From Crooked Roots (IV)
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CHAPTER XIX.

THE TWO FRIENDS.


THE schoolmistress was astonished at herself.  What was coming over her in these days?  No longer a spectator, but an actor in this little drama of Mollins life, she seemed to be so absorbed in the theme that she was forgetting her part, and so unconsciously becoming a mere onlooker again.  A student of human nature, truly! and more so than ever, only the field was narrowing rapidly.  Even the village had become too large, and, drawn by influences she did not care to analyse; she was growing absorbed in one particular specimen of humanity and the unfolding of one particular character.  Not very long ago she had taken herself to task for a tendency to introspectiveness, but now there was nothing she seemed so much afraid of as the exploration of her own heart, and she felt oddly relieved that the incidents taking place about her gave her good, though only temporary, excuse for ignoring certain suspicious signs.

    The scene with George at the Highfield gate on the night of Mr. Bradshaw's death haunted her.  It was clear that she had not yet entirely sounded the deeper life of the villagers, and they evidently had motives and springs of action which she either did not perceive or did not understand.  What, for instance, was the meaning of George's extreme terror and his wild talk about prayer?  Her theory about him was that he was just a healthy young pagan, whose eccentricities were explained by the fact that his life had brought him less under the influence of environment than usual with such persons, and, that his nature was a little more like virgin soil.  Heredity and environment explained him as they explained everybody else, only in his case human nature was a little stronger than usual, and he was a little less amenable to outside influences.  The incident at the gate, however, scarcely squared with this notion; it seemed to show that he had been affected profoundly by a narrow superstition, and this disappointed because it puzzled her.  She had noted long ago, however, that the natural man has often more native reverence than religious persons; and this, when she thought of it, seemed a confirmation of that view.  Yes, George was a bit of virgin nature, modified less than usual by the influences of environment.  His odd love for the Sunday-school, and his so-called conversion, were, after all, only confirmations of this theory.

    One thing, however, rather disturbed her.  Her mother had always said that she had more head than heart, and was governed too exclusively by mere intellect, and she began to suspect that it must be so; for though Tom Bradshaw had returned and given signs of his intention to resume his pursuit of her, she found that she was thinking of him less than ever, and giving quite an alarming amount of attention to her "study."

    And then she heard three startling items of intelligence.  The first was that George had been discovered in some worse than shabby practices at the mill, and instantly dismissed; second, that the pain and excitement of the dismissal had precipitated old Mr. Bradshaw's death; and third, that Netty Stone was down with pneumonia.  The effects were surprising even to herself.  She was conscious of a curious sense of self-recovery and mental enlargement, as though some long-atrophied faculty of her nature had suddenly resumed its functions and she was in full life once more.  The fact was, the little mistress had strong fighting instincts, and these, suddenly appealed to, set her heart and brain in motion in a manner that was to her exceedingly pleasant.  No power on earth could convince her that George Stone had done any really wicked thing, and she found a perverse satisfaction in marshalling, and even amplifying, the evidences against him as she heard them, in order to enjoy the pure thrill of resistance.  The worse the case looked, the more emphatic and triumphant she became.  She heard with eager pride that George, a working man and out of employment, had had the first pulmonary specialist in Manchester out to see his dying wife, and felt that she could have kissed old Abe Swire in the street when he declared to her, with shining eyes and shaking, tearful voice, that "George was the best husband that was ever teed (tied) to a woman."

    As the days slipped by, however, and Netty cheated the doctors by signs of recovery, Carrie became a little perplexed about the manner of the Bradshaw girls.  They listened with obvious delight to her spirited and uncompromising assertion of George's innocence, but made no particular response; and then she noted that their roundabout, but transparently earnest, advocacy of their brother's interests had entirely ceased since he came home.  At first she attributed this to their sorrows; but as the days passed into weeks, and they talked freely enough about every other topic, she became perplexed, especially as Jessie wore a worried, anxious look, which was beginning to alarm her.  Perhaps Tom, now that he was head of the firm, had changed his mind; and she was astonished to find that the suggestion came as a relief to her.  She had never really known her own mind on this subject, and had played with it in a manner she would have very severely condemned in anyone else.  She told herself that she had certainly never been in love with the young mill-owner.  She had liked the idea of staying in Mollins and playing Lady Bountiful there; she was delighted with the possibility of having her friends as her sisters-in-law; but for Tom himself her feelings had been so fluctuating and changeable that it was idle to think of them as love.  Well, the pleasant little dream would pass, she supposed, like other of life's little illusions, and perhaps she was being saved from, at any rate, a dangerous temptation.  It certainly was incredible to her that she, of all persons, should have entertained the possibility of marriage where she was not sure of her affections; and, of course, in cases of this kind, as she had always insisted, uncertainty was the clearest certainty.

    She was musing, perhaps not too seriously, in this strain as she returned from her duties one damp, disagreeable afternoon.  The weather was affecting her spirits somewhat, but when, on entering her lodgings, she found Jessie Bradshaw, who had taken off her hat and made herself comfortable in the easy-chair, with the intention apparently of staying tea, she revived at once, and gave her friend the warmest possible welcome.  In honour of the visitor, Mrs. Chorlton had added several little delicacies to the tea-table, and in a few minutes, under the beguiling influence of the tea-cup, they were deep in womanly conversation.  But Carrie soon began to note that her visitor's warmth was a little forced, and perceived, with growing uneasiness, that she was looking older and ill.

    "Carrie," began the young mistress of Highfield, after helping herself to more cream, "have you heard the village rumours about George Stone?  And she commenced, with carefully bent head, to hunt a tea leaf which was floating in her cup, with a spoon.

    "Which ones?  One hears so many about him."  And the schoolmistress tried to look unconcerned, lest her friend should take alarm and stop.

    "That father dismissed him the very morning of the day he died."

    "Yes; I've heard that, and it seems to be true."

    "It is"—and Carrie, hiding a painful surprise behind a steady face, observed that Jessie's lips quivered, and there was sorrow and even tears in her eyes.  The spoon was in pursuit of the tea leaf again, and with her face half hidden, Jessie resumed, "And have you heard the re—reason?"

    "Yes, but I don't believe it.  What is the reason?"

    The floating tea leaf escaped again, and Jessie, her eyes averted and her hand shaking, answered with strange hastiness—

    "I've told you before, dear, that everybody knows what goes on at the mill better than we do."

    "Still, there must have been some reason; your father was so fond of him."

    And Jessie bent her head lower, stirred her tea with nervous rapidity, went white and red and white again, and at last could only echo in faint, dull tones, "Yes there must have been some reason."

    Carrie watched her anxiously; there was more than mere curiosity behind this distressful manner, more than mere interest in George Stone, though that interest was as strong as she had suspected; and so, after a pause, she said, "Well, Tom will know, and he hasn't reinstated him."

    The silence was longer than ever.  Jessie was getting command of herself evidently, and so, carefully picking her words, she said—

    "Yes, but Tom is not father, dear."

    "But do you think he knows?"

    "I'm not sure that he would restore him, if he did."

    "Not if he found your father had been mistaken?"

    "I don't—yes—no—Oh, Carrie, Carrie, I'm so miserable!"  And the distressed girl sank helplessly upon her knees, buried her face in her friend's lap, and sobbed as though her heart would break.

    Carrie, whose eyes were misty with sudden tears, sat looking down on this embarrassing sight with dumb, helpless dismay; she could see that to continue the topic might be the greatest cruelty, and yet she longed to know the truth, and also to comfort the sorrowful girl at her feet.  Softly, as only a woman can, she slid her hand down and began soothingly to stroke the light hair on her lap, crooning words of tenderness as she did so.  Then she gently raised the hot head until it was close to her own, and, pressing burning cheek to burning cheek, she kissed and fondled the tearful face to a mother-like accompaniment of tenderest murmurings.

    And presently Jessie's sobs subsided; she dried her face with her handkerchief, snatched at her friend's hand, and holding it tightly, turned half-round and began to stare hard into the fire.

    Nothing could be heard now but the slow, measured ticking of the old clock and the humming of the kettle on the hob.  Carrie was studying that struggling face with the firelight upon it very narrowly, herself absorbed in painful wonderings, when suddenly, with a pull and a nip of the hand she held, Jessie turned round, and gazing with imploring eagerness up to her companion, she asked huskily—

    "Carrie, do you love my brother Tom?"

    "Jessie!  How?  Why?  How can you ask—?"

    "Do you?  Do you?"  And the sweet face was tragic and desperate in its intensity, and she pulled at Carrie's arm until it ached.

    "I cannot tell, dear; I don't think—"  And then, with a sudden sense of relief from difficulty, she finished, "Would you like me?"

    "Yes!  No!  Oh, yes, yes!"  And then, still on her knees, she flung her arms round her friend's neck, crying in passionate, pleading tones, "Oh, take him, love! that would right everything.  Oh, do! take him, dear love.  Do!"

    Carrie felt that her self-possession was slipping away; a few moments more of this and she might say any silly thing in her anxiety to comfort this broken-hearted creature.  She must save them both, and so she gently unwound the clinging arms, laid her friend's head once more in her lap, and commenced stroking the rumpled, fluffy hair, saying, after a slight pause, and in a pathetically grotesque attempt at playfulness—

    "Nobody asked me, sir, she said!"

    "But would you?  Would you?"  And the excited girl rose upon her knees, and gazed with wistful intensity into her face.  "No, you would not!  You will not let him.  He wants to ask you, and you will not give him his chance.  You won't! you know you won't!"  And she fell back into her old position with a pitiful sigh.

    "I would do a great deal to please Jessie Bradshaw, very great deal; but—no! do not press me on that point just now, love; let us talk of something else—tea, for instance; we had only just begun."

    But Jessie had no heart for food, and though she resumed her place at the table, and sipped negligently at her fresh cup, she was strangely absent, ever bordering on a confidence she never got out, and when at length she departed, she turned back more than once to say—nothing, and left her friend in a state of curiosity that was almost painful.

    Had she said more than she came to say, or less?  If less, why had she changed her mind, and what was there more to tell?

    There were things about Tom Bradshaw which she honestly liked.  He was good-looking, and had a robust, manly manner, the contrast between him with his hardworking business life, and the young men of his class she had known in London, was all to his advantage, and she was ambitious and self-confident enough to feel that the position he had to offer included a career very much to her mind.  But she felt just now that sympathy with her departed visitor was in danger of inclining her to a decision which ought to be arrived at upon other and quite different considerations, and once more the cautious instinct became uppermost; especially as she reflected upon Jessie's words.  The longer she thought, the more fully was she convinced that there was something behind them, and if Jessie really wished her to take her brother, she had gone the very worst way about it, for no progress could be made in a matter like that until all suspicions and uneasiness had been removed.

    When Jessie, still pensive and restless, reached Highfield, she found she had visitors who were sitting under Lena's presidency at the tea-table.  Mr. Cornthwaite, the family lawyer, was one, and old Frater, one of her late father's friends, and owner of the other Mollins mill, was his companion.  She guessed at once what they were there for, and when tea was over they all adjourned to the drawing room, where the solicitor proceeded to explain their father's will.  There were legacies to several charitable institutions, a donation to the parish church, an annuity of twenty pounds per year for ever to the Methodist Sunday-school and other small matters, but the bulk of the estate was bequeathed to his three children.  Certainly, freehold properties were left absolutely to Jessie and her sister, Highfield—this was the only surprise in the document—was settled upon Jessie herself as a special reward for her faithful kindness to her father, whilst the business and all that pertained to it, including any balance at the bankers', was willed half to Tom and a quarter each to the girls.  The business was to be conducted under the old title, and Tom was to have the option of paying out one or both of his sisters whenever he chose; subject, however, to certain conditions with which the reader does not need to be troubled.

    The young ladies regarded the matter as a pure formality, and the old lawyer grew almost petulant over their lack of interest in the details.  They had always had money enough for all their needs, the property left to them absolutely would provide them with ample pocket money, the regulations about the business were such as were common in the class to which they belonged, and they were only too content to leave things to their brother and the trustees.  As a matter of fact, Mr. Cornthwaite was angling craftily for requests for explanations, which would have given him an excuse for another and private interview with his fair clients; but they were deplorably indifferent, and did not ask a single question in spite of most palpable and suggestive "openings."

    The old man's explanations and repetitions seemed worse than tedious, and more than once Jessie caught him making cryptic signals to his fellow trustee.  At last Frater seemed to comprehend and rose to go; but suddenly remembering something, he asked Tom if he might have just a few words with him in private.  The old lawyer watched them pass out, and then stepping to the door and closing it with an air of mystery that made Lena smile, he came close to Jessie, glanced round to include her sister in his speech, became suddenly and portentously mysterious and impressive and said, "Leave all to me, ladies, all to me!  But there is just one thing I must insist upon—never sign any document, whoever may ask you, until it has been shown to me and then, as the others were heard returning, he raised his voice and continued: "Goodnight, ladies!  Such a pleasant evening, good-night!"

    For the rest of the evening, Tom, who since their recent stormy interview had been specially attentive and humble towards Jessie, spent the time in sneering at the "fussy old lawyer" who had just left them, but when at length he went off to his own room, the two girls gave themselves up to speculations as to the cause of his evident ill-temper.  He must have known the contents of the will ever since he returned from abroad; it looked therefore, as if something in the interview just concluded had annoyed him, but though they went over it almost word for word, they could think of nothing in the least likely to give offence.  He was all they had now, and they congratulated themselves that the contents of the will had been so favourable to him that he could not be angry with them on that score, but that he was put out, and that not a little, was very clear; and the two sisters went to bed to think and puzzle and wonder what was wrong.

    Three days later, Tom informed them as he left the breakfast table that he had written to the schoolmistress asking for an interview, and in the excitement of this new problem they forgot for the time their own dull fears.  Jessie felt certain that after what had passed in their last interview Carrie would seek for some further explanation before receiving her brother, but as she would not be free until after school hours they concluded that she would come round for afternoon tea, so as to be out of the way again before Tom came to dinner.  Lena, who had been in the village, brought news that Netty Stone was not recovering after all: she had survived the crisis, given encouraging signs of recovery, then failed and was now sinking.  All Jessie's heart went out to the doomed young wife, light and cheap though she thought her, and she would not allow even her own sorrows and perplexities to excuse her neglecting the patient.  Three o'clock, therefore, saw her hastening up the back lanes towards "Squint Hall."


 
CHAPTER XX.

NETTY'S REVELATIONS.


OLD Lyd had been denying visitors all day, but one of the Highfield ladies was quite a different thing; and so, with a portentous exhortation not to "fluster" the patient, she led Jessie upstairs.

