A SON OF HAGAR.
A Romance of Our Time
Author of "The Bondsman," "The Deemster," etc.
"God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is."
New York Hurst & Company Publishers.
It must be an exceeding great reward, beyond all the rewards of material success, to know that you have written a book that is deep, tranquil, strong and pure. Again and again you have nobly earned that knowledge. Across the more than thirty years that divide us, the elder from the younger brother, the veteran from the raw comrade, let me offer my hand to you as to a master of our craft.
To the author, then, of a romance that has no equal save in Scott, I humbly dedicate this romance of mine.
* * * * *
barn=child; dusta=dost thou; hasta=hast thou.
laal=little; leet=alight; girt=great.
Shaf!=an expression of contempt.
In my first novel, "The Shadow of a Crime," I tried to penetrate into the soul of a brave, unselfish, long-suffering man, and to lay bare the processes by which he raised himself to a great height of self-sacrifice. In this novel the aim has been to penetrate into the soul of a bad man, and to lay bare the processes by which he is tempted to his fall. To find a character that shall be above all common tendencies to guilt and yet tainted with the plague-spot of evil hidden somewhere; then to watch the first sharp struggle of what is good in the man with what is bad, until he is in the coil of his temptation; and finally, to show in what tragic ruin a man of strong passions, great will and power of mind may resist the force that precipitates him and save his soul alive—this is, I trust, a motive no less worthy, no less profitable to study, in the utmost result no less heroic and inspiring, than that of tracing the upward path of noble types of mind. For me there has been a pathetic, and I think purifying, interest in looking into the soul of this man and seeing it corrode beneath the touch of a powerful temptation until at the last, when it seems to lie spent, it rises again in strength and shows that the human heart has no depths in which it is lost. If this character had been equal to my intention, it might have been a real contribution to fiction, and far as I know it to fall short of the first deep blow of feeling in which it was conceived, it is, I think, new to the novel, though it holds a notable place in the drama—it would be presumptuous to say where—unnecessary, also, as I have made no disguise of my purpose.
One of the usual disadvantages of choosing a leading character that is off the lines of heroic portraiture is that the author may seem to be in sympathy with a base part in life and with base opinions. In this novel I run a different risk. I shall not be surprised if I provoke some hostility in making the bad man justify his course by the gaunt and grim morality that masquerades as the morality of our own time, while the good man is made to justify his one dubious act by the full and sincere and just morality that too often wears now the garb of vice—the morality of the books of Moses. This novel relies, I trust, on the sheer humanities alone, but among its less aggressive purposes is that of a plea for the natural rights of the bastard. Those rights have been recognized in every country and by every race, except one, since the day when the outcast woman in the wilderness hearkened to the cry from heaven which said, "God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is." In England alone have the rights of blood been as nothing compared with the rights of property, and it is part of the business of this novel to exhibit these interests at a climax of strife. I have no fear that any true-hearted person will accuse me of a desire to cast reproach upon marriage as an ordinance. Recognizing the beauty and the sanctity of marriage, I have tried to show that true marriage is a higher thing than a ceremony, and that people who use the gibbet and stake for offenders against its forms are too often those who see no offense in the violation of its spirit.
My principal scenes are again among the mountains of Cumberland; but in this second attempt I have tried to realize more completely their solitude and sweetness, their breezy healthfulness, and their scent as of new-cut turf, by putting them side by side with scenes full of the garrulous clangor and the malodor of the dark side of London.
When I began, I thought to enlarge the popular knowledge of our robust north-country by the addition of some whimsical character and quaint folk-lore. If much of this quiet local atmosphere has had to make way before one strong current of tragic feeling, I trust some of it remains that is fresh and bracing in the incidents of the booth, the smithy, the dalesman's wedding, the rush-bearing, the cock-fighting, and the sheep-shearing. Those readers of the earlier book who found human nature and an element of humor in the patois, will regret with me the necessity so to modify the dialect in this book as to remove from it nearly all the race quality that comes of intonation.
I ought to add that one of my characters, Parson Christian, is a portrait of a dear, simple, honest soul long gone to his account, and that the words here put into his mouth are oftener his own than mine.
I trust this book may help to correct a prevailing misconception as to the morals and mind of the typical English peasantry. It is certain that the conventional peasant of literature, the broad-mouthed rustic in a smock-frock, dull-eyed, mulish, beetle-headed, doddering, too vacant to be vicious, too doltish to do amiss, does not exist as a type in England. What does exist in every corner of the country is a peasantry speaking a patois that is often of varying inflections, but is always full of racy poetry, illiterate and yet possessed of a vast oral literature, sharing brains with other classes more equally than education, humorous, nimble-witted; clear-sighted, astute, cynical, not too virtuous, and having a lofty, contempt for the wiseacres of the town.
The manners and customs, the folk lore and folk-talk of Cumberland are far from exhausted in my two Cumberland novels; but it is not probable that I shall work in this vein again. In parting from it, may I venture to hope that here and there a reader grown tired of the life of the great cities has sometimes found it a relief to escape with me into these mountain solitudes and look upon a life as real and more true; a life that is humble and yet not low; a life in which men may be men, and the rude people of the soil need study the face of no master save nature alone?
A SON OF HAGAR.
RETRO ME, SATHANA!
IN THE YEAR 1845.
It was a chill December morning. The atmosphere was dense with fog in the dusky chamber of a London police court; the lights were bleared and the voices drowsed. A woman carrying a child in her arms had been half dragged, half pushed into the dock. She was young; beneath her disheveled hair her face showed almost girlish. Her features were pinched with pain; her eyes had at one moment a serene look, and at the next moment a look of defiance. Her dress had been rich; it was now torn and damp, and clung in dank folds to her limbs. The child she carried appeared to be four months old. She held it convulsively at her breast, and when it gave forth a feeble cry she rocked it mechanically.
"Your worship, I picked this person out of the river at ha'past one o'clock this morning," said a constable. "She had throwed herself off the steps of Blackfriars Bridge."
"Had she the child with her?" asked the bench.
"Yes, your worship; and when I brought her to land I couldn't get the little one out of her arms nohow—she clung that tight to it. The mother, she was insensible; but the child opened its eyes and cried."
"Have you not learned her name?"
"No, sir; she won't give us no answer when we ask her that."
"I am informed," said the clerk, "that against all inquiries touching her name and circumstances she keeps a rigid silence. The doctor is of opinion, your worship, that the woman is not entirely responsible."
"Her appearance in court might certainly justify that conclusion," said the magistrate.
The young woman had gazed vacantly about her with an air of indifference. She seemed scarcely to realize that through the yellow vagueness the eyes of a hundred persons were centered on her haggard face.
"Anybody here who knows her?" asked the bench.
"Yes, your worship; I found out the old woman alonger she lodged."
"Let us hear the old person."
A woman in middle life—a little, confused, aimless, uncomfortable body—stepped into the box. She answered to the name of Drayton. Her husband was a hotel porter. She had a house in Pimlico. A month ago one of her rooms on the first floor back had been to let. She put a card in her window, and the prisoner applied. Accepted the young lady as tenant, and had been duly paid her rent. Knew nothing of who she was or where she came from. Couldn't even get her name. Had heard her call the baby Paul. That was all she knew.
"Her occupation, my good woman, what was it?
"Nothing; she hadn't no occupation, your worship."
"Never went out? Not at night?"
"No, sir; leastways not at night, sir. I hopes your worship takes me for an honest woman, sir."
"Did nothing for a living, and yet she paid you. Did you board her?"
"Yes, your worship; she could cook her wittles, but the poor young thing seemed never to have heart for nothing, sir."
"Never talked to you?"
"No, sir; nothing but cried. She cried, and cried, and cried, 'cept when she laughed, and then it were awful, your worship. My man always did say as how there was no knowing what she'd be doing of yet."
"Is she married, do you know?"
"Yes, your worship; she wears her wedding-ring quite regular—only, once she plucked it off and flung it in the fire—I saw it with my own eyes, sir, or I mightn't ha' believed it; and I never did see the like—but the poor creature's not responsible at whiles—that's what my husband says."
"What was her behavior to the child? Did she seem fond of it?"
"Oh, yes, your worship; she used to hug, and hug, and hug it, and call it her darling, and Paul, and Paul, and Paul, and all she had left in the world."
"When did you see her last before to-day?"
"Yesterday, sir; she put on her bonnet and cape and drew a shawl around the baby, and went out in the afternoon. 'It will do you a mort of good,' says I to her; 'Yes, Mrs. Drayton,' says she, 'it will do us both a world of good.' That was on the front doorsteps, your worship and it was a nice afternoon, but I had never no idea what she meant to be doing of; but she's not responsible, poor young thing, that's what my—"
"And when night came and she hadn't got home, did you go in search of her?"
"Yes, your worship; for I says to my husband, says I, 'Poor young thing, I can't rest in my bed, and knowing nothing of what's come to her.' And my man, he says to me, 'Maggie,' he says, 'you go to the station and give the officers her description,' he says—'a tall young woman as might ha' been a lady, a-carrying a baby—- that'll be good enough,' he says, and I went. And this morning the officer came, and I knew by his face as something had happened, and—"
"Let us hear the doctor. Is he in court?"
"Yes, your worship," said the constable.
Mrs. Drayton was being bustled out of the box. She stopped on the first step down—
"And I do hope as no harm will come to her—she's not responsible—that's what my hus—"
"All right, we know all that; down with you; this way; don't bother his worship!"
At the bottom of the steps the woman stopped again with a handkerchief to her eyes.
"And it do make me cry to see her, poor thing, and the baby, too, and innocent as a kitten—and I hopes if anything is done to her as—"
Mrs. Drayton's further hopes and fears were lost in the bustle of the court. The young woman in the dock still gazed about her vacantly. There was strength in her firmly molded lip, sensibility in her large dark eyes, power in her broad, smooth brow, and a certain stateliness in the outlines of her tall, slim figure.
