A Final Reckoning - A Tale of Bush Life in Australia
by G. A. Henty
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia by G. A. Henty.


Preface. Chapter 1: The Broken Window. Chapter 2: The Poisoned Dog. Chapter 3: The Burglary At The Squire's. Chapter 4: The Trial. Chapter 5: Not Guilty! Chapter 6: On The Voyage. Chapter 7: Gratitude. Chapter 8: A Gale. Chapter 9: Two Offers. Chapter 10: An Up-Country District. Chapter 11: The Black Fellows. Chapter 12: The Bush Rangers. Chapter 13: Bush Rangers. Chapter 14: An Unexpected Meeting. Chapter 15: At Donald's. Chapter 16: Jim's Report. Chapter 17: In Pursuit. Chapter 18: Settling Accounts.


Reuben Whitney Acquitted of the Charge of Burglary. The Ladies Saved from the Malay's Crease. A Fight with the Black Fellows. Jim Notes the Bush Rangers' Plans for Mischief.


In this tale I have left the battlefields of history, and have written a story of adventure in Australia, in the early days when the bush rangers and the natives constituted a real and formidable danger to the settlers. I have done this, not with the intention of extending your knowledge, or even of pointing a moral, although the story is not without one; but simply for a change—a change both for you and myself, but frankly, more for myself than for you. You know the old story of the boy who bothered his brains with Euclid, until he came to dream regularly that he was an equilateral triangle enclosed in a circle. Well, I feel that unless I break away sometimes from history, I shall be haunted day and night by visions of men in armour, and soldiers of all ages and times.

If, when I am away on a holiday I come across the ruins of a castle, I find myself at once wondering how it could best have been attacked, and defended. If I stroll down to the Thames, I begin to plan schemes of crossing it in the face of an enemy; and if matters go on, who can say but that I may find myself, some day, arrested on the charge of surreptitiously entering the Tower of London, or effecting an escalade of the keep of Windsor Castle! To avoid such a misfortune—which would entail a total cessation of my stories, for a term of years—I have turned to a new subject, which I can only hope that you will find as interesting, if not as instructive, as the other books which I have written.

G. A. Henty.

Chapter 1: The Broken Window.

"You are the most troublesome boy in the village, Reuben Whitney, and you will come to a bad end."

The words followed a shower of cuts with the cane. The speaker was an elderly man, the master of the village school of Tipping, near Lewes, in Sussex; and the words were elicited, in no small degree, by the vexation of the speaker at his inability to wring a cry from the boy whom he was striking. He was a lad of some thirteen years of age, with a face naturally bright and intelligent; but at present quivering with anger.

"I don't care if I do," he said defiantly. "It won't be my fault, but yours, and the rest of them."

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," the master said, "instead of speaking in that way. You, who learn easier than anyone here, and could always be at the top of your class, if you chose. I had hoped better things of you, Reuben; but it's just the way, it's your bright boys as mostly gets into mischief."

At this moment the door of the school room opened, and a lady with two girls, one of about fourteen and the other eleven years of age, entered.

"What is the matter now?" the lady asked, seeing the schoolmaster, cane in hand, and the boy standing before him.

"Reuben Whitney! What, in trouble again, Reuben? I am afraid you are a very troublesome boy."

"I am not troublesome, ma'm," the boy said sturdily. "That is, I wouldn't be if they would let me alone; but everything that is done bad, they put it down to me."

"But what have you been doing now, Reuben?"

"I have done nothing at all, ma'm; but he's always down on me," and he pointed to the master, "and when they are always down on a fellow, it's no use his trying to do right."

"What has the boy been doing now, Mr. White?" the lady asked.

"Look there, ma'm, at those four windows all smashed, and the squire had all the broken panes mended only a fortnight ago."

"How was it done, Mr. White?"

"By a big stone, ma'm, which caught the frame where they joined, and smashed them all."

"I did not do it, Mrs. Ellison, indeed I didn't."

"Why do you suppose it was Reuben?" Mrs. Ellison asked the master.

"Because I had kept him in, half an hour after the others went home to dinner, for pinching young Jones and making him call out; and he had only just gone out of the gate when I heard the smash; so there is no doubt about it, for all the others must have been in at their dinner at that time."

"I didn't do it, ma'm," the boy repeated. "Directly I got out of the gate, I started off to run home. I hadn't gone not twenty yards when I heard a smash; but I wasn't going for to stop to see what it was. It weren't no business of mine, and that's all I know about it."

"Mamma," the younger of the two girls said eagerly, "what he says is quite true. You know you let me run down the village with the jelly for Mrs. Thomson's child, and as I was coming down the road I saw a boy come out of the gate of the school and run away; and then I heard a noise of broken glass, and I saw another boy jump over the hedge opposite, and run, too. He came my way and, directly he saw me, he ran to a gate and climbed over."

"Do you know who it was, Kate?" Mrs. Ellison asked.

"Yes, mamma. It was Tom Thorne."

"Is Thomas Thorne here?" Mrs. Ellison asked in a loud voice.

There was a general turning of the heads of the children to the point where a boy, somewhat bigger than the rest, had been apparently studying his lessons with great diligence.

"Come here, Tom Thorne," Mrs. Ellison said.

The boy slouched up with a sullen face.

"You hear what my daughter says, Tom. What have you to say in reply?"

"I didn't throw the stone at the window," the boy replied. "I chucked it at a sparrow, and it weren't my fault if it missed him and broke the window."

"I should say it was your fault, Tom," Mrs. Ellison said sharply—"very much your fault, if you throw a great stone at a bird without taking care to see what it may hit. But that is nothing to your fault in letting another boy be punished for what you did. I shall report the matter to the squire, and he will speak to your father about it. You are a wicked, bad boy.

"Mr. White, I will speak to you outside."

Followed by her daughters, Mrs. Ellison went out; Kate giving a little nod, in reply to the grateful look that Reuben Whitney cast towards her, and his muttered:

"Thank you, miss."

"Walk on, my dears," Mrs. Ellison said. "I will overtake you, in a minute or two.

"This will not do, Mr. White," she said, when she was alone with the master. "I have told you before that I did not approve of your thrashing so much, and now it is proved that you punish without any sufficient cause, and upon suspicion only. I shall report the case at once to the squire and, unless I am greatly mistaken, you will have to look out for another place."

"I am very sorry, Mrs. Ellison, indeed I am; and it is not often I use the cane, now. If it had been anyone else, I might have believed him; but Reuben Whitney is always in mischief."

"No wonder he is in mischief," the lady said severely, "if he is punished, without a hearing, for all the misdeeds of others. Well, I shall leave the matter in the squire's hands; but I am sure he will no more approve than I do of the children being ill treated."

Reuben Whitney was the son of a miller, near Tipping. John Whitney had been considered a well-to-do man, but he had speculated in corn and had got into difficulties; and his body was, one day, found floating in the mill dam. No one knew whether it was the result of intention or accident, but the jury of his neighbours who sat upon the inquest gave him the benefit of the doubt, and brought in a verdict of "accidental death." He was but tenant of the mill and, when all the creditors were satisfied, there were only a few pounds remaining for the widow.

With these she opened a little shop in Tipping, with a miscellaneous collection of tinware and cheap ironmongery; cottons, tapes, and small articles of haberdashery; with toys, sweets, and cakes for the children. The profits were small, but the squire, who had known her husband, charged but a nominal rent for the cottage; and this was more than paid by the fruit trees in the garden, which also supplied her with potatoes and vegetables, so that she managed to support her boy and herself in tolerable comfort.

She herself had been the daughter of a tradesman in Lewes, and many wondered that she did not return to her father, upon her husband's death. But her home had not been a comfortable one, before her marriage; for her father had taken a second wife, and she did not get on well with her stepmother. She thought, therefore, that anything would be better than returning with her boy to a home where, to the mistress at least, she would be most unwelcome.

She had, as a girl, received an education which raised her somewhat above the other villagers of Tipping; and of an evening she was in the habit of helping Reuben with his lessons, and trying to correct the broadness of dialect which he picked up from the other boys. She was an active and bustling woman, managed her little shop well, and kept the garden, with Reuben's assistance, in excellent order.

Mrs. Ellison had, at her first arrival in the village three years before, done much to give her a good start, by ordering that all articles of use for the house, in which she dealt, should be purchased of her; and she highly approved of the energy and independence of the young widow. But lately there had been an estrangement between the squire's wife and the village shopkeeper. Mrs. Ellison, whose husband owned all the houses in the village, as well as the land surrounding it, was accustomed to speak her mind very freely to the wives of the villagers. She was kindness itself, in cases of illness or distress; and her kitchen supplied soups, jellies, and nourishing food to all who required it; but in return, Mrs. Ellison expected her lectures on waste, untidiness, and mismanagement to be listened to with respect and reverence.

