The Coming of the Preachers (IV)
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CHAPTER XVI.

KINTY'S CONFESSION


MARK looked round on the scene before him with a rush of feeling that almost dazed him.  Mr. Ebenezer had jumped to his feet, and with his wig gripped firmly in his left hand, stood gazing around with wonder and delight on his ruddy face, whilst his brother, abashed and confused for the moment, stepped back to his place near the fire-grate, and stood glaring at his daring niece.

    "Begone, bold hussy! this is no place for thee," he cried, waving his hand to dismiss her.  But Kinty, clutching Mark's arm more firmly, drew herself up, and cried:

    "My place is by the side of my man! my brave, true man!"

    Mark, scarcely knowing either where he was or what he was saying, bent over to persuade her to let him go; but she ignored him altogether for the moment, she had evidently not finished what she wanted to say.

    "Yea, uncle. Yea, truly; I am a bold, bad hussy!  I've been spy-holing and eavesdropping, and have heard it all.  You would thrust your niece down a young man's throat, would you?  I thank you for't; you did me honour, and I'll thrust myself down enow.  You thought him a weak-backed Jack-pudding, I thought him a greedy self-seeker; but he's a MAN! a man, I say; and I love him!"

    "But, woman, he's a Methodist! a canting, whining Methodist!" shouted Josephus.

    But with a royal sweep of her free arm, and a most unladylike snap of her fingers, she cried:

    "I heed not!  I mind not what he may be; Methodist, Episcopalian, or—or— What do you call 'em, Uncle Tebby—Muggletonian? he's a man, a strong, brave man; and that suffices."

    According to all precedents, Mark ought to have snatched his brave little defender in his arms at this stage; but so many and so exhausting had been the emotions he had endured that day, that he seemed incapable of any new sensation, and stood there dazed and bewildered.

    Josephus was getting desperate; the authority he had exercised unchallenged so long seemed to be about to slip away from him, and he must assert it now or lose it for ever.  Besides, he was a shamefully ill-used man.  He had swallowed his pride, and made a most condescending overture to his own apprentice, only to have it flung in his teeth, and the Methodism his narrow soul hated, flaunted before him as something to be proud of.  He foamed at the mouth, stamped on the floor, shook his clenched fist at the rebels, and seemed ready to quarrel even with the inoffensive Ebenezer.

    "Wilta begone, knave! bundle?  Take thy scurvy carcase off!"

    "Master," began Mark, recovering speech at last, "I will go.  I would not bring strife into this beloved household.  I will go—"

    But here, with demure face and steady eyes, Kinty looked up at her uncle, and repeated: "Where he goes I go."

    "Thou brazened baggage!  Thou impudent trollop!" and with a furious curse the enraged man sprang at the lovers with the evident intention of separating them by main force; but before he could reach them, Ebenezer, who, whilst he had been speaking, had glided softly round the table, interposed his portly form, and gripping his brother by the arms, forced him back into his seat.

    "Let a-be, man, let a-be!" he cried, panting from his unwonted exertions.  "'As you brew, so shall you bake.' "Tis a good horse that knows its own stable.'"

    And then he stooped down and searched upon the floor for his wig, and having carefully put it upon his head, he beckoned the two young people to seats, and commenced the longest oration he was ever known to utter.  He recalled to Josephus's mind the fact, almost always forgotten in the house, that he was master equally with his brother—though this part of his speech was more roundabout than the rest, in consequence of his evident desire to put the point as delicately as he could, and, finding no way out of the confusion into which he thus got, he finished that part of his discourse by lamely quoting the proverb about the number of people it takes to make a bargain.

    Then he enlarged, with many a snuffle and many an awkward hiatus, upon the affection they both bore to their niece, and the obligation they were under to the memory of the dead parents of that young lady.  From this he passed to a review of the years Mark had been with them in the business, and the faithfulness and diligence of his service.

    Next he took up the subject of the Methodists, frankly avowed a more than passing partiality for that despised sect, and asserted that it was the unjustifiable cruelty of others towards them that had first excited his sympathy.  Then he proceeded to point out that a man's religion need not interfere with his duties to his employers or his friends, and stoutly maintained that by recent observation he could prove that Methodism was making bad servants into good ones, and bad citizens into patriots all over the country, and especially in Helsham.

    He paused many a time in this novel effort of his, and quoted proverbs to support his arguments at every step; but when he came to speak finally of the long years he and his brother had lived together, and the comfort and amity in which they had always dwelt, interlaced as his statements were with pathetic little declarations of his own great regard for Josephus, he fairly broke down and ended with a number of choky, spasmodic little sobs which were drowned in louder sounds of the same kind which came from Kinty and Mark.

    There was a pause for a moment or two when he concluded, and whilst he sank into his chair, and for lack of handkerchief began to rub his eyes once more with his wig, Kinty raised her face and looked anxiously in the direction of Uncle Josephus.  What she saw there must have encouraged her, for, relinquishing Mark's arm, she cast herself upon her knees before her uncle, and sliding her soft little hand into his as it lay on his lap, she began to stroke it coaxingly and kiss it.

    Josephus looked moody still and excessively uncomfortable; but she pulled at his arm until his face was near enough to salute, and then pressed her hot lips upon his and began to plead.  Every term of affection she could command was brought into service; she called him all the pet names she had used in her childhood, and vowed it would break her heart to have to leave him.

    And, after all, poor Josephus was but a man, and had somewhere a heart which the earnest little pleader found means of reaching, and so presently he stooped down and kissed her hair and bade her go to bed.

    "But Mark, uncle? dear brave Mark, what of him?"

    Uncle Josephus shook his head and sighed heavily, and Mark was just commencing to beg her not to consider him, when she cried:

    "Let me tell you, uncle, let me tell you how I was brought to love him.  I liked him ever for himself, but I could not abide his hot temper and pride.  Besides, I feared he was ambitious, and wanted my few guineas, and I mistrusted him.  And when I saw him swallow his manhood to become a cruel hunter of heretics I despised him.  But one day I heard say that he had defended the Methodists out o' pure pity, and that pleasured me.  Then I saw him strike down the sottish Barny for mobbing the poor preacher, and I loved him, for I saw he was a man.  Sin' then I've watched him shrewdly, and seen his manhood struggling with his ambition.  I've seen him sink, and I've seen him rise, but to-night I've seen him conquer.  'Twas a poor compliment he paid me, uncle, but I loved him for't; an' when he wouldna sell his manhood even for silly Kinty I loved him wi' all my heart."

    But at this moment there came a sharp ran-tan at the side door, followed by impatient shouts from some one either drunk or very excited.  Mark and Kinty sprang apart, the two brothers turned to each other with looks of startled surprise, and after a moment's pause Josephus curtly bade Mark go to the door.

    "Have a care, boy!  Parley wi' em!" cried Ebenezer, hurriedly adjusting his wig and backing to his chair.

    Mark, disappointed at the interruption, but remembering the danger of the times, stepped backwards, and cried:

    "What is't?  Who's there?"

    Another curse and a heavy lunge at the door.

    "Open, 'Prentice.  Open i' th' King's name."

    "'Tis the mayor," cried Mark, between relief and astonishment.  But almost before he could unfasten the heavy wooden bars the door was pushed roughly in upon him, and he was jammed against the wall, whilst the maltster, accompanied by two serving-men, strode into the parlour.

    "Curse me, Man Kirke!  Art kalling [chatting] here with Papists and lousy Methodists whilst the country's i' danger, and the jabbering French are marching upo' London!"  And the irate magistrate glanced first at Mark and then at Ebenezer, and finally fixed a savage glare upon Josephus.

    "Nay, nay, worship; not so bad neither.  Sit, man, and tell the news."  And the hatter stamped on the floor for ale.

    "Sit! Sit, says ta, and the country ruined?  The French King and his army down on us, and the barelegs [Highlanders] crying for Charlie!"

    But his worship dropped into a chair for all that, and glanced with looks of surly suspicion at Mark and Ebenezer.

    Knowing that this blustering mood was not the maltster's most serious one, and that therefore the news he brought might be safely discounted, Mr. Josephus nodded to the others to leave the room, and stamped impatiently upon the floor again.  Ebenezer, still nervously arranging his wig, got up and sauntered towards the staircase for bed, and Mark and Kinty withdrew shyly into the dark shop.

    "Tut, worship!  'Tis but an idle buzz," Josephus was saying as the others vanished.

    "Buz!  'Tis God's truth, Kirke!  The Mounseers are coming, and twenty thousand men in ships.  Brickett, the aletaster, got the news from the driver of the north coach at Wetgate.  By the Lord, I'll hang every Papist in the town, and pitch every Methodist Jacobite into the mews-pond " (horse-pond).

    Mr. Josephus was divided between interest in the news and impatience for liquor, and so he strode to the head of the kitchen stairs.

    "Kerry, Kerry, thou maggot head!  A tankard!  A tankard wi' thee?"

    As there was no response, he began to grope his way with muttered curses down the steps, and whilst his back was turned, his worship stole on tip-toes to the corner behind Mr. Ebenezer's chair.  There he picked out a bundle of pamphlets, hastily scanned their titles, and then skipped back to his seat with a grunt.

    Mr. Josephus returned, followed by Kerry with a can of small-ale.  The domestic had evidently retired to rest, and now appeared with blinking eyes, protesting face, and hastily assumed garments that too imperfectly concealed her charms.  She was proud of her small-ale, and the thick foam on the mouth of the tankard certainly justified her; but the mayor glanced at it in sulky scorn and pushed it away from him.

    Josephus made wild signals behind his visitor's back for Kerry to bring something better, and she presently returned with a dirty leathern bottle of old October, which she dumped down on the table in evident anger.  The sight of the stronger liquor pacified the mayor somewhat, and after a prodigious pull he drew his chair a little nearer to that of his host, and proceeded to supply such details of the battle of Fontenoy as had reached him, and then abandoned himself to doleful vaticinations of an approaching Jacobite rebellion; but it was clear to his host that he was keeping something back, and kept glancing towards the shop door with growing impatience.

    Then Kinty returned to the parlour, having dismissed her lover for the night.  She began to adjust out-of-place articles of furniture, but as their visitor's restlessness increased, Josephus curtly ordered her to bed.  After listening intently for her receding footsteps, the maltster drew his chair still closer to the hatter's, bent his tall frame forward, and tapping Josephus on the knee, he dropped into a thick whisper, and demanded:

    "Dost know there's treason i' this old house?"

    Josephus stopped in the act of recharging his pipe, stared at his visitor with indignant resentment, and cried:

    "Tut, man! the lad's honest; his Methodism will pass, he's no Jacobite, man!"

    "Lad! 'tis not the lad.  'Tis the other, I tell thee!"

    Josephus rapped out an oath, and sprang angrily to his feet.  But the mayor rose with him, and still staring hard into his face, he went on:

    "'Tis he got 'em the flax mill, man; he's the owner on't."

    Josephus went white and then swollen-red with indignant repudiation.

    "I tell thee, Kirke, I've seen the deed; the mill is his, man!  But for him the rascals 'ud 'a' been stamped out o' the town."

    The hatter could not speak; that he should have to listen to such insinuations in his own house, and from his closest friend, was intolerable; and that Ebenezer's silly dabbling in curious creeds and movements should have made such insinuations possible, only added fuel to his wrath.

    But the mayor, who, now they were alone, had dropped his half-drunken bluff, was carefully watching his man; and so, when at last Josephus ceased to storm and curse, he leaned forward still farther, and said, in the same husky whisper:

    "Kirke, who's the head o' the Helsham Methodists?"

    "Who?  Why, Bridge, the rascally tinker not Ebenezer.  'Tis monstrous, man!"

    "And what was Bridge i '15?"

    Josephus's jaw dropped in sudden recollection.

    "An' what wants a tinker wi' horse-pistols, an' hangers?"

    Josephus stared stupidly.

    "An' what wants a tinker wi' two saddle-horses?  Where got he 'em?  Who paid for 'em?"

    A long, uneasy silence; and then, seeing how profound an impression he had made, his worship changed his tone and went on:

    "Teb is more fool than rebel; but the canting rogues have got him by the nose, and they'll lead him into th' muck.  As for that Methody pup o' mine, he's like to grime my good name; but, by the Lord, I'll have him pressed first."

