By HESBA STRETTON
Author of 'Jessica's First Prayer,' 'Alone in London' 'Pilgrim Street,' 'Little Meg's Children' etc.
I. THE HUT IN THE HOLLOW II. THE DYING FATHER III. STEPHEN'S FIRST VICTORY IV. THREATENING CLOUDS V. MISS ANNE VI. THE RED GRAVEL PIT VII. POOR SNIP VIII. STEPHEN AND THE GAMEKEEPER IX. HOMELESS X. THE CABIN ON THE CINDER-HILL XI. STEPHEN AND THE RECTOR XII. VISIT OF BLACK BESS XIII. THE OLD SHAFT XIV. A BROTHER'S GRIEF XV. RENEWED CONFLICT XVI. SOFTENING THOUGHTS XVII. A NEW CALLING XVIII. THE PANTRY WINDOW XIX. FIRE! FIRE! XX. STEPHEN'S TESTIMONY XXI. FORGIVENESS XXII. THE MASTER'S DEATHBED XXIII. THE HOME RESTORED
THE HUT IN THE HOLLOW.
Just upon the border of Wales, but within one of the English counties, there is a cluster of hills, rising one above the other in gradual slopes, until the summits form a long, broad tableland, many miles across. This tableland is not so flat that all of it can be seen at once, but here and there are little dells, shaped like deep basins, which the country folk call hollows; and every now and then there is a rock or hillock covered with yellow gorse bushes, from the top of which can be seen the wide, outspread plains, where hundreds of sheep and ponies are feeding, which belong to the farmers and cottagers dwelling in the valley below. Besides the chief valley, which divides the mountains into two groups, and which is broad enough for a village to be built in, there are long, narrow glens, stretching up into the very heart of the tableland, and draining away the waters which gather there by the melting of snow in the winter and the rain of thunderstorms in summer. Down every glen flows a noisy mountain stream, dashing along its rocky course with so many tiny waterfalls and impatient splashes, that the gurgling and bubbling of brooks come up even into the quietness of the tableland and mingle with the singing of the birds and the humming of the bees among the heather. There are not many paths across the hills, except the narrow sheep-walks worn by the tiny feet of the sheep as they follow one another in long, single lines, winding in and out through the clumps of gorse; and few people care to explore the solitary plains, except the shepherds who have the charge of the flocks, and tribes of village children who go up every summer to gather the fruit of the wild and hardy bilberry wires.
The whole of this broad tableland, as well as the hills, are common pasture for the inhabitants of the valleys, who have an equal right to keep sheep and ponies on the uplands with the lord of the manor. But the property of the soil belongs to the latter, and he only has the power of enclosing the waste so as to make fields and plant woods upon it, provided always that he leaves a sufficient portion for the use of the villagers. In times gone by, however, when the lord of the manor and his agent were not very watchful, it was the practice of poor persons, who did not care how uncomfortably they lived, to seek out some distant hollow, or the farthest and most hidden side of a hillock, and there build themselves such a low, small hut, as should escape the notice of any passer-by, should they chance to go that way. Little by little, making low fences which looked like the surrounding gorse bushes, they enclosed small portions of the waste land, or, as it is called, encroached upon the common; and if they were able to keep their encroachment without having their hedges broken down, or if the lord of the manor neglected to demand rent for it for the space of twenty years, their fields and gardens became securely and legally their own. Because of this right, therefore, are to be found here and there little farms of three or four fields a-piece, looking like islands, with the wide, open common around them; and some miles away over the breezy uplands there is even a little hamlet of these poor cottages, all belonging to the people who dwell in them.
Many years ago, even many years before my story begins, a poor woman—who was far worse off than a widow, for her husband had just been sentenced to transportation for twenty-one years—strayed down to these mountains upon her sorrowful way home to her native place. She had her only child with her, a boy five years of age; and from some reason or other, perhaps because she could not bear to go home in shame and disgrace, she sought out a very lonely hiding-place among the hills, and with her own hands reared rough walls of turf and stones, until she had formed such a rude hut as would just give shelter to her and her boy. There they lived, uncared for and solitary, until the husband came back, after suffering his twenty-one years' punishment, and entered into a little spot of land entirely his own. Then, with the assistance of his son, a strong, full-grown young man, he rebuilt the cottage, though upon a scale not much larger or much more commodious than his wife's old hut.
Like other groups of mountains, the highest and largest are those near the centre, and from them the land descends in lower and lower levels, with smaller hills and smoother valleys, until at length it sinks into the plain. Then they are almost like children's hills and valleys; the slopes are not too steep for very little feet to climb, and the rippling brooks are not in so much hurry to rush on to the distant river, but that boys and girls at play can stop them for a little time with slight banks of mud and stones. In just such a smooth, sloping dell, down in a soft green basin, called Fern's Hollow, was the hiding-place where the convict's sad wife had found an unmolested shelter.
This dwelling, the second one raised by the returned convict and his son, is built just below the brow of the hill, so that the back of the hut is formed of the hill itself, and only the sides and front are real walls. These walls are made of rubble, or loose, unhewn stones, piled together with a kind of mortar, which is little more than clay baked hard in the heat of the sun. The chimney is a bit of old stove-pipe, scarcely rising above the top of the hill behind; and, but for the smoke, we could look down the pipe, as through the tube of a telescope, upon the family sitting round the hearth within. The thatch, overgrown with moss, appears as a continuation of the slope of the hill itself, and might almost deceive the simple sheep grazing around it. Instead of a window there is only a square hole, covered by a shutter when the light is not urgently needed; and the door is so much too small for its sill and lintels as to leave large chinks, through which adventurous bees and beetles may find their way within. You may see at a glance that there is but one room, and that there can be no up-stairs to the hut, except that upper storey of the broad, open common behind it, where the birds sleep softly in their cosy nests. Before the house is a garden; and beyond that a small field sown with silver oats, which are dancing and glistening in the breeze and sunshine; while before the garden wicket, but not enclosed from the common, is a warm, sunny valley, in the very middle of which a slender thread of a brook widens into a lovely little basin of a pool, clear and cold, the very place for the hill ponies to come and drink.
Looking steadily up this pleasant valley from the threshold of the cottage, we can just see a fine, light film of white smoke against the blue sky. Two miles away, right down off the mountains, there is a small coal-field and a quarry of limestone. In a distant part of the country there are large tracts of land where coal and iron pits are sunk on every side, and their desolate and barren pit-banks extend for miles round, while a heavy cloud of smoke hangs always in the air. But here, just at the foot of these mountains, there is one little seam of coal, as if placed for the express use of these people, living so far away from the larger coal-fields. The Botfield lime and coal works cover only a few acres of the surface; but underground there are long passages bored beneath the pleasant pastures and the yellow cornfields. From the mountains, Botfield looks rather like a great blot upon the fair landscape, with its blackened engine-house and banks of coal-dust, its long range of limekilns, sultry and quivering in the summer sunshine, and its heavy, groaning water-wheel, which pumps up the water from the pits below. But the colliers do not think it so, nor their wives in the scattered village beyond; they do not consider the lime and coal works a blot, for their living depends upon them, and they may rightly say, 'As for the earth, out of it cometh bread: and under it is turned up as it were fire.'
Even Stephen Fern, who would a thousand times rather work out on the free hillside than in the dark passages underground, does not think it a pity that the Botfield pit has been discovered at the foot of the mountains. It is nearly seven o'clock in the evening, and he is coming over the brow of the green dell, with his long shadow stretching down it. A very long shadow it is for so small a figure to cast, for if we wait a minute or two till Stephen draws nearer, we shall see that he is no strong, large man, but a slight, thin, stooping boy, bending rather wearily under a sack of coals, which he is carrying on his shoulders, and pausing now and then to wipe his heated forehead with the sleeve of his collier's flannel jacket. When he lifts up the latch of his home we will enter with him, and see the inside of the hut at Fern's Hollow.
THE DYING FATHER.
Stephen stepped over the threshold into a low, dark room, which was filled with smoke, from a sudden gust of the wind as it swept over the roof of the hut. On one side of the grate, which was made of some half-hoops of iron fastened into the rock, there was a very aged man, childish and blind with years, who was crouching towards the fire, and talking and chuckling to himself. A girl, about a year older than Stephen, sat in a rocking-chair, and swung to and fro as she knitted away fast and diligently at a thick grey stocking. In the corner nearest to the fireplace there stood a pallet-bed, hardly raised above the earthen floor, to which Stephen hastened immediately, with an anxious look at the thin, white face of his father lying upon the pillow. Beside the sick man there lay a little child fast asleep, with her hand clasping one of her father's fingers; and though James Fern was shaking and trembling with a violent fit of coughing from the sudden gust of smoke, he took care not to loose the hold of those tiny fingers.
'Poor little Nan!' he whispered to Stephen, as soon as he could speak. 'I've been thinking all day of her and thee, lad, till I'm nigh heart-broken.'
'Do you feel worse, father?' asked Stephen anxiously.
'I'm drawing nearer the end,' answered James Fern,—'nearer the end every hour; and I don't know for certain what the end will be. I'm repenting; but I can't undo the mischief I've done; I must leave that behind me. If I'd been anything like a decent father, I should have left you comfortable, instead of poor beggars. And what is to become of my poor lass here? See how fast she clips my hand, as if she was afeared I was going to leave her! Oh, Stephen, my lad, what will you all do?'
'Father,' said Stephen, in a quiet and firm voice, 'I'm getting six shillings a week wages, and we can live on very little. We haven't got any rent to pay, and only ourselves and grandfather to keep, and Martha is as good as a woman grown. We'll manage, father, and take care of little Nan.'
'Stephen and I are not bad, father,' added Martha, speaking up proudly; 'I am not like Black Bess of Botfield. Mother always told me I was to do my duty; and I always do it. I can wash, and sew, and iron, and bake, and knit. Why, often and often we've had no more than Stephen's earnings, when you've been to the Red Lion on reckoning nights.'
'Hush, hush, Martha!' whispered Stephen.