She was, then, at once surprised and displeased when, two or three months before, having spoken sharply to Mrs. Whitney as to the alleged delinquencies of Reuben, she found herself decidedly, though not disrespectfully, replied to.

"The other boys are always set against my Reuben," Mrs. Whitney said, "because he is a stranger in the village, and has no father; and whatever is done, they throw it on to him. The boy is not a bad boy, ma'm—not in any way a bad boy. He may get into mischief, like the rest; but he is not a bit worse than others, not half as bad as some of them, and those who have told you that he is haven't told you the truth."

Mrs. Ellison had not liked it. She was not accustomed to be answered, except by excuses and apologies; and Mrs. Whitney's independent manner of speaking came upon her almost as an act of rebellion, in her own kingdom. She was too fair, however, to withdraw her custom from the shop; but from that time she had not, herself, entered it.

Reuben was a source of anxiety to his mother, but this had no reference to his conduct. She worried over his future. The receipts from the shop were sufficient for their wants; and indeed the widow was enabled, from time to time, to lay by a pound against bad times; but she did not see what she was to do with the boy. Almost all the other lads of the village, of the same age, were already in the fields; and Mrs. Whitney felt that she could not much longer keep him idle. The question was, what was she to do with him? That he should not go into the fields she was fully determined, and her great wish was to apprentice him to some trade; but as her father had recently died, she did not see how she was to set about it.

That evening, at dinner, Mrs. Ellison told the squire of the scene in the school room.

"White must go," he said, "that is quite evident. I have seen, for some time, that we wanted a younger man, more abreast of the times than White is; but I don't like turning him adrift altogether. He has been here upwards of thirty years. What am I to do with him?"

Mrs. Ellison could make no suggestion; but she, too, disliked the thought of anyone in the village being turned adrift upon the world.

"The very thing!" the squire exclaimed, suddenly "We will make him clerk. Old Peters has long been past his work. The old man must be seventy-five, if he's a day, and his voice quavers so that it makes the boys laugh. We will pension him off. He can have his cottage rent free, and three or four shillings a week. I don't suppose it will be for many years. As for White, he cannot be much above sixty. He will fill the place very well.

"I am sure the vicar will agree, for he has been speaking to me, about Peters being past his work, for the last five years. What do you say, my dear?"

"I think that will do very well, William," Mrs. Ellison replied, "and will get over the difficulty altogether."

"So you see, wife, for once that boy of Widow Whitney's was not to blame. I told you you took those stories on trust against him too readily. The boy's a bit of a pickle, no doubt; and I very near gave him a thrashing, myself, a fortnight since, for on going up to the seven-acre field, I found him riding bare backed on that young pony I intended for Kate."

"You don't say so, William!" Mrs. Ellison exclaimed, greatly shocked. "I never heard of such an impudent thing. I really wonder you didn't thrash him."

"Well, perhaps I should have done so, my dear; but the fact is, I caught sight of him some time before he saw me, and he was really sitting her so well that I could not find it in my heart to call out. He was really doing me a service. The pony had never been ridden, and was as wild as a wild goat. Thomas is too old, in fact, to break it in, and I should have had to get someone to do it, and pay him two or three pounds for the job.

"It was not the first time the boy had been on her back, I could see. The pony was not quite broken and, just as I came on the scene, was trying its best to get rid of him; but it couldn't do it, and I could see, by the way he rode her about afterwards, that he had got her completely in hand; and a very pretty-going little thing she will turn out."

"But what did you say to him, William? I am sure I should never stop to think whether he was breaking in the pony, or not, if I saw him riding it about."

"I daresay not, my dear," the squire said, laughing; "but then you see, you have never been a boy; and I have, and can make allowances. Many a pony and horse have I broken in, in my time; and have got on the back of more than one, without my father knowing anything about it."

"Yes, but they were your father's horses, William," Mrs. Ellison persisted. "That makes all the difference."

"I don't suppose it would have made much difference to me," the squire laughed, "at that time. I was too fond of horse flesh, even from a boy, to be particular whose horse it was I got across. However, of course, after waiting till he had done, I gave the young scamp a blowing up."

"Not much of a blowing up, I am sure," Mrs. Ellison said; "and as likely as not, a shilling at the end of it."

"Well, Mary, I must own," the squire said pleasantly, "that a shilling did find its way out of my pocket into his."

"It's too bad of you, William," Mrs. Ellison said indignantly. "Here is this boy, who is notoriously a scapegrace, has the impertinence to ride your horse, and you encourage him in his misdeeds by giving him a shilling."

"Well, my dear, don't you see, I saved two pounds nineteen by the transaction.

"Besides," he added more seriously, "I think the boy has been maligned. I don't fancy he's a bad lad at all. A little mischief and so on, but none the worse for that. Besides, you know, I knew his father; and have sat many a time on horseback chatting to him, at the door of his mill; and drank more than one glass of good ale, which his wife has brought out to me. I am not altogether easy in my conscience about them. If there had been a subscription got up for the widow at his death, I should have put my name down for twenty pounds; and all that I have done for her is to take eighteen pence a week off that cottage of theirs.

"No, I called the boy to me when he got off, and pretty scared he looked when he saw me. When he came up, I asked him how he dared to ride my horses about, without my leave. Of course he said he was sorry, which meant nothing; and he added, as a sort of excuse, that he used from a child to ride the horses at the mill down to the ford for water; and that his father generally had a young one or two, in that paddock of his by the mill, and he used often to ride them; and seeing the pony one day, galloping about the field and kicking up its heels, he wondered whether he could sit a horse still, and especially whether he could keep on that pony's back. Then he set to, to try.

"The pony flung him several times, at first; and no wonder, as he had no saddle, and only a piece of old rope for a bridle; but he mastered him at last, and he assured me that he had never used the stick, and certainly he had not one when I saw him. I told him, of course, that he knew he ought not to have done it; but that, as he had taken it in hand, he might finish it. I said that I intended to have it broken in for Kate, and that he had best get a bit of sacking and put it on sideways, to accustom the pony to carry a lady. Then I gave him a shilling, and told him I would give him five more, when he could tell me the pony was sufficiently broken and gentle to carry Kate."

Mrs. Ellison shook her head in disapprobation.

"It is of no use, William, my talking to the villagers as to the ways of their boys, if that is the way you counteract my advice."

"But I don't always, my dear," the squire said blandly. "For instance, I shall go round tomorrow morning with my dog whip to Thorne's; and I shall offer him the choice of giving that boy of his the soundest thrashing he ever had, while I stand by to see it, or of going out of his house at the end of the quarter.

"I rather hope he will choose the latter alternative. That beer shop of his is the haunt of all the idle fellows in the village. I have a strong suspicion that he is in league with the poachers, if he doesn't poach himself; and the first opportunity I get of laying my finger upon him, out he goes."

A few days later when Kate Ellison issued from the gate of the house, which lay just at the end of the village, with the basket containing some jelly and medicine for a sick child, she found Reuben Whitney awaiting her. He touched his cap.

"Please, miss, I made bold to come here, to thank you for having cleared me."

"But I couldn't help clearing you, Reuben, for you see, I knew it wasn't you."

"Well, miss, it was very kind, all the same; and I am very much obliged to you."

"But why do you get into scrapes?" the girl said. "If you didn't, you wouldn't be suspected of other things. Mamma said, the other day, you got into more scrapes than any boy in the village; and you look nice, too. Why do you do it?"

"I don't know why I do it, miss," Reuben said shamefacedly. "I suppose it's because I don't go into the fields, like most of the other boys; and haven't got much to do. But there's no great harm in them, miss. They are just larks, nothing worse."

"You don't do really bad things?" the girl asked.

"No, miss, I hope not."

"And you don't tell stories, do you?"

"No, miss, never. If I do anything and I am asked, I always own it. I wouldn't tell a lie to save myself from a licking."

"That's right," the girl said graciously.

She caught somewhat of her mother's manner, from going about with her to the cottages; and it seemed quite natural, to her, to give her advice to this village scapegrace.

"Well, try not to do these sort of things again, Reuben; because I like you, and I don't like to hear people say you are the worst boy in the village, and I don't think you are. Good-bye," and Kate Ellison proceeded on her way.

Reuben smiled as he looked after her. Owing to his memory of his former position at the mill, and to his mother's talk and teaching, Reuben did not entertain the same feeling of respect, mingled with fear, for the squire's family which was felt by the village in general. Instead of being two years younger than himself, the girl had spoken as gravely as if she had been twenty years his senior, and Reuben could not help a smile of amusement.

"She is a dear little lady," he said, as he looked after her; "and it's only natural she should talk like her mother. But Mrs. Ellison means well, too, mother says; and as for the squire, he is a good fellow. I expected he would have given it to me the other day.

