COMPLETE PROSE WORKS
MARTIN FARQUHAR TUPPER, ESQ.
THE CROCK OF GOLD,
AN AUTHOR'S MIND,
REVISED EXPRESSLY FOR THIS EDITION BY W. C. ARMSTRONG.
HARTFORD: PUBLISHED BY SILAS ANDRUS & SON 1851.
- Transcriber's Note: Obvious printer errors have been corrected. This omnibus edition consists of four separately published works which contain many inconsistencies. These are as in the originals. -
Mr. Tupper has achieved a popularity for his works, which has rarely been enjoyed by any one at so early a period of life; he being now only between thirty-five and forty years of age. Where all are so intrinsically valuable, it is difficult to determine which particular work has contributed most to his rapid and enviable advancement; yet, were an award indispensable, we should feel constrained to make it in favour of his 'Proverbial Philosophy.' It is one of those unique productions which commends itself to all classes of readers, and from the perusal of which all cannot but derive substantial means of improvement. Familiar truths are so cogently treated therein, as to leave an indelible impression upon the mind, which could not, perhaps, have been so thoroughly made in any other manner; and the "thoughts and arguments" may be perused and reperused with an advantage but few other writings are capable of yielding.
The rapid and extensive sale of several editions, issued in other places—some of them of rather an indifferent character, as regards mechanical execution—and the increasing demand still manifested for them, has induced the present publishers to collect the entire works of Mr. Tupper, and to stereotype them in a style worthy of their excellence. Each work has been thoroughly revised, and the errors which disfigure some other editions have been carefully corrected—an advantage readily appreciable by those who discriminate in their selections for the library or the centre-table.
* * * * *
CROCK OF GOLD;
A RURAL NOVEL.
MARTIN FARQUHAR TUPPER, ESQ., M.A.,
* * * * *
1. The Labourer; and his Dawning Discontent 11
2. The Family; the Home; and more Repinings 14
3. The Contract 17
4. The Lost Theft 21
5. The Inquest 23
6. The Bailiff; and a Bitter Trial 27
7. Wrongs and Ruin 32
8. The Covetous Dream 35
9. The Poacher 38
10. Ben Burke's Strange Adventure 41
11. Sleep 45
12. Love 48
13. The Discovery 52
14. Jonathan's Store 56
15. Another Discovery, and the Earnest of Good Things 58
16. How the Home was blessed thereby 62
17. Care 65
18. Investment 68
19. Calumny 72
20. The Bailiff's Visit 74
21. The Capture 77
22. The Aunt and her Nephew 80
23. Schemes 83
24. The Devil's Counsel 87
25. The Ambuscade 89
26. Preliminaries 92
27. Robbery 95
28. Murder 96
29. The Reward 97
30. Second Thoughts 100
31. Mammon; and Contentment 102
32. Next Morning 104
33. The Alarm 106
34. Doubts 108
35. Fears 109
36. Prison Comforts 111
37. Good Counsel 113
38. Experience 114
39. Jonathan's Troth 115
40. Suspicions 118
41. Grace's Alternative 119
42. The Dismissal 122
43. Simon alone 124
44. The Trial 127
45. Roger's Defence 129
46. The Witness 130
47. Mr. Sharp's Advocacy 133
48. Sentence and Death 140
49. Righteous Mammon 143
50. The Crock a Blessing 144
51. Popularity 147
52. Roger at the Swan 149
53. Roger's Triumph 151
54. Sir John's Parting Speech 152
THE LABOURER; AND HIS DAWNING DISCONTENT.
Roger Acton woke at five. It was a raw March morning, still dark, and bitterly cold, while at gusty intervals the rain beat in against the crazy cottage-window. Nevertheless, from his poor pallet he must up and rouse himself, for it will be open weather by sunrise, and his work lies two miles off; Master Jennings is not the man to show him favour if he be late, and Roger cannot afford to lose an hour: so he shook off the luxury of sleep, and rose again to toil with weary effort.
"Honest Roger," as the neighbours called him, was a fair specimen of a class which has been Britain's boast for ages, and may be still again, in measure, but at present that glory appears to be departing: a class much neglected, much enduring; thoroughly English—just, industrious, and patient; true to the altar, and loyal to the throne; though haply shaken somewhat now from both those noble faiths—warped in their principles, and blunted in their feelings, by lying doctrines and harsh economies; a class—I hate the cold cant term—a race of honourable men, full of cares, pains, privations—but of pleasures next to none; whose life at its most prosperous estate is labour, and in death we count him happy who did not die a pauper. Through them, serfs of the soil, the earth yields indeed her increase, but it is for others; from the fields of plenty they glean a scanty pittance, and fill the barns to bursting, while their children cry for bread. Not that Roger for his part often wanted work; he was the best hand in the parish, and had earned of his employers long ago the name of Steady Acton; but the fair wages for a fair day's labour were quite another thing, and the times went very hard for him and his. A man himself may starve, while his industry makes others fat: and a liberal landlord all the winter through may keep his labourers in work, while a crafty, overbearing bailiff mulcts them in their wages.
For the outward man, Acton stood about five feet ten, a gaunt, spare, and sinewy figure, slightly bent; his head sprinkled with gray; his face marked with those rigid lines, which tell, if not of positive famine, at least of too much toil on far too little food; in his eye, patience and good temper; in his carriage, a mixture of the sturdy bearing, necessary to the habitual exercise of great muscular strength, together with that gait of humility—almost humiliation—which is the seal of oppression upon poverty. He might be about forty, or from that to fifty, for hunger, toil, and weather had used him the roughest; while, for all beside, the patched and well-worn smock, the heavily-clouted high-laced boots, a dingy worsted neck-tie, and an old felt hat, complete the picture of externals.
But, for the matter of character within, Roger is quite another man. If his rank in this world is the lowest, many potentates may envy him his state elsewhere. His heart is as soft, as his hand is horny; with the wandering gipsy or the tramping beggar, thrust aside, perhaps deservedly, as impudent impostors from the rich man's gate, has he often-times shared his noon-day morsel: upright and sincere himself, he thinks as well of others: he scarcely ever heard the Gospels read in church, specially about Eastertide, but the tears would trickle down his weather-beaten face: he loves children—his neighbour's little ones as well as his own: he will serve any one for goodness' sake without reward or thanks, and is kind to the poor dumb cattle: he takes quite a pride in his little rod or two of garden, and is early and late at it, both before and after the daily sum of labour: he picks up a bit of knowledge here and there, and somehow has contrived to amass a fund of information for which few would give him credit from his common looks; and he joins to that stock of facts a natural shrewdness to use his knowledge wisely. Though with little of what is called sentiment, or poetry, or fancy in his mind (for harsh was the teaching of his childhood, and meagre the occasions of self-culture ever since), the beauty of creation is by no means lost upon him, and he notices at times its wisdom too. With a fixed habit of manly piety ever on his lips and ever in his heart, he recognises Providence in all things, just, and wise, and good. More than so; simply as a little child who endures the school-hour for the prospect of his play-time, Roger Acton bears up with noble meekness against present suffering, knowing that his work and trials and troubles are only for a little while, but his rest and his reward remain a long hereafter. He never questioned this; he knew right well Who had earned it for him; and he lived grateful and obedient, filling up the duties of his humble station. This was his faith, and his works followed it. He believed that God had placed him in his lot, to be a labourer, and till God's earth, and, when his work is done, to be sent on better service in some happier sphere: the where, or the how, did not puzzle him, any more than divers other enigmatical whys and wherefores of his present state; he only knew this, that it would all come right at last: and, barring sin (which he didn't comprehend), somehow all was right at present. What if poverty pinched him? he was a great heir still; what if oppression bruised him? it would soon be over. He trusted to his Pilot, like the landsman in a storm; to his Father, as an infant in the dark. For guilt, he had a Saviour, and he thought of him in penitence; for trouble, a Guardian, and he looked to him in peace; and as for toil, back-breaking toil, there was another Master whom he served with spade, and mattock, and a thankful heart, while he only seemed to be working for the landlord or his bailiff.
Such a man then had been Roger Acton from his youth up till now, or, if sadness must be told, nearly until now; for, to speak truth, his heart at times would fail him, and of late he had been bitter in repinings and complaint. For a day or two, in particular, he had murmured loudly. It was hard, very hard, that an honest, industrious man, as he was, should so scantily pick a living out of this rich earth: after all said, let the parson preach as he will, it's a fine thing to have money, and that his reverence knows right well, or he wouldn't look so closely for his dues. [N.B. Poor Mr. Evans was struggling as well as he could to bring up six children, on a hundred and twenty pounds per annum.] Roger, too, was getting on in years, with a blacker prospect for the future than when he first stood behind a plough-tail. Then there were many wants unsatisfied, which a bit of gold might buy; and his wife teased him to be doing something better. Thus was it come at length to pass, that, although he had endured so many years, he now got discontented at his penury;—what human heart can blame him?—and with murmurings came doubt; with doubt of Providence, desire of lucre; so the sunshine of religion faded from his path;—what mortal mind can wonder?
THE FAMILY; THE HOME; AND MORE REPININGS.
Now, if Malthus and Martineau be verily the pundits that men think them, Roger had twice in his life done a very foolish thing: he had sinned against society, statistics, and common sense, by a two-fold marriage. The wife of his youth (I am afraid he married early) had once been kitchen-maid at the Hall; but the sudden change from living luxuriously in a great house, to the griping poverty of a cotter's hovel, had changed, in three short years, the buxom country girl into an emaciated shadow of her former self, and the sorrowing husband buried her in her second child-bed. The powers of the parish clapped their hands; political economy was glad; prudence chuckled; and a coarse-featured farmer (he meant no ill), who occasionally had given Roger work, heartlessly bade him be thankful that his cares were the fewer and his incumbrance was removed; "Ay, and Heaven take the babies also to itself," the Herodian added. But Acton's heart was broken! scarcely could he lift up his head; and his work, though sturdy as before, was more mechanical, less high-motived: and many a year of dreary widowhood he mourned a loss all the greater, though any thing but bitterer, for the infants so left motherless. To these, now grown into a strapping youth and a bright-eyed graceful girl, had he been the tenderest of nurses, and well supplied the place of her whom they had lost. Neighbours would have helped him gladly—sometimes did; and many was the hinted offer (disinterested enough, too, for in that match penury must have been the settlement, and starvation the dower), of giving them a mother's kindly care; but Roger could not quite so soon forget the dead: so he would carry his darlings with him to his work, and feed them with his own hard hands; the farmers winked at it, and never said a word against the tiny trespassers; their wives and daughters loved the little dears, bringing them milk and possets; and holy angels from on high may have oft-times hovered about this rude nurse, tending his soft innocents a-field, and have wept over the poor widower and his orphans, tears of happy sorrow and benevolent affection. Yea, many a good angel has shed blessings on their heads!
