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CHAPTER VII.

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 shoulders.

   "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 screaming out—

   "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 poorly."

    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 say."

    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 more brandy.

   "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 reckon."

    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 hear?"

    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 realisation,"It's there!"

    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.


 
CHAPTER VIII.

TOM BRADSHAW.


TOM 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 pulled up.

   "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 lodge."

   "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 drawled—

   "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 white.

   "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 lad's!"

   "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 remarking—

   "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 solemnly.

   "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 resolutely—

   "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 in another.

   "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 cried triumphantly—

   "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 away.

   "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 slime.

    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.


 
CHAPTER IX.

GEORGE STONE'S COWARDICE.


RALPH 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 him."

    "Him!  Who?"

    "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 do?"

    "Why, sir, you know as Netty Swire's missing—Lord, sir, are you bad?"

    "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 self-mastery.

    "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 like that!"

    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 dangerous incident.

    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 fresh misgivings.

    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 nearer.

    "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 works.

    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 tea-table.

    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 committed murder?"

    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 pity's sake!"

    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 thrilling intelligence.

    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 sometimes."

    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 himself."

    "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 chance?"

    "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.


 
CHAPTER X.

A METHODIST MEETING.


THE Methodist 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 away.

    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 second."

    "I move they be not read." ("Hear, hear! ")

    "Read!"

    "No!"

    "Yes!"

    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 peace, friends."

    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!" cried another.

    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 tones, "Vote!"

    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 room.

    "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 moment believe.

    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 best.


 
CHAPTER XI.

JESSIE'S TROUBLES.


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 do?"

    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."

    "He didn't."

    "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 it was."

    "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."

    "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 not heed.

    "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 not ours."

    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 awfully grumpy."

    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!"

    "What! again?"

    "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?"

    "Well, it's a frost; she is either shy or most confoundedly sly!"

    "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 help me."

    "Nobody can help you, dear, until you change your tactics altogether."

    "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—"

    "But what?"

    "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 away."

    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 asked:

    "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 inconvenient Netty.

    "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 could you?"

    "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 faltered faintly:

    "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 replied:

    "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 him.

    "I'll do what I can; give me time to think, and speak to me to-morrow."

    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.

    "Who's there?"

    "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 you?"

    "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 suspicion.

    "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.


 
CHAPTER XII.

MASTER AND SERVANT.


MR. 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 imperturbable.

    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, and demanded:

    "Well, have you nothing to say?"

    "What about, sir?"

    "About? thou blundering scamp, about that crazy wedding of thine."

    "No use crying over spilt milk, sir."

    "Spilt milk? it's spilt fortune, man!  Dost know thou's ruined thyself?"

    "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 said:

    "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 mouth.

    "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 face.

    "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."

    "Lena!"

    "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."

    "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 then said:

    "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!"

    "Do you?"

    "Oh, Lena—"

    "You do; I can see it in your face, and yet you would let her marry him."

    "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 not!  Why, girlie, she would see through us in double-quick-sticks; she has more brains than both of us put together."

    "Well!"

    "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 we do."

    "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 apprehensions.

    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 fretting mind.

    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 nods.

    "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 for Tom.

    "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 all?"

    "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, Netty?"

    "Afraid!  I was afraid o'nothin'—only of him changin' his mind!"

    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, she remarked:

    "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 anybody else!"

    "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 alarm:

    "Oh, pardon me, dear!  What have I said?  I didn't know— "

    "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 interference?

    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.



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