"Well, now I will go up to the pony. One more lesson, and I think a baby might ride it."

As he walked along, he met Tom Thorne. There had been war between them, since the affair of the broken window. Reuben had shown the other no animosity on the subject as, having been cleared, he had felt in no way aggrieved; but Tom Thorne was very sore over it. In the first place, he had been found out; and although Reuben himself had said nothing to him, respecting his conduct in allowing him to be flogged for the offence which he himself had committed, others had not been so reticent, and he had had a hard time of it in the village. Secondly, he had been severely thrashed by his father, in the presence of the squire; the former laying on the lash with a vigour which satisfied Mr. Ellison, the heartiness of the thrashing being due, not to any indignation at the fault, but because the boy's conduct had excited the squire's anger; which Thorne, for many reasons, was anxious to deprecate. He was his landlord, and had the power to turn him out at a quarter's notice; and as there was no possibility of obtaining any other house near, and he was doing by no means a bad trade, he was anxious to keep on good terms with him.

Tom Thorne was sitting on a gate, as Reuben passed.

"You think you be a fine fellow, Reuben, but I will be even with you, some day."

"You can be even with me now," Reuben said, "if you like to get off that gate."

"I bain't afeared of you, Reuben, don't you go to think it; only I ain't going to do any fighting now. Feyther says if I get into any more rows, he will pay me out; so I can't lick you now, but some day I will be even with you."

"That's a good excuse," Reuben said scornfully. "However, I don't want to fight if you don't, only you keep your tongue to yourself. I don't want to say nothing to you, if you don't say nothing to me. You played me a dirty trick the other day, and you got well larrupped for it, so I don't owe you any grudge; but mind you, I don't want any more talk about your getting even with me, for if you do give me any more of it I will fetch you one on the nose, and then you will have a chance of getting even, at once."

Tom Thorne held his tongue, only relieving his feelings by making a grimace after Reuben, as the latter passed on. In the various contests among the boys of the village, Reuben had proved himself so tough an adversary that, although Tom Thorne was heavier and bigger, he did not care about entering upon what would be, at best, a doubtful contest with him.

Contenting himself, therefore, with another muttered, "I will be even with you some day," he strolled home to his father's ale house.

The change at the school was very speedily made. The squire generally carried out his resolutions while they were hot and, on the very day after his conversation with his wife on the subject, he went first to the vicar and arranged for the retirement of the clerk, and the instalment of White in his place; and then went to the school house, and informed the master of his intention. The latter had been expecting his dismissal, since Mrs. Ellison had spoken to him on the previous day; and the news which the squire gave him was a relief to him. His emoluments, as clerk, would be smaller than those he received as schoolmaster; but while he would not be able to discharge the duties of the latter for very much longer, for he felt the boys were getting too much for him, he would be able to perform the very easy work entailed by the clerkship for many years to come. It was, too, a position not without dignity; and indeed, in the eyes of the village the clerk was a personage of far greater importance than the schoolmaster. He therefore thankfully accepted the offer, and agreed to give up the school as soon as a substitute could be found.

In those days anyone was considered good enough for a village schoolmaster, and the post was generally filled by men who had failed as tradesmen, and in everything else they put their hands to; and whose sole qualification for the office was that they were able to read and write. Instead of advertising, however, in the county paper, the squire wrote to an old college friend, who was now in charge of a London parish, and asked him to choose a man for the post.

"I don't want a chap who will cram all sorts of new notions into the heads of the children," the squire said. "I don't think it would do them any good, or fit them any better for their stations. The boys have got to be farm labourers, and the girls to be their wives; and if they can read really well, and write fairly, it's about as much as they want in the way of learning; but I think that a really earnest sort of man might do them good, otherwise. A schoolmaster, in my mind, should be the clergyman's best assistant. I don't know, my dear fellow, that I can explain in words more exactly what I mean; but I think you will understand me, and will send down the sort of man I want.

"The cottage is a comfortable one, there's a good bit of garden attached to it, and I don't mind paying a few shillings a week more than I do now, to get the sort of man I want. If he has a wife so much the better. She might teach the girls to sew, which would be, to nine out of ten, a deal more use than reading and writing; and if she could use her needle, and make up dresses and that sort of thing, she might add to their income. Not one woman in five in the village can make her own clothes, and they have to go to a place three miles away to get them done."

A week later the squire received an answer from his friend, saying that he had chosen a man, and his wife, whom he thought would suit.

"The poor fellow was rather a cripple," he said. "He is a wood engraver by trade, but he fell downstairs and hurt his back. The doctor who attended him at the hospital spoke to me about him. He said that he might, under favourable circumstances, get better in time; but that he was delicate, and absolutely needed change of air and a country life. I have seen him several times, and have been much struck with his intelligence. He has been much depressed at being forbidden to work, but has cheered up greatly since I told him of your offer. I have no doubt he will do well.

"I have selected him, not only for that reason, but because his wife is as suitable as he is. She is an admirable young woman, and was a dressmaker before he married her. She has supported them both ever since he was hurt, months ago. She is delighted at the idea of the change for, although the money will be very much less than he earned at his trade, she has always been afraid of his health giving way; and is convinced that fresh air, and the garden you speak of, will put new life into him."

The squire was not quite satisfied with the letter; but, as he told himself, he could not expect to get a man trained specially as a schoolmaster to accept the post; and at any rate, if the man was not satisfactory his wife was likely to be so. He accordingly ordered his groom to take the light cart and drive over to Lewes, the next day, to meet the coach when it came in; and to bring over the new schoolmaster, his wife, and their belongings.

Mrs. Ellison at once went down to the village, and got a woman to scrub the cottage from top to bottom, and put everything tidy. The furniture went with the house, and had been provided by the squire. Mrs. Ellison went over it, and ordered a few more things to be sent down from the house to make it more comfortable for a married couple and, driving over to Lewes, ordered a carpet, curtains, and a few other little comforts for it.

James Shrewsbury was, upon his arrival, much pleased with his cottage, which contrasted strongly with the room in a crowded street which he had occupied in London; and his wife was still more pleased.

"I am sure we shall be happy and comfortable here, James," she said, "and the air feels so fresh and pure that I am convinced you will soon get strong and well again. What is money to health? I am sure I shall be ten times as happy, here, as I was when you were earning three or four times as much, in London."

The squire and Mrs. Ellison came down the next morning, at the opening of the school; and after a chat with the new schoolmaster and his wife, the squire accompanied the former into the school room.

"Look here, boys and girls," he said, "Mr. Shrewsbury has come down from London to teach you. He has been ill, and is not very strong. I hope you will give him no trouble, and I can tell you it will be the worse for you, if you do. I am going to look into matters myself; and I shall have a report sent me in, regularly, as to how each of you is getting on, with a special remark as to conduct; and I can tell you, if any of you are troublesome you will find me down at your father's, in no time."

The squire's words had considerable effect, and an unusual quiet reigned in the school, after he had left and the new schoolmaster opened a book.

They soon found that his method of teaching was very different to that which they were accustomed to. There was no shouting or thumping on the desk with the cane, no pulling of ears or cuffing of heads. Everything was explained quietly and clearly; and when they went out of the school, all agreed that the new master was a great improvement on Master White, while the master himself reported to his wife that he had got on better than he had expected.

Chapter 2: The Poisoned Dog.

The boys soon felt that Mr. Shrewsbury really wished to teach them, and that he was ready to assist those who wanted to get on. In the afternoon the schoolmaster's wife started a sewing class for the girls and, a week or two after he came, the master announced that such of the elder class of boys and girls who chose to come, in the evening, to his cottage could do so for an hour; and that he and the boys would read, by turns, some amusing book while the girls worked. Only Reuben Whitney and two or three others at first availed themselves of the invitation, but these spoke so highly of their evening that the number soon increased. Three quarters of an hour were spent in reading some interesting work of travel or adventure, and then the time was occupied in talking over what they had read, and in explaining anything which they did not understand; and as the evenings were now long and dark, the visits to the schoolmaster soon came to be regarded as a privilege, and proved an incentive to work to those in the lower classes, only those in the first place being admitted to them.

Reuben worked hard all through the winter, and made very rapid progress; the schoolmaster, seeing how eager he was to get on, doing everything in his power to help him forward, and lending him books to study at home. One morning in the spring, the squire looked in at Mrs. Whitney's shop.

"Mrs. Whitney," he said, "I don't know what you are thinking of doing with that boy of yours. Mr. Shrewsbury gives me an excellent account of him, and says that he is far and away the cleverest and most studious of the boys. I like the lad, and owe him a good turn for having broken in that pony for my daughter; besides, for his father's sake I should like to help him on. Now, in the first place, what are you thinking of doing with him?"

"I am sure I am very much obliged to you," Mrs. Whitney said. "I was thinking, when he gets a little older, of apprenticing him to some trade, but he is not fourteen yet."

