Old Wenyon's Will (V).
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CHAPTER XVIII.

THE POWER OF CONSCIENCE


SIMPSON CROUCH would have done better for himself if he had obeyed his first impulse and stayed where he was to tell what he knew and assist the others in their attentions to the stricken man.  But to have told the whole truth would have been to seriously compromise himself, and his story, however carefully related, would have suggested ugly suspicions and no end of awkward questions.  Moreover, there had come upon him as he stood in the midst of that terrible scene an overpowering impulse of protestation, which he realised would be dangerously incriminating.  As he looked at the fallen sufferer and then at the amazed and wailing knot of servants, he could scarcely refrain himself; and yet he realised that if once he opened his mouth there was no telling what he might be impelled to say.  But he would probably have remained there in torturing indecision, unable to decide either way, but for another circumstance.  Simpson had the soul of a coward and the terrifying consciousness of evil thoughts; he knew the whole inwardness of the black impulse that had prompted him to spring at Phineas; and he knew also that though actual murder was outside the possibilities of such a nature as his, he had had suggestions and desires which could only be expressed in one word.  He knew how often he had writhed before the hindrances unconsciously put in his way by the ex-cooper; he knew how the advantages to be gained by the removal of Phineas, instead of being suppressed instantly, had been dwelt upon and magnified before his heated imagination until every lust of his soul was on fire with unholy desire.

    "Conscience doth make cowards of us all," but the already coward she makes a fright-ridden slave.  In three reckless jumps Simpson cleared the parlour and the lobby; but the moment he was outside, the white, uncompromising daylight smote upon him like a furnace.  He reeled, staggered, uttered a despairing cry, and was falling to the ground.  But the terror behind was even-greater than the terror about him; he made a spring that collapsed into a helpless lurch, and then realised with new horror that his legs were refusing their office.  The faces of persons at shop doors and house windows all seemed to be looking at him, the people in the street were all hurrying towards him, the doctor cast a hurried glance as he passed that chilled him to the bone, and the very air seemed laden with muttered but vehement accusations.  With bowed head and hand over his eyes he dragged himself along, every sound he heard being a new accusation.

    There was a gate hanging helplessly on the pillar at the entrance of the mill-yard, but it was so decrepit that it was never closed.  Simpson sprang at it with glaring eyes and feverish hands, dragged it into its place, and gave vent to a bitter curse when he found that the fastenings were gone.  A delusive sense that once inside his office he would be safe was moving him, and he dashed forward; but catching sight of the red wing in Clara's hat, he turned away with another terror added to his already frenzied dreams.  He glanced towards the wood-shed, but he heard voices there; he thought of the mill-cellar, but he could not reach it without passing through the workshop.  There was an attic, but that, like the cellar, was approached only from within, and was the lightest room in the mill.  Then his eyes fell on the old shed, the coveting of which had been the original cause of his difference with Dolly: that had rooms in it dark enough; but as the spectral form of the dead Phineas rose before his mind, he realised that to be there with that terror would be unendurable.  Simpson wrung his hands in abject misery and looked helplessly round.  There must be some solitude of protecting darkness somewhere.  He thought of the the hayloft, an adjoining plantation, whilst the fear within him clamouring for concealment almost choked him.  Ha!  Yes!  That would do!  And a moment later he was dragging his struggling body through a flap of the cellar window.

    The aperture through which he had come was the only channel by which light came into the underground room, but even that seemed too much.  He slunk as deep as he could into the noisome hole, and as far away as possible from that accusing streak of dimness.  The floor was sticky with slime, the walls slippery and fœtid, and the air heavy with mouldy, rotting moisture, but he heeded not.  Every sound above and about him sent starts of terror through him, and in sudden, helpless self-pity he burst into a choking sob and dropped down upon a log of rotting timber.  He tried to think.  If to have an endless succession of maddening visions, each more terrible than its predecessor, marching like a vast army through his brain, was thinking, Simpson never thought so much in his life, or so clearly; but if ordered sequence and the subjection of topic to will mean thinking, he was never further away from that exercise.  He had no more control of his thoughts than if they had been in another brain; they pulled him here and drove him there, and rioted in his brain and nerves without let or hindrance until he scarcely knew what he was doing.  Still as a statue he sat, until the very rats came out of their holes, and, surveying him with speculative interest, seemed divided in their minds as to whether he was anything to be afraid of or not.

    The time stole slowly by; the one little yellow streak of day faded; black darkness settled on the noisome scene, and he still sat there, the absolute slave of a tyrannical imagination.

    It was a curious inconsistency, one of those revenges, perhaps, of nature, that to his narrow, selfish nature the moral aspects of the case were the ones that were most insistent.  The thoughts, natural enough some of them, if not exactly innocent, which he had had about the desirability of Phineas's removal, now put on the hideous forms of crime and glared at him with inexorable grimness.  These and these only could he see; and though the kaleidoscopic phantasms changed every moment, they all proclaimed the same damning fact.  Hour after hour he fought with it.  No sound startled him now; the very rats nibbled unheeded at his boot toes, and the drip, drip of ill-odoured moisture fell on deaf ears.

    A murderer!  A very Cain, with the indelible mark of blood upon him!  And he bowed his head, hugged his knees, and writhed his tortured body until great bursting veins stood out upon his forehead.  Then a flash of suggestion came, and "No!  No!  I am not!  I am not!" he cried piteously.  "It was a fit, a stroke"—but all at once the tricky phantasm which had brought the relieving thought vanished, and the gaunt, awful form of the black impulse that was upon him when he flung himself upon the innkeeper, and all the dark desires that had lurked so long in his secret soul, came trooping out like an army of hostile witnesses.  He lifted his head with another bitter cry.  What!  It was growing light again; he could see the other end of the room, and a pale dim beam streamed through the distant window.  He sprang to his feet with a shudder; Nature herself was against him, and the very sun was coming back to mock his hope of concealment and join the army of his accusers.  He stumbled towards the window, glanced helplessly around, dropped upon his knees, gathered up a handful of the black slime on the floor, and hastily smeared it over the thick glass.  Again and again be repeated the operation, and then, with only the faintest glimmer to guide him, he began to pace about the room, here and there with wooden pillars and pieces of rotting timber, until his shins were barked and his whole body ached.

