THE SHADOW OF A CRIME
A CUMBRIAN ROMANCE
By Hall Caine
Author of "The Manxman," "The Deemster" etc.
"Whom God's hand rests on, has God At his right hand."
NEW YORK HURST & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
MY ABLE FELLOW-JOURNALIST
WHO IN A DARKER HOUR OF LABOR AND MISGIVING CHEERED ME WITH AN ESTIMATE OF THIS NOVEL THAT THE PUBLIC HAS SINCE RATIFIED.
I. The City of Wythburn
II. The Crime in the Night
III. In the Red Lion
IV. The Outcast
V. The Empty Saddle
VI. The House on the Moss
VII. Sim's Cave
VIII. Robbie's Redemption
IX. The Shadow of the Crime
X. Mattha Branth'et "Flytes" the Parson
XI. Liza's Wiles
XII. The Flight on the Fells
XIII. A 'Batable Point
XIV. Until the Day Break
XV. Ralph's Sacrifice
XVI. At Sunrise on the Raise
XVII. The Garths: Mother and Son
XVIII. The Dawn of Love
XIX. The Betrothal
XX. "Fool, of Thyself Speak Well"
XXI. Mrs. Garth at Shoulthwaite
XXII. The Threatened Outlawry
XXIII. She Never Told Her Love
XXIV. Treason or Murder
XXV. Liza's Device
XXVI. "Fool, Do Not Flatter"
XXVII. Ralph at Lancaster
XXVIII. After Word Comes Weird
XXIX. Robbie's Quest Begun
XXX. A Race Against Life
XXXI. Robbie, Speed On!
XXXII. What the Snow Gave Up
XXXIII. Sepulture at Last
XXXIV. Fate that Impedes, Fall Back
XXXV. Robbie's Quest Ended
XXXVI. Rotha's Confession
XXXVII. Which Indictment?
XXXVIII. Peine Forte et Dure
XXXIX. The Fiery Hand
XL. Garth and the Quakers
XLI. A Horse's Neigh
XLII. The Fatal Witness
XLIII. Love Known at Last
XLIV. The Clew Discovered
XLV. The Condemned in Doomsdale
XLVI. The Skein Unravelled
XLVII. The Black Camel at the Gate
XLVIII. "Out, Out, Brief Candle"
XLIX. Peace, Peace, and Rest
L. Next Morning
LI. Six Months After
The central incident of this novel is that most extraordinary of all punishments known to English criminal law, the peine forte et dure. The story is not, however, in any sense historical. A sketchy background of stirring history is introduced solely in order to heighten the personal danger of a brave man. The interest is domestic, and, perhaps, in some degree psychological. Around a pathetic piece of old jurisprudence I have gathered a mass of Cumbrian folk-lore and folk-talk with which I have been familiar from earliest youth. To smelt and mould the chaotic memories into an organism such as may serve, among other uses, to give a view of Cumberland life in little, has been the work of one year.
The story, which is now first presented as a whole, has already had a career in the newspapers, and the interest it excited in those quarters has come upon me as a surprise. I was hardly prepared to find that my plain russet-coated dalesmen were in touch with popular sympathy; but they have made me many friends. To me they are very dear, for I have lived their life. It is with no affected regret that I am now parting with these companions to make way for a group of younger comrades.
There is one thing to say which will make it worth while to trouble the reader with this preface. A small portion of the dialogue is written in a much modified form of the Cumbrian dialect. There are four variations of dialect in Cumberland, and perhaps the dialect spoken on the West Coast differs more from the dialect spoken in the Thirlmere Valley than the latter differs from the dialect spoken in North Lancashire. The patois problem is not the least serious of the many difficulties the novelist encounters. I have chosen to give a broad outline of Cumbrian dialect, such as bears no more exact relation to the actual speech than a sketch bears to a finished picture. It is right as far as it goes.
A word as to the background of history. I shall look for the sympathy of the artist and the forgiveness of the historian in making two or three trifling legal anachronisms that do not interfere with the interest of the narrative. The year of the story is given, but the aim has been to reflect in these pages the black cloud of the whole period of the Restoration as it hung over England's remotest solitudes. In my rude sketch of the beginnings of the Quaker movement I must disclaim any intention of depicting the precise manners or indicating the exact doctrinal beliefs of the revivalists. If, however, I have described the Quakers as singing and praying with the fervor of the Methodists, it must not be forgotten that Quietism was no salient part of the Quakerism of Fox; and if I have hinted at Calvinism, it must be remembered that the "dividing of God's heritage" was one of the causes of the first schism in the Quaker Society.
New Court, Lincoln's Inn.
THE SHADOW OF A CRIME.
CHAPTER I. THE CITY OF WYTHBURN.
Tar-ry woo', tar-ry woo', Tar-ry woo' is ill to spin: Card it weel, card it weel, Card it weel ere you begin. Old Ballad.
The city of Wythburn stood in a narrow valley at the foot of Lauvellen, and at the head of Bracken Water. It was a little but populous village, inhabited chiefly by sheep farmers, whose flocks grazed on the neighboring hills. It contained rather less than a hundred houses, all deep thatched and thick walled. To the north lay the mere, a long and irregular water, which was belted across the middle by an old Roman bridge of bowlders. A bare pack-horse road wound its way on the west, and stretched out of sight to the north and to the south. On this road, about half a mile within the southernmost extremity of Bracken Water, two hillocks met, leaving a natural opening between them and a path that went up to where the city stood. The dalesmen called the cleft between the hillocks the city gates; but why the gates and why the city none could rightly say. Folks had always given them these names. The wiser heads shook gravely as they told you that city should be sarnty, meaning the house by the causeway. The historians of the plain could say no more.
They were rude sons and daughters of the hills who inhabited this mountain home two centuries ago. The country around them was alive with ghostly legend. They had seen the lights dance across Deer Garth Ghyll, and had heard the wail that came from Clark's Loup. They were not above trembling at the mention of these mysteries when the moon was flying across a darksome sky, when the wind moaned about the house, and they were gathered around the ingle nook. They had few channels of communication with the great world without. The pack-horse pedler was their swiftest newsman; the pedler on foot was their weekly budget. Five miles along the pack-horse road to the north stood their market town of Gaskarth, where they took their wool or the cloth they had woven from it. From the top of Lauvellen they could see the white sails of the ships that floated down the broad Solway. These were all but their only glimpses of the world beyond their mountains. It was a mysterious and fearsome world.
There was, however, one link that connected the people of Wythburn with the world outside. To the north of the city and the mere there lived a family of sheep farmers who were known as the Rays of Shoulthwaite Moss. The family consisted of husband and wife and two sons. The head of the house, Angus Ray, came to the district early in life from the extreme Cumbrian border. He was hardly less than a giant in stature. He had limbs of great length, and muscles like the gnarled heads of a beech. Upon settling at Wythburn, he speedily acquired property of various kinds, and in the course of a few years he was the largest owner of sheep on the country side. Certainly, fortune favored Angus Ray, and not least noticeably when in due course he looked about him for a wife.
Mary Ray did not seem to have many qualities in common with her husband. She had neither the strength of limb nor the agile grace of the mountaineer. This was partly the result of the conditions under which her girlhood had been spent. She was the only child of a dalesman, who had so far accumulated estate in land as to be known in the vernacular as a statesman. Her mother had died at her birth, and before she had attained to young womanhood her father, who had married late in life, was feeble and unfit for labor. His hand was too nervous, his eye too uncertain, his breath too short for the constant risks of mountaineering; so he put away all further thought of adding store to store, and settled himself peaceably in his cottage under Castenand, content with the occasional pleasures afforded by his fiddle, an instrument upon which he had from his youth upward shown some skill. In this quiet life his daughter was his sole companion.