'No, it's true,' groaned the dying father; 'God Almighty, have mercy on me! Stephen, hearken to me, and thee too, Martha, while I tell you about this place, and what you are to do when I'm gone.'
He paused for a minute or two, looking earnestly at the crouching old man in the chimney-corner.
'Grandfather's quite simple,' he said, 'and he's dark, too, and doesn't know what any one is saying. But I know thee'lt be good to him, Stephen. Hearken, children: your poor old grandfather was once in jail, and was sent across the seas, for a thief.'
'Father!' cried Stephen, in a tone of deep distress; and he turned quickly to the old man, remembering how often he had sat upon his knees by the winter fire, and how many summer days he had rambled with him over the uplands after the sheep. His grandfather had been far kinder to him than his own father; and his heart swelled with anger as he went and laid his arm round the bending neck of the old man, who looked up in his face and laughed heartily.
'Come back, Stephen; it's true,' gasped James Fern. 'Poor mother and me came here, where nobody knew us, while he was away for more than twenty years; and she built a hut for-us to live in till he came back. I was a little lad then, but as soon as I was big enough she made me learn to read and write, that I might send letters to him beyond the seas and none of the neighbours know. She'd often make me read to her about a poor fellow who had left home and gone to a far country, and when he came home again, how his father saw him a long way off. Well, she was just like that when she'd heard that he was landed in England; she did nought but sit over the bent of the hill yonder, peering along the road to Botfield; and one evening at sundown she saw something, little more than a speck upon the turf, and she'd a feeling come over her that it was he, and she fainted for real joy. After all, we weren't much happier when we were settled down like. Grandfather had learned to tend sheep out yonder, and I worked at Botfield; but we never laid by money to build a brick house, as poor mother always wanted us. She died a month or so afore I was married to your mother.'
James Fern was silent again for some minutes, leaning back upon his pillow, with his eyes closed, and his thoughts gone back to the old times.
'If I'd only been like mother, you'd have been a hill-farmer now, Steve,' he continued, in a tone of regret; 'she plotted out in her own mind to take in the green before us, for rearing young lambs, and ducks, and goslings. But I was like that poor lad that wasted all his substance in riotous living; and I've let thee and thy sister grow up without even the learning I could have given thee; and learning is light carriage. But, lad, remember this house is thy own, and never part with it; never give it up, for it is thy right. Maybe they'll want to turn thee out, because thee art a boy; but I've lived in it nigh upon forty years, and I've written it all down upon this piece of paper, and that the place is thine, Stephen.'
'I'll never give it up, father,' said Stephen, in his steady voice.
'Stephen,' continued his father, 'the master has set his heart upon it to make it a hill-farm; and thou'lt have hard work to hold thy own against him. Thou must frame thy words well when he speaks to thee about it, for he's a cunning man. And there's another paper, which the parson at Danesford has in his keeping, to certify that mother built this house and dwelt in it all the days of her life, more than thirty years; if there's any mischief worked against thee, go to him for it. And now, Stephen, wash thyself, and get thy supper, and then let's hear thee read thy chapter.'
Stephen carried his basin of potatoes to the door-sill and sat there, with his back turned to the dismal hut and his dying father, and his face looking out upon the green hills. He had always been a grave and thoughtful boy; and he had much to think of now. The deep sense of new duties and obligations that had come upon him with his father's words, made him feel that his boyhood had passed away. He looked round upon the garden, and the field, and the hut, with the keen eye of an owner; and he wondered at the neglected state into which they had fallen since his father's illness. There could be no more play-time for him; no bird's-nesting among the gorse-bushes; no rabbit-bunting with Snip, the little white terrier that was sharing his supper. If little Nan and his grandfather were to be provided for, he must be a man, with a man's thoughtfulness, doing man's work. There seemed enough work for him to do in the field and garden alone, without his twelve hours' toil in the coal-pit; but his weekly wages would now be more necessary than ever. He must get up early, and go to bed late, and labour without a moment's rest, doing his utmost from one day to another, with no one to help him, or stand for a little while in his place. For a few minutes his brave spirit sank within him, and all the landscape swam before his eyes; while Snip took advantage of his master's inattention to put his nose into the basin, and help himself to the largest share of the potatoes.
'I mean to be like grandmother,' said Martha's clear, sharp voice, close beside him, and he saw his sister looking eagerly round her. 'I shall fence the green in, and have lambs and sheep to turn out on the hillside, and I'll rear young goslings and ducks for market; and we'll have a brick house, with two rooms in it, as well as a shed for the coal. And nobody shall put upon us, or touch our rights, Stephen, or they shall have the length of my tongue.'
'Martha,' said Stephen earnestly, 'do you see how a shower is raining down on the master's fields at Botfield; and they've been scorched up for want of water?'
'Yes, surely,' answered Martha; 'and what of that?'
'I'm thinking,' continued Stephen, rather shyly, 'of that verse in my chapter: "He maketh the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust." What sort of a man is the master, Martha?'
'He's a bad, unjust, niggardly old miser,' replied Martha.
'And if God sends him rain, and takes care of him,' Stephen said, 'how much more care will He take of us, if we are good, and try to do His commandments!'
'I should think,' said Martha, but in a softer tone, 'I should really think He would give us the green, and the lambs, and the new house, and everything; for both of us are good, Stephen.'
'I don't know,' replied Stephen; 'if I could read all the Bible, perhaps it would tell us. But now I must go in and read my chapter to father.'
Martha went back to her rocking-chair and knitting, while Stephen reached down from a shelf an old Bible, covered with green baize, and, having carefully looked that his hard hands were quite clean, he opened it with the greatest reverence. James Fern had only begun to teach the boy to read a few months before, when he felt the first fatal symptoms of his illness; and Stephen, with his few opportunities for learning, had only mastered one chapter, the fifth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, which his father had chosen for him to begin with. The sick man lay still with closed eyes, but listening attentively to every word, and correcting his son whenever he made any mistake. When it was finished, James Fern read a few verses aloud himself, with low voice and frequent pauses to regain his strength; and very soon afterwards the whole family were in a deep sleep, except himself.
STEPHEN'S FIRST VICTORY.
James Fern did not live many more days, and he was buried the Sunday following his death. All the colliers and pitmen from Botfield walked with the funeral of their old comrade and made a great burial of it. The parish church was two miles on the other side of Botfield, and four miles from Fern's Hollow; so James Fern and his family had never, as he called it, 'troubled' the church with their attendance. All the household, even to little Nan, went with their father's corpse, to bury it in the strange and distant churchyard. Stephen felt as if he was in some long and painful dream, as he sat in the cart, with his feet resting upon his father's coffin, with his grandfather on a chair at the head, nodding and laughing at every jolt on the rough road, and Martha holding a handkerchief up to her face, and carrying a large umbrella over herself and little Nan, to keep the dust off their new black bonnets. The boy, grave as he was, could hardly think; he felt in too great a maze for that. The church, too, which he had never entered before, seemed grand and cold and immense, with its lofty arches, and a roof so high that it made him giddy to look up to it. Now and then he heard a few sentences of the burial service sounding out grandly in the clergyman's strange, deep voice; but they were not words he was familiar with, and he could not understand their meaning. At the open grave only, the clergyman said 'Our Father,' which his father had taught him during his illness; and while his tears rolled down his cheeks for the first time that day, Stephen repeated over and over again to himself, 'Our Father! our Father!'
Stephen would have liked to stay in the church for the evening service, for which the bells were already ringing; but this did not at all suit the tastes of his father's old comrades. They made haste to crowd into a public-house, where they sat and drank, and forced Stephen to drink too, in order to 'drown his grief.' It was still a painful dream to him; and more and more, as the long hours passed on, he wondered how he came there, and what all the people about him were doing. It was quite dark before they started homewards, and the poor old grandfather was no longer able to sit up in his chair, but lay helplessly at the bottom of the cart. Even Martha was fast asleep, and leaned her head upon Stephen's shoulder, without any regard for her new black bonnet. The cart was now crowded with as many of the people as could get into it, who sang and shouted along the quiet Sunday road; and, as they insisted upon stopping at every public-house they came to, it was very late before they reached the lane leading up to Fern's Hollow. The grandfather was half dragged and half carried along by two of the men, followed by Stephen bearing sleepy little Nan in his arms, and by Martha, who had wakened up in a temper between crying and scolding. The long, strange, painful dream of father's funeral was not over yet, and Stephen was still trying to think in a stupid, drowsy fashion, when he fell heavily asleep on the bed beside his grandfather.
He awoke by habit very early in the morning, and aroused himself with a great effort against dropping asleep again. He could realize and understand his position better now. Father was dead; and there was no one to earn bread for them all but himself. At this thought he sprang up instantly, though his head was aching in a manner he had never felt before. With some difficulty he awoke Martha to get his breakfast and put up his dinner in a basket which he carried with him to the pit. She also complained bitterly of her head aching, and moved about with a listlessness very different to her usual activity. 'I only wish I knew what was right,' said Stephen to himself; 'they told us we ought to show respect for father, but I don't think he'd like this. Perhaps if I could read the Bible all through, that would tell me everything.'
This thought reminded Stephen that he had promised his father to read his chapter every day of his life till he knew how to read more; and, carrying the old Bible to his favourite seat on the door-sill, a very pleasant place in the cool, fresh summer morning, he read the verses aloud, slowly and carefully, rather repeating than reading them, for he knew his chapter better by heart than by the printed letters in the book. Thank God, Stephen Fern did begin to know it by heart!
It was not a bad day in the pit. All the colliers, men and boys, were more gentle than usual with the fatherless lad; and even Black Thompson, his master since his father's illness, who was in general a fierce bully to everybody about him, spoke as mildly as he could to Stephen. Yet all the day Stephen longed for his release in the evening, thinking how much work there wanted doing in the garden, and how he and Martha must be busy in it till nightfall. The clanking of the chain which drew him up to the light of day sounded like music to him; but little did he guess that an enemy was lying in wait for him at the mouth of the pit. 'Hillo!' cried a voice down the shaft as they were nearing the top; 'one of you chaps have got to carry a sack o' coals one mile.'