    It was cold down there, but he did not feel it; moist and foetid, but he did not realise it.  Moment by moment he paced about, now resolving on flight whilst there might yet be time, and now deciding upon that most impossible of all impossibilities to him—dispassionate thought.  The tramp of feet above him, followed by sounds of voices and the groaning of the old engine and shafting, told him that day had come and that the workmen were resuming their labours.  But the close proximity of those who knew him and must know also of the occurrences at the King's Arms gave his thoughts another turn.  All night the personal aspects of the case had been with him, but now other elements of the case came before him, and he was soon deep in reflections almost more terrifying than the earlier ones.  Guilty or not guilty, he was seriously compromised.  He was present, had his hand on the dead man's throat at the fatal moment, and he had fled.  Oh, the madness, the blind, stupid insanity of the whole thing!  Why had he not stood it out?  Why had he not told the truth?  It was the truth, he was not a murderer—but to have been present at the fatal moment and to have fled!  Snelsby at anyrate would understand one thing, and one only.

    That his guilty conscience should have played him this traitorous trick and caused him thus recklessly and needlessly to incriminate himself, added new tortures to his already frenzied brain.  This aspect of the case, appealing as it did to his practical, prudential selfishness, gradually grew before his mind, and for a time at least overshadowed the other.  Of food or sleep, the moist, mouldy air he breathed, and the flight of time, he never thought; so absorbed was he with the scene at the inn and everything it involved, that the question of what to do for himself was long indeed in being reached.  It came at last, however, and in most unwelcome garb.  Action, so often the relief of crushed minds, is also just as often the refuge of the soul that dare no longer think.  But here, perversely enough, the necessity of doing something only brought fresh terrors.  To go out in the eye of that staring daylight, to have to encounter the gaze of his fellow-men and hear their voices seemed impossible, and for the moment the dark, evil-smelling cellar seemed a very haven of rest and security.  Then he remembered that the key of the basement was hanging in the office, and that if a search was instituted for him his hiding-place would be explored and he would be caught like a rat in a hole.

    It was a sign of his condition that he felt they would think of the cellar at once, though it was sometimes not invaded for weeks.  Any moment now he might be dragged out amid the reproaches and curses of his outraged neighbours.  He began to listen now for the opening of the door on the top of the steps; every foot he heard in the room above was the tramp of the policeman, and every old barrel in the cellar seemed to be concealing a spy.  He dared not go out, he dared not stay; and the more vehemently he asserted to himself his innocence, the more black and overwhelming seemed the evidence against him.

    The engine stopped for the dinner-hour, the men departed for their food.  But to escape he would have to force the cellar door or depart as he had entered, and in either case those of his workmen who brought their food with them to the mill would be sure to hear him.  What must he do?  Where must he go?  Innocent!  The thought added only a new terror.

    And so the hours flew swiftly by, every fear of Simpson's craven soul gradually coalescing together into one mad desire for flight.  More than once during the last few hours he had seen amongst the other phantasmagoria of his heated brain the lotus-eater's face of the demon of self-destruction, and he was, as yet, healthy-minded enough to shudder at it.  And now, as the fretted hours passed away and the obscure ray from the dim and smeared window grew fainter and fainter, the whole cellar began to fill with floating faces and mocking sounds.  The sharp red eyes of Phineas Wenyon began to haunt him, and he heard his strident tones above the rumbling of the mill-wheels.  What other could he do than flee?

    Every attempt he made to justify himself, if he went amongst his fellows, would only more seriously incriminate him, and his explanation that Phineas had a fit would only expose him to the keener ridicule.  It gradually grew darker, then black as midnight; the whole cellar was full of those horrible, haunting faces.  He dared not stay, he dared not go, he dared not touch his own fingers, out of a frenzied fear that they might be smeared with blood.  Stiff and terrified, he presently felt that he dared not move; he scarcely dared to think.  All was still above, distant sounds from the town sounded faint and far away, the rats careered heedlessly about his feet, and the drop, drop, of the slimy ooze from the walls ceased to be audible to him.

    With crouching form and stealthy steps, as though even his flight were an added crime, he groped his way to the window.  Catching his breath at every sound caused by his own clumsy nervousness, he dragged himself up and insinuated his body, which seemed to have a jumping heart in every limb, under the flap.  He pulled himself out of his dungeon and stood with a thousand new terrors flooding in upon him.  Every star in the crowded sky was watching him; the very new moon seemed to have arrived for the occasion and to be gleaming upon him in insolent triumph.  The dim town lamps seemed like great searchlights as he stood there, heartily wishing himself back again in the darkness.

    In spite of the time he had spent in that cellar, and all the thinking he had done, he still had no definite plan; he would like to have seen his sister, but even she, he realised, would draw the line at work like this.  With a courage feigned to beget courage, he stole along the mill-side; and as he reached the corner where he could see the office he pulled up with a smothered exclamation, for there was a light in it.  Of course!  Clara, in his absence, was attending to the business—her business as well as his.  Nothing very terrible had been discovered, or she would not be there.  A sudden pitiful eagerness to hear even this human voice came over him, and he started forward, but suddenly the light went out, and as he stood there in confusion the door opened and out stepped his sister.

    She started with a little nervous scream, and then, quickly recovering herself, she remarked in slow, mocking tones—

    "Oh, it's thee—at last!"

 

"She remarked in slow, mocking tones, 'Oh, it's thee—at last!'"


    Simpson winced, but there was an insufferable burden on his soul, and so he asked in abject, pleading tones no louder than a whisper—

    "Is he dead?"

    "Dead as a herrin', an' a good job, too."

    "Clara!"

    "Isn't that what thou wanted, pigeon-heart?  But where has thou been?"

    "But—but what are they doing—"

    "Doin'?  Nothin'."

    "Nothin'?  No inquest?"

    "Inquest?  What do they want an inquest for?"

    "But—but—didn't—"

    "Old Bolus Brampton said he'd died from natteral causes—apoplectic fit—man, thou looks like a ghost wi' a bad liver!"