There was no sight in Wythburn more touching than to see this girl solacing her father's declining years, meeting his wishes with anticipatory devices, pampering him in his whims, soothing him in the imaginary sorrows sometimes incident to age, even indulging him with a sort of pathetic humor in his frequent hallucinations. To do this she had to put by a good many felicities dear to her age and condition, but there was no apparent consciousness of self-sacrifice. She had many lovers, for in these early years she was beautiful; and she had yet more suitors, for she was accounted rich. But neither flattery nor the fervor of genuine passion seemed to touch her, and those who sought her under the transparent guise of seeking her father usually went away as they came. She had a smile and the cheeriest word of welcome for all alike, and so the young dalesmen who wooed her from the ignoble motive came to think her a little of a coquette, while those who wooed her from the purer impulse despaired of ruffling with the gentlest gales of love the still atmosphere of her heart.
One day suddenly, however, the old statesman died, and his fiddle was heard no more across the valley in the quiet of the evening, but was left untouched for the dust to gather on it where he himself had hung it on the nail in the kitchen under his hat. Then when life seemed to the forlorn girl a wide blank, a world without a sun in it, Angus Ray went over for the first time as a suitor to the cottage under Castenand, and put his hand in hers and looked calmly into her eyes. He told her that a girl could not live long an unfriended life like hers—that she should not if she could; she could not if she would—would she not come to him?
It was the force of the magnet to the steel. With swimming eyes she looked up into his strong face, tender now with a tremor never before seen there; and as he drew her gently towards him her glistening tears fell hot and fast over her brightening and now radiant face, and, as though to hide them from him, she laid her head on his breast. This was all the wooing of Angus Ray.
They had two sons, and of these the younger more nearly resembled his mother. Willy Ray had not merely his mother's features; he had her disposition also. He had the rounded neck and lissom limbs of a woman; he had a woman's complexion, and the light of a woman's look in his soft blue eyes. When the years gave a thin curly beard to his cheek they took nothing from its delicate comeliness. It was as if nature had down to the last moment meant Willy for a girl. He had been an apt scholar at school, and was one of the few persons in Wythburn having claims to education. Willy's elder brother, Ralph, more nearly resembled his father. He had his father's stature and strength of limb, but some of his mother's qualities had also been inherited by him. In manner he was neither so austere and taciturn as his father, nor so gentle and amiable as his mother. He was by no means a scholar, and only the strong hand of his father had kept him as a boy in fear of the penalties incurred by the truant. Courage and resolution were his distinguishing characteristics.
On one occasion, when rambling over the fells with a company of schoolfellows, a poor blind lamb ran bleating past them, a black cloud of ravens, crows, and owl-eagles flying about it. The merciless birds had fallen upon the innocent creature as it lay sleeping under the shadow of a tree, had picked at its eyes and fed on them, and now, as the blood trickled in red beads down its nose, they croaked and cried and screamed to drive it to the edge of a precipice and then over to its death in the gulf beneath, there to feast on its carcass. It was no easy thing to fend off the cruel birds when in sight of their prey, but, running and capturing the poor lamb, Ralph snatched it up in his arms at the peril of his own eyes, and swung a staff about his head to beat off the birds as they darted and plunged and shrieked about him.
It was natural that a boy like this should develop into the finest shepherd on the hills. Ralph knew every path on the mountains, every shelter the sheep sought from wind and rain, every haunt of the fox. At the shearing, at the washing, at the marking, his hand was among the best; and when the flocks had to be numbered as they rushed in thousands through the gate, he could count them, not by ones and twos, but by fours and sixes. At the shearing feasts he was not above the pleasures of the country dance, the Ledder-te-spetch, as it was called, with its one, two, three—heel and toe—cut and shuffle. And his strong voice, that was answered oftenest by the echo of the mountain cavern, was sometimes heard to troll out a snatch of a song at the village inn. But Ralph, though having an inclination to convivial pleasures, was naturally of a serious, even of a solemn temperament. He was a rude son of a rude country,—rude of hand, often rude of tongue, untutored in the graces that give beauty to life.
By the time that Ralph had attained to the full maturity of his manhood, the struggles of King and Parliament were at their height. The rumor of these struggles was long in reaching the city of Wythburn, and longer in being discussed and understood there; but, to everybody's surprise, young Ralph Ray announced his intention of forthwith joining the Parliamentarian forces. The extraordinary proposal seemed incredible; but Ralph's mind was made up. His father said nothing about his son's intentions, good or bad. The lad was of age; he might think for himself. In his secret heart Angus liked the lad's courage. Ralph was "nane o' yer feckless fowk." Ralph's mother was sorely troubled; but just as she had yielded to his father's will in the days that were long gone by, so she yielded now to his. The intervening years had brought an added gentleness to her character; they had made mellower her dear face, now ruddy and round, though wrinkled. Folks said she had looked happier and happier, and had talked less and less, as the time wore on. It had become a saying in Wythburn that the dame of Shoulthwaite Moss was never seen without a smile, and never heard to say more than "God bless you!" The tears filled her eyes when her son came to kiss her on the morning when he left her home for the first time, but she wiped them away with her housewife's apron, and dismissed him with her accustomed blessing.
Ralph Ray joined Cromwell's army against the second Charles at Dunbar, in 1650. Between two and three years afterwards he returned to Wythburn city and resumed his old life on the fells. There was little more for the train-bands to do. Charles had fled, peace was restored, the Long Parliament was dissolved, Cromwell was Lord Protector. Outwardly the young Roundhead was not altered by the campaign. He had passed through it unscathed. He was somewhat graver in manner; there seemed to be a little less warmth and spontaneity in his greeting; his voice had lost one or two of its cheerier notes; his laughter was less hearty and more easily controlled. Perhaps this only meant that the world was doing its work with him. Otherwise he was the same man.
When Ralph returned to Wythburn he brought with him a companion much older than himself, who forthwith became an inmate of his father's home, taking part as a servant in the ordinary occupations of the male members of the household. This man had altogether a suspicious and sinister aspect which his manners did nothing to belie. His name was James Wilson, and he was undoubtedly a Scot, though he had neither the physical nor the moral characteristics of his race. His eyes were small, quick, and watchful, beneath heavy and jagged brows. He was slight of figure and low of stature, and limped on one leg. He spoke in a thin voice, half laugh, half whimper, and hardly ever looked into the face of the person with whom he was conversing. There was an air of mystery about him which the inmates of the house on the Moss did nothing to dissipate. Ralph offered no explanation to the gossips of Wythburn of Wilson's identity and belongings; indeed, as time wore on, it could be observed that he showed some uneasiness when questioned about the man.
At first Wilson contrived to ingratiate himself into a good deal of favor among the dalespeople. There was then an insinuating smoothness in his speech, a flattering, almost fawning glibness of tongue, which the simple folks knew no art to withstand. He seemed abundantly grateful for some unexplained benefits received from Ralph. "Atweel," Wilson would say, with his eyes on the ground,—"atweel I lo'e the braw chiel as 'twere my ain guid billie."
Ralph paid no heed to the brotherly protestations of his admirer, and exchanged only such words with him as their occupations required. Old Angus, however, was not so passive an observer of his new and unlooked-for housemate. "He's a good for nought sort of a fellow, slenken frae place to place wi' nowt but a sark to his back," Angus would say to his wife. Mr. Wilson's physical imperfections were an offence in the dalesman's eyes: "He's as widderful in his wizzent old skin as his own grandfather." Angus was not less severe on Wilson's sly smoothness of manner. "Yon sneaking old knave," he would say, "is as slape as an eel in the beck; he'd wammel himself into crookedest rabbit hole on the fell." Probably Angus entertained some of the antipathy to Scotchmen which was peculiar to his age. "I'll swear he's a taistrel," he said one day; "I dare not trust him with a mess of poddish until I'd had the first sup."
In spite of this determined disbelief on the part of the head of the family, old Wilson remained for a long time a member of the household at Shoulthwaite Moss, following his occupations with constancy, and always obsequious in the acknowledgment of his obligations. It was observed that he manifested a peculiar eagerness when through any stray channel intelligence was received in the valley of the sayings and doings in the world outside. Nothing was thought of this until one day the passing pedler brought the startling news that the Lord Protector was dead. The family were at breakfast in the kitchen of the old house when this tardy representative of the herald Mercury arrived, and, in reply to the customary inquiry as to the news he carried, announced the aforesaid fact. Wilson was alive to its significance with a curious wakefulness.