The doctor who had examined her gave his report in a few words; the woman should be under control, though she was dangerous to no one but herself. Her attempt at suicide was one of the common results of disaster in affairs of love. Perhaps she was a married woman, abandoned by her husband; more likely she was an unfortunate lady in whom the shame of pregnancy had produced insanity. She was obviously a person of education and delicacy of feeling.
"She must have connections of some kind," said the magistrate; and, turning to the dock, he said quietly, "Give us your name, my good lady."
The woman seemed not to hear, but she pressed her child yet closer to her breast, and it cried feebly.
The magistrate tried again.
"Your baby's name is Paul, isn't it? Paul—what?"
She looked around, glanced at the magistrate and back at the people in the court, but said nothing.
Just then the door opposite the bench creaked slightly, and a gentleman entered. The woman's wondering eyes passed over him. In an instant her torpor was shaken off. She riveted her gaze on the new-comer. Her features contracted with lines of pain. She drew the child aside, as if to hide it from sight. Then her face twitched, and she staggered back into the arms of the constable behind her. She was now insensible. Through the dense folds of the fog the vague faces of the spectators showed an intent expression.
It was observed that the gentleman who had entered the court a moment before immediately left it. The magistrate saw him pass out of the door merely as a distorted figure in the dusky shadows.
"Let her be removed to the Dartford asylum," said the magistrate; "I will give an order at once."
A voice came from the body of the court. It was Mrs. Drayton's voice, thick with sobs.
"And if you please, your worship, may me and my husband take care of the child until the poor young thing is well enough to come for it? We've no children of our own, sir, and my husband and me, we'd like to have it, and no one would do no better by it, your worship."
"I think you are a good woman, Mrs. Drayton," said the magistrate. Then, turning to the clerk, he added: "Let inquiries be made about her, and, if all prove satisfactory, let the child be given into her care."
"Oh, thank your worship; it do make me cry—"
"Yes, all right—never mind now—we know all about it—come along."
The prisoner recovered consciousness in being removed from the dock; the constable was taking the child out of her arms. She clung to it with feverish hands.
"Take me away," she said in a deep whisper, and her eyes wandered to the door.
"Stop that man!" said the magistrate, pointing to the vague recesses into which the spectator had disappeared. An officer of the court went out hastily. Presently returning: "He is gone," said the officer.
"Take me away, take me away!" cried the prisoner in a tense voice. "Paul, Paul, my own little Paul!" The woman's breath came and went in gusts, and her child cried from the convulsive pressure to her breast.
"Remove them," said the bench.
There was a faint commotion. Among the people in the court, huddled like sheep, there was a harsh scraping of feet, and some suppressed whispering. The stolid faces on the bench turned and smiled slightly in the yellow gleam of the gas that burned in front of them. Then the momentary bustle ended, the woman and child were gone, and the calm monotony of the court was resumed.
Six months later a handsome woman, still little more than a girl, yet with eyes of suffering, stepped up to the door of a house in Pimlico and knocked timidly.
"I wish to see Mrs. Drayton," she said, when the door was opened by an elderly person.
"Bless you, they're gone, Mrs. Drayton and her Husband."
"Gone!" said the young woman, "gone! What do you mean?"
"Removed—shifted?" The idea seemed to struggle its slow way into her brain.
"In course—what else, when the big hotel fails and he loses his job? Rents can't be paid on nothing a week, and something to put in the mouth besides."
"Gone? Are you mad? Woman, think what you're saying. Gone where?"
"How do I know where? Mad, indeed! I'll not say but other folk look a mort madder nor ever I looked."
The young woman took her by the shoulder.
"Don't say that—don't say you don't know where they're gone. They've got my child, I tell you; my poor little Paul.
"Oh, so you're the young party as drowned herself, are you? Well, they're gone anyways, and the little chit with them, and there's no saying where. You may believe me. Ask the neighbors else."
The young woman leaned against the door-jamb with a white face and great eyes.
"Well, well, how hard she takes it. Deary me, deary me, she's not a bad sort, after all. Well, well, who'd ha' thought it! There, there, come in and sit awhile. It is cruel to lose one's babby—and me to tell her, too. Misbegotten or not, it's one's own flesh and blood, and that's what I always says."
The young woman had been drawn into the house and seated on a chair. She got up again with the face of an old woman.
"Oh, I'm choking!" she said.
"Rest awhile, do now, my dear—there—there."
"No, no, my good woman, let me go."
"Heaven help you, child; how you look!"
"Heaven has never helped me," said the young woman. "I was a Sister of Charity only two years ago. A man found me and wooed me; married me and abandoned me; I tried to die and they rescued me; they separated me from my child and put me in an asylum; I escaped, and have now come for my darling, and he is gone."
"Deary me, deary me!" and the old woman stroked her consolingly.
"Let me go," she cried, starting up afresh. "If Heaven has done nothing for me, perhaps the world itself will have mercy."
The ghastly face answered ill to the grating laugh that followed as she jerked her head aside and hurried away.
IN THE YEAR 1875.
It was Young Folks' Day in the Vale of Newlands. The summer was at its height; the sun shone brightly; the lake to the north lay flat as a floor of glass, and reflected a continent of blue cloud; the fells were clear to their summits, and purple with waves of heather. It was noontide, and the shadows were short. In the slumberous atmosphere the bees droned, and the hot air quivered some feet above the long, lush grass. The fragrance of new-mown hay floated languidly through a sub-current of wild rose and honeysuckle. In a meadow at the foot of the Causey Pike tents were pitched, flags were flying, and crowds of men, women, and children watched the mountain sports.
In the center of a group of spectators two men, stripped to the waist, were wrestling. They were huge fellows, with muscles that stood out on their arms like giant bulbs, and feet that held the ground like the hoofs of oxen. The wrestlers were calm to all outward appearance, and embraced each other with the quiet fondling of lambs and the sinuous power of less affectionate creatures. But the people about them were wildly excited. They stopped to watch every wary movement of the foot, and craned their necks to catch the subtlest twist of the wrist.
"Sista, Reuben, sista! He'll have enough to do to tummel John Proudfoot. John's up to the scat to-day, anyways."
"Look tha! John's on for giving him the cross-buttock."
John was the blacksmith, a big buirdly fellow with a larger blunt head.
"And he has given it too, has John."
"Nay, nay, John's doon—ey, ey, he's doon, is John."
One of the wrestlers had thrown the other, and was standing quietly over him. He was a stalwart young man of eight-and-twenty, brown-haired, clear-eyed, of a ruddy complexion, with a short, thick, curly beard, and the grace and bearing that comes of health and strength and a complete absence of self-consciousness. He smiled cheerfully, and nodded his head in response to loud shouts of applause. "Weel done! Verra weel done! That's the way to ding 'em ower! What sayst tha, Reuben?"
"What a bash it was, to be sure!"
"What dusta think you of yon wrestling, ey, man?"
"Nay, nay, it's verra middling."
"Ever seen owt like it since the good auld days you crack on sa often, auld man?"
"Nay, he doont him verra neat, did Paul—I will allow it."
"There's never a man in Cumberland need take a hand with young Paul Ritson after this."
"Ey, ey; he's his father's son."
The wrestler, surrounded by a little multitude of boys, who clung to his sparse garments on every side, made his way to a tent.
At the same moment a ludicrous figure forced a passage through the crowd, and came to a stand in the middle of the green. It was a diminutive creature, mounted on a pony that carried its owner on a saddle immediately below its neck, and a pair of paniers just above its tail. The rider was an elderly man with shaggy eyebrows and beard of mingled black and gray. His swarthy, keen wizened face was twisted into grotesque lines beneath a pair of little blinking eyes, which seemed to say that anybody who refused to see that they belonged to a perfectly, wideawake son of old Adam made a portentous mistake. He was the mountain peddler, and to-day, at least, his visit was opportune.
"Lasses, here's for you! Look you, here's Gubblum Oglethorpe, pony and all."
"Why, didsta ever see the like—Gubblum's getten hissel into a saddle!"
Gubblum, from his seat on the pony, twisted one half of his wrinkled face awry, and said:
"In course I have! But it's a vast easier getting into this saddle nor getting out of it, I can tell you!"
"Why, how's that, Gubblum?" cried a voice from the crowd.
"What, man, did you never hear of the day I bought it?"
Sundry shakes of many heads were the response.
"No?" said Gubblum, with an accent of sheer incredulity, and added, "Well, there is no accounting for the ignorance of some folks."
"What happened to you, Gubblum?"
Gubblum's expression of surprise gave place to a look of condescension. He lifted his bronzed and hairy hand to the rim of his straw hat to shade his eyes from the sun.
"Well, when I got on to auld Bessy, here, I couldn't get off again—that's what happened."
"You see, I'd got my clogs on when I went to buy the saddle in Kezzick, and they're middling wide in the soles, my clogs are. So when I put my feet into the stirrups, there they stuck."
"Ey, fast as nails! And when I got home to Branth'et Edge I couldn't get them out. So our Sally, she said to my auld woman, 'Mother,' she said, 'we'll have to put father into the stable with the pony and fetch him a cup of tea.' And that's what they did, and when I had summat into me I had another fratch at getting out of the saddle; but I couldn't manish it; so I had—what you think I had to do?"
"Nay, man, what?"
"I had to sleep all night in the stable on Bessy's back!"
"Bless thee, Gubblum, and whatever didsta do?"
"I'm coming to that, on'y some folks are so impatient. Next morning that lass of mine, she said to her mother, 'Mother,' she said, 'wouldn't it be best to take the saddle off the pony, and then father he'll sure come off with it?'"
"And they did do it?"
"Ey, they did. They took Bessy and me round to the soft bed as they keeps maistly at the back of a stable, and they loosened the straps and gave a push, and cried 'Away.'"
"Weel, man, weel?"
"Weel! nowt of the sort! It wasn't weel at all! When I rolled over I was off the pony, for sure; but I was stuck fast to the saddle just the same."
"What ever did they do with thee then?"