    "Did they—will they—are they after me?"

    "Ay, Phineas's lawyer is after thee."

    Simpson sprang back with a suppressed scream, but his sister's tone belied her words, and so he cried desperately—

    "I didn't, Clara!  I swear I didn't!"

    "No, thou didn't: nobody as knew thee would ever think thou did"; but the tone was a biting mock and not a reassurance, and Simpson squirmed again.

    "What — what does t' lawyer want wi' me?"

    "He wants thee badly, he's sent here twice for thee."

    "Will he—has he—is t' police after me?"

    "Like enough; he wants thee badly, anyway."

    "I—I—I—didn't, Clara, I didn't—what does he want me for?"

    "Well, not for murder, as thou thinks."

    "What?  Say it again."

    "He wants thee to execute a will—old Phineas's will."

    "Me?"

    "Ay, the old rascal made it fifteen months sin' on a sixpenny form, and he left his wife and Simpson Crouch, his son-in-law as was to be, executors."

    There was mockery and scorn, but a strong under-current of veracity, in Clara's voice; but her last words were scarcely out of her mouth when she sprang forward with a half-distressful, half-resentful cry: for Simpson had dropped at her feet in a dead faint.


 
CHAPTER XIX.

SNELSBY SPEAKS ITS MIND


THE startling death of Phineas Wenyon made a most profound impression upon Snelsby.  This was not the only event of its kind in the history of the easy-going old town, of course; neither had Phineas held any such exceptional position in the town as that his death should receive such extraordinary attention.

    Nevertheless, after meditating upon it for twenty-four hours and sullenly wondering why there was no inquest and duly weighing all the circumstances of the case, heavy, sluggish Snelsby spoke its mind.  From the parson at the vicarage to Tommy Brick the caretaker of Jeff Twigg's little Frog-lane chapel, from Mr Willup the "retired gentleman" who occupied what was once "The Hall," down to Puggins the cockle-hawker, who walked all the way to Benderton and back to borrow his brother-in-law's black trousers for the occasion,—Snelsby made up its mind.  The town had never taken the cooper very seriously; everybody liked him because of his ingenuous earnestness, his sprightly conversational powers, and his amusing freaks of conduct and opinion, and his foibles, whatever they were, were harmless and amusing; and so Snelsby, in its slow, drowsy way, had liked its old townsman.

    But it was not this feeling that moved them now.  Those at all intimate with English rural life are perfectly well aware that society in our small market towns is often honey-combed through and through with private drinking, and Snelsby was no exception.  Phineas had never spared his neighbours; some people said he had not always been as discreet as he might, and complained that he was personal and made his total abstinence offensive; but all this was forgotten now, and men remembered only that he had in his own way sought their welfare.  For some time now the cooper and his movements had been the most prominent topics of Snelsby conversation, and his fellow-townsmen had discussed every move of the game as they saw it; but this staggeringly sudden death took their breath away, and it was only when they got time to think that there arose in their slow-moving, matter-of-fact minds the great idea that did justice to the crisis.  Without interchange of thought, without preachment, without committees, or discussions, or pre-arrangements, there arose in their dull brain the tremendous fact that Phineas Wenyon was a martyr.  He had suffered for conscience' sake; old Joshua Wenyon and Simpson Crouch between them had killed him.

    Not much was said; everybody seemed to understand what his neighbour was feeling; a quiet, pensive self-restraint seemed to sit upon everybody during the few days that elapsed between the startling death and the funeral.  But when the modest hearse and its couple of simple mourning-coaches drew up outside the cooperage, Snelsby began to move—softly, decorously, but in most serious earnestness; and when the lowly cortege passed along the street there dropped into rank behind it the largest, longest, most influential, and most inclusive procession Snelsby had ever seen.  Rich and poor, church and chapel, teetotaler and publican, saint and sinner, were all there, and there was but one conspicuous absentee: Simpson Crouch knew better than show himself that day in public.  Snelsby, coroner's inquest or no coroner's inquest, had made up its mind about Simpson; and so the landlord of the Red Lion, of all persons, had stalked into the bobbin-mill office and warned him that it would not be safe for him to be seen in the street whilst Phineas Wenyon was being buried.

    "But I'm his executor," protested Simpson.

    "Oh?"—and the purple-faced landlord looked astonished.  "Now, look thee here!  I'm not a full-fledged cherubim, not quite; but I know a man—Phineas Wenyon wur a man, totaller or no totaller he wur a man; and if thou shows thy foxey face i' them streets to-morrow there'll be trubble."

    Only dimly conscious of the great crowd behind, Dolly and her mother, accompanied by the Twiggs and one or two distant relatives, made their sad way to the church.  Mrs Wenyon's hair had suddenly turned white, she scarcely seemed to have command of herself, and spent most of her time in moaning out snatches of hymns, texts of Scripture, and ancient local proverbs.  The lawyer, secretly much disgusted at having, through the defection of Simpson, to attend, changed his mind when he saw all Snelsby in the street, and, riding in the second coach, spent his time in alternately peeping out of the window at the crowds of bystanders and then turning to his neighbour and remarking with solemn shakes of the head, "Remarkable man—most remarkable man!"

    The service at the church was made impressive by sheer weight of numbers, and the vicar scandalised his high-church curate and immensely gratified everybody else by asking the dissenting minister to take some part in the simple ceremony.  The curate was pained—it was humiliating to see a man of the vicar's standing carried away by mere excitement; but when the prayer at the grave-side was over and the clerk's "Amen" was drowned in a chorus of similar responses from little Bethelites and others led by Jeffrey Twigg, the curate glared round with a horrified, helpless sigh.  The last word had been said, a wave of soft, long-drawn sighs broke over the company, there was an expressive pause, the young cleric was trying to catch the eye of the bill-sticker to make him aware of the enormity of his conduct, when suddenly—was he in his senses? was it not some horrible dream?—he heard the sharp click of a pitchfork, and an instant later there was Jeff staring him in the very face and leading his fellow-mourners in one of the oldest of Snelsby Sunday-school hymns—


"Though often here we're weary,
 There is sweet rest above," etc.