"It's braw tidings ye bring the day, man," he stammered with evident concern, and with an effort to hide his nervousness.
"Yes, the old man's dead," said the pedler, with an air of consequence commensurate with his message. "I reckon," he added, "Oliver's son Richard will be Protector now."
"A sairy carle, that same Richard," answered Wilson; "I wot th' young Charles 'ul soon come by his ain, and then ilka ane amang us 'ul see a bonnie war-day. We've playt at shinty lang eneugh. Braw news, man—braw news that the corbie's deid."
Wilson had never before been heard to say so much or to speak so vehemently. He got up from the table in his nervousness, and walked aimlessly across the floor.
"Why are you poapan about," asked Angus, in amazement; "snowkin like a pig at a sow?"
At this the sinister light in Wilson's eyes that had been held in check hitherto seemed at once to flash out, and he turned hotly upon his master, as though to retort sneer for sneer. But, checking himself, he took up his bonnet and made for the door.
"Don't look at me like that," Angus called after him, "or, maybe I'll clash the door in thy face."
Wilson had gone by this time, and turning to his sons, Angus continued,—
"Did you see how the waistrel snirpt up his nose when the pedler said Cromwell was dead?"
It was obvious that something more was soon to be made known relative to their farm servant. The pedler had no difficulty in coming to the conclusion that Wilson was some secret spy, some disguised enemy of the Commonwealth, and perhaps some Fifth Monarchy man, and a rank Papist to boot. Mrs. Ray's serene face was unruffled; she was sure the poor man meant no harm. Ralph was silent, as usual, but he looked troubled, and getting up from the table soon afterwards he followed the man whom he had brought under his father's roof, and who seemed likely to cause dissension there.
Not long after this eventful morning, Ralph overheard his father and Wilson in hot dispute at the other side of a hedge. He could learn nothing of a definite nature. Angus was at the full pitch of indignation. Wilson, he said, had threatened him; or, at least, his own flesh and blood. He had told the man never to come near Shoulthwaite Moss again.
"An' he does," said the dalesman, his eyes aflame, "I'll toitle him into the beck till he's as wankle as a wet sack."
He was not so old but that he could have kept his word. His great frame seemed closer knit at sixty than it had been at thirty. His face, with its long, square, gray beard, looked severer than ever under his cloth hood. Wilson returned no more, and the promise of a drenching was never fulfilled.
The ungainly little Scot did not leave the Wythburn district. He pitched his tent with the village tailor in a little house at Fornside, close by the Moss. The tailor himself, Simeon Stagg, was kept pitiably poor in that country, when one sack coat of homespun cloth lasted a shepherd half a lifetime. He would have lived a solitary as well as a miserable life but for his daughter Rotha, a girl of nineteen, who kept his little home together and shared his poverty when she might have enjoyed the comforts of easier homes elsewhere.
"Your father is nothing but an ache and a stound to you, lass," Sim would say in a whimper. "It'll be well for you, Rotha, when you give me my last top-sark and take me to the kirkyard yonder," the little man would snuffle audibly.
"Hush, father," the girl would say, putting the palm of her hand playfully over his mouth, "you'll be sonsie-looking yet."
Sim was heavily in debt, and this preyed on his mind. He had always been a grewsome body, sustaining none of the traditions of his craft for perky gossip. Hence he was no favorite in Wythburn, where few or none visited him. Latterly Sim's troubles seemed to drive him from his home for long walks in the night. While the daylight lasted his work gave occupation to his mind, but when the darkness came on he had no escape from haunting thoughts, and roamed about the lanes in an effort to banish them. It was to this man's home that Wilson turned when he was shut out of Shoulthwaite Moss. Naturally enough, the sinister Scot was a welcome if not an agreeable guest when he came as lodger, with money to pay, where poverty itself seemed host.
Old Wilson had not chosen the tailor's house as his home on account of any comforts it might be expected to afford him. He had his own reasons for not quitting Wythburn after he had received his very unequivocal "sneck posset." "Better a wee bush," he would say, "than na bield". Shelter certainly the tailor's home afforded him; and that was all that he required for the present. Wilson had not been long in the tailor's cottage before Sim seemed to grow uneasy under a fresh anxiety, of which his lodger was the subject. Wilson's manners had obviously undergone a change. His early smoothness, his slavering glibness, had disappeared. He was now as bitter of speech as he had formerly been conciliatory. With Sim and his troubles, real and imaginary, he was not at all careful to exhibit sympathy. "Weel, weel, ye must lie heids and thraws wi' poverty, like Jock an' his mither"; or, "If ye canna keep geese ye mun keep gezlins."
Sim was in debt to his landlord, and over the idea of ejectment from his little dwelling the tailor would brood day and night. Folks said he was going crazed about it. None the less was Sim's distress as poignant as if the grounds for it had been more real. "Haud thy bletherin' gab," Wilson said one day; "because ye have to be cannie wi' the cream ye think ye must surely be clemm'd." Salutary as some of the Scotsman's comments may have been, it was natural that the change in his manners should excite surprise among the dalespeople. The good people expressed themselves as "fairly maizelt" by the transformation. What did it all mean? There was surely something behind it.
The barbarity of Wilson's speech was especially malicious when directed against the poor folks with whom he lived, and who, being conscious of how essential he was to the stability of the household, were largely at his mercy. It happened on one occasion that when Wilson returned to the cottage after a day's absence, he found Sim's daughter weeping over the fire.
"What's now?" he asked. "Have ye nothing in the kail?"
Rotha signified that his supper was ready.
"Thou limmer," said Wilson, in his thin shriek, "how long 'ul thy dool last? It's na mair to see a woman greet than to see a goose gang barefit."
Ralph Ray called at the tailor's cottage the morning after this, and found Sim suffering under violent excitement, of which Wilson's behavior to Rotha had been the cause. The insults offered to himself he had taken with a wince, perhaps, but without a retort. Now that his daughter was made the subject of them, he was profoundly agitated.
"There I sat," he cried, as his breath came and went in gusts,—"there I sat, a poor barrow-back't creature, and heard that old savvorless loon spit his spite at my lass. I'm none of a brave man, Ralph: no, I must be a coward, but I went nigh to snatching up yon flail of his and striking him—aye, killing him!—but no, it must be that I'm a coward."
Ralph quieted him as well as he could, telling him to leave this thing to him. Ralph was perhaps Sim's only friend. He would often turn in like this at Sim's workroom as he passed up the fell in the morning. People said the tailor was indebted to Ralph for proofs of friendship more substantial than sympathy. And now, when Sim had the promise of a strong friend's shoulder to lean on, he was unmanned, and wept. Ralph was not unmoved as he stood by the forlorn little man, and clasped his hands in his own and felt the warm tears fall over them.
As the young dalesman was leaving the cottage that morning, he encountered in the porch the subject of the conversation, who was entering in. Taking him firmly but quietly by the shoulder, he led him back a few paces. Sim had leapt up from his bench, and was peering eagerly through the window. But Ralph did no violence to his lodger. He was saying something with marked emphasis, but the words escaped the tailor's ears. Wilson was answering nothing. Loosing his hold of him, Ralph walked quietly away. Wilson entered the cottage with a livid face, and murmuring, as though to himself,—
"Aiblins we may be quits yet, my chiel'. A great stour has begoon, my birkie. Your fire-flaucht e'e wull na fley me. Your Cromwell's gane, an' all traitors shall tryste wi' the hangman."
It was clear that whatever the mystery pertaining to the Scotchman, Simeon Stagg seemed to possess some knowledge of it. Not that he ever explained anything. His anxiety to avoid all questions about his lodger was sufficiently obvious. Yet that he had somehow obtained some hint of a dark side to Wilson's character, every one felt satisfied. No other person seemed to know with certainty what were Wilson's means of livelihood. The Scotchman was not employed by the farmers and shepherds around Wythburn, and he had neither land nor sheep of his own. He would set out early and return late, usually walking in the direction of Gaskarth. One day Wilson rose at daybreak, and putting a threshing-flail over his shoulder, said he would be away for a week. That week ensuing was a quiet one for the inmates of the cottage at Fornside.