"I'm coming to that, too, on'y some folks are so mortal fond of hearing theirselves talk. They picked me up, saddle and all, and set me on the edge of the kitchen dresser. And there I sat for the best part of a week, sleeping and waking, and carding and spinning, and getting fearful thin. But I got off at last, I did!" There was a look of proud content in Gubblum's face as he added, "What a thing it is to be eddicated! We don't vally eddication half enough!"
A young fellow—it was Lang Geordie Moore—pushed a smirking face between the shoulders of two girls, and said:
"Did you take to reading and writing, then, Gubblum, when you were on the kitchen dresser?"
There was a gurgling titter, but, disdaining to notice the interruption, Gubblum lifted his tawny face into the glare of the sun, and said:
"It was my son as did it—him that is learning for a parson. He came home from St. Bees, and 'Mother,' he said, before he'd been in the house a minute, 'let's take fathers clogs off, and then his feet will come out of the stirrups."
A loud laugh bubbled over the company. Gubblum sat erect in the saddle and added with a grave face:
"That's what comes of eddication and reading the Bible and all o' that! If I had fifty sons I'd make 'em all parsons."
The people laughed again, and crowed and exchanged nods and knowing winks. They enjoyed the peddler's talk, and felt an indulgent tenderness for his slow and feeble intellect. He on his part enjoyed no less to assume a simple and shallow nature. A twinkle lurked under his bushy brows while he "smoked the gonies." They laughed and he smiled slyly, and both were satisfied.
Gubblum Oglethorpe, peddler, of Branth'et Edge, got off his pony and stroked its tousled mane. He was leading it to a temporary stable, when he met face to face the young wrestler, Paul Ritson, who was coming from the tent in his walking costume. Drawing up sharply, he surveyed Paul rapidly from head to foot, and then asked him with a look of bewilderment what he could be doing there.
"Why, when did you come back to these parts?"
"Come back! I've not been away."
The old man looked slyly up into Paul's face and winked. Perceiving no response to that insinuating communication, his wrinkled face became more grave, and he said:
"You were nigh to London three days ago."
"Nigh to London three days ago!" Paul laughed, then nodded across at a burly dalesman standing near, and said: "Geordie, just pinch the old man, and see if he's dreaming."
There was a general titter, followed by glances of amused inquiry. The peddler took off his hat, held his head aside, scratched it leisurely, glanced up again at the face of young Ritson, as if to satisfy himself finally as to his identity, and eventually muttered half aloud:
"Well, I'm fair maizelt—that's what I am!"
"I could ha' sworn I saw you at a spot near London three days ago."
"Not been there these three years," said Paul.
"Didn't you wave your hand to me as we went by—me and Bessy?"
"Did I? Where?"
"Why, at the Hawk and Heron, in Hendon."
"Never saw the place in my life."
"Sure of that?"
The grave old head dropped once more, and the pony's head was held down to the withered hand that scratched and caressed it. Then the first idea of a possible reason on Paul's part for keeping his movements secret suggested itself afresh to Gubblum. He glanced soberly around, caught the eye of the young dalesman furtively, and winked again. Paul laughed outright, nodded his head good-humoredly, and rather ostentatiously winked in response. The company that had gathered about them caught the humor of the situation, and tittered audibly enough to provoke the peddler's wrath.
"But I say you have seen it," shouted Gubblum in emphatic tones.
At that moment a slim young man walked slowly past the group. He was well dressed, and carried himself with ease and some dignity, albeit with an air of listlessness—a weary and dragging gait, due in part to a slight infirmity of one foot. When some of the dalesmen bowed to him his smile lacked warmth. He was Hugh Ritson, the younger brother of Paul.
Gubblum's manner gathered emphasis. "You were standing on the step of the Hawk and Heron," said he, "and I waved my hand and shouted 'A canny morning to you, Master Paul'—ey, that I did!"
"You don't say so!" said Paul, with mock solemnity. His brother had caught the peddler's words, and stopped.
"But I do say so," said Gubblum, with many shakes of his big head. Let any facetious young gentleman who supposed that it was possible to make sport of him, understand once for all that it might be as well to throw a stone into his own garden.
"Why, Gubblum," said Paul, smothering a laugh, "what was I doing at Hendon?"
"Doing! Well, a chap 'at was on the road along of me said that Master Paul had started innkeeper."
There was a prolonged burst of laughter, amid which one amused patriarch on a stick shouted: "Feel if tha's abed, Gubblum, ma man!"
"And if I is abed, it's better nor being in bed-lam, isn't it?" shouted the peddler.
Then Gubblum scratched his head again, and said more quietly: "It caps all. If it wasn't you, it must ha' been the old gentleman hissel'."
"Are we so much alike? Come, let's see your pack."
"His name was Paul, anyways."
Hugh Ritson had elbowed his way through the group, and was now at Gubblum's elbow listening intently. When the others had laughed, he alone preserved an equal countenance.
"Paul—what?" he asked.
"Nay, don't ax me—I know nowt no mair—I must be an auld maizelin, I must, for sure!"
Hugh Ritson turned on his heel and walked off.
The Vale of Newlands runs north and south. On its east banks rise the Cat Bell fells and the Eel Crags; on the west rise Hindscarth and Robinson, backed by Whiteless Pike and Grasmoor. A river flows down the bed of the valley, springing in the south among the heights of Dale Head, and emptying into Bassenthwaite on the north. A village known as Little Town stands about midway in the vale, and a road runs along each bank. The tents were pitched for the sports near the bed of the valley, on the east side of the Newlands Beck. On the west side, above the road, there was a thick copse of hazel, oak, and birch. From a clearing in this wood a thin column of pale blue smoke was rising through the still air. A hut in the shape of a cone stood a few yards from the road. It was thatched from the ground upward with heather and bracken, leaving only a low aperture as door. Near the hut a small fire of hazel sticks crackled under the pot that swung from a forked triangle of oak limbs. Fagots were stacked at one end of the clearing; a pile of loose bark lay near. It was a charcoal pit, and behind a line of hurdles that were propped with poles and intertwined with dead grass and gorse, an old man was building a charcoal fire.
He was tall and slight, and he stooped. His eyes were large and heavy; his long beard was whitening. He wore a low-crowned hat with broad brim, and a loose flannel jacket without a waistcoat. Most of us convey the idea that to our own view we are centers of our circles, and that the universe revolves about us. This old man suggested a different feeling. To himself he might have been a thing gone somehow out of its orbit. There was a listless melancholy, a lonely weariness in his look and movements. An old misery seemed to sit on him.
His name was Matthew Fisher; but the folk of the country-side called him Laird Fisher. The dubious dignity came of the circumstance that he was the holder of an absolute royalty on a few acres of land under Hindscarth. The royalty had been many generations in his family. His grandfather had set store by it. When the lord of the manor had worked the copper pits at the foot of the Eel Crags, he had tried to possess himself of the royalties of the Fishers. But the peasant family resisted the aristocrat. Luke Fisher believed there was a fortune under his feet, and he meant to try his own luck on his holding some day. That day never came. His son, Mark Fisher, carried on the tradition, but made no effort to unearth the fortune. They were a cool, silent, slow, and stubborn race. Matthew Fisher followed his father and his grandfather, and inherited the family faith. All these years the tenders of the lord of the manor were ignored, and the Fishers enjoyed their title of courtesy or badinage. When Matthew was a boy there was a rhyme current in the vale which ran:
"There's t' auld laird, and t' young laird, and t' laird among t' barns. If iver there comes another laird, we'll hang-him up by t' arms."
There is a tough bit of Toryism in the grain of these northern dalesfolk. Their threat was idle; no other laird ever came. Matthew married, and had one daughter only. He farmed his few acres with poor results. The ground was good enough, but Matthew was living under the shadow of the family tradition. One day—it was Sunday morning, and the sun shone brightly—he was rambling by the Po Beck that rose on Hindscarth and passed through his land, when his eye glanced over a glittering stone that lay among the pebbles, at the bottom of the stream. It was ore, good full ore, and on the very surface. Then the Laird Fisher sunk a shaft and all his earnings with it in an attempt to procure iron or copper. The dalespeople derided him, but he held silently on his way.
"How dusta find the cobbles to-day—any softer?" they would ask.
"As soft as the hearts of most folk," he would answer, and then add in a murmur, "and maybe a vast harder nor their heads."
The undeceiving came at length, and then the Laird Fisher was old and poor. His wife died broken-hearted. After that the laird never rallied. The breezy irony of the dalesfolk did not spare the old man's bent head. "He's brankan" (holding up his head) "like a steg swan," they would say as he went past. The shaft was left unworked, and the holding lay fallow. Laird Fisher took wage from the lord of the manor to burn charcoal in the copse.
The old man had raised his vertical shaft, and was laying the oak limbs against it, when a girl of about eighteen came along the road from the south, and clambered over the stile that led to the charcoal pit. She was followed by a sheep-dog, small and wiry as a hill-fox.
"Is that thee, Mercy?" said the charcoal-burner from the fire, without turning.
The girl was a pretty little thing; yet there was something wrong with her prettiness. One saw at once that her cheeks should have been pink and white like the daisy, and that her hair, which was yellow as the primrose, should have tumbled in wavelets about them. There ought to have been sunshine in the blue eyes, and laughter on the red lips, and merry lilt in the soft voice. But the pink had faded from the girl's cheek; the shadow had chased the sunshine from her eyes; her lips had taken a downward turn, and a note of sadness had stolen the merriment from her voice.
"It's only your tea, father," she said, setting down a basket. Then taking up a spoon that lay on the ground, she stirred the mess that was simmering over the fire. The dog lay and blinked in the sun.
A rabbit rustled through the coppice, and a jay screeched in the distant glade. But above all came the peals of merry laughter from below. The girl's eyes wandered yearningly to the tents over which the flags were flying.
"Do you hear the sports, father?" she said.
"Ey, lass, there's gay carryin's-on. They're chirming and chirping like as many sparrows." The old man twisted about. "I should have thowt as thou'd have been in the thick of the thrang thysel', Mercy, carryin' on the war."