    The curate shot out a hand and cried in sternest whisper, "H-u-s-h!"  The clerk and the grave-diggers echoed "Hush!" but all in vain.  The music spread, the roll grew deeper; every man there knew that old Sunday-school tune, though most of them had not heard it for forty years.  The startled look faded out of propriety-shocked faces, and the owners of them fell softly into the tune.  The dissenters sang it; men who had not been inside a place of worship for years sang it; the old doctor, choleric and profane as he was, felt himself dropping into its hum; the vicar began to sing; and there, at the back of the crowd, the apoplectic-faced landlord of the Red Lion burst, in spite of himself, into a snatch or two, and then dodged behind a tree to choke back his unwonted emotion.

    That scene has never been forgotten by any who took part in it: even the high-church curate tells of it to this day as an example of irresistible impromptu effect.  There was much blowing of noses and wiping of eyes as the two mourning women made their way back to their coach; and tongues being now released, there was more expression of strong opinion about Phineas Wenyon and his singular ways than Snelsby would have allowed itself to be betrayed into in a month of ordinary conversation.  One thing, however, soon became apparent: Phineas Wenyon's stalwart self-sacrifice for principle's sake, now thrown into such startling distinctness by his tragic death, did more for the cause of sobriety and temperance in Snelsby than all his labours had done.

    The only thing that seemed to have disappointed the demonstrating voluntary mourners was the fact that the procession had not started from the King's Arms; this, it was felt, would have made the thing complete; and many stopped as they returned from church, and stood in little knots outside the now famous hostelry discussing the various incidents of the funeral and provoking each other in vague speculation as to the next act in this exciting local drama.  And certainly there was room enough for much and various guessing, for the situation was singular enough.  As soon as the terrible fact of her husband's death had been made clear to Mrs Wenyon, she had fallen into a series of long faints with intervals of acutest mental agony, and at length had declared, with another burst of hysterical weeping, that there was a curse upon the King's Arms, that all the great troubles of her life had come since she had anything to do with it, that there would be no peace or safety until they were out of it, and she would not stay a single hour.  Nothing that could be said made any impression; she insisted then and there upon going back to the old home and taking her daughter and the dear clay of her beloved husband with her.  The fact that she would thus be leaving her interesting charge, Billy Stiff, to the tender mercies of the world, gave her pause for a moment or two; but having disposed of that difficulty by putting old Jeff in charge of the establishment, and handing her patient over to Thomasina, she dragged her sobbing daughter away, and literally shook the dust of the King's Arms off her feet.

    The bill-sticker, to whose ungainly height this appointment seemed to add several inches, at once assumed the office, and with his face of portentous gravity stalked about the passages of the inn, alternately dropping down upon some intruder or negligent servant or joining some kindred spirit in piteous lamentations about the recent shocking occurrence.  The excitement caused the inn to be very busy and full, and Jeff was correspondingly important; but when the funeral was over and he got out of the second mourning-coach and strode into the hostel as manager, with the eyes of half Snelsby upon him, Jeff felt that at last some little was being done to recognise his value and to make amends for the past.

    It was some time, however, before he could settle down to his duties; his new black clothes had to be changed, the wonderful story of the funeral detailed to his wife and the silent but intensely interested patient; then he was called to partake of food; and so by the time he was at liberty to look round, the inn was buzzing from end to end with chattering but good-humoured customers.  Jeff somehow felt that it would be a degradation of his temporary office to condescend to talk with the customers, but neither his wife nor Billy could stand any more of his stories just then; and still he longed to talk, and began to move about the place, seeking means of getting the desired relief.  Passing the end of the bar, however, he felt himself plucked on the sleeve, and, turning his head, caught a series of mysterious signals from Miriam, the senior maid-servant.  There were so many signs of secrecy about the communications that Jeff became very much on the alert, put on his easiest manner, thrust his hands deep into his pockets, and lounged up alongside Miriam, who was already busy again in the service of the customers.  In a moment or two she turned, waited to catch his eye, jerked her finger behind her in the direction of the little inner office, and hastily hurried away with a tray of tea and biscuits.  The apartment she had indicated was very small—if two persons occupied it together, it was full; since his appointment as caretaker, Jeff had mostly kept the room closed.  As he approached the door he heard the clink of money, and as he entered he beheld the bag in which he had put yesterday's takings tilted up and half empty on the table, and Simpson Crouch bending over the coins and counting them.

    "Hello!"

    "Hello!"

    Simpson half unconsciously spread his hands over the coins and stared defiantly up into Jeff's indignant face.

    "What are you up to here?" demanded the suspicious bill-sticker.

    "Minding my own business.  What are you doing?"

    "Business?  It's not your business, it's mine."

    "I tell you it's mine."

    "But Mrs Wenyon put me in herself."

    "The law put me in, I'm the executor."

    Jeff stared helplessly at the money-bag, then at Simpson, and then back at the cash; and catching at that moment an ill-concealed gleam of triumph in the bobbin-maker's eye, he took a stride forward, glared down fiercely into Simpson's face, and commanded thickly—

    "Take thy greedy paws off that brass."

    Simpson seemed inclined to defiance, but a second glance at his big opponent restrained him, and he sat back from the table-desk and slowly rose to his feet.

    "Lawyer Setchell gave me instructions, and the law itself makes me master."

    "Then the law makes a thunderin' mistake, and so does the lawyer; you'll never be master here while your heart's warm, so just clear out."

    "But, Jeff"—Simpson perceived that he must change his tactics—"it's Phineas Wenyon's own doings; he left it in his will that I was to be executor."

    "Seein's believin'; where's t' will?"

    "Lawyer Setchell has it; he's explaining all about it to Mrs Wenyon this very minute, and I'm responsible for everything that goes on here"—and Simpson turned towards the money-table again.

    "Mrs Wenyon put me in herself," retorted Jeff doggedly, "and nobody but Mrs Wenyon 'ull turn me out."