The voice belonged to Tim Cole, who was the terror of the pit-bank, from his love of mischief and his insatiable desire for fighting. He was looking down the shaft now, with a grin and a laugh upon his red face, round which his shaggy red hair hung like a rough mane. There were only two other boys besides Stephen in the skip, and as their fathers were with them it might be dangerous to meddle with them; so Tim fixed upon Stephen as his prey.
'Thee has got to carry these coals, Steve,' he said, his eyes dancing with delight.
'I won't,' replied Stephen.
'Thee shalt,' cried Tim, with an oath.
'I won't,' Stephen repeated stedfastly.
'Then we'll fight for it,' said Tim, clenching his fists and squaring his arms, while the men and boys formed a ring round the two lads, and one and another spoke encouragingly to Stephen, who was somewhat slighter and younger than Tim. He had beaten Tim once before, but that was months ago; yet the blood rushed into Stephen's face, and he set his lips together firmly. Up yonder, just within the range of his sight, was Fern's Hollow, with its neglected garden, and his supper waiting for him; and here was the heavy sack of coals to be carried for a mile, or the choice of fighting with Tim.
'I wish I knew what I ought to do,' he said, speaking aloud, though speaking to himself.
'Ay, ay, lad,' cried Black Thompson; 'it's a shame to make thee fight, and thy father not cold in the graveyard yet. I say, Tim, what is it thee wants?'
'These coals,' answered Tim doggedly, 'are to be carried to the New Farm; and if Stevie Fern won't take them one mile, he must fight me afore he goes off this bank.'
'Now, lads, I'll judge between ye this time,' said Black Thompson. 'Stevie shall carry them to the end of Red Lane, and cut across the hill home: that's not much out of the way; and if Tim makes him go one step farther, I'll lick thee myself to-morrow, lad, I promise thee.'
Stephen hoisted the sack upon his shoulders in silence, and strode away with a swelling heart, in which a tumult of anger and perplexity was raging. 'If I had only a commandment about these things!' he thought. He was not quite certain whether it would not have been best and wisest to fight with Tim and have it out; especially as Tim was all the time taunting him for being a coward. But his father had read much to him during the last three months; and though he could not remember any particular commandment, he felt sure that the Bible did not encourage fighting or drunkenness. Suddenly, and before they reached the end of Red Lane, a light burst upon Stephen's mind.
'I say, Tim,' he said, speaking to him for the first time, 'it's four miles to the New Farm, and I'll go with thee a mile farther than Red Lane.'
'Eh!' cried Tim; 'and get Black Thompson to lick me to-morrow?'
'No,' said Stephen earnestly, 'I'll not tell Black Thompson; and if he hears talk of it, I'll say I did it of my own mind. Come thy ways, Tim; let's be sharp, for I've my potatoes to hoe when I get home to-night.'
The boys walked briskly on for a few minutes, past the end of Red Lane, though Stephen cast a wistful glance up it, and gave an impatient jerk to the load upon his shoulders. Tim had been walking beside him in silent reflection; but at last he came to a sudden halt.
'I can't make it out,' he said. 'What art thee up to, Stephen? Tell me out plain, or I'll fight thee here, if Black Thompson does lick me for it.'
'Why, I've been learning to read,' answered Stephen, with some pride, 'and of course I know things I didn't used to know, and what thee doesn't know now.'
'And what's that to do with it?' inquired Tim.
'My chapter says that if any man forces me to go one mile, I am to go two,' replied Stephen; 'it doesn't say why exactly, but I'm going to try what good it will be to me to do everything that my book tells me.'
'It's a queer book,' said Tim, after a pause. 'Does it say a chap may make another chap do his work for him?'
'No,' Stephen answered; 'but it says we are to love our enemies, and do good to them that hate us, that we may be the children of our Father which is in heaven—that is God, Tim. So that is why I am going a mile farther with thee.'
'I don't hate thee,' said Tim uneasily, 'but I do love fighting; I'd liever thee'd fight than come another mile. Don't thee come any farther, I've been bone lazy all day, and thee's been at work. And I say, Stevie, I'll help thee with the potatoes to-morrow, to make up for this bout.'
Stephen thanked him, and accepted his offer heartily. The load was quickly transferred to Tim's broad back, and the boys parted in more good-will than they had ever felt before; Stephen strengthened by this favourable result in his resolution to put in practice all he knew of the Bible; and Tim deep in thought, as was evident from his muttering every now and then on his way to the New Farm, 'Queer book that; and a queer chap too!'
Little Nan would be waiting for him, as well as his supper, and Stephen forgot his weariness as he bounded along the soft turf, to the great discomfiture of the brown-faced sheep, quite as anxious for their supper as he was for his.
Stephen heard far off Snip's sharp, impatient bark, and it made him quicken his steps still more, until, coming within sight of his own Hollow, he stopped suddenly, and his heart beat even more vehemently than when he was running up the hillside.
There was, however, nothing very terrible in the scene. The hut was safe, and the sun was shining brightly upon the garden, and little Nan was standing as usual at the wicket. Only in the oat-field, with their faces looking across the green, stood two men in close conversation. These men were both of them old, and rather thin and shrivelled in figure; their features bore great resemblance to each other, the eyes being small and sunken, with many wrinkles round them, and both mouths much fallen in. You would have said at once they were brothers; and if you drew near enough to hear their conversation, you would have found your guess was right.
'Brother Thomas,' said the thinnest and sharpest-looking, 'I intend to enclose as far as we can see from this point. That southern bank will be a first-rate place for young animals. I shall build a house, with three rooms above and below, besides a small dairy; and I shall plant a fir-wood behind it to keep off the east winds. The lime and bricks from my own works will not cost me much more than the expense of bringing them up here.'
'And a very pretty little hill-farm you'll make of it, James,' replied Thomas Wyley admiringly. 'I should not wonder now if you got L20 a year rent for it.'
'I shall get L25 in a few years,' said the other one: 'just think of the run for ponies on the hill, to say nothing of sheep. A young, hard-working man could make a very tidy living up here; and we shall have a respectable house, instead of a pauper's family.'
'It will be a benefit to the neighbourhood,' observed Thomas Wyley.
The latter speaker, who was a degree pleasanter-looking than his brother, was the relieving officer of the large union to which Botfield belonged; and, in consequence, all poor persons who had grown too old, or were in any way unable to work, were compelled to apply to him for the help which the laws of our country provide for such cases. James Wyley, the elder brother, was the owner of Botfield works, and the master of all the people employed in them, besides being the agent of the lord of the manor. So both these men possessed great authority over the poor; and they used the power to oppress them and grind them down to the utmost. It was therefore no wonder that Stephen stopped instantly when he saw their well-known figures standing at the corner of his oat-field; nor that he should come on slowly after he had recovered his courage, pondering in his own mind what they were come up to Fern's Hollow for, and how he should answer them if they should want him to give up the old hut.
'Good evening, my lad,' said James Wyley, smiling a slow, reluctant smile, as Stephen drew near to them with his cap in his hand. 'So you buried your father yesterday, I hear. Poor fellow! there was not a better collier at Botfield than James Fern.'
'Never troubled his parish for a sixpence,' added Thomas Wyley.
'Thank you, master,' said Stephen, the tears starting to his eyes, so unexpected was this gentle greeting to him; 'I'll try to be like father.'
'Well, my boy,' said Thomas Wyley, 'we are come up here on purpose to give you our advice, as you are such a mere lad. I've been thinking what can be done for you. There's your grandfather, a poor, simple, helpless old man, and the little girl—why, of course we shall have to receive them into the House; and I'll see there is no difficulty made about it. Then we intend to get your sister into some right good service.'
'I should not mind taking her into my own house,' said the master, Mr. James Wyley; 'she would soon learn under my niece Anne. So you will be set free to get your own living without encumbrance; you are earning your six shillings now, and that will keep you well.'
'Please, sir,' answered Stephen, 'we mean to live all together as we've been used; and I couldn't let grandfather and little Nan come upon the parish. Martha must stay at home to mind them; and I'll work my fingers to the bone for them all, sir. Many thanks all the same to you for coming up here to see after us.'
'Very fine indeed, my little fellow,' said Thomas Wyley; 'but you don't understand what you are talking about. It is my place to see after the poor, and I cannot leave you in charge of such a very old man and such a child as this, No, no; they must be taken care of; and they'll be made right comfortable in the House.'
'Father said,' replied Stephen, 'that I was never to let grandfather and little Nan come upon the parish. I get my wages, and we've no rent to pay; and the potatoes and oats will help us; and Martha can pick bilberries on the hill, and carry bundles of firing to the village; and we'll do well enough without the parish. Many thanks all the same to you, sir.'
'Hark ye, my lad,' said the master impatiently. 'I want to buy your old hut and field from you. I'll give ye a ten-pound note for it; a whole ten pounds. Why, a fortune for you!'
'Father said,' repeated Stephen, 'I was never to give up Fern's Hollow; and I gave him a sure promise for that, and to take care of little Nan as long as ever I lived.'
'Fern's Hollow is none of yours,' cried the master, in a rage; 'you've just been a family of paupers and squatters, living up here by poaching and thieving. I'll unearth you, I promise ye; you have been a disgrace to the manor long enough. So it is ten pounds or nothing for your old hole; and you may take your choice.'
'Please, sir,' said Stephen firmly, 'the place is ours, and I'm never to part with it. I'll never poach, and I'll never trespass on the manor; but I can't sell the old house, sir.'
'Now, just listen to me, young Fern,' said Thomas Wyley; 'you'll be compelled to give up Fern's Hollow in right of the lord of the manor; and then if you come to the House for relief, mark my words, I'll send your grandfather off to Bristol, for that's his parish, and you'll never see him again; and I'll give orders for you never to see little Nan; and I'll apprentice you and your other sister in different places. So you had better be reasonable, and take our advice while you can be made comfortable.'
'Please, sir, I can't go against my promise,' answered Stephen, with a sob.