    The thought that his friend was, after all, as much involved as himself mollified Josephus somewhat, and he began to talk more freely.  And as they talked they drank the old October, and became more and more confidential.  A common sense of danger drew them together, and a common hatred of Methodism made them regard it as the cause of all their perplexities.

    As they conversed, the mayor noticed that his companion never alluded to young Mark, and did not even take the bait when it was thrown out to him.  A straight question or two set Josephus explaining, but his language was so vague and apologetic, that his visitor's suspicions were aroused; and so, bit by bit, he discovered that there was more than a possibility of Mark's Methodism being condoned, and of his being accepted as nephew-in-law and partner at the hat-shop.  He felt that he ought to go warily here, but he was angry and in drink; and so, losing all control of himself, he stamped on the oak floor, cursed the Methodists to everlasting destruction, and, finally, concentrating his indignation on the amazed Josephus, he called him every evil name he could think of.

    Why this particular development of the case should so inflame his worship, the hatter could not see; but presently a loose word or two gave him the clue, and also revealed the real object of the magistrate's visit.

    Josephus became alert and curious again, and asked a tentative question or two.

    "That baggage of a Sue of ours has been visiting her rascally brother in spite o' me, and she tells her mother that he's fancying thy niece again, and weakening on his confounded Methodism.  In short, if he can have the wench he'll come home again, and throw over the Conventicle."

    Now in the rebellion of '15 both these men had been ardent Jacobites, but now, old and prudent, and with a strong sense of the value of worldly position, they were only too anxious to avoid the possibility of suspicion; and here, it seemed, they were being involved in spite of themselves.

    For two hours they talked; now in portentous whispers, and now in protesting shouts; every aspect of the complicating case was discussed, but they reached no definite conclusion.  Josephus was experiencing strong, mental recoil, and thanking his stars for the lucky interruption which had saved him from diving a consent that might have been dangerous.  And yet he saw how serious were the difficulties.  If he explained himself to Ebenezer, that worthy might turn stubborn, especially as Kinty's happiness was concerned.  He had a mortal dread also of that young damsel's tongue, and went cold as he thought what the impetuous and love-sick Mark might do if driven to extremes.

    Moreover, though the mayor's fortunate arrival had stopped his consent on his very lips, he could not but feel that the other parties to the affair would regard the matter as settled.  He put his position to his confederate; but his worship brushed his scruples aside, and insisted that he had only to consent to the marriage of Kinty with his son, and leave the rest to him.

    Midnight passed, the cracked bell in the court-house tower struck one, but no decision had been arrived at; and at last the two parted with the understanding that they were to meet next morning at the mayor's office and come to some arrangement.  But when the magistrate had been gone some twenty odd minutes and Josephus was preparing to carry his perplexities to bed with him, a stealthy rap at the passage door arrested him, and, opening it, he stood face to face with his friend.

    "I've got it, neighbour.  Leave all to me.  A fine ripe plan, egad!  I'll do the Methodist's business, and save the wench also.  Leave it to me, and do nought till you see me."

    And before Josephus could reply, he had vanished again into the night.


 
CHAPTER XVII.

THE MAYOR'S STRATAGEM


MARK DAWSON had never spent a sweeter half-hour than the one he passed in the dark hat-shop with his lady-love.  They were too excited and too much interested in each other to pay any heed to what was going on in the parlour; and though a word or two did reach them now and then, it was usually something about politics, and therefore supremely uninteresting.

    Presently Kinty grew uneasy, and urged him to depart by the front door, assuring him again and again that their fortunes were better left at that particular juncture in her hands.  Mark exhausted every excuse he could think of for remaining, but at last took a reluctant though demonstrative leave.  It was very dark in the narrow street for the time of year, and somehow he felt strangely depressed as he strode along.

    When he reached home, however, he entered softly, lest he should awaken his sister, who still occupied the little room under the thatch.  Then he had to struggle with a wish to call her up and tell her the great joy that had come to him that day; but conquering the desire, he groped to the side of his own truckle bed, sniffed at the pungent odour of a recently extinguished rushlight, and, feeling about on the little table, found a bowl of skimmed milk and a hunk of barley-bread, and sat down to eat and think.

    One after another the events of that most marvellous day in his history passed before him, and one moment he was overgrowing with gratitude to God, and the next burning with intense admiration at the noble stand made by Kinty.  And still there was always that strange misgiving; the interruption caused by the arrival of the mayor seemed, in his over-wrought state of mind, ominous.  He tried to laugh and reason himself out of the feeling, and at last he dropped upon his knees in prayer.

    But do what he would the feeling was there, and, in fact, grew heavier every moment.  Long and anxiously he sat thus in the darkness, one moment resolving to call his sister up, and the next deciding to reserve his joyful tidings until he could tell her all.  But depression and foreboding grew upon him, some one he must talk to, and the clear-eyed, practical Nancy was just the one to see the rights of a difficulty complicated to him by superstitious fears.  And so he was just about to step to the foot of the little ladder and awake her, when he noticed that it was growing lighter, and at the same moment a heavy footfall struck his ear, and he turned aside and took a peep through the blindless window.  It was some early labourer going to the fields doubtless.  The footsteps came nearer, but it was not light enough to see much, and so he was just selecting the best bit of glass in the knotted window, when he sprang back, with a cry he could not suppress:

    "Good God! 'tis the mayor!

    His worship was coming straight to the cottage, and so, remembering the sleeping woman upstairs, Mark stepped to the door and softly opened it.  The maltster pulled up a couple of yards away.

    "Good lack! up a'ready?

    "Ay, worship.  But what's your will, sir?"

    Astonished and suspicious, his worship drew back a little, and then, dropping his voice into a loud whisper, he cried:

    "'Tis said thou'rt a Methodist Jacobite

    "Nay, worship, no Jacobite, please God."

    "Tut, man, ye are all traitors.  'Tis found out, I tell thee.  Methodism is a popish plot, no less."

    "God forbid!  We're all loyal, we honour the King."

    The maltster looked cautiously around, took a step nearer, hesitated a moment, and then, sinking his voice, said:

    "Ay, but which king?"

    "King George, sir; no other.  Give me occasion, and I'll prove it."

    With another suspicious glance around His Worship took a step nearer, stopped, and sprang back with a fierce:

    "Nay, then, ye're traitors all!"

    Mark came forward eagerly, and, provoked as the mayor intended he should be by his insinuations, he cried:

    "Let me prove it!  Give me a task an' I'll show you all."

    Eyeing him over studiously from head to foot, the magistrate wavered a little, or pretended to do so, and then said softly:

    "Man Rawson, I could make a man o' thee, an I could but trust thee."

    "Trust me and try me, whatsoever it be."  The mayor shook his head.

    "Man, I could do thy business with the Kirkes an' fix thee for life."

    "Then tell me, master, and trust me to do it."

    Still studying his man dubiously, the maltster sank his voice again, and asked:

    "Canst ride a horse?"

    "Nay, master."

    Disappointed, but still eager, his worship continued:

    "Dost know the way to Nettleton?"

    "Nay, I was never farther that gate than the Pilbury cow-downs; but I could find it."

    Nettleton was a river port of evil fame some forty odd miles away, with no road to it but country lanes, and sheep or bridle-paths.  Mark guessed that the mayor had an errand for somebody, but why him?  Why not send one of his own or the town's servants?  Besides, on foot it would be a three days' affair, and at this juncture of his affairs it was not to be thought of for a moment, at any rate not until he had seen his masters again.

    But his visitor was impatient and curiously angry.

    "Loyal, ay truly!  Ye're traitors, and, by the Lord, I'll make you dance."

    Mark steadied himself; it came into his head that here might be an opportunity of rendering service to the Methodists to whom he owed so much, only his restless suspicion was too strong just at that moment, and so instead of offering to serve his worship he blurted out:

    "Why fix upon me, worship?"

    "Why, good lack!  Am not I giving thee a chance to clear thyself and thy Methodists?  How can I protect ye till I have true proof of ye?"

    "But you have servants, master."

    "Hoots! send them, and let every spying Jacobite in the country know!  'Tis secret service, man; I must have a man unknown and safe."

    In struggling indecision Mark looked hard at his visitor and sighed.  The mayor was plainly inconsistent with himself, and that aroused his suspicions; if on the other hand he refused—but here the impetuous maltster broke in.

    "Ay, ay; ye're traitors all, but by the Lord, I'll—"

    "Master," interrupted the young hatter, "what of my employers?"

    "Tut, man! have I not come from the shop direct?  Thy master commands it."

    Mark still hesitated; he could not tell this blusterous man why he so much wanted to be free that day.  It was a fine thing that was offered him if all were straight and square about it, but somehow his heart seriously misgave him, and to go without any satisfaction about the thing that was nearest his heart seemed impossible.

    He was still staring at the impatient magistrate and pondering, when a dark figure flitted for a moment out of a narrow passage, and he beheld the tall form of Goody Wagstaffe who, with puckered brow and uplifted finger, was warning him.

    "But, master," he cried, more to gain time for thought than anything else, "ye accuse me in one breath an' would trust me i' the next!"

    "Man, am not I loth to think ill of thee?  Take this message and that will certify me, and the Methodists shall have protection."

    Goody was still darkly signalling, but Mark could make nothing of it, and in the tenderness of young spiritual life was strongly tempted by the idea of sacrifice for the sake of his fellow-religionists, and so at last he said hesitatingly:

    "I'll do your bidding, master, an you'll promise to protect us."

    Goody was now gesticulating wildly, but as the mayor promptly closed with the offer and then turned round, as he fumbled in his fob, she had to vanish.

    "Here's a couple of crowns for thee.  Get thee gone on the instant.  Nay, man," he added, as Mark began to demur, "I'll let the hussy inside know thou art safe.  Take this packet to one Tester at the sign of the Wooden Mallet in Labour Lane, and get it truly delivered to him by noon to-morrow, and then take thy pleasure and see the town."

    It was a strange business, full of suspicious circumstances, but the sweet sense of service to his religion overcame everything, and so, though his heart sank with disappointment and uneasy fear, he stepped softly into the house, put on his coat, possessed himself of a stout oak staff, and then turned and looked with strange longings at the familiar objects around him.

    As it was now about daylight and a youth was passing with a herd of lean cattle, the mayor followed his young companion into the cottage.  But the moment the animals were gone he became all impatience for Mark's departure, and as he was not too certain of his man he walked along with him until they were out of the town.  Then he stopped and repeated his instructions, assured Mark that he would make all right both at the hat-shop and his own cottage, and then stood in the rutty lane and watched him up Wetgate bank until he disappeared over the hilltop.

    Meanwhile, Kinty was lying awake in bed, not even desiring to sleep.  Her brave little heart warmed again as she thought of the heroic stand made by her lover, and though a characteristically whimsical regret arose within her now and then that the days of her maiden liberty were ended, that was soon swallowed up in glowing pleasure at the wonderful turn events had taken.

    Most heartily did she ban the mayor for his untimely intrusion, and again and again she put back the bed-curtains to look for the slow-footed dawn.  She must have dozed off some time, however, for about six o'clock she suddenly sat up with a startled cry of "Mark! Mark!" and found the tears standing on her cheeks and the daylight streaming in through the corners of the hangings.

    "I saw him tossed," she murmured, as a deep sob quivered upwards to her lips, "I saw him tossed, and the bull had the maltster's face!  Oh, lack a day! what can it foretend?"

    Nervous reaction from the excitement of the previous evening was doubtless affecting her, but she knew nothing of such things and dressed in fretful uneasiness.  The maid, struggling with flint and tinder-box, was surprised to see young mistress astir so early, and the journeymen hatters, as they dropped down the front steps into the workshop, were puzzled somewhat to see Mistress Kinty open the kitchen door to scrutinise each new-comer.

    Mr. Ebenezer came down into the parlour humming a country catch, and though he was evidently struggling to keep his face under control, there were funny twitchings about his mouth corners, and his eyes overflowed with amusement.