    Simpson coaxed and threatened and bullied and argued, but Jeff stuck to his text in spite of all that could be urged against him, and finally, but with the utmost possible reluctance, he withdrew and left the bill-sticker in victorious possession.  In a few minutes, however, he was back with the lawyer.  Jeff was tying up the moneybags, and when the man of parchment saw the kind of simpleton he had to deal with, he put on a brusque, peremptory air and bade the billposter be careful what he was about.  Jeff went on tying the bag-string.

    "Do you know you'll have to give an account to this gentleman for every penny?"

    "If he'll come i' th' back yard and you'll hold our coats I'll do that now"—and Jeff was getting very red.

    "Tut, man!  Don't be coarse!  Mr Crouch is executor along with Mrs Wenyon, and has as much authority as she."

    "Just as much, and no more?"

    "Exactly, equal authority—only you—"

    "That's it!  She's as much power as him and he as her—well, I'll take my orders from her."

    Simpson broke in here with a not too vague hint about the police; but the lawyer, checking him, advised him to wait until Mrs Wenyon was ready to be spoken to on matters of business.  Two days later Jeff, in surliest manner, gave up the keys of the office to the bobbin-maker, and he and his wife retired to that part of the big house to which the patient had been removed.  Mrs Wenyon and Dolly were too much overwhelmed with their sorrow to take much interest in anything; Dolly, indeed, keeping her bed for some days through severe nervous shock.

    At last, some ten days after the funeral, the two women made their first visit to the King's Arms, and found to their astonishment that Simpson Crouch and his sister were in full possession; two of the old servants had already gone and a third was going, a smell suspiciously like intoxicants pervaded the lower rooms, and Jeff and his wife were preparing to have the invalid removed to the tollhouse.

    "You see, Dolly," explained Clara as she hurried them past the public room and upstairs where they could be quiet, "it would never do to let a parcel of servants run riot in a place like this, and Simpson felt that he was responsible, and so we thought we had better come and look after things ourselves until matters are settled and you are ready."

   But Dolly was scarcely listening; her thoughts were going out after another occupant of the house.  Mrs Wenyon, who had declared twenty times that day she would never come again, looked round with a fearful interest, and at Clara's suggestion of their return, broke out—

    "Never, never, never!  The place 'ud fall down and bury us both if we came back."

    "Ay, woman, I don't wonder; but there's no need to fret, there's no call for you to do what you don't like to do—Simpson and me 'ull help you out."

    Dolly, usually the most unsuspicious of souls, turned and looked curiously at Clara, whilst Mrs Wenyon sighingly shook her head and murmured—

    "You're very good, very—"

    "Hay, that's nothin'! Simpson is that anxious about you, he says mill or no mill this must be looked after."

    Dolly had another calculating side-look at the speaker, and they all three began to move towards Billy Stiff's bedroom, Clara leading the way.

    A moment or two later Mrs Wenyon was fussing about the sufferer and his nurse, putting fifty things to rights which no one else could take exception to, Thomasina Twig, watching her with surly jealousy.  Dolly, standing shyly by, was trying to find a corner of the room where her eyes might rest without encountering those of Stiff; but those great hungry grey orbs of his seemed to be everywhere and to look her through and through.  The sufferer's leg was reported to be doing " nicely," and his looks, gaunt and wan though they still were, seemed to justify hope.  It was difficult to get "mother" away from the bedside, and even when she did allow herself to be led away she felt it necessary to return two or three times to give instructions to the still taciturn Thomasina, who took everything so very glumly that Dolly, who had been studying Clara, was compelled to notice her.

    As they were going down the stairs Clara exhorted in her most affectionate tones—

    "Now don't you bother, Dolly, and don't let your poor, dear mother bother; Simpson 'ull look after things, and everything will be right."

    Dolly, who seemed somewhat absent-minded, nodded a little vaguely, and Clara, as she watched them go up the high street, had misgivings about the younger woman's manner which she could scarcely put into words, but which somehow clouded her face and cast a chill over her spirits.

    No sooner, however, had the stricken widow got back to her old home than she became most unwontedly restless, sat looking out of the window without speaking, did not even answer when she was spoken to, had little outbursts of objectless activity in which she arranged and re-arranged things that required no attention.  Two or three times she started to go upstairs, forgot herself on the way, stood staring vaguely at the staircase for a moment, and then returned helplessly to her chair.  Dolly, absorbed in her own anxious thoughts, noticed little of these things, and it was only when her mother, bursting into pathetic protests and copious tears, rushed bareheaded out of the house, that the daughter realised that something unusual was happening.  Dolly rushed after her parent, but her calls only stimulated the elder woman's paces, and when she saw that Mrs Wenyon was returning to the King's Arms she relinquished her pursuit, guessing easily what was the matter, and began to cast about in her mind for some modification of their household arrangements which would enable them to entertain the sick man, whom she now confidently expected.  Half an hour, forty minutes passed, and just as the suspense became unbearable an extemporised ambulance appeared at the cooperage door, and Mrs Wenyon, red but triumphant, stood at its side.  The two Twiggs were the bearers, neither of them looking very contented; but in a very short time they managed to get the sick man's bed comfortably arranged in a convenient place, 'Siná and Jeff being placated by the appointment of the former as chief nurse.

    Then the little party dropped into general conversation, and before long Jeff was giving Dolly a highly coloured account of his altercations with Simpson Crouch, whilst she, an odd silence upon her in these days, listened with keen but mute interest.

    Simpson called next night to see his co-executor on business; but Mrs Wenyon broke into pathetic protests, and declared that she never wanted to hear anything of the King's Arms as long as she lived; and as for Simpson, he could do as he liked, so long as he did not trouble her.

    For the next few days the Wenyons heard little of the King's Arms, but even preoccupied "mother" could not help noticing that Dolly and old Jeff seemed to have much secret business together, and some of the information which the bill-sticker imparted seemed to give the young lady considerable distress.  Then Simpson and Clara called on a visit of condolence, but the sympathetic part of the visit was soon disposed of, and in a short time Clara, in her very blandest tones, was assuring Mrs Wenyon on that she need not trouble herself, for if she really could not overcome her feeling about the inn—well, there were several things that might be done.  Mrs Wenyon only sighed, and Dolly maintained her new coldness, and answered in monosyllables.  A little chapfallen, the visitors felt they could not prolong the visit, and so, as she embraced the elder woman, Clara begged her not to worry for a moment, as Simpson had the thing in hand, and would see it through.