"I didn't care to go," said Mercy in an undertone.
The old man looked at her silently for a moment.
"Ways me, but thoos not the same heartsome lass," he said, and went on piling the fagots around the shaft. "But I count nowt of sec wark," he added, after a pause.
Little Mercy's eyes strayed back from the bubbling pot to the tents below. There was a shout of applause.
"That's Geordie Moore's voice," thought Mercy. She could see a circle with linked hands. "They're playing the cushion game," she said under her breath, and then drew a long sigh.
Though she did not care to go to the sports to-day, she felt, oh! so sick at heart. Like a wounded hare that creeps into quiet ambush, and lies down on the dry clover to die, she had stolen away from all this noisy happiness; but her heart's joy was draining away. In her wistful eyes there was something almost cruel in this bustling merriment, in this flaunting gayety, in this sweet summer day itself.
The old charcoal-burner had stepped up to where the girl knelt with far-away eyes.
"Mercy," he said, "I've wanted a word with you this many a day."
"With me, father?"
The girl rose to her feet. There was a look of uneasiness in her face.
"You've lost your spirits—what's come of them?"
The assumed surprise was in danger of breaking down.
"Not well, Mercy—is that it?"
He took her head between his hard old hands, and stroked her hair as tenderly as a mother might have done.
"Oh, yes, father; quite well, quite."
Then there was a little forced laugh. The lucent eyes were full of a dewy wistfulness.
"Any trouble, Mercy?"
"What trouble, father?"
"Nay, any trouble—trouble's common, isn't it?"
The old man's voice shook slightly, and his hand trembled on the girl's head.
"What have I to trouble me!" said Mercy, in a low voice nigh to breaking.
"Well, you know best," said the charcoal-burner. Then he put his hand under the girl's chin and lifted her face until her unwilling eyes looked into his. The scrutiny appeared to console him, and a smile played over his battered features. "Maybe I was wrong," he thought. "Folk are allus clattering."
Mercy made another forced little laugh, and instantly the Laird Fisher's face saddened.
"They do say 'at you're not the same heartsome little lass," he said.
"Do they? Oh, but I am quite happy! You always say people are busybodies, don't you, father?"
The break-down was imminent.
"Why, Mercy, you're crying."
"Me—crying!" The girl tossed her head with, a pathetic gesture of gay protestation. "Oh, no; I was laughing—that was it."
"There are tears in your eyes, anyways."
"Tears? Nonsense, father! Tears? Didn't I tell you that your sight was failing you—- ey, didn't I, now?"
It was of no use to struggle longer. The fair head fell on the heaving breast, and Mercy sobbed.
The old man looked at her through a blinding mist in his hazy eyes. "Tell me, my little lassie, tell me," he said.
"Oh, it's nothing," said Mercy. She had brushed away the tears and was smiling.
The Laird Fisher shook his head.
"It's nothing, father—only—"
"Only—oh, it's nothing!"
"Mercy, my lass," said the Laird Fisher, and the tears stood now in his own dim eyes, "Mercy, remember if owt goes wrong with a girl, and her mother is under the grass, her father is the first she should come to and tell all."
The old man had seated himself on a stout block cut from a trunk, and was opening the basket, when there was a light, springy step on the road.
"So you fire to-night, Matthew?"
An elderly man leaned over the stile and smiled.
"Nay, Mr. Bonnithorne, there's ower much nastment in the weather yet."
The gentleman took off his silk hat and mopped his forehead. His hair was thin and of a pale yellow, and was smoothed flat on his brow.
"You surprise me! I thought the weather perfect. See how blue the sky is."
"That doesn't argy. It might be better with never a blenk of blue. It was rayder airy yesterday, and last night the moon got up as blake and yellow as May butter."
The smile was perpetual on the gentleman's face. It showed his teeth constantly.
"You dalesmen are so weather-wise."
The voice was soft and womanish. There was a little laugh at the end of each remark.
"We go by the moon in firing, sir," the charcoal-burner answered, "Last night it rose sou'-west, and that doesn't mean betterment, though it's quiet enough now. There'll be clashy weather before nightfall."
The girl strayed away into the thicket, and startled a woodcock out of a heap of dead oak leaves. The gentleman followed her with his eyes. They were very small and piercing eyes, and they blinked frequently.
"Your daughter does not look very well, Matthew."
"She's gayly, sir; she's gayly," said the charcoal-burner shortly, his mouth in his can of tea.
The gentleman smiled from the teeth out. After a pause, he said: "I suppose it isn't pleasant when one of your hurdles is blown down, and the charcoal burning," indicating the wooden hurdles which had been propped about the half-built charcoal stack.
"Ey, it's gay bad wark, to be sure—being dragged into the fire."
The dog had risen with a startled movement. Following the upward direction of the animal's nose, the gentleman said, "Whose sheep are those on the ghyll yonder?"
"Auld Mr. Ritson's, them herdwicks."
The sheep were on a ridge of shelving rock.
"Dangerous spot, eh?"
"Ey, it's a bent place. They're verra clammersome, the black-faced sorts."
"I'll bid you good-day, Matthew." The yellow-haired elderly gentleman was moving off. He walked with a jerk and a spring on his toes. "And mind you take your daughter to the new doctor at Keswick," he said at parting.
"It's not doctoring that'll mend Mercy," the charcoal-burner muttered, when the other had gone.
Josiah Bonnithorne was quite without kinspeople or connections. His mother had been one of two sisters who lived by keeping a small confectioner's shop in Whitehaven, and were devoted Methodists. The sisters had formed views as to matrimony, and they enjoyed a curious similarity of choice. They were to be the wives of preachers. But the opportunity was long in coming, and they grew elderly. At length the younger sister died, and so solved the problem of her future. The elder sister was left for two years more alone with her confectionery. Then she married a stranger who had come to one of the pits as gangsman. It was a sad falling off. But at all events the gangsman was a local preacher, and so the poor soul who took him for husband had effected a compromise with her cherished ideal. It turned put that he was a scoundrel as well, and had a wife living elsewhere. This disclosure abridged his usefulness among the brethren, and he fled. Naturally, he left his second wife behind, having previously secured a bill of sale on her household effects. A few months elapsed, the woman was turned adrift by her husband's creditors, and then a child was born. It was a poor little thing—a boy. The good souls of the "connection" provided for it until it was two years old, and afterward placed it in a charity school. While the little fellow was there, his mother was struck down by a mortal complaint. Then for the first time the poor ruined woman asked to see her child. They brought the little one to her bedside, and it smiled down into her dying face. "Oh, that it may please the Lord to make him a preacher!" she said with a great effort. At a sign from the doctor the child was taken away. The face pinched by cruel suffering quivered slightly, the timid eyes worn by wasted hope softened and closed, and the mother bid farewell to everything.
The boy lived. They christened him Josiah, and he took for surname the maiden name of his mother, Bonnithorne. He was a weakling, and had no love of boyish sports; but he excelled in scholarship. In spite of these tendencies, he was apprenticed to a butcher when the time came to remove him from school. An accident transferred him to the office of a solicitor, and he was articled. Ten years later he succeeded to his master's practice, and then he sailed with all sail set.
He disappointed the "connection" by developing into a Churchman, but otherwise aroused no hostile feeling. It was obviously his cue to conciliate everybody. He was liked without being popular, trusted without being a favorite. Churchwarden, trustee for public funds, executor for private friends, he had a reputation for disinterested industry. And people said how well it was that one so unselfish as Josiah Bonnithorne should nevertheless prosper even as this world goes.
But there was a man in Cumberland who knew Mr. Bonnithorne from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot. That man was Mr. Hugh Ritson. Never for an instant did either of these palter with the other.
When Mr. Bonnithorne left the charcoal pit, he followed the road that crossed the Newlands Beck, and returned on the breast of the Eel Crags. This led him close to the booth where the sports were proceeding. He heard, as he passed, the gurgling laugh with which the dalesfolk received the peddler's story of how he saw Paul Ritson at Hendon. A minute afterward he encountered Hugh Ritson on the road. There was only the most meagre pretense at greeting when these men came face to face.
"Your father sent for me," said Mr. Bonnithorne.
"On what business?" Hugh Ritson asked.
"I have yet to learn."
They walked some steps without speaking. Then the lawyer turned with his constant smile, and said in his soft voice:
"I have just seen your little friend. She looks pale, poor thing! Something must be done, and shortly."
Hugh Ritson's face flushed perceptibly. His eyes were on the ground.
"Let us go no further in this matter," he said, in a low tone. "I saw her yesterday. Then there is her father, poor, broken creature! Let it drop."
"I did not believe it of you!" Mr. Bonnithorne spoke calmly and went on smiling.
"Besides, I am ashamed. The thing is too mean," said Hugh Ritson. "In what turgid melodrama does not just such an episode occur?"
"So, so! Or is it the story of the cat in the adage? You would and you wouldn't?"
"My blood is not thick enough. I can't do it."
"Then why did you propose it? Was it your suggestion or mine? I thought to spare the girl her shame. Here her trouble must fall on her in battalions, poor little being. Send her away, and you decimate them."
"It is unnecessary. You know I am superior to prejudice." Hugh Ritson dropped his voice and said, as if speaking into his breast: "If the worst comes to the worst, I can marry her."
Mr. Bonnithorne laughed lightly.
"Ho! ho! And in what turgid melodrama does not just such an episode occur?"
Hugh Ritson drew up sharply.
"Why not? Is she poor? Then what am I? Uneducated? What is education likely to do for me? A simple creature, all heart and no head? God be praised for that!"
At this moment a girl's laugh came rippling through the air. It was one of those joyous peals that make the heart's own music. Hugh Ritson's pale face flushed a little, and he drew his breath hard.
Mr. Bonnithorne nodded his head in the direction of the voice, and said softly: "So our friend Greta is here to-day?"
"Yes," said Hugh Ritson very quietly.
Then the friends walked some distance in silence.