"The best thing you can do, Mrs. Whitney. Let it be some good trade, where he can use his wits—not a butcher, a baker, or a tailor, or anything of that sort. I should say an upholsterer, or a mill wright, or some trade where his intelligence can help him on. When the time comes I shall be glad to pay his apprentice fees for him, and perhaps, when you tell me what line he has chosen, a word from me to one of the tradesmen in Lewes may be a help. In the meantime, that is not what I have specially come about. Young Finch, who looks to my garden, is going to leave; and if you like, your boy can have the place. My gardener knows his business thoroughly, and the boy can learn under him. I will pay him five shillings a week. It will break him into work a little, and he is getting rather old for the school now. I have spoken to Shrewsbury, and he says that, if the boy is disposed to go on studying in the evening, he will direct his work and help him on."

"Thank you kindly, sir," Mrs. Whitney said. "I think it will just be the thing, for a year or so, before he is apprenticed. He was saying only last night that he was the biggest boy in the school; and though I know he likes learning, he would like to be helping me, and feels somehow that it isn't right that he should be going on schooling, while all the other boys at his age are doing something. Not that I want him to earn money, for the shop keeps us both; but it's what he thinks about it."

"That's natural enough, Mrs. Whitney, and anything the boy earns with me, you see, you can put by, and it will come in useful to him some day."

Reuben was glad when he heard of the arrangement; for although, as his mother had said, he was fond of school, he yet felt it as a sort of reproach that, while others of his age were earning money, he should be doing nothing. He accepted the offer of the schoolmaster to continue to work at his studies in the evening, and in a week he was installed in Tom Finch's place.

The arrangement was not the squire's original idea, but that of his younger daughter, who felt a sort of proprietary interest in Reuben; partly because her evidence had cleared him of the accusation of breaking the windows, partly because he had broken in the pony for her; so when she heard that the boy was leaving, she had at once asked her father that Reuben should take his place.

"I think he is a good boy, papa," she said; "and if he was clever enough to break in my pony, I am sure he will be clever enough to wheel the wheelbarrow and pull weeds."

"I should think he would, lassie," her father said, laughing, "although it does not exactly follow. Still, if you guarantee that he is a good boy, I will see about it."

"Mamma doesn't think he is a very good boy," Kate said; "but you see, papa, mamma is a woman, and perhaps she doesn't understand boys and girls as well as I do. I think he's good, and he told me he never told stories."

The squire laughed.

"I don't know what your mamma would say to that, puss; nor whether she would agree that you understand boys and girls better than she does. However, I will take your opinion this time, and give Reuben a chance."

The subject was not mentioned again in Kate's hearing, but she was greatly pleased, one morning, at seeing Reuben at work in the gardens.

"Good morning, Reuben," she said.

"Good morning, miss," he replied, touching his hat.

"I am glad you have come in Tom's place, and I hope you will be good, and not get into scrapes, for I told papa I thought you would not; and you see, if you do, he will turn round and blame me."

"I will try not to get into scrapes, Miss Kate," Reuben said. "I don't do it often, you know, and I don't think there will be much chance of it, here."

Kate nodded and walked on, and Reuben went about his work.

There was, however, much more opportunity for getting into scrapes than Reuben imagined, although the scrapes were not of the kind he had pictured. Being naturally careless, he had not been there a week before, in his eagerness to get home to a particularly interesting book, he forgot to carry out his orders to shut the cucumber frames and, a sharp frost coming on in the night, the plants were all killed; to the immense indignation of the gardener, who reported the fact, with a very serious face, to the squire.

"I am afraid that boy will never do, squire. Such carelessness I never did see, and them plants was going on beautifully."

"Confound the young rascal!" the squire said wrathfully, for he was fond of cucumbers. "I will speak to him myself. This sort of thing will never do."

And accordingly, the squire spoke somewhat sharply to Reuben, who was really sorry for the damage his carelessness had caused; and he not only promised the squire that it should not occur again, but mentally resolved very firmly that it should not. He felt very shamefaced when Kate passed him in the garden, with a serious shake of her head, signifying that she was shocked that he had thus early got into a scrape, and discredited her recommendation.

The lesson was a useful one. Henceforth Reuben paid closer attention to his work, and even the gardener, who regarded boys as his great trial in life, expressed himself satisfied with him.

"Since that affair of the cucumbers I must own, squire," he said a month later, "that he is the best boy I have come across. He attends to what I say and remembers it, and I find I can trust him to do jobs that I have never been able to trust boys with, before. He seems to take an interest in it, and as he is well spoken and civil, he ought to get on and make a good gardener, in time."

"I am glad to hear a good account of him," the squire replied. "He is sharp and intelligent, and will make his way in life, or I am mistaken. His father was an uncommonly clever fellow, though he made a mess of it, just at the end; and I think the boy takes after him."

Among Reuben's other duties was that of feeding and attending to the dogs. These consisted of two setters, a pointer, and a large house dog, who was chained up at the entrance to the stables. Reuben was soon excellent friends with the sporting dogs, but the watchdog, who had probably been teased by Reuben's predecessor, always growled and showed his teeth when he went near him; and Reuben never dared venture within the length of his chain, but pushed the bowl containing his food just within his reach.

One day, he had been sent on an errand to the stables. He forgot the dog and ran close to the kennel. The animal at once sprang out. Reuben made a rush, but he was not quick enough, and the dog caught him by the leg. Reuben shouted, and the coachman ran out and, seizing a fork, struck the dog and compelled him to loose his hold.

"Has he bit you badly, Reuben?"

"Well, he has bit precious hard," Reuben replied. "I think he has nearly taken a piece out of my calf," as, on pulling up his trousers, he showed his leg streaming with blood.

"Put it under the pump, lad. I will pump on it," the coachman said. "He's a bad-tempered brute, and I wonder the squire keeps it."

"The brute ought to be killed," Reuben grumbled angrily. "I have never teased it or worried it, in any way. I wish you had stuck that fork into him, instead of hitting him with it. If you hadn't been within reach, he would have taken the bit out of me. He will kill somebody some day, and it were best to kill him, first."

The gardener pumped for some time on Reuben's leg; and then, going into the kitchen, he got some strips of rag from the cook and bound it up.

"You had best go home now," he said. "I will tell the gardener, when he comes round, what has happened to you. I doubt you will have to lay up, for a day or two."

As Reuben limped home, he met Tom Thorne walking with another boy.

"Hello, Reuben!" the latter exclaimed. "What's come to you? Yer trousers bee all tore."

"That brute of a house dog at the squire's has had hold of me," Reuben answered. "The savage beast has had a try, a good many times; but this time he got hold, and he has bit me pretty sharp."

Reuben had to keep his leg quiet for three days but, the third evening, he was well enough to go down the village to the schoolhouse. After the lesson was over he walked for some distance up the road, for his leg was very stiff; and he thought it would be a good thing to try and walk it off, as he intended to go to work next morning. On getting up early in the morning, however, he found it was still stiff and sore; but he thought he had better go and try to work for a bit.

"I am glad you are back again," the gardener said, when he saw him, "for there's a lot of work on hand; but I see you are still lame. The coachman tells me it were a nasty bite."

"It's pretty sore still," Reuben replied, "and I don't think I can walk about much; but I thought I might help in some other way."

"Very well," the gardener said. "There are a lot of plants which want shifting into larger pots. You do them, and I will take up the fork and dig up that piece of ground I want to put the young lettuces into."

Reuben worked hard till half-past eight, and then went off to his breakfast. On his return, he was told the squire wished to speak to him.

"It's about that dog, I expect," the gardener remarked. "I suppose you know he were poisoned last night."

"No, I didn't know," Reuben replied; "but it's a precious good job. I wish he had been poisoned before he got his teeth into me."

Reuben, on going round to the back door, was shown into the library, where the squire was sitting. The coachman was with him.

"Now then, Reuben," the squire said, "I want you to tell me the truth about this matter. The coachman told me, three days ago, that you had been bitten by the yard dog, and I made up my mind to get rid of him, on the first opportunity; but I find he was poisoned, yesterday evening."

He stopped as if expecting Reuben to say something; but the boy, having nothing to say, merely replied:

"Yes, sir, so the gardener has told me."

"What do you know about it, Reuben?"

"I don't know anything about it, sir," Reuben replied, opening his eyes.

"Now, look here, lad," the squire said gravely, "I am disposed to think well of you; and although I consider it a serious offence your poisoning the dog, I shall consider it very much worse if you deny it."

"But I didn't poison it, sir," Reuben affirmed. "I never dreamt of such a thing."

The squire set his lips hard together.

"Just tell me your story over again," he said to the coachman.