Sim's daughter, Rotha, had about this time become a constant helper at Shoulthwaite Moss, where, indeed, she was treated with the cordiality proper to a member of the household. Old Angus had but little sympathy to spare for the girl's father, but he liked Rotha's own cheerfulness, her winsomeness, and, not least, her usefulness. She could milk and churn, and bake and brew. This was the sort of young woman that Angus liked best. "Rotha's a right heartsome lassie," he said, as he heard her in the dairy singing while she worked. The dame of Shoulthwaite loved every one, apparently, but there were special corners in her heart for her favorites, and Rotha was one of them.
"Cannot that lass's father earn aught without keeping yon sulking waistrel about him?" asked the old dalesman one day.
It was the first time he had spoken of Wilson since the threatened ducking. Being told of Wilson's violence to Rotha, he only said, "It's an old saying, 'A blate cat makes a proud mouse.'" Angus was never heard to speak of Wilson again.
Nature seemed to have meant Rotha for a blithe, bird-like soul, but there were darker threads woven into the woof of her natural brightness. She was tall, slight of figure, with a little head of almost elfish beauty. At milking, at churning, at baking, her voice could be heard, generally singing her favorite border song:—
"Gae tak this bonnie neb o' mine, That pecks amang the corn, An' gi'e't to the Duke o' Hamilton To be a touting horn."
"Robin Redbreast has a blithe interpreter," said Willy Ray, as he leaned for a moment against the open door of the dairy in passing out. Rotha was there singing, while in a snow-white apron, and with arms bare above the elbows, she weighed the butter of the last churning into pats, and marked each pat with a rude old mark. The girl dropped her head and blushed as Willy spoke. Of late she had grown unable to look the young man in the face. Willy did not speak again. His face colored, and he went away. Rotha's manner towards Ralph was different. He spoke to her but rarely, and when he did so she looked frankly into his face. If she met him abroad, as she sometimes did when carrying water from the well, he would lift her pails in his stronger hands over the stile, and at such times the girl thought his voice seemed softer.
"I am thinking," said Mrs. Ray to her husband, as she was spinning in the kitchen at Shoulthwaite Moss,—"I am thinking," she said, stopping the wheel and running her fingers through the wool, "that Willy is partial to the little tailor's winsome lass."
"And what aboot Ralph?" asked Angus.
CHAPTER II. THE CRIME IN THE NIGHT.
On the evening of the day upon which old Wilson was expected back at Fornside, Ralph Ray turned in at the tailor's cottage. Sim's distress was, if possible, even greater than before. It seemed as if the gloomy forebodings of the villagers were actually about to be realized, and Sim's mind was really giving way. His staring eyes, his unconscious, preoccupied manner as he tramped to and fro in his little work-room, sitting at intervals, rising again and resuming his perambulations, now gathering up his tools and now opening them out afresh, talking meantime in fitful outbursts, sometimes wholly irrelevantly and occasionally with a startling pertinency,—all this, though no more than an excess of his customary habit, seemed to denote a mind unstrung. The landlord had called that morning for his rent, which was long in arrears. He must have it. Sim laughed when he told Ralph this, but it was a shocking laugh; there was no heart in it. Ralph would rather have heard him whimper and shuffle as he had done before.
"You shall not be homeless, Sim, if the worst comes to the worst," he said.
"Homeless, not I!" and the little man laughed again. Ralph felt unease. This change was not for the better. Rotha had been sitting at the window to catch the last glimmer of daylight as she spun. It was dusk, but not yet too dark for Ralph to see the tears standing in her eyes. Presently she rose and went out of the room.
"Never fear that I shall be clemm'd," said Sim. "No, no," he said, with a grin of satisfied assurance.
"God forbid!" said Ralph, "but things should be better soon. This is the back end, you know."
"Aye," answered the tailor, with a shrug that resembled a shiver.
"And they say," continued Ralph, "the back end is always the bare end."
"And they say, too," said Sim, "change is leetsome, if it's only out of bed into the beck!"
The tailor laughed loud, and then stopped himself with a suddenness quite startling. The jest sounded awful on his lips. "You say the back end's the bare end," he said, coming up to where Ralph sat in pain and amazement; "mine's all bare end. It's nothing but 'bare end' for some of us. Yesterday morning was wet and cold—you know how cold it was. Well, Rotha had hardly gone out when a tap came to the door, and what do you think it was? A woman, a woman thin and blear-eyed. Some one must have counted her face bonnie once. She was scarce older than my own lass, but she'd a poor weak barn at her breast and a wee lad that trudged at her side. She was wet and cold, and asked for rest and shelter for herself and the children-rest and shelter," repeated the tailor in a lower tone, as though muttering to himself,—"rest and shelter, and from me."
"Well?" inquired Ralph, not noticing Sim's self-reference.
"Well?" echoed Sim, as though Ralph should have divined the sequel.
"Had the poor creature been turned out of her home?"
"That and worse," said the little tailor, his frame quivering with emotion. "Do you know the king's come by his own again?" Sim was speaking in an accent of the bitterest mockery.
"Worse luck," said Ralph; "but what of that?"
"Why," said Sim, almost screaming, "that every man in the land who fought for the Commonwealth eight years ago is like to be shot as a traitor. Didn't you know that, my lad?" And the little man put his hands with a feverish clutch on Ralph's shoulders, and looked into his face.
For an instant there was a tremor on the young dalesman's features, but it lasted only long enough for Sim to recognize it, and then the old firmness returned.
"But what of the poor woman and her barns?" Ralph said, quietly.
"Her husband, an old Roundhead, had fled from a warrant for his arrest. She had been cast homeless into the road, she and all her household; her aged mother had died of exposure the first bitter night, and now for two long weeks she had walked on and on—on and on—her children with her—on and on—living Heaven knows how!"
A light now seemed to Ralph to be cast on the great change in his friend; but was it indeed fear for his (Ralph's) well-being that had goaded poor Sim to a despair so near allied to madness?
"What about Wilson?" he asked, after a pause.
The tailor started at the name.
"I don't know—I don't know at all," he answered, as though eager to assert the truth of a statement never called into dispute.
"Does he intend to come back to Fornside to-night, Sim?"
"So he said."
"What, think you, is his work at Gaskarth?"
"I don't know—I know nothing—at least—no, nothing."
Ralph was sure now. Sim was too eager to disclaim all knowledge of his lodger's doings. He would not recognize the connection between the former and present subjects of conversation.
The night had gathered in, and the room was dark except for the glimmer of a little fire on the open hearth. The young dalesman looked long into it: his breast heaved with emotion, and for the first time in his manhood big tears stood in his eyes. It must be so; it must be that this poor forlorn creature, who had passed through sufferings of his own, and borne them, was now shattered and undone at the prospect of disaster to his friend. Did he know more than he had said? It was vain to ask. Would he—do anything? Ralph glanced at the little man: barrow-backed he was, as he had himself said. No, the idea seemed monstrous. The young man rose to go; he could not speak, but he took Sim's hand in his and held it. Then he stooped and kissed him on the cheek.
* * * * *
Next morning, soon after daybreak, all Wythburn was astir. People were hurrying about from door to door and knocking up the few remaining sleepers. The voices of the men sounded hoarse in the mist of the early morning; the women held their heads together and talked in whispers. An hour or two later two or three horsemen drove up to the door of the village inn. There was a bustle within; groups of boys were congregated outside. Something terrible had happened in the night. What was it?
Willie Ray, who had left home at early dawn, came back to Shoulthwaite Moss with flushed face and quick-coming breath. Ralph and his mother were at breakfast. His father, who had been at market the preceding day, had not risen.
"Dreadful, dreadful!" cried Willy. "Old Wilson is dead. Found dead in the dike between Smeathwaite and Fornside. Murdered, no doubt, for his wages; nothing left about him."
"Heaven bless us!" cried Mrs. Ray, "to kill a poor man for his week's wage!" And she sank back into the chair from which she had risen in her amazement.
"They've taken his body to the Red Lion, and the coroner is there from Gaskarth."
Willy was trembling in every limb.
Ralph rose as one stupefied. He said nothing, but taking down his hat he went out. Willy looked after him, and marked that he took the road to Fornside.