Within the last three years, and sixteen from the date of his first great grief, Roger had again got married. His daughter was growing into early womanhood, and his son gave him trouble at times, and the cottage wanted a ruling hand over it when he was absent, and rheumatism now and then bade him look out for a nurse before old age, and Mary Alder was a notable middle-aged careful sort of soul, and so she became Mary Acton. All went on pretty well, until Mrs. Acton began to have certain little ones of her own; and then the step-mother would break out (a contingency poor Roger hadn't thought of), separate interests crept in, and her own children fared before the others; so it came to pass that, however truly there was a ruling hand at home, and however well the rheumatism got nursed (for Mary was a good wife in the main), the grown-up son and daughter felt themselves a little jostled out. Grace, gentle and submissive, found all her comforts shrunk within the space of her father and her Bible; Thomas, self-willed and open-hearted, sought his pleasure any where but at home, and was like to be taking to wrong courses through domestic bickering: Grace had the dangerous portion, beauty, added to her lowly lot, and attracted more admiration than her father wished, or she could understand; while the frank and bold spirit of Thomas Acton exposed him to the perilous friendship of Ben Burke the poacher, and divers other questionable characters.
Of these elements, then, are our labourer and his family composed; and before Roger Acton goes abroad at earliest streak of dawn, we will take a casual peep within his dwelling. It consists of four bare rubble walls, enclosing a grouted floor, worn unevenly, and here and there in holes, and puddly. There were but two rooms in the tenement, one on the ground, and one over-head; which latter is with no small difficulty got at by scaling a ladder-like stair-case that fronts the cottage-door. This upper chamber, the common dormitory, for all but Thomas, who sleeps down stairs, has a thin partition at one end of it, to screen off the humble truckle-bed where Grace Acton forgets by night the troubles of the day; and the remainder of the little apartment, sordid enough, and overhung with the rough thatch, black with cobweb, serves for the father and mother with their recent nursery. Each room has its shattery casement, to let in through linchened panes, the doubtful light of summer, and the much more indubitable wind, and rain, and frost of wintry nights. A few articles of crockery and some burnished tins decorate the shelves of the lower apartment; which used to be much tidier before the children came, and trimmer still when Grace was sole manager: in a doorless cupboard are apparent sundry coarse edibles, as the half of a huge unshapely home-made loaf, some white country cheese, a mass of lumpy pudding, and so forth; beside it, on the window-sill, is better bread, a well-thumbed Bible, some tracts, and a few odd volumes picked up cheap at fairs; an old musket (occasionally Ben's companion, sometimes Tom's) is hooked to the rafters near a double rope of onions; divers gaudy little prints, tempting spoil of pedlars, in honour of George Barnwell, the Prodigal Son, the Sailor's Return, and the Death of Nelson, decorate the walls, and an illuminated Christmas carol is pasted over the mantel-piece: which, among other chattels and possessions, conspicuously bears its own burden of Albert and Victoria—two plaster heads, resplendently coloured, highly varnished, looking with arched eye-brows of astonishment on their uninviting palace, and royally contrasting with the sombre hue of poverty on all things else. The pictures had belonged to Mary, no small portion of her virgin wealth; and as for the statuary, those two busts had cost loyal Roger far more in comparison than any corporation has given to P.R.A., for majesty and consortship in full. There is, moreover, in the room, by way of household furniture, a ricketty, triangular, and tri-legged table, a bench, two old chairs with rush-bottoms, and a yard or two of matting that the sexton gave when the chancel was new laid. I don't know that there is any thing else to mention, unless it be a gaunt lurcher belonging to Ben Burke, and with all a dog's resemblance to his master, who lies stretched before the hearth where the peaty embers never quite die out, but smoulder away to a heap of white ashes; over these is hanging a black boiler, the cook of the family; and beside them, on a substratum of dry heather, and wrapped about with an old blanket, nearly companioned by his friend, the dog, snores Thomas Acton, still fast asleep, after his usual extemporaneous fashion.
As to the up-stairs apartment, it contained little or nothing but its living inmates, their bedsteads and tattered coverlids, and had an air of even more penury and discomfort than the room below; so that, what with squalling children, a scolding wife, and empty stomach, and that cold and wet March morning, it is little wonder maybe (though no small blame), that Roger Acton had not enough of religion or philosophy to rise and thank his Maker for the blessings of existence.
He had just been dreaming of great good luck. Poor people often do so; just as Ugolino dreamt of imperial feasts, and Bruce, in his delirious thirst on the Sahara, could not banish from his mind the cool fountains of Shiraz, and the luxurious waters of old Nile. Roger had unfortunately dreamt of having found a crock of gold—I dare say he will tell us his dream anon—and just as he was counting out his treasure, that blessed beautiful heap of shining money—cruel habit roused him up before the dawn, and his wealth faded from his fancy. So he awoke at five, anything but cheerfully.
It was Grace's habit, good girl, to read to her father in the morning a few verses from the volume she best loved: she always woke betimes when she heard him getting up, and he could hear her easily from her little flock-bed behind the lath partition; and many a time had her dear religious tongue, uttering the words of peace, soothed her father's mind, and strengthened him to meet the day's affliction; many times it raised his thoughts from the heavy cares of life to the buoyant hopes of immortality. Hitherto, Roger had owed half his meek contentedness to those sweet lessons from a daughter's lips, and knew that he was reaping, as he heard, the harvest of his own paternal care, and heaven-blest instructions. However, upon this dark morning, he was full of other thoughts, murmurings, and doubts, and poverty, and riches. So, when Grace, after her usual affectionate salutations, gently began to read,
"The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory—"
Her father strangely stopped her on a sudden with—
"Enough, enough, my girl! God wot, the sufferings are grievous, and the glory long a-coming."
Then he heavily went down stairs, and left Grace crying.
Thus, full of carking care, while he pushed aside the proffered consolation, Roger Acton walked abroad. There was yet but a glimmer of faint light, and the twittering of birds told more assuringly of morning than any cheerful symptom on the sky: however, it had pretty well ceased raining, that was one comfort, and, as Roger, shouldering his spade, and with the day's provision in a handkerchief, trudged out upon his daily duty, those good old thoughts of thankfulness came upon his mind, and he forgot awhile the dream that had unstrung him. Turning for a moment to look upon his hovel, and bless its inmates with a prayer, he half resolved to run back, and hear a few more words, if only not to vex his darling child: but there was now no time to spare; and then, as he gazed upon her desolate abode—so foul a casket for so fair a jewel—his bitter thoughts returned to him again, and he strode away, repining.
Acton's cottage was one of those doubtful domiciles, whose only recommendation it is, that they are picturesque in summer. At present we behold a reeking rotting mass of black thatch in a cheerless swamp; but, as the year wears on, those time-stained walls, though still both damp and mouldy, will be luxuriantly overspread with creeping plants—honeysuckle, woodbine, jessamine, and the everblowing monthly rose. Many was the touring artist it had charmed, and Suffolk-street had seen it often: spectators looked upon the scene as on an old familiar friend, whose face they knew full well, but whose name they had forgotten for the minute. Many were the fair hands that had immortalized its beauties in their albums, and frequent the notes of admiration uttered by attending swains: particularly if there chanced to be taken into the view a feathery elm that now creaked overhead, and dripped on the thatch like the dropping-well at Knaresborough, and (in the near distance) a large pond, or rather lake, upon whose sedgy banks, gay—not now, but soon about to be—with flowering reeds and bright green willows, the pretty cottage stood. In truth, if man were but an hibernating animal, invisible as dormice in the winter, and only to be seen with summer swallows, Acton's cottage at Hurstley might have been a cantle cut from the Elysian-fields. But there are certain other seasons in the year, and human nature cannot long exist on the merely "picturesque in summer."
Some fifty yards, or so, from the hither shore, we discern a roughly wooded ait, Pike Island to wit, a famous place for fish, and the grand rendezvous for woodcocks; which, among other useful and ornamental purposes, serves to screen out the labourer's hovel, at this the narrowest part of the lake, from a view of that fine old mansion on the opposite shore, the seat of Sir John Vincent, a baronet just of age, and the great landlord of the neighbourhood. Toward this mansion, scarcely yet revealed in the clear gray eye of morning, our humble hero, having made the long round of the lake, is now fast trudging; and it may merit a word or two of plain description, to fill up time and scene, till he gets nearer.
A smooth grassy eminence, richly studded with park-like clumps of trees, slopes up from the water's very edge to—Hurstley Hall; yonder goodly, if not grand, Elizabethan structure, full of mullioned windows, carved oak panels, stone-cut coats of arms, pinnacles, and traceries, and lozenges, and drops; and all this glory crowned by a many-gabled, high-peaked roof. A grove of evergreens and American shrubs hides the lower windows from vulgarian gaze—for, in the neighbourly feeling of our ancestors, a public way leads close along the front; while, behind the house, and inaccessible to eyes profane, are drawn terraced gardens, beautifully kept, and blooming with a perpetual succession of the choicest flowers. The woods and shrubberies around, attempted some half a century back to be spoilt by the meddlesome bad taste of Capability Brown, have been somewhat too resolutely robbed of the formal avenues, clipped hedges, and other topiarian adjuncts which comport so well with the starch prudery of things Elizabethan; but they are still replete with grotto, fountain, labyrinth, and alcove—a very paradise for the more court-bred rank of sylphs, and the gentler elves of Queen Titania.
However, we have less to do with the gardens than, probably, the elves have; and as Roger now, just at breaking day, is approaching the windows somewhat too curiously for a poor man's manners, it may not be amiss if we bear him company. He had pretty well recovered of his fit of discontent, for morning air and exercise can soon chase gloom away; so he cheerily tramped along, thinking as he went, how that, after all, it is a middling happy world, and how that the raindrops, now that it had cleared up, hung like diamonds on the laurels, when of a sudden, as he turned a corner near the house, there broke upon his ear, at that quiet hour, such a storm of boisterous sounds—voices so loud with oaths and altercation—such a calling, clattering, and quarrelling, as he had never heard the like before. So no wonder that he stepped aside to see it.