'What's the use of wasting one's breath?' said the master; 'this place I want, and this place I'll have; and we'll see if this young jail-bird will stand in my way. Ah, my fine fellow, it's no such secret where your grandfather spent twenty-one years of his life; and you'll have a sup of the same broth some day. You don't keep a dog like that yelping cur for nothing; and I'll tell the gamekeeper to have his eye upon you.'
Stephen stood motionless, watching them down the narrow path which led to Botfield, until a rabbit started from beneath the hedge, and Snip, with a sharp, short bark of excitement, gave it chase in the direction of the two men. The master paused, and, looking back, shook his stick threateningly at the motionless figure of the boy; while Thomas Wyley threw a stone at the dog, which sent him back, yelping piteously, to his young master's feet. Stephen clenched his hands, and bit his lips till the blood started, but he did not move till the last glimpse of his foes had passed away from the hillside. Martha had hidden herself in the hut while they were present, for she had never spoken to the dreaded master; but she could overhear their loud and angry speeches, and now she came out and joined Stephen.
'Well, I'd have more spirit than to cry,' she said, as Stephen brushed his eyes with his sleeve; 'I'd never have spoken so gingerly to them, the wizen-faced old rascals. The place is ours, and they can't turn us out. It's no use to be cowed by them, Stephen.'
'They can turn me off the works,' answered Stephen sadly.
'And whatever shall we do then?' asked Martha, in alarm. 'Still I reckon you'll say we are to love those old wretches.'
'The Book says so,' replied Stephen.
'Well, I won't set up to try to do it for one,' continued Martha decisively; 'it's not nature; it's being over good by half. I'm willing to do my duty by you and grandfather and little Nan; but that goes beyond me. If you'd just give way, Stevie, and give them a good rating, you'd feel better after it.'
'I don't know that,' he answered, walking gloomily towards the door. He felt so much passion and anger within him, that it did seem as if it would be a relief to utter some of the terrible oaths which he heard frequently in the pit, and which had been familiar enough in his own mouth a few months ago. But now other words, familiar from daily reading, the words that he had repeated to Tim so short a time before, were being whispered, as it seemed, close by his ear: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you; pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.' There was a deadly conflict going on in the boy's soul; and Martha's angry words were helping the tempter. He sat down despondently on the door-sill, and hid his face in his hands, while he listened to his sister's taunts against his want of spirit, and her fears that he would give up their home for his new notions.
He was about to answer her at last with the passion she was trying to provoke, when a soft little cheek was pressed against his downcast head, and little Nan lisped in her broken words, 'Me sleepy, Stevie; me say "Our Father," and go to bed.'
The child knelt down before him, and laid her folded hands upon his knee, as she had done every evening since his father died, while he said the prayer, and she repeated it slowly after him. He felt as though he was praying for himself. A feeling of deep earnestness came over him; and, though his voice faltered as he said softly, 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,' it seemed as if there was a spirit in his heart agreeing to the words, and giving him power to say them. He did not know then that 'the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered;' but while he prayed with little Nan, he received great comfort and strength, though he was ignorant of the source from whence they came. When the child's prayers were ended, he roused himself cheerfully to action; and as long as the lingering twilight lasted, both Stephen and Martha were busily at work in the garden.
'So thee's the only master here,' said Tim when he came up the hill next evening, according to his promise, to help Stephen in his garden.
'And I'm the missis,' chimed in Martha, 'but I can't say how long it may be afore we have to pack off;' and she gave Tim a very long account of the master's visit the day before, finishing her description of Stephen's conduct in a tone of mingled reproach and admiration: 'And he never said a single curse at them!'
'Not when they were out of hearing?' exclaimed Tim.
'I couldn't,' answered Stephen; 'I knew what I ought to do then, if I wasn't quite sure about fighting thee, Tim. My chapter says, "Swear not at all;" and "Let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."'
'What's the meaning of that?' asked Tim, opening his eyes widely.
'Father said it meant I was to stand to my word like a man, but not swear about it. If I said Ay, to mean ay; and if I said No, to mean no, and stick to it.'
'There'd be no room for telling lies, I reckon,' said Tim reflectively.
'Of course not,' replied Stephen.
'That 'ud never answer down yonder,' said Tim, nodding towards the distant village. 'I tell thee what, lad, I'll come and quarter with thee, and help thee to be master. It 'ud be prime. Only maybe the victuals wouldn't suit me. Last Sunday, afore thy father's buryin', we'd a dinner of duck and green peas, and leg of lamb, and custard pudden, and ale. Martha doesn't get a dinner like that for thee, I reckon.'
'No,' answered Stephen shortly.
'Maybe it wouldn't suit. But what more is there in thy book?' asked Tim, whose curiosity was aroused; and Stephen, proud of his new accomplishment,—a rare one in those days among his own class,—would not lose the opportunity given him by Tim's inquiry for the display of his learning. He brought out his Bible with alacrity, and read his chapter in a loud, clear, sing-song tone, while Tim overlooked him, with his red face growing redder, and his eyebrows arched in amazement; and Martha, leaning against the door-post, glanced triumphantly at his wonder. Already, though his father had been dead only a week, Stephen began to miscall many of the harder words; but his hearers were not critical, and the performance gave unbounded satisfaction.
'That beats me!' cried Tim. 'What a headpiece thee must have, Stephen! But what does it all mean, lad? Is it all English like?'
'How can I know?' answered Stephen, somewhat sadly; 'there's nobody to learn me now; and it's very hard. There's the Pharisees, Tim, and Raca; I don't know who they are.'
The conversation was stopped by Martha suddenly starting bolt upright, and dropping two or three hurried curtseys. The boys looked up from their book quickly, and saw a young lady passing through the wicket and coming up the garden walk, with a smile upon her pleasant face as she met their gaze.
'My boys,' she said, in a soft, kindly voice, 'I've been sitting on the bank yonder, behind your cottage; and I heard one of you reading a chapter in the Bible. Which of you was it?'
'It was him,' cried Tim and Martha together, pointing at Stephen.
'And you said you had no one to teach you,' continued the lady. 'Now would you learn well, if I promised to teach you?'
Stephen looked up speechlessly into the smiling face before him. He had never read of the angels, and scarcely knew that there were such beings; but he felt as if this fair and sweet-looking lady, with her gentle voice, and the kindly eyes meeting his own, was altogether of a different order to themselves.
'I am Mr. Wyley's niece,' she added, 'and I am come to live at Botfield for a while. Could you manage to come down to Mr. Wyley's house sometimes for a lesson?'
'Please, ma'am,' said Martha, who was not at all afraid of speaking to any lady, though she dare not face the master, 'he wants to turn us out of our house; and he hates Stephen, because he won't give it up: so he wouldn't let you teach him anything.'
'Then you are Stephen Fern?' said the lady; 'I heard my uncle talking about you. Your father was buried at Longville church on Sunday. I saw the funeral leave the churchyard, and I looked for some of you to come in to the evening service. Now, Stephen, do you tell me all about your reason for not letting my uncle buy your cottage.'
Then Stephen, with some hesitation, and a good deal of assistance from Martha, told the whole history of his grandmother's settlement upon the solitary hillside, only withholding the fact of his grandfather's transportation, because Tim was listening eagerly to every word. Miss Anne listened, too, with deep attention; and once or twice the tears rose to her eyes as she heard of the weary labours and watchings of the desolate woman; and when Stephen repeated his resolution to work hard and constantly for the maintenance of his grandfather and little Nan—
'Yes, I will be your friend,' she said, reaching out her hand to him when he had finished, 'even if my uncle is your enemy. God has not given me much power, but what I have I will use for you; and you must go on striving to do right, Stephen.'
'I can't read much,' replied Stephen anxiously, 'and Martha can't read at all; but I hope we shall all get safe to heaven!'
'Knowing how to read will not take us to heaven,' said Miss Anne, smiling, 'but doing the will of God from the heart; and the will of God is that we should believe in the Lord Jesus, and follow in His steps.'
'Yes, ma'am,' answered Stephen; 'my chapter says, "Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."'
'Stephen, you know your chapter well,' said Miss Anne.
'I don't know anything else,' he answered; 'so I am always studying at that in my head, up here and down in the pit.'
'He's always mighty solid over his work, ma'am,' said Tim, pulling the front lock of his red hair, as he spoke to the young lady.
'Stephen, do you know that you have a namesake in the Bible?' asked Miss Anne.
'No, sure!' exclaimed Stephen eagerly.
'It was the name of a man who had many enemies, only because he loved the Lord Jesus; and at last they hated him so much as to kill him. He was the very first person who ever suffered death for the Lord's sake. Give me your Bible, and I will read to you how he died.'
Miss Anne's voice was very low and soft, like sweet music, as she read these verses: 'And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.'
Stephen listened breathlessly, and his face glowed with intense interest; but he was not a boy of ready speech, and, before he could utter a word, Tim burst in before him with a question, 'Please, is there a Tim in the Bible?' he asked.
'Yes,' answered Miss Anne, smiling again; 'he was a young man who knew the Bible from his youth.'
'That ain't me, however,' said Tim in a despondent tone.
'There is nothing now to prevent you beginning to know it,' continued Miss Anne. 'Listen: as Stephen cannot come to me at Botfield, you shall meet me in the Red Gravel Pit at nine o'clock on a Sunday morning as long as the summer lasts, and I will teach you all. Bring little Nan with you, Stephen.'
Down the same narrow green pathway trodden by the feet of Stephen's angry master and his brother the evening before, they now watched the little light figure of the young lady, as she slowly vanished out of their sight. When the gleaming of her dress was quite lost, Stephen rubbed his eyes for a moment, and then turned to Martha and Tim.
'Is she a real woman, dost think?' he asked.
'A real woman!' repeated Martha rather scornfully; 'of course she is; and it's a real silk gown she had on, I can tell thee. Spirits don't go about in silk gowns and broad daylight, never as I heard tell of, lad.'
THE RED GRAVEL PIT.