    "Ho, ho! give a man luck and throw him i' the' sea," he murmured, apparently to himself, as Kinty, duster in hand, began to flit about the room on morning duties, and when, on hearing the old proverb, she dashed at him with a hug and a kiss, he chuckled delightedly and went on, "Set a beggar on horseback and he'll ride, egad!"  Kinty merrily shook her duster at him, which set him off crowing again.  "Hoots, woman!  Ah, 'A man's a man still if he hath but a hose on his head,' and 'Ah man may be learnèd without a long wig."

    But it was getting time for both Mark and Uncle Josephus to appear, and Kinty felt herself growing restless.  Presently she went to the shop-door and glanced down the street, lingering there a few moments with growing impatience, and when she returned she found Uncle Ebenezer busy chalking on the plain stone mantelpiece with a piece of ruddle:


"AT THE SIGN OF THE MONMOUTH CAP,"
KIRKE & RAWSON,
HATTERS,
"BEST IS BEST CHEAP."


    Kinty laughed at the obvious double entendre of the added motto, but hastily rubbed the inscription out as she heard Uncle Josephus coming down the creaking stairs.  Her first glance at him drove the blood from her cheeks, and when, with tightening mouth and flashing eyes, he flung the door going into the shop open and bawled "Mark!" her heart sank.  The shopman called back to say that the ex-apprentice had not yet arrived, and Josephus, after consulting a big tortoiseshell-cased watch, turned to stare in moody wrath at the fireplace.

    Ten minutes passed.  Kinty, with trembling fingers, was assisting the preparations for breakfast.  Mr. Josephus drew up to the table with a smothered snort, and then, rising hastily, went to the glass-door again, and ordered the shopman to "go after the scurvy laggard."

    Still Kinty held her peace; the more so as there were most unwonted indications of wrath upon Ebenezer's usually sunny face.  Her colour came and went rapidly, the food seemed to choke her, and she could scarcely draw her breath.  "Oh, why should the thoughtless Mark be late on this of all mornings?" Ebenezer ate rapidly as though to check his rising wrath, Josephus sat stiff and stern and did not so much as look at his food.  The shopman had had time to go to Mark's house, he must surely have met him before this!  What could be detaining them?

    "He has o'erslept himself, belike," she murmured apologetically, and was surprised at the huskiness of her own voice.

    Josephus laughed, but there was scorn and rage in his voice.

    "Curse me, brother!" and Ebenezer, purple with sudden anger, sprang to his feet; but at that moment the door was burst open, and the shopman, with wonder and alarm on his face, cried out:

    "He's gone, masters!  He's not so much as been abed!"

    Kinty rose with a sharp cry, Ebenezer opened his mouth in amazement, and Josephus flung himself back, with a hard, crackling laugh, and cried:

    "Buss me, but the rascal's shrewd!  Oho! not such a pudding-head as he looketh!  Ho!  Oho!"

    "Uncle! speak you thus of my lover?" and Kinty, with quick self-recovery, stepped forward, with eyes flashing and mouth set and hard, and then turning abruptly to the shopman, she demanded, "His sister, what saith she?"

    "She can tell naught, mistress, she is gone to the flax mill to find him."

    "Go! quick, man!―"

    But before Kinty could get any further the hop door swung back, and Nancy Rawson, staggering forward, cried, as she flung up her arms:

    "Oh, lack-a-day!  He's gone!"

    "Thou liest, vixen!" roared Ebenezer.

    "Oh, master, 'tis true!  I met the mayor's man but now, and he tells me that he has stolen Crackey Leech's mare and rode off to the Pretender!"

    There was a moment's astounded silence, and then a sudden babel of tongues.

    Ebenezer fell on the sobbing Nancy with fiercest objurgations, Josephus danced about the room, uttering malicious little laughs, and Kinty assailed the shopman with incoherent exhortations to go and search for the missing one in all likely places; whilst Kerry, coming upstairs with a dish of salt pork, threw meat and wooden platter from her hands, and, dropping into a chair, began to shriek in sympathy with the excitement about her.

    But the very confusion steadied the intrepid little mistress of the house.  Mark's absence had deeply alarmed her, especially after her dream; and that common terror of the times, the pressgang, made her dread what might have happened to her lover.

    But the news Nancy brought, by overshooting the mark, really relieved her; and so she bundled the tearful Kerry downstairs, hurriedly whispered something to Ebenezer which sent him out through the shop with his wig, as usual, in his hand, rebuked the sobbing Nancy, and then, stepping up to her uncle and facing him, she cried:

    "Uncle, those that hide can find.  Where is Mark?"

    The old hatter, showing his dingy, broken teeth in malicious triumph, made answer:

    "Gone to the north to Charlie."

    "North, south, east, or west, I'll to him!"

    "Wench, he's a traitor! a Methodist Jacobite rebel!"

    "And so am I, Methodist, Jacobite, rebel!" and, in the height of her angry defiance, she snatched up a wooden cup, and raising it above her head, she cried shrilly, "To the King! to the King that's robbed of his own!"

    But in the very act of defiance her head dropped, the mug slipped from her suddenly nerveless fingers, and, with a rush of passionate tears, she flung herself on the settle, and sobbed as if her heart would break.

    The scared horror on Joseph's face slowly faded out, he watched the weeping woman with glazing eyes, hesitated, looked stupidly round, and then, snatching at his cocked hat, vanished.


 
CHAPTER XVIII.

REVIVED LOVE


NEITHER of the two young women left thus in the parlour were of the class that wastes time in useless lamentation, and so in a few minutes they were deep in debate on the anxious situation.  That Mark had gone to the Pretender was too ridiculous to be believed, but the fact that he was missing was not to be got over, and the charge involved in the only explanation of his disappearance which they had heard had a sinister significance, and showed but too clearly that Mark had enemies, and enemies of a most unscrupulous kind.

    Kinty, of course, knew much more of the exact position of affairs than her visitor, but her more complete information only increased her perplexities, and even when she had briefly summarised the proceedings of the previous night for Nancy's enlightenment, they neither of them saw any further into the mystery.

    But they could not be still, something definite must be ascertained, even though it increased their troubles; and so presently they separated, Nancy to interview Big Barny and the Methodists, and Kinty to make inquiries in other directions.

    Nancy's researches only increased her alarm, for the Methodists, knowing nothing definitely of Mark's conversion, and remembering his previous attitude towards them, were reticent and suspicious; and Kinty, whose love for the apprentice was, of course, unknown in the town, was regaled with such wildly improbable stories that she grew heart-sick until it suddenly occurred to her to interview the wise-woman.

    It was well into the forenoon when she turned into the lane leading to Goody's tumbledown mud-and-wattle cottage, and she pulled up with a little cry of dismay when on coming in sight of the house she discovered that the rickety shutters were closed, and Goody was either abroad or ill in bed.

    Hoping against hope—for the wise-woman had mysterious ways—she approached the door and knocked.  But there was no answer, and when she repeated her summons, she noted that the string, which was Goody's substitute of a latch, had been drawn inside, and there was no smoke issuing from the drunken-looking mud chimney.  She was neither more nor less superstitious than any other girl of her rank and time, but all the gruesome stories she had ever heard of Goody on the one hand, and the Methodists on the other, returned to her in a flood, and she began to shake with vague uncanny fear.

    Evils of a devilish kind had perhaps overtaken her hapless lover.

    "Good day, mistress!"

    With a start and a little frightened cry, Kinty whisked round, and there stood gaunt Mother Wagstaffe, glum and weird-looking as ever.  Kinty felt a sudden cold chill in the presence of this awesome creature, and she shrank away with a little shudder.

    "Affected, mistress?  Ah, Goody has no more wicked spells, she's washed in the blood of the Lamb."

    With quick revulsion of feeling Kinty burst out: "Oh, Goody!  Where is he?  Tell me, where is my lover?"

    "Thy lover?"

    "Ay, Mark the 'prentice, I took him but last night, and now he is gone, Goody."

    The wise-woman stood looking at her visitor in a manner that sent the blood back to her heart; and then, without answering, she stepped to the door, opened it by some mysterious and complicated means, led the way inside, carefully closed the door and shot the bolt, and then, turning round, she demanded:

    "Dost love him truly, mistress?"

    "Ay, dame, oh ay; but where—"

    " An' does he love thee?"

    "Ay, does he!  But tell me, good woman, where he is.  I dreamed a bad dream of him in the night.  Oh, Goody, I saw him tossed with a bull."

    "Mistress!" and the dame almost shrieked out her exclamation.

    "I did, dame!  Oh, tell me not 'tis an evil dream!"

    The light went out of the wise-woman's eyes, her chin dropped upon her breast, and in a low husky voice she groaned:

    "Good lack!  I dreamed the like myself!"

    There was dead silence; Kinty's heart went cold, then relieving tears rose to her eyes, and she was just about to speak when Mother Wagstaffe drew herself up, dropped her crooked walking-stick, and with her black eyes glowing and her sallow face shining, with strange inspiration she began in the tone and manner of an ancient Jewish prophetess.

    "'He shall give His angels charge concerning him; He shall cover him with His feathers, He shall hide him in His pavilion.  There is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel.  He shall deliver his soul from going down to the pit.  A thousand shall fall at his side, and ten thousand at his right hand, but they shall not come nigh him; only with his eyes shall he see the destruction of the wicked!'"

    This weird rhapsody was more terrifying to Kinty than a torrent of curses would have been, the succession of unfamiliar Scripture quotations sounded like an incantation, and she gasped for breath and gripped the arms of a chair to support herself.

    But Goody, dropping her strange manner as suddenly as she had assumed it, began to unfasten the shutters, and when the daylight came in it seemed to break the spell, and Kinty sank trembling into the chair upon which she had been leaning.

    "But, dame, can you tell me naught?  Can you not read his—"

    "Why, mistress, I saw him go!"

    "Dame!"

    But another idea had evidently entered the subtle brain of the old-time witch.  She made a quick step forward and stood right before her visitor, looking keenly down upon her with a calculating, studious stare.

    "Tell me, mistress, has he aught to fear from the mayor?"

    "Nay.  Yea, oh, yea!  He is—what do you name it?—converted, and 'tis said the Methodists are all Jacobites!"

    Goody frowned and shook her head.

    "Mistress," she said slowly, "the mayor got him from his bed at break o' day and sent him—O God!—to Nettleton!"

    "Nettleton!"

    And Kinty with a new horror on her face, sprang to her feet, and the two stood looking almost fiercely into each other's eyes.  They had neither of them the least suspicion of the real motive of the mayor's action, but they saw clearly enough that his worship wanted to get rid of Mark, and if so it would be perilous to bring him back even if he could be found; for the Government wanted men badly just then, and Mark would make an ideal recruit either for army or navy.

    "Perhaps 'tis but an errand he hath gone upon," said Kinty, with a faintness of voice that belied her words.

    "And what then of our dreams?" was the chilling reply.

    Kinty shuddered, and then with a fresh thought she said eagerly:

    "But can you not divine, Goody?  Can you not break the evil spell?"

    "Toots!  Get thee behind me, Satan!"  But with change of tone, the weird creature went on: "I can do better than that, mistress.  I can pray.  Ay, an' I can move the Methodists to pray."  And then softening suddenly she asked, "Can you pray, mistress?"

    But to Kinty this was mere solemn trifling; the old beldam was demented with her new religion.  She was for instant action; something must be done and done at once, so presently she asked:

    "Went he riding?"

    "Nay, afoot."

    "Then he can be overtook?"

    "There be many ways to Nettleton, mistress, and none of them simple."

    "But a horseman could o'er-ride him and stop him going near the town."

    "And what then?"

    "He would be saved; he could come back."

    But even as she spoke the momentary eagerness died out of her voice, and she was not surprised when the old woman shook her head sadly and answered:

    "'Twould but be walking into another trap."

    "But there's the law."

    "There's no law, mistress, for the Methodists."

    "But the mayor's son is a Methodist."

    "Ay, that is why he so hates us all."

    Kinty sighed heavily, but the necessity of action was strong upon her, and seeing no further help in the dame she moved disconsolately to the door.

    "I cannot rest!  I must do something!" she cried with querulous pathos.

    And Goody, as they parted, put her hand out, and touching her respectfully, said:

    "God is above, and young Mark is His servant, so fear not."