The noise proceeded from a ground-floor window, or rather from three windows, lighted up, and hung with draperies of crimson and gold: one of the casements, flaring meretriciously in the modest eye of morn, stood wide open down to the floor, probably to cool a heated atmosphere; and when Roger Acton, with a natural curiosity, went on tiptoe, looked in, and just put aside the curtain for a peep, to know what on earth could be the matter, he saw a vision of waste and wealth, at which he stood like one amazed, for a poor man's mind could never have conceived its equal.
Evidently, he had intruded on the latter end of a long and luxurious revel. Wax-lights, guttering down in gilded chandeliers, poured their mellow radiance round in multiplied profusion—for mirrors made them infinite; crimson and gold were the rich prevailing tints in that wide and warm banqueting-room; gayly-coloured pictures, set in frames that Roger fancied massive gold, hung upon the walls at intervals; a wagon-load of silver was piled upon the sideboard; there blazed in the burnished grate such a fire as poverty might imagine on a frozen winter's night, but never can have thawed its blood beside: fruits, and wines, and costly glass were scattered in prodigal disorder on the board—just now deserted of its noisy guests, who had crowded round a certain green table, where cards and heaps of sovereigns appeared to be mingled in a mass. Roger had never so much as conceived it possible that there could be wealth like this: it was a fairy-land of Mammon in his eyes: he stood gasping like a man enchanted; and in the contemplation of these little hills of gold—in their covetous longing contemplation, he forgot the noisy quarrel he had turned aside to see, and thirsted for that rich store earnestly.
In an instant, as he looked (after the comparative lull that must obviously have succeeded to the clamours he had first heard), the roar and riot broke out worse than ever. There were the stormy revellers, as the rabble rout of Comus and his crew, filling that luxurious room with the sounds of noisy execration and half-drunken strife. Young Sir John, a free and generous fellow, by far the best among them all, has collected about him those whom he thought friends, to celebrate his wished majority; they had now kept it up, night after night, hard upon a week; and, as well became such friends—the gambler, the duellist, the man of pleasure, and the fool of Fashion—they never yet had separated for their day-light beds, without a climax to their orgie, something like the present scene.
Henry Mynton, high in oath, and dashing down his cards, has charged Sir Richard Hunt with cheating (it was sauter la coupe or couper la saut, or some such mystery of iniquity, I really cannot tell which): Sir Richard, a stout dark man, the patriarch of the party, glossily wigged upon his head, and imperially tufted on his chin, retorts with a pungent sarcasm, calmly and coolly uttered; that hot-headed fool Silliphant, clearly quite intoxicated, backs his cousin Mynton's view of the case by the cogent argument of a dice-box at Sir Richard's head—and at once all is struggle, strife, and uproar. The other guests, young fellows of high fashion, now too much warmed with wine to remember their accustomed Mohican cold-bloodedness—those happy debtors to the prowess of a Stultz, and walking advertisers of Nugee—take eager part with the opposed belligerents: more than one decanter is sent hissing through the air; more than one bloody coxcomb witnesses to the weight of a candle-stick and its hurler's clever aim: uplifted chairs are made the weapons of the chivalric combatants; and along with divers other less distinguished victims in the melee, poor Sir John Vincent, rushing into the midst, as a well-intentioned host, to quell the drunken brawl, gets knocked down among them all; the tables are upset, the bright gold runs about the room in all directions—ha! no one heeds it—no one owns it—one little piece rolled right up to the window-sill where Roger still looked on with all his eyes; it is but to put his hand in—the window is open to the floor—nay a finger is enough: greedily, one undecided moment, did he gaze upon the gold; he saw the hideous contrast of his own dim hovel and that radiant chamber—he remembered the pining faces of his babes, and gentle Grace with all her hardships—he thought upon his poverty and well deserts—he looked upon wastefulness of wealth and wantonness of living—these reflections struck him in a moment; no one saw him, no one cared about the gold; that little blessed morsel, that could do him so much good; all was confusion, all was opportunity, and who can wonder that his fingers closed upon the sovereign, and that he picked it up?
THE LOST THEFT.
Stealthily and quickly "honest Roger" crept away, for his conscience smote him on the instant: he felt he had done wrong; at any rate, the sovereign was not his—and once the thought arose in him to run back, and put it where he found it: but it was now become too precious in his sight, that little bit of gold—and they, the rioters there, could not want it, might not even miss it; and then its righteous uses—it should be well spent, even if ill-got: and thus, so many mitigations crowded in to excuse, if not to applaud the action, that within a little while his warped mind had come to call the theft a god-send.
O Roger, Roger! alas for this false thought of that wrong deed! the poisonous gold has touched thy heart, and left on it a spot of cancer: the asp has bitten thee already, simple soul. This little seed will grow into a huge black pine, that shall darken for a while thy heaven, and dig its evil roots around thy happiness. Put it away, Roger, put it away: covet not unhallowed gold.
But Roger felt far otherwise; and this sudden qualm of conscience once quelled (I will say there seemed much of palliation in the matter), a kind of inebriate feeling of delight filled his mind, and Steady Acton plodded on to the meadow yonder, half a mile a-head, in a species of delirious complacency. Here was luck indeed, filling up the promise of his dreams. His head was full of thoughts, pleasant holiday thoughts, of the many little useful things, the many small indulgences, that bit of gold should buy him. He would change it on the sly, and gradually bring the shillings home as extra pay for extra work; for, however much his wife might glory in the chance, and keep his secret, well he knew that Grace would have a world of things to say about it, and he feared to tell his daughter of the deed. However, she should have a ribbon, so she should, good girl, and the pedlar shouldn't pass the door unbidden; Mary, too, might have a cotton kerchief, and the babes a doll and a rattle, and poor Thomas a shilling to spend as he liked; and so, in happy revery, the kind father distributed his ill-got sovereign.
For a while he held it in his hand, as loth to part from the tangible possession of his treasure; but manual contact could not last all day, and, as he neared his scene of labour—he came late after all, by the by, and lost the quarter-day, but it mattered little now—he began to cogitate a place of safety; and carefully put it in his fob. Poor fellow—he had never had enough to stow so well away before: his pockets had been thought quite trust-worthy enough for any treasures hitherto: never had he used that fob for watch, or note, or gold—and his predecessor in the cast-off garment had probably been quite aware how little that false fob was worthy of the name of savings' bank; it was in the situation of the Irishman's illimitable rope, with the end cut off. So while Roger was brewing up vast schemes of nascent wealth, and prosperous days at last, the filched sovereign, attracted by centripetal gravity, had found a passage downwards, and had straightway rolled into a crevice of mother-earth, long before its "brief lord" had commenced his day's labour. Yes, it had been lost a good hour ere he found it out, for he had fancied that he had felt it there, and often did he feel, but his fancy was a button; and when he made the dread discovery, what a sting of momentary anguish, what a sickening fear, what an eager search! and, as the grim truth became more evident, that, indeed, beyond all remedy, his new-got, ill-got, egg of coming wealth was all clean gone—oh! this was worm-wood, this was bitter as gall, and the strong man well-nigh fainted. It was something sad to have done the ill—but misery to have done it all for nothing: the sin was not altogether pleasant to his taste, but it was aloe itself to lose the reward. And when, pale and sick, leaning on his spade, he came to his old strength again, what was the reaction? Compunction at incipient crime, and gratitude to find its punishment so mercifully speedy, so lenient, so discriminative? I fear that if ever he had these thoughts at all, he chased them wilfully away: his disappointment, far from being softened into patience, was sharpened to a feeling of revenge at fate; and all his hope now was—such another chance, gold, more gold, never mind how; more gold, he burnt for gold, he lusted after gold!
We must leave him for a time to his toil and his reflections, and touch another topic of our theme.
Just a week before the baronet came of age, and a fortnight from the present time, an awful and mysterious event had happened at the Hall: the old house-keeper, Mrs. Quarles, had been found dead in her bed, under circumstances, to say the very least, of a black and suspicious appearance. The county coroner had got a jury of the neighbours impanelled together; who, after sitting patiently on the inquest, and hearing, as well as seeing, the following evidence, could arrive at no verdict more specific than the obvious fact, that the poor old creature had been "found dead." The great question lay between apoplexy and murder; and the evidence tended to a well-matched conflict of opinions.
First, there lay the body, quietly in bed, tucked in tidily and undisturbed, with no marks of struggling, none whatever—the clothes lay smooth, and the chamber orderly: yet the corpse's face was of a purple hue, the tongue swollen, the eyes starting from their sockets: it might, indeed, possibly have been an apoplectic seizure, which took her in her sleep, and killed her as she lay; but that the gripe of clutching fingers had left their livid seals upon the throat, and countenanced the dreadful thought of strangulation!
Secondly, a surgeon (one Mr. Eager, the Union doctor, a very young personage, wrong withal and radical) maintained that this actual strangulation might have been effected by the hands of the deceased herself, in the paroxysm of a rush of blood to the brain; and he fortified his wise position by the instance of a late statesman, who, he averred, cut his throat with a pen-knife, to relieve himself of pressure on the temples: while another surgeon—Stephen Cramp, he was farrier as well, and had been, until lately, time out of mind, the village AEsculapius, who looked with scorn on his pert rival, and opposed him tooth and nail on all occasions—insisted that it was not only physically impossible for poor Mrs. Quarles so to have strangled herself, but more particularly that, if she had done so, she certainly could not have laid herself out so decently afterwards; therefore, that as some one else had kindly done the latter office for her, why not the former too?
Thirdly, Sarah Stack, the still-room maid, deposed, that Mrs. Quarles always locked her door before she went to bed, but that when she (deponent) went to call her as usual on the fatal morning, the door was just ajar; and so she found her dead: while parallel with this, tending to implicate some domestic criminal, was to be placed the equally uncommon fact, that the other door of Mrs. Quarles's room, leading to the lawn, was open too:—be it known that Mrs. Quarles was a stout woman, who could'nt abide to sleep up-stairs, for fear of fire; moreover, that she was a nervous woman, who took extraordinary precautions for her safety, in case of thieves. Thus, unaccountably enough, the murderer, if there was any, was as likely to have come from the outside, as from the in.