At the entrance of the lane leading down to the works at Botfield there stood a small square building, which was used as the weighing-house for the coal and lime fetched from the pits, and as the pay-office on the reckoning Saturday, which came once a fortnight. Upon the Saturday evening after his interview with the master, Stephen loitered in the lane with a very heavy heart, afraid of facing Mr. Wyley, lest he should receive the sentence of dismission from the pit. He did not know what he could turn his hand to if he should be discharged from what had been his work since he was eight years old; for even if he could get a place in one of the farmhouses about as waggoner's boy, he would not earn more than three shillings a week; and how very little that would do towards providing food for the three mouths at home! Fearful of knowing the worst, he lingered about the office until all the other workmen had been in and come out again jingling their wages.
But the master and his brother Thomas had been taking counsel together about the matter. Mr. Wyley was for turning the boy off at once, and reducing him to the utmost straits of poverty; but his more prudent brother was opposed to this plan.
'Look here, brother James,' he said; 'if we drive the young scamp to desperation, there's no telling what he will do. Ten to one if he does not go and tell a string of lies to some of the farmers about here, or perhaps to the parson at Longville, and they may make an unpleasant disturbance. Nobody knows and nobody cares about him as it is; but he is a determined young fellow, or I'm mistaken. Better keep him at work under your own eye, and make the place too hot for him by degrees. Before long you will catch him poaching with his dog, and if he is let off for a time or two because of his youth, and goes at it again, we can make out a pretty case of juvenile depravity, without any character from his employer, you know; and so he will be sent out of the way, and boarded at the expense of the country for a few years or so.'
'Well,' said the master, 'I'll try him once again. If he'd go out quietly, nobody else has any claim upon the cottage; and I want to set to work there quickly.'
So when Stephen entered the office with trembling limbs and a very pale face under its dusky covering, it happened that he met with a very different reception to what he expected. The master sat behind a small counter, upon which lay Stephen's twelve shillings, the only little heap of money left; and as he gathered them nervously into his hand, he wondered if this would be the last time. But his master's face was not more threatening than usual; and he muttered his 'Thank you, sir,' and was turning away with a feeling of great relief, when Mr. Wyley's harsh voice brought him back again, trembling more than ever.
'Have you thought any more of my offer, Fern?' he asked. 'I shouldn't mind, as you are an orphan, and have two sisters depending upon you, if I made the ten pounds into fifteen; and you may leave the money at interest with me till you are older.'
'And I've been thinking, Stephen,' added Thomas Wyley, who sat at a high desk checking the accounts, 'that, as you seem set against being separated, instead of taking your grandfather into the House, I'd get him two shillings a week allowed him out of it; and that would pay the rent of a nice two-roomed cottage down in Botfield, close to your work. Come, that would make all of you comfortable.'
'You should bear in mind, Stephen,' said the master, 'that the place does not of right belong to you at all; and the lord of the manor is coming to shoot over the estate in September; and then I shall have orders to remove you by force. So you had better take our offer.'
'Please, sir,' said Stephen, bowing respectfully, 'don't be angered with me, but I can't go from what I said afore. Father told me never to give up Fern's Hollow; and maybe he'd hear tell of it in heaven if I broke my word to him. I can't do it, sir.'
'Well, wilful will have his way,' said Mr. Thomas, nodding at the master; and as neither of them addressed Stephen again, he left the office, amazed to find that he was not forbidden to return to work on the following Monday.
The Red Gravel Pit, where Miss Anne had promised to meet her scholars on Sunday morning, was a quarry cut out of the side of one of the hills, from which the stones were taken for making and mending the roads in the neighbourhood. The quarry had been hollowed out into a kind of enclosed circle, only entered by the road through which the waggons passed. All along the edge of the red rocks high overhead there was a coppice of green hazel-bushes and young oaks, where the boys had spent many a Sunday searching for wild nuts, and hunting the squirrels from tree to tree. Stephen and Tim met half an hour earlier than the time appointed by Miss Anne, and by dint of great perseverance and strength rolled together five large stones, under the shadow of an oak tree; and placed four of them in a row before the largest one, as Tim had once seen the children sitting in the village school at Longville, when he had taken a donkey-load of coals for the schoolmaster. Martha came in good time with little Nan, both in their new black bonnets and clean cotton shawls; and all were seated orderly in a row when Miss Anne entered the Red Gravel Pit by the waggon road.
I need not describe to you how Miss Anne heard Stephen read his chapter, and taught Tim and Martha, and even little Nan herself, the first few letters of the alphabet; after which she made them all repeat a verse of a hymn, and, when they could say it correctly, sang it with them over and over again, in her sweet and clear voice, until Stephen felt almost choked with a sob of pure gladness, that would every now and then rise to his lips. Tim sang loudly and lustily, getting out of tune very often. But little Nan was a marvel to hear, so soft and sweet were her childish tones, so that Miss Anne bade her sing the verse alone, which she did perfectly. Martha, too, was full of admiration of the lady's lilac silk dress and the white ribbon on her bonnet.
That was the first of many pleasant Sunday mornings in the Red Gravel Pit. When the novelty was worn away, Martha discovered that she had too much to do at home to be able to leave it so early in the day; and Tim sometimes overslept himself on a Sunday, when most of his comrades spent the whole morning in bed. But Stephen and little Nan were always there, and their teacher never failed to meet them. Nor did Miss Anne confine her care of the orphan children to a Sunday morning only. Sometimes she would mount the hill during the long summer evenings, and pay their little household a visit, giving Martha many quiet hints about her management and her outlay of Stephen's wages; hints which Martha did not always receive as graciously as they were given. Miss Anne would read also to the blind old grandfather, choosing very simple and easy portions of the Bible, especially about the lost sheep being found, as that pleased the old shepherd, and he could fully understand its meaning. In general, Miss Anne was very cheerful, and she would laugh merrily at times; but now and then her face looked pale and sad, and her voice was very mournful while she talked and sang with them. Once, even, when she bade Stephen 'good evening,' an exceedingly sorrowful expression passed across her face, and she said to him, 'I find it quite as hard work to serve God really and truly as you do, Stephen. There is only one Helper for both of us; and we can only do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us.'
But Stephen could not believe that good, gentle Miss Anne found it as hard to be a Christian as he did. Everything seemed against him at the works. The short indulgence from hard words and hard blows granted him after his father's death was followed by what appeared to be a very tempest of oppression. It was very soon understood that the master had a private grudge against the boy; and though the workpeople were ground down and wronged in a hundred ways by him, so as to fill them with hatred and revenge, they were not the less willing to take advantage of his spite against Stephen. His work underground, which had always been distasteful to him compared with a shepherd's life on the hills, was now made more toilsome and dangerous than ever, while Black Thompson followed him everywhere and all day long with oaths and blows. Stephen's evident superiority over the other boys was of course very much against him; for he had never been much associated with them, as his distant home had separated him from them excepting during the busy hours of labour. Now, when, through his own self-satisfaction and Tim's loud praises, his accomplishments became known, it is no wonder that a storm of envy and jealousy raged round him; for not only the boys themselves, but their fathers also, felt affronted at his wonderful scholarship. To be sure, Tim never deserted him, and his partisanship was especially useful on the bank, before he went down and after he came up from the pit. But below, in the dark, dismal passages of the pit, many a stripe, unmerited, fell upon his bruised shoulders, which he learned to bear the more patiently after Miss Anne had taught and explained to him the verse, 'But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.' Still Stephen, feeling how hard it was to continue in the right way, and knowing how often he failed, to his own sore mortification and the rude triumph of his comrades, wondered exceedingly how it was possible for Miss Anne to find it as hard to be a follower of Christ as he did.
The middle weeks of August were come—sunny, sultry weeks; and from the brow of the hill, all the vast plain lying westward for many miles looked golden with the corn ripening for harvest. The oats in the little field had already been reaped; and the fruit in the garden, gathered and sold by Martha, had brought in a few shillings, which were carefully hoarded up to buy winter clothing. It was now the time of the yearly gathering of bilberries on the hills; and tribes of women and children ascended to the tableland from all the villages round. It was the pleasantest work of the year; and Martha, who had never missed the bilberry season since she could remember, was not likely to miss it now. Even little Nan could help to pick the berries, and she and Martha were out on the hillsides all the livelong summer day. Their dwelling on the spot gave them a good advantage over those who lived down in Botfield; and each day, before any of the others could reach the best bilberry-wires, they had already picked a quart of the small purple berries, fresh and cool with the dew of the morning. Only the poor old grandfather had to be left at home alone, with his dinner put ready for him, which he was apt to eat up long before the proper dinner-hour came; and then he had to wait until Stephen returned from his work, or Martha and little Nan were driven home by the August thunderstorms. Martha was wonderfully successful this year, and gained more money by selling her bilberries than she thought necessary to show to Stephen; though, on his part, he always brought her every penny of his wages.
Ever since their father's funeral there had been a subject of dispute between the brother and sister. Martha was bent upon enclosing the green dell, with its clear, cool little pond; and to this end she spent all the time she could spare in raising a rough fence of stones and peat round it. But Stephen would not consent to it; and neither argument, scolding, nor coaxing could turn him. He always answered that he had promised the master that he would not trespass on the manor; and he must stand to his word, whatever they might lose by it; though, indeed, he saw no harm in making green fields out of the waste land. Martha, on her side, maintained her right as the eldest to act as she judged best; and, moreover, urged the example of her thrifty grandmother, who had planned this very enclosure, and whose pattern she was determined to follow. But before long the dispute was ended, and the subject of it became a matter of heart-troubling wonder, for several labourers from the master's farm began to fence in the very same ground, as well as to prepare the turf behind Fern's Hollow for the planting of young trees; and neither Stephen nor Martha could hide from the other that these labours made them feel exceedingly uneasy.
'I say, Stephen,' said one of the hedgers, as he was going down from his work one evening, and met the tired boy coming up from his, 'I'm afeared there's some mischief brewing. There's master, and Mr. Thomas, and Mr. Jones the gamekeeper, been talking with thy grandfather nigh upon an hour. There'll be a upshot some day, I know; and Jones, he said summat about leaving a keepsake for thee.'
'What could it be, William?' asked Stephen anxiously.