    But as Kinty was hastening away, she called her back, and said:

    "Pray for him, mistress.  Come and join us to-night at the flax mill."

    Kinty shrugged her shoulders and hurried off.  She had a grudge against the mill and against the people who resorted there: but for them her lover would have been safe.

    During her hurried walk home she decided that her next application should be made to Uncle Josephus if she could find him.  She could not think that he knew anything about the mayor's proceedings, but at any rate she would learn what view he took of the matter.

    He was in the parlour unexpectedly when she arrived, but so changed in this short forenoon that she felt a fresh pang of fear.  His sneering, malicious manner had given way to one of nervous apprehension, and as she entered he sprang at her, crying:

    "Hussy, where is thy uncle?"

    "I know not," she began loftily; and then, though she noticed his extreme concern, she went on recklessly, "Gone to Nettleton, belike!" and stood watching the effect of her shot.  She was more than justified, for Josephus went positively green.

    "Nettleton? why Nettleton?" he shouted.

    But seeing how the first chance shot had told, she repeated the attack.

    "Nay, uncle, you should know best."

    "Baggage!" he yelled, but with sudden change of manner, he seized his hat once more and dashed out through the shop.

    Breathless and bewildered, Kinty sat down to collect her thoughts.  Why, her reckless guesses seemed to have hit the mark!  Uncle Ebenezer gone?  There was some comfort in the fact, at any rate; at his age there was no danger of his being pressed, and for his years and bulk he was still an expert rider, and might easily overtake her lover.  Only there were many possible roads to Nettleton, and a man on horseback would scarcely go the same way as a foot passenger.

    Perhaps he had not gone, after all; his habits were such that there was really little cause as yet for fear, and as her head began to throb and her lips to quiver, she leaned on the table, buried her face in her hands, and sobbed again.

    That proved an awful day for the distracted girl, fits of helpless depression were followed by fits of fruitless activity.  She dare not go down to the kitchen, for Kerry was in a state of collapse, and would overwhelm her with useless lamentations; neighbours came in every hour or so to madden her with suggestions probable and otherwise, but chiefly the latter.  Uncle Josephus never came near her even for his meals, and not a word could be learnt about dear old Uncle Ebenezer.

    Towards evening, however, her fears were confirmed, Ebenezer had gone off to Nettleton, and was by that time probably far on his way; and we in these times can have no conception of the feelings of a lonely girl in those days of dangerous travel under such circumstances.

    As the day drew to its close and no relief came, a feeling of helpless loneliness crept over her.  Nancy called twice, but brought no fresh news except that the Methodists had lost their suspicion of Mark, and were rejoicing over him as a brand plucked from the burning.

    Her sense of burden and loneliness deepened after Nancy's last visit, for it came to her gradually that Uncle Josephus, however near he had been to yielding the night before, was now of quite another mind, and she could not for the life of her think of any reason for the change.  Perhaps it was no change, and she had been deceived when she thought he had relented.  Even if Mark came back, therefore, there would still be that difficulty to surmount, and it seemed harder and more dreadful in her present depressed condition.

    Utterly wretched and full of fearful forebodings, she began to long for something, she knew not what.  There must be help and sympathy somewhere, surely.  Oh for some one who knew and would understand!  It was the mute blind groping of a stranded soul after God, but she did not know.

    Then another thought stole upon her; the only people who were in sympathy with her present feelings were the despised Methodists.  Yes, she would go and join them in their prayers.  She knew not the time of meeting, but guessed it would be some time after sunset, and so a little before eight o'clock she stole out of the back door, and a few minutes later gently pushed the heavy flax mill door before her and entered.

    The worshippers, about a score in number, were assembled at the farther end of the room singing, and as she was seeking a shy place behind the door, Mother Wagstaffe came towards her and led her forward.  The others did not turn round to look at her, but stood with closed eyes and rapt faces absorbed in their melody, which was read out to them in fragments of about two lines by the tinker.

    Kinty kept her eyes down, but as the singing concluded, and the others were going to their knees, she was dimly aware that she was being observed, and, glancing timidly up, she caught the mayor's disinherited son eyeing her with burning looks.  But she was in no mood for coquetry, and in a few moments young Giles was forgotten as she drank in the spirit of the supplications that were being made.

    A strange spell fell upon her; these people were praying to a real God, and they prayed much as they talked.  They spoke to their Maker as though they could see Him, and asked in definite terms for the one thing that was upon their hearts.  They called Mark "the new-born babe," and asked that he might be "snatched from the jaws of the lion."

    And the most amazing but fascinating thing was that they believed that they were being heard, and that God would do literally what they asked.  If this was prayer, and her heart told her it was, she had never before understood it.  Gradually she warmed towards these simple people, she felt as though they were building a sheltering wall around her absent lover, and when the meeting closed she rose from her knees with wet eyes.

    "I never thought to see you here!"

    Kinty turned with a little start and met the ardent gaze of the young maltster.  She was abashed for the moment, but her heart was full, and so she bowed her head and walked on.

    Drawing closer to her and dropping his voice almost to a whisper, he asked:

    "Are you feeling the drawings of the Spirit? are you seeking after God, sister?"

    "Nay; I am seeking my lover, Mark Rawson, my lover!"

    Giles flushed to the eyes and looked like one stunned.

    "Your lover?  Mark the 'Prentice?"

    "Yea, Mark the 'Prentice!  Know ye aught of him?  What hath thy father done wi' him?"

    But he was thinking hard on other lines, and so, ignoring her question, he said:

    "But he cannot be a Methodist and your lover!"

    "Cannot he! but he is i' faith, and a right forward one, too."

    And she laughed wistfully as she recalled certain lover-like proceedings in the dark hat-shop the night before.

    "But a Methodist may marry only in the Lord."

    "Let him but come safe back an' he shall marry me as he lists."

    "But, mistress,"—and great beads of perspiration began to appear on his face,"—if—if Why, I had to give up father and mother and you, too, to save my soul!"

    "And I thank you for't, Master Giles, and so will Mark."

    A battle royal was going on within the young maltster, the presence of the girl he had deliberately given up for his soul's sake had most unexpectedly revived the old Adam in him; his whole nature went out to her, he had never felt that he loved her until now.  His dull eyes gleamed like balls of fire, he was driving his nails deep into his clenched fists, a sickly pallor spread over his face, and at last he stammered out:

    "If one man may risk his soul for a woman, why not another?"

    The theological point involved took Kinty out of her depth, but the idea suggested reached the old spirit of banter within her, and so, though her heart was cold and heavy, and they had by this time reached the market-place where groups of people stood, she made a pretty little gesture of dismay, and cried:

    "Mercy, Master Giles, but I cannot marry two men!"

    The untimely frivolousness of the answer did what serious argument might not have accomplished.  The young maltster felt first offended and then rebuked, and so recovering himself with a great effort he turned the conversation by asking:

    "But what has my father to do with it?"

    Kinty opened her eyes wide, and then checked herself.  Evidently he knew nothing of his father's motives, and if the Methodists did he would have heard of them.  Perhaps Goody would not wish the fact that she had seen the interview between Mark and the mayor known.  At any rate, it was as well to be careful, and so she answered:

    "Does he not hate and persecute all Methodists?"

    But he was studying her intently.  Certain overtures he had recently had through his sister made him aware that if he wished to be reconciled to his father the way was open, at least upon certain terms.  Mark was now out of the way; he had doubtless gone, like many another in those times, to feed the greedy god of war; for it was no uncommon thing just then, when the authorities were unscrupulous and bounties for recruiting high, for a strapping young fellow to disappear, and when he did so nobody thought twice as to his whereabouts.

    In a short time the bewitching young beauty at his side would doubtless forget her lowly lover and even be thankful that she had escaped a misalliance.  The first glow of new religious life had waned somewhat of late, and if he could get reinstatement in his father's favour, recover the prospects he had forfeited, and obtain Kinty, the matter was, at any rate, worth considering.  And so, as they had now reached the hat-shop, and he noticed that the neighbours were observing them curiously, he took a ceremonious leave and went away.

    And that night there was another young soul in the throes of fiercest moral conflict, and as the sun broke over Purstone Hill another well-built young Helshamite rode out of the town end towards that place of ill repute—Nettleton.


 
CHAPTER XIX.

ADVENTURES BY THE WAY


NO sooner had Mark Rawson turned the crest of the hill after parting with the mayor, than he became the prey to distracting fears.  There was something worse than cruel in his being sent away from the town on the very day that was to see the consummation of his life's dreams, and he could not overcome the feeling that the circumstance was somehow ominous.

    He was angry with himself now, for not having awakened his sister, and he pulled up, and was strongly tempted to run back and tell her both what had befallen him at the hat-shop, and on what errand he had been dispatched.  But the mayor had undertaken to explain all that was necessary to her, and if he should see him returning he would most certainly be angry.

    As he reached the corner of Baking Lane, it occurred to him to run round to the back door of the hat-shop, and scribble a message on the flag before the kitchen door; Kerry could not read, but she would be sure to call her mistress's attention to it.  And yet why waste time?  Mr. Josephus knew all about the matter and there was really no cause for the foolish fear that troubled him.

    Then he remembered the strange conduct of the wise-woman.  Why had she signalled so earnestly?  Well, he was near, two minutes' walk would bring him to her door, why not see her and settle that point, at any rate?  Slipping down the lane, therefore, and along the "Beck" side under the willows he approached the cottage and knocked.

    There was no response; the door was fast and evidently the old woman had not returned.  For several minutes he lingered about in the hope that she might appear, but at last he gave it up and went back into the road.  Then his reflections began to pull him in another direction; calculating time and distance, he realised that starting so early, it was just possible with push and good luck to reach Nettleton that night, and then with the money provided him by the mayor, get some sort of ride back on the morrow.

    It would be an unheard-of feat, but surely he had reason enough for more than ordinary effort, and so in a few minutes he was scudding along the road, staff in hand, at a fine swinging pace.  The callow morning air braced and freshened him, activity also contributed its recuperative influence, the keen edge of his disappointment wore off, and even his misgivings became less heavy.

    As he passed through Freedale hamlet sounds of waking life began to stir.  He could hear the striking of flint and steel in the cottages, and now and then he met a haymaker going to the fields.  For an hour longer he trudged along, his spirits rising with every mile he travelled.

    It was too early to be very hot, and the roads for the locality were fairly good.  He stumbled occasionally in the deep grass-hidden ruts, passed now and again the ruins of rough country vehicles which had been stranded in the rainy spring and abandoned, more than once he had to turn aside to avoid putrifying carcases of animals lying on the roadside; but altogether he thanked his stars that he encountered nothing worse, and about eight o'clock he entered the faded old town of Higher Wincott, where the present road ended, and where also he came to the limit of his topographical knowledge.

    Calling at an inn, he found some difficulty in ascertaining his nearest way forward, but a horse-dealer came to his assistance and bade him take the fields to Wincott Bottoms, then cross the pack-saddle moors to Munderham.  But "The Bottoms" proved a labyrinth, and the moors apparently endless, and when a little before noon he came in sight of Munderham his hopes of reaching Nettleton that night had sunk to zero.

    It was now exceedingly hot, and though he bared his neck and carried his coat on his arm, he was perspiring profusely and had become footsore and overpoweringly sleepy.  As it was noon and the beginning of the haymaking season, he was not surprised to find the little village quiet; but when he pulled up for a moment the stillness become noticeable and he observed that grass was growing up long and rank between the cobble-stones of the street, and most of the cottage window-shutters were closed.

    He seemed to have walked suddenly into a veritable deserted village.  Looking wonderingly around he spied a little alehouse farther on, and made at once for it.  But this also was closed up, and he was just gazing perplexedly round, and wondering what it all meant, when a footstep fell on his ear, and wheeling round he came face to face with one of the most hideous-looking objects he had ever beheld.

    It was a man, certainly, but the hungry, cadaverous face, the glittering green eyes, the stubbly unshaven chin, and the tufts of coarse iron-grey hair that projected through the holes of a tattered wig presented to Mark's horrified gaze one of the most grotesque and terrifying figures he had ever seen.

    "Laugh! " cried the wretched object with a fierce grin, and glaring savagely into Mark's face.  "Laugh, man! there hasn't been a laugh heard i' old Munderham these two months!  Laugh, stranger, laugh!"