"Well, yesterday evening, squire, I went down into the village to buy some 'bacca. Just as I got back to the gate, out runs a boy. It was too dark for me to see his face, but I naturally supposed it were Reuben, so I said, 'Hello, Reuben, how's the leg?' But the moment I spoke, he turned off from the path and ran away.

"Well, I thought it was queer, but I went on to the stable. About a quarter of an hour afterwards, and as I was a-cleaning up the bits, I heard Wolf howl. He kept on at it, so I took a lantern and went out to see what was the matter. He was rolling about, and seemed very bad. I stood a-looking at him, wondering what were best to do, when sudden he gave a sort of yell, and rolled over, and he was dead. I thought it was no good telling you about it till this morning; and thinking it over, and seeing how sudden like it was, I come to the 'pinion as how he had been poisoned; and naturally thinking that, as he had bit Reuben, and as how Reuben said he ought to be killed, and seeing as I had met the boy a quarter an hour afore the dog was took bad, it came to me as how he had done it.

"This morning I knew for certain as the dog had been poisoned, for just outside of the reach of his chain there was that piece of paper a-lying, as you have got before you."

It was a piece of blue paper, about four inches square, on which was printed: "Rat poison."

"You hear that, Reuben? What have you to say?" the squire asked.

"I have got nothing to say, sir," Reuben answered, "except that whoever the boy was, it wasn't me, and that I know nothing about it."

"Well, Reuben, it will be easy for you to clear yourself, by saying where you were at the time.

"What o'clock was it, Robert, that you saw the boy?"

"It was just a quarter past eight, squire. The quarter struck just as I opened the gate."

"Were you out or at home at that hour, Reuben?"

"I was out, sir. I went to the schoolmaster's."

"What time did you leave there?"

"I left at eight, sir."

"Then if you got in just after eight, it is clear that you were not the boy," the squire said. "If your mother tells me that you were in at five minutes past eight, that settles the question, as far as you are concerned."

"I didn't get in till half-past eight, sir," Reuben said. "I walked about for a bit, after I came out from school, to try and get the stiffness out of my leg, so as to be able to come to work this morning."

"Was anyone with you, Reuben? Is there anyone to say what you did with yourself, between eight and half-past eight?"

"No, sir," Reuben said quietly. "I didn't speak to a soul; and didn't see a soul, so far as I know, from the time I came out of the gate of the schoolhouse till I got home."

"Does your mother sell packets of this poison?" the squire said, pointing to the paper.

Reuben looked at the paper.

"Yes, sir; I believe she does."

"Well, my lad," the squire said, "you must acknowledge that the case looks very ugly against you. You are known to have borne bad feelings against the dog; naturally enough, I admit. A boy about your size was seen by Robert in the dark, coming out of the gate; and that he was there for no good purpose is proved by the fact that he ran away when spoken to. A quarter of an hour later, the dog dies of poison. That poison you certainly could get at home and, by your own admission, you were out and about at the time the dog was poisoned. The case looks very bad against you."

"I don't care how bad it looks," Reuben said, passionately. "It wasn't me, squire, if that were the last word I ever had to speak."

"Very well," the squire said coldly. "In my mind, the evidence is overwhelming against you. I have no intention of pursuing the matter further; nor will I, for your father's and mother's sake, bring public disgrace upon you; but of course I shall not retain you here further, nor have anything to do with you, in the future."

Without a word, Reuben turned and left the room. Had he spoken, he would have burst into a passion of tears. With a white face, he walked through the village and entered his mother's shop.

"What? Back again, Reuben?" she said. "I thought your leg was too bad to work."

"It isn't my leg, mother," he said, in a choking voice. "The squire has dismissed me. He says I have poisoned his dog."

"Says you poisoned his dog, Reuben! Whatever put such an idea into his head?"

"The coachman saw a boy coming out of the yard, at a quarter past eight last night. It was too dark for him to say for certain, but he thought it was me. A quarter of an hour later the dog died of poison, and this morning they picked up a cover of one of those rat powders you sell. I couldn't say where I was at a quarter past eight, when the coachman saw the boy; for as you know, mother, I told you I had walked out a bit, after I came out from the school, to get the stiffness out of my leg. So, altogether, the squire has made up his mind 'tis me, and so he has sent me away."

Reuben had summed up the points against himself in a broken voice, and now broke into a passion of tears. His mother tried in vain to pacify him; but indeed her own indignation, at her boy being charged with such a thing, was so great that she could do little to console him.

"It's shameful!" she exclaimed, over and over again. "I call it downright wicked of the squire to suspect you of such a thing."

"Well, mother, it does look very bad against me," Reuben said, wiping his eyes at last, "and I don't know as the squire is so much to be blamed for suspecting me. I know and you know that it wasn't me; but there's no reason why the squire should know it. Somebody has poisoned his dog, and that somebody is a boy. He knows that I was unfriendly with the dog so, putting things together, I don't see as he could help suspecting me, and only my word the other way. It seems to me as if somebody must have done it to get me in a row, for I don't know that the dog had bit anyone else. If it is anyone, I expect it's Tom Thorne. He has never been friends with me, since that affair of the school window."

"I will go at once and speak to his father," Mrs. Whitney said, taking down her bonnet from the wall.

"No, mother, you can't do that," Reuben exclaimed. "We have got nothing against him. The squire has ten times as good reason to suspect me, as I have to suspect Tom Thorne; so as we know the squire's wrong, it's ten times as likely we shall be wrong. Besides, if he did it, of course he would deny it, he is the worst liar in the village; and then folks would say I wasn't satisfied with doing it myself, but I wanted to throw the blame on to him, just as he did on me before. No, it won't do, mother."

Mrs. Whitney saw that it wouldn't do, and sat down again. Reuben sat thinking, for some time.

"I must go away, mother," he said at last. "I can't stop here. Every one in the village will get to know of it, and they will point at me as the boy as poisoned the squire's dog, and then lied about it. I couldn't stand that, mother."

"And you sha'n't stand it, my boy," Mrs. Whitney said, "not a day. I will give up the cottage and move into Lewes, at once. I didn't go there before, for I am known there, and don't like folk to see how much I have come down in the world."

"No, mother, you stop here, and I will go up to London. They say there is lots of work there, and I suppose I can get on as well as another."

"I will not hear of your doing such a thing. I should never expect to hear of you again. I should always be thinking that you had got run over, or were starving in the streets, or dying in a workhouse. No, Reuben, my plan's best. It's just silliness my not liking to settle in Lewes; for of course it's better going where one is known, and I should be lost in a strange place. No; I daresay I shall find a cottage there, and I shall manage to get a living somehow—perhaps open a little shop like this, and then you can be apprenticed, and live at home."

An hour later, Mrs. Ellison called. Reuben had gone upstairs to lie down, for his leg was very painful. Mrs. Whitney did not give her visitor time to begin.

"I know what you have called about, Mrs. Ellison, and I don't want to talk about it with you. The squire has grievously wronged my boy. I wouldn't have believed it of him, but he's done it; so now, ma'm, I give a week's notice of this house, and here's my rent up to that time, and I will send you the key when I go. And now, ma'm, as I don't want any words about it, I think it will be better if you go, at once."

Mrs. Ellison hesitated a moment. Never, from the time she entered the village as the squire's wife, had she been thus spoken to; but she saw at once, in Mrs. Whitney's face, that it were better not to reply to her; and that her authority as the squire's wife had, for once, altogether vanished. She therefore took up the money which Mrs. Whitney had laid on the counter and, without a word, left the shop.

"I do believe, William," she said as, greatly ruffled and indignant, she gave an account of the interview to the squire, "that the woman would have slapped my face, if I had said anything. She is the most insolent creature I ever met."

"Well, my dear," the squire said seriously, "I can hardly wonder at the poor woman's indignation. She has had a hard time of it, and this must be a sad blow. Naturally she believes in her son's innocence, and we must not altogether blame her, if she resents his dismissal. It's a sad business altogether, and I know it will be a worry and trouble to me for months. Mind, I don't doubt that the boy did it; it does not seem possible that it should be otherwise. Still, it is not absolutely proved; and upon my word, I wish now I had said nothing at all about it. I like the boy, and I liked his father before him; and as this story must get about, it cannot but do him serious damage. Altogether it is a most tiresome business, and I would give a hundred pounds if it hadn't taken place."

"I really do not see why you should worry about it, William. The boy has always been a troublesome boy, and perhaps this lesson may do him good."

The squire did not attempt to argue the question. He felt really annoyed and put out and, after wandering over the ground and stables, he went down to the schoolhouse after the children had been dismissed.

"Have you heard, Shrewsbury, about that boy Whitney?"

"No, sir, I have heard nothing about him," the schoolmaster said. "He was here yesterday evening, as usual. His leg is no worse, I hope. Those dog bites are always nasty things."