When he got there he found the little cottage besieged. Crowds of women and boys stood round the porch and peered in at the window. Ralph pushed his way through them and into the house. In the kitchen were the men from Gaskarth and many more. On a chair near the cold hearth, where no fire had been kindled since he last saw it, sat Sim with glassy eyes. His neck was bare and his clothes disordered. At his back stood Rotha, with her arms thrown round her father's neck. His long, thin fingers were clutching her clasped hands as with a vise.
"You must come with us," said one of the strangers, addressing the tailor. He was justice and coroner of the district.
Sim said nothing and did not stir. Then the young girl's voice broke the dreadful silence.
"Come, father; let us go."
Sim rose at this, and walked like one in a dream. Ralph took his arm, and as the people crowded upon them, he pushed them aside, and they passed out.
The direction of the company through the gray mist of that morning was towards the place where the body lay. Sim was to be accused of the crime. After the preliminaries of investigation were gone through, the witnesses were called. None had seen the murder. The body of the murdered man had been found by a laborer. There was a huge sharp stone under the head, and death seemed to have resulted from a fracture of the skull caused by a heavy fall. There was no appearance of a blow. As to Sim, the circumstantial evidence looked grave. Old Wilson had been seen to pass through Smeathwaite after dark; he must have done so to reach his lodgings at the tailor's house. Sim had been seen abroad about the same hour. This was not serious; but now came Sim's landlord. He had called on the tailor the previous morning for his rent and could not get it. Late the same night Sim had knocked at his door with the money.
"When I ax't him where he'd come from so late," said the man, "he glower't at me daiztlike, and said nought."
"What was his appearance?"
"His claes were a' awry, and he keep't looking ahint him."
At this there was a murmur among the bystanders. There could not be a doubt of Sim's guilt.
At a moment of silence Ralph stepped out. He seemed much moved. Might he ask the witnesses some questions? Certainly. It was against the rule, but still he might do so. Then he inquired exactly into the nature of the wound that had apparently caused death. He asked for precise information as to the stone on which the head of the deceased was found lying.
It lay fifty yards to the south of the bridge.
Then he argued that as there was no wound on the dead man other than the fracture of the skull, it was plain that death had resulted from a fall. How the deceased had come by that fall was now the question. Was it not presumable that he had slipped his foot and had fallen? He reminded them that Wilson was lame on one leg. If the fall were the result of a blow, was it not preposterous to suppose that a man of Sim's slight physique could have inflicted it? Under ordinary circumstances, only a more powerful man than Wilson himself could have killed him by a fall.
At this the murmur rose again among the bystanders, but it sounded to Ralph like the murmur of beasts being robbed of their prey.
As to the tailor having been seen abroad at night, was not that the commonest occurrence? With the evidence of Sim's landlord Ralph did not deal.
It was plain that Sim could not be held over for trial on evidence such as was before them. He was discharged, and an open verdict was returned. The spectators were not satisfied, however, to receive the tailor back again as an innocent man. Would he go upstairs and look at the body? There was a superstition among them that a dead body would bleed at a touch from the hand of the murderer. Sim said nothing, but stared wildly about him.
"Come, father," said Rotha, "do as they wish."
The little man permitted himself to be led into the room above. Ralph followed with a reluctant step. He had cleared his friend, but looked more troubled than before. When the company reached the bedside, Ralph stood at its head while one of the men took a cloth off the dead man's face.
There was a stain of earth on it.
Then they drew Sim up in front of it. When his eyes fell on the white, upturned face, he uttered a wild cry and fell senseless to the floor. Ha! The murmur rose afresh. Then there was a dead silence. Rotha was the first to break the awful stillness. She knelt over her father's prostrate form, and said amid stifling sobs,—
"Tell them it is not true; tell them so, father."
The murmur came again. She understood it, and rose up with flashing eyes.
"I tell them it is not true," she said. Then stepping firmly to the bedside, she cried, "Look you all! I, his daughter, touch here this dead man's hand, and call on God to give a sign if my father did this thing."
So saying, she took the hand of the murdered man, and held it convulsively in her own.
The murmur died to a hush of suspense and horror. The body remained unchanged. Loosing her grip, she turned on the bystanders with a look of mingled pride and scorn.
"Take this from heaven for a witness that my father is innocent."
The tension was too much for the spectators, and one by one they left the room. Ralph only remained, and when Sim returned to consciousness he raised him up, and took him back to Fornside.
CHAPTER III. IN THE RED LION.
What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here? Midsummer Night's Dream.
Time out of mind there had stood on the high street of Wythburn a modest house of entertainment, known by the sign of the Red Lion. Occasionally it accommodated the casual traveller who took the valley road to the north, but it was intended for the dalesmen, who came there after the darkness had gathered in, and drank a pot of home-brewed ale as they sat above the red turf fire.
This was the house to which Wilson's body had been carried on the morning it was found on the road. That was about Martinmas. One night, early in the ensuing winter, a larger company than usual was seated in the parlor of the little inn. It was a quaint old room, twice as long as it was broad, and with a roof so low that the taller shepherds stooped as they walked under its open beams.
From straps fixed to the rafters hung a gun, a whip, and a horn. Two square windows, that looked out over the narrow causeway, were covered by curtains of red cloth. An oak bench stood in each window recess. The walls throughout were panelled in oak, which was carved here and there in curious archaic devices. The panelling had for the most part grown black with age; the rosier spots, that were polished to the smoothness and brightness of glass, denoted the positions of cupboards. Strong settles and broad chairs stood in irregular places about the floor, which was of the bare earth, grown hard as stone, and now sanded. The chimney nook spanned the width of one end of the room. It was an open ingle with seats in the wall at each end, and the fire on the ground between them. A goat's head and the horns of an ox were the only ornaments of the chimney-breast, which was white-washed.
On this night of 1660 the wind was loud and wild without. The snowstorm that had hung over the head of Castenand in the morning had come down the valley as the day wore on. The heavy sleet rattled at the windows. In its fiercer gusts it drowned the ring of the lusty voices. The little parlor looked warm and snug with its great cobs of old peat glowing red as they burnt away sleepily on the broad hearth. At intervals the door would open and a shepherd would enter. He had housed his sheep for the night, and now, seated as the newest corner on the warmest bench near the fire, with a pipe in one hand and a pot of hot ale in the other, he was troubled by the tempest no more.
"At Michaelmas a good fat goose, at Christmas stannen' pie, and good yal awt year roond," said an old man in the chimney corner. This was Matthew Branthwaite, the wit and sage of Wythburn, once a weaver, but living now on the husbandings of earlier life. He was tall and slight, and somewhat bent with age. He was dressed in a long brown sack coat, belted at the waist, below which were pockets cut perpendicular at the side. Ribbed worsted stockings and heavy shoes made up, with the greater garment, the sum of his visible attire. Old Matthew had a vast reputation for wise saws and proverbs; his speech seemed to be made of little else; and though the dalespeople had heard the old sayings a thousand times, these seemed never to lose anything of their piquancy and rude force.
"It's a bad night, Mattha Branthet," said a new-comer.
"Dost tak me for a born idiot?" asked the old man. "Dost think I duddent known that afore I saw thee, that thou must be blodderen oot,' It's a bad neet, Mattha Branthet?'" There was a dash of rustic spite in the old man's humor which gave it an additional relish.
"Ye munnet think to win through the world on a feather bed, lad," he added.
The man addressed was one Robbie Anderson, a young fellow who had for a long time indulged somewhat freely in the good ale which the sage had just recommended for use all the year round. Every one had said he was going fast to his ruin, making beggars of himself and of all about him. It was, nevertheless, whispered that Robbie was the favored sweetheart among many of Matthew Branthwaite's young daughter Liza; but the old man, who had never been remarkable for sensibility, had said over and over again, "She'll lick a lean poddish stick, Bobbie, that weds the like of thee." Latterly the young man had in a silent way shown some signs of reform. He had not, indeed, given up the good ale to which his downfall had been attributed; but when he came to the Red Lion he seemed to sleep more of his time there than he drank. So the village philosopher had begun to pat him on the back, and say, encouragingly, "There's nowt so far aslew, Bobbie, but good manishment may set it straight."