    "Whaa-t!  What is't?" cried the traveller awestruck.

    "What is't! the vengeance o' God!  'Tis wrath and hell, 'tis the plague!—H-u-s-h!"

    The sound of slow rumbling wheels was heard on the cobble-stones, and the weird creature snatched at Mark's arm and drew him into the shadow of the doorway.

    The young hatter had already half-guessed the terrible truth, and a moment later there came into sight a rude springless cart led by two mournful-looking men.  A dingy piece of cloth was thrown over the load, but as it passed, one terrible glance told Mark all he needed to know; and with a gasp and a horrified cry he sprang from his repulsive companion, darted down the deathly street, and did not stop until he had left the place a mile and a half behind him.

    He had walked into a plague-stricken village, paralysed and decimated by the ravages of small-pox.  In his scare he had paid no heed to his directions, and now found himself sorely puzzled; and as he stood reflecting and getting his breath, he heard the sound of hoofs coming towards him.  But when the approaching horseman saw him emerge from the Munderham lane, he shouted, pulled up, wheeled round his horse, and dashed hurriedly away.

    Hot, hungry, disheartened and drowsy, Mark threw himself into the long grass by the wayside with a fretful moan, and lay there in the sun wondering where he would get food, and when his journey would be completed.  It was clear he could not get to Nettleton that night, and he was so stiff and sore that he would have been glad to get shelter and rest anywhere.

    What was the secret purpose of his journey, and why had he been required to take it just at this time?  And as he wondered and sighed, he grew drowsy, and though he roused himself once or twice he was soon overpowered and lay in the deep grass fast asleep.

    It was late in the afternoon when he awoke, and an hour's walk brought him to a cottage where a woman sat in the doorway working a spinning-wheel.  She gave him food promptly enough, and then offered ointment for his bleeding feet, accompanying her ministrations with vague references to the balm of Gilead.

    She was a Methodist it turned out, and when Mark had told her of his own recent conversion, and such details of his present journey as he thought prudent, she informed him that he had come many miles out of his way, but that at the next village five miles farther on he would find a Methodist webster who would give him shelter for the night.

    He could scarcely move his stiffened limbs when he rose to depart, and cried out more than once with pain; but a little exercise eased matters, and he pushed on towards Gunnell.  The road dipped sharply into a valley, and he began to pant with the stifling closeness of the air.  The sides of the valley were well wooded, and he came every now and again into delightful bits of shade.

    A sound of distant hoofs made him look round, and there some distance above him on the hillside was a horseman on another road, but evidently making in the same direction as himself.  The traveller was coming down the hillside at a fine rate, and was soon some little in advance of him.  He seemed to be talking to his horse somewhat excitedly Mark thought.

    Presently the rider plunged into a shady bit of wood, and the young hatter had almost forgotten him when he heard a cry, a succession of dull blows and the discharge of a pistol.  He pulled up, listened a moment, gripped his ashen staff and, weary as he was, dashed forward.

    The cries and knocks increased as he ran, and he shouted in response, and then coming into the straight he beheld the horseman with riding-whip in one hand and horse-pistol in the other struggling with two ragged footpads in the road, whilst a third ruffian was in the very act of mounting the stranger's horse.

    "Help! help!" bawled the rider.

    A shock went through Mark, the voice was strangely familiar; he shouted again and sprang forward.  Yes!  Oh heavens! yes, the horseman was Mr. Ebenezer.

    With an amazed yell Mark smote the nearest footpad with his staff, and began to belabour him about the head and shoulders until he turned upon his new assailant.  Mr. Ebenezer discovering his helper, sprang back, roared out a volley of mingled oaths and proverbs, and the roughs were just being beaten off when there came a crash in the wood behind, a succession of oaths, Mark was smitten heavily on the head by some blunt instrument and fell senseless to the earth.

    When he came to himself all was quiet again, only Mr. Ebenezer, with face all smeared with blood and tears, was looking anxiously down upon him, and he had only time to observe that his old master was coatless, when all went dark again.

    "Lack-a-day!  'A fool's bolt is soon shot.'  'Who reacons without his host must twice reacon."'

    Mark raised his head, and then became conscious that his own outer garment was gone, as well as his master's.

    "Hoots, man, I've found thee! ' 'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody good.'  Thou cam'st i' th' very nick, lad.  Ah, lousy rascals, 'Twixt cup and lip is many a slip.'"

    "But, master, where are our coats?"

    "Tut, man! heed not the garments; near is my coat, but nearer is my skin.  The rascals gave thee a bat [blow]."

    "But, master, the letter! the letter was in my coat!"

    "Nay, nay, man; thy wound, what of it?"

    Thus reminded, Mark put his hand to the back of his head and drew it away again all wet with blood.  The sight sickened him, but with a great effort he staggered to the rotting stump of an old tree and propped himself against it.  Ebenezer, rapping out energetic oaths on their vanished assailants, bound up Mark's head with his snuffy old handkerchief, muttering as he fumbled with the unwonted exercise, "Need makes e'en the old wife trot."  But he gave no sign that there was anything amiss with himself, and it was some time before the younger man discovered that his companion also was injured.

    In a few minutes Mark comprehended what had happened.  The two who were assaulting Ebenezer had been reinforced upon his appearance by others out of the wood.  They had achieved their purpose only too successfully—pistols, saddle-bag, money, coats were all gone, Mr. Ebenezer's outer garment having disappeared most mysteriously; for he would not admit for a moment that he had been knocked down and stripped whilst unconscious.

    A sudden sense of the Divine protection fell upon Mark as he leaned against the tree trying to realise the situation, and he dropped upon his knees and began to return thanks to God.  Ebenezer watched these proceedings, first with astonishment and then with a dull stare, and when at length the younger man rose and looked round he found his companion kneeling with his face to a wayside bush and his wig gripped firmly in one hand, repeating the Apostles' Creed with headlong rapidity.

    With his head singing and swimming Mark felt that the first thing to do was to get assistance, and so they started forward to the next village.  It had grown a little cooler, but as they soon emerged from the shelter of the trees, and strange sharp pains in the scalp began to distress him, he doubted whether he could travel the uncertain distance to the place of refuge.  Mr. Ebenezer, however, was optimism itself, and laughed at the difficulties Mark saw.

    "Tush, man! we canna always have good news from Holland.  Robbed?  Ay, but we're safe enough now; naught's never in danger."'  But here he became incoherent and reeled in the road, and Mark insisted that he was hurt and was concealing it.

    The old fellow stoutly denied any such thing, but almost immediately staggered again, and Mark was just insisting on knowing the truth when his master gave a faint whoop, and pointed forward; and following the direction indicated, he beheld a broad shallow streams crossing the bridgeless road, and they both pushed onward for a drink.

    Mark arrived first, and with a sigh of satisfaction threw himself down, and sank mouth and face in the cooling waters.  Ebenezer was following and dropped on his knees, and began to crawl towards the stream.  Mark drank deep and dipped his face again and again, and was just rising from his knees, when, glancing round, he found his brave old companion lying half length in the stream, apparently in a dead faint.

    For the next twenty minutes Mark with swimming head was struggling to bring his master back to consciousness, and when at length he got him to sit up, he noticed that the sun was sinking fast and night would be soon upon them.  They were at the lowest point of the road, and the shoulder of the hill hid the village beyond from view.  It must be nearly two miles off, Mark calculated, and how they were to reach it in their present condition he was unable to see.

    Mr. Ebenezer seemed to prefer a prostrate condition and lay on his back muttering the Creed, and Mark, in utter exhaustion, had to struggle with an overwhelming desire to fling himself down by the old man's side and give up.  But Ebenezer raised his head and sat up in a listening attitude.

    Yes, some one was coming, for there was a sound of hoofs, and Mark prayed it might not be the return of the robbers.  The still evening enabled the sound to travel easily, but several minutes passed before the traveller hove in sight.  The strain of listening must have drained Mark's strength, for the next thing he knew he was lying on his back, and John Snaith, the Methodist preacher, was rubbing his limp hands.

    An hour later he found himself reclining on a comfortable long settle in the inglenook of a large kitchen, a rosy-checked, meek-looking woman was attending upon him, and a rubicund yeoman, half-farmer, half-tradesman, was deep in conversation with Snaith.

    A lugubrious groan and a muttered "When the bad is highest the good is nighest" made him aware that Mr. Ebenezer was somewhere near, and raising his bandaged head he beheld his old master seated in a corner chair, with his arm bound up and a face as white as a sheet, whilst two gentle-looking damsels were waiting upon him; one, in fact, being just in the act of helping him to a pinch of snuff.

    Mark soon found he was in the best of hands, and when at last he was able to sit up and eat, he told as much of his story as he thought prudent, and then listened with growing distress to Mr. Ebenezer's account of his disappearance from Helsham, and the alarm which it had caused.

    "But the mayor! said he naught of where he had sent me?" he gasped.

    In an energetic but unprintable monosyllable, the old hatter consigned his worship to woeful regions, and then gave Mark to understand that he had been put upon the scent by Goody Wagstaffe, and that he thought him well rid of the letter which he swore meant mischief to its bearer.

    The rosy old dame mildly deprecated both the old fellow's language and his surmises, and as Mr. Ebenezer was without the clue to the mayor's motives held by the reader, and John Snaith added exhortations about "thinking no evil" and "speaking evil of dignitaries," the old man was in danger of losing his temper; and so, to divert his attention, the women began to urge the necessity of rest, and in a few minutes our two adventurers were lying side by side in a cool room, soft linen sheets about them, and soft pillows under their aching heads.


 
CHAPTER XX.

STRANGE PENITENTS


A STEADY snore soon proclaimed the older man asleep, but Mark found it impossible to soothe his excited mind.  Had the mayor played him false? and if so, why?  Was the losing of the letter a Providence, as his old master insisted and even Snaith seemed to think?  Why, at any rate, had not the magistrate explained his absence, as he promised, and what, oh, what were they thinking of at that moment in Helsham?

    He dozed now and again, and woke with frightened starts, but when at last slumber seized him he slept heavily, and lay tossing and moaning about until bright daylight filled the room, and sounds of returning life could be heard from all parts of the house.  Ebenezer was still snoring, but Mark was soon back in the incidents of the previous day and the anxieties connected with them.

    He had lain thus, and was debating with himself his best course of action when a sound of distant singing floated softly into the room.  Yes, he knew the tune, some Methodists were evidently worshipping somewhere not far away.  A goodly company, too, by the volume of sound; why should he not join them?

    But when he tried to move, his limbs seemed fast to the bed, and the least effort gave him pain.  He groaned and sighed and waited a while, but at last the sweet morning, the alluring melody, and his own restlessness, were too strong for his aching bones, and he got up and hastily dressed.  He was met at the foot of the stairs by the mistress of the house, who protested that he must remain in bed for one day, at least.

    Mark admitted his soreness, and then, dropping into a cautious tone, informed her that he was a recently converted Methodist, and longed to go to the service.  Then the dame called one of her daughters, and bade her accompany their guest and see that he took no harm.  With demurest smile the damsel, fair-haired and pretty almost as Kinty herself, led him through the farmyard, along the side of an orchard, and across a field to a shady nook, where he beheld some sixty people gathered for worship.

    Some of them had their reaping-tools in their hands, and others held the bridles of horses.  John Snaith was praying when Mark came up to the edge of the little dell, and so he accepted the timidly offered assistance of his fair companion's arm, and watched the newcomers as they arrived.

    The Scriptures were read next, another soft, tender hymn was sung, and the preacher commenced his sermon.  The girl at Mark's side was soon listening with rapt attention, but he found it difficult to follow the preacher at all.  Do what he would, his eyes wandered over the assembly, and his thoughts returned to the absent ones at Helsham.

    For some fifteen minutes the sermon proceeded, and Mark was just beginning to get interested when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, and, slightly turning his head, he observed three men steal sheepishly up to the edge of the company, look round with sly, suspicious glances and finally settle down to listen.

    There was something about the last of the newcomers that seemed familiar, and yet as he looked at him he could not decide what it was.  He checked himself and turned his thoughts to the preacher, but a moment later he was eyeing the stranger again with an earnest, struggling sort of look.