    Miss Bradshaw stopped and almost exclaimed as she entered the sick room, "What a pretty picture!"  The wall-papers were expensive, though not perhaps altogether appropriate; the furniture was new and dainty, almost more elegant than her own; and the flowers, grapes, pictures, and bedroom knick-knacks were such as any lady might have been proud of; whilst Netty herself wore the prettiest of dressing jackets.  And the patient matched her surroundings: her skin was white almost to transparency, her eyes, large and bright, were now of the deepest sky blue, and her cheeks and brow were tinged with a light touch of passing colour, that made her look almost too fair for earth.  Jessie paused and caught her breath, and then, with quick, womanly impulse, leaned over and kissed the sufferer.

    A surprised and gratified blush suffused Netty's neck and face for a moment, and then, with the faintest smile, she dropped back upon her pillows and closed her eyes.

    "Well, Netty, I'm sorry to have been so long coming.  I hope you are better."

    Netty shook her head as though anxious to deny the expressed hope, and then commenced to look at and pick her fingers.  Her manner showed that she was waiting for Lyd to disappear.

    "Shut the door!" she said, in voiceless tone; and still she picked her hands until the old woman was out of hearing.

    "I've brought you a few flowers, Netty; but you seem well supplied."

    Netty pulled musingly at a little fragment of loose skin on her forefinger, and then, with a proud smile, she answered in the same muffled note—

    "Hay, bless you! if every flower cost a five-pound note he'd get 'em for me."

    "What a proud little wife you are, Netty; you must make haste and get better."

    The patient seemed gratified for the moment, but she soon changed her manner; and turning up her face protestingly she replied—

    "I shall do no such thing!  I wouldn't if I could.  Bless him!"

    Jessie was out of her depth.  The amazingly inconsistent little speech confounded her; but at last she asked with an astonished dropping of her breath

    "You wouldn't if you could, Netty?  Shocking! you mustn't give way; you must get better for his sake."

    With brows raised in dull surprise, Netty cried in her husky way—

    "For his sake! ay, that's it!  I must die for his sake, and be proud to!  I mun get out of his way, munnat I?  Bless him!"

    With helpless, puzzled face Jessie looked at the sick one and sighed; the poor soul was wandering; it was wrong to excite her.  They remained silent for a few moments, and Jessie was just about to make a remark when the other turned her head quickly and asked—

    "Miss Jessie, do you think I shall be good enough for an angel?"

    "I hope so, dear, through God's mercy."

    "An' does God let the angels go where they like, an' do what they like?"

    "I—I don't know, dear; perhaps He does."

    "Well, if He does, I shall do nothing but look after George for ever an' ever; an' if they winnat let me, I dunnot want to go."

    "No! no! dear, you mus'n't talk of going, you must make haste and get better; that's the best way of taking care of him."

    Again that look of dull, vague surprise; again that protesting, half-querulous tone—

    "That 'ud be a nice way o' payin' him back, wouldn't it?  I couldn't for shame do it, Miss Jessie; I couldn't for sure!"

    Jessie was sorely perplexed, she longed to hear more of Netty's extravagant praise of her husband; it was sweetness itself to her, and yet innate delicacy restrained her, and she knew not what to say or do.  Netty was talking in riddles, in tantalising paradoxes.  She must get some sort of idea of what was behind, and so, lightly touching the invalid's soft, fair hair, and adjusting a ribbon at her throat, she said—

    "Why, Netty, you talk as though you were in George's way.  I'm sure he doesn't think so!"

    The bloodless face lighted suddenly with a strange glow of delight.

    "Him! hay, bless you! he never thinks nothing bad of nobody—he couldn't!"

    "Is he so good as that?"

    "Good! hay, miss!"  And hiding the pride and glory in her eyes behind her long lashes, Netty waited a moment, and touching her visitor's arm and dropping her poor soundless voice into a whisper, she went on with serious earnestness: "You know, miss, my father's a good man, an' so is our Jonathan an' David, an' one or two more at t' chapil; but, bless you, they're not in it wi' George.  Beside, it's different."

    "How different?"

    "Well," and she knit her brow in an effort at clearness, and then went on: "Theirs is religious goodness, you know—it's put into 'em."

    "I'm afraid all our goodness has to be put into us, dear but George?—oh yes, didn't I hear he had been converted?"

    "Converted?  No, an' I hope he never will be!"

    "Netty!"

    "Well! it might make him worse—hard, you know, like our lads and my father."

    "It might make him better."

    "Better!  It couldn't!  How could it!"

    "Oh, Netty, what a wonderful wife you are!—but you are tiring yourself, dear."  And the half-fainting invalid, disdaining the last remark with a turn of her head, glanced suddenly round, and brought mantling blushes to Jessie's fair cheeks by crying, "Ay, an' you'd 'a' been a wonderful wife if he'd married you!  Bless you, he could make Owd Scratch i' love wi' him!"

    Jessie laughed at the odd, uncomplimentary comparison and then said—

    "What a champion George has got!  He ought to love you very much."

    "Love me?  Me?  How could he?" and Netty stared at her amazedly.

    "Why not? he married you!"

    "Married me!" and the fainting girl turned again, and looking hard at her visitor, cried—

    "That's just it!  He couldn't love me, but he married me, thank God!"

    Every nerve in Jessie's body was on the stretch now.  What could it all mean?  She was dying to know more, but dreadfully afraid she was taking unfair advantage; but at this moment Netty went off into a long, racking cough, and as she watched her and assisted her as best she could, she saw as she had never seen before how dreadful was the poor patient's condition.  Her own thoughts, however, were overpowering even sympathy.  She ought not to hear anything more of this sort, and yet there were things Netty could tell, and which might, and probably would, be lost for ever if she died without speaking.  She decided, however, to obey her conscience, and when at last Netty's paroxysm subsided, and she lay panting on her pillows, she rose to make an excuse for leaving, and called old Lyd.

    But Netty's eyes were following her eagerly.  She gave her head a feeble but significant little shake, and when Jessie came to the bedside again to say farewell and promise an early return, the sufferer took her hand and clingingly held it.  Old Lyd came now and administered medicine, hinting not obscurely that Netty would be better alone.  But the sick one still clung to the hand she held, and when the old beldame grumblingly departed, Jessie sank into the chair at the side of the pillows, and quietly waited, although her brain and nerves were thrilling.  For fully five minutes neither of them spoke, and then Jessie heard that hollow, husky voice, now feebler than ever, saying—

    "I'st not be long here now—not many hours, I hope."

    But she could not proceed, and Jessie silently motioned her to desist.  Again there was a long pause, and once more there came from the bed—

    "He said I was never to tell nobody, but I must must tell her, anyway."

    "Her?"  Jessie's heart stood still; but perhaps the sufferer was talking to herself.

    "Miss Jessie."

    "Don't, dear! you are too weak."

    "Wait a bit an' I'll tell you something.  I shall never live to see her."

    "Her" again!  Then it could not be herself!  What was coming now?

    It was a long wait.  More than once Jessie glanced at the bed to see if the clothes lifted.  Netty, exhausted, almost unconscious, lay as though she were already dead.  Presently, however, she asked for her medicine, took a long dose from the bottle neck, held the cordial in one hand and Jessie's soft fingers in the other, and then whispered breathlessly—

    "Miss Jessie, I want to tell you all about it."

    "Don't, dear; wait, I can come again."

    "But I must; you'll never see me again, so I'll tell you."

    "Well, dear, very briefly."

    "You know what a bad 'un I allus was."

    "No, dear, never mind that."

    "I was; but from being a child I loved George, and he wouldn't have nowt to do wi' me.  I wasn't his sort."

    "An' as I grew up I loved him more an' more, an' he wouldn't look at me!"

    "Poor thing!"

    "An' that made me a bad 'un.  I turned into a nowty, careless, fripperty wench, an' throw'd myself at his head."

    She paused, wiped her face, drew a long, labouring breath, and then proceeded.

    "But he wouldn't ha' nowt to do wi' me, and so I didn't care, and went after anybody."

    "Don't, dear!  Why tell me?"

    "I mun! t' truth mun be known!  And then I took up wi—"  But here she stopped, looked up with a startled horror and cried, "Good Lord! what am I saying!"

    But Jessie forgot reserve, prudence, conscience, and everything else, and almost shrieked out, "Go on!  Go on!  You must tell me now!"

    Netty was still peering up curiously into the flushed, eager face above her, and then she turned away and went on—

    "Ay!  I'd no more sense nor to think that he'd marry me—me!"

    "But he?  Who was he?"

    Netty shook her head, smiled slily, drew a long, painful breath, and went on—

    "I got to t' very edge o' ruin; in another day or two I should have disgraced myself, and me father and the lads; and just then he found me and he ups and he marries me right bang off."

    Her face was glowing again with pride and delighted love, and her eyes shone with a strange, weird light.

    Jessie waited to recover self-possession; it was clear she would not get the information she wanted by pressing for it, and so she humoured the stricken girl by remarking: "So that he had loved you after all?"

    "Love?  He never did!  He couldn't!"

    "Then why did he marry you?"

    "Marry me?"  Netty looked amazed at her friend's obtuseness.  "He married me just to save me!"

    "To save you?"

    "Of course! an' save me father and t' lads an—an'—him!"

    "Him, who?"

    "Hay, bless you, he'd dee (die) for him, George would!"

    "For whom?"

    But Netty would not be entrapped; and she sat looking before her as though she had not heard, and then added, musingly, "He'd just lie down in t' road and, let him walk over him."

    "And you mean to say that George married you just to save you and to save your father's disgrace?"

    "Just for that, miss! isn't he a gem?"

    Almost every possible emotion of which the human heart is capable seemed to be struggling together in Jessie's soul that moment; glowing admiration, melting pathos, shuddering horror, and an overpowering sense of incongruity contended within her; followed by a most painful sense of shyness which made her hide her face in her hands and fight down a nearly irresistible desire to either laugh or sob.  Oh, the delight of realising that the secret hero of her heart's dreams had justified her faith!  That was enough for once, she did not want to hear more; even her cruelly painful anxiety to know who Netty's other lover had been, vanished in presence of her glowing pride and delight, and she burned with desire to go and clear George from the other charges against him as triumphantly as he had been cleared of this.

    "Oh, Netty!" she burst out at last, "I don't wonder you are proud of him!"

    Netty, who was sitting up again and leaning forward feasting her shining eyes on Jessie's changing face, and listening to her words as to angel music.  All at once, however, she snatched the hand she still held, pressed it to her lips, and kissing it, she passionately cried—

    "Oh, bless you!  I wish you were having him instead of her!"

    "Her! who?"

    "Who? why, don't you know?"

    "Know? how should I know?"

    "Not know? why, I thought everybody knew!  Why, t' schoolmistress, for sure! that's her he loves!"

    "Carrie Hambridge?"

    "Ay, and he'll have her!  Hay, bless you, George could get t' queen off her throne if he wanted and set his heart on her!"

    With distended, distressful eyes Jessie gazed at the momentarily excited patient, and then dropped helplessly back in her chair.  A moment later she was calling earnestly at the stair-head for old Lyd; and when, some half-hour after, she left the cottage, Netty Stone lay dead.


 
CHAPTER XXI.

JESSIE BRADSHAW'S STRUGGLE.


HOW she got home that afternoon Jessie never knew.  She could never remember that she had seen anybody on the brief journey, she forgot the sad intelligence she had tell; forgot that Carrie Hambridge would be waiting for her in the drawing-room.  Like a wounded thing she fled away upstairs, and flung herself, booted and cloaked as she was, upon the bed, which was soon creaking with the violence of her emotions and her restless tossings about.  Yet there was very little immediate connection between her passionate tears and the wild thoughts that burned in her brain.  Ever since her girlhood, she had imagined herself the impossible goddess and idol of a lowly boy's dreams.  His mute, dog-like, reverent adoration of her when, as Tom's companion and henchman, he first came in corduroys to Highfield; the headlong eagerness with which he had always carried out her slightest wish; his slave-like devotion to her brother, which she had always taken as an interesting though intentional tribute to herself; his chuckling, rollicking laugh at her girlish attempts at wit, and his curious self- depreciation, which had always been to her pure, beautiful humility, now made a blurred, repulsive picture, which it was torture to look upon.  Only now did she realise what that silly, romantic fancy of hers had been to her, and how poor and empty life was without it.  George's sudden and reckless marriage had staggered her, but her instinctive guess at his possible motive, mingled as it was with the suspicion that this also was only another form of devotion to her, had tempered the severity of that blow, and made it at any rate endurable.

    But now the case was wholly different; now she realised that she had been entirely mistaken, and instead of the beautiful, hopeless passion she had always imagined, there had never been anything more than a loyal respect to her as his master's daughter and his friend's sister.  She had always known that the thing was an utter impossibility, but the sweetest things in life are its illusions, and this one of hers had been the dearer and safer because of its very hopelessness.  But all was changed now: even the vindication of George, and her own persistent faith in him, was a poor exchange for the loss of this beautiful dream; and she was not unconscious that there was rising within her something dangerously like jealousy of the world and Carrie Hambridge.  The vulgar world would soon be sharing the sweet joy she had so long had all to herself, and Carrie—but here a knock at the door demanded her attention.  The invention of a headache to excuse her impossible return to society downstairs occupied but a moment, and then throwing aside her outer garments, she resumed her place on the bed, and her thoughts took a new turn.

Carrie Hambridge!  Who was she, and what had she ever done to earn this blessedness no longer hers?  To her George was a mere interesting intellectual study—a sort of curious freak of nature, to be examined and dissected as a scientist treats a frog.  She would never worship his idealised image as she had done.  Worship! yes, worship! adore! love! with a thousand times more true devotion than Carrie was capable of.  A married man!  A workman, a village eccentric!  She cared not.  Had he not justified her proudest faith, and done a deed of truest knight-errantry, such as not one man in ten thousand would ever have thought of?  Had she not been the first, and only one, who had guessed what was in him? had she not first detected this sweet fig, buried under prickly briars?  Had she not bravely persisted in her faith, through all discouragements and oppositions?  He was hers! hers only! the only thing she had ever asked of the fates, and they had mockingly given him to another.  Like a bit of cork afloat on the whirling eddy, the whirlpool in her mind had tossed up every now and again the reminder that George himself was indifferent to her; but that she would not see.  She wanted something to resist, to struggle against, to defy, and that way she had no resistance at all.  To avoid it, she turned on the bed, lay on her back, put her arms behind her head, and opening her eyes stared hard at the darkening window.