Robbie accepted his rebuff on this occasion with undisturbed equanimity, and, taking a seat on a bench at the back, seemed soon to be lost in slumber.
The dalesmen are here in strength to-night. Thomas Fell, the miller of Legberthwaite, is here, with rubicund complexion and fully developed nose. Here, too, is Thomas's cousin, Adam Rutledge, fresh from an adventure at Carlisle, where he has tasted the luxury of Doomsdale, a noisome dungeon reserved for witches and murderers, but sometimes tenanted by obstreperous drunkards. Of a more reputable class here is Job Leathes, of Dale Head, a tall, gaunt dalesman, with pale gray eyes. Here is Luke Cockrigg, too, of Aboonbeck Bank; and stout John Jackson, of Armboth, a large and living refutation of the popular fallacy that the companionship of a ghost must necessarily induce such appalling effects as are said to have attended the apparitions which presented themselves to the prophets and seers of the Hebrews. John has slept for twenty years in the room at Armboth in which the spiritual presence is said to walk, and has never yet seen anything more terrible than his own shadow. Here, too, at Matthew Branthwaite's side, sits little blink-eyed Reuben Thwaite, who has seen the Armboth bogle. He saw it one night when he was returning home from the Red Lion. It took the peculiar form of a lime-and-mould heap, and, though in Reuben's case the visitation was not attended by convulsions or idiocy, the effect of it was unmistakable. When Reuben awoke next morning he found himself at the bottom of a ditch.
"A wild neet onyways, Mattha," says Reuben, on Robbie Anderson's retirement. "As I com alang I saw yan of Angus Ray haystacks blown flat on to the field—doon it went in a bash—in ya bash frae top to bottom."
"That minds me of Mother Garth and auld Wilson haycocks," said Matthew.
"Why, what was that?" said Reuben.
"Deary me, what thoo minds it weel eneuf. It was the day Wilson was cocking Angus hay in the low meedow. Mistress Garth came by in the evening, and stood in the road opposite to look at the north leets. 'Come, Sarah,' says auld Wilson, 'show us yan of thy cantrips; I divn't care for thee.' But he'd scarce said it when a whirlblast came frae the fell and owerturn't iv'ry cock. Then Sarah she laughed oot loud, and she said, 'Ye'll want na mair cantrips, I reckon.' She was reet theer."
"Like eneuf," said several voices amid a laugh.
"He was hard on Mother Garth was Wilson," continued Matthew; "I nivver could mak ought on it. He called her a witch, and seurly she is a laal bit uncanny."
"Maybe she wasn't always such like," said Mr. Jackson.
"Maybe not, John," said Matthew; "but she was olas a cross-grained yan sin the day she came first to Wy'burn."
"I thought her a harmless young body with her babby,' said Mr. Jackson.
"Let me see," said Reuben Thwaite; "that must be a matter of six-and-twenty year agone."
"Mair ner that," said Matthew. "It was long afore I bought my new loom, and that's six-and-twenty year come Christmas."
"Ey, I mind they said she'd run away frae the man she'd wedded somewhere in the north," observed Adam Rutledge through the pewter which he had raised to his lips. "Ower fond of his pot for Sarah."
"Nowt o' t' sort," said Matthew. "He used to pommel and thresh her up and doon, and that's why she cut away frae him, and that's why she's sic a sour yan."
"Ey, that's reets on it," said Reuben.
"But auld Wilson's spite on her olas did cap me a laal bit," said Matthew again. "He wanted her burnt for a witch. 'It's all stuff and bodderment aboot the witches,' says I to him ya day; 'there be none. God's aboon the devil!' 'Nay, nay,' says Wilson, 'it'll be past jookin' when the heed's off. She'll do something for some of us yit.'"
"Hush," whispered Reuben, as at that moment the door opened and a tall, ungainly young dalesman, with red hair and with a dogged expression of face, entered the inn.
A little later, amid a whirl of piercing wind, Ralph Ray entered, shaking the frozen snow from his cloak with long skirts, wet and cold, his staff in his hand, and his dog at his heels. Old Matthew gave him a cheery welcome.
"It's like ye'd as lief be in this snug room as on the fell to-neet, Ralph?" There was a twinkle in the old man's eye; he had meant more than he said.
"I'd full as soon be here as in Sim's cave, Matthew, if that's what you mean," said Ralph, as he held the palms of his hands to the fire and then rubbed them on his knees.
"Thou wert nivver much of a fool, Ralph," Matthew answered. And with a shovel that facetious occupant of the hearth lifted another cob of turf on to the fire.
"It's lang sin' Sim sat aboon sic a lowe as that," he added, with a motion of his head downwards.
"Worse luck," said Ralph in a low tone, as though trying to avoid the subject.
"Whear the pot's brocken, there let the sherds lie, lad," said the old man; "keep thy breath to cool thy poddish, forby thy mug of yal, and here't comes."
As he spoke the hostess brought up a pot of ale, smoking hot, and put it in Ralph's hand.
"Let every man stand his awn rackups, Ralph. Sim's a bad lot, and reet serv'd."
"You have him there, Mattha Branthet," said the others with a laugh, "a feckless fool." The young dalesman leaned back on the bench, took a draught of his liquor, rested the pot on his knee, and looked into the fire with the steady gaze of one just out of the darkness. After a pause he said quietly,—
"I'll wager there's never a man among you dare go up to Sim's cave to-night. Yet you drive him up there every night of the year."
"Bad dreams, lad; bad dreams," said the old man, shaking his head with portentous gravity, "forby the boggle of auld Wilson—that's maybe what maks Sim ga rakin aboot the fell o' neets without ony eerand."
"Ay, ay, that's aboot it," said the others, removing their pipes together and speaking with the gravity and earnestness of men who had got a grip of the key to some knotty problem. "The ghost of auld Wilson."
"The ghost of some of your stout sticks, I reckon," said Ralph, turning upon them with a shadow of a sneer on his frank face.
His companions laughed. Just then the wind rose higher than before, and came in a gust down the open chimney. The dogs that had been sleeping on the sanded floor got up, walked across the room with drooping heads, and growled. Then they lay down again and addressed themselves afresh to sleep. The young dalesman looked into the mouth of his pewter and muttered, as if to himself,—
"Because there was no evidence to convict the poor soul, suspicion, that is worse than conviction, must so fix upon him that he's afraid to sleep his nights in his bed at home, but must go where never a braggart loon of Wythburn dare follow him."
"Aye, lad," said the old man, with a wink of profound import, "foxes hev holes."
The sally was followed by a general laugh.
Not noticing it, Ralph said,—
"A hole, indeed! a cleft in the bare rock, open to nigh every wind, deluged by every rain, desolate, unsheltered by bush or bough—a hole no fox would house in."
Ralph was not unmoved, but the sage in the chimney corner caught little of the contagion of his emotion. Taking his pipe out of his mouth, and with the shank of it marking time to the doggerel, he said,—
"Wheariver there's screes There's mair stones nor trees."
The further sally provoked a louder laugh. Just then another gust came down the chimney and sent a wave of mingled heat and cold through the room. The windows rattled louder with the wind and crackled sharper with the pelting sleet. The dogs rose and growled.
"Be quiet there," cried Ralph. "Down, Laddie, down." Laddie, a large-limbed collie, with long shaggy coat still wet and matted and glistening with the hard unmelted snow, had walked to the door and put his nose to the bottom of it.
"Some one coming," said Ralph, turning to look at the dog, and speaking almost under his breath.
Robbie Anderson, who had throughout been lounging in silence on the bench near the door, got up sleepily, and put his great hand on the wooden latch. The door flew open by the force of the storm outside. He peered for a moment into the darkness through the blinding sleet. He could see nothing.
"No one here!" he said moodily.
And, putting his broad shoulder to the stout oak door, he forced it back. The wind moaned and hissed through the closing aperture. It was like the ebb of a broken wave to those who had heard the sea. Turning about, as the candles on the table blinked, the young man lazily dashed the rain and sleet from his beard and breast, and lay down again on the settle, with something between a shiver and a yawn. "Cruel night, this," he muttered, and so saying, he returned to his normal condition of somnolence.