"It is scarcely worthy of you to talk in this brain-sick fashion," said Mr. Bonnithorne. There was a dull irritation in the tone. "You place yourself in the wrong point of view. You do not love the little being."
Hugh Ritson's forehead contracted, and he said: "If I have wrecked my life by one folly, one act of astounding unwisdom, what matter? There was but little to wreck. I am a disappointed man."
"Pardon me, you are a very young one," said Mr. Bonnithorne.
"What am I in my father's house? He gives no hint of helping me to an independence in life."
"There are the lands. Your father must be a rich man."
"And I am a second son."
Hugh Ritson glanced up quickly.
"What do you mean?"
"You say you are a second son."
"And what then?"
"Would it be so fearful a thing if you were not a second son?"
"In the name of truth, be plain. My brother Paul is living."
Mr. Bonnithorne nodded his head twice or thrice, and said calmly: "You know that your brother hopes to marry Greta?"
"I have heard it."
Again the flush came to Hugh Ritson's cheeks. His low voice had a tremor.
"Did I ever tell you of her father's strange legacy?"
"My poor friend Robert Lowther left a legacy to a son of his own, who was Greta's half-brother."
"An illegitimate son?"
"Not strictly. Lowther married the son's mother," said Mr. Bonnithorne.
"Married her? Then his son was his heir?"
Hugh Ritson looked perplexed.
"The girl was a Catholic, Lowther a Protestant. A Catholic priest married them in Ireland. That was not a valid marriage by English law."
Hugh smiled grimly.
"And Lowther had the marriage annulled?"
"He had fallen in love," began Mr. Bonnithorne.
"This time with an heiress?" There was a caustic laugh.
Mr. Bonnithorne nodded. "Greta's mother. So he—"
"Abandoned the first wife," Hugh Ritson interrupted again.
Mr. Bonnithorne shook his head with an innocent expression.
"Wife? Well, he left her."
"You talk of a son. Had they one?"
"They had," said Mr. Bonnithorne, "and when the woman and child ... disappeared—"
"Exactly," said Hugh Ritson, and he smiled. "What did Lowther then?"
"Married again, and had a daughter—Greta."
"Then why the legacy?"
"Conscience-money," said Mr. Bonnithorne, pursing up his mouth.
Hugh Ritson laughed slightly.
"The sort of fools' pence the Chancellor of the Exchequer receives labeled 'Income Tax.'"
"Precisely—only Lowther had no address to send it to."
"He had behaved like a scoundrel," said Hugh Ritson.
"True, and he felt remorse. After the second marriage he set people to find the poor woman and child. They were never found. His last days were overshadowed by his early fault. I believe he died broken-hearted. In his will—I drew it for him—he left, as I say, a sum to be paid to this son of his first wife—when found."
Hugh Ritson laughed half mockingly.
"I thought he was a fool. A scoundrel is generally a fool as well."
"Generally; I've often observed it," said Mr. Bonnithorne.
"What possible interest of anybody's could it be to go hunting for the son of the fool's deserted wife?"
"The fool," answered Mr. Bonnithorne, "was shrewd enough to make an interest by ordering that if the son were not found before Greta came of age, a legacy of double the sum should be paid to an orphanage for boys."
Hugh Ritson's respect for the dead man's intelligence experienced a sensible elevation.
"So it is worth a legacy to the family to discover Greta's half-brother," he said, summing up the situation in an instant. "If alive—If not, then proof that he is dead."
The two men had walked some distance, and reached the turning of a lane which led to a house that could be seen among the trees at the foot of a ghyll. The younger man drew up on his infirm foot.
"But I fail to catch the relevance of all this. When I mentioned that I was a second son you—"
"I have had hardly any data to help me in my search," Mr. Bonnithorne continued. He was walking on. "Only a medallion-portrait of the first wife." Mr. Bonnithorne dived into a breast-pocket.
"My brother Paul is living. What possible—"
"Here it is," said Mr. Bonnithorne, and he held out a small picture.
Hugh Ritson took it with little interest.
"This is the portrait of the nun," he said, as his eyes first fell on it, and recognized the coif and cape.
"A novice—that's what she was when Lowther met her," said Mr. Bonnithorne.
Then Hugh Ritson stopped. He regarded the portrait attentively; looked up at the lawyer and back at the medallion. For an instant the strong calm which he had hitherto shown seemed to desert him. The picture trembled in his hand. Mr. Bonnithorne did not appear to see his agitation.
"Is it a fancy? Surely it must be fancy!" he muttered.
Then he asked aloud what the nun's name had been.
There was a start of recovered consciousness.
The exclamation seemed to escape inadvertently.
Hugh Ritson did not answer immediately.
"Her Christian name?"
"Grace Ormerod? Why, you must know that Grace Ormerod happened to be my own mother's maiden name!"
"You seem to recognize the portrait."
Hugh Ritson had regained his self-possession. He assumed an air of indifference.
"Well, yes—no, of course not—no," he said, emphatically, at last.
In his heart there was another answer. He thought for the moment when he set eyes on the picture that it looked like—a little like—his own mother's face.
They walked on. Mr. Bonnithorne's constant smile parted his lips. Lifting his voice rather unnecessarily, he said:
"By the way, another odd coincidence! Would you like to know the name of Grace Ormerod's child by Robert Lowther?"
Hugh Ritson's heart leaped within him, but he preserved an outward show of indifference, and drawled:
"Well, what was it?"
The name went through him like an arrow, then he said, rather languidly:
"So the half-brother of Greta Lowther, wherever he is, is named—"
"Paul Lowther," said Mr. Bonnithorne. "But," he added, with a quick glance, "he may—I say he may—be passing by another name—Paul something else, for example."
"Assuredly—certainly—yes—yes," Hugh Ritson mumbled. His all but impenetrable calm was gone.
They reached the front of the house, and stood in a paved court-yard. It was the home of the Ritsons, known as the Ghyll, a long Cumbrian homestead of gray stone and green slate. A lazy curl of smoke was winding up from one chimney through the clear air. A gossamer net of the tangled boughs of a slim brier-rose hung over the face of a broad porch, and at that moment a butterfly flitted through it. The chattering of geese came from behind.
"Robert Lowther was the father of Grace Ormerod's child?" said Hugh Ritson, vacantly.
"The father of her son Paul."
"And Greta is his daughter? Is that how it goes?"
"That is so—and half-sister to Paul."
Hugh Ritson raised his eyes to Mr. Bonnithorne's face.
"And of what age would Paul Lowther be now?"
"Well, older than you, certainly. Perhaps as old as—yes, perhaps as old—fully as old as your brother."
Hugh Ritson's infirm foot trailed heavily on the stones. His lips quivered. For a moment he seemed to be rapt. Then he swung about and muttered:
"Tut! it isn't within belief. Thrusted home, it might betray a man, Heaven only knows how deeply."
Mr. Bonnithorne looked up inquiringly.
"Pardon me; I fail, as you say, to catch the relevance."
"Mr. Bonnithorne," said Hugh Ritson, holding out his hand, "you and I have been good friends, have we not?"
"Oh, the best of friends."
"At your leisure, when I have had time to think of this, let us discuss it further."
Mr. Bonnithorne smiled assent.
"And meantime," he said, softly, "let the unhappy little being we spoke of be sent away."
Hugh Ritson's eyes fell, and his voice deepened.
"Poor little soul—I'm sorry—very."
"As for Greta and her lover—well—"
Mr. Bonnithorne nodded his head significantly, and left his words unfinished.
"My father is crossing the stack-yard," said Hugh Ritson. "You shall see him in good time. Come this way."
The shadows were lengthening in the valley. A purple belt was stretching across the distant hills, and a dark-blue tint was nestling under the eaves. A solitary crow flew across the sky, and cawed out its guttural note. Its shadow fell, as it passed, on two elderly people who were coming into the court-yard.
"It's time for that laal Mr. Bonnithorne to be here," said Allan Ritson.
"Why did you send for him?" asked Mrs. Ritson, in the low tone that was natural to her.
"To get that matter about the will off my mind. It'll be one thing less to think about, and it has boddert me sair and lang."
Allan spoke with the shuffling reserve of a man to whose secret communings a painful idea had been too long familiar. In the effort to cast off the unwelcome and secret associate, there was a show of emancipation which, as an acute observer might see, was more assumed than real.
Mrs. Ritson made no terms with the affectation of indifference. Her grave face became yet more grave, and her soft voice grew softer as she said:
"And if when it is settled and done the cloud would break that has hung over our lives, then all would be well. But that can never be."
Allan tossed his head aside, and made pretense to smile; but no gleam of sunshine on his cornfields was ever chased so closely by the line of dark shadow as his smile by the frown that followed.
"Come, worrit thysel' na' mair about it! When I've made my will, and put Paul on the same footing with t'other lad, who knows owt mair nor we choose to tell?"
Mrs. Ritson glanced into his face with a look of sad reproach.
"Heaven knows, Allan," she said; "and the dark cloud still gathers for us there."
The old man took a step or two on the gravel path, and dropped his gray head. His voice deepened:
"Tha says reet, mother," he said, "tha says reet. Ey, it saddens my auld days—and thine forby!" He took a step or two more, and added: "And na lawyer can shak' it off now. Nay, nay, never now. Weel, mother, our sky has been lang owerkessen; but, mind ye," lifting his face and voice together, "we've had gude crops if we tholed some thistles."
"Yes, we've had happy days, too," said Mrs. Ritson.
At that moment there came from across the vale the shouts of the merrymakers and the music of a fiddle. Allan Ritson lifted his head, nodded it aside jauntily, and smiled feebly through the mist that was gathering about his eyes.
"There they are—wrestling and jumping. I mind me when there was scarce a man in Cummerlan' could give me the cross-buttock. That's many a lang year agone, though. And now our Paul can manish most on 'em—that he can."
The fiddle was playing a country dance. The old man listened; his face broadened, he lifted a leg jauntily, and gave a sweep of one arm.