Fourthly, the murderer in this way is commonly a thief, and does the deed for mammon-sake; but the new house-keeper, lately installed, made her deposition, that, by inventories duly kept and entered—for her honoured predecessor, rest her soul! had been a pattern of regularity—all Mrs. Quarles's goods and personal chattels were found to be safe and right in her room—some silver spoons among them too—ay, and a silver tea-pot; while, as to other property in the house, with every room full of valuables, nothing whatever was missing from the lists, except, indeed, what was scarce worth mention (unless one must be very exact), sundry crocks and gallipots of honey, not forthcoming; these, however, it appeared probable that Mrs. Quarles had herself consumed in a certain mixture she nightly was accustomed too, of rum, horehound, and other matters sweetened up with honey, for her hoarseness. It seemed therefore clear she was not murdered for her property, nor by any one intending to have robbed the house.
Against this it was contended, and really with some show of reason, that as Mrs. Quarles was thought to have a hoard, always set her face against banks, railway shares, speculations, and investments, and seemed to have left nothing behind her but her clothes and so forth, it was still possible that the murderer who took the life, might have also been the thief to take the money.
Fifthly, Simon Jennings—butler in doors, bailiff out of doors, and general factotum every where to the Vincent interest—for he had managed to monopolize every place worth having, from the agent's book to the cellar-man's key—the said Simon deposed, that on the night in question, he heard the house-dog barking furiously, and went out to quiet him; but found no thieves, nor knew any reason why the dog should have barked so much.
Now, the awkward matter in this deposition (if Mr. Jennings had not been entirely above suspicion—the idea was quite absurd—not to mention that he was nephew to the deceased, a great favourite with her, and a man altogether of the very strictest character), the awkward matters were these: the nearest way out to the dog, indeed the only way but casement windows on that side of the house, was through Mrs. Quarles's room: she had had the dog placed there for her special safety, as she slept on the ground floor; and it was not to be thought that Mr. Jennings could do so incorrect a thing as to pass through her room after bed-time, locked or unlocked—indeed, when the question was delicately hinted to him, he was quite shocked at it—quite shocked. But if he did not go that way, which way did he go? He deposed, indeed, and his testimony was no ways to be doubted, that he went through the front door, and so round; which, under the circumstances, was at once a very brave and a very foolish thing to do; for it is, first, little wisdom to go round two sides of a square to quiet a dog, when one might have easily called to him from the men-servants' window; and secondly, albeit Mr. Jennings was a strict man, an upright man, shrewd withal, and calculating, no one had ever thought him capable of that Roman virtue, courage. Still, he had reluctantly confessed to this one heroic act, and it was a bold one, so let him take the credit of it—mainly because—
Sixthly, Jonathan Floyd, footman, after having heard the dog bark at intervals, surely for more than a couple of hours, thought he might as well turn out of his snug berth for a minute, just to see what ailed the dog, or how many thieves were really breaking in. Well, as he looked, he fancied he saw a boat moving on the lake, but as there was no moon, he might have been mistaken.
By a Juryman. It might be a punt.
By another. He did'nt know how many boats there were on the lake-side: they had a boat-house at the Hall, by the water's edge, and therefore he concluded something in it; really did'nt know; might be a boat, might be a punt, might be both—or neither.
By the Coroner. Could not swear which way it was moving; and, really, if put upon his Bible oath, wouldn't be positive about a boat at all, it was so dark, and he was so sleepy.
Not long afterwards, as the dog got still more violent, he turned his eyes from straining after shadows on the lake, to look at home, and then all at once noticed Mr. Jennings trying to quiet the noisy animal with the usual blandishments of "Good dog, good dog—quiet, Don, quiet—down, good dog—down, Don, down!"
By a Juryman. He would swear to the words.
But Don would not hear of being quiet. After that, knowing all must be right if Mr. Jennings was about, he (deponent) turned in again, went to sleep, and thought no more of it till he heard of Mrs. Quarles's death in the morning. If he may be so bold as to speak his mind, he thinks the house-keeper, being fat, died o' the 'plexy in a nateral way, and that the dog barking so, just as she was a-going off, is proof positive of it. He'd often heard of dogs doing so; they saw the sperit gliding away, and barked at it; his (deponent's) own grandmother—
At this juncture—for the court was getting fidgetty—the coroner cut short the opinions of Jonathan Floyd: and when Mr. Crown, summing up, presented in one focus all this evidence to the misty minds of the assembled jurymen, it puzzled them entirely; they could not see their way, fairly addled, did not know at all what to make of it. On the threshold, there was no proof it was a murder—the Union doctor was loud and staunch on this; and next, there seemed to be no motive for the deed, and no one to suspect of it: so they left the matter open, found her simply "Dead," and troubled their heads no more about the business.
Good Mr. Evans, the vicar, preached her funeral sermon, only as last Sunday, amplifying the idea that she "was cut off in the midst of her days:" and thereby encouraging many of the simpler folks, who knew that Mrs. Quarles had long passed seventy, in the luminous notion that house-keepers in great establishments are privileged, among other undoubted perquisites, to live to a hundred and forty, unless cut off by apoplexy or murder.
Mr. Simon Jennings, as nephew and next of kin, followed the body to its last home in the capacity of chief mourner; to do him justice, he was a real mourner, bewailed her loudly, and had never been the same man since. Moreover, although aforetime not much given to indiscriminate charity, he had now gained no small credit by distributing his aunt's wardrobe among the poorer families at Hurstley. It was really very kind of him, and the more so, as being altogether unexpected: he got great praise for this, did Mr. Jennings; specially, too, because he had gained nothing whatever from his aunt's death, though her heir and probable legatee, and clearly was a disappointed man.
THE BAILIFF; AND A BITTER TRIAL.
Jennings—Mr. Simon Jennings—for he prided himself much both on the Mr. and the Simon, was an upright man, a very upright man indeed, literally so as well as metaphorically. He was not tall certainly, but what there was of him stood bolt upright. Many fancied that his neck was possessed of some natural infirmity, or rather firmity, of unbendableness, some little-to-be-envied property of being a perpetual stiff-neck; and they were the more countenanced in this theory, from the fact that, within a few days past, Mr. Jennings had contracted an ugly knack of carrying his erect head in the comfortless position of peeping over his left shoulder; not always so, indeed, but often enough to be remarkable; and then he would occasionally start it straight again, eyes right, with a nervous twitch, any thing but pleasant to the marvelling spectator. It was as if he was momentarily expecting to look upon some vague object that affrighted him, and sometimes really did see it. Mr. Jennings had consulted high medical authority (as Hurstley judged), to wit, the Union doctor of last scene, an enterprising practitioner, glib in theory, and bold in practice—and it had been mutually agreed between them that "stomach" was the cause of these unhandsome symptoms; acridity of the gastric juice, consequent indigestion and spasm, and generally a hypochondriacal habit of body. Mr. Jennings must take certain draughts thrice a day, be very careful of his diet, and keep his mind at ease. As to Simon himself, he was, poor man, much to be pitied in this ideal visitation; for, though his looks confessed that he saw, or fancied he saw, a something, he declared himself wholly at a loss to explain what that something was: moreover, contrary to former habits of an ostentatious boldness, he seemed meekly to shrink from observation: and, as he piously acquiesced in the annoyance, would observe that his unpleasant jerking was "a little matter after all, and that, no doubt, the will of Providence."
Independently of these new grimaces, Simon's appearance was little in his favour: not that his small dimensions signified—Caesar, and Buonaparte, and Wellington, and Nelson, all were little men—not that his dress was other than respectable—black coat and waistcoat, white stiff cravat, gray trowsers somewhat shrunk in longitude, good serviceable shoe-leather (of the shape, if not also of the size, of river barges), and plenty of unbleached cotton stocking about the gnarled region of his ankles. All this was well enough; nature was beholden to that charity of art which hides a multitude of failings; but the face, where native man looks forth in all his unadornment, that it was which so seldom pre-possessed the many who had never heard of Jenning's strict character and stern integrity. The face was a sallow face, peaked towards the nose, with head and chin receding; lit withal by small protrusive eyes, so constructed, that the whites all round were generally visible, giving them a strange and staring look; elevated eye-brows; not an inch of whisker, but all shaved sore right up to the large and prominent ear; and lank black, hair, not much of it, scantily thatching all smooth. Then his arms, oscillating as he walked (as if the pendulum by which that rigid man was made to go his regular routine), were much too long for symmetry: and altogether, to casual view, Mr. Jennings must acknowledge to a supercilious, yet sneaking air—which charity has ere now been kind enough to think a conscious rectitude towards man, and a soft-going humility with God.
When the bailiff takes his round about the property, as we see him now, he is mounted—to say he rides would convey far too equestrian a notion—he is mounted on a rough-coated, quiet, old, white shooting-pony; the saddle strangely girded on with many bands about the belly, the stirrups astonishingly short, and straps never called upon to diminish that long whity-brown interval between shoe and trowser: Mr. Jennings sits his steed with nose aloft, and a high perch in the general, somewhat loosely, and, had the pony been a Bucephalus rather than a Rozinante, not a little perilously. Simon is jogging hitherwards toward Roger Acton, as he digs the land-drain across this marshy meadow: let us see how it fares now with our poor hero.
Occupation—yes, duteous occupation—has exerted its wholsesome influences, and, thank God! Roger is himself again. He has been very sorry half the day, both for the wicked feelings of the morning, and that still more wicked theft—a bad business altogether, he cannot bear to think of it; the gold was none of his, whosesoever it might be—he ought not to have touched it—vexed he did, but cannot help it now; it is well he lost it too, for ill-got money never came to any good: though, to be sure, if he could only get it honestly, money would make a man of him.
I am not sure of that, Roger, it may be so sometimes; but, in my judgment, money has unmade more men than made them.
"How now, Acton, is not this drain dug yet! You have been about it much too long, sir; I shall fine you for this."
"Please you, Muster Jennings, I've stuck to it pretty tightly too, barring that I make to-day three-quarters, being late: but it's heavy clay, you see, Mr. Simon—wet above and iron-hard below: it shall all be ready by to-morrow, Mr. Simon."
Whether the "Mr. Simon" had its softening influence, or any other considerations lent their soothing aid, we shall see presently; for the bailiff added, in a tone unusually indulgent,
"Well, Roger, see it is done, and well done; and now I have just another word to say to you: his honour is coming round this way, and if he asks you any questions, remember to be sure and tell him this—you have got a comfortable cottage, very comfortable, just repaired, you want for nothing, and are earning twelve shillings a week."