    "Who does the property belong to now, Simpson?"

    Dolly had found her tongue at last, and the simple unexpected question seemed to rather embarrass the bobbin-maker.

    "Well, of course," interjected the cool Clara, "it's in the hands of executors—trustees, you know."

    "Who are they trustees for?"

    "Oh, well, of course for you."

    And a sudden dropping of the eyes, and an enigmatic "Oh," was all they could get from the heiress.

    Lawyer Setchell called next day.  He was first respectfully sympathetic, then mournful, then profoundly confidential.  He was quite badgered with offers for the King's Arms, especially as the time for the renewal of the licence was close at hand.  The property seemed a little gold-mine, and he supposed the prices offered were inflated by competition—well, so much the better for the fortunate heiress.

    Dolly, grave and still, had no answer.

    The most respectable to do with and those who had made the best offer were Ling and Medway, the county brewers.  Perhaps Miss Wenyon would like to see the letter.  No?—of course not; ladies knew little of these things, and in times of sorrow—but if she cared to leave the matter with him and Mr Crouch—

    "But the property is mine."

    "Yes, oh, yes, certainly."

    "Well, I don't intend to sell."

    "No?  Oh, indeed,"—this with dubious side-glances—"manager, eh?  Well, on the whole, you are right, quite right."

    "I understand the property is mine free from any of the restrictions that bound poor father."

    "Yes, of course, you can sell, lease, or do just as you like; it is a nice little fortune if it is nicely managed.  Your father was—er—did not leave you very much, I fear?"

    "Yes, he did—he left me his example, his principles, his pity for poor drunkards, and his hatred for drink; and what he would have done, I shall do to the very letter."

    The next consultation between Simpson and the man of law was not a pleasant one, but both of them were surprised and piqued to receive invitations to meet the heiress at the King's Arms on the following day.  She came accompanied by the bill-sticker; and as the appointment was of her making, they waited for her to introduce the business.

    "Gentlemen," she said, after a pathetic little effort at self-command, "you tell me that this place is mine.  I am, my father's daughter, and, knowing his wishes, I will neither sell the place that others may make a drink-shop of it, nor will I allow anything of the nature of intoxicants to be sold on the premises.  Already my father's arrangements have been tampered with, and drink has been given away, if not sold here.  This cannot continue.  Phineas Wenyon's teetotalism is not dead whilst his daughter lives; and to make sure that the King's Arms shall never be a drinking-place drinking-place again, I have selected a new manager"; and here, with a confiding little gesture, she laid confiding her hand on Jeff's arm, and looked them both in the face.


 
CHAPTER XX.

THE REAL BILLY


"BUT what does it all mean, Mr Setchell?"

    "It's there, miss, in plain figures, and you don't need anybody to teach you, you know," and the lawyer sat back with a long sniff and stared hard through the window.

    "Well, but, what is the point?  Why are you so very serious?"

    "It means that the expenses of the King's Arms as it was conducted by your father so seriously exceeded the income that the estate is—well, to put it bluntly—insolvent."

    "But we've the cooperage."

    "Your father's foreman, supported by your father's chief customers, the brewers, has already set up business for himself."

    Dolly thought rapidly, but with a sinking heart.

    "But we cannot be insolvent.  We have the King's Arms."

    "Precisely!  And if sold now to the highest bidder it would pay all your father's liabilities, save his name, and still leave you enough to live upon."

    "Couldn't we get a mortgage or loan or something?"

    "Yes, I could arrange that if you would make the security all right by renewing the licence."

    "Is that the only way?  And if I don't agree?"

    Setchell shrugged his shoulders.  "If you don't agree, and I tell the creditors—the bank, for instance—that you will do nothing, they will take legal proceedings at once.  Principle is all very well, but common honesty wears better."

 

"If you don't agree, the creditors will take legal proceedings."


    Dolly reflected.  "So that if I don't sell, the creditors will, and it may become an ale-house in spite of me?"

    "That is the position."

    Dolly rose to her feet to close the interview.  "Mr Setchell, I will look over these accounts, but understand, so long as I can raise a penny, so long as mother and I can work, though it be but washing or stitching, so long will the King's Arms remain as it is.  It shall never, never be a drink-shop again."

    When the lawyer had gone, Dolly sat down, utterly sick.  She was already beginning to feel the first embarrassments of poverty; for the first time in her life she had a pocket full of little bills she could not meet.  It was clear to her that so far the King's Arms had been a drain on her father's resources, and would probably continue to embarrass her for some time to come.  She did not feel that her neighbours would be hard with her, but the prospect altogether was dismal enough; and except that her resolution with regard to the inn seemed to grow stronger as her difficulties increased, she was growing not merely uneasy but very miserable about the immediate outlook.

    Jeff's account-keeping was of so very complicated a kind that she found it necessary to give much attention to affairs at the inn.  Almost every day she was interviewed by one person or another about the sale of the hostel, Simpson Crouch and old Setchell being the most persistent and unscrupulous.  At last the lawyer fulfilled his threat, and Dolly was served with a writ for legal and other expenses.  Her bereavement, the daily worries of her new position, and the still unreduced pocketful of bills were taking hold upon her, and it was hard work keeping up her courage.  Jeff was very sympathetic and very confident, but he had no cash.  Mother remembered and brought out a little private horde of her own, but this was not nearly enough.  What could she do?  To whom could she go?

    Before she could decide, Simpson Crouch came forward with the offer of a loan.  When she refused he grew angry, then pathetic, almost tearful, and finally, ignoring the incompatibility of subjects, passed from money to love, and in excited, almost frenzied tones, besought her to let bygones be bygones, and—King's Arms or no King's Arms—accept him and end her worries.  Slowly and sadly she shook her head; she had been touched for a moment by a reference to their old-time relationship, but more recent memories steadied her, and Simpson soon realised that his suit was hopeless.