    Suddenly light came, and he started forward with an astonished cry.  It was not the man, nor his face, but he was wearing Mark's own coat.  A chill crept over him as he stared along the dell-side.  He turned to speak to his fair companion, and then, glancing back at the stranger, became so fascinated in watching him that he forgot coat, sermon, and everything.

    Snaith was discoursing on the Judgment, and he had just commenced to give lurid and terribly realistic descriptions of the last great assize, and the wearer of the stolen coat, with his big mouth wide open, and his eyes bulging out in growing fear, was drinking in every word.  Now and then he licked his coarse lips, unconsciously took a step nearer the preacher, pulled nervously at his frowsy beard, and gave every sign of being interested to the point of helplessness.

    Mark, forgetful of everything else but what he saw, held his breath and watched.  The stranger began to grind his teeth, and great beads of perspiration stood on his forehead.  The preacher's voice had fallen to a whisper, not a sound could be heard but the sibilant accents of the sermon, and Mark, stiff and spellbound, saw the footpad move like one mesmerised towards the centre of the ring.

    Nobody saw, nobody heeded.  The whispered descriptions of the Great Judgment were holding every heart in thrall.  Suddenly the preacher flung out a sentence, high, shrill, terrific; the man Mark was watching sprang into the air with a shriek, loud moans broke out on every side, and, a moment later, the thief was grovelling at Snaith's feet, crying for mercy to an accompaniment of cries and groans and tears.

    The scene, though repugnant even to Mark's untutored instincts, thrilled, repelled, and even frightened him, and he was just sighing in an effort of self-assertion when there was a roar and a crash, kneeling worshippers were toppled incontinently over, a well-known figure dashed into the ring, and with shouts of "Rascal! thief!" Mr. Ebenezer was seen fiercely dragging Mark's coat from the back of the kneeling penitent.

    With a startled glance the thief looked up, and, recognising his assailant, realised that the preacher's warnings were being fulfilled with swift and most appalling literality; Nemesis had overtaken him indeed, and with another yell he threw his arms round Ebenezer's legs and began to cry out for mercy.

    The old hatter kicked and sputtered, and finally, with a lurch and a roar, toppled over on the top of his prey and lay on the soft grass, proclaiming vociferously that "Old birds were not to be caught with chaff."

    The appearance of Mark, who now sprang into the ring, completed the wretched footpad's terror, and as he was now joined by his two companions and his coat was in Ebenezer's hands, he grovelled there in ragged, dirty shirt, through the plentiful rents of which a dirtier skin was visible, and cried for pity from God and man alike.

    It took all John Snaith's powers of command to obtain anything like order, and when this was at length accomplished he dismissed the worshippers to their work and invited Mark and the footpads to stay behind.

    The congregation, standing in little knots on the edge of the dell, watched the proceedings with intense interest.  The three penitents were notorious characters, and their capture by the Methodists was regarded as a most signal triumph.  Mr. Ebenezer, still upon the grass, was alternately denouncing the thieves and fortifying himself with proverbial philosophy, and Mark began to search the pockets of his recovered coat for the letter.

    At this moment, however, the farmer came down the dell-side and, after saying a word or two to Snaith, he turned to Mark and his master and invited them back to the house.  But Mark demanded his letter, and Mr. Ebenezer, declaring he would have the villains gibbeted, bawled out for some one to fetch the constable.

    Snaith checked the old man somewhat sternly, and assured Mark that the letter and all other matters should be adjusted as far as might be if only they would return to the house.  Ebenezer announced that "A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush," and was not to be pacified, and it was clear to Mark that the old fellow was very much overwrought.

    At length they prevailed upon him to depart; but he went away muttering threats of vengeance against Snaith if the culprits escaped him.  The women of the house placed food before them; but to Mr. Ebenezer this was a species of corruption and bribery, and he tramped about the kitchen denouncing the three penitents as highwaymen and the Methodists as villainous Jacobites and balderdash.

    Then he tried to induce an old man-servant, who sat in the chimney-corner making wooden spoons, to fetch a magistrate, and, failing in that, he sat down in a pet, sulkily refused to eat, and kept up a series of mutterings to the effect that "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," and "Save a thief from hanging, and he'll cut your throat."

    Presently Snaith and the farmer entered the kitchen.

    "The letter!  What of my package?" demanded Mark eagerly.

    "The men know naught of any letter, they have not even seen it."

    "But 'twas in the pocket!  Where are they?"

    "The men are gone."

    "Gone?"

    "Gone?" shouted Ebenezer, and with a savage laugh he went on, "So, so!  'Set not the fox to watch the geese.'  Scoundrels are ye all!"

    Mark had risen from the table with a flushed, angry face, and Ebenezer, clutching at his wig with his uninjured hand and waving it about, began to denounce the Methodists as villains and vagabonds.

    "Silence!" commanded the preacher sternly.  "Old man, thy language ill becomes thy years.  The men are true penitents, and will return."

    "Return! return, says ta!" and rushing at Mark the excited and indignant old fellow seized him by the arm and began dragging him out of the house.  "Come forth, come forth!  We've gotten 'out o' the fry pan into the fire.'  'Set a thief to catch a thief.'  Rascals are they all!  Come forth, man!"

    But Mark, in spite of his distress about the letter, was interested.  Could such wretches as these be influenced by religion?  To see three such scamps genuinely penitent and bringing forth fruits that were meet would be a marvel indeed.

    In spite of his confident language, however, Snaith seemed strangely anxious and restless.  The men, he explained, were not really criminals, but mere broken men, who had turned poachers and hen-roost robbers out of sheer starvation.  Their attack upon Ebenezer was their first serious plunge into crime, and he was anxious that they should have a chance of justifying his kindness and faith in their sincerity.

    Mark hastened to assure the preacher that if he could only recover his letter he would be glad to forgive the rest; but his old master obstinately announced his intention of having the "rascals" gibbeted, and laughed to scorn the idea that they would be such "pudding-heads" as to put themselves within the power of the law.


"'Love can bow down the stubborn neck,
     The stone to flesh convert;
 Soften and melt, and pierce and break
     The adamantine heart,"'


quoted Snaith, but it was evidently quite as much to confirm his own wavering confidence as to convince the mocking hatter.

    And, as if to justify his faith, the back door opened and in stepped the three culprits.  They had hastily washed their faces and there were fringes of wet hair hanging over their brows and marginal dirt-stains round the edges of their cheeks.

    A strange stillness fell on the company, surprise and wonder appearing on every face.  The men drew up in the middle of the room and looked inquiringly around, shame and high purpose curiously blended in their faces.  The wearer of Mark's coat, who was now a picturesque pillar of dirty rags, glanced shyly round upon the company and then down at a pistol in his hand, and groaned.

    "Lord, help him," said Snaith fervently, and the tears stood in the women's eyes, whilst Mark had sudden difficulty in seeing through his.

    The footpad stepped up to Ebenezer and laid the pistol before him.

    "Glory!" cried Snaith under his breath.

    The thief hesitated a moment with quivering mouth, and then quietly laid a purse by the side of the weapon; the preacher breathed out another deep ejaculation.

    Then, turning to his companions, the penitent took from them saddle-bag, straps, and a small wallet, and laid them before the old hatter.  With fascinated eyes the lookers-on watched the proceedings in dead silence, and when the chief actor hesitated for a moment the preacher said, in low stern voice:

    "Keep back naught of the price, brother.  Remember Ananias and Sapphira."

    The thief looked up in perplexity, he evidently did not understand the not too obvious reference.

    "Go on, brother, make an end; hold naught back."

    The penitent seemed still at sea, and so Snaith added urgently:

    "The horse, brother, what of the horse?"

    Light came into the dull face, and dropping his head again, he said humbly:

    "The horse is in the yard, master, and the constable."

    "The constable?" cried two or three at once.

    "The constable!" echoed Snaith.  "Nay, then, I meant not that; this is righteous overmuch."

    Two of the culprits were glancing nervously towards the back door, and they heard Snaith's protestations with most evident relief; but their spokesman, labouring to swallow something, opened lips that cracked as they separated, and answered huskily:

    "But we want the peace of God, master."

    Snaith looked round on the company with a flash of holy triumph, and burst out "Praise God!" and then, stepping forward, he explained to the culprit that Mark and Ebenezer were willing to pardon their offence, and that, unless they had the guilt of some other crime upon their souls, there was no need to give themselves up to justice.

    The two assistants murmured words of gratitude, but their leader shook his head wearily and repeated:

    "We want the peace of God."

    With the flash of a new thought in his eye, Snaith strode to the back door, and returned with a little pock-marked, wiry man, who had "officer of the law" written large on every feature of his fussy face.  The women uttered cries of protesting pity, Mark sprang to his feet and caught at the preacher's arm, but Snaith threw off the grasp, and, stepping back, said:

    "Officer, do thy duty!"

    "In the King's name," began the little constable; but before he could get any further, he was sent spinning against the pot-rack, and a husky voice cried "Touch 'em not!" and Mr. Ebenezer, his red face all smeared with hot tears, thrust himself between the culprits and the man of law, and turning suddenly round, flung his free arm round the neck of the man who had worn Mark's coat, and hugging him convulsively to his breast he cried:

    "Bless, bless thee, for a man and a Christian!"

    Joyful little sobs broke from the women, the thieves looked round in perplexity, Mark tried to speak but could not, and Snaith, looking on with folded arms and glowing eyes, laughed in the excess of his triumph; for he was beholding and demonstrating to others the marvellous transformation which the Gospel could produce upon even the most hopeless cases.

    But the constable had picked himself up, and began to assert the majesty of the law, and so Ebenezer, who seemed to have taken command, picked up his restored purse, pushed a guinea into the irate officer's hand and thrust him incontinently out of the house, then turning to the penitents he emptied all the silver left in his fob before them, slapped them heartily on the back, and invited them to return with him to Helsham.

    And then, as a sort of winding up of the ceremonies, he grabbed at Mark's arm and cried, whilst the tears rose into his eyes again:

    "Boy, these rascals have made me a Methodist.  State Church, man!  State Church is balderdash!"


 
CHAPTER XXI.

KINTY'S AWAKENING


DISPIRITED and exhausted by the trying experiences of the day, the old feeling of loneliness descended upon Kinty again as she entered the house after parting with the young maltster.  Uncle Josephus in his hardest mood would have been welcome just then, and she peered into the dark corners of the unlighted room with a weary, sinking heart.  She was too preoccupied and miserable to think of calling for a light, and so after groping about a little, she found Mr. Ebenezer's chair, and with a sobbing sigh sank into it, impulsively kissed the hard polished arm, and then dragged herself upstairs.

    Under ordinary circumstances her anxiety about her uncle would have kept her astir, but she had reached the point of suffering where sorrow loves to feed upon itself, and she found herself seeking the very loneliness which oppressed her so much.

    Listlessly she took off her cloak and hat, and as listlessly sank upon her knees to repeat her ordinary evening prayer.  She went through it as mechanically as she had done a hundred times before, and was just rising again when her pressing sorrows overcame her, and, sinking back, she laid her head upon her hands and began to think.  Oh, for some one to talk to, some one who could comprehend; some one to whom she could open her heart!

    Tears of soft self-pity began to flow, and kneeling there in the still twilight she realised for the first time in her life what it was to be an orphan.  For years she had reigned a happy giddy queen over the hearts and home of two old bachelors, and now, when a full-grown woman, she had a sudden aching longing for the parents she had never known.

    For a long time she knelt thus, yearning pensively for she scarcely knew what.  Suddenly she opened her eyes with a startled look; a curious self-consciousness came over her, awesome stillness seemed to enwrap her, and she held her breath in a sort of half-trance.  At first it was as though some faithful old clock had stopped ticking; but that feeling gradually died away, and a chilly sense that some one was near came over her.

    She dared not move or even breathe; a moment more and she must have either shrieked or fainted.  But just then a soft humming cadence, a snatch of music that came and went and slipped away when she tried to catch it floated into her brain and began to entice her.  "What was it?"  "Where had she heard it?"  Ah, yes; the flax mill came slowly back before her mind, the rapt faces of humble Methodists appeared and went again, the chill vanished, a gush of warm tingling emotion, like a soft south wind on frozen land, passed over her, and she found herself repeating with swimming eyes and quivering lips:


"In darkest shades if Thou appear
 My dawning is begun."