"I wish it had been worse," the squire said testily; "then he would have been laid up quietly at home, instead of being about mischief."

"Why, what has he done, sir?" the schoolmaster asked, in surprise.

The squire related the history of the dog's death, and of his interview with Reuben. The schoolmaster looked serious, and grieved.

"What do you think of the matter, Shrewsbury?" the squire asked, when he had finished.

"I would rather not give any opinion," the schoolmaster replied quietly.

"That means you think I am wrong," the squire said quickly. "Well, say it out, man; you won't offend me. I am half inclined to think I was wrong, myself; and I would as lief be told so, as not."

"I don't say you are wrong, sir," the schoolmaster said, "except that I think you assumed the boy's guilt too much as a matter of course. Now, I have seen a great deal of him. I have a great liking for him, and believe him to be not only a singularly intelligent and hard-working lad, but a perfectly truthful and open one. I allow that the circumstances are much against him; but the evidence is, to my mind, completely overbalanced by his absolute denial. You must remember that he saw that you were quite convinced of his guilt; and that, in your eyes, his denial would be an aggravation of the offence. Therefore you see he had no strong motive for telling a lie.

"Who killed your dog I do not know but, from my knowledge of his character and assurance of his truthfulness, I am perfectly convinced that Reuben Whitney did not do it. The boy is, in some ways, very superior to the other lads I teach. I hear that his father was in a good position, as a miller; and his mother is of a different class, altogether, to the other women of the village. The boy has a certain refinement about him, a thoughtfulness and consideration which set him apart from the others. Mischievous and somewhat inclined to be noisy as he generally is, on days when I have not felt quite equal to my work he would notice it at once and, without saying a word, would, by his quietness and attention to his work, try to save me trouble; and I have heard him try to quiet the others, as they trooped out. The boy has a good heart as well as a good intellect, and nothing save his own confession would make me believe that he poisoned your dog."

"But he said he wished it was killed," the squire urged, as in defence of his own opinion.

"He said so, squire, at the time he was smarting with the pain of a severe bite; and I think probably he meant no more than a man who, under the same circumstances, would say, 'Confound the dog!' or even a stronger oath."

Mr. Ellison was silenced, for when in wrath he was, himself, given to use strong expressions.

"I don't know what to say, Shrewsbury," he said at last. "I am afraid I have made a mess of it; but certainly, as I first heard it, the case seemed to admit of no doubt. 'Pon my word, I don't know what to do. My wife has just been up to see Mrs. Whitney, and the woman blazed out at her, and wouldn't let her say a word, but gave notice that she should give up the house at the end of the week. If it hadn't been for that, I might have done something; but Mrs. Ellison was very much aggrieved at her manner. Altogether, it's one of the most annoying things I ever had to do with."

In the evening the schoolmaster put on his hat and went up, with his wife, to Mrs. Whitney. The women had seen a good deal of each other, as they both stood somewhat apart from the rest of the village and, in thought and speech, differed widely from the labourers' wives; and on evenings when the sewing class did not meet, the schoolmaster's wife often went up for an hour or two to Mrs. Whitney's, or the latter came down to the Shrewsburys' cottage.

"We have come up, Mrs. Whitney," the schoolmaster said as they entered, "to tell you how sorry we are to hear that you are going to leave, and that we are still more sorry for the cause. Of course, neither my wife nor myself believe for a moment that Reuben poisoned the squire's dog. The idea is preposterous. I told the squire as much, today."

Mrs. Whitney burst into tears. She had kept up all day, sustained partly by indignation, and partly by the desire that Reuben should not see that she felt it; but the thought that all the village would believe Reuben guilty had cut her to the heart, and she had felt so unwilling to face anyone that, as soon as Mrs. Ellison had left, she had closed the shutters of her little shop; but she broke down, now, from her relief at hearing that someone besides herself believed the boy to be innocent.

"I don't know what I shall do without you, Mrs. Whitney," Mrs. Shrewsbury said, when the widow recovered her composure. "I shall miss you dreadfully. Is it quite settled that you will go?"

"Quite settled, Mrs. Shrewsbury. I wouldn't stop in the squire's house for an hour longer than I could help, after his believing Reuben to be guilty of poisoning his dog, and not believing the boy when he said he had nothing to do with it. He ought to have known my boy better than that. And he coming up only the other day, and pretending he felt a kindness for my dead husband."

"I think the squire was too hasty, Mrs. Whitney," the schoolmaster said. "But you see, he did not know Reuben as we do; and I think, if you will excuse my saying so, you have been a little hasty, too. The squire came in to me to tell me about it, and I could see he was not satisfied in his mind, even before I gave him my positive opinion that Reuben was innocent; and I do think that, if you had not given Mrs. Ellison notice so sharply, the squire would have taken back his words; and said that at any rate, as there was nothing absolutely proved, he would hold his judgment in suspense until the matter was cleared up."

"And having everyone pointing the finger at my boy in the meantime! No, thank you, Mr. Shrewsbury, that would not do for me. I was not a bit hasty. Mrs. Ellison came in here prepared to talk to me about Reuben's wickedness; I saw it in her face, so I wouldn't let her open her lips. If she had, I should have given her a piece of my mind that she wouldn't have forgot, in a hurry."

"I can quite understand your feelings, Mrs. Whitney," the schoolmaster said, "and I have no doubt I should have acted as you did, if a son of mine had been suspected in the same way. Still, I think it's a pity; for if Reuben had stayed here, there would have been more chance of the matter being cleared up. However, we won't talk about that now. Now tell me, what are your plans?"

Mrs. Whitney told her visitors what she had determined upon. As Lewes was only four miles off, the schoolmaster said that he and his wife would sometimes come over to see her; and that he hoped that Reuben, whatever trade he was apprenticed to, would still go on with his studies. He would give him any advice or assistance in his power.

The next day Mrs. Whitney and Reuben moved, with all their belongings, to Lewes.

Chapter 3: The Burglary At The Squire's.

"What is that woman Whitney going to do with her boy?" the squire asked the schoolmaster, when he happened to meet him in the village about a month after she had left. "Have you heard?"

"Nothing is settled yet, sir. My wife had a letter from her, two or three days ago, saying that she had been disappointed in getting Penfold the mill wright to take him. He wanted fifty pounds premium, and she could only afford to pay twenty, so she is looking out for something else. You have heard nothing more that would throw any light on that affair, squire?"

"No, and don't suppose I ever shall. Have you any opinion about it?"

"My opinion is that of Reuben, himself," the schoolmaster said. "He believes that someone did it who had a grudge against him, on purpose, to throw suspicion on him."

"Who should have a grudge against him?" the squire asked.

"Well, squire, there was one boy in the village who had, rightly or wrongly, a grudge against Reuben. That is Tom Thorne. Reuben has not a shadow of evidence that it was this boy, but the lad has certainly been his enemy ever since that affair of breaking the windows of the school, just before I came here. Thorne, you know, did it, but allowed Reuben to be punished for the offence; and the truth would never have been known had it not been, as I heard, that your daughter happened to see the stone thrown. Since that time there has been bad blood between the boys. I do not for a moment say that Thorne poisoned your dog. Still, the boys are near enough of a size for one to be mistaken for the other in the dark; and Thorne knew that Reuben had been bitten by the dog, for Reuben spoke to another boy about it, that afternoon, while Thorne was standing by. Of course, this is but the vaguest suspicion. Still, if you ask my opinion, I should say that I consider, from what I have heard of the character of Tom Thorne, that he would be much more likely to poison the dog, in order to get Reuben into disgrace, than Reuben would be to do so out of revenge because the dog had bitten him."

The squire took off his hat, and passed his hands through his hair, in perplexity.

"I don't know what to think, Shrewsbury," he said. "It may be as you say. I look upon Thorne as the worst character in the village, and likely enough his son may take after him. That ale house of his is the resort of all the idle fellows about. I have strong reason to believe he is in alliance with the poachers. The first time I get a chance, out he goes. I have only been waiting, for some time, for an opportunity. I can't very well turn him out of his house without some excuse.

"What did you say was the name of the mill wright at Lewes Mrs. Whitney was wanting to get her son with?"

The schoolmaster repeated the name, which the squire jotted down in a notebook.

"Look here, Shrewsbury," he said, "don't you mention to Mrs. Whitney that you spoke to me about this matter. Do you understand?"

"I understand, sir," the schoolmaster said.

And he was not surprised when, a few days afterwards, his wife received a letter from Mrs. Whitney, saying that Mr. Penfold had come in to say that he had changed his mind, and that he would take Reuben as his apprentice for twenty pounds; adding, to her surprise, that he should give him half a crown a week for the first year, and gradually raise his pay, as he considered that boys ought to be able to earn a little money for themselves.