    Next day a Snelsby teetotal tradesman came into the inn and offered—for her father's sake—to pay out the execution with or without security, and as the King's Arms was of course worth much more as mere property than the sum required, Dolly soon got the relief she needed.  Then she set to work to make the King's Arms as attractive as possible, and soon began to see encouraging signs of improvement.  In a short time life began to be interesting again, especially as Billy Stiff became more and more the object of her thoughts.  The invalid was able to move about the room, and, with assistance, to get downstairs.  He was touchingly grateful in a grave, gentlemanly way, and seemed to think it a condescension for anyone to notice him.  To Thomasina he was gratitude itself; to Mrs Wenyon deferential and gratitude; but with Dolly he would have nothing whatever to do.  She caught him watching her about the room whenever she glanced in his direction; but though he was now recovering and could get about, he seemed embarrassed, almost terrified, in her presence.  To her it seemed impossible that this grave, dignified, but pensive gentleman should be the frothy, garrulous merry-andrew who had brought her Simpson's message to the cooperage garden, and her curiosity about his origin and history grew day by day.

    She made such advances to him as a maiden might, and willy-nilly compelled him to talk; but though he was greedily devouring her with his eyes when she spoke, he had nothing to say in reply, except that, whenever occasion served, he offered her a fervent warning never to marry a man who drank.  She ventured one day to allude to his Shakesperian accomplishments, but the reminder seemed to give him pain, and she did not pursue the subject.  Every allusion to his old life, in fact, seemed to distress him, and he was often anything but a cheerful companion.

    And yet he was in love with her: of that she had no more doubt than she had of her own existence.  Why, then, was he so taciturn?  She fell into the habit of reading the newspaper to him, but soon perceived that he was studying the reader more than the reading; and though he discussed current topics with Jeff, he would have nothing to say to her.

    Weeks passed away.  Billy grew very slowly better, but he was still painfully humble and most strangely silent.  Financial worries returned to Dolly, and she soon perceived that Billy was observing her.  One day he asked a question that surprised her, and, the ice being thus broken, she was soon telling him all her troubles, and next day he was ready with a suggestion for disposing of some outbuildings, of no particular value to the inn, but which, by a little change, might be made useful for other purposes, and so sold.

    There was a little doubt as to whether a purchaser could be found, but Jeff undertook that part of the work, though he got little encouragement.  Then Dolly remembered the old shed which had played so prominent a part in the earlier stages of her courtship, and which was of no sort of value to her.  In a few days, however, a purchaser was found, and the transaction so far completed that Dolly was relieved of her anxiety.

    Billy was getting about now, and one day was missing.  Jeff found him at last, and brought him back to the King's Arms a ranting drunkard, who was making up for lost time by spouting Shakespere at the top of his voice.  Dolly was bitterly disappointed, but Jeff himself was not more fertile of excuses, and it touched her to the quick to hear the poor soul pathetically requesting that he might not be allowed abroad by himself.  But the same thing occurred again, and then again.  Jeff was inconsolable, Thomasina in despair, and Dolly disappointed and miserable.  Then the invalid began to talk of leaving them—of taking to the road again; and Jeff was at his wits' end.

    "I've spunged on you all long enough, Jeff, and now I'm giving pain.  I'll not do it.  I'll go."

    "Where to?"

    "Oh, anywhere!  Back to the same old life and the shortest way to the devil!"

    Jeff was distracted, and during that day every member of the family was brought into Billy's room to reason with him.  It was lamplight when Dolly came to speak to him, and, as she sauntered in, the poor weakling dropped his head and hid his face in craven, overpowering shame.

    "What is this talk about leaving us, and where will you go?"

    "Anywhere!  Amongst my own sort.  I'm not fit for your society."

    "You are better bred than any of us, and you know it."

    Billy, flashing a quick, suspicious glance at her, replied—

    "I'm a tramp, a wastrel, one of the scum.  Let me go."

    Quietly ignoring his excitement and the unusual freedom of his speech, Dolly proceeded—

    "Who are you really?  Where do you come from?"

    The question, intentionally startling though it was, excited him so much that she hastened to withdraw it, and presently tried again.

    "I hope you will never think of leaving us; and as for that drink, you can conquer it if you like."

    Billy laughed in bitter despair.

    "You can; there's a grand man in you somewhere, if only you will let it awake."

    Another laugh of hopelessness.

    "Jeff and 'Siná deserve more encouragement than you have given them."

    The laugh became a sob of anguish.

    "We should all be so proud of you if you got the better of it."

    "Chut! "

    "We should—I would, and mother, and—

    "You would!  You!"

    "Yes, I, delighted and proud."

    Billy stared straight before him; glints of hope and pride shot into his eyes.  Then came a rush of tears and a smile of infinite forgetfulness.

    "I can't; it's too late."

    "No, no.  A man's a man, remember."

    "I'm not, haven't been for years."

    "You are, and may be."

    The conversation was interrupted at this point, but next time she met him, Billy resumed it himself.

    "Ah, my dear young lady, never marry a man who drinks."

    Dolly was getting a little impatient of this sort of talk, and so, to startle him out of his mood, she said brusquely—

    "I might marry him to save him."

    After a long, amazed stare, Billy shook his head.

    "Many a woman has done that, but they have all bitterly repented.  No, no.  Never do that."

    The question came to Dolly's lips, and was out before she had time to consider.

    "Have you—are you married?"

    "Heaven forbid!"  And though accustomed to his manner of talk, Dolly was startled at the energy of his tone.

    "Perhaps you would have been a better man if you had been.  Er—have you no mother or sister?"—but a sudden burst, a loud heart-breaking cry broke from him, and Dolly realised that she had touched him to the quick.

    "I'm sorry, so sorry."

    He did not reply; he threw himself on a couch, and gave himself up to bitterest sorrow.  Dolly, filled with self-reproach, avoided Billy for a day or two, and then, as he had resisted his temptation longer than usual, she very humbly offered him her congratulations.  He appeared not to hear her, but presently be said—

    "It appears to me that I get all my encouragements from women; and if I ever do get up again, I shall owe it to them."

    Dolly blushed; and then a sudden fear of the confidences they were exchanging came upon her, and she got away from him.
              .                                  .                                  .                                  .