    This was the daybreak of Kinty's spiritual life, had she known it; it was not an orthodox one—real awakenings seldom are—but it was hers, and as she murmured the sweet words over and over again, the far-off, hazy, lord-chief-justice-of-the-universe deity of her former days faded for ever away, and into the vacant place there came a real friendly fatherly God, who was tempting her to tell the full tale of her woes into His sympathetic ear.

    And so she began to pray.  It was a simple, confused, altogether earthly prayer, the petition of a maiden for her absent lover; but she seemed to know that it was entering into feeling ears, and told out her love and apprehensions with guileless naïveté.

    Meanwhile Mr. Josephus was being greatly exercised in his mind about the absence of his brother, and whilst we must do him the justice of admitting that much of his concern arose from genuine anxiety for his old comrade's welfare, we scarcely need say that it was intensified by uneasy fear of what Ebenezer might discover.

    His brother was very fond of Mark, and hated all foul play, and if he found out — But Josephus did not care to contemplate what might happen in such a contingency.  He drank more heavily than usual that night, and never knew how he got to bed; but when he came down next morning, somewhat late, he found the mayor waiting for him.

    Turning away from the breakfast-table without so much as looking at his food, he seized a tankard of ale, filled his worship's pot, took a long pull at the liquor, and then sat down in surly silence opposite his visitor.

    The mayor, who was watching him with ill-concealed impatience, grabbed at the vessel offered him, and then as he raised it to his lips he looked over the top, and burst out:

    "The rascal's absconded!"

    "And what of Tebby?"

    But his worship was on the rack, and so with sudden heat he jerked out:

    "Hang Ebenezer!  I speak of the boy—my own boy.  He's gone, man."

    The hatter's jaw dropped in dull, stupefied amazement.

    "Gone?  How?  Where?"

    "Gone to Nettleton!  Gone after thy lousy apprentice!  Gone to the devil!"

    And the magistrate, now on his feet, poured out a volley of oaths and curses that shocked even the case-hardened Josephus.

    Relapsing each into his chair, the two conspirators stared hard at each other.  They were elderly, experienced, and for their times intelligent men; but as they glowered glumly into each other's face each man was telling himself that there was something uncanny in the whole business.  They were being played with by some mocking Nemesis which was leading them on and laughing at them.

    Kinty came into the room just then on some domestic errand, and so, waiting until she had gone, the maltster said:

    "Dance and Jerry are gone to Nettleton, Podger to Derby, and Dick along the south road, but, curse me, I cannot rest!"

    "No lad is safe nigh to Nettleton these times, 'prentice or gentleman," replied Josephus with serious conviction.

    "Tut, man, my son!  The scoundrels 'ull never put finger on my son."

    "What of Grigsby's boy?"

    Young Grigsby was the scapegrace son of a wealthy brewer, and had been pressed within a mile of his father's house, and so far neither money nor influence had succeeded in recovering him.  Josephus, in his many perplexities, had a sneaking sort of satisfaction in the fact that his friend was now in the same boat as himself; a view of the case which the mayor hotly resented, and all the more so as his own heart strangely misgave him.

    "Hoots! these are times, truly!" he snarled, "No man can go safely now."  And once more he banned the Methodists as Jacobites and disturbers of the country's peace.

    For half an hour longer they talked the thing over, but the guilty fact they held between them caused all sorts of miserable apprehensions.  They were the prey too of a peevish fretfulness which made them hyper-sensitive, and so they parted to avoid quarrelling.

    Afternoon brought a clergyman traveller into the town, and this worthy, interviewed at the Hanover Arms, reported that he had met a young fellow at the Luggerholme cross-roads, who was inquiring the way to Nettleton.

    "He rode hard," he added, "but he cannot come to the town before dark, and not then if he misseth the way again."

    His worship cursed his son under his breath as he wandered to the door, listened absently whilst the landlord questioned the cleric about Mr. Ebenezer, and then, with another bitter burst of blasphemy, he hastened away.  But at nightfall he drove out of the town-end in a heavy, old-fashioned carriage, accompanied by two armed men-servants, on his way to that place of sinister mesmeric attraction—Nettleton.

    And, as the father went out of Helsham, the son, on a lame and jaded mare, was turning the brow of Snelson top and going wearily down the hill towards Nettleton.  Though evening was gathering in he could still see the town, some three miles below him, and the sluggish, leaden-looking river beyond.  Wherever he had come that day he had made inquiries after Mark, but without success, and that for the very sufficient reason that for the last twenty miles he had chosen a much nearer road than the one taken by his rival.

    It had been a hard ride, and he was almost ill with soreness, thirst, and hunger.  He was approaching a little hedgeside alehouse, and though eager to get to the end of his journey, he pulled up and shouted, "House! house!" and then, unable to wait for the response, he flung himself with a groan from the saddle, threw the bridle over a rusty hook near a link socket, and stumbled stiffly into the inn.

    "Ale, there, ale!" he cried faintly, and sank into the nearest seat.

    It was almost dark, but one of the two persons in the room, brushed hastily past him to fulfil his demands, and Giles was too self-absorbed to notice the other.

    "You are spent, young sir," said a gruff voice from the other end of the room.

    "Ah, spent enough!  How far to Nettleton, good man?"

    "Nettleton?" cried the pipe-voiced host, coming in with the ale, "three miles, and down hill every yard.  The night is young, sit and sup, sir."

    Giles took a long, deep pull at the liquor, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then, throwing his legs on the bench beside him, he turned to the host and asked:

    "Know you one Tester i' Nettleton?"

    "Ah, marry! 'tis the brazier in Labour Lane," said the landlord.

    "Bottom o' the town near to the wharf," added the other man.

    But another thought had entered Giles's head, and so he said: "Any other young fellow asked after Tester here to-day?"

    The landlord reflected, and was just about to reply, when Giles added:

    "A lad on foot; an apprentice."

    "Ah, a runaway?"

    And with a sudden quickening of interest, the host came nearer to his customer.  Before he could reply, however, the stranger, now almost invisible in the gathering shadows, asked:

    "Then you are for Tester's to-night, young sir?"

    "Please God, good man!"

    "Then hand these to him, and tell him that Toby Greener, the Chapman, picked them up in the old Gunnell Road."

    Giles took what appeared to be a small book and a letter, and was putting them into his side-pocket, when the feel of the volume struck him as being familiar, and so he tried to examine it, and then got up and went to the door for better light.

    It was a thin little Methodist hymn-book and on the fly-leaf was written "Mark Rawson: his book."  The backs were curled somewhat, and the colour of the binding seemed to have run a little and then dried suddenly.

    "Man, where got you this?"

    "In the Gunnell Road, as I told thee; it was wet when I picked it up; had lain there all night beelike."

    With a little gasp and a flutter at his heart, Giles turned up the letter.  It had thumb-and-mud-marks upon it, but the writing on the outside was his father's!  He stared at it with sinking heart and buzzing brain.

    "But, Mark? the 'prentice, saw you aught of him?" he cried, springing back into the dim room, and approaching the chapman.

    A long shake of the head and a stare of questioning surprise were the only responses.

    A thousand wondering questions rushed into Giles's mind.   What did this discovery signify?   Was it a good omen or an evil one?   How had Mark come to part with it?   What had happened to him, and where was he now?  Would Mark, if he had lost the letter, return home, or had he gone forward into the town?

    Perplexity and caution struggling together within him, he first blurted out a string of questions, and then closed up and made reticent and evasive remarks.  At any rate, the letter had strangely miscarried, and the question was, what to do next.  He only suspected that mischief was intended against the young hatter, and he had started in pursuit of him in order to be near and protect him amid the dangers of the town he was going to; but if Mark had discovered his loss, he would, in all probability, return home.  As he mused he turned the letter dubiously over and longed to open it.

    Next moment, however, he felt prompted to hand the missive back to the chapman and let it take care of itself, whilst he returned in search of his rival; but, detecting in his own heart a sort of unholy regret at the thought that Mark was escaping, and might get safely back to Helsham, he determined to ride on, deliver the note, and return as best he could.

    The two men were watching his waverings curiously, and this annoyed him, and so, flinging a coin on the table, he asked the chapman another question as to the exact whereabouts of the brazier's residence, flung himself heavily into his saddle and turned his horse towards the town.

    He pulled up several times, however, as he went down the hill and turned back once; but at the end of half an hour he rode slowly into Nettleton, and a few minutes later he led his tired mare down a cobblestone yard towards a low squat door in the far corner of the court.

    It was as dark now as it ever would be that night, and the yard was still and empty.  There were no lights in the little diamond-paned windows looking into the court, but a dingy swing-bracket overhung a door in the corner, and so he made for that.  As he drew up under the sign and reached out his hand towards the heavy old knocker, however, he was conscious of a sudden fit of fear and drew back with most painful misgivings.

    Why, he was walking into the very trap out of which he had come to rescue his rival!  Goody had insisted, with that strange, prophetic manner of hers, that harm was intended to Mark, and his knowledge of the circumstances of the case confirmed her contentions; and here he was carrying the very instrument that was to accomplish Mark's ruin!

    Then he remembered something else and glanced down at his garments.  Since his conversion he had adopted the simpler style of dress affected by his fellow religionists, and now, dusty and disordered as his clothes were, there was little to distinguish him from an ordinary apprentice.  The risk was too great; he would go back and spend the night at the Green Man, where his father at any rate was known, and then consider the situation during the night and act as his judgment directed in the morning.  As for the letter—

    "Soft, soft, my lad."

    He jumped back with a frightened start and his heart began to beat rapidly.  He gripped the rein of his horse tightly and peered suspiciously round, but nothing at all could he see.

    "Tarry, tarry, lad!  I'll be with thee in a twinkle."

    Ha, there it was.  In the window just at one side of the door and right above his head was the grinning face of a cross-eyed, cadaverous, toothless old man, and before he could collect his thoughts the door near him opened, the wearer of the face he had just seen emerged, accompanied by two men-servants carrying horn lanterns.

    "The Green Man, neighbour!  Which is the Green Man?" cried Giles in flurried, caught-in-the-act manner.

    "Green Man!  Ho, ho! yea, truly; this is the Green Man and the Red Man and the Blue Man?  The Green Man, Gobbs?  The Green Man, Gobbs?"

    "The Green Man," answered the servant addressed as Gobbs.

    "The Green Man," echoed the other, who, as he spoke, glided round in the gloom and laid a stealthy hand on the outer rein of the mare.

    Giles did not see this latter performance, but the manner of the three increased his suspicions, and so stepping a pace back he said:

    "But this is no hostel, master!"

    "Yea, verily, the best hostel and the cheapest the 'prentice's hostel—and the slip-master's hostel," and the old wretch came nearer, thrust his ugly face in Giles's, and leered horribly.

    But Giles was getting seriously alarmed.

    "Out, man!" he cried.  "Take you me for a runaway 'prentice seeking hidey-hole!  I am a tradesman's son from Helsham, and want a decent inn."

    The old fellow's bantering manner changed suddenly, and snatching a lantern from Gobbs he came near, scanned his visitor from head to foot, and then asked suspiciously:

    "Know you one Twist i' Helsham?"

    "Ay, marry; he's the mayor and my father!"

    "What!  Tut-tut-tut!  Ha, well-a-day!  Enter, young sir, enter!"

    And taking Giles by the elbow in a respectfully caressing manner, he tried to lead him into the house.  But the young maltster's suspicions were not so easily laid.

    "Nay, nay, good man; I want the inn."

    "What inn?  My old friend's boy go to an inn!  Nay, nay!  Enter, young man!"

    Still far from easy, Giles allowed himself to be led indoors, and was ushered into a passage, and from thence upstairs into a dimly lighted but comfortable room.  Everything looked so cosy and decent that he began to be ashamed of his own fears, and when he had been fussily pressed into a chair and had answered a string of eager questions about the well-being of his father, meat was placed before him, and he was pressed to eat in the most cordial and respectful manner.