Reuben, therefore, was going to work on the following week. The half a crown a week which he was to earn was an important matter for his mother. For although she had found a cottage and opened a little shop, as before, her receipts were extremely small, and she had already begun to fear that she should be obliged to make another move, Lewes being too well supplied with shops for a small concern like hers to flourish. The half crown a week, however, would pay her rent; and she expected that she should make, at any rate, enough to provide food for herself and Reuben.

Mrs. Whitney had hoped that, although Lewes was but four miles from the village, the story about the dog would not travel so far; for it was not often that anyone from the village went over to the town. In this, however, she was mistaken for, a week after Reuben had gone to work, the foreman went to his master and said:

"I don't know whether you are aware, Mr. Penfold, about that new boy; but I hear that he had to leave Tipping, where he was employed by Squire Ellison, for poisoning the squire's dog."

"How did you hear it?" Mr. Penfold asked.

"William Jenkins heard it from a man named Thorne, who belongs to the village, and whom he met at a public house, yesterday."

"William Jenkins had best not spend so much time in public houses," Mr. Penfold said shortly. "I heard the story before I saw the boy and, from what I hear, I believe he was wrongfully accused. Just tell Jenkins that; and say that if I hear of him, or any of the hands, throwing the thing up in the boy's face, I will dismiss them instantly."

And so Reuben did not know, till long after, that the story of the killing of the dog was known to anyone at Lewes.

For three years he worked in Mr. Penfold's yard, giving much satisfaction to his employer by his steadiness and handiness. He continued his studies of an evening, under the advice of his former master; who came over with his wife, three or four times each year, to spend a day with Mrs. Whitney. Reuben was now receiving ten shillings a week and, although the receipts of the shop failed, he and his mother were able to live in considerable comfort.

One day, about three years after coming to Lewes, he was returning to work after dinner when, as he passed a carriage standing in front of one of the shops, he heard his name pronounced, and the colour flushed to his cheek as, looking up, he saw Kate Ellison. Timidly he touched his cap, and would have hurried on, but the girl called to him.

"Stop a minute, Reuben. I want to speak to you. I am glad I have met you. I have looked for you, every time I have come to Lewes. I wanted to tell you that I am sure you did not kill Wolf. I know you wouldn't have done it. Besides, you know, you told me that you never told stories; so when I heard that you said you didn't, I was quite sure about it."

"Thank you, miss," Reuben said gratefully. "I did not kill the dog. I should never have thought of such a thing, though every one seemed against me."

"Not every one, Reuben. I didn't think so; and papa has told me, since, that he did not think so, and that he was afraid that he had made a mistake."

"I am glad to hear that, miss," Reuben said. "The squire had been very kind to me, and it has always grieved me, very much, that he should think me capable of such a thing. I felt angry at the time, but I have not felt angry since I have thought it over quietly; for the case seems so strong against me that I don't see how the squire could have thought otherwise.

"Thank you, miss. I sha'n't forget your kindness," and Reuben went on with a light heart, just as Mrs. Ellison and her elder daughter came out from the shop.

"Who were you speaking to, Kate?" she asked, as she took her seat in the carriage.

"I was talking to Reuben Whitney, mamma. He was passing, so I called him to tell him that I did not believe he had killed Wolf."

"Then it was very improper behaviour on your part, Kate," her mother said angrily, for she had never quite recovered from the shock Mrs. Whitney had given to her dignity. "You know my opinion on the subject. I have told you before that it is one I do not care to have discussed, and that I consider it very improper for a girl, of your age, to hold opinions different to those of your elders. I have no doubt, whatever, that boy poisoned the dog. I must beg of you that you will never speak to him again."

Kate leaned back in the carriage with a little sigh. She could not understand why her mother, who was so kind to all the village people, should be so implacable on this subject. But Kate, who was now between fourteen and fifteen, knew that when her mother had taken up certain opinions they were not to be shaken; and that her father himself always avoided argument, on points on which he differed from her. Talking alone with his daughter the squire had, in answer to her sturdy assertion of Reuben's innocence, owned to her that he himself had his doubts on the subject, and that he was sorry he had dismissed the boy from his service; but she had never heard him do more than utter a protest, against Reuben's guilt being held as being absolutely proved, when her mother spoke of his delinquency.

But Kate was not one to desert a protege and, having been the means of Reuben's introduction to her father's, she had always regarded herself as his natural protector; and Mrs. Ellison would not have been pleased, had she known that her daughter had seldom met the schoolmaster without inquiring if he had heard how Reuben was getting on. She had even asked Mr. Shrewsbury to assure him of her belief in his innocence, which had been done; but she had resolved that, should she ever meet him, she would herself tell him so, even at the risk of her mother's displeasure.

Another year passed. Reuben was now seventeen, and was a tall, powerfully-built young fellow. During these four years he had never been over to Tipping, in the daytime; but had occasionally walked over, after dark, to visit the Shrewsburys, always going on special invitation, when he knew that no one else would be there. The Thornes no longer occupied the little public house. Tom Thorne had, a year before, been captured with two other poachers in the squire's woods, and had had six months' hard labour; and his father had at once been ejected from his house, and had disappeared from that part of the country. Reuben was glad that they had left; for he had long before heard that Thorne had spread the story, in Lewes, of the poisoning of the dog. He felt, however, with their departure all chance of his ever being righted in that matter was at an end.

One evening in winter, when Reuben had done his work, he said to his mother:

"I shall go over and see Mr. Shrewsbury tonight. I have not been over for some time and, as it is not his night for a class, I am pretty sure not to find anyone there. I told him, when I was there last, that I would take over a few tools and fix up those shelves for him.

"I don't suppose he will stay very much longer at Tipping. His health is completely restored now, and even his wife admits that he could work at his own business again. He has already been doing a little, for some of the houses he worked for in town, so as to get his connection back again. I expect, every time I see him, to hear that he has made up his mind to go. He would have done it, two years back; but his wife and the two little ones are so well that he did not like the thought of taking them up to London, till he was sure that his health was strong enough to stand steady work. I shall miss them very much. He has been a good friend, indeed, to me."

"He has indeed," Mrs. Whitney said. "I think anyhow, Reuben, you would have got on at your trade; but you would never have been what you are now, if it hadn't been for him. Your poor father would be proud of you, if he could see you; and I am sure that, when you take off that workman's suit and put on your Sunday clothes, you look as well as if the mill had never gone wrong, and you had been brought up as he intended you to be. Mrs. Tyler was saying only the other day that you looked quite the gentleman, and lots of people have said the same."

"Nonsense, mother," Reuben answered, "there is nothing of the gentleman about me. Of course, people say things that they think will please you, knowing that you regard me as a sort of wonder. I hope I shall make my way some day, and the fact that I have had a better education than most young fellows, in my position of life, of course may make some little difference; and will, I hope, help me to mount the ladder, when once I put my foot upon it."

But although, no doubt, Mrs. Whitney was a partial judge, her opinion as to her son was not an incorrect one; for with his intelligent face, and quiet self-assured bearing, he looked very much more like a gentleman than many young fellows in a far better position in life.

The stars were shining brightly when he started, at seven o'clock in the evening; and he walked with a brisk step, until he arrived within half a mile of the village. As he passed by the end of a lane which ran into the road, he heard a horse impatiently pawing the ground; the sound being followed by a savage oath, to the animal, to stand quiet. Reuben walked on a few steps, and then paused. The lane, as he knew, only led to some fields a short distance away. What could a horse be doing there? And who could be the man who spoke to it? There had, lately, been several burglaries on lonely houses, in that part of the country; and the general belief was that these had been perpetrated by men from London.

"I daresay it's nothing," Reuben said to himself. "Still, it is certainly curious and, at any rate, there can be no harm in having a look."

Walking upon the grass at the side of the road, he retraced his steps to the end of the lane, and then stood and listened. He heard a murmur of voices, and determined to follow the matter up. He walked quietly down the lane. After going about a hundred yards, he saw something dark in the road and, approaching it very cautiously, found that it was a horse harnessed to a gig. As he was standing wondering what to do next he started, for the silence was broken by some voices near him.

"It was a stupid thing to get here so early, and to have to wait about for four hours in this ditch."

"It was the best plan though," another voice replied. "The trap might have been noticed, if we had been driving about the roads after dark; while in the daylight no one would give it a second thought."

"That's right enough," the first speaker said, "but it's precious cold here. Hand me that flask again. I am blest if the wind does not come through the hedge like a knife."

The voices came from the other side of the hedge, on the opposite side of the lane. Reuben crossed noiselessly. There was a gate just where the cart had stopped, and the men had evidently got over it, to obtain the shelter of the hedge from the wind. Reuben felt the gate, which was old and rickety; then cautiously he placed his feet on the lower bar, and leaned forward so as to look round the hedge.

"What time are the others to be here, Tom?"