"God help me, Muster Jennings: why my wages are but eight, and my hovel scarcely better than a pig-pound."
"Look you, Acton; tell Sir John what you have told me, and you are a ruined man. Make it twelve to his honour, as others shall do: who knows," he added, half-coaxing, half-soliloquizing, "perhaps his honour may really make it twelve, instead of eight."
"Oh, Muster Jennings! and who gets the odd four?"
"What, man! do you dare to ask me that? Remember, sir, at your peril, that you, and all the rest, have had twelve shillings a-week wages whenever you have worked on this estate—not a word!—and that, if you dare speak or even think to the contrary, you never earn a penny here again. But here comes John Vincent, my master, as I, Simon Jennings, am yours: be careful what you say to him."
Sir John Devereux Vincent, after a long minority, had at length shaken off his guardians, and become master of his own doings, and of Hurstley Hall. The property was in pretty decent order, and funds had accumulated vastly: all this notwithstanding a thousand peculations, and the suspicious incident that one of the guardians was a "highly respectable" solicitor. Sir John, like most new brooms, had with the best intentions resolved upon sweeping measures of great good; especially also upon doing a great deal with his own eyes and ears; but, like as aforesaid, he was permitted neither to hear nor see any truths at all. Just now, the usual night's work took him a little off the hooks, and we must make allowances; really, too, he was by far the soberest of all those choice spirits, and drank and played as little as he could; and even, under existing disadvantages, he managed by four o'clock post meridiem to inspect a certain portion of the estate duly every day, under the prudential guidance of his bailiff Jennings. There, that good-looking, tall young fellow on the blood mare just cantering up to us is Sir John; the other two are a couple of the gallant youths now feasting at the Hall: ay, two of the fiercest foes in last night's broil. Those heated little matters are easily got over.
"Hollo, Jennings! what the devil made you give that start? you couldn't look more horrified if ghosts were at your elbow: why, your face is the picture of death; look another way, man, do, or my mare will bolt."
"I beg your pardon, Sir John, but the spasm took me: it is my infirmity; forgive it. This meadow, you perceive, Sir John, requires drainage, and afterwards I propose to dress it with free chalk to sweeten the grass. Next field, you will take notice, the guano—"
"Well, well—Jennings—and that poor fellow there up to his knees in mud, is he pretty tolerably off now?"
"Oh, your honour," said the bailiff, with a knowing look, "I only wish that half the little farmers hereabouts were as well to do as he is: a pretty cottage, Sir John, half an acre of garden, and twelve shillings a week, is pretty middling for a single man."
"Aha—is it?—well; but the poor devil looks wretched enough too—I will just ask him if he wants any thing now."
"Don't, Sir John, pray don't; pray permit me to advise your honour: these men are always wanting. 'Acton's cottage' is a proverb; and Roger there can want for nothing honestly; nevertheless, as I know your honour's good heart, and wish to make all happy, if you will suffer me to see to it myself—"
"Certainly, Jennings, do, do by all means, and thank you: here, just to make a beginning, as we're all so jolly at the Hall, and that poor fellow's up to his neck in mud, give him this from me to drink my health with."
Acton, who had dutifully held aloof, and kept on digging steadily, was still quite near enough to hear all this; at the magical word "give," he looked up hurriedly, and saw Sir John Vincent toss a piece of gold—yes, on his dying oath, a bright new sovereign—to Simon Jennings. O blessed vision, and gold was to be his at last!
"Come along, Mynton; Hunt, now mind you try and lame that big beast of a raw-boned charger among these gutters, will you? I'm off, Jennings; meet me, do you hear, at the Croft to-mor—"
So the three friends galloped away; and John Vincent really felt more light-hearted and happy than at any time the week past, for having so properly got rid of a welcome bit of gold.
"Roger Acton! come up here, sir, out of that ditch: his honour has been liberal enough to give you a shilling to drink his health with."
"A shilling, Muster Jennings?" said the poor astonished man; "why I'll make oath it was a pound; I saw it myself. Come, Muster Jennings, don't break jokes upon a poor man's back."
"Jokes, Acton? sticks, sir, if you say another word: take John Vincent's shilling."
"Oh, sir!" cried Roger, quite unmanned at this most cruel disappointment; "be merciful—be generous—give me my gold, my own bit of gold! I'll swear his honour gave it for me: blessings on his head! You know he did, Mr. Simon; don't play upon me!"
"Play upon you?—generous—your gold—what is it you mean, man? We'll have no madmen about us, I can tell you; take the shilling, or else—"
"'Rob not the poor, because he is poor, for the Lord shall plead his cause,'" was the solemn answer.
"Roger Acton!"—the bailiff gave a scared start, as usual, and, recovering himself, looked both white and stern: "you have dared to quote the Bible against me: deeply shall you rue it. Begone, man! your work on this estate is at an end."
WRONGS AND RUIN.
A very miserable man was Roger Acton now, for this last trial was the worst of all. The vapours of his discontent had almost passed away—that bright pernicious dream was being rapidly forgotten—the morning's ill-got coin, "thank the Lord, it was lost as soon as found," and penitence had washed away that blot upon his soul; but here, an honest pound, liberally bestowed by his hereditary landlord—his own bright bit of gold—the only bit but one he ever had (and how different in innocence from that one!)—a seeming sugar-drop of kindness, shed by the rich heavens on his cup of poverty—to have this meanly filched away by a grasping, grinding task-master—oh, was it not a bitter trial? What affliction as to this world's wealth can a man meet worse than this?
Acton's first impulse was to run to the Hall, and ask to see Sir John:—"Out; won't be back till seven, and then can see nobody; the baronet will be dressing for dinner, and musn't be disturbed." Then he made a vain effort to speak with Mr. Jennings, and plead with him: yes, even on his knees, if must be. Mr. Simon could not be so bad; perhaps it was a long joke after all—the bailiff always had a queer way with him. Or, if indeed the man meant robbery, loudly to threaten him, that all might hear, to bring the house about his ears, and force justice, if he could not fawn it. But both these conflicting expedients were vetoed. Jonathan Floyd, who took in Acton's meek message of "humbly craved leave to speak with Master Jennings," came back with the inexplicable mandate, "Warn Roger Acton from the premises." So, he must needs bide till to-morrow morning, when, come what might, he resolved to see his honour, and set some truths before him.
Acton was not the only man on the estate who knew that he had a landlord, generous, not to say prodigal—a warm-hearted, well-intentioned master, whose mere youth a career of sensuality had not yet hardened, nor a course of dissipation been prolonged enough to distort his feelings from the right. And Acton, moreover, was not the only man who wondered how, with such a landlord (ay, and the guardians before him were always well-spoken gentle-folks, kindly in their manners, and liberal in their looks), wages could be kept so low, and rents so high, and indulgences so few, and penalties so many. There were fines for every thing, and no allowances of hedgebote, or housebote, or any other time-honoured right; the very peat on the common must be paid for, and if a child picked a bit of fagot the father was mulcted in a shilling. Mr. Jennings did all this, and always pleaded his employers' orders; nay, if any grumbled, as men would now and then, he would affect to think it strange that the gentlemen guardians, with the landlord at their head, could be so hard upon the poor: he would not be so, credit him, if he had been born a gentleman; but the bailiff, men, must obey orders, like the rest of you; these are hard times for Hurstley, he would say, and we must all rub over them as best we can. According to Simon, it was as much as his own place was worth to remit one single penny of a fine, or make the least indulgence for calamity; while, as to lowering a cotter's rent, or raising a ditcher's wages, he dared not do it for his life; folks must not blame him, but look to the landlord.
Now, all this, in the long absence of any definite resident master at the Hall, sounded reasonable, if true; and Mr. Jennings punctually paid, however bad the terms; so the poor men bode their time, and looked for better days. And the days long-looked-for now were come; but were they any better? The baronet, indeed, seemed bent upon inquiry, reform, redress; but, as he never went without the right-hand man, his endeavours were always unsuccessful. At first it would appear that the bailiff had gone upon his old plan, shrugging up his shoulders to the men at the master's meanness, while he praised to the landlord the condition of his tenants; but this could not long deceive, so he turned instanter on another tack; he assumed the despot, issuing authoritative edicts, which no one dared to disobey; he made the labourer hide his needs, and intercepted at its source the lord's benevolence; he began to be found out, so the bolder spirits said, in filching with both hands from man and master; and, to the mind of more than one shrewd observer, was playing the unjust steward to admiration.
But stop: let us hear the other side; it is possible we may have been mistaken. Bailiffs are never popular, particularly if they are too honest, and this one is a stern man with a repulsive manner. Who knows whether his advice to Acton may not have been wise and kind, and would not have conduced to a general rise of wages? Who can prove, nay, venture to insinuate, any such systematic roguery against a man hitherto so strict, so punctual, so sanctimonious? Even in the case of Sir John's golden gift, Jennings may be right after all; it is quite possible that Roger was mistaken, and had gilt a piece of silver with his longings; and the upright man might well take umbrage at so vile an imputation as that hot and silly speech; it was foolish, very foolish, to have quoted text against him, and no wonder that the labourer got dismissed for it. Then again to return to wages—who knows? it might be, all things considered, the only way of managing a rise; the bailiff must know his master's mind best, and Acton had been wise to have done as he bade him; perhaps it really was well-meant, and might have got him twelve shillings a-week, instead of eight as hitherto; perhaps Simon was a shrewd man, and arranged it cleverly; perhaps Roger was an honest man, and couldn't but think others so.
Any how, though, all was lost now, and he blamed his own rash tongue, poor fellow, for what he could not help fearing was the ruin of himself and all he loved. With a melancholy heart, he shouldered his spade, and slowly plodded homewards. How long should he have a home? How was he to get bread, to get work, if the bailiff was his enemy? How could he face his wife, and tell her all the foolish past and dreadful future? How could he bear to look on Grace, too beautiful Grace, and torture his heart by fancying her fate? Thomas, too, his own brave boy, whom utter poverty might drive to desperation? And the poor babes, his little playful pets, what on earth would become of them? There was the Union workhouse to be sure, but Acton shuddered at the thought; to be separated from every thing he loved, to give up his little all, and be made both a prisoner and a slave, all for the sake of what?—daily water-gruel, and a pauper's branded livery. Or they might perchance go beyond the seas, if some Prince Edward's Company would help him and his to emigrate; ay, thought he, and run new risks, encounter fresh dangers, lose every thing, get nothing, and all the trouble taken merely to starve three thousand miles from home. No, no; at his time of life, he could not be leaving for ever old friends, old habits, old fields, old home, old neighbourhood—where he had seen the saplings grow up trees, and the quick toppings change into a ten-foot hedge; where the very cattle knew his step, and the clods broke kindly to his ploughshare; and more than all, the dear old church, where his forefathers had worshipped from the Conquest, and the old mounds where they slept, and—and—and—that one precious grave of his dear lost Annie—could he leave it? Oh God, no! he had done no ill, he had committed no crime—why should he prefer the convict's doom, and seek to be transported for life?
A miserable walk home was that, and full of wretched thoughts. Poor Roger Acton, tossed by much trouble, vexed with sore oppression, I wish that you had prayed in your distress; stop, he did pray, and that vehemently; but it was not for help, or guidance, or patience, or consolation—he only prayed for gold.
THE COVETOUS DREAM.
Once at home, the sad truth soon was told. Roger's look alone spoke of some calamity, and he had but little heart or hope to keep the matter secret. True, he said not a word about the early morning's sin; why should he? he had been punished for it, and he had repented; let him be humbled before God, but not confess to man. However, all about the bailiff, and the landlord, and the thieved gift, and the sudden dismissal, the sure ruin, the dismal wayside plans, and fears, and dark alternatives, without one hope in any—these did poor Acton fluently pour forth with broken-hearted eloquence; to these Grace listened sorrowfully, with a face full of gentle trust in God's blessing on the morrow's interview; these Mary, the wife, heard to an end, with—no storm of execration on ill-fortune, no ebullition of unjust rage against a fool of a husband, no vexing sneers, no selfish apprehensions. Far from it; there really was one unlooked-for blessing come already to console poor Roger; and no little compensation for his trouble was the way his wife received the news. He, unlucky man, had expected something little short of a virago's talons, and a beldame's curse; he had experienced on less occasions something of the sort before; but now that real affliction stood upon the hearth, Mary Acton's character rose with the emergency, and she greeted her ruined husband with a kindness towards him, a solemn indignation against those who grind the poor, and a sober courage to confront evil, which he little had imagined.
"Bear up, Roger; here, goodman, take the child, and don't look quite so downcast; come what may, I'll share your cares, and you shall halve my pleasures; we will fight it out together."
Moreover, cross, and fidgetty, and scolding, as Mary had been ever heretofore, to her meek step-daughter Grace, all at once, as if just to disappoint any preconcerted theory, now that actual calamity was come, she turned to be a kind good mother to her. Roger and his daughter could scarcely believe their ears.
"Grace, dear, I know you're a sensible good girl, try and cheer your father." And then the step-dame added,
"There now, just run up, fetch your prayer-book down, and read a little to us all to do us good."—The fair, affectionate girl, unused to the accents of kindness, could not forbear flinging her arms round Mary Acton's neck, and loving her, as Ruth loved Naomi.
Then with a heavenly smile upon her face, and a happy heart within her to keep the smile alight, her gentle voice read these words—it will do us good to read them too:
"Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? Because there is mercy with thee; therefore shall thou be feared. I look for the Lord, my soul doth wait for him: in his word is my trust. My soul fleeth unto the Lord, before the morning watch, before the morning watch. O Israel, trust in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy: and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his sins."
"Isn't the last word 'troubles,' child? look again; I think it's 'troubles' either there, or leastways in the Bible-psalm."
"No, father, sins, 'from all his sins;' and 'iniquities' in the Bible-version—look, father."
"Well, girl, well; I wish it had been 'troubles;' 'from all his troubles' is a better thought to my mind: God wot, I have plenty on 'em, and a little lot of gold would save us from them all."
"Gold, father? no, my father—God."
"I tell you, child," said Roger, ever vacillating in his strong temptation between habitual religion and the new-caught lust of money, "if only on a sudden I could get gold by hook or by crook, all my cares and all your troubles would be over on the instant."
"Oh, dear father, do not hope so; and do not think of troubles more than sins; there is no deliverance in Mammon; riches profit not in the day of evil, and ill-got wealth tends to worse than poverty."
"Well, any how, I only wish that dream of mine came true."
"Dream, goodman—what dream?" said his wife.
"Why, Poll, I dreamt I was a-working in my garden, hard by the celery trenches in the sedge; and I was moaning at my lot, as well I may: and a sort of angel came to me, only he looked dark and sorrowful, and kindly said, 'What would you have, Roger?' I, nothing fearful in my dream, for all the strangeness of his winged presence, answered boldly, 'Money;' he pointed with his finger, laughed aloud, and vanished away: and, as for me, I thought a minute wonderingly, turned to look where he had pointed, and, O the blessing! found a crock of gold!"
"Hush, father! that dark angel was the devil; he has dropt ill thoughts upon your heart: I would I could see you as you used to be, dear father, till within these two days."
"Whoever he were, if he brought me gold, he would bring me blessing. There's meat and drink, and warmth and shelter, in the yellow gold—ay, and rest from labour, child, and a power of rare good gifts."
"If God had made them good, and the gold were honest gains, still, father, even so, you forget righteousness, and happiness, and wisdom. Money gives us none of these, but it might take them all away: dear father, let your loving Grace ask you, have you been better, happier, wiser, even from the wishing it so much?"
"Daughter, daughter, I tell you plainly, he that gives me gold, gives me all things: I wish I found the crock the de—the angel, I mean, brought me."
"O father," murmured Grace, "do not breathe the wicked wish; even if you found it without any evil angel's help, would the gold be rightfully your own?"
"Tush, girl!" said her mother; "get the gold, feed the children, and then to think about the right."
"Ay, Grace, first drive away the toils and troubles of this life," added Roger, "and then one may try with a free mind to discover the comforts of religion."
Poor Grace only looked up mournfully, and answered nothing.
A sudden knock at the door here startled the whole party, and Mary Acton, bustling up, drew the bolt to let in—first, a lurcher, one Rover to wit, our gaunt ember-loving friend of Chapter II.; secondly, Thomas Acton, full flush, who carried the old musket on his shoulder, and seemed to have something else under his smock; and thirdly, Ben Burke, a personage of no small consequence to us, and who therefore deserves some specific introduction.
Big Ben, otherwise Black Burke, according to the friendship or the enmity of those who named him, was a huge, rough, loud, good-humoured, dare-devil sort of an individual, who lived upon what he considered common rights. His dress was of the mongrel character, a well-imagined cross between a ploughman's and a sailor's; the bottle-green frock of the former, pattern-stitched about the neck as ingeniously as if a tribe of Wisconsin squaws had tailored it—and mighty fishing boots, vast as any French postillion's, acting as a triton's tail to symbolize the latter: a red cotton handkerchief (dirty-red of course, as all things else were dirty, for cleanliness had little part in Ben), occupied just now the more native region of a halter; and a rusty fur cap crowned the poacher; I repeat it—crowned the poacher; for in his own estimation, and that of many others too, Ben was, if not quite an emperor, at least an Agamemnon, a king of men, a natural human monarch; in truth, he felt as much pride in the title Burke the Poacher (and with as great justice too, for aught I know), as Ali-Hamet-Ghee-the-Thug eastwards, or William-of-Normandy-the-Conqueror westwards, may be thought respectively to have cherished, on the score of their murderous and thievish surnames.
There was no small good, after all, in poor Ben; and a mountain of allowance must be flung into the scales to counterbalance his deficiencies. However coarse, and even profane, in his talk (I hope the gentle reader will excuse me alike for eliding a few elegant extracts from his common conversation, and also for reminding him characteristically, now and then, that Ben's language is not entirely Addisonian), however rough of tongue and dissonant in voice, Ben's heart will be found much about in the right place; nay, I verily believe it has more of natural justice, human kindness, and right sympathies in it, than are to be found in many of those hard and hollow cones that beat beneath the twenty-guinea waistcoats of a Burghardt or a Buckmaster. Ay, give me the fluttering inhabitant of Ben Burke's cowskin vest; it is worth a thousand of those stuffed and artificial denizens, whose usual nest is figured satin and cut velvet.
Ben stole—true—he did not deny it; but he stole naught but what he fancied was wrongfully withheld him: and, if he took from the rich, who scarcely knew he robbed them, he shared his savoury booty with the poor, and fed them by his daring. Like Robin Hood of old, he avenged himself on wanton wealth, and frequently redressed by it the wrongs of penury. Not that I intend to break a lance for either of them, nor to go any lengths in excusing; slight extenuation is the limit for prudent advocacy in these cases. Robin Hood and Benjamin Burke were both of them thieves; bold men—bad men, if any will insist upon the bad; they sinned against law, and order, and Providence; they dug rudely at the roots of social institutions; they spoke and acted in a dangerous fashion about rights of men and community of things. But set aside the statutes of Foresting and Venery, disfranchise pheasants, let it be a cogent thing that poverty and riches approach the golden mean somewhat less unequally, and we shall not find much of criminality, either in Ben or Robin.
For a general idea, then, of our poaching friend:—he is a gigantic, black-whiskered, humorous, ruddy mortal, full of strange oaths, which we really must not print, and bearded like the pard, and he tumbles in amongst our humble family party, with—
"Bless your honest heart, Roger! what makes you look so sodden? I'm a lord, if your eyes a'n't as red as a hedge-hog's; and all the rest o' you, too; why, you seem to be pretty well merry as mutes. Ha! I see what it is," added Ben, pouring forth a benediction on their frugal supper; "it's that precious belly-ache porridge that's a-giving you all the 'flensy. Tip it down the sink, dame, will you now? and trust to me for better. Your Tom here, Roger, 's a lad o' mettle, that he is; ay, and that old iron o' yours as true as a compass; and the pheasants would come to it, all the same as if they'd been loadstoned. Here, dame, pluck the fowl, will you: drop 'em, Tom."—And Thomas Acton flung upon the table a couple of fine cock-pheasants.
Roger, Mary, and Grace, who were well accustomed to Ben Burke's eloquent tirades, heard the end of this one with anxiety and silence; for Tom had never done the like before. Grace was first to expostulate, but was at once cut short by an oath from her brother, whose evident state of high excitement could not brook the semblance of reproof. Mary Acton's marketing glance was abstractedly fixed upon the actual corpus delicti; each fine plump bird, full-plumaged, young-spurred; yes, they were still warm, and would eat tender, so she mechanically began to pluck them; while, as for poor downcast Roger, he remembered, with a conscience-sting that almost made him start, his stolen bit of money in the morning—so, how could he condemn? He only looked pityingly on Thomas, and sighed from the bottom of his heart.