    Four months wore away.  The New Year had come; snow lay heavily on the ground.  The King's Arms, though now an acknowledged success, was not yet quite paying its way, and Dolly was getting more and more worried.

    Billy Stiff had not tasted liquor for all these months.  He now dressed neatly, and was earning his keep by the assistance he rendered to Jeff at the inn.  His manner, appearance, and whole nature seemed to have improved, though he was still silent and retiring.

    One day Dolly came upon him with a sketch-plan in his hand, and presently she knew that he had been an architect.  Then a strange thing happened.  For some time he had been very much occupied, and spent long hours in a large disused room over one of the inn stables, Jeff being the only person who knew anything about his proceedings, and he looked owlishly wise.  Then it transpired that Billy had won the first place in an architects' competition for a new church at Far-Hattersley.  When it was known who he was, the actual work was given to a rival, but a money prize came to him, and this, with the distinction it gave, made a ten days' wonder in Snelsby.

    Billy's real name, it appeared, was Stowell, Herbert Stowell.

    Dolly, of course, was duly interested, and all who had in any way concerned themselves with "Billy's" reclamation rejoiced.  Billy, or Herbert, as we must now call him, was still shy and reserved; but Dolly, watching him narrowly, perceived a change in him which she did not quite like.  He avoided her more and more, and was always ill at ease in her presence.  Then one day the 'bus from the new railway station put down at the inn door an elderly gentleman, a white-haired but very graceful old lady, and a maiden of twenty-two.  They were inquiring for the architect; and when Jeff brought him from the back parlour, Dolly, through the best bedroom window, looked upon such a scene of exclamations, embraces, and reciprocal congratulations as she had never witnessed before.  A pang went to her heart as she saw this very stylishly dressed young lady encircling the architect's neck with soft, white arms, and kissing him with eager, hungry affection.

    It did not take long to guess that these were Stowell's "folks," but Dolly was conscious of jealousy and resentment.  Presently the rejoicing party came into the inn, where mother, Jeff, Thomasina, and Dolly herself were introduced to the strangers.  Over the meal that followed, conversation turned upon the architect's future, and Dolly listened with bated breath and constantly changing colour, as his relatives urged him to return with them, or at least to come to them and resume his proper place in society.  Herbert sadly, but very steadily, elected to stay where he was.  Walking with Herbert's sister to the station, Dolly learned that Billy "had had a brilliant career whilst qualifying in architecture, and held sundry much-coveted medals; that drink had dragged him down, and that, in spite of all that could be done, he had become a complete wreck.  He had at length disappeared from amongst his friends, and for eighteen months, in spite of all sorts of efforts, they had never heard of him.  He had eventually written to them himself, and this visit was the result.

    At the station Herbert's mother suddenly fell on Dolly's neck and kissed her, with such grateful eagerness that the young temperance landlady was amazed.

    A few days later Herbert visited his friends, and it was only in that brief five days' absence that Dolly discovered how much this shy, grave, always grateful man of thirty-two had become to her.  He was brighter when he returned, and Dolly surmised wistfully that perhaps he had met some former lady sweetheart.  At anyrate, now that he once more had the entrée to good society, he would have less and less interest in his lowly Snelsby friends.

    He was taking a cup of tea with Mrs Wenyon one afternoon after his visit to his home, and his hostess was making innocent inquiries about Hartbridge, from whence he came.

    "Ay, and you'll be bringing one of those friends of yours as your lady wife some day."

    "Mrs Wenyon, I shall never marry"—and as he stole a glance at Dolly their eyes met and a soft blush dyed her cheeks.  "I never dare ask any woman to take me, knowing what I have been and may become."

    "Then we must wait until leap-year and some of us must ask you," laughed the widow.

    Dolly laughed too, but very constrainedly.  Why couldn't she encourage him as she used to?  Why was she becoming so dumb and awkward with him?

    For the next few days the young landlady was very restless and absent-minded, and somehow suspected Herbert of a similar state of mind.  He was finding employment—almost more than he could do, and so they met seldomer than ever.  One Sunday afternoon, however, he strolled into the cooperage and sat down with a moody, despairing drop into his seat.  He evidently thought the person in the easy-chair was Mrs Wenyon—that was her usual seat; and so he was taken aback when a much younger voice inquired—

    "Whatever is the matter?"

    Herbert blushed, tried to hide his face, and finally said—

    "I thought it was Mrs Wenyon."

    "Well, it is Miss Wenyon.  What is the matter with you?  Why that dreadful sigh?"

    "It is one of the penalties of my fall that I am not as other men are."

 

"It is one of the penalties of my fall that I am not as other men are."


    "In what way?"

    "In every way.  I am too weak to undertake the ordinary responsibilities of life.  People cannot trust me.  I cannot trust myself."

    "Mother trusts you.  I"—this very breathlessly—"I trust you."

    "You trust me.  How far?"

    "Try me and see how far."

    Most evidently she did not realise what she was saying, or what was in his mind.  He paused, the silence seemed chilling; he took a step nearer, and then with sudden intensity he asked, though the words seemed to choke him—

    "As far as to marry me?"

    There was another tense silence, a little frightened gasp as she realised how inadvertently she had seemed to be drawing him on.  Then suddenly lifting her head, with face suffused with burning blushes, and eyes swimming with melting tears, she stammered—

    "As far even as that."
                    .                                .                                .                                .

    Simpson Crouch, baffled in love and frustrated in his designs on the King's Arms, obtained a licence for a house opposite the Wenyons' hostel, and opened the Golden Lion.  But Snelsby had made up its mind about him, and the venture did not succeed, even when he offered attractions that were new to the town.  Eventually he relinquished the "house" in favour of a brewing firm, and became a bookmaker.  Clara worked the mill in her own right for some time, but she was even more disliked than her brother, and married a man who spent faster than they both could earn.

    The King's Arms, nominally managed by Jeff Twigg, but really by a smart young fellow called Price, is now a flourishing temperance public-house, paying a modest but satisfactory dividend; whilst the proprietor, the wife of the local architect, still maintains her interest in the institution, and has recently had the inn parlour adorned with an oil-painting of her father, Phineas Wenyon.





THE END



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