Just then there came through the air a peal of happy laughter. It was the same heart's music that Hugh Ritson and Mr. Bonnithorne had heard in the road. Allan's face brightened, and his voice had only the faintest crack in it as he said:
"That's Greta's laugh! It is for sure! What a heartsome lass yon is! I like a heartsome lassie—a merrie touch, and gone!"
"Yes," said Mrs. Ritson, soberly; "Greta is a winsome girl."
It was hardly spoken when a young girl bounded down upon them, almost breathless, yet laughing in gusts, turning her head over her shoulder and shouting:
"Hurrah! Beaten, sir! Hurrah!"
It was Greta Lowther; twenty years of age, with fair hair, quick brown eyes, a sunny face lighted up with youthful animation, a swift smile on her parted lips—an English wild white rose.
"I've beaten him," she said. "He challenged me to cross Windybrowe while he ran round the Bowder stone, but I got to the lonnin before he had crossed the bridge."
Then, running to the corner of the lane, she plucked off her straw hat, waved it about her head, and shouted again in an accent of triumph:
"Hurrah! hurrah! beaten, sir, beaten!"
Paul Ritson came running down the fell in strides of two yards apiece.
"Oh, you young rogue—you cheated!" he cried, coming to a stand and catching his breath.
"Cheated?" said Greta, in a tone of dire amazement.
"You bargained to touch the beacon on the top of Windybrowe, and you didn't go within a hundred yards of it."
"The beacon? On Windybrowe?" said the girl, and wondrous perplexity shone in her lovely eyes.
Paul wiped his brow, and shook his head and his finger with mock gravity at the beautiful cheat.
"Now, Greta, now—now—gently—"
Greta looked around with the bewildered gaze of a lost lambkin.
"Mother," said Paul, "she stole a march on me."
"He was the thief, Mrs. Ritson; you believe me, don't you?"
"Me! why I never stole anything in my life—save one thing."
"And what was that, pray?" said Greta, with another mighty innocent look.
Paul crept up to her side and whispered something over her shoulder, whereupon she eyed him largely, and said with a quick smile:
"You don't say so! But please don't be too certain of it. I'm sure I never heard of that theft."
"Then here's a theft you shall hear of," said Paul, throwing one arm about her neck and tipping up her chin.
There was a sudden gleam of rosy, roguish lips. Old Allan, with mischief dancing in his eyes, pretended to recover them from a more distant sight.
"Er—why, what's that?" he said; "the sneck of a gate, eh?"
Greta drew herself up.
"How can you—and all the people looking—they might really think that we were—we were—"
Paul came behind, put his head over one shoulder, and said:
"And we're not, are we?"
"They're weel matched, mother, eh?" said Allan, turning to his wife. "They're marra-to-bran, as folks say. Greta, he's a girt booby, isn't he?"
Greta stepped up to the old man, and with a familiar gesture laid a hand on his arm. At the same moment Paul came to his side. Allan tapped his son on the back.
"Thou girt lang booby," he said, and laughed heartily. All the shadows that had hung over him were gone. "And how's Parson Christian?" he asked in another tone.
"Well, quite well, and as dear an old soul as ever," said Greta.
"He's father and mother to thee baith, my lass. I never knew thy awn father. He was dead and gone before we coom't to these parts. And thy mother, too, God bless her! she's dead and gone now. But if this lad of mine, this Paul, this girt lang—Ah, and here's Mr. Bonnithorne, and Hughie, too."
The return of the lawyer and Hugh Ritson abridged the threat of punishment that seemed to hang on the old man's lips.
Hugh Ritson's lifted eyes had comprehended everything. The girl leaning over his father's arm; the pure, smooth cheeks close to the swarthy, weather-beaten, comfortable old face; the soft gaze upward full of feeling; the half-open lips and the teeth like pearls; then the glance round, half of mockery, half of protest, altogether of unconquerable love, to where Paul Ritson stood, his eyes just breaking into a smile; the head, the neck, the arms, the bosom still heaving gently after the race; the light loose costume—Hugh Ritson saw it all, and his heart beat fast. His pale face whitened at that moment, and his infirm foot trailed heavily on the gravel.
Allan shook hands with Mr. Bonnithorne, and then turned to his sons. "Come, you two lads have not been gude friends latterly, and that's a sair grief baith to your mother and me. You're not made in the same mold seemingly. But you must mak' up your fratch, my lads, for your auld folks' sake, if nowt else."
At this he stretched out both arms, as if with the intention of joining their hands. Hugh made a gesture of protestation.
"I have no quarrel to make up," he said, and turned aside.
Paul held out his hand. "Shake hands, Hugh," he said. Hugh took the proffered hand with unresponsive coldness.
Paul glanced into his brother's face a moment, and said:
"What's the use of breeding malice? It's a sort of live stock that's not worth its fodder, and it eats up everything."
There was a scarcely perceptible curl on Hugh Ritson's lip, but he turned silently away. With head on his breast, he walked toward the porch.
It was old Allan's voice. The deep tone betrayed the anger that was choking him. His face was flushed, his eyes were stern, his lips trembled.
"Come back and shak' hands wi' thy brother reet."
Hugh Ritson faced about, leaning heavily on his infirm foot.
"Why to-day more than yesterday or to-morrow?" he said, calmly.
"Come back, I tell thee!" shouted the old man more hotly.
Hugh maintained his hold of himself, and said in a quiet and even voice, "I am no longer a child."
"Then bear thysel' like a man—not like a whipped hound."
The young man shuddered secretly from head to foot. His eyes flashed for an instant. Then, recovering his self-control, he said:
"Even a dog would resent such language, sir."
Greta had dropped aside from the painful scene, and for a moment Hugh Ritson's eyes followed her.
"I'll have no sec worriment in my house," shouted the old man in a broken voice. "Those that live here must live at peace. Those that want war must go."
Hugh Ritson could bear up no longer.
"And what is your house to me, sir? What has it done for me? The world is wide."
Old Allan was confounded. Silent, dumb, with great staring eyes, he looked round into the faces of those about him. Then in thick, choking tones he shouted:
"Shak' thy brother's hand, or thou'rt no brother of his."
"Perhaps not," said Hugh very quietly.
"Shak' hands, I tell thee." The old man's fists were clinched. His body quivered in every limb.
His son's lips were firmly set; he made no answer.
The old man snatched from Mr. Bonnithorne the stick he carried. At this Hugh lifted his eyes sharply until they met the eyes of his father. Allan was transfixed. The stick fell from his hand. Then Hugh Ritson halted into the house.
"Come back, come back ... my boy ... Hughie ... come back!" the old man sobbed out. But there was no reply.
"Allan, be patient, forgive him; he will ask your pardon," said Mrs. Ritson.
Paul and Greta had stolen away. The old man was now speechless, and his eyes, bent on the ground, swam with tears.
"All will be well, please God," said Mrs. Ritson. "Remember, he is sorely tried, poor boy. He expected you to do something for him.'"
"And I meant to, I meant to—that I did," the father answered in a broken cry.
"But you've put it off, and off, Allan—- like everything else."
Allan lifted his hazy eyes from the ground, and looked into his wife's face. "If it had been t'other lad I could have borne it maybe," he said, feelingly.
Mr. Bonnithorne, standing aside, had been plowing the gravel with one foot. He now raised his eyes, and said: "And yet, Mr. Ritson, folk say that you have always shown most favor to your eldest son."
The old man's gaze rested on the lawyer for a moment, but he did not speak at once, and there was an awkward silence.
"I've summat to say to Mr. Bonnithorne, mother," said the statesman. He was quieter now. Mrs. Ritson stepped into the house.
Allan Ritson and the lawyer followed her, going into a little parlor to the right of the porch. It was a quaint room, full of the odor of a by-gone time. The floor was of polished black oak covered with skins; the ceiling was paneled oak and had a paneled beam. Bright oak cupboards, their fronts carved with rude figures, were set into the walls, which were whitened, and bore one illuminated text and three prints in black and white. The furniture was heavy and old. There was a spinning-wheel under the wide window-board. A bluebottle buzzed about the ceiling; a slant of sunlight crossed the floor. The men sat down.
"I sent for thee to mak' my will, Mr. Bonnithorne," said the old man.
The lawyer smiled.
"It is an old maxim that delay in affairs of law is a candle that burns in the daytime; when the night comes it is burned to the socket."
Old Allan took little heed of the sentiment.
"Ey," he said, "but there's mair nor common 'casion for it in my case."
Mr. Bonnithorne was instantly on the alert.
"And what is your especial reason?" he asked.
Allan's mind seemed to wander. He stood silent for a moment, and then said slowly, as if laboring with thought and phrase:
"Weel, tha must know ... I scarce know how to tell thee ... Weel, my eldest son, Paul, as they call him—"
The old man stopped, and his manner grew sullen. Mr. Bonnithorne came to his help.
"Yes, I am all attention—your eldest son—"
"He is—he is—"
The door opened and Mrs. Ritson entered the room, followed close by the Laird Fisher.
"Mr. Ritson, your sheep, them black-faced herdwicks on Hindscarth, have broke the fences, and the red drift of 'em is down in the barrowmouth of the pass," said the charcoal-burner.
The statesman got on his feet.
"I must gang away at once," he said. "Mr. Bonnithorne, I must put thee off, or maybe I'll lose fifty head of sheep down in the ghyll."
"I made so bold as to tell ye, for I reckon we'll have all maks of weather yet."
"That's reet, Mattha; and reet neighborly forby. I'll slip away after thee in a thumb's snitting."
The Laird Fisher went out.
"Can ye bide here for me until eight o'clock to-neet, Mr. Bonnithorne?"
There was some vexation written on the lawyer's face, but he answered with meekness:
"I am always at your service, Mr. Ritson. I can return at eight."
"Verra good" Then, turning to Mrs. Ritson, "Give friend Bonnithorne a bite o' summat," said Allan, and he followed the charcoal-burner. Out in the court-yard he called the dogs. "Hey howe! hey howe! Bright! Laddie! Come boys; come, boys, te-lick, te-smack!"