"They said they would be here at nine o'clock. We passed them about six miles on the road, so they ought to be here to time."

"I suppose there's no doubt about this here being a good business?"

"I will answer for that," the other said. "I don't suppose as there's much money in the house, but there's no end of silver plate, and their watches, and plenty of sparklers. I have heard say as there's no one in the county as has more jewels than the squire's wife."

"You know the house well, don't you?"

"I never was inside," the other said, "but I have heard enough, from them that has, to know where the rooms lie. The plate chest is in the butler's pantry and, as we are going to get in by the kitchen window, we are safe to be able to clear that out without being heard. I shall go on, directly the others come, and chuck this meat to the dogs—that will silence them. I know the way there, for I tried that on once before."

Reuben had thought that the voice was familiar to him, and the words gave him the clue—the speaker was Tom Thorne—and he, and those with him, were going to commit a burglary at the squire's. He was hesitating whether to make off at once, to warn the squire of what was intended; or to listen and learn a little more of their plan, when suddenly a light shone behind him, and a voice exclaimed with an oath:

"Who have we here?"

He leapt down, and was in the act of turning round to defend himself, when a heavy blow with a cudgel struck him on the head, and felled him insensible to the ground. While he had been listening to the conversation, two men had come quietly up the lane, walking on the grass as he had done; and their footsteps had been unheard by him, for the horse continued, at times, impatiently to paw the ground. The sound of their comrades' voices had told them where they were sitting and, turning on a bull's-eye lantern to show them the gate, they had seen Reuben leaning over it, in the act of listening.

When Reuben recovered consciousness, he found that he was lying in the ditch, his hands tightly bound to his sides, and a handkerchief stuffed into his mouth. The four men were gathered close by, talking in low tones.

"I ain't going to give up the job, now we come so far to do it," one said, with an oath. "Besides, it's not only the swag, but the grudge I owe the squire. If I am ready to go on, I suppose you needn't be afraid; besides, he don't know us."

"Best cut his throat and a done with it," a voice, which Reuben recognized as that of his old enemy, said. "I owe him one, and it will be safest to stop his mouth."

"No, no," a third voice protested; "I ain't going to have nothing to do with cutting throats. I don't mind running the risk of Botany Bay, but I ain't going to run the chance of being scragged. But let's move a bit away from here, while we settle it. You hit him pretty hard, but he will be coming round presently. I thought at first that you had killed him, but he's bleeding too free for that."

The men moved some little distance away, and for some time Reuben could hear a murmured talk, but could make out nothing of what had been said. It was, he judged, a quarter of an hour before the conversation ceased. They did not return to him but remained at some distance off, and Reuben thought that he heard the footsteps of one of them going down the lane. He could feel, by a warm sensation across his cheek, that the blood was flowing freely from the wound he had received on his temple. A dull torpid feeling came over him, and after a time he again lost consciousness.

How long he remained in this state he did not know, but he was at last aroused by being lifted and thrown into the bottom of the cart. Four men then climbed up into it and the horse was started. They drove at a quick pace, and Reuben wondered why they were taking him away with them. His head ached terribly, and he suffered much from the tightness of the cords which bound his arms. The men seemed in high good humour, and talked and laughed in low tones; but the noise of the vehicle prevented Reuben hearing what was said.

It was, as far as he could judge, full two hours before the vehicle stopped. He was roughly taken out of the cart, his arms were unbound; and the men, leaping up, drove away at full speed. The spot where he had been left was very dark, for trees overshadowed it on both sides. Where he was he had no idea, but he judged that he must be fully twenty miles from the village.

His first impulse was to take the handkerchief from his mouth, and he then walked slowly along the road, in the direction from which he had come. It was, he felt sure, no use shouting; for they would have been certain to have selected some lonely spot to set him down, and there would be no chance of awakening the inhabitants of any distant cottage. He walked slowly, for he was faint with loss of blood.

After proceeding about a quarter of a mile, he emerged from the wood and came upon a spot where the road forked. Having no clue whatever as to the direction in which Lewes lay, he sat down upon a heap of stones and waited patiently for morning. He had no doubt that the burglary had been a successful one, and he bitterly regretted his neglect to keep a watch down the lane, to see that he was not surprised by the men he had heard were coming. At any rate, he hoped that he should be able to give such information as would set the constables upon the track.

It seemed to him that some three hours passed before a faint light began to dawn in the sky. By this he knew that it must be about half-past six, and calculated, therefore, he must have set out in the trap about half-past one. He now started to walk along the road, hoping that he should soon meet some labourer going to work. Stopping by a small stream which ran across the road, he washed his head and face; as he had lain on the ground after being struck, the blood had not flowed on to his clothes.

After the wash he proceeded with a brisker step. Half an hour later he met a ploughman, riding one of his team to the fields.

"Is this the road to Lewes?" Reuben asked.

"Lewes? Noa, this baint the road to Lewes. I don't know nothing about the road to Lewes. This bee the road to Hastings, if you goes further. So they tell me; I ain't never been there."

"Is there a village anywhere about here?" Reuben asked.

"Ay, half a mile or so on."

Reuben walked on till he got to the village; and then, going to a public house, obtained some refreshment and learned, from the landlord, the direction he should take to get to the main road leading to Lewes; which was, as he expected, some twenty miles away. He found that the cart had not followed the main road towards London, but had driven by crossroads for a considerable distance, before turning north.

It was late in the afternoon before Reuben arrived at Lewes, for he had been obliged to rest often by the way, and had made but slow progress. When within a few doors of his mother's house, one of the constables of the town came up to him and touched him on the shoulder.

"I arrest you in the king's name!"

"Arrest me! What for?" Reuben exclaimed.

"For breaking into the house of Squire Ellison, of Tipping, that's what it's for."

Reuben laughed.

"You have got the wrong man this time. I have no more to do with the burglary than a child."

"It's no laughing matter," the constable said. "If you are innocent you have got to prove it; that ain't no business of mine. All I have got to do is to arrest you."

So saying, and before Reuben knew what he was about, he slipped a pair of handcuffs over his wrists. Reuben flushed up. Hitherto he had scarcely taken the matter seriously, but to be marched handcuffed through the streets of Lewes was an indignity which enraged him.

"Take these off," he said angrily. "I will go quietly with you."

"You may or you may not," the man said doggedly. "You are younger than I am, and maybe can run faster. I ain't agoing to chance it."

Reuben saw that it was of no use to argue and, silent and pale, he walked along by the side of the constable, who retained a tight hold of his collar. A little crowd gathered speedily round, for such a sight was unusual in Lewes; and Reuben felt thankful when they reached the cells, and he was sheltered from the gaze of the public. A minute later the head constable came in.

"Now, my lad, don't say anything to criminate yourself," he began; "the less you talk, the better for you. I am sorry to see you here, for I knew your father, and I have a good character of you from your employer; so I give you my advice—keep your mouth shut."

"But I am not going to keep my mouth shut," Reuben said indignantly. "Here am I, arrested in the public streets, marched handcuffed through the town upon a most monstrous charge, which has been brought against me without a shadow of evidence."

"Don't be talking, don't be talking," the constable said testily; "you will hear the evidence in time enough."

"But I will talk. I want to tell you what's happened, and you will see that I am innocent, at once."

"Very well, if you will you will; but mind, don't blame me afterwards."

Reuben told the story of his adventures from the time of leaving.

"There," he said when he finished, "isn't that enough to show that I am innocent?"

"No," the chief constable said gravely, "it's not enough to prove anything, one way or the other. I am bound to say the story looks a likely one; and if it weren't for two or three matters which I heard of, from the constable who came over from Tipping, I should have no doubt about it. However, all that is for the magistrate to decide. There will be a meeting tomorrow."

"But can't I be taken before a magistrate at once? There's Captain Fidler, within a mile."

"What would be the good?" the chief constable said. "You don't suppose anyone would let you out, only on the strength of the story you have told me. He could only remand you, and you could gain nothing by it."

"Can I see my mother?" Reuben asked next.

"Yes," the constable said, "I will send her down a message, at once."

Mrs. Whitney soon came up. A neighbour had brought her in the news when Reuben had been arrested, and she was on the point of starting to inquire about it when the message arrived. She was more indignant than grieved, when she heard the charge which had been brought against Reuben.

"The idea of such a thing!" she exclaimed. "These constables don't seem to have natural sense. The idea of charging anyone who is known as a respectable young man with such a thing as that, and shutting him up without a question. Why, there can't be any evidence against you."

"There's no saying, mother," Reuben replied. "You mustn't be too sure of that. Don't you remember that affair of the dog? Well, the same hand is at work now. Before, I only suspected who had done it; but I am sure now. However, whatever evidence they may have got, we know it isn't true. I have four years' good character here to speak for me. Still, it is hard that I should get into positions of this sort, without any fault of mine."

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse