jessie, who had bent her head
over her plate, looked up with sudden curiosity and saw a sight
which amazed her. The glow of happiness had all gone from the
bride's face, she seemed to be struggling to speak, but could not.
At length there came a strange gush of tears, and with drooping head
and quivering mouth she faltered:
"How can he ever be proud of me?"
The tender-hearted Jessie rose to her feet in sorrowful
"Oh, pardon me, dear! What have I said? I didn't
"No, miss, you don't! Nobody knows George but me!
These Mollins folk thinks him queer! Oh, if they nobbut knew!
He's twenty-two carat, George is, an' I could lie me down an' die
for him, this very minute! "
Jessie, fighting with strange but strong emotions, was,
afraid of losing self-control; her only safety was in retreat:
"I'm delighted to hear you say so, Netty; it does you honour.
Well, good afternoon! a—er "—she could not help it—"may I come to
see you again some day?"
Netty seemed a little surprised and curious, but occupied
chiefly with her own feelings, she rejoined:
"Oh, yes, miss, if you'll be so good;" and then, snatching
eagerly at Jessie's arm as she moved towards the door, she went on
softly, "I've been talkin' silly again. You won't say anythin'
to anybody, will you?"
There was alarm, fear, and soft penitence in her tones, and
had the request been far more difficult Jessie would have promised;
and so, turning round and beholding the upturned, pleading little
doll-like face, she bent down, softly kissed the still quivering
lips, and hastened away, the prey of many conflicting emotions.
That there was genuine mystery behind the mad marriage she
was now certain, but how far the conversation just ended confirmed
her suspicions, and how far it allayed them, she could not yet quite
see. She was strangely gratified at Netty's vindication of her
husband, and greatly surprised as well, but the predominant feeling
was one of perplexity. Had George suddenly found Netty out,
and married her in a fit of delighted astonishment? or had he been
quietly watching her until he was satisfied, and then, anticipating
the opposition of the Swires, married her thus suddenly to prevent
He was a freakish, unaccountable fellow, certainly, and this
was exactly one of those mad surprises he loved to provide for the
villagers; but still it seemed impossible to think that even he was
so heedless as to carry his whims into so important a matter as
marriage. That he would do such a thing for a mere money
consideration she could not believe, and yet there was that in
Netty's later words which lent the colour of probability to her
fears. Well, she could watch and wait, and in the meantime she
would think as well as she could of George—and of Tom too.