The opening and the closing of the door, together with the draught of cold air, had awakened a little man who occupied that corner of the chimney nook which faced old Matthew. Coiled up with his legs under him on the warm stone seat, his head resting against one of the two walls that bolstered him up on either hand, beneath a great flitch of bacon that hung there to dry, he had lain asleep throughout the preceding conversation, only punctuating its periods at intervals with somewhat too audible indications of slumber. In an instant he was on his feet. He was a diminutive creature, with something infinitely amusing in his curious physical proportions. His head was large and well formed; his body was large and ill formed; his legs were short and shrunken. He was the schoolmaster of Wythburn, and his name Monsey Laman. The dalesmen found the little schoolmaster the merriest comrade that ever sat with them over a glass. He had a crack for each of them, a song, a joke, a lively touch that cut and meant no harm. They called him "the little limber Frenchman," in allusion to a peculiarity of gait which in the minds of the heavy-limbed mountaineers was somehow associated with the idea of a French dancing master.
With the schoolmaster's awakening the conversation in the inn seemed likely to take a livelier turn. Even the whistling sleet appeared to become less fierce and terrible. True, the stalwart dalesman on the door bench yawned and slept as before; but even Ralph's firm lower lip began to relax, and he was never a gay and sportive elf. The rest of the company charged their pipes afresh and called on the hostess for more spiced ale.
"'Blessing on your heart,' says the proverb, 'you brew good ale.' It's a Christian virtue, eh, Father?" said Monsey, addressing Matthew in the opposite corner.
"Praise the ford as ye find it," said that sage; "I've found good yal maks good yarn. Folks that wad put doon good yal ought to be theirselves putten doon."
"Then you must have been hanged this many a long year, Father Matthew," said Monsey, "for you've put down more good ale than any man in Wythburn."
Old Matthew had to stand the laugh against himself this time. In the midst of it he leaned over to Ralph, and, as though to cover his discomfiture, whispered, "He's gat a lad's heart, the laal man has."
Then, with the air of one about to communicate a novel idea,—
"And sic as ye gie, sic will ye get, frae him."
"Well, well," he added aloud, "ye munnet think I cannot stand my rackups."
The old man, despite this unexpected fall, was just beginning to show his mettle. The sententious graybeard was never quite so happy, never looked quite so wise, never shook his head with such an air of good-humored consequence, never winked with such profundity of facetiousness, as when "the laal limber Frenchman" was giving a "merry touch." Wouldn't Monsey sing summat and fiddle to it too; aye, that he would, Mattha knew reet weel.
"Sing!" cried the little man,—"sing! Monsieur, the dog shall try me this conclusion. If he wag his tail, then will I sing; if he do not wag his tail, then—then will I not be silent. What say you Laddie?" The dog responded to the appeal with an opportune if not an intelligent wag of that member on which so momentous an issue hung. From one of the rosy closets in the wall a fiddle was forthwith brought out, and soon the noise of the tempest was drowned in the preliminary tuning of strings and running of scales.
"You shall beat the time, my patriarch," said Monsey.
"Nay, man; it's thy place to kill it," answered Matthew.
"Then you shall mark the beat, or beat the mark, or make your mark. You could never write, you know."
It was a sight not to be forgotten to see the little schoolmaster brandishing his fiddlestick, beating time with his foot, and breaking out into a wild shout when he hit upon some happy idea, for he rejoiced in a gift of improvisation. A burst of laughter greeted the climax of his song, which turned on an unheroic adventure of old Matthew's. The laughter had not yet died away when a loud knocking came to the door. Ralph jumped to his feet.
"I said some one was coming; and he's been here before, whoever he is."
At that he walked to the door and opened it. Laddie was there before him.
"Is Ralph Ray here?"
It was the voice of a woman, charged with feeling.
Ralph's back had been to the light, and hence his face had not been recognized. But the light fell on the face of the new-comer.
"Rotha!" he said. He drew her in, and was about to shut out the storm behind her.
"No," she said almost nervously. "Come with me; some one waits outside to see you; some one who won't—can't come in."
She was wet; her hair was matted over her forehead, the sleet lying in beads upon it. A hood that had been pulled hurriedly over her head was blown partly aside. Ralph would have drawn her to the fire.
"Not yet," she said again. Her eyes looked troubled, startled, denoting pain.
"Then I will go with you at once," he said.
They turned; Laddie darted out before them, and in a moment they were in the blackness of the night.
CHAPTER IV. THE OUTCAST.
The storm had abated. The sleet and rain had ceased, but the wind still blew fierce and strong, driving black continents of cloud across a crescent moon. It was bitingly cold. Rotha walked fast and spoke little. Ralph understood their mission. "Is he far away?" he said.
Her voice had a tremor of emotion, and as the wind carried it to him it seemed freighted with sadness. But the girl would have hidden her fears.
"Perhaps he's better now," she said.
Ralph quickened his steps. The dog had gone on in front, and was lost in the darkness.
"Give me your hand, Rotha; the sleet is hard and slape."
"Don't heed me, Ralph; go faster; I'll follow."
Just then a sharp bark was heard close at hand, followed by another and another, but in a different key. Laddie had met a friend.
"He's coming," Rotha said, catching her breath.
With the shrill cry of a hunted creature that has got back, wounded, to its brethren, Sim seemed to leap upon them out of the darkness.
"Ralph, take me with you—take me with you; do not let me go back to the fell to-night. I cannot go—no, believe me, I cannot—I dare not. Take me, Ralph; have mercy on me; do not despise me for the coward that I am; it's enough to make me curse the great God—no, no; not that neither. But, Ralph, Ralph—"
The poor fellow would have fallen breathless and exhausted at Ralph's feet, but he held him up and spoke firmly but kindly to him,—
"Bravely, Sim; bravely, man; there," he said, as the tailor regained some composure.
"You sha'n't go back to-night. How wet you are, though! There's not a dry rag to your body, man. You must first return with me to the fire at the Red Lion, and then we'll go—"
"No, no, no!" cried Sim; "not there either—never there; better the wind and rain, aye, better anything, than that."
And he turned his head over his shoulder as though peering into the darkness behind. Ralph understood him. There were wilder companions for this poor hunted creature than any that lived on the mountains.
"But you'll never live through the night in clothes like these."
Sim shivered with the cold; his teeth chattered; his lank hands shook as with ague.
"Never live? Oh, but I must not die, Ralph; no not yet—not yet."
Was there, then, something still left in life that a poor outcast like this should cling to it?
"I'll go back with you," he said more calmly. They turned, and with Sim between them Ralph and Rotha began to retrace their steps. They had not far to go, when Sim reeled like a drunken man, and when they were within a few paces he stopped.
"No," he said, "I can't." His breath was coming quick and fast.
"Come, man, they shall give you the ingle bench; I'll see to that. Come now," said Ralph soothingly.
"I've walked in front of this house for an hour to-night, I have," said Sim, "to and fro, to and fro, waiting for you; waiting, waiting; starting at my own shadow cast from the dim lowe of the windows, and then flying to hide when the door did at last—at long last—open or shut."
Ralph shuddered. It had been as he thought. Then he said,—
"Yes, yes; but you'll come now, like a brave fellow—'a braw chiel,' you know."
Sim started at the pleasantry with which Ralph had tried to soothe his spirits. It struck a painful memory. Ralph felt it too.
"Come," he said, in an altered tone.
"No," cried Sim, clasping his hands over his head. "They're worse than wild beasts, they are. To-night I went up to the cave as usual. The wind was blowing strong and keen in the valley; it had risen to a tempest on the screes. I went in and turned up the bracken for my bed. Then the rain began to fall; and the rain became hail, and the hail became sleet, and pelted in upon me, it did. The wind soughed about my lone home—my home!"
Again Sim reeled in the agony of his soul.