    The change seemed to bring her relief; she became conscious of the friendly darkness, and the kind, soothing quiet of the room.  Her mind seemed to become clearer, her thoughts more connected and tranquil; the throbbing of her temples became less violent, and the pain at her heart was dulled.  The minutes went quietly by, and she did not move, or even blink her eyes; a soft, dreamy reverie was stealing over her, she grew cold without feeling it; the eyes in her still face grew glassy; and her thoughts were far, far away.  Suddenly she sprang up with a bound and a frightened wail; looked round with startled, blinking eyes; lit the gas, looked fearfully about on the walls for a moment, and then turned to face the supreme temptation of her life.  With all her curious interest in, and recent enthusiasm for George, Carrie Hambridge had never in her life given one thought of love to him, but she had thought often, was thinking perhaps at that very moment, of Tom; she did not love him, perhaps she even distrusted him not a little, if Jessie could read signs at all: but had it not been, was it not yet in her power to dispel all those fears?  Might not the engagement have been consummated before now, if she had been whole-heartedly on Tom's side?  Would it not be an infinite blessing to Tom, and a very considerable worldly advantage to Carrie?  Moreover, was it not her duty, now that her father was gone, to do everything that she could, and swallow every scruple, to secure the thing upon which her parent had been so earnestly set?  Were not the things she knew about her brother additional reasons why she should help him to a strong-minded wife, who would make a man of him?  If George loved once, he would love for ever.  What of that?  As long as he remained unmarried, some remnants of her old, sweet dreams would be left to her.

    And what would Tom do if he were thwarted in this?  Such men, under such circumstances, made mad plunges, and he might go to the bad, or bring home an impossible wife.  It would be a hard, difficult, bitter thing to do, but the alternative would be more difficult still.  After all, blood was thicker than water; Carrie was her dear friend, but Tom was her brother, and she stood to him in a certain sense now for father and mother and sister.  Oh, what a cruel dilemma!  It had been hard before, but now the addition of the most compelling motive that could come to a woman, made the convenient, comfortable, prudential wrong so very, very attractive.  She was pacing the room now, with hands clasped behind her and her fine upper teeth gnawing at her under lip, whilst her face was all a-work with conflicting and ever-changing emotions.

    Now all that was best in her rose up suddenly and disdained the thing that was tempting her.  She drew herself up, clenched her hands until the nails sank into the flesh, and bravely faced the clamouring, plausible temptation.  She would be true to herself; she would do the right and risk everything.  But the effort exhausted her, and exhausted itself in its own expression, and in its place, rushing, overbearing, irresistible, came a sense of utter helplessness.  The thing was inevitable, how could a poor, heart-wounded woman resist it? and she flung herself on the bed in a fresh burst of tears.  The seconds glided into minutes, and the minutes into hours, and still the dreadful battle raged on, a woman's poor sense of truth and honour in conflict with the ravening wolves of self-interest and worldly prudence; with her own heart traitorously supporting them.

    "Jessie!  Jessie!  Are you ill?  What is the matter?"

    It seemed like a voice from another world, and Jessie had to come such a dreadfully long way to meet it.

    "No, dear; I'm coming soon."

    "Well, be quick; I've something to tell you.  How long will you be?"

    "Only a few minutes now, dear."

    Faint, limp, and almost too exhausted for tears, she slipped from the bed to her knees, buried her face in the quilt, breathed a wordless, lingering, helpless prayer, bathed her face and smoothed her hair, and then descended to her sister; her battle no nearer over than it was when she began, but she was thankful now for any sort of respite.

    Lena was waiting for her with "news" on her face, but as soon as she caught sight of her she drew back with a little cry.

    "It's nothing, dearest! only a little—No! no!  I'm not fretting;" and to turn the subject she glanced round and caught sight of an empty envelope carefully propped against the clock.  The inscription told its own tale it was in the big, masculine hand of the schoolmistress she could not come as they anticipated, but had written to Tom instead.

    "Well, what think you?  A bad sign or a good?"

    Jessie looked at it reflectively for a moment, trying to bring her mind down to the things before her; and then she turned, put her feet on the fender, and after gazing a moment into the fire, asked—

    "You don't know what was in the note.  How did he look?"

    "He looked thunder and swore a big D.  Ominous, isn't it?"

    Jessie was studying the fire again, and presently she inquired—

    "And what then?"

    "He refused his tea, glowered at the fire as you are doing now, banged off upstairs, came down dressed up to the knocker, and went out."

    "To see her?"

    "That is how I look at it;" and then, with a glance at the clock, "the play is now on the boards—they are in the third act."

    Lena had moved as she spoke to her sister's side; they were both studying the flames now, and presently the younger went on: "Our brother is our brother, but there never was such a ninny in courting;" and then, with sudden recollection, she added gravely: "Do you know that Netty Stone is dead?"

    "Yes, I was there when she passed away."

    "You! that is what has upset you, poor dear!"  And the impulsive Lena put her arms round her sister's neck and tenderly kissed her.

    Sweet relieving tears rushed into Jessie's aching eyes, and an overwhelming longing came over her to tell her sister everything and ask her advice.  But at that moment the hall door banged, Tom's heavy foot was heard in the passage as he passed to his own room.  The girls held their breath and looked anxiously at each other.

    "It's domino!" cried Lena, quoting under her breath a local expression, whilst her lips were pursed and her eyebrows raised expressively.

    But Tom's foot was heard again in the passage; he was coming towards the dining-room; and Lena opened her eyes in fresh astonishment when the door opened.  Their brother—his face set and hard and white with fear—entered, holding at arm's length a pair of coal tongs, between the lips of which was a little note.

    "Back! back!" he cried, and plunged the paper into the fire.  For a moment he stood watching the letter burn, then with sudden remembrance he glanced at the mantelpiece, snatched at Carrie Hambridge's empty envelope, transferred it hastily to the flames, and then answering the amazed looks of his sisters through lips that trembled with dread, he cried—

    "She's got scarlet fever, and insists on going to the hospital!"

    Jessie did not see the craven look in his eyes or the mantling scorn with which her sister watched him.  In the first gush of womanly sympathy she was pouring out a string of hasty questions, but before Tom began his replies she had already realised what a blessèd, though only temporary, relief was come to her, and his answers seemed to come from far away: she reeled, felt suddenly sick, and as the best means of concealing her condition, sank into a chair.  When she came to herself, Tom was laying down the law to Lena, and insisting upon the strictest precautions.  They were not to go to see Mrs. Chorlton, nor indeed to Stump Cross at all.  In vain they attempted to rally him out of his alarm.  They were not to send any one to inquire after their friend, and nothing was to be received into the house, letters or the like, that had been near the patient.  The day school should be closed at once, he would send word to the hospital that no letters were to be sent to Highfield from thence, they were to keep indoors and not go out—at least on the village side of the house—and as for himself, he should probably go and lodge in Manchester until all danger was over.  Jessie, still faint and weak, heard, without taking in, these alarmist and dictatorial instructions, and Lena attended with a face that changed from sorrowful concern to cold, defiant contempt; and when at last he departed to give instructions about disinfectants in the kitchen, banging the door to emphasise his commands, she burst forth in flashes of indignant scorn, "The miserable coward!"

    The next two days at Highfield were about as unpleasant as they could well be. Tom, with restless eyes and nervous manners, spent most of his time in directing sanitary precautions. Inside, precautions. Inside, the house became redolent of eucalyptus, camphor, and the like.  Condy's Fluid stood in saucers and buckets in every room, and the outbuildings smelt insufferably of carbolic.  On his own initiative he had closed the day school, and ordered it to be disinfected, and at the mill buckets of pungent liquid were set in all staircases and passages.  The easy-going sanitary inspector was hurried from place to place, and badgered until he declared that the young master had gone "dotty," and the villagers, worried about soughs, traps, and disinfectants, asserted that the cure was worse than the disease.  But Tom gave no rest either to himself or those about him.  He slept little, went about with worried, apprehensive look, suspected and even left his food, smoked incessantly, and saturated himself with evil-smelling drugs took ridiculous precautions to avoid close contact with any of the domestics, and at last announced with blanched face that he was stricken.  Whereupon he took possession of the whole upper story of the house, installed himself, with Jessie as nurse, in the confiscated quarters, and gave himself up to "the cursed fever."  To Jessie and her sister it was clear that it was pure nervous fright.  Two days later, however, all doubt was removed.  Tom not only had the fever, but, according to the doctor, must have had it in him before the schoolmistress; and so, whilst the pestilence ran its ordinary course and spread, especially amongst the children of the neighbourhood, it was announced that the much-beloved schoolmistress was as well as she had ever been except for the peeling, but that it was going very hard indeed with the young mill-owner.


 
CHAPTER XXII.

A SERIOUS PROPOSAL.


IT was well into the new year when the schoolmistress came back to Mollins.  She had spent her Christmas Day in the hospital, and had since been a fortnight at Southport.  In her enforced retirement she had had time sift her thoughts and make up her mind, and she had to come back to Mollins with the purpose of finding the easiest and kindest way of refusing Tom Bradshaw.  The fact was, she had recovered herself in more senses than one, and was shocked to find how she had played with an idea upon which she could never seriously act.  She knew now that Tom would propose to her formally on the first opportunity, and that knowledge somehow brought with it the discovery that she could never entertain towards him those feelings which she felt she must have for the man she married.  She did not even like Tom, for she put the point to herself, and not because of the nasty little stories which Mollins gossip had supplied her about him—she despised such things.  Why, then, had she not been decided from the commencement?  His sisters? yes, but she could not be expected to marry a man because he had nice relatives.  Nevertheless, there it was, her refusal would make all the difference in her relations with the young ladies of Highfield, and she was not ashamed to own to herself that she was very much attached to them.

    That vividly remembered conversation with Jessie had not changed her mind very much, though it was still a constant subject of speculation with her, and would have to be cleared up entirely before she could think of accepting the young mill-owner.  Having made up her mind on other and surer grounds, however, this became of less importance, and the only question that remained was how to get rid of her lover without parting with her lady friends.  When she saw where she was she was compelled to laugh at herself, for of course, important as friendships were, they were secondary in a matter of this sort, and ought not seriously to affect her.  This, then, was her final decision; she would get rid of Tom if possible without estranging his sisters; but, if the worst came to the worst, well, she could always leave the place and have a fresh start, though the thought of that made her strangely heavy.

    When she heard in the hospital that Tom was ill her heart misgave her, and Lena, temporarily domiciled at the Fraters', sent her so many details, and expressed so many apprehensions about her brother, that Carrie felt as though, in some odd way, she was doing the young man an injury.  She remembered also that he was in a very unsatisfactory state of health before his father's death, and that, therefore, the attack would probably be a trying one in his case.  Well, it seemed a hard thing to be arranging the poor fellow's rejection whilst he was in such a plight, and she had to confess that she was very sorry indeed for him.  It struck her as somewhat curious that Jessie's letters should be so much briefer and less cordial than Lena's, but this was no doubt explainable by the fact that Tom needed much attention.

Highfield was out of quarantine when she arrived back in Mollins, and she expected that any hour she might be summoned to the house of her friends.

    She had got settled down in her lodgings again, and was busy making arrangements for the commencement of school on the following Monday morning, when her old adversary, Lot Crumblehulme, strolled into her room.  He had furnished himself with a long clay pipe, but as she rather liked the smell of tobacco, he knew he was not transgressing on that point.  Lot seemed in an almost frivolous mood for him, and joked her about her good and most healthy appearance.  Then he fell into a simpering complacency, behind which she soon suspected there was some very unusual cause of elation.  With head aloft and pipe extended he glanced carelessly about the room for a moment or two, and then strolled towards the window.  It was dark, and the effort he made to see through the glass excited the schoolmistress's curiosity.  Presently he returned to his favourite place before the fire, but still looked lingeringly towards the window.

    "Wee'st have t' old place lighted up now afore long."

    The schoolmistress absently raised her head from a book, but gave no other sign of interest.

    "It 'ull be buzzing away as hard as ever in a month's time."

    "What will?"

    "T' shop (mill); we are startin' it ageean."

    "What shop?"

    "The old shop; the Mollinfoot mill."

    "Who are starting it?"

    "Uz! t' company."

    "The company?"

    "Ay, t' limited, you know; " and suddenly remembering that of course she did not know, he fumbled in his coat pocket, pulled out a foolscap envelope, and handed it to her; pointing as he did so to the printed title on the flap: "The Mollinfoot Manufacturing Company, Limited."

    Carrie glanced at it with vague perplexity, but not without curiosity, and then she said—

    "Oh, I'm very glad!  It will be a good thing for Mollins."

    "It will that!  In twelve months that consarn 'ull be paying ten per cent. if it pays a penny."

    Carrie smiled, and tried to look interested.

    "Who are the company?" she asked idly.

    "Who?  Why, me an' all on us—and him!"

    "All of you?"

    "Ay! the Swires, and Dicky Slade, an' t' Co-op. manager; we're all in it.  Twenty thousand pounds in five-pound shares; you can have some if you want."

    Carrie laughed.

    "I?  Why, poor schoolmistresses have no money for anything of that sort, you know."

    Lot puckered his brows and scowled down upon her in rapid thought, and then in his zeal he broke out—

    "You go in for twenty shares, that's a hundred pound; I'll find the brass, and you can pay me back out of the divvy."

    "Oh, thank you!  But who are the principals—the directors, I mean?"

    "Who?  Why, old John Frost, Long Bob Smith, an' some chaps in Manchester.  Here's t' programme," he continued, lugging out a prospectus.  "You go in for twenty shares; there's a fortune in it."

    Carrie took up the paper with end easy smile, glanced carelessly over the front page, and then cried in astonishment—

    "What!  George Stone?  Has he something to do with it?"

    "Something?  He has that!  Why, miss, he started it!  He's the brains and backbone of the thing; that's what we've all gone in for!"

    Carrie looked grave.

    "And you mean to say that the poor working people of Mollins are trusting their hard-earned savings to an inexperienced young fellow like George?"

    But Lot had scented battle, his feathers began to rise he raised his angular shoulders, expanded his chest, drew a long breath, and then, forefinger on palm, he demanded—

    "Now look here, Miss B.A.  Have you never known wise, clever, hard-working folk as rawled and mauled all their lives an' couldn't make money for t' life on 'em?"

    "Well!"

    "An' have you never known rackety, harum-scarum fellows as turned everything they touched into money?"

    "Well!"

    "Well, he's one of that sort, isn't he?  He's born to it; he cannot help it, an' I'd trust him with the last farthing I had in the world!"

    Carrie sighed helplessly.  Could it be that grown men in the last years of the nineteenth century could be influenced by superstitious considerations? and would she ever get to the bottom of the inconsistencies of these villagers with regard to George Stone?

    "And you mean to say that the working men in Mollins are risking their scanty savings with a reckless young fellow like George?"

    "They are that!  Why, some on 'em are selling their Co-op. shares to go in with him, an' them as has nowt is biting their finger-ends off cause they can't invest!"

    Carrie was seriously alarmed; rising quickly, she cried

    "Oh, but this is dreadful!  The poor folk will be ruined!  Mr. Crumblehulme, this must be stopped!"

    Lot laughed defiantly.