"Why, what's the matter now?" roared Ben; "one 'ud think we was bailiffs come to raise the rent, 'stead of son Tom and friendly Ben; hang it, mun, we aint here to cheat you out o' summut—no, not out o' peace o' mind neither; so, if you don't like luck, burn the fowls, or bury 'em, and let brave Tom risk limbo for nothing."
"Oh, Ben!" murmured Grace, "why will you lead him astray? Oh, brother! brother! what have you done?" she said, sorrowfully.
"Miss Grace,"—her beauty always awed the poacher, and his rugged Caliban spirit bowed in reverence before her Ariel soul—"I wish I was as good as you, but can't be: don't condemn us, Grace; leastways, first hear me, and then say where's the harm or sin on it. Twelve hundred head o' game—I heard John Gorse, the keeper, tell it at the Jerry—twelve hundred head were shot at t'other day's battew: Sir John—no blame to him for it—killed a couple o' hundred to his own gun: and though they sent away a coachful, and gave to all who asked, and feasted themselves chuckfull, and fed the cats, and all, still a mound, like a haycock, o' them fine fat fowl, rotted in a mass, and were flung upon the dungpit. Now, Miss Grace, that ere salt pea-porridge a'n't nice, a'n't wholesome; and, bless your pretty mouth, it ought to feed more sweetly. Look at Acton, isn't he half-starved. Is Tom, brave boy, full o' the fat o' the land? Who made fowl, I should like to know, and us to eat 'em? And where's the harm or sin in bringing down a bird? No, Miss, them ere beaks, dammem (beg humble pardon, Miss, indeed I won't again) them ere justices, as they call themselves, makes hard laws to hedge about their own pleasures; and if the poor man starves, he starves; but if he stays his hunger with the free, wild birds of heaven, they prison him and punish him, and call him poacher."
"Ben, those who make the laws, do so under God's permission; and they who break man's law, break His law."
"Nonsense, child,"—suddenly said Roger; "hold your silly tongue. Do you mean to tell us, God's law and man's law are the same thing! No, Grace, I can't stomach that; God makes right, and man makes might—riches go one way, and poor men's wrong's another. Money, money's the great law-maker, and a full purse frees him that has it, while it turns the jailor's key on the wretch that has it not: one of those wretches is the hopeless Roger Acton. Well, well," he added, after a despondent sigh, "say no more about it all; that's right, good-wife—why, they do look plump. And if I can't stomach Grace's text-talk there, I'm sure I can the birds; for I know what keeps crying cupboard lustily."
It was a faint effort to be gay, and it only showed his gloom the denser. Truly, he has quite enough to make him sad; but this is an unhealthy sadness: the mists of mammon-worship, rising up, meet in the mid aether of his mind, these lowering clouds of discontent: and the seeming calamity, that should be but a trial to his faith, looks too likely to wreck it.
So, then, the embers were raked up, the trivet stuck a-top, the savoury broil made ready; and (all but Grace, who would not taste a morsel, but went up straight to bed) never had the Actons yet sate down before so rich a supper.
BEN BURKE'S STRANGE ADVENTURE.
"Take a pull, Roger, and pass the flask," was the cordial prescription of Ben Burke, intended to cure a dead silence, generated equally of eager appetites and self-accusing consciences; so saying, he produced a quart wicker-bottle, which enshrined, according to his testimony, "summut short, the right stuff, stinging strong, that had never seen the face of a wishy-washy 'ciseman." But Roger touched it sparingly, for the vaunted nectar positively burnt his swallow: till Ben, pulling at it heartily himself, by way of giving moral precept the full benefit of a good example, taught Roger not to be afraid of it, and so the flask was drained.
Under such communicative influence, Acton's tale of sorrows and oppressions, we may readily believe, was soon made known; and as readily, that it moved Ben's indignant and gigantic sympathies to an extent of imprecation on the eyes, timbers, and psychological existence of Mr. Jennings, very little edifying. One thing, however, made amends for the license of his tongue; the evident sincerity and warmth with which his coarse but kindly nature proffered instant aid, both offensive and defensive.
"It's a black and burning shame, Honest Roger, and right shall have his own, somehow, while Big Ben has a heart in the old place, and a hand to help his friend." And the poacher having dealt his own broad breast a blow that would have knocked a tailor down, stretched out to Acton the huge hand that had inflicted it.
"More than that, Roger—hark to this, man!" and, as he slapped his breeches pocket, there was the chink as of a mine of money shaken to its foundations: "hark to this, man! and more than hark, have! Here, good wife, hold your apron!" And he flung into her lap a handful of silver.
Roger gave a sudden shout of wonder, joy, and avarice: and then as instantaneously turning very pale, he slowly muttered, "Hush, Ben! is it bloody money?" and almost shrieked as he added, "and my poor boy Tom, too, with you! God-a-mercy, mun! how came ye by it?"
"Honestly, neighbour, leastways, middling honest: don't damp a good fellow's heart, when he means to serve you."
"Tell me only that my boy is innocent!—and the money—yes, yes, I'll keep the money;" for his wife seemed to be pushing it from her at the thought.
"I innocent, father! I never know'd till this minute that Ben had any blunt at all—did I, Ben?—and I only brought him and Rover here to sup, because I thought it neighbourly and kind-like."
Poor Tom had till now been very silent: some how the pheasants lay heavy on his stomach.
"Is it true, Ben, is it true? the lad isn't a thief, the lad isn't a murderer? Oh, God! Burke, tell me the truth!
"Blockhead!" was the courteous reply, "what, not believe your own son? Why, neighbour Acton, look at the boy: would that frank-faced, open-hearted fellow do worse, think you, than Black Burke? And would I, bad as I be, turn the bloody villain to take a man's life? No, neighbour; Ben kills game, not keepers: he sets his wire for a hare, but wouldn't go to pick a dead man's pocket. All that's wrong in me, mun, the game-laws put there; but I'm neither burglar, murderer, highwayman—no, nor a mean, sneaking thief; however the quality may think so, and even wish to drive me to it. Neither, being as I be no rogue, could I bear to live a fool; but I should be one, neighbour, and dub myself one too, if I didn't stoop to pick up money that a madman flings away."
"Madman? pick up money? tell us how it was, Ben," interposed female curiosity.
"Well, neighbours, listen: I was a-setting my night-lines round Pike Island yonder, more nor a fortnight back; it was a dark night and a mizzling, or morning rather, 'twixt three and four; by the same token, I'd caught a power of eels. All at once, while I was fixing a trimmer, a punt came quietly up: as for me, Roger, you know I always wades it through the muddy shallow: well, I listens, and a chap creeps ashore—a mad chap, with never a tile to his head, nor a sole to his feet—and when I sings out to ax him his business, the lunatic sprung at me like a tiger: I didn't wish to hurt a little weak wretch like him, specially being past all sense, poor nat'ral! so I shook him off at once, and held him straight out in this here wice." [Ben's grasp could have cracked any cocoa-nut.] "He trembled like a wicked thing; and when I peered close into his face, blow me but I thought I'd hooked a white devil—no one ever see such a face: it was horrible too look at. 'What are you arter, mun?' says I; 'burying a dead babby?' says I. 'Give us hold here—I'm bless'd if I don't see though what you've got buckled up there.' With that, the little white fool—it's sartin he was mad—all on a sudden flings at my head a precious hard bundle, gives a horrid howl, jumps into the punt, and off again, afore I could wink twice. My head a'n't a soft un, I suppose; but when a lunatic chap hurls at it with all his might a barrow-load of crockery at once, it's little wonder that my right eye flinched a minute, and that my right hand rubbed my right eye; and so he freed himself, and got clear off. Rum start this, thinks I: but any how he's flung away a summut, and means to give it me: what can it be? thinks I. Well, neighbours, if I didn't know the chap was mad afore, I was sartain of it now; what do you think of a grown man—little enough, truly, but out of long coats too—sneaking by night to Pike Island, to count out a little lot of silver, and to guzzle twelve gallipots o' honey? There it was, all hashed up in an old shawl, a slimy mesh like birdlime: no wonder my eye was a leetle blackish, when half-a-dozen earthern crocks were broken against it. I was angered enough, I tell you, to think any man could be such a fool as to bring honey there to eat or to hide—when at once I spied summut red among the mess; and what should it be but a pretty little China house, red-brick-like, with a split in the roof for droppings, and ticketed 'Savings-bank:' the chink o' that bank you hears now: and the bank itself is in the pond, now I've cleaned the till out."
"Wonderful sure! But what did you do with the honey, Ben?—some of the pots wasn't broke," urged notable Mrs. Acton.
"Oh, burn the slimy stuff, I warn't going to put my mouth out o' taste o' bacca, for a whole jawful of tooth-aches: I'll tell you, dame, what I did with them ere crocks, wholes, and parts. There's never a stone on Pike Island, it's too swampy, and I'd forgot to bring my pocketful, as usual. The heaviest fish, look you, always lie among the sedge, hereabouts and thereabouts, and needs stirring, as your Tom knows well; so I chucked the gallipots fur from me, right and left, into the shallows, and thereby druv the pike upon my hooks. A good night's work I made of it too, say nothing of the Savings-bank; forty pound o' pike and twelve of eel warn't bad pickings."
"Dear, it was a pity though to fling away the honey; but what became of the shawl, Ben?" Perhaps Mrs. Acton thought of looking for it.
"Oh, as for that, I was minded to have sunk it, with its mess of sweet-meats and potsherds; but a thought took me, dame, to be 'conomical for once: and I was half sorry too that I'd flung away the jars, for I began to fancy your little uns might ha' liked the stuff; so I dipped the clout like any washerwoman, rinshed, and squeezed, and washed the mess away, and have worn it round my waist ever since; here, dame, I haven't been this way for a while afore to-night; but I meant to ask you if you'd like to have it; may be 'tan't the fashion though."
"Good gracious, Ben! why that's Mrs. Quarles's shawl, I'd swear to it among a hundred; Sarah Stack, at the Hall, once took and wore it, when Mrs. Quarles was ill a-bed, and she and our Thomas walked to church together. Yes—green, edged with red, and—I thought so—a yellow circle in the middle; here's B.Q., for Bridget Quarles, in black cotton at the corner. Lackapity! if they'd heard of all this at the Inquest! I tell you what, Big Ben, it's kindly meant of you, and so thank you heartily, but that shawl would bring us into trouble; so please take it yourself to the Hall, and tell 'em fairly how you came by it."
"I don't know about that Poll Acton; perhaps they might ask me for the Saving-bank, too—eh, Roger!"
"No, no, wife; no, it'll never do to lose the money! let a bygone be a bygone, and don't disturb the old woman in her grave. As to the shawl, if it's like to be a tell-tale, in my mind, this hearth's the safest place for it."
So he flung it on the fire; there was a shrivelling, smouldering, guilty sort of blaze, and the shawl was burnt.
Roger Acton, you are falling quickly as a shooting star; already is your conscience warped to connive, for lucre's sake, at some one's secret crimes. You had better, for the moral of the matter, have burnt your right hand, as Scaevola did, than that shawl. Beware! your sin will bring its punishment.
Grace, in her humble truckle-bed, lay praying for her father; not about his trouble, though that was much, but for the spots of sin she could discern upon his soul.
Alas! an altered man was Roger Acton; almost since morning light, the leprosy had changed his very nature. The simple-minded Christian, toiling in contentment for his daily bread, cheerful for the passing day, and trustful for the coming morrow, this fair state was well-nigh faded away; while a bitterness of feeling against (in one word) GOD—against unequal partialities in providence, against things as they exist; and this world's inexplicable government—was gnawing at his very heart-strings, and cankering their roots by unbelief. It is a speedy process—throw away faith with its trust for the past, love for the present, hope for the future—and you throw away all that makes sorrow bearable, or joy lovely; the best of us, if God withheld his help, would apostatize like Peter, ere the cock crew thrice; and, at times, that help has wisely been withheld, to check presumptuous thoughts, and teach how true it is that the creature depends on the Creator. Just so we suffer a wilful little child, who is tottering about in leading-strings, to go alone for a minute, and have a gentle fall. And just so Roger here, deserted for a time of those angelic ministrations whose efficiency is proved by godliness and meekness, by patience and content, is harassed in his spirit as by harpies, by selfishness and pride, and fretful doublings; by a grudging hate of labour, and a fiery lust of gold. Temptation comes to teach a weak man that he was fitted for his station, and his station made for him; that fulfilment of his ignorant desires will only make his case the worse, and that
Providence alike is wise In what he gives and what denies.
Meanwhile, gentle Grace, on her humble truckle-bed, is full of prayers and tears, uneasily listening to the indistinct and noisy talk, and hearing, now and then, some louder oath of Ben's that made her shudder. Yes, she heard, too, the smashing sound, when the poacher flung the money down, and she feared it was a mug or a plate—no slight domestic loss; and she heard her father's strange cry, when he gave that wondering shout of joyous avarice, and she did not know what to fear. Was he ill? or crazed! or worse—fallen into bad excesses? How she prayed for him!
Poor Ben, too, honest-hearted Ben; she thought of him in charity, and pleaded for his good before the Throne of Mercy. Who knows but Heaven heard that saintly virgin prayer? There is love in Heaven yet for poor Ben Burke.
And if she prayed for Ben, with what an agony of deep-felt intercession did she plead for Thomas Acton, that own only brother of hers, just a year the younger to endear him all the more, her playmate, care, and charge, her friend and boisterous protector. The many sorrowing hours she had spent for his sake, and the thousand generous actions he had done for hers! Could she forget how the stripling fought for her that day, when rude Joseph Green would help her over the style? Could she but remember how slily he had put aside, for more than half a year, a little heap of copper earnings—weeding-money, and errand-money, and harvest-money—and then bounteously spent it all at once in giving her a Bible on her birth-day? And when, coming across the fields with him after leasing, years ago now, that fierce black bull of Squire Ryle's was rushing down upon us both, how bravely did the noble boy attack him with a stake, as he came up bellowing, and make the dreadful monster turn away! Ah! I looked death in the face then, but for thee, my brother! Remember him, my God, for good!
"Poor father! poor father! Well, I am resolved upon one thing: I'll go, with Heaven's blessing, to the Hall myself, and see Sir John, to-morrow; he shall hear the truth, for"—And so Grace fell asleep.
Roger, when he went to bed, came to similar conclusions. He would speak up boldly, that he would, without fear or favour. Ben's most seasonable bounty, however to be questioned on the point of right, made him feel entirely independent, both of bailiffs and squires, and he had now no anxieties, but rather hopes, about to-morrow. He was as good as they, with money in his pocket; so he'd down to the Hall, and face the baronet himself, and blow his bailiff out o' water: that should be his business by noon. Another odd idea, too, possessed him, and he could not sleep at night for thinking of it: it was a foolish fancy, but the dream might have put it in his head: what if one or other of those honey-jars, so flung here and there among the rushes, were in fact another sort of "Savings-bank"—a crock of gold? It was a thrilling thought—his very dream, too; and the lot of shillings, and the shawl—ay, and the inquest, and the rumours how that Mrs. Quarles had come to her end unfairly, and no hoards found—and—and the honey-pots missing. Ha! at any rate he'd have a search to-morrow. No bugbear now should hinder him; money's money; he'd ask no questions how it got there. His own bit of garden lay the nearest to Pike Island, and who knows but Ben might have slung a crock this way? It wouldn't do to ask him, though—for Burke might look himself, and get the crock—was Roger's last and selfish thought, before he fell asleep.
As to Mrs. Acton, she, poor woman, had her own thoughts, fearful ones, about that shawl, and Ben's mysterious adventure. No cloudy love of mammon had overspread her mind, to hide from it the hideousness of murder; in her eyes, blood was terrible, and not the less so that it covered gold. She remembered at the inquest—be sure she was there among the gossips—the facts, so little taken notice of till now, the keys in the cupboard, where the honey-pots were not, and how Jonathan Floyd had seen something on the lake, and the marks of a man's hand on the throat; and, God forgive her for saying so, but Mr. Jennings was a little, white-faced man. How wrong was it of Roger to have burnt that shawl! how dull of Ben not to have suspected something! but then the good fellow suspects nobody, and, I dare say, now doesn't know my thoughts. But Roger does, more shame for him; or why burn the shawl? Ah! thought she, with all the gossip rampart in her breast, if I could only have taken it to the Hall myself, what a stir I should have caused! Yes, she would have reaped a mighty field of glory by originating such a whirlwind of inquiries and surmises. Even now, so attractive was the mare's nest, she would go to the Hall by morning, and tell Sir John himself all about the burnt shawl, and Pike Island, and the galli—And so she fell fast asleep.
With respect to Ben, Tom, and Rover, a well-matched triad, as any Isis, Horus, and Nepthys, they all flung themselves promiscuously on the hard floor beside the hearth, "basked at the fire their hairy strength," and soon were snoring away beautifully in concert, base, tenor, and treble, like a leash of glee-singers. No thoughts troubled them, either of mammon or murder: so long before the meditative trio up-stairs, they had set a good example, and fallen asleep.
With the earliest peep of day arose sweet Grace, full of cheerful hope, and prayer, and happy resignation. She had a great deal to do that morning; for, innocent girl, she had no notion that it was quite possible to be too early at the Hall; her only fear was being too late. Then there were all the household cares to see to, and the dear babes to dress, and the place to tidy up, and breakfast to get ready, and, any how, she could not be abroad till half-past eight: so, to her dismay, it must be past nine before ever she can see Sir John. Let us follow her a little: for on this important day we shall have to take the adventures of our labourer's family one at a time.
By twenty minutes to nine, Grace had contrived to bustle on her things, give the rest the slip, and be tripping to the Hall. It is nearly two miles off, as we already know; and Grace is such a pretty creature that we can clearly do no better than employ our time thitherward by taking a peep at her.
Sweet Grace Acton, we will not vex thy blushing maiden modesty by elaborate details of form, and face, and feature. Perfect womanhood at fair eighteen: let that fill all the picture up with soft and swelling charms; no wadding, or padding, or jigot, or jupe—but all those graceful undulations are herself: no pearl-powder, no carmine, no borrowed locks, no musk, or ambergris—but all those feeble helps of meretricious art excelled and superseded by their just originals in nature. It will not do to talk, as a romancer may, of velvet cheeks and silken tresses; or invoke, to the aid of our inadequate description, roses, and swans, and peaches, and lilies. Take the simple village beauty as she is. Did you ever look on prettier lips or sweeter eyes—more glossy natural curls upon a whiter neck? And how that little red-riding-hood cloak, and the simple cottage hat tied down upon her cheeks, and the homely russet gown, all too short for modern fashions, and the white, well-turned ankle, and the tidy little leather shoe, and the bunch of snow drops in her tucker, and the neat mittens contrasting darkly with her fair, bare arms—pretty Grace, how well all these become thee! There, trip along, with health upon thy cheek, and hope within thy heart; who can resist so eloquent a pleader? Haste on, haste on: save thy father in his trouble, as thou hast blest him in his sin—this rustic lane is to thee the path of duty—Heaven speed thee on it!
More slowly now, and with more anxious thoughts, more heart-weakness, more misgiving—Grace approacheth the stately mansion: and when she timidly touched the "Servants'" bell, for she felt too lowly for the "Visiters',"—and when she heard how terribly loud it was, how long it rung, and what might be the issue of her—wasn't it ill-considered?—errand—the poor girl almost fainted at the sound.
As she leaned unconsciously for strength against the door, it opened on a sudden, and Jonathan Floyd, in mute amazement, caught her in his arms.
"Why, Grace Acton! what's the matter with you?" Jonathan knew Grace well; they had been at dame's-school together, and in after years attended the same Sunday class at church. There had been some talk among the gossips about Jonathan and Grace, and ere now folks had been kind enough to say they would make a pretty couple. And folks were right, too, as well as kind: for a fine young fellow was Jonathan Floyd, as any duchess's footman; tall, well built, and twenty-five; Antinous in a livery. Well to do, withal, though his wages don't come straight to him; for, independently of his place—and the baronet likes him for his good looks and proper manners—he is Farmer Floyd's only son, on the hill yonder, as thriving a small tenant as any round abouts; and he is proud of his master, of his blue and silver uniform, of old Hurstley, and of all things in general, except himself.