    Still struggling with his uneasiness, Giles drew up to the table and ate; watching and carefully studying his host as he did so.  But the old fellow's manner was now respectfulness itself, the ill-looking servants had disappeared, and the air of homely cheerfulness that pervaded everything had a most reassuring effect.

    The old brazier seemed not to notice his guest's taciturnity, and rattled on merrily about the rumoured invasion by the Pretender, the doings of the much-talked-of Methodists, and the prevalence of crimps and press-gangs in the town of Nettleton.  His manner when he spoke of these last was artlessness itself, and Giles began to reproach himself for evil-minded suspicions.

    Then he began to ask wary questions, and soon found that the brazier had seen nothing of Mark, or, in fact, of any Helsham person, and this discovery set him off into a debate with himself as to whether he should present the letter; and the fact that the old fellow showed no curiosity as to the object of his visit seemed encouraging.  The brazier lolled back in his chair with a little sigh of lazy indifference, and Giles began, in spite of his inward restlessness, to feel somewhat drowsy.  The conversation dragged a little, there were several long silences, and Giles had not yet settled his problem when the old fellow, in the tone of one who talks for the sake of talking, said:

    "Thy father send no message for me?"

    Giles gave a little start, and noticed that the brazier was watching him now with curious intentness.  There was no help for it, he could not lie about the thing, and so he fumbled in his inner pocket and produced the packet.

    Tester took it and examined the outside with absent indifference, then he arose, slowly lighted another rushlight, carried the note to a windowsill, set the light down and opened the message; Giles the while watching him intently. It seemed to take a lot of deciphering, for the old man was some time before he could comprehend it.  The letter ran as follows:


"To John Tester, at the sign of the Wooden Mallet, these. The bearer is a King's man most evident, and I send him to thee for my own greater comfort and the peace of this good town. Let him be shipped post haste."


    Two or three times the brazier perused this brief epistle, carefully keeping his face averted so that Giles could not watch him.  Then he coughed thoughtfully and strolled back to his seat.  "Curse the Pretender and all his rascally followers!" he muttered, as he dropped upon a long settee, and Giles, supposing that the exclamation had reference to the subject of the letter, felt no little relieved.

    But the conversation flagged now more than ever, Tester answering very absently, and, as he twice caught the old fellow eyeing him sharply when he turned his head, Giles's uneasiness returned, and so to try his man he arose, wearily stretched himself, and announced his intention of going to the Green Man to sleep.

    To his surprise the brazier offered no more serious objection than decent hospitality required, and respectfully offered to escort him to the inn himself, which, he explained, was on the far side of the town.  Then he excused himself for a moment and went downstairs, and Giles, still suspicious, heard voices talking in undertones, and finally the sound of footsteps going out of the courtyard.

    Tester, however, was quite talkative when he returned, and retained Giles for several minutes longer, whilst he told him amusing stories of the jolly landlord of the Green Man.  Then he led the way down into the yard, still extolling that wonderful host.

    At the corner of the lane he was so absorbed in narrative that he pulled up, and, apparently forgetful of the time and the errand they were on, took hold of Giles's coat, whilst he finished his tale.  Then, suddenly remembering himself, and with the shy apologies of a garrulous old man who is wearying his friend, he made a sudden dash forward.  A little way down the lane he took a sharp turn into what seemed a backyard, but which led them out upon the wharf.

    Then Giles remembered that the Chapman had said the Green Man was near the wharf and felt reassured; but in a few moments Tester doubled again into another dim passage.  It looked so dark and ugly that after a few steps Giles held back and finally stopped, but as he did so his companion, doubling his hand, made a peculiar hooting sort of whistle; two dark figures sprang out in front, a door Giles had not seen opened behind them, men from front and back sprang upon him, gagged and bound him, and then he felt himself raised on rough shoulders and, struggling and kicking, carried off towards the wharf side.

    Once he threw himself out of their hands and fell heavily to the ground; but they were too many for him, and in a few minutes he found himself thrust into a dark, stinking cabin, and when the day broke he was far out at sea.

    By strange mischance, or series of mischances, he had walked into the trap which his father had laid for Mark Rawson.


 
CHAPTER XXII.

THE RETURN


AND whilst her lovers were thus experiencing perilous adventure, Kinty was consuming herself with anxieties, and found her only relief in stealing away to her little bedroom and pouring out her troubles into the Divine ear.  She was too preoccupied to observe how great a change this denoted in herself; the exercise was intensely and increasingly comforting, and, in the same unconsciousness, her heart was going out more and more to the despised Methodists, who were the only persons who seemed to understand and sympathise with her.

    The men who had gone out in search of her uncle returned, but could give her no comfort, no trace of the old man having been met with by any of them.  Her only consolation was that they seemed very confident that nobody would think of harming so well-known and good-natured a person as Ebenezer Kirke.

    At dusk she crept out to the Methodist prayer-meeting, but what comfort she derived from that was speedily taken away when she learnt on her way home that the mayor himself had gone after his son.  This, she noted with a sinking heart, was regarded by her friends as a most serious sign, and had it not been that Goody Wagstaffe, seeing her woeful plight, accompanied her homewards, and expressed unfaltering confidence that God would protect His own, she must have given way to utter despair.  Goody would give no reasons; she was mysterious and reticent, but very sure, and for once Kinty's superstitious trust in the old wise-woman was of service to her, and she did her best to believe.

    But the next day her fears grew stronger every hour.  Uncle Josephus ate nothing and carefully avoided her, and the one solitary glimpse she got of him showed that he was haggard, unshaven, and more than half-drunk.  Goody came twice, and Kerry was sent every hour to inquire for news; but neither of them brought the least scrap that relieved the tension, and dull, heavy grief settled down on her soul.

    Twice during the day she roused herself in dazed wonder.  This was never Christiana Kirke! and she rushed off to do she scarcely knew what.  But beyond interviewing and almost quarrelling with the Methodist carpenter, who preached resignation to the Divine will, she accomplished nothing, and there came over her a bitter realisation of how helpless a thing it was, under such circumstances, to be a woman.

    It was Saturday, and the Methodists, who were expecting John Snaith to preach on Sunday, had arranged to hold an all-night prayer-meeting on behalf of the absent young men.  During the afternoon flying rumours which raised high hopes or excited cruellest fears, were carried to Kinty, and at dusk, the arrival of a rickety, lumbering waggon from Nettleton itself sent her scudding off to the Blue Griffin to question the driver.

    She found the fellow, the profits of whose trade were obtained quite as much from the secret conveyance of uncustomed goods as from legitimate traffic, surly and taciturn at the inconvenient attention which his coming was receiving.  He had, it appeared, bluntly refused to answer any questions, and when Kinty arrived he was revenging himself by giving harrowing descriptions of the dangers of the town from whence he had come.

    It was "as full as a fitch," he declared, of Government men, pressmen, soldiers, and even marines, and Kinty, at the edge of the crowd, listened to his oath-embellished communications with a shudder, and then, with Goody Wagstaffe's assistance, got him aside into the stable, and, slipping a gold coin into his hands, drew out of him all the information he had to give.

    He had neither seen nor heard of any of the missing ones, either in Nettleton or on the way; but if any strange young fellow had gone at this particular time into the ill-reputed town, they might say good-bye to him, for he was by this time serving the King on the high seas.

    Then Kinty broke down utterly, and, leaning against the cobwebbed wall, sobbed as if her heart would break.  In vain the softened teams-man drew on his imagination and told clumsy stories of hair-breadth escapes which likely young fellows had had, even in Nettleton.  Kinty was inconsolable, and drew with the perversity of despair only the worst possible conclusions from the driver's extemporary romances.

    Goody led her away to her own little cottage and coaxed her to drink a little small-ale, and even eat a morsel of rye bread, and at last they went together to the all-night prayer-meeting.  And by this time Kinty's persistent despair had infected her companion, and her optimistic predictions grew faint and feeble, and Kinty, seizing on these as proofs that the worst was to be expected, abandoned herself to utter hopelessness.

    But the atmosphere of the flax mill chamber was softly, quietly hopeful.  A bright Methodist battle-hymn was being sung as they entered, and Kinty's sore, dead heart awoke again and went out in melting gratitude to these pathetic manifestations of sympathy.  For over an hour the singing and praying proceeded, the numbers of the suppliants being gradually increased until the room was nearly full.

    And as the numbers increased so did the confidence and fervour of the worshippers.  Lamentations, prayers for resignation and patience grew fewer, whilst notes of hope and confidence became louder and more emphatic.  Following every word that was said or sung, the cold hopelessness melted within the struggling girl warm gushes of thankful affection towards these strange friends of hers welled up within her, a sense that there was help if it could be got, stole into her heart; the reality, the nearness, the sympathy of God became clear to her, and she found herself following the broken simple petitions with smothered but deep "Amens!"

    Then a sense of passionate longing came over her.  Oh to be God's! to be God's own child and secure for ever!  In a short time she had forgotten where she was, forgotten her condition, forgotten even her lover, and was crying with the deepest that was in her


"Rock of ages, cleft for me,
 Let me hide myself in Thee."


    Suddenly another voice broke upon her ear, and she heard, in the strident tones of Goody Wagstaffe:

    "Thou art God.  Thou wilt answer prayer.  Thou wilt keep from the snare of the fowler.  Thou didst save Peter out of prison, and Paul from shipwreck. Save our friends. Save those dear lads, and save them now.  Thou cans, Thou wilt.  I believe ――"

    There was a loud bang at the door, a shout and a clamour of voices, and Kinty, springing to her feet in sudden awakening, felt strong arms thrown about her, a pair of blazing eyes met hers, her glad cry was smothered with passionate kisses, and she was folded to her lover's breast.

    Goody's prayer came to an abrupt conclusion.  There was a confused babel of triumphant voices, and when Kinty looked shyly round, there a few yards from her stood Uncle Ebenezer and John Snaith, encircled by a company of tearful, laughing Methodists, and behind them three frowsy ragged ruffians who were looking on in confused astonishment.

    But that had taken place in Kinty whilst she was on her knees which was more even than the happy return of her lover, and in a few moments, unconscious of all else, swimming eyes were looking into swimming eyes, and Mark was hearing the sweet tale of how her troubles had almost unconsciously brought her to her God.

    Breaking off, however, in the midst of her story, she dashed across the room and flung herself into the arms of her uncle, who, in spite of one bandaged limb which she had not noticed, hugged her close to his breast, and proclaimed through quivering lips that, "When the bad is highest, the good is nighest."

    Congratulations and exclamations of wondering gratitude to God were heard on every side, whilst Mr. Ebenezer shouted out incoherent little scraps of information about his recent experiences which only perplexed the excited listeners.

    Presently he remembered something else, and, leaving the Methodists to continue their rejoicings, he took Kinty by the arm and marched her off homewards, Mark following at her side and the ex-footpads bringing up the rear.

    But Mr. Josephus had heard the news, and now came rushing down the street without either hat or wig.  The meeting between the two brothers was touching to behold; but when Josephus, releasing the fat palm of his brother, turned eagerly to Mark and Kinty, and joining their hands together there under the still stars, stammered out, "Bless ye both!" Ebenezer made the dark street ring with "Yoicks! Tally ho! Hallelujah!" and then, springing forward to meet a half-dressed figure that was rushing towards them, he hugged the amazed serving-maid to his breast with his sound arm, and proclaiming loudly that a "Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," hurried her along to the hat-shop.

    Next day word came to the town that the mayor had arrived in Nettleton to find that his worst fears with regard to his son had been fulfilled; but it was only some time afterwards that it was known how Giles had been overtaken in the very snare laid for Mark.

    When his worship returned home it was observed that he had not a word good or evil to say of the Methodists, and, in fact, manifested a superstitious fear of them which was significant of much.

    It took three months of incessant negotiation to procure the young maltster's release, but he arrived in time to assist at a modest little wedding at the hat-shop, where Mr. Ebenezer surpassed all former efforts of proverbial moralising, and announced amongst other things that his brother and he were about to build a chapel for the Methodists.

    Mr. Josephus somehow took a great fancy that day to John Snaith, and in one of his most confidential moments informed the preacher that the best day in the history of old Helsham was the day that saw "The Coming of the Preachers."



THE END.




Printed by Hazell, Watson, & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury.

 


 

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