He put his head in at the door of an out-house and shouted, "Reuben, wheriver ista? Come thy ways quick, and bring the lad!"
In another moment a young shepherd and a cowherd, surrounded by three or four sheep-dogs, joined Allan Ritson in the court-yard.
"Dusta gang back to the fell, Mattha?" said the statesman.
"Nay; I's done for the day. I'm away home."
"Good-neet, and thank."
Then the troop disappeared down the lonnin—the men calling, the dogs barking.
In walking through the hall Mr. Bonnithorne encountered Hugh Ritson, who was passing out of the house, his face very hard, his head much bent.
"Would you," said the lawyer, "like to know the business on which I have been called here?"
Hugh Ritson did not immediately raise his eyes.
"To make his will," added Mr. Bonnithorne, not waiting for an answer.
Then Hugh Ritson's eyes were lifted; there was one flash of intelligence; after that the young man went out without a word.
Hugh Ritson was seven-and-twenty. His clean-shaven face was long, pale, and intellectual; his nose was wide at the bridge and full at the nostrils; he had firm-set lips, large vehement eyes, and a broad forehead, with hair of dark auburn parted down the middle and falling in thin waves on the temples. The expression of the physiognomy in repose was one of pain, and, in action, of power; the effect of the whole was not unlike that which is produced by the face of a high-bred horse, with its deep eyes and dilated nostrils. He was barely above medium height, and his figure was almost delicate. When he spoke his voice startled you—it was so low and deep to come from that slight frame. His lameness, which was slight, was due to a long-standing infirmity of the hip.
As second son of a Cumbrian statesman, whose estate consisted chiefly of land, he expected but little from his father, and had been trained in the profession of a mining engineer. After spending a few months at the iron mines of Cleator, he had removed to London at twenty-two, and enrolled himself as a student of the Mining College in Jermyn Street. There he had spent four years, sharing the chambers of a young barrister in the Temple Gardens. His London career was uneventful. Taciturn in manner, he made few friends. His mind had a tendency toward contemplative inactivity. Of physical energy he had very little, and this may have been partly due to his infirmity. Late at night he would walk alone in the Strand: the teeming life of the city, and the mystery of its silence after midnight, had a strong fascination for him. In these rambles he came to know some of the strangest and oddest of the rags and rinsings of humanity: among them a Persian nobleman of the late shah's household, who kept a small tobacco-shop at the corner of a by-street, and an old French exile, once of the court of Louis Phillippe, who sold the halfpenny papers. At other times he went out hardly at all, and was rarely invited.
Only the housemate, who saw him at all times and in many moods, seemed to suspect that beneath that cold exterior there lay an ardent nature. But he himself knew how strong was the tide of his passion. He could never look a beautiful woman in the face but his pulse beat high, and he felt almost faint. Yet strong as his passion was, his will was no less strong. He put a check on himself, and during his four years in London contrived successfully to dam up the flood that was secretly threatening him.
At six-and-twenty he returned to Cumberland, having some grounds for believing that his father intended to find him the means of mining for himself. A year had now passed, and nothing had been done. He was growing sick with hope deferred. His elder brother, Paul, had spent his life on the land, and it was always understood that in due course he would inherit it. That at least was the prospect which Hugh Ritson had in view, though no prospective arrangement had been made. Week followed week, and month followed month, and his heart grew bitter. He had almost decided to end this waiting. The day would come when he could bear it not longer, and then he would cut adrift.
An accidental circumstance was the cause of his irresolution. He used to walk frequently on the moss where the Laird Fisher sunk his shaft. In the beck that ran close to the disused headgear he would wade for an hour early in the summer morning. One day he saw the old laird's daughter washing linen at the beck-side. He remembered her as a pretty, prattling thing of ten or eleven. She was now a girl of eighteen, with a pure face, a timid manner, and an air that was neither that of a woman nor of a child. Her mother was lately dead, her father spent most of his days on the fell (some of his nights also when the charcoal was burning), and she was much alone. Hugh Ritson liked her gentle replies and her few simple questions. So it came about that he would look for her in the mornings, and be disappointed if he did not catch sight of her good young face. Himself a silent man, he liked to listen to the girl's modest, unconnected talk. His stern eyes would soften at such times to a sort of caressing expression. This went on for months, and in that solitude no idle tongue was set to wag. At length Hugh Ritson perceived that the girl's heart was touched. If he came late he found her leaning over the gate, her eyes bent down among the mountain grasses at her feet, and her cheeks colored by a red glow. It is unnecessary to go further. The girl gave herself up to him with her whole heart and soul, and he—well, he found the bulwarks with which he had surrounded himself were ruined and down.
Then the awakening came, and Hugh learned too late that he had not loved the simple child, by realizing that with all the ardor of his restrained but passionate nature he loved another woman.
So much for the first complication in the tragedy of this man's life.
The second complication was new to his consciousness, and it was at this moment conspiring with the first to lure him to consequences that are now to be related. The story which Mr. Bonnithorne had told of the legacy left by Greta's father to a son by one Grace Ormerod had come to him at a time when, owing to disappointment and chagrin, he was peculiarly liable to the temptation of any "honest trifle" that pointed the way he wished to go. If the Grace Ormerod who married Lowther had indeed been his own mother, then—a thousand to one—Paul was Lowther's son. If Paul was Lowther's son he was also half brother of Greta. If Paul was not the son of Allan Ritson, then he himself, Hugh Ritson, was his father's heir.
In the present whirlwind of feeling he did not inquire too closely into the pros and cons of probability. Enough that evidence seemed to be with him, and that it transformed the world in his view.
Perhaps the first result of this transformation was that he unconsciously assumed a different attitude toward the unhappy passage in his life wherein Mercy Fisher was chiefly concerned. What his feeling was before Mr. Bonnithorne's revelation, we have already seen. Now the sentiment that made much of such an "accident" was fit only for a "turgid melodrama," and the idea of "atonement" by "marriage" was the mock heroic of those "great lovers of noble histories," the spectators who applaud it from the pit.
When he passed Mr. Bonnithorne in the hall at the Ghyll he was on his way to the cottage of the Laird Fisher. He saw in the road ahead of him the group which included his father and the charcoal-burner, and to avoid them he cut across the breast of the Eel Crags. After a sharp walk of a mile he came to a little white-washed house that stood near the head of Newlands, almost under the bridge that crosses the fall. It was a sweet place in a great solitude, where the silence was broken only by the tumbling waters, the cooing of pigeons on the roof, and the twittering of ringouzels by the side of the torrent. The air was fresh with the smell of new peat. There was a wedge-shaped garden in front, and it was encompassed by chestnut-trees. As Hugh Ritson drew near he noticed that a squirrel crept from the fork of one of these trees. The little creature rocked itself on the thin end of a swaying branch, plucking sometimes at the drooping fan of the chestnut, and sometimes at the prickly shell of its pendulous nut. When he opened the little gate Hugh Ritson observed that a cat sat sedately behind the trunk of that tree, glancing up at intervals at the sporting squirrel in her moving seat.
As he entered the garden Mercy was crossing it with a pail of water just raised from the well. She had seen him, and now tried to pass into the house. He stepped before her and she set down the pail. Her head was held very low, and her cheeks were deeply flushed.
"Mercy," he said, "it is all arranged. Mr. Bonnithorne will see you into the train this evening, and when you get to your journey's end the person I spoke of will meet you."
The girl lifted her eyes beseechingly to his face.
"Not to-day, Hugh," she said in a broken whisper; "let me stay until to-morrow."
He regarded her for a moment with a steadfast look, and when he spoke again his voice fell on her ear like the clank of a chain.
"The journey has to be made. Every week's delay increases the danger."
The girl's eyes fell again, and the tears began to drop from them on to the brown arms that she had clasped in front.
"Come," he said in a softer tone, "the train starts in an hour. Your father is not yet home from the pit, and most of the dalespeople are at the sports. So much the better. Put on your cloak and hat and take the fell path to the Coledaie road-ends. There Mr. Bonnithorne will meet you."
The girl's tears were flowing fast, though she bit her lip and struggled to check them.
"Come, now, come; you know this was of your own choice."
There was a pause.
"I never thought it would be so hard to go," she said at length.
He smiled feebly, and tried a more rallying tone.
"You are not going for life. You will come back safe and happy."
The words thrilled her through and through. Her clasped hands trembled visibly, and her fingers clutched them with a convulsive movement. After awhile she was calmer, and said quietly:
"No, I'll never come back—I know that quite well." And her head dropped on her breast and she felt sick at heart. "I'll have to say good-bye to everything. There were Betsy Jackson's children—I kissed them all this morning, and never said why—little Willy, he seemed to know, dear little fellow, and cried so bitterly."
The memories of these incidents touched to overflowing the springs of love in the girl's simple soul, and the bubbling child-voice was drowned in sobs.
The man stood with a smile of pain on his face. He came close, and brushed away her tears, and touched her drooping head with a gesture of protestation.
Mercy regained her voice.
"And then there's your mother," she said, "and I can't say good-bye to her, and my poor father, and I daren't tell him—"
Hugh stamped on the path impatiently.
"Come, come, Mercy, don't be foolish."
The girl lifted to his the good young face that had once Been bonny as the day and was now pale with weeping and drawn down with grief. She took him by the coat, and then, by an impulse which she seemed unable to resist, threw one arm about his neck, and raised her face to his until their lips all but touched, and their eyes met in a steadfast gaze.
"Hugh," she said, passionately, "are you sure that you love me well enough to think of me when I am gone?—are you quite, quite sure?"
"Yes, yes; be sure of that," he said, gently.
He disengaged her arm.
"And will you come and fetch me after—after—"
She could not say the word. He smiled and answered, "Why, yes, yes."
Her fingers trembled and clung together; her head fell; her cheeks were aglow.
"Why, of course." He smiled again, as if in deprecation of so much child-like earnestness; then put his arm about the girl's shoulder, dropped his voice to a tone of mingled compassion and affection, and said, as he lifted the brightening face to his, "There, there—now go off and make ready."