    "Stop it?  You'd better try!  You can do a lot in Mollins, but yo' couldn't do that!"

    "It's cruel!  It's wicked!  I shall go to George Stone myself!"

    "Ay, do!  He's a widower now, and getting on!  Why, bless you, you'd come away with a bundle of shares.  He can talk a dog's hind leg off, he can—when he wants!"

    For a quarter of an hour longer they disputed, Carrie growing more earnest and anxious as she argued, and Lot waxing more and more enthusiastic every moment.  They parted at last, but Lot, when he reached the kitchen door, turned round and said coaxingly—

    "You'd better have an odd hundred in it, miss; it 'ull be a grand thing for you!"

    During the last few moments of their dispute Carrie had been anxious to get rid of her visitor in order to decide for herself what she ought to do; but as soon as he had left her, a curious and most provoking indecision came upon her, and her emotions changed with distressing frequency every moment.  The situation demanded the promptest possible action, and she, who prided herself on her decision of character, was fighting with a curious and most uncharacteristic hesitation.  The proper thing was to go to George, with whom she knew she had some influence; but now she seemed to shrink from it.  Lot's rough joke about George being a widower ought not to have affected her, but it was doing so; and there she was, shrinking from the one thing she was certain she ought to do, and shrinking with a feeling that was new and incomprehensible.  George Stone was nothing to her!  That she understood him as nobody else in Mollins did she was sure, and that she admired him enthusiastically was also certain but these were only additional reasons why she should interfere; she must save him from folly as well as the poor workpeople.  And yet she couldn't, and couldn't because there was in her some new feeling about the village eccentric which she had never had before and which she could by no means understand.  She always felt toward the villagers like a sort of superior mother, and all the woman in her went out in alarm at this peril that threatened them; and yet when she turned in her thoughts to George she felt all at once like a shy school-girl.

    She turned round on her way to dress, and stood debating with herself on the stairs; then she began to examine herself in the glass, but any one watching her would have seen at once that she was thinking of anything rather than her own features.  Suddenly she remembered her friends at Highfield.  Tom, at least, would know about the matter, and understand what was best to do; and she was surprised to discover that any excuse for postponing her interview with the owner of "Squint Hall" was welcome.  And at that moment the fates came to her assistance; a carriage had stopped in the lane outside her lodgings, there was a knock at the front door, Mrs. Chorlton handed in a note and waited with pensive condescension for the answer.

    In less than half an hour Carrie stood in the big, cosy Highfield dining room, being hugged and kissed and fussed about and relieved of her outer garments in the most delightfully Lancashire way.  Her cheeks were mantled with glad blushes, and she had just taken a second and longer look at her lady friends, and was pulling Jessie's face down to her own and covering it with a second shower of kisses, when a hollow male voice broke in: "Can't you spare just a little one for me?"

    With startled little cries they broke away from each other, and Carrie turned with renewed blushes to look upon the wan, elongated form and yellow, hollow-eyed face of Tom Bradshaw.

    With hasty exclamations of apology she hastened to the sofa side, took the long, attenuated fingers in her hand, and whilst he clung to and retained it, she glanced with gushes of pity over his thin, worn form, and offered him most true and hearty sympathy.  The wily Tom was making the most of his advantages, and with characteristic self-pity put on a mournful resignation, half-closed his eyes, and sighingly relinquished the hand that was now being withdrawn.

    After all, it was nice to be there again, and Tom was really much worse than she expected.  This was not the time, at any rate, to harden her heart.

    The conversation at once became general, except that Tom only contributed monosyllables that were half groans, and there were frequent interruptions to minister to his supposed necessities.  At length, when they had exhausted their first recollections of the various happenings since they last met, there was a temporary lull, and Carrie, unrestrained by the presence of Tom, turned to Lena and asked—

    "Well, dear, how are things going in the village?  I've heard nothing yet;" and then in a flash she went on: "Oh, yes, I have; something dreadful!  Mr. Tom, you really must interfere!"

    "Anything to oblige you, Miss Hambridge; but what is it?"

    "Oh, you must have heard!  This last and maddest of George Stone's freaks."

    Tom sat up with a celerity that was astonishing for so frail an invalid.

    "Stone!  Him again!  What now?"

    "Why, don't you know?  He's floating a company to work the little old mill, and all the villagers are becoming shareholders."

    Tom glared at her as though the mere telling of such tidings was an inexpiable insult.

    "The scoundrel!  The whining, Methodist humbug!  This comes of father's tomfooling favouritism!"

    "Tom! respect the dead, if you please," cried Lena.

    "The dead!  Why, girl! it would make a parson swear!  He knows our trade secrets and some of our customers!"

    "But you don't think it is serious, Mr. Tom?  He cannot succeed!"

    "The devil's children have the devil's luck, Miss Hambridge—but I'll stop him, trust me!  I'll put a spoke in his wheel before I'm a day older—the rip!"

    "Tom!"—it was Jessie who now broke in for the first time—"George was a favourite of father's, and I'm father's daughter, and I will not hear—"

    "But, Jessie, dear, he's getting the poor people's money; he will bring ruin to scores of—"  But here she stopped in sore amazement, for the look on Jessie's face, the hunted, desperate expression, made the more eloquent by vain endeavours at concealment, came like a revelation to her, and betrayed the suffering speaker so much that Carrie's heart sank within her.  There was no possibility of mistaking that face, and that there was more, infinitely more, than she saw was only too clear.  She had guessed something of Jessie's feelings about George some time ago, but she knew also that women have a special defence against the dangers of self-betrayal.  There was more, much more, in this than mere hopeless love, and the scene in her own room with Jessie came back with most striking significance.  But Tom was speaking again.  Avoiding Jessie's eyes, and glancing up with a hard little smile, he said—

    "You leave it to me, Miss Hambridge; I'll scotch him, you'll see!"

    Carrie was growing uneasy, and heartily regretting that she had introduced the topic; with Tom on one side and Jessie on the other, the situation was embarrassing.  At the same time, she could not forget the danger to her favourite villagers, neither could she overcome the feeling of jealous curiosity which Jessie's most evident suffering, coupled with her former passion of fear, had awakened.  Besides, what was George Stone to her?  Knowing him as she thought she did, she realised that he might one day, if this, that, and the other happened, become her brother-in-law, but yet there was nothing even in that to disturb her as she certainly was disturbed.  On the very first moment of leisure she must look into this.  Ah, yes, of course! that was it!  She was anxious for George's own sake, as well as the villagers', that this mad scheme should be stopped.  Well, if Tom did his part, as he certainly would from his manner, and if she could induce Jessie to assist in influencing George, her purpose would be all the more sure of accomplishment, and they would avoid a disagreeable collision between brother and sister.  Rapid as light-beams these thoughts followed each other, and yet not quick enough to prevent an uncomfortable break in the conversation; but just as Carrie was framing a question on another and much safer topic, Lena, with the same purpose evidently in her mind, broke in—

    "Oh, Tom, I never knew how it was George was dismissed from the mill?"

    "Didn't you?" and Tom changed his position, stretched his long legs on the sofa, and went on wearily: "Well, between ourselves, it was for dishonesty!"

    Two sharp exclamations, and a sudden, breathless silence, and Tom had a sense that he was talking to purpose for once.

    "If I had imprisoned him, as perhaps I ought—good God, what now?"  And after gazing at the prostrate form of his sister for a moment, whilst Lena and Carrie sprang to her assistance, he concluded pettishly, "That woman will be the death of me yet!"

    In the middle of this damning charge, Jessie had slipped from her chair to the floor, and now lay helpless as a log.

    Notwithstanding every attention and the lavish use of restoratives, Jessie was some time in coming to herself, and when at last she raised her head, she requested to be taken upstairs; so that Carrie soon found herself in danger of being left alone with Tom.  It seemed unkind to hasten away, especially as she was in a sense responsible for what had happened; and so she lingered about the dining-room, every now and again excusing herself to ascertain how Jessie was progressing.  Then Lena came down to say that the patient sends her apologies, and would rest for a while.  It was a "dreadful night," she added; "wouldn't Carrie stay until morning and keep them company?"  Jessie herself had requested it.  Tom livened up at this; he had been lying sulky and neglected on the sofa, but now he seemed suddenly reconciled to the state of things, expressed polite concern for his sister, and added his petition to Lena's, and so Carrie, penitent at having, however inadvertently, caused what had happened, allowed herself to be persuaded, and the three were soon in animated conversation about the details of Tom's illness—a topic about which the young mill-owner was very eloquent and prolix.  Then light refreshments were served, Tom manifesting a gracious hospitality, quite uncommon to him.  During the meal he became most unusually communicative and confidential about business matters, giving hints, in round, vague figures, of the possessions his father had left, and simpering with weak vanity when Lena called him "quite a toff of a cotton lord!"

    Carrie had an uncomfortable feeling that her confidence was oozing out, though she could give no reason for it.  She was sure that she always knew her own mind, sure that, as far as Torn Bradshaw was concerned, she was quite decided; but why did she feel so nervous? and why was she talking in that jerky, ridiculous way?  She watched Lena narrowly, lest she should leave them alone, and altogether was annoyed to find herself as shy and silly as a girl in her first flirtation.

    To make things worse, Tom had left the sofa and occupied a low easy-chair close to her.  The girls talked with their palms spread open to the fire and slippers shyly resting on the fender edge, but Tom could not find a place where his feet would be still, and had a plunging, disturbed manner.  "Lena," he said after a little while, "I want to speak to Miss Hambridge."

    It was so abrupt and clumsy that Lena did not seem to understand at first, but in a moment she rose, with a little, forced laugh, and cried—

    "Oh, certainly, but get it over as soon as you can!"

    Every nerve in Carrie's little body was jangling perhaps no woman is ever quite satisfied with the manner in which the fateful proposal is made to her, and the school-teacher had always dreamed of an offer, warm, of course, even to passion, but delicate, considerate, seductive; but this man's commencement jarred upon her harshly, and set her teeth on edge.

    "Miss Hambridge," he began almost before. the door even closed, "I love you!  I have loved you ever since I first saw you.  But you have repulsed me, disdained me! so that I have resolved a thousand times never to think of you again.  But I cannot help myself!  I love you more to-night than I ever did.  Oh, have pity on me and make me happy!  Don't you see how I am suffering?  I can never get well unless you help me."

    He pulled his chair nearer as he spoke, and laid his hot fingers pleadingly on her wrist.  To a woman like Carrie the declaration that she has been cruel—that is, correct—in her manner of receiving approaches is the subtlest flattery, and though he began badly, Tom was doing better for himself than he knew.  All the same she began a hurried protest, and so he hastened to interrupt—

    "My sisters adore you, my father desired it more than I ever knew him desire anything, and if my dead mother had been here"—and his voice shook a little—"you are just the one she would have chosen for me."

    Tom's good angel had certainly come back to him Carrie felt that she had herself perfectly in hand, painful though it would be, she knew that she could refuse him; but just then her nature played her a curious little trick.  The husky, tremulous little cadence in his voice at the mention of his mother was so transparently accidental and unpremeditated, and it touched her so deeply, that she allowed him to slip his fingers into her hand and clasp it, and instead of the firmly kind answer she intended, there came a half-astonished, half-distressful—

    "But, Mr. Tom, I do not love you!"

    "Love me?  Me?  I should not want you if you did!  I am weak and careless and bad; you have made me see it, and feel it, and hate it.  You could not love the man I have been—and am!  But you can save me!  You can help me to become good enough even for you!  Save me!  Oh, save me, and earn my eternal love and devotion!"

    Tom Bradshaw was certainly inspired to-night; he could not possibly have hit upon a more powerful line of argument; the helping, motherly instinct so strong in Carrie, which had made her so signal a success as a teacher and given her so deep an interest in the simple affairs of the villagers, was now clamouring for that sort of sacrifice so delightful to women of her kind.

    "Oh! no, no, no!  Mr. Tom, you must not!  I cannot—"

    But he still held her, and was drawing her closer to himself; her little, trembling hand was now buried in both his, and he was looking up into her face in a very agony of eagerness and suspense.

    "Oh!  God help me, if you are not merciful!"

    "Oh, don't, Mr. Tom!  Let us wait; you are ill, remember."

    "Ill!  I wish I were dead!"

    "Mr. Tom!"

    "I do!  Ill? ay, ill in mind; I am mad, or shall be! I want to be a man; I want to play the man in life, and you will not help me! "

    He had struck this cord almost by accident, but he felt that it was his one hope, and so made the most of it.  Suddenly he let go her hand, turned aside in his chair, buried his face in his hands, and groaned out heavily.

    "Poor fellow! don't agitate yourself—don't!"

    But she dared not draw nearer to him, even by so much as a change in the inclination of her body.  Stiff, bewildered, carried along inwardly by feelings she dared not analyse, she sat there until, before she knew it, he had flung his long arms around her chair, and kneeling before her began another passionate supplication.  He was so wan and desperate-looking, the sickness through which he had passed had so enfeebled him, that the very wretchedness of his appearance became his most powerful plea; and—and, well, Carrie could never exactly tell how it was—but her eyes filled with compassionate tears, a sudden gush of over-mastering pity swept through her, carrying prudence, self-possession, and every other defence with it; and she bent over, touched his dank brow with her quivering lips, and allowed him to clasp her in his shaking arms.


 
CHAPTER XXIII.

A TERRIBLE REACTION.


AS soon as Carrie reached her temporary bedroom at Highfield that night she knew that she had made a terrible mistake, and destroyed for ever that buoyant self-reliance which had so long been her strength.  It was well there was a fire in the room, for she had no desire for rest; and sat there hour after hour fighting the eternal fight of a judgment strongly supported by every consideration of worldly prudence, and a dull, sulky, and uncommunicative conscience, which declined to argue, but kept on doggedly reiterating a stolid, unreasoning negative.

    Like most persons under such circumstances she was less than just to herself, and insisted that the fit of weak, unworthy sentimentality by which she had allowed herself to be carried away was only a disguise for the worldly considerations which at bottom had overcome her; she always had been attracted by the position Tom had to offer, and the possibilities it presented; even her love for his sisters was really only cover for that.  She was marrying for a worldly position, and for the social importance and influence which it would bring.  She was no better than a common husband hunter.  All through that long, sad night she sat thinking, and alas! when morning, the faithful ally of sweet reasonableness, at last dawned, it seemed for once to have turned traitor, and ranged itself on the side of her pragmatical and cruelly aggressive conscience.  She was glad it was the Sabbath, glad that the morning was so wet there could be no question of church, and glad that Tom was reported to be so unwell that he would keep his room until evening.  The day, therefore, would be her own, or at least she could easily make it so; and so she got into bed to deceive her friends, allowed the maid to bring breakfast, and then accepted the kindly hint of Lena for a long rest with almost hysterical gratitude.

    The hours dragged heavily by, it was a positive comfort to her to hear the steady drip, drip, of the rain outside.  She knew how easy it had always been for her to do what she had once decided was the right thing; she knew that there was that within her which would make her stop even at the marriage altar; but the ridiculousness, the contemptible inconsistency, and the manifestation of weakness involved in withdrawing from the position she had allowed herself to be drawn into, seemed so humiliating that her whole nature shrank from it.  The study of human nature! she actually laughed at the thought of it, she did not even understand herself; that pursuit, therefore, must be abandoned for ever, and she must at any rate get to know some little about the fragment of humanity with which she ought to be best acquainted.  And nobody was to blame but herself; Tom had acted as she might have expected; nay, when she came to think of it, he had acted much better than she ever imagined he would, and she soon began to regard him as an injured person who had a special claim upon her consideration.  She had sent a sympathetic little message to Tom by Lena, and she had promised to join the girls downstairs after dinner, but she welcomed the information that Jessie was too unwell to appear, with inward thankfulness, and eagerly encouraged Lena's desire to go to afternoon service.  She had so grossly deceived them all, and was plotting to offer them so great an insult that her anxiety about them threatened to carry her to the other extreme, and she came perilously near to deciding that, having made the position herself, she must bear it as best she could, and sacrifice her peace of mind to their contentment.

    But why was it that George Stone came so persistently into her mind in these painful dubitations? and why had she such a haunting sense that she had somehow injured him?  He was nothing to her, except an interesting study, and had no connection at all with the present trouble: and yet there he was, his round, merry face, long and reproachful, and his whole manner, sad and stern.

    No, she could blame nobody for what had happened; she had seen the proposal coming for months; she had looked at it carefully and often, and was familiar with every phase of it; why, then, had she such a frightened, and condemned feeling?  Nervous reaction?  A natural misgiving at the fact that the thing had been done in a passion of sentiment and sympathy?  No, it was more than these; rightly or wrongly, her whole being protested against the step she had taken, and would listen to neither persuasion nor argument.

    Lena did not go to church after all, and it soon became clear, by the frequency with which she came to visit Carrie's room, that either she was very restless about something, or that Tom was very impatient to see his fiancée.  There was nothing for it, therefore, but to get up and make the best of things; for she was as far from decision as ever, and must have more time to think.  The day proved insufferably long and trying, Lena seemed to be studying her with a surprised and dubious curiosity, and spoke of the still absent Jessie with an evasiveness that was painfully suspicious whilst Tom, eager and triumphant, paid her such constant attention that she grew more penitent and self-accusing every moment.

    After an early tea, she was suddenly seized with a desire to visit Jessie—at any rate it would be a relief and an escape, and she might at least get to the bottom of Jessie's recent excitement about their engagement, and the cause of her visit to Providence Cottage.  But her plainest hints in this direction were disregarded, and a little before six Lena left her with Tom, and she realised that she was doomed to spend the evening in his company.  She began to grow excited and reckless, went to the piano and played; then she offered to sing—a thing she had never been willing to do in that house before—and when she could no longer continue that occupation, she commenced a discussion with her companion about socialism and its tendencies.  Tom was as ignorant as most of his class on the subject, and became surly and somewhat resentful; obviously he was not listening to her explanations, and had a surprised and wondering look.  Presently he took her hand, condemned socialism and socialists to outer darkness, and then bluntly asked her to talk about herself.  Carrie snatched at it as a very god-send, and for the next hour or so gave him particulars about her family and connections, and a sketch of her life, which, whilst they interested him, also considerably surprised him.  She was of respectable birth, at any rate, and had been nicely brought up, and so he was pleased.  But he tired of the topic, lover-like, long before she did, and it was only her happy idea of asking him to speak of himself that saved the situation.  Tom had nothing good to say of his own career so far, but on his resources and prospects he became eloquent enough, and she saw with mingled feelings that in a few years he would be as much a business worshipper as his father, unless something came to divert his interest.  And so that never-ending evening wore slowly away, and as Tom's talk had exhausted him, and he tired early, she got her release, and was soon alone again with her dreadful problem.

    The school opened on Monday morning, and never did teacher go to her work more eagerly; her conflict was not over, but she must have relief, and the work she loved so much provided it, at least for the time.

    "I'm rather tired to-night, Mrs. Chorlton; don't let anybody disturb me if you can help it," she said, as she sat over her idle, unappetising tea that night.  The landlady's long face went longer than ever—

    "But he wants to speak to you; he's been waiting ever since you began tea."

    "Who?  Mr. Lot?  Well, let him come in at once."

    With a lugubrious sigh and a dismal shake of the head, Asenath took herself off, and Carrie put her feet on the fender and waited with weary resignation for the coming of her old antagonist.

    " 'The wicked plotteth against the just and gnasheth upon him with his teeth!' "

    This sentence, commenced in the kitchen and finished on the hearthrug, was flung out in spasmodic jerks by the excited tripe-dresser, who now stood glaring down upon her as though she had been the offending party.

    "The wicked!  What do you mean?  What is the matter?"

    "It's stopped! jacked up! busted! and 'the wicked spreadeth himself like the green bay tree.' "

    "The company, do you mean?  Well, I'm very glad!"

    "Glad!  Glad!"  And after staring at her for a moment with scandalised look, he turned in indignant appeal to the long-cased clock.  "And this is argyment!  This is logic!  Why, woman!"—and here he swung round upon her again—"why, woman, it's villainous!  He's a scoundrel, a grasping, greedy dog-in-the-manger!"

    "No!  No!  He's headlong, and thoughtless, and odd, but not that!"

    "Not that! he's worse nor that!  But he'll rue it! rue it as sure as there's a God in heaven!—an' him rich, too!"

    "Rich?  Aren't you speaking of George Stone?"

    "Stone?  Listen to that now!  Stone?  Why, am I not talkin' about the tyrant!—the greedy oppressor of the poor?"

    "Whom do you mean?"  And Carrie was getting out of patience, and showed it.

    "Who?  The young master!  He's stopped it; it's nobody else, and it's just like him!"

    With wide-opened eyes and protesting tones, Carrie rejected the suggestion, and then proceeded to draw out of her visitor such details as he could give.  The shares had not been taken up fast enough, and the Manchester directors had been to the Butteridge bank to get them to keep the list open for a few days longer.  To the dismay of both, the bank people had declined, and also expressed their desire to wash their hands of the whole business.

    "But what has this to do with Mr. Tom?"

    "Do?  That's it!  He's a director of the bank, isn't he, and he's put his motty in!"

    "But how do you know?"  And Carrie felt her very lips going white.

    "Know?  We do know: there's nobody else for it—the snake i' th' grass!"

    "Mr. Crumblehulme, I'm ashamed of you!  Why, he's done it to save your money, and the people's.  I'm glad, I'm very glad!"

    "Save our money!  Argyment!  Logic!  Why, Miss B.A., he wouldn't have moved his little finger to save us!"

    "It is a wicked slander; he's done it to save you all, and I'm right glad of it.  Does George say it is he?"

    "George?  That's it!  He never says nowt wrong about him, 'cause they were lads together."

    "Of course he doesn't, and he knows him better than any of you; but what does he say about it?"

    "Say!" and Lot's expression of scornful disdain was a picture.  "Why, he just laughs as he does about everything.  He'd laugh i' Pandemonium, he would."

    Carrie argued until she was utterly tired, but she might as well have talked to a stone wall, and Lot left her at last with the declaration, made in his most vehement manner, that if there was a God in heaven the young mill-owner would be "brought to book" for this.

    Falling into a brown study as soon as she was alone, Carrie tried vainly to concentrate her thoughts on her own pressing anxiety, but gradually she became aware that voices, raised in high and stormy altercation, were filling the kitchen with noise.  It was nothing to her; she had surely enough to think of.  But the voices grew louder.  Lot was almost screaming out some wild protest, and was being answered in short, solemn sentences by his sister.  It was most unusual; she had never been so disturbed before.  Then there was a scuffle, a clamorous series of protests, a shaking of the kitchen door, and suddenly the tripe-dresser was pushed into the room by his sister, who, holding him by the back of his coat collar and shaking him every now and again as she brought him, dragged him indignantly forward and, casting him at Carrie's feet, commanded tragically—

    "On your bended knees!"

    "I didn't know!  How should I know?" cried Lot, raging at the humiliation.

    Mrs. Chorlton, stern and implacable, towered grimly over him, and pointing a long, relentless finger at the mistress's footstool, repeated—

    "On your bended knees!"

    "What is the matter?" cried Carrie, amazed, and yet afraid of laughing.

    "I didn't know!  I didn't know you was courtin' him!"

    "On your bended knees!"

    So it was out already, was it?  Carrie could have shuddered.

    "No, no!" she cried, "of course he didn't know, Mrs. Chorlton.  It is quite right; I'm not in the least offended."

    But the avenging landlady could not be appeased; she gripped the struggling Lot with both hands, forced him willy-nilly upon the hearthrug, holding him relentlessly until he had stammered out the last syllable of his apology, and then, pointing with threatening finger towards the door, she glanced with dignified entreaty at the mistress, stalked majestically away, and turned round as she vanished to give her interpretation of the whole scene, and of Lot's many infirmities in the cryptic quotation, "The crackling of thorns under a pot."

    That was a never-to-be-forgotten night with the little schoolmistress.  In spite of two notes from Highfield—the latter of which offered the tempting bait of a case of rings to be inspected—she gave herself up to a remorseless process of mental unpacking.  Everything must come out now, and she must know the worst of herself.  It had been the pride of prides with her that she always knew her own mind, but now, having convicted herself of indecision that was weak almost to wickedness, and a cowardice which had its roots in sordid selfishness, there was nothing for it but to come to an end of the matter, and to see the worst and best—if there was a best—at once.  She had not yet learnt that we never do things of this kind without overdoing them, and that the effort to be just invariably makes us unjust to ourselves; and so she not only insisted upon recognising and labelling each article as she took it out of her mental trunk, but groped to the very bottom, gathered up and dragged out amorphous, half-formed ideas, and gave to each of them a distinct, uncompromising name.

    The feeling she had for Tom Bradshaw was not love, and never had been.  The motives which had inclined her towards him had been motives of vulgar, worldly ambition, concealed behind weak, womanly amiability.  She did not even respect him or pity him.  There were matters about which she actually suspected him, and yet she had promised to marry him!  She had cultivated clearness of thought, and candid courageous facing of facts, and yet in the very first prime question of life she had ever had to decide, she had shifted and wobbled, and ignored and shut her eyes to unwelcome facts like the veriest coward.  She was a student of human nature, forsooth! and could not apply the most elementary principles of that science when it came to herself.  She had taken up one case in that study, and it had developed into a commonplace, nay, a discreditable, love affair.  Yes! there must be no evasion now; she had commenced to unpack this intellectual trunk, and it should be emptied.  She preferred another man! a poor, rough, eccentric man, of base origin, and uncertain, contradictory character.  She had slowly and gradually idealised a man with whom she had nothing in common, and all this when she knew that a better woman, and her own dearest friend, was dying of love for him.

    She left her supper neglected on the table, let the fire sink until it expired, January though it was; shivered without knowing it, and, gnawing at her lips till the blood came, paced up and down the little room too self-angry for tears.  At last she dragged her stiffened limbs to bed, but only to renew the struggle.  All the night through she fought with her cruel problem resolved upon half a dozen different courses and abandoned them; decided more than once to pack her box and disappear from Mollins for ever; and at last, when the daylight, slow and dim, crept in upon her, she rose wearily to resume the unending debate.  In spite of liberal applications of water, hot and cold, to her head, and the lavish use of eau-de-cologne, she went downstairs with temples beating like clocks, and eyes that felt too big for their sockets.  The thought of school seemed torture, but the dread of being any longer in her own company was worse, and so, sitting down on the edge of her chair, she made an effort to gulp down tea that nearly scalded her.  Another sign, however, began to alarm her and expedite her movements: the kitchen door had been left open, a series of mysterious challenging coughs were flung into the room, and glancing round she saw the ferret eyes of old Lot fixed upon her.  He did not usually trouble her in the morning, but he was evidently full of some great news, and eager for an invitation to unburden himself.


 
CHAPTER XXIV.

JESSIE EXPLAINS.


THE old man and his odd, fussy ways seemed positively hateful to her just then, and she swallowed her tea hastily—burning hot though it was—and hurried off to her duties, whilst Lot, with a look of unpleasant surprise, strode into the room the moment she had left it and looked round with an amazed, wondering whistle.  Glancing at the clock, which stood at half-past eight, he compared it with his own corpulent watch, gave another perplexed whew, and then, returning to the kitchen, began hurriedly to put on his boots.

    Carrie meanwhile had got into the lane, where she found the air damp and moist.  But she turned away from the direction of the school-house, and walked musingly along towards the village, with the intention of reaching her destination by going round.  The raw air was very grateful to her hot face, and she stepped along with a sense of relief and revival.  Turning down Radcliffe's Ginnel, to avoid the factory folk coming home to breakfast, she came out opposite to the blackened walls of the old Methodist school-house.  George Stone came into her mind as she raised her eyes, and then she heard the clink of an iron tool and the rumbling of falling stones, and, taking a step nearer and peeping over the wall, she beheld the proprietor of "Squint Hall" standing over a newly-fallen bit of masonry, and, heedless of dust and damp, tearing brick from blackened brick in fierce, headlong haste.  Behind him lay a heap of old bricks, which had been carefully freed of old mortar and piled tidily together; and to the left was a row of old stone facings, laid regularly side by side, as though of immense value.  She forgot the material in watching the man.  Had the old place been burning at that moment, and he breaking the walls to rescue some precious life, he could not have worked with more feverish haste.  He heard nothing, saw nothing but what he was engaged upon, and, as he drove his crowbar again and again into the wall, his face was hard and almost fierce.  It came into her mind that his recent misfortunes had unsettled his brain, but the affectionate care with which he picked out and carried away the larger stone blocks scarcely justified that conclusion, and, having other things to think of, she turned up the hill with a weary sigh, and was just moving away when a harsh voice behind her broke in—

    "He's workin' it off, poor lad! he's workin' it off!"

    The speaker was Lot Crumblehulme, who, with coat buttoned up to hide his collarless neck, and hand held carefully under his chin, was looking at her with mournful face.

    "Off!  What off?  Whatever is he doing?"

    "Doing! he's workin' it off!  Can't you see what a flusterment he's in?  He's mad about 'em stoppin' t' company, and that's his only comfort."

    "Comfort!  Does it comfort him to pull things to pieces?"

    "To pieces!  What, don't you know what a fix we were in?  We'd neither insurance money nor brains nor nowt, and he ups and he makes plans fit for a town hall—spiffers!—and he says if we'll put the old stones into the new building he'll give us fifty pound."

    "Fifty pounds!"

    "Ay; him as they turned out!  Fifty pound! an' t' young master, as rolls in brass, wouldn't give us a fardin'.  Oh, drabbit it! what am I saying?"

    The schoolmistress had dropped her head; there were blushes of hot shame on her cheeks, and tears of proud delight in her eyes.  It was always the little, eccentrically sentimental things about George that touched her most, and the thought of him relieving his mind in his great disappointment by gratifying his whimsical affection for the ugly, insanitary school-house sent a warm thrill through her, and lightened for a moment the black night in her soul.

    That was the longest day of Carrie Hambridge's life.  The close schoolroom seemed to smother her; a very demon of inconsiderateness had got into the children their very voices jarred upon her nerves.  She was petulant one moment and impulsively penitent the next, and sat on her stool with drooping head and mournful, faraway thoughts, until she awoke to find the scholars staring at her wonderingly, and waiting for the word which never came.  Everything went awry, and in more than one over-strained moment she was conscious of odd tremors and vague, half-hysterical agitations, that swelled into her throat and made her long to shriek.  She dismissed the scholars at the earliest possible moment, emptying her pockets of apologetic pennies to those whom she had snubbed, and kissing with convulsive penitence more than one startled, dirty little face.  At last she was escaping and getting time for the last great struggle; that this should go on longer was intolerable.  That night, for better or for worse, she must come to an end of the matter.  With that curious hesitation, which comes so often after impatient haste, she stood at her desk, moving and then replacing the simple implements of her craft.  She had wiped a second time her already dry pens and placed them on the stand, was gliding her hand towards her pocket in search of her keys, and glancing around for the registers, which had already been put away, when a sharp click of the door-sneck made her drop her keys and put her hands apprehensively upon her heart, whilst a sweep of drapery behind the partition made her start forward with a suppressed cry, and then draw back with a wondering exclamation as Jessie Bradshaw came towards her.

    "Jessie!" she cried, whilst the blood mounted to her face and then fled back again.  But this was not the gentle, kind-eyed mistress of Highfield, but some haughty, imperious goddess, an inch or more taller than the loving friend she knew.  Her lips were almost nipped together, and her eyes cold and hard. Her bosom rose and fell rapidly, and there were tremors here and there, in spite of desperate efforts at self-control.

    "Jessie, love! what—what is the matter?"

    "Stop!  Touch me not!  I'm bad and mad!  He has made me so, and now he shall rue it! "

    "Jessie! oh, my darling! don't look like that.  What is it?"

    "It is wickedness! base wickedness; but badness shall be met with badness; he shall not crush him; he shall not!"

    Higher and higher she seemed to be drawing herself, until she towered above her small companion like a tragic fury.  Carrie, watching her with hypnotised stare, saw the beginnings of a change, and was anticipating a collapse, when the frenzied creature sprang at her, took her head in her hands, and, peering down into the startled, upturned eyes, demanded hoarsely—

    "Do you love my brother Tom?"

    "Jessie, dear, you are rude!"  And Carrie snatched at her visitor's hands, and would have pushed them away, but Jessie set her teeth and held the head as in a vice, and commanded, "Answer; tell me truly!  Lift up your eyes that I may see—"  And then, without finishing, she stared down into the startled orbs turned up to hers, and, suddenly releasing them and clasping her hands together, whilst gracious tears rose into voice and eyes, she finished, "Oh, thank God! thank God!  Now I can tell you all!"

    But Carrie's brain was clearing rapidly, and collectedness had returned.  The aching difficulties of her mind were forgotten; her poor, distracted friend was in extreme need, and so she braced herself up with a great effort for the task before her.  It was almost dark, and Jessie's sobs were echoing through the deserted schoolroom, but Carrie stood calmly watching her for a full minute, and then, moving softly towards her, took her round the waist, drew her gently to the nearest bench, pulled the unwilling face down until it touched her own, and then, pressing her lips upon the quivering mouth, she murmured soothingly—

    "Cry, love; it will do you good!"

    "He would not!  I implored him, humbled myself, went down on my knees to him, and he would not!"  But Carrie's anxiety was rather to pacify than to question her friend just then, and so she murmured softly—

    "Well, well, dear; never mind!  Try to calm yourself!"

    Jessie's head burned and throbbed on her friend's shoulder, and as she felt the laboured, quivering respiration her heart went out in pity, and she put her hand on the broad brow.

    "Poor George! poor, poor George!" sobbed Jessie at length.

    "George? what about him, love?  Is he in trouble?"

    "Trouble!"  And Jessie sat up and stared at her friend through the gathering gloom indignantly.  "Why, he's ruined!  The company's stopped, you know, and Tom—"

    But Carrie was expecting this, and so she broke in, in a soft, soothing voice—

    "We can perhaps arrange that, if that is all."

    "Us?  Us arrange it?  Oh, Carrie, he wouldn't do it, even for you!"

    Carrie knew perfectly well who the "he" was, but she was thinking of her friend, and seeking some means of easing her distraction, and so she replied quietly—

    "Perhaps we can set the company going again."

    "Us?  Why, Carrie, it would take thousands of pounds!"

    "Well, how much have you?"

    "I?  Not more than one; and Mr. Cornthwaite says—"

    Carrie was in triumph; she was succeeding in diverting, if only for a moment, this poor, distressed soul, and Jessie was sitting up and thinking rapidly.  And so, to keep her to the subject, she interrupted—

    "Oh, have you consulted Mr. Cornthwaite about it?"

    "Yes, I have," and there was a sudden shy shame in her voice, "and he says it would take three at least, and I have only one—that I can get at."

    "Well, I can find the rest."

    "You!  Two thousand pounds?  Why, Carrie, I thought—"

    "Yes; I suppose you did.  Well, it is not a thing to talk about, and I wanted to be a teacher properly; but I am not without means, and independent of trustees."

    "Oh, you darling!  You sweet, angel darling!  But you wouldn't risk all that on such a scheme, would you?"

    "Of course—and more; but we've now got down to humdrum commercial matters, and so we can go home to tea."

    It was already dark, but Carrie, watching her friend, saw tears and smiles succeed each other on Jessie's fair face, and could not decide which of the two looked most pathetic.  But her own headache had gone, and her terrible mental conflict was not merely arrested, it was over.  Sitting there in the gloom those few moments, she had seen her way and resolved at all costs to follow it.  Her plan for the moment was to keep Jessie interested, and so, as she took down and put on her cloak, she talked of George; told of his eccentric work of the morning, and saw with delight, and intense regret, that Jessie saw as much beauty in the freak as she had done herself.  Old Lot, evidently full of news, was standing on the hearthrug when they entered, but on seeing the grand visitor be vanished incontinently.

    A strong dose of soothing mixture, a cup of hot tea, an easy-chair, and a friend chattering gaily, did wonders for Jessie.  But now, seized with sudden alarm, she protested again and again that Carrie must not risk her money, but simply loan it to her.  She grew quieter every moment, and leaned her wet-clothed head languidly on the back of her chair, and tried to smile.

    "You darling," she murmured gratefully, "you have been my good angel to-day."

    "Fudge!  Here, take a little more of the sedative, and don't talk."

    Meekly accepting the dose, Jessie drank it off, and Carrie, dropping down upon the rug, leaned easily and confidingly against the other's knee, and turning her face towards the fire sat gazing dreamily into it. Inwardly she was impatient and curious, but feared to show it, lest she should excite her limp and pensive visitor.

    "Then, Carrie, why did you take Tom, if—if you didn't love him?"

    "I never said I didn't."

    "No, but you don't, I know you don't!" and then, with a resigned sigh that belied her words, she added, "and after all, I am so thankful."

    "But why didn't you say so before I accepted him?"

    "Oh, forgive me, dear; I was selfish.  I loved you.  I wanted you for a sister, and to save Tom."

    "Save him!  Why, that is the very argument he used himself!  Why do you keep making these tantalising hints?  What is wrong with him?  What has he to be saved from?"

    But there was no answer.  Jessie had gone paler and closed her eyes, whilst soft tears glistened under her long eyelashes.  Carrie was eager to know more, and yet afraid, and so, to change the subject, she went on, with fictitious raillery—

    "What about this immaculate George of yours?  Doesn't he want saving from something or somebody?"

    Still no response.  Some capricious operation in the mysterious law of mental association had carried her back in a flash to the old, hard problem which had been agitating her brain for months, and when Carrie looked up she saw two widely-dilated, pain-strained eyes staring absorbedly at her.  A shudder seemed to pass through Jessie's frame; an exclamation almost of terror escaped her, and she sprang up with sudden, almost fierce decision.

    "I must be going!"

    "Going?"  And Carrie was on her feet and facing her in an instant.  "No, no, Jessie!  You have forgotten that you have something to tell me."

    "Tell you!  No, no!  Forget it.  I was mad in the school-house.  It does not matter now."

    "It matters to me; you spoke of Tom, and he is my affianced husband!"

    "But, girl!" and the desperate creature, now all excitement, sprang again across the room, "he's my brother! my dead mother's legacy to me!  And then, standing there, she swayed to and fro for a moment, and then, dropping helplessly forward into her friend's arms, she cried wailingly, "Oh, Carrie! is it right?  I will tell you if it is right."

    Carrie, overstrained and nervous, was fast becoming impatient, but this last pathetic appeal went to her heart, and with gentle, soothing words and soft, comforting kisses, she put her friend back into the easy-chair, and then, resuming her place on the rug, waited for her to speak.

    Jessie sat uneasily sliding the fingers of one hand through the interstices of the other, and at last she burst out—

    "My brother is a base, bad man, Carrie! and George Stone is a noble, Christian hero."

    "You've said that before; explain it."  And Carrie sounded curt and irritable.

    "Oh, Carrie!  I long to tell you.  I came to tell you—but—but is it right?"

    "You have said too much or too little; you cannot stop now."

    Jessie bit her lip, pulled at her interlaced fingers, looked hard, yet shyly, at her friend, and then asked softly

    "Have you ever noticed a dent in George's head?"

    "I?  No.  We were speaking about Tom."

    "Well, there is one.  He and Tom were playing on the mill staircase when they were boys.  George did something that angered Tom, and he rushed at him and pushed him against the hoist entrance on the third story.  He fell all that distance, and was picked up for dead."

    "Well?"

    "Nobody knew but the two how it had been done and George, though he lay in the workhouse infirmary for two months, has never named it, that I know of, from that day to this."

    "Yes?"

    George was horsewhipped one day for a prank in the engine-yard that Tom had done.  Tom would have got off with a scolding, but George was black and blue for a week.  But father found out something about that, and that was how his interest in George commenced."

    "Go on."

    "They were still inseparable.  George was his lackey and slave, and bore the blame of all his tricks."

    "Yes?"

    "When Tom went away to school he used to borrow money from George, who was only a common mill-hand, and he kept it up when he went to college; and he has never paid him back—except, it may be, since father's death."

    "Well?"

    "The next—you know about Netty Swire?"

    "Well?"

    "Tom was flirting with her, and George tried to stop him for her father's sake."

    "Yes?"

    "And when it still went on, and Netty was on the verge of ruin, George married her suddenly—to save her.  She told me so herself."

    "Is there much more?"

    "Tom got involved in betting, and persuaded me to lend him a deed of mine whilst father was away, that he might raise money upon it."

    "Go on."

    "George accidentally found it out, and came to me; and together we got the deed back.  George found the money—three hundred pounds.  But he lost the deed out of his pocket the night of the fire, and it was taken straight to father.  Father appealed to George, and when he would not tell anything, he broke his head with an office-ruler, and then dismissed him."

    "Yes?"

    "And Tom has allowed him to go under the suspicion of dishonesty and dismissal."

    "Is that all?"

    "Yes, except that Tom is a roué and a gambler still."

    There was a long pause.  Jessie, exhausted with her long and protracted efforts, sank back into her chair.  Carrie Hambridge was thinking in cataclysms, in revolutions—a whole crowded lifetime apparently in every second—and when she did speak, the hard, stern tone was stranger even than the strange sentiments she expressed.

    "And that's your fine George Stone?  The spiritless milksop deserves all he has got!"

    "Carrie!"

    Carrie had taken a great resolve, and was now playing an entirely new part.

    "He does!  He's the soul of a slave!  Huh!  I cannot bear to think of him!"

    Jessie was now gazing at her friend with amazed distress.

    "Carrie, he loved Tom with a pure, unselfish love, and does yet."

    "Yet?"

    "Yet!  I believe he would lie down and die for him at this very moment."

    "Well, all I can say is, that if that is your grand nonsuch of a George, you're welcome to him.  No man would have stood it."

    Jessie was gazing at her in dull, helpless amazement but at last, as Carrie flung out another cutting jibe, she gasped out—

    "But what about Tom?"

    "Tom? never mind Tom!  It is George I am talking about; and if that is the sort of person he is, you are heartily welcome to him!"  And Carrie studied the effect of her words carefully.

    The incredulous astonishment upon Jessie's countenance slowly gave place to a relieved, half-comforted smile, whilst a soft little sigh escaped her; and Carrie, encouraged by the success of her strategy, commenced talking in rapid, ad captandum fashion about one thing or another until her companion's jaded brain failed at the effort of comprehension; and after sitting and listening for several minutes, contributing only an occasional ejaculation, she rose to depart, and Carrie went with her down the lane towards the village.

    But the Carrie who came back to Providence Cottage was not the chattering, fussy little woman who had piloted her friend on her way home, but a brooding, confounded, struggling creature.  She was very far indeed from being satisfied with what she had heard.  To her practical mind the story seemed strained and unreal, and it seemed to her that the splendour of George's conduct existed chiefly in Jessie's love-lighted imagination.  The whole thing was too crudely idealistic, and lacked the warm touch of actuality and humanness which alone could have made it perfect to her.  The devotion displayed excited her suspicion; it was too much of the Sunday-school story-book order, only she found it difficult to associate mawkish sentimentality with George Stone.  She felt herself hovering on the borders of contemptuousness, and very heartily wished that the hero of the tale had been a little less virtuous and a little more manly and human.  The mental image of the great, strong fellow sitting as a monument of persecuted but all-forgiving meekness, offended her; cold scorn rose within her, and she shook herself as she thought of it, and heartily wished she had never heard the tormenting narrative.  But she had more to do yet with this momentous matter, and on this, the most eventful night of her history; and so, after standing musingly before the fire for a while and glancing anxiously at the clock, she went to her little desk, filled up a cheque upon a London bank, buttoned her cloak mechanically, adjusted her jaunty little hat, and just as the parish timekeeper chimed eight she was knocking for the first time in her life at the door of "Squint Hall."


 
CHAPTER XXV.

CARRIE'S DISAPPEARANCE.


CARRIE had conceived a great idea, and formed a resolute purpose.  There was love in it, and gratitude and sweet self-sacrifice, and these seemed to uplift and inspire her; but all the same she realised that she was on a risky, even compromising, errand.  And yet she could not deny herself a last melancholy pleasure: she wanted to see and talk to George once more before she—but the door opened, and the man himself stood before her.  He had a pen in his left hand and another behind his ear, and when, with hearty welcome, he ushered her into the house, she beheld a table, covered all over with sheets of plans, evidently about the rebuilding of the school-chapel.  She was a little flustered and nervously breathless, and so, to gain time for self-recovery, she stepped up to the table, crying—

    "What! architecting, George!  The new chapel!  What a handy man you are!"

    She could not have made a happier hit for her momentary purpose.  He bent over the table with her, spread out the plans with eager, almost childish pride, and cried exultingly—

    "Won't it be grand?  Just like the old place—only bigger."

    Carrie had always regarded the old school-chapel as the very ugliest public building she had ever seen, and she knew George had good natural taste in such things.  Then she realised, with a flash of sympathetic insight, that it must have been a wonderful affection that so transfigured the old building to him.  But he was speaking—

    "Those are the very same old, blessed stones that were in the old place, and we are putting them in the very same places—chiselled over again, you know."

    "How fond of it you were, George?"

    "Fond of it!  Bless you, miss"—but here he dropped his voice into a whisper of wonderful confidence—"I owe everything to that old building, everything in the world;" and then, putting his hand gently on her cloak-sleeve, he added, reverently, "I was converted in that old chapel—but I never let on; you know, I knew myself."

    "Converted" was a word Carrie particularly disliked, but she knew exactly what it connoted to Methodists, and it had always been one of her favourite contentions that the word and the thing did not agree, and that the interpretation put upon the word did not tally with the observed facts of human nature; people were good and bad before conversion, and good and bad after.  And the strange intermingling of qualities so obvious in George had always seemed to confirm her own theory.  But now he was taking the argument away from her, and she glanced him over with half-protesting curiosity, and was conscious of an odd, inconsistent sort of disappointment.  But old Lyd was pulling at her cloak to induce her to take a seat, and so she turned from the table and dropped into a chair.  Then she loosed the neck of her cloak, stole a long, scrutinising glance at George, who was still bending lovingly over his plans, and noted for the first time that the shape of his head seemed to have changed.  The upper part of it appeared to have moved forward and filled out in front; his brow had broadened, and the back of his neck had lost its fleshy creases.  He was turning to look at her, and so in self-defence she began to talk.

    "I came to see you, George, on a matter of business.  I want a few shares in your wonderful company."  He shot at her a sharp, shrewd look, and then, tossing up his head, he laughed his old, hearty laugh, and answered—

    "You're too late, miss; that thing is off entirely."  And to her surprise he talked as though it were of no moment.

    "Yes, I heard there was a hitch, and that is why I came."

    He was now sitting forward on the edge of a chair, and he raised his eyebrows and objected with a deprecating smile—

    "But, miss, I heard you were opposed to it, and—and your future husband, too."

    "I was; but it is a woman's privilege to change her mind, you know, and I can surely do as I like with my own!"

    George's face was a study; he was staring straight before him with puckers of perplexity on his brow, and a wild, delirious, eager light growing into his eyes.  He remained in this attitude so long that she concluded he was not going to answer; but suddenly he dropped his eyes upon her, put his head on one side with a crafty look, and said—

    "It's no use, miss; we want a lot of money."

    "How much, about?"

    He was studying her with an intensity that was grotesque and very embarrassing, and answered, as he watched her slightest movement—

    "Three thousand at least."

    "Well, I know a friend who is applying for one thousand pounds' worth of shares, and I should like two."

    "It is!  It is!"

    He had sprung to his feet like a wild man.

    "It's him!  It's him!  He's coming to!  I knew he would!  I said he would, bless him!  May God Almighty bless him!"

    "He?  Who?  Whoever are you talking about?"

    Had he been less eager and excited, her amazement might have undeceived him; but he saw nothing, heard nothing, and commenced to hug and rock himself in a frenzy of delight.  He rolled his great head about and shouted, and then stopping suddenly with a new thought, he cried, groaningly—

    "But I shall never keep it; I didn't forgive him."

    Carrie, despairing for the moment of getting anything out of the crazy fellow, thought it best to take the first opening, and so she asked—

    "Forgive whom?"

    "Him!  Mr. Tom! my dear old friend!  I forgave him and forgave him till it came to that, and then I couldn't.  And I cannot yet!  I cannot yet!"

    "Never mind, you will in time—but about these shares?"

    She might as well have talked Chinese; he took not the slightest notice, but stared before him, struggling with wild, warring, internal emotions.  He ignored the gaping old Lyd, and the business Carrie had come upon; and turning upon the latter he cried, with fierce vehemence—

    "He took you!  He took you under my very eyes!  I never loved but you, and never shall!  I was moving heaven and earth to get you, and he came and took you.  I cannot!  I will not forgive him!"

    Carrie felt certain that the frenzied fellow was losing his reason, and was not sure that she was much better off herself; but once more the reserve of strength which always came to her in supreme moments befriended her, and she leaned back in her chair, closed her aching eyes, and tried to think.  Was there ever a soul involved in such a tangle of complications?  The hasty plan she had formed earlier in the evening, and which had come to her like an inspiration, was now beset with difficulties and threatened to go to pieces.  A temptation had come to her out of George's mad confusion; she loved the idea of letting him think that Tom was the secret provider who was coming in at the eleventh hour to float the concern, but she could not quite see all that might be involved in the suggestion, and hesitated what to do.  The eagerness George had displayed in misinterpreting her words told its own tale, and sent hot tears up into her eyes.  What a contradiction this man was, and how supremely ridiculous he was making all her character-studying look!  Half rustic, half saint, the body and manners of a workman, and the guileless simplicity of a little child!  What a puzzle he was!  She had not yet learned that whatever the theology about which a man argues and contends, it is the theology of his childhood upon which he acts.  But the uncomfortable silence challenged her.  Lyd in the corner opposite was watching her grimly, and George with his back to the fire was metaphorically tearing his strong fingers to pieces behind him, and evidently struggling for self-mastery.  It was no use ignoring the words he had uttered; it was better to face them at once.

    "George," she said, gravely, "you have done me a great honour, but Tom did not know you thought of me."

    "He didn't!  Of course he didn't!  I must forgive him!"

    "But if he didn't know, there is nothing to forgive."

    "No, but—oh, great God, how I do hate him!"

    "You don't hate him! you never will hate him!  Have patience, and it will pass away."

    George shook his head wearily and sighed; and so to comfort him she went on—

    "Tom and you may be faster friends than ever some day—partners, perhaps, or even closer."

    He did look at her now, but there was little curiosity, scarcely even interest, in his eyes.

    "The sweetest woman I know is to be had for asking for—and a lady, too."

    She was trembling at her own temerity and unscrupulousness, but her heart was set upon carrying her point and diverting and comforting the man she at least pitied.  And she seemed to have succeeded; he was looking dully at her from under his brows, but the light of comprehension only rose slowly.  She saw at last that he had taken her meaning, for a great, girlish blush spread itself over features most unwontedly sorrowful, and gradually the old forlorn grief came back and deepened into haggard dejection.  Her work, she now saw, was done, although things had gone so differently from what she had intended, and she was full of sad misgiving.

    "I must go now," she remarked, rising, and buttoning her cloak.  "There's the cheque, George, and I wish you every success."

    She was choking as she said it, and, as he took her hand, she saw that in his eyes which admonished her to be gone, and so whilst he stood there struggling with emotion she only guessed at, she hastened to the door, nodded a hasty good-night, and was gone.

    Arrived at Providence Cottage, the great conflict of Carrie's life commenced.  Strong in the one unqualified virtue of her nature, uncompromising honesty, she tore down curtain after curtain in her soul, until every secret picture that hung there was exposed to the light of cold reason.  Had it not been for her own mean, vulgar vanity, these complications would never have arisen.  She had defiled herself and injured others by coquetting with a temptation which she imagined was the very last that could have influenced her.  She had made friendship, her friendship for the Bradshaw girls—a cloak for worldly, sordid ambition, and had tried to make herself love and marry a man she despised.  She had posed to herself as a student of character, and had been blindly ignorant of her own most obvious and most contemptible weaknesses.  She had turned away from—to be honest, she had pretended to rise above—her mother's religion and the Church in which she had been trained, not merely in certain doctrines, but in the great fundamental ethics of life, and had come to this lowly village to find simple ecclesiastical institutions managed by ignorant, narrow-minded people, which were producing, and that in the most unpromising soil, moral characteristics and virtues which put her own to the blush.  A little Sunday-school, managed by prejudiced, ignorant men, whose religion was more than half superstition, had reached the buried greatness in a rough, neglected human soul, and so brought it out that the despised thing he called conversion had been the finishing touch in the turning of a twisted country nature into a hero and a saint!  Even yet she was incredulous and despiteful about George Stone's conduct; there must be some other and more natural explanation if this so straight a tree had grown out of roots so tangled and crooked, and with nothing to help it but that most puerile of Church institutions, a country Sunday-school.  Where were all her fine theories about human perfectibility and natural development?  Miracles! why, George Stone was the greatest miracle she could conceive of.  It was not a reformation from wickedness—such things she could explain, by psychological laws, perhaps—but this controverted her great laws of heredity and environment, and here was clean out of unclean, figs on thistles, grapes from thorns!  Humiliating though this was to intellect and heart alike, it was not the worst of the matter.

    For George Stone the eccentric ne'er-do-weel she had had a sneaking fancy, and admired many things in his most interesting and unusual character; but for George Stone the narrow Methodist, whose religion was half superstition and half ignorance, she had something very like worship.  There was that within her which overcame intellectual pique and lady-like tastes, and bowed her down in spite of herself at this man's feet.  This young man was above her in moral attainments, though she had been nurtured in Christian refinement and he had been dragged from a slum!  She had grown in a social greenhouse, and he as a weed by the wild wayside.

    The iron of humiliation burnt into her very soul, and for pure relief she turned to other aspects of the case. Jessie loved this strange young fellow.  Jessie Bradshaw's love was a benediction and an inheritance for any man; it was the least she could do, the very least, to do all in her power to bring these two together.

    That night there was a light in the schoolmistress's bedroom that was never put out, and when the clogs of the mill-hands began to clack on the pavement outside, she was sitting down on her packed boxes, and scribbling with streaming eyes a series of hasty, mystical little notes.  When the clogs ceased, and that quiet hour between their passing and the awakening of Mollins to ordinary business came, she stole downstairs, and, cloaked and veiled, sped down Stump Cross lane, and round by the upper parts of the village, until she stood under the shadow of the Highfield gates.  Peering in the dim light through the railings, she sobbed aloud, and cried, "Good-bye, old house!  Good-bye, Lena!  Good-bye, dear, dear Jessie!" and then turned hastily away.  Her emotion seemed to increase every moment, and when she passed "Squint Hall" in returning, she put a hot hand to quivering lips and waved a kiss to George Stone's windows.  Then she stole down the Ginnel, crept along until she came to the ruins of the school-house, sprang lightly over the low side wall, dabbed a hasty kiss on each of the old stones so carefully laid out by George, and then scurried shyly back to her room at Providence Cottage.

    Oh, to think of it!  Instead of studying, analysing, labelling the human life of this little Mollins, she had lost her heart to it, and spoilt what might have been the pretty romance of the employer's daughter and the poor working lad.  Spoilt it? she had spoilt a man's life and a woman's happiness—and broken her own heart into the bargain.

    She had locked her bedroom door when she went out, and now remained in the snug little place that never had looked so cosy as it did this morning, until breakfast was quite ready.  She answered Mrs. Chorlton's remarks about the weather and other local topics with almost painful attentiveness, and then amazed that solemn lady by catching her round the neck and showering upon her grey, cold face a series of convulsive little kisses as she left for school.  But when she got down the lane, she drew a little hand travelling-bag from under her cloak, turned into the road up which she had first entered Stump Cross with George Stone for porter, made a hurried little dash for the station, and by twelve o'clock that day it was known in the village that the schoolmistress had disappeared, and that the "Mollinfoot Manufacturing Company" had been floated.


 
CHAPTER XXVI.

AFTER THREE YEARS.


THE third summer after Carrie's sudden disappearance from Mollins was an exceptionally long and fine one, and the sometime day-school mistress was now joint principal of a ladies' boarding school in a select South-country watering-place.  The money she brought into the concern, her degree (she was now M.A.), her modern training, and her very unusual teaching gift, had wrought a wonderful change in the moribund establishment, and her elder partner, though obstinate enough at first, was soon only too glad to let her brilliant colleague have her own way, so that the school was already prosperous and popular.  Carrie, who taught very little now, managed everything and everybody in her own gently imperious way, and had become quite an important little person in the very select society of Luddington-on-Sea.  But Miss Padway was getting uneasy about her partner; the hot weather seemed to be trying her very severely, and she had become listless, flat, and fitfully pensive.  She began each day with the old sparkle and energy, but before it was half over she was limp, absent-minded and fretful, and sometimes spent much time in her own room.  Miss Padway blamed the heat, her colleague's intemperate and unnecessary activity, her high-strung temperament, and a score of things, for she did not know, good, comfortable soul, that Miss Hambridge's enthusiasms and energies were efforts to escape from aching memories and desperate bids for self-forgetfulness.  Carrie had been very confident of herself and very hopeful in her early success.  New interests, absorbing, time-filling activities, and the silent, obliterating influence of time, would bring her the relief she needed.  For a time it had seemed so, nay it was so; and now after two and a-half years she was realising that the dull, dogged old trouble had, after all, only been biding its time, and that her love for the odd, rough, fantastically chivalrous lover in the North had not only not become manageable, but had grown stronger, deeper, fresher all the time.  Two years of relentless, uncompromising suppression would, she had told herself, at least exhaust it; and she was awakening to the fact that it was as active and persistent as ever.

    The day had been intolerably sultry, and the thunderstorm which had been impending for hours was passing over, whilst a delicious sea-breeze had made the open air attractive, and Carrie had hidden herself away in an old summer-house at the bottom of the kitchen garden, where she abandoned herself to melancholy broodings.  She was back in Mollins: the sweet old days, now so painfully delicious, were passing before her mind once more, and the school-house, the clattering clogs, Highfield House, "Squint Hall," and the old Methodist place of worship, were as real to her as they had been in the dear old days for ever gone.  A strong, passionate longing, clamorous and reproachful through long, cruel repression, was surging irresistibly up within her.  She was looking forward to the approaching holidays with something worse than weariness.  Oh, for one secret, flying visit, one little momentary peep into the scenes once so much to her!

    "Miss Hambridge, please!"

    She did not hear; her eyes were warm with light and tears, and she was kissing in vision the comely cheek of her true-hearted Jessie Bradshaw.

    "Miss Hambridge, please!"

    "Oh! ah! yes, what is it?" and she covered her telltale eyes with her hand and glanced somewhat impatiently along the little side-walk that ran into the broad garden path.

    "The post, miss!  Miss Padway told me to bring them."

    "No, take them—well, yes, come along!"

    A rosy-cheeked maiden of about sixteen stepped humbly forward and handed a packet of letters.  The first was a newspaper, and as the girl retired, Carrie glanced at the familiar wrapper with a wistful smile; for whilst Tom Bradshaw had done all sorts of extraordinary things to ascertain the whereabouts of his fiancée, the little printer-proprietor of the Butteridge Mercury, who was owner, printer, editor, and reporter-in-chief of that distinguished journal all rolled into one, could have given him the exact postal address: only he never thought of applying to such a source.

    There were bills and circulars with cards of invitation to the prize distribution of several rival schools, and then at the bottom she came upon a bulky letter in a handwriting she had not seen for many months, and that brought wonder, fear, and soft, grateful tears into her eyes as she looked at it.  She held it out and stared at it; dropped it sighingly upon her lap, and put her hand over her heart, a habit she had acquired of late.  A footfall upon the gravel path made her snatch it up and hide it, first in her pocket and then in her bosom.

    The visitor passed, and all became still again.  The letter seemed to be burning her, and she took it out and kissed it over and over again, and then sat looking at it.  If there had been any doubt about the not very remarkable writing, the postmark would have removed it.  For all these months, acting shrewdly upon the principle that no concealment is the best concealment of all, she had gone on her way and never had any communication with or knowledge of Mollins except such as the weekly Mercury provided.  And now, just when her heart was aching for the old life, this message had come out of it!

    What should she do?  Twelve months ago she might have burnt it, in hasty self-distrust, but this stifling evening, languid and longing, she did not seem to have strength for anything decisive, and toyed with the missive in uncertain, hesitant manner.  Prudence, self-interest, even the new smart of the old sore warned her, and she put the letter down upon the bench at her side, and turned away from it with a sigh.  But the sigh had a long, quivering termination, and before it had ended there was a pained smile on the pale lips and a blinding mist before the eyes.  Then she fell to musing in idle, dilatory fashion of what she knew about Mollins since she left it.

    The "Company" had been successful from its very commencement, her own dividends having been paid into her bank with exemplary promptitude every half-year; the last being at the rate of 12½ per cent.  The firm of Bradshaws had become a "Limited Company," Tom had married a "variety artiste," and gone to live in North Wales.  The Methodist School-chapel had been rebuilt and formally opened, Miss Jessie Bradshaw using a silver key for the purpose, which was publicly presented to her by "Mr." George Stone, in a speech fully reported in the Butteridge Mercury, and which Carrie had read over and over again.  Lena Bradshaw had married Dick Frater, of The Scout, and Lot Crumblehulme had retired from business and been elected a member of the Mollins School Board.  She had smiled over his official designation of "Gentleman," and laughed heartily at his election address, which was quite in his best style.  As she recalled these and like things which she had read so eagerly in the all-precious little local print, her hand stole down to the letter, and she began toying with it again in the same brooding, dilatory manner as before.  Then she raised it, looked it carefully over, back and front, laid it against her cheek and tenderly held it there, kissed the corners lingeringly, and sighed every now and then, and finally, with a tremulous plunge, tore it open and breathed a delighted little sigh as she discovered it was eight pages long and crossed all over.

    Another wavering, fluttering little struggle, another shower of kisses, and then she spread out the sheets, wiped her eyes, and commenced:—


HIGHFIELD, MOLLINS.
"July 24th, 189-.


"My D
EAREST CARRIE,
    At last! at last!  Oh, you cruel! cruel darling!  You nearly broke my heart, and his.  Oh, Carrie, he does love you so and he's so successful and good, and such a gentleman [The mistress had to stop, a wonderful joy blazing through swimming eyes and making reading impossible.]  I found you by a dream (God is good).  I saw you in a boarding-school by the sea, and you did look so pitifully ill! (Are you, my darling? are you?)  I have not told George; he comes to see me often, and he is so very, very kind—just the kindness that is so hopeless.  I looked up a list and found you.  Got an old school friend, who is married down your way, to make inquiries, and she sent me a photograph of your school-girls with their mistresses; that is how I know you are so ill—and you are?  Oh, Carrie! Carrie! to go away that I might have a chance was just like you, but it was worse than useless; he will never love but one.  Tom moved heaven and earth to find you; I did all I could; Lena, and in fact everybody—except George; he never did anything or said anything. [An involuntary hand was laid on the reader's heart, as though some sudden pang had struck her.]  But he almost lived at the old mill, working night and day, and went so thin!  And he's not himself yet, and never will be until you come back to him.  Oh, my dearest! you must come back at once.  If you don't you will break my heart, and his.  Do you know I have had an offer of marriage?  George gives him an excellent character.  He's so kind to me—George, I mean—and he says he will wait—not George; Mr. Bargetts, you know—as long as I like.  And so I have made up my mind—that is, I made it up as soon as I found you out—I'll marry him—Mr. Bargetts, you know; not George.  And the very day I accept Mr. Bargetts I'll give George your address!  I have not told him yet, but it is hard to see his sad face and keep it from him; I feel such a robber.  I do not love Mr. Bargetts (how can I?).  He's the managing director of George's works; it would be wicked to marry him, he's such a dear, kind fellow; but I have made up my mind to be wicked for his sake—George's.  If you don't come back and marry him, I'll marry him—Mr. Bargetts, of course—just to set George free; for I'm such a goose.  He knows—he must know—how it is with me.  But I'll do it that he may not keep single for my sake; as he will, and it is just like him, isn't it?  But dear, dear Carrie, you can put all right if you will come back and let George have you.  I can keep as I am, and have you both for my very own. But if you will not come back (excuse repetition) I will just marry Mr. Bargetts, and tell him (George, of course) where you are.  He's the noblest fellow that ever was, and I now love him well enough (and you, too, my self-sacrificing darling) to prefer his happiness to my own—"



    There was much more, all in the same confused, excited manner, but that was the sum of it; and Carrie let the letter drop upon her lap, and leaned back with closed eyes to think it all out.  Her very soul glowed in admiration of the simple nobility of the dear girl who had made so odd a proposal.  She was so good and true that she would soon love any decent man who was kind to her, because she could not help it; and Carrie's plan was to stay away, let her take her threatened course, and get married.  Yes, she would write to her, urge her to marry, but beg her not to tell George where she was—at present.  No! the safer course would be to anticipate her holiday, start for Norway at once, and post her letter to Jessie just as she was leaving, and perhaps prolong her absence from England until Jessie had committed herself.  Yes, it seemed to be reasonable, so easy; but all at once a great, swelling, frightening surge of long-suppressed emotion rose within her in one sweeping, irresistible flood; all the old entrenchments of prudence, womanly diffidence, and sternest self-repression were swept away like driftwood before a mountain torrent; and every other feeling and desire was swallowed up in an overwhelming, irresistible longing to see Mollins and Mollins folk once more.

    Sudden, ungovernable inrushes like this had come upon her before, and, taught by experience, she allowed the torrent to expend itself.  She was weak, overwrought, ill, and taken unawares; and coward cravings, which she promised to suppress afterwards, held for the moment complete mastery, and carried her where they would.  They would pass, as other such fits had done; and when she was herself again she could take the reasonable and safe course.  But the feeling did not pass; and presently she discovered, with strange lack of concern, that she did not want it to pass.  The prospect of resuming the old struggle of self-suppression appalled her; here there was rest, easeful, healing, seductive rest; dingy Mollins became her enchanted isle; the harsh but familiar noises of mill buzzer, school-bell, and clacking clogs became syren sounds; and helpless, heedless, courageless, she floated softly into the haven of sweet, if temporary reverie.

    Two days later Carrie, clad in light summer draperies, a Lancashire red rose in her hair, and a restless, eager look in her jaded eyes, lay on a couch in the Highfield dining-room, talking idly with her friend.  She had travelled the day before to Manchester, so that she could select her time of arrival and reach Mollins whilst the people were at their work.  She and Jessie had got through their first excited greetings and the subsequent interchange of confidences, and Carrie had been trying in vain to sleep, and now lay talking about the hundred things that had occurred in Mollins since she left.  They had "had it out" about George, and Jessie's hopes were high.  She had made the evening before a casual sort of remark to George, which she knew would bring him to Highfield that afternoon, and for the last half-hour she had been talking with one ear upon the door-bell.

    Carrie was enumerating all the things she must see, and all the places and people she must visit; and Jessie, with a new uneasiness, was urging that there was plenty of time, when there came through the open window the crunch, crunch, of heavy feet on the gravel-walk outside.  Jessie, sitting where she could see the front gate, glanced hastily at her friend, and saw her go pale to the lips.  With an assumption of easy indifference she moved her head, began to rise to her feet, and remarked that some one was calling.

    "You will have to excuse me a moment," she said; but as she spoke she caught sight of a well-known form as it passed behind the flowering currant bushes and approached the front door.  Carrie was sitting up with suddenly parted lips, and trembling all over.

    "Don't! don't let him in!" she began.

    "I'll not be a minute, dear," and Jessie hurried out of the room, heedless of her friend's evident terror, caught the maid as she went to answer the bell, and whispered, "Show him in here!" and then sprang across the hall into the cool drawing-room.

    A moment later, Carrie, with staring, frightened eyes, buzzing ears, and perfect inability to either move or speak, heard "Mr. Stone," and beheld a tall, handsome, well-dressed, and almost intellectual-looking man before her.  She could not have spoken if her life had been at stake.

    George, who had entered with something of the old easy, rolling swing, pulled up, hat in hand, and stood riveted to the spot.

    The room seemed suddenly to have become an icehouse, neither of them appeared to breathe, and for a period that seemed an eternity neither of them spoke.

    "Good afternoon, Miss Hambridge."

    The old, mellow voice was husky with excitement, and the great fellow spoke in a thick, choking whisper.

    And Carrie, the cool-headed, self-masterful Carrie, sitting up stiff as a waxwork figure, struggled with adhesive lips and smothering throat, and at last gasped out, like an overtaken school-girl, "Goo—good afternoon!"

    And thus they remained: the hum of bees, and the murmur of the distant mill came floating into the room, but neither of them uttered a word.

    Presently, in the same husky voice, he said—

    "You're back in Mollins again!"

    And she, rigid, choking, spellbound, could only force out thickly—

    "Again."

    Another tormenting silence, and then—

    "Miss Bradshaw would be glad to see you."

    "She was"—and then she added helplessly, "Thank you!"

    The little afterthought of acknowledgment seemed to relieve him; he was more at his ease, and began to eye her over with devouring glances.

    Oh, why did he stand like that? why did he not ask her why she went away, and where she had been, and why she had returned?  Anything! anything! even a rude thing, rather than this maddening, paralysing silence!

    He took a step nearer; he was searching her face with mute, distressful anxiety, and at last, in tones of pathetic humility, he said—

    "When you were in Mollins, Miss Hambridge, I insulted you, and perhaps helped to drive you away—will you forgive me?"

    "Insulted me?"

    "Of course!  Didn't I insult you by hinting of love—I knew no better then."

    The "then" went like a knife to her heart: strange, strong dread added itself to her other struggling emotions, and scarcely knowing what she said, she gasped out—

    "Then?"

    He did not seem to hear: she had spent these last four days in imaginary anticipations of this moment it had been sweet and bitter, delightful and terrible, but she had never conceived a situation anything approaching this, and the agony of it was intolerable.  But he was standing there and waiting for her, grave, solemn, and with a strange new dignity upon him that almost awed her.  With a little shiver she tightened her shoulders, drew herself up, doubled her trembling fingers as they lay upon her lap, and faltered out with a little crooked smile—

    "I have nothing to forgive."

    "Nothing?"

    As he spoke he drew back a little, lifting a long, perplexed sigh, and watching her sadly. Then, with sudden watching comprehension, he breathed out relievedly—

    "Ah, yes.  Thank God, it was nothing to you."

    "Yes! n-o—Yes!  Don't say that!—it was, it was!"

    "Was?"

    No answer.

    "The love of a base-born village rough was anything to you?"  He seemed disappointed, almost shocked, and then he added in curious self-recovery, "Thank God, it is past!"

    "Is it?"

    It was very softly said, and with a cadence of deep but purely involuntary disappointment.  He turned sharply towards her again with open, amazed eyes, and gasped out breathlessly—

    "Is it not?"

    As he spoke he sprang towards her, and stood there a picture of ravenous eagerness, but there was no answer.

    "Is it not?"

    He was down upon his knees, and bowing towards her in an attitude of almost awful reverence.

    "It will never pass!"

    The words were scarcely breathed, her eyes were closed, and the tears shone on her long lashes; she was white as marble, and trembling like a leaf, but he did not speak.  A moment of silent, almost agonising suspense, a great bursting sob, and then, kneeling there with clasped, upraised hands and closed eyes, he cried—

    "Stay Thy hand, O God!  Stay Thy hand!  Thou wilt kill me! kill me with joy!"

    Carrie had always pictured him as an impetuous, impassioned lover, but this was a great, still, solemn being, whose soul seemed crushed with the weight of his own happiness.  He rose at last; an awe as of God was still upon him, and before she knew it he had taken her up, and was holding her like a baby in his strong arms.  There was no kiss, however, no passionate outburst, no lover-like ecstasy.  He groaned, he shook like a leaf, and then, in reverent tones that burnt themselves one by one upon her soul as he uttered them, he cried—


"Take us, body, spirit, soul
 Only Thou possess the whole!"


    And Carrie—pride, self-confidence, intellectual superiority all drowned in a sudden, overwhelming sense that in this simple village lad, and his simpler religious faith, she was at last finding sweet rest—breathed a fervent, quivering, "Amen!"

                       *                     *                     *                     *                     *

    It was to have been a quiet wedding, but the villagers got out of hand and refused to go to work.  The fine old church was packed from end to end, and the villagers followed the service with joyous interest and hearty responses.  George, the biggest man there, and also the most serious, took his part with reverent solemnity, and when they reached the musty little vestry, the white-robed bride took the startled Jessie round the neck, and pressing lip to quivering lip in one long, clinging kiss, murmured, "God bless you!"

    And George, with shining eyes, bent over, and saluting the white brow, repeated fervently, "God bless you!"

    Jessie was too full to speak, she drew back and looked at them; sighed, and looked again; turned her face away hastily, and then, conquering her emotions, gazed at them both with swimming eyes—and smiled!



THE END.




BRADBURY, AGNEW, & CO. LD., PRINTERS, LONDON AND TONBRIDGE.

 


 

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