'How should I know?' said the man, with some reluctance. 'Only, lad, I did hear a gun go off; and I never heard Snip bark again, though I listened for him. Stephen, Stephen, dunna thee go so mad like!'
But it was no use shouting after Stephen, as he ran frantically up the hill. Snip was always basking lazily in the sunshine under the hedge of the paddock, at the very point where he could catch the first sight of his young master, after which there was no more idleness or stillness in him. Stephen could hardly breathe when he found that Snip was not at the usual place to greet him; but before he reached his home he saw it—the dead body of his own poor Snip—hung on the post of the wicket through which he had to pass. He flew to the place; he tore his own hands with the nails that were driven through Snip's feet; and then, without a thought of his grandfather or of his own hunger, he bore away the dead dog in his arms, and wandered far out of sight or sound of the hateful, cruel world, into one of the most solitary plains upon the uplands.
Any one passing by might have thought that Stephen was fast asleep in the last slanting rays of the sun, which shone upon him there some time after the evening shadows had fallen upon Botfield; but a frenzy of passion, too strong for any words, had felled him to the ground, where he lay beside Snip. The gamekeeper, who had so many dogs that he did not care for any one of them in particular, had killed this one creature that was dearer to him than anything in the world, except little Nan, and grandfather, and Martha. And Snip was dead, without remedy; no power on earth could bring back the departed life. Oh, if he could only punish the villain who had shot his poor faithful dog! But he was nothing but a poor boy, very poor, and very helpless and friendless, and people would only laugh at his trouble. All the world was against him, and he could do nothing to revenge himself, but to hate everybody!
'Why, lad! why, Stephen! what ails thee?' said Black Thompson's voice, close behind him. 'Eh! who's gone and shot Snip? That rascal Jones, I'll go bail! Is he quite dead, Stephen? Stand up, lad, and let's give a look at him.'
The boy rose, and faced Black Thompson and his comrade with eyes that were bloodshot, though he had not shed a tear, and with lips almost bitten through by his angry teeth. Both the men handled the dog gently and carefully, but, after a moment's inspection, Thompson laid it down again on the turf.
'It's a shame!' he cried, with an oath that sounded pleasantly in Stephen's ears; 'it was one of the best little dogs about. I'd take my vengeance on him for this. In thy place, I couldn't sleep till I'd done something.'
'Ay!' said Stephen, with flashing eyes; 'I know where he's keeping a covey of birds up against game day—nineteen of them. I've seen them every day, and I could go to the place in the dark.'
'That's a brave lad!' said Black Thompson; 'he's got his father's pluck after all, as I've always told thee, Davies, and we'll see him righted. He's got his eyes in his head, has this lad!'
'They're down in the leasowe, between the Firspinny and Ragleth Hill,' continued Stephen; 'and they're just prime, I can tell ye. And I know, too, what he doesn't know himself. I know to some black game, far away up the hill. He'd give his two eyes to see them, with their white wing-feathers; and if he hadn't'—
Stephen stopped, with quivering lips, for he could not speak yet of Snip's murder.
'Never take on, my lad,' said Black Thompson, clapping him on the back; 'we'll spoil his sport for him. Come thy ways with us; it'll be dark dusk afore we gain the spinny, and Jones is off to the Whitehurst woods to-night. We'll have as rare sport as the lord of the manor himself. Thee art a sharp one. I'd lay a round wager, now, thee knows where all the sheep of the hillside fold of nights.'
'Ay, do I,' answered Stephen, walking briskly beside Black Thompson; 'I know every walk and every fold on the hills; ay, and many of the sheep themselves. I keep my eyes wide open out of doors, I promise ye.'
'I'll swear to that,' said Black Thompson, glad to encourage the boy in his foolish boasting. On their way they passed near to Fern's Hollow, and Stephen heard little Nan's shrill voice calling his name, as if she were seeking him weariedly; but when he hesitated for a moment, his heart yearning to answer her, Black Thompson again patted him on the back, and bade him never show the white feather, but remember poor dead Snip; at which his passion for revenge returned, and he pressed on eagerly to the fir-coppice.
It was quite dark when they entered the path leading through the wood. No one spoke now, and they trod cautiously, lest there should be any noise from their footsteps. The tall black fir-trees towered above them to an unusual height; and through all the topmost branches there ran a low, mournful sound, as if every tree was whispering about them, and lamenting over them. Even the little brook, which in the sunshine rippled so merrily along the borders of the wood, seemed to be sobbing like a grieved and tired child in the night-time. Strange rustlings on every side, and sudden groanings of the withered boughs in some of the pines, made them start in fear; and once, in a little opening among the trees, when the stars came out and looked down upon them, Stephen would have given all he had in the world to be safe at home, with little Nan singing hymns on his knee, or quietly asleep after the hot and busy day.
'It's lonesome enough to make a bull-dog afeared,' whispered Davies, in a frightened tone. But before long they were out of the wood; and in the glimmer of light that lasts all night through during the summer, Stephen saw Black Thompson unwind a net, which had been wrapped round his body under his collier's jacket. More than half the covey of partridges were bagged; and they had such capital luck, as the men called it, that Stephen soon entered into the daring spirit of the adventure. It sent a thrill of excitement through him, in which poor Snip was for the time forgotten; and when about midnight Black Thompson and Davies said 'Good-night' to him at his cottage door, calling him a brave fellow, and giving him a fine young leveret, with the promise that he should have his share of whatever money they received for their spoil, he entered his dark home, where every one was slumbering peacefully, and, without a thought of sorrow or repentance, was quickly asleep himself.
STEPHEN AND THE GAMEKEEPER.
Martha's exclamation of surprise and delight at seeing the leveret was the first sound that Stephen heard in the morning; but he preserved a sullen silence as to his absence the previous night, and Martha was too shrewd to press him with questions. They had not been unused to such fare during their father's lifetime; and it was settled between them that she should come down from the bilberry-plain early in the afternoon to make a feast of the leveret by the time of Stephen's return from the pit.
All day long Stephen found himself treated with marked distinction and favour by Black Thompson and his comrades, to some of whom he heard him say, in a loud whisper, that 'Stephen 'ud show himself a chip of the old block yet.' At dinner they invited him to sit within their circle, where he laughed and talked with the best of them, and was listened to as if he were already a man. How different to his usually hurried meal beside the horses, that worked like himself in the dark, close passages, but did not, like him, ascend each evening to the grassy fields and the pure air of the upper earth! Stephen had a true tenderness in his nature towards these dumb fellow-labourers, and they loved the sound of his voice, and the kindly patting of his hand; but somehow he felt as if they knew how he had left his faithful old Snip unburied on the open hillside, where Black Thompson had found him in his passion the evening before. He was not sorry for what he had done; he would avenge himself on the gamekeeper again whenever there was an opportunity. Even now, he promised Black Thompson, when they were away from the other colliers, to show him the haunts of the scarce black grouse, which would be so valuable to the gamekeeper; and he enjoyed Black Thompson's applause. But there was a sore pang in his heart, as he remembered dead Snip, unburied on the hillside.
Supper was ready when he reached home; and what a savoury smell came through the open door, quite down to the wicket! Of course Snip was not watching for him; and little Nan also, instead of looking out for him as usual, was waiting eagerly to be helped; for, as soon as Stephen was seen over the brow of the hill, Martha poured her dainty stew into a large brown dish, and she had already portioned out a plateful for the grandfather. Few words were uttered, for Martha was hot, and rather testy; and Stephen felt a sullen weight hanging upon his spirits. Only every now and then the old grandfather, chuckling and mumbling over the uncommon delicacy, would call Stephen by his father's name of James, and thank him for his rare supper.
'Good evening,' said Miss Anne's voice, and as the light from the doorway was darkened, all the party looked up quickly, and Stephen felt himself growing hot and cold by turns. 'Your supper smells very nice, Martha; there has been some good cooking done to-day.'
'Oh, Miss Anne,' cried Martha, colouring up with excitement and fear, 'it is a young leveret Mrs. Jones, the gamekeeper's wife, gave me for some knitting I'd done for her; she said it 'ud be a treat for grandfather. I've been cooking it all evening, ma'am, and it's very toothsome. If you'd only just taste a mouthful, it 'ud make me ever so proud.'
'Thank you, Martha,' said Miss Anne, smiling; 'I am quite hungry with climbing the hill, and if it is as good as the bread you gave me the other day, I shall enjoy having my supper with you.'
Stephen scarcely heard what Miss Anne said to him, while he watched Martha bustling about to reach out a grand china plate, which was one of the great treasures of their possessions; and he looked on silently as she chose the daintiest morsels of the stew; but when she moved the little table nearer to the door, and laid the plate and knife and fork upon it, before Miss Anne, he started to his feet, unable to sit still and see her partake of the food which he had procured in such a manner.
'Don't touch it! don't taste it, Miss Anne!' he cried excitedly. 'Oh, please to come out with me to the bent of the hill, and I'll tell you why. But don't eat any of it!'
He darted out at the door before Martha could stop him, and ran down the green path to a place where he was out of sight and hearing of his home, waiting breathlessly for Miss Anne to overtake him. It was some minutes before she came, and her face was overcast and troubled; but she listened in silence, while, without concealment, but with many bitter and passionate words against the gamekeeper, and excuses for his own conduct, he confessed to her all the occurrences of the night before. Every moment his agitation increased under her quiet, mournful look of reproach, until, as he came to the close, he cried out in a sorrowful but defiant tone, 'Oh, Miss Anne, I could not bear it!'
'Do you remember,' she asked, in a low and tender voice, 'how poor Snip used to follow me down to this very spot, and sit here till I was out of sight? I was very fond of poor old Snip, Stephen!' Yes, her voice trembled, and tears were in her eyes. The proud bulwark which Stephen had been raising against his grief was broken down in a moment. He sank down on the turf at Miss Anne's feet; and, no longer checking the tears which had been burning in his eyes all day, he wept and sobbed vehemently, until his passion had worn away.
'And now,' said Miss Anne, sitting down beside him, 'I must tell you that, though I am not surprised, I am very, very grieved, Stephen. If you knew your Bible more, you would have read this verse in it, "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." Did no way of escape open to you, Stephen?'
Then Stephen remembered how he had heard dear little Nan calling piteously to him as he passed Fern's Hollow with Black Thompson; and how his heart yearned to go to her, though he had resisted and conquered this saving impulse.
'You do not know much,' continued Miss Anne, 'but if you had followed out all you do know, instead of poaching with Black Thompson that you might revenge yourself for Snip being killed, you would have been praying for them that persecute you. The Bible says that not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father. So God knew that poor Snip was shot.'
'But why did He not hinder it?' asked Stephen, speaking low and indistinctly.
'Stephen,' said Miss Anne earnestly, 'suppose that I lived in a very grand palace, where there were many things that you had never seen, and I wanted little Nan to come and live with me, not as a servant, but as my dear child; would it be unkind of me to send her first to a school, where she could learn how to read the books, and understand the pictures, and play the music she would find in my palace? Even if the lessons were often hard, and some of her schoolfellows were cruel and unkind to her, would it not be better for her to bear it for a little while, until she was made ready to live with me as my own child?'
The young lady paused for a few minutes, while Stephen pictured to himself the grand palace, and little Nan being made fit to live in it; and when at last he raised his brown eyes to hers, bright with the pleasant thought, she went on in a quiet, reverential tone:
'Perhaps we could not understand any of the things of heaven, so our Father which is in heaven sends us to school here; we are learning lessons all our life long. There is not a single trouble that comes to us but it is to teach us the meaning of something we shall meet with there. We should not be happy to hear the angels singing a song which we could not understand, because we had missed our lessons down here.'
'Oh, Miss Anne,' cried Stephen, 'I feel as if I could bear anything when I think of that! Only I wish I was as strong as an angel.'
'Patience is better than strength,' said Miss Anne, in a tone as if she were speaking to herself: 'patiently to bear the will of God, and patiently to keep His commandments, is greater and more glorious than the strength of an angel.'
'Black Thompson was so kind to me all to-day,' said Stephen, sighing; 'and now he'll be ten times worse if I go back from telling him where the black game is.'
'You must do right,' replied Miss Anne, with a glance that brought back true courage to the boy's heart; 'and remember that "blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Now, good-night, Stephen. Go and bury poor Snip while there is daylight, in some quiet place where you can go and think and read and play sometimes.'
Stephen returned to the hut for a spade, and then went, with a strange blending of grief and gladness, to the place where he had left his poor dog. He chose a solitary yew tree on the hill for the burial ground, and dug as deep a grave as he could among the far-spreading roots. It was strange, only such things do happen now and then, that while he was working away hard and fast, with the dead dog lying by under the trunk of the yew tree, the gamekeeper himself passed that way. He had been in a terrible temper all day, for he had discovered the mischief done down in the fir-coppice, and the loss of his carefully-preserved covey. The sight of Stephen and dead Snip irritated him; though a feeling of shame crept over him as he saw how tear-stained the boy's face was.
'Mr. Jones,' said Stephen, 'I've something to say to you.'
'Be sharp, then,' replied the gamekeeper, 'and mind what you're about. I'll not take any impudence from a young rascal like you.'
'It's no impudence,' answered Stephen; 'only I know to some black game, and I wanted to tell you about them.'
'Black game!' he said contemptuously. 'A likely story. There's been none these half-dozen years.'
'It's four years since,' answered Stephen; 'I remember, because grandfather and I saw them the day mother died, when little Nan was born. I couldn't forget them or mistake them after that. They are at the head of the Black Valley, where the quaking noise begins. I'm sure I'm right, sir.'
'You are not making game of me?' asked Jones, laughing heartily at his own wit. 'Well, my lad, if this is true, it will be worth something to me. Hark ye, I'm sorry about your dog, and you shall choose any one of mine you like, if you'll promise to keep him out of mischief.'
'I couldn't have another dog in Snip's place,' replied Stephen in a choked voice; 'at any rate not yet, thank you, sir.'
'Well,' said the gamekeeper, shouldering his gun, and walking off, 'I'll be your friend, young Fern, when it does not hurt myself.'
Of course Stephen's brief term of favour with Black Thompson was at an end; but whether Miss Anne had given him a hint that the boy was under her protection, and had confessed all to her, or because he might be busy in some deeper scheme of wickedness, he did not display as much anger as Stephen expected, when he refused to show him the haunts of the grouse, or go with him again on a poaching expedition. Stephen was more humble and vigilant than he had been before falling into temptation. He set a close watch upon himself, lest he should be betrayed into a self-confident spirit again; and Tim's loud praises sounded less pleasantly in his ears, so that one evening he told him, with much shame, into what sin he had been led by his desire to avenge Snip's murder. Unfortunately, this disclosure so much heightened Tim's estimation of his character, that from time to time he gave utterance to mysterious hints of the extraordinary courage and spirit Stephen could manifest when occasion required. These praises were, however, in some measure balanced by Martha's taunts and reproaches at home.
The shooting season had commenced, and the lord of the manor was come, with a number of his friends, to shoot over the hills and plantations. He was a frank, pleasant-looking gentleman, but far too grand and high for Stephen to address, though he gazed wistfully at him whenever he chanced to meet him on the hills. One afternoon Martha saw him and the master walking towards Fern's Hollow, where the fencing-in of the green and of the coppice behind the hut were being finished rapidly; and she crept with stealthy steps under the hedge of the garden, until she came within earshot of them; but they were just moving on, and all she heard of the conversation were these words, from the lord of the manor: 'You shall have it at any rate you fix, Wyley—at a peppercorn rent, if you please; but I will not sell a square yard of my land out and out.' How Martha and Stephen did talk about those words over and over again, and could never come to any conclusion about them.
It was about noon on Michaelmas Day, a day which was of no note up at Fern's Hollow, where there was no rent to be paid, and Martha was busily hanging out clothes to dry on the gorse bushes before the house, when she saw a troop of labourers coming over the brow of the hill and crossing the newly-enclosed pasture. They were armed with mattocks and pickaxes; but as the peaceful little cottage rose before them, with blind old Fern basking in the warm sunshine, and little Nan playing quietly about the door-sill, the men gathered into a little knot, and stood still with an irresolute and ashamed aspect.
'They know nothing about it,' said William Morris; 'look at them, as easy and unconcerned as lambs. I was afeared there'd be a upshot, when the master were after old Fern so long. I don't half like the job; and Stephen isn't here. He does look a bit like a man, and we could argy with him; but that old man, and that girl—they'll take on so.'
'I say, Martha,' shouted a bolder-hearted man, 'hasn't the master let thee know thee must turn out to-day? He wants to lay the foundation of a new house, and get the walls up afore the frost comes on; and we are come to pick the old place to the ground. He only told us an hour ago, or we'd have seen thee was ready.'
'I don't believe thee; thee's only romancing,' said Martha, turning very pale. 'The old place is our own, and no master has any right to it, save Stephen.'
'It's no use wasting breath,' replied William Morris. 'The master says he's bought the place from thy grandfather, lass; and he agreed to turn out by noon on Michaelmas Day. Master doesn't want to be hard upon you; and he says, if you've no place to turn in to, you may go to the old cabin on the upper cinder-hill, till there's a cottage empty in Botfield; and we'll help thee to move the things at wunst. We're to get the roof off and the walls down afore nightfall.'
'Grandfather and little Nan!' screamed Martha; 'get into the house this minute! It's no use you men coming up here on this errand. You know grandfather's simple, and he hasn't sold the house; how could he? He's no more sense than little Nan. No, no; you must go down to the works, and hear what Stephen says. You're a pack of rascals, every one of you, and the master's the biggest; and you'll all have to gnash your teeth over this business some day, I reckon.'
By this time the old man and the child were safely within the house; and Martha, springing quickly from the wicket, where she had kept the men at bay, followed them in, and barred the door, before any one of the labourers could thrust his shoulder in to prevent her. They held a consultation together when they found that no arguments prevailed upon her to open to them, to which Martha listened disdainfully through the large chinks, but vouchsafed no answer.
'Come, come, my lass,' said William Morris soothingly; 'it's lost time and strength, thee contending with the master. I don't like the business; but our orders are clear, and we must obey them. Thee let us in, and we'll carry the things down to the cinder-hill cabin for thee. If thee won't open the door, we'll be forced to take the thatch off.'
'I won't,' answered Martha,—'not for the lord of the manor himself. The house is ours, and I 'ware any of you to touch it. Go down to Stephen and hear what he'll say. If thee takes the thatch off, thee shan't move me out.'
But when the old stove-pipe, through which the last breath of the household fire had passed, was drawn up, and the blue sky could be seen through the cloud of dust and dirt with which the hut was filled, choking the helpless old man and the frightened child, Martha's courage failed her; and she went out, with little Nan clinging round her, and spoke as calmly to the invaders as her rising sobs would let her.
'You know it's grandmother's own house,' she said; 'and the lord of the manor himself has no right to it. But I'll go down and fetch Stephen, if you'll only wait.'
'We daren't wait, Martha,' answered Morris kindly; 'and it's no use, lass; the master's too many for thee. But thee go down to Stephen; and we'll move the things safe, as if they were our own, and put them where they'll not be broken; and we'll take care of little Nan and thy poor old grandfather. Tell Stephen we're desperately cut up about it ourselves; but, if we hadn't done it, somebody that has no good-will towards him would have taken the job. So go thy poor ways with thee, my lass; we are main sorry for thee and Stephen.'
The hot, choking smoke from the limekiln was blowing across the works; and the dusty pit-bank was covered with busy men and boys and girls, shouting, laughing, singing, and swearing, when Martha arrived at Botfield. She was rarely seen at the pit, for her thrifty and housewifely habits kept her busy at Fern's Hollow; and the rough, loud voices of the banksmen, the regular beat of the engine, the clanking of chains, and the dust and smoke and heat of the almost strange scene bewildered the hillside girl. She made her way to the cabin, a little hut built near the mouth of the shaft for the use of the people employed about the pit; but before she could see Tim, or fix upon any one to inquire about Stephen from, a girl of her own age, but with a face sunburnt and blackened from her rough and unwomanly work, and in an uncouth dress of sackcloth, which was grimed with coal-dust, came up and peered boldly in her face.
'Why, it's Miss Fern!' she cried, with a loud laugh; 'Miss Fern, Esq., of Fern's Hollow, come to learn us poor pit-folk scholarship and manners. Here, lads! here's Mr. Stephen Fern's fine sister, as knows more nor all of us put together. Give us a bit of your learning, Miss Fern.'
'I know a black-bess when I see one,' replied Martha sharply; and all the boys and girls joined in a ready roar of merriment against Bess Thompson, whose nickname was the common country name for a beetle.
'That'll do!' they shouted; 'she knows a black-bess! Thee's got thy answer, Bess Thompson.'
'What's brought thee to the pit?' asked Bess fiercely; 'we want no scatter-witted hill girls here, I can tell ye. So get off the pit-bank, afore I drive thee off.'
'What's all this hullabaloo?' inquired Tim, making his appearance at the cabin door. 'Why, Martha, what brings thee at the pit? Come in here, and tell me what's up now.'
Tim listened to Martha's tearful story with great amazement and indignation; and, after a few minutes' consideration, he told her he had nothing much to do, and he would get leave to take Stephen's place for the rest of the day, so as to set him free to go home at once. He left her standing in the middle of the cabin, for the rough benches round it looked too black for her to venture to take a seat upon them; and in a short time he shouted to her from a skep, which was being lowered into the pit, promising her that Stephen should come up as soon as possible. It seemed a terribly long time to wait amid that noise and dust, and every now and then Black Bess relieved her feelings by making hideous grimaces at her when she passed the cabin door; but Stephen ascended at last, very stern-looking and silent, for Tim had told him Martha's business; and he hurried her away from the pit-bank before he would listen to the detailed account she was longing to give. Even when they were in the lonely lane leading homewards, and she was talking and sobbing herself out of breath, he walked on without a word passing his lips, though his heart was sending up ceaseless prayers to God for help to bear this trial with patience. Poor old home! There was all the well-used household furniture carried out and heaped together on the turf,—chairs and tables and beds,—looking so differently to what they did when arranged in their proper order. The old man, with his grey head uncovered, was wandering to and fro in sore bewilderment; and little Nan had fallen asleep beside the furniture, with the trace of tears upon her rosy cheeks. But the house was almost gone. The door-sill, where Stephen had so often seen the sun go down as he rested himself from his labours, was already taken up; the old grate, round which they had sat all the winter nights that he had ever known, was pulled out of the rock; and all the floor was open to the mocking sunshine. It is a mournful thing to see one's own home in ruins; and a tear or two made a white channel down the coal-dust on Stephen's cheeks; but he subdued himself, and spoke out to the labourers like a man.
'I know it's not your fault,' he said, as they stood round him, making explanations and excuses; 'but you know grandfather could not sell the place. I'll get you to help me carry the things down to the cinder-hill cabin. The sheep and ponies are coming down the hill, and there'll be rain afore long; and it's not fit for grandfather and little Nan to be out in it. You'll spare time from the work for that?'
'Ay, will we!' cried the men heartily; and, submitting kindly to Stephen's quiet directions, they were soon laden with the household goods, which were scanty and easily removed. Two or three journeys were sufficient to take them all; and when the labourers returned for the last time to their work of destruction, Stephen took little Nan in his arms, and Martha led away the old man; while the sound of the pickaxes and the crash of the rough rubble stones of their old home followed their slow and lingering steps over the new pasture, and down the hillside towards Botfield.
THE CABIN ON THE CINDER-HILL.
The cinder-hill cabin was situated at the mouth of an old shaft, long out of use, but said to lead into the same pit as that now worked, the entrance to which was about a quarter of a mile distant. The cabin was about the same size as the hut from which the helpless family had been driven; but the thatch wanted so much mending that Stephen and Martha were obliged to draw over it one of their patchwork quilts, to shelter them for the night from the rain which was threatened by the gathering clouds. The door from the hut at Fern's Hollow was fortunately rather too large instead of being too small for the doorway; and William Morris promised to bring them a shutter for the window-place, where there was no glass. Altogether, the cabin was not very inferior to their old home; but, instead of the soft green turf and the fragrant air of the hills, they were surrounded by barren cinder-heaps, upon which nothing would grow but the yellow coltsfoot and a few weeds, and the wind was blowing clouds of smoke from the limekilns over and round the dismal cabin. Stephen, with the profound silence that began to frighten Martha, made every arrangement he could think of for their comfort during the quickly-approaching night; and as soon as this was finished, he washed and dressed himself, as upon a Sunday morning, before going to meet Miss Anne in the Red Gravel Pit. He was leaving the cabin without speaking, when little Nan, who had watched everything in childish bewilderment and dismay, set up a loud, pitiful cry, which he soothed with great difficulty.
'Stevie going to live here?' said the little child at last, with a deep sob.
'Ay, little Nan,' he answered; 'for a bit, darling. Please God, we'll go home again some day. But little Nan shall always live with Stevie. That'll do; won't it?'
'Ay, Stevie,' sobbed the child; and Stephen, kissing her tenderly, put her on to Martha's lap, and walked out into the moonlight. The clouds were hanging heavily in the western sky, but the clearer heavens shone all the brighter by the contrast. The mountains lay before him, calm and immovable in the soft light; and he could see the round outline of his own hollow, at which his heart throbbed for a minute painfully. But there was a hidden corner at the side of the cabin, and there Stephen knelt down to pray earnestly before he went farther on his errand, until, calm and quiet as the hills, and as the moon which seemed to be gazing lovingly upon them, he went on with a brave and stedfast spirit to the master's house.
Botfield Hall was a large, half-timbered farmhouse, with a gabled roof, part of which was made of thatch and the rest of tiles. It stood quite alone, at a little distance from the works, on the other side of them to that where the village was built. The window-casements were framed of stone; and the outer doors were of thick, solid oak, studded with large-headed iron nails. The iron ring that served as a rapper on the back door fell with a loud clang from Stephen's fingers upon the nails, and startled him with its din, so that he could hardly speak to the servant who answered his noisy summons. They crossed a kitchen, into which many doors opened, to a kind of parlour beyond, fitted up with furniture that looked wonderfully handsome and grand in Stephen's eyes, and where the master was sitting by a comfortable fire. The impatient servant pushed him within the door, and closed it behind her, leaving him standing upon a mat, and shyly stroking his cap round and round, while the master sat still, and gazed at him steadily with an assumed air of amazement, though inwardly he was more afraid of the boy than Stephen was of him. It makes a coward of a man or boy to do anybody an injury.
'Pray, what business brings you here, young Fern?' he asked in a gruff voice.
'Sir,' said Stephen firmly, but without any insolence of manner, 'I want to know who has turned us out of our own house. Is it the lord of the manor, or you?'
'I've bought the place for myself,' answered the master, bringing his hand down with a heavy blow upon the table before him, as if he would like to knock Stephen down with the same force.
'There's nobody to sell it but me,' said the boy.
'You think so, my lad, do you? Why, if it were your own, you would have no power over it till you are one-and-twenty. But the place was your grandfather's, and he has sold it to me for L15. When your grandfather returned from transportation his wife's hut became his; and his right to it does not go over to anybody else till he is dead. It never belonged to your father; and you can have no right to it. If you want to see the deed of purchase, it is safe here, witnessed by my brother Thomas and Jones the gamekeeper, and your grandfather's mark put to it. I would show it to you; but I reckon, with all your learning, you would not make much out of it.'
'Sir,' said Stephen, trembling, 'grandfather is quite simple and dark. He couldn't understand that you were buying the place of him. Besides, he's never had the money?'
'What do you mean, you young scoundrel?' cried the master. 'I gave it into his own hands, and made him put it into his waistcoat pocket for safety. Simple is he, and dark? He could attend his son's funeral four miles off only a few months ago; and he can understand my niece Anne's fine reading, which I cannot understand myself. Ask him for the three five-pound notes I gave him, if you have not had them already.'
'How long ago is it?' inquired Stephen.
'You can't remember!' said the master, laughing: 'well, well, Jones left you a keepsake at your garden wicket for you to remember the day by.'
Stephen's face flushed into a wrathful crimson, but he did not speak; and in a minute or two the master said sharply,—
'Come, be off with you, if you've got nothing else to say.'
'I have got something else to say,' answered Stephen, walking up to the table and looking steadily into his master's face. 'God sees both of us; and He knows you have no right to the place, and I have. I believe some day we'll go back again, though you have pulled the old house down to the ground. I don't want to make God angry with me. But the Bible says He seeth in secret, and He will reward us openly.'
The master shrank and turned pale before the keen, composed gaze of the boy and his manly bearing; but Stephen's heart began to fail him, and, with trembling limbs and eyes that could scarcely see, he made his way out of the room, and out of the house, down to the end of the shrubbery. There he could bear up no longer, and he sat down under the laurels, shivering with a feeling of despair. The worst was come upon him now, and he saw no helper.
'My poor boy,' said Miss Anne's gentle voice, and he felt her hand laid softly on his shoulder. 'My poor Stephen, I have heard all, and I know how bitterly hard it is to bear.'
Stephen answered her only with a low, half-suppressed groan; and then he sat speechless and motionless, as if his despair had completely paralyzed him.
'Listen, Stephen,' she continued, with energy: 'you told me once that the clergyman at Danesford has some paper belonging to you, about the cottage. You must go to him, and tell him frankly your whole story. I do not believe that what my uncle has done would stand in law, and I myself, if it be necessary, would testify that your grandfather could not understand such a transaction. But perhaps it could be settled without going to law, if the clergyman at Danesford would take it in hand; for my uncle is very wishful to keep a good name in the country. But if not, Stephen Fern, I promise you faithfully that should Fern's Hollow ever come into my possession, and I be my uncle's only relative, I will restore it to you as your rightful inheritance.'