The girl brushed her tears away vigorously, and looked half ashamed and half enchanted.
"That's a good little girl."
How the sunshine came back at the sound of his words!
"Good-bye for the present, Mercy—only for the present, you know."
But how the shadow pursued the sunshine after all!
Hugh saw the tears gathering again in the lucent eyes, and came back a step.
"There—a smile—just one little smile!" She smiled through her tears. "There—there—that's a dear little Mercy. Good-day; good-bye."
Hugh turned on his heel and walked sharply away. As he passed out through the gate he could not help observing that the cat from the foot of the chestnut-tree was walking stealthily off, with something like a dawning smile on its whiskered face, and the brush of the squirrel between its teeth.
Hugh Ritson had gained his end, and yet he felt more crushed than at the darkest moment of defeat. He had conquered his own manhood; and now he crept away from the scene of his triumph with a sense of utter abasement. When he had talked with Mr. Bonnithorne it was with a feeling of the meanness of the folly in which he was involved; and if any sentiment touching the girl's situation was strong upon him it was closely bound up with a personal view of the degradation that might come of a man's humiliating unwisdom. The very conventionality of his folly had irked him. But its cowardice was now uppermost. That a man should enter into warfare with a woman on unequal terms, and win by cajolery and deceit, was more than cruel; it was brutal. He could have borne even this hard saying so far as it concerned the woman's suffering, but for the reflection that it made the man something worse than a coxcomb in his own eyes.
The day was now far spent; the brilliant sun had dipped behind Grisedale, and left a ridge of dark fells in the west. On the east the green sides of Cat Bells and the Eel Crags were yellow at the summit, where the hills held their last commerce with the hidden sun. Not a breath of wind; not the rustle of a leaf; the valley lay still, save for the echoing voices of the merrymakers in the booth below. The sky overhead was blue, but a dark cloud, like the hulk of a ship, had anchored lately to the north.
Hugh Ritson took the valley road back to Ghyll. He was visibly perturbed; he walked with head much bent, stopped suddenly at times, then snatched impetuously at the trailing bushes, and passed on. When he was under Hindscarth, the sharp yap of dogs, followed by the bleat of unseen sheep, caused him to look up, and he saw a group of men, like emmets creeping on a dark bowlder, moving over a ridge of shelving rock.
There was a slight spasm of his features at that moment, and his foot trailed more heavily as he went on. At a twist of the road he passed the Laird Fisher. The old man looked less melancholy than usual. It was as if the familiar sorrow sat a little more lightly to-night on the half-ruined creature.
"Good-neet to you, sir, and how fend ye?" he said almost cheerily.
Hugh Ritson responded briefly.
"So you're not sleeping on the fell to-night, Matthew?" and as he spoke his eyes wandered toward the fell road.
"Nay; I's not firing to-neet, for sure; my daughter is expecting me."
Hugh's eyes were now fixed intently on the road that crossed the foot of the fell to the west. The charcoal-burner was moving off, and, following at the same moment the upward direction of Hugh Ritson's gaze, he said:
"It's a baddish place yon, where your father is with Reuben and the lad, and it's baddish weather that is coming, too—look at yon black cloud over Walna Scar."
Then for an instant there was embarrassment in Hugh Ritson's eyes, and he answered in a faltering commonplace.
"Ways me; but I must slip away home, sir; my laal lass will be weary waiting. Good-neet to you, sir; good-neet."
"Good-night, Matthew, and God help you," said Hugh in a tone of startling earnestness, his eyes turned away.
He had walked half a mile further, and reached the lonnin that led to the Ghyll, when he was almost overrun by Greta Lowther, who came tripping out of the gate of a meadow, her bonnet swinging over her arm, her soft, wavy hair floating over her white forehead, her cheeks colored with a warm glow, a roguish light in her eyes, and laughter on the point of bubbling out of her lips.
Greta had just given Paul Ritson the slip. There was a thicket in the field she had crossed, and it was covered with wild roses, white and red. Through the heart of it there rippled a tiny streak of water that was amber-tinted from the round shingle in its bed. The trunk of an old beech lay across it for ford or bridge. Underfoot were the sedge and moss; overhead the thick boughs and the roses; in the air, the odor of hay and the songs of birds. And Paul, the cunning rascal, would have tempted Greta into this solitude; but she was too shrewd, the wise little woman, to-be so easily trapped. Pretending to follow him in ignorance of his manifest design, she tripped back on tiptoe, and fled away like a lapwing over the noiseless grass.
When Greta met Hugh Ritson she was saying to herself, of Paul in particular, and of his sex in general: "What dear, simple, unsuspecting, trustful creatures they are!" Then she drew up sharply, "Ah, Hugh!"
"How happy you look, Greta!" he said, fixing his eyes upon her.
A new light brightened her sunny face. "Not happier than I feel," she answered. She swung the arm over which the bonnet hung; the heaving of her breast showed the mold of her early womanhood.
Hugh Ritson's mind had for the last half hour brooded over many a good purpose, but not one of them was now left.
"You witnessed a painful scene to-day," he said, with some hesitation. "Be sure it was no less painful to me because you were there to see it."
"Oh, I was so sorry," said Greta, impetuously. "You mean with your father?"
Hugh bent his head slightly. "It was inevitable—I know that full well—but for my share in it I ask your pardon."
"That is nothing," she said; "but you took your father too seriously."
"I took him at his word—that was all."
"But the dear old man meant nothing, and you meant very much. He only wanted to abuse you a little, and perhaps frighten you, and shake his stick at you, and then love you all the better for it."
"You may be right, Greta. Among the whims of nature there is that of making such human contradictions; but, as you say, I take things seriously—everything—life itself."
He paused, and there was a slight trembling of the lip.
"Besides," he went on in another tone, "it has been always so. Since our childhood—my brother's and mine—there has not been much paternal tenderness wasted on me. I can hardly expect it now."
"Surely that must be a morbid fancy," Greta said in a distressed tone. The light was dying out of her eyes. She made one quick glance downward to where Hugh Ritson's infirm foot trailed on the road, and then, in an instant of recovered consciousness, she glanced up, now confused and embarrassed, into his face.
She was too late; he had read her thought. A faint smile parted her lips; and the light of his own eyes was cold.
"No; not that," he said; "I ask no pity in that regard—and need none. Nature has given my brother a physique that would shame a Greek statue, but he and I are quits—perhaps more than quits."
He made a hard smile, and she flushed deep with shame of having her thought read.
"I am sorry if I conveyed that," she said, slowly. "It must have been quite unwittingly. I was thinking of your mother. She is so good and tender to everybody. Why, she is the angel of the country-side. Do you know what name they've given her?"
Hugh shook his head.
"Saint Grace! Parson Christian told me—it seems it was my own dear mother who christened her."
"Nevertheless, there has not been much to sweeten my life, Greta," he said.
His voice arrested her; it was charged with unusual feeling. She made no answer, and they began to walk toward the house.
After a few steps Greta remembered the trick that she had played on Paul, and craned her beautiful neck to see over the stone cobble-hedge into the field where she had left him.
Hugh observed her intently.
"I hear that you have decided. Is it so, Greta?" he said.
"Decided what?" she asked, coloring again.
He also colored slightly, and answered with a strained quietness.
"To marry my brother."
"If he wishes it—I suppose he does—he says so, you know."
Hugh looked earnestly into the girl's glowing face, and said with deliberation:
"Greta, perhaps there are reasons why you should not marry Paul."
He did not reply at once, and she repeated her question. Then he said in a strange tone:
"Just and lawful impediments, as they say."
Greta's eyes opened wide in undisguised amazement.
"Impossible—you cannot mean it," she said with her customary impetuosity. She glanced into Hugh's face, and misread what she saw there. Then she began to laugh; at first lightly, afterward rather boisterously, and said with head averted, and almost as if talking to herself, "No, no; he is nothing to me but the man I love."
"Do you then love him?"
"Do you ask?" she said. The amazement in the wide eyes had deepened to a look of rapture. "Love him?" she said; "better than all the world beside." The girl was lifted out of herself. "You are to be my brother, Hugh, and I need not fear to speak so."
She swung her bonnet on her arm, just to preserve composure by some distracting exercise.
Hugh Ritson stopped, and his face softened. It was a perplexing smile that sat on his features. While he had talked with Greta there had run through his mind, as a painful undertone, the thought of Mercy Fisher. He had now dismissed the last of his qualms respecting her. To be tied down for life to a mindless piece of physical prettiness—what man of brains could bear it? He had yielded to a natural impulse—true! That moment of temptation threatened painful consequences—still true! What then? Nothing! Was the dead fruit to hang about his neck forever? Tut!—all natural law was against it. Had he not said that he was above prejudice? So was he above the maudlin sentiment of the "great lovers of noble histories." The sophistry grew apace with Greta's beautiful countenance before him. Catching at her last word, he said:
"Your brother—yes. But did you never guess that I could have wished another name?"
The look of amazement returned to her eyes; he saw it and went on:
"Is it possible that you have not read my secret?"
"What secret?" she said in a half-smothered voice.
"Greta, if your love had been great love, you must have read my secret just as I have read yours." In a low tone he continued: "Long ago I knew that you loved, or thought you loved, my brother. I saw it before he had seen it—before you had realized it."
The red glow colored her cheeks more deeply than before. She had stopped, and he was tramping nervously backward and forward.
"Greta," he said again, and he fixed his eyes entreatingly upon her, "what is the love that scarcely knows itself?—that is the love with which you love my brother. And what is the tame, timid passion of a man of no mind?—that is the love which he offers you. What is your love for him, or his for you?—what is it, can it be? Love is not love unless it is the love of true minds. That was said long ago, Greta, and how true it is!" He went on quickly, in a tone of dull irritation: "All other love is no better than lust. Greta, I understand you. It is not for a rude man like my brother to do so." Then in an eager voice he said: "Dearest, I bring you a love undreamed of among these country boors."