"This is peace to that wind," he continued; "yes, peace. Then the stones began to rumble down the rocks, and the rain to pour in through the great chinks in the roof of the cave. Yet I stayed there—I stayed. Well, the ghyll roared louder and louder. It seemed to overflow the gullock, it did. I heard the big bowders shifted from their beds by the tumbling waters. They rolled with heavy thuds down the brant sides of the fell—down, down, down. But I kept closer, closer. Presently I heard the howl of the wolves—"
"No, Sim; not that, old friend." "Yes, the pack from Lauvellen. They'd been driven out of their caves—not even they could live in their caves tonight." The delirium of Sim's spirit seemed to overcome him.
"No more now, man," said Ralph, putting his arm about him. "You're safe, at least, and all will be well with you."
"Wait. Nearer and nearer they came, nearer and nearer, till I knew they were above me, around me. Yet I kept close, I did, I almost felt their breath. Well, well, at last I saw two red eyes gleaming at me through the darkness—"
"You're feverish to-night, Sim," interrupted Ralph.
"Then a great flash of lightning came. It licked the ground afore me—ay, licked. Then a burst of thunder—it must have been a thunderbolt—I couldn't hear the wind and sleet and water. I fainted, that must have been it. When I came round I groped about me where I lay—"
"A dream, Sim."
"No, it was no dream! What was it I touched? I was delivered! Thank heaven, that death was not mine. I rose, staggered out, and fled."
By the glimmering light from the windows of the inn—there came the sound of laughter from within—Ralph could see that hysterical tears coursed down the poor tailor's cheeks. Rotha stood aside, her hands covering her face.
"And, at last, when you could not meet me here, you went to Fornside for Rotha to seek me?" asked Ralph.
"Yes, I did. Don't despise me—don't do that." Then in a supplicating tone he added,—
"I couldn't bear it from you, Ralph."
The tears came again. The direful agony of Sim's soul seemed at length to conquer him, and he fell to the ground insensible. In an instant Rotha was on her knees in the hardening road at her father's side; but she did not weep.
"We have no choice now," she said in a broken voice.
"None," answered Ralph. "Let me carry him in."
When the door of the inn had closed behind Ralph as he went out with Rotha, old Matthew Branthwaite, who had recovered his composure after Monsey's song, and who had sat for a moment with his elbow on his knee, his pipe in his hand and his mouth still open, from which the shaft had just been drawn, gave a knowing twitch to his wrinkled face as he said,—
"So, so, that's the fell the wind blows frae!"
"Blow low, my black feutt," answered Monsey, "and don't blab."
"When the whins is oot of blossom, kissing's oot o' fashion—nowt will come of it," replied the sage on reflection.
"Wrong again, great Solomon!" said Monsey. "Ralph is not the man to put away the girl because her father is in disgrace."
"Do ye know he trystes with the lass?"
"Maybe ye'r like the rest on us: ye can make nowt on him, back ner edge."
"Right now, great sage; the sun doesn't shine through him."
"He's a great lounderan fellow," said one of the dalesmen, speaking into the pewter at his mouth. He was the blacksmith of Wythburn.
"What do you say?" asked Monsey.
"Nowt!" the man growled sulkily.
"So ye said nowt?" inquired Matthew.
"Nowt to you, or any of you."
"Then didst a nivver hear it said, 'He that talks to himsel' clatters to a fool'?"
The company laughed.
"No," resumed Matthew, turning to the schoolmaster, "Ralph will nivver tryste with the lass of yon hang-gallows of a tailor. The gallows rope's all but roond his neck already. It's awesome to see him in his barramouth in the fell side. He's dwinnelt away to a atomy.
"It baffles me where he got the brass frae to pay his rent," said one of the shepherds. "Where did he get it, schoolmaster?"
Monsey answered nothing. The topic was evidently a fearsome thing to him. His quips and cracks were already gone.
"Where did he get it, I say?" repeated the man; with the air of one who was propounding a trying problem.
Old Matthew removed his pipe.
"A fool may ask mair questions ner a doctor can answer."
The shepherd shifted in his seat.
"That Wilson was na shaks nowther," continued Matthew quietly. "He was accustomed to 'tummel' his neighbors, and never paused to inquire into their bruises. He'd olas the black dog on his back—leastways latterly. Ey, the braizzant taistrel med have done something for Ralph an he lived langer. He was swearing what he'd do, the ungratefu' fool; auld Wilson was a beadless body."
"They say he threatened Ralph's father, Angus," said Monsey, with a perceptible shiver.
"Ay, but Angus is bad to bang. I mind his dingin' ower a bull on its back. A girt man, Angus, and varra dreadfu' when he's angert."
"Dus'ta mind the fratch thoo telt me aboot atween Angus and auld Wilson?" said Reuben Thwaite to Matthew Branthwaite.
"What quarrel was that?" asked Monsey.
"Why, the last fratch of all, when Wilson gat the sneck posset frae Shoulthwaite," said Matthew.
"I never heard of it," said the schoolmaster.
"There's nowt much to hear. Ralph and mysel' we were walking up to the Moss together ya day, when we heard Angus and Wilson at a bout of words. Wilson he said to Angus with a gay, bitter sneer, 'Ye'll fain swappit wi' me yet,' said he. 'He'll yoke wi' an unco weird. Thy braw chiel 'ul tryste wi' th' hangman soon, I wat.' And Angus he was fair mad, I can tell ye, and he said to Wilson, 'Thoo stammerin' and yammerin' taistrel, thoo; I'll pluck a lock of thy threep. Bring the warrant, wilt thoo? Thoo savvorless and sodden clod-heed! I'll whip thee with the taws. Slipe, I say, while thoo's weel—slipe!'"
"And Angus would have done it, too, and not the first time nowther," said little Reuben, with a knowing shake of the head.
"Well, Matthew, what then?" said Monsey.
"Weel, with that Angus he lifted up his staff, and Wilson shrieked oot afore he gat the blow. But Angus lowered his hand and said to him, says he, 'Time eneuf to shriek when ye're strucken.'"
"And when the auld one did get strucken, he could not shriek," added Reuben.
"We know nowt of that reetly," said Matthew, "and maybe nivver will."
"What was that about a warrant?" said Monsey.
"Nay, nay, laal man, that's mair ner ony on us knows for certain." "But ye have a notion on it, have ye not?" said Reuben, with a twinkle which was intended to flatter Matthew into a communicative spirit.
"I reckon I hev," said the weaver, with a look of self-satisfaction.
"Did Ralph understand it?" asked Monsey.
"Not he, schoolmaister. If he did, I could mak' nowt on him, for I asked him theer and then."
"But ye knows yersel' what the warrant meant, don't ye?" said Reuben significantly.
"Weel, man, it's all as I telt ye; the country's going to the dogs, and young Charles he's cutting the heed off nigh a'most iv'ry man as fought for Oliver agen him. And it's as I telt ye aboot the spies of the government, there's a spy ivrywhear—maybe theer's yan here now—and auld Wilson he was nowt ner mair ner less ner a spy, and he meant to get a warrant for Ralph Ray, and that's the lang and short on it."
"I reckon Sim made the short on it," said Reuben with a smirk. "He scarce knew what a good turn he was doing for young Ralph yon neet in Martinmas."
"But don't they say Ralph saved Wilson's life away at the wars?" said Monsey. "Why could he want to inform against him and have him hanged?"
"A dog winnet yowl an ye hit him with a bone, but a spy is worse ner ony dog," answered Matthew sententiously.
"But why could he wish to do it?"
"His fratch with Angus, that was all."
"There must have been more than that, Matthew, there must."
"I never heeard on it, then."
"Old Wilson must have had money on him that night," said Monsey, who had been looking gravely into the fire, his hands clasped about his knees. Encouraged by this support of the sapient idea he had hinted at, the shepherd who had spoken before broke in with, "Where else did he get it I say?"
"Ye breed of the cuckoo," said Matthew, "ye've gat no rhyme but yan."
Amid the derisive laughter that followed, the door of the inn was again opened, and in a moment more Ralph Ray stood in the middle of the floor with Simeon Stagg in his arms. Rotha was behind, pale but composed. Every man in the room rose to his feet. The landlord stepped forward, with no pleasant expression on his face; and from an inner room his wife came bustling up. Little Monsey stood clutching and twitching his fingers. Old Matthew had let the pipe drop out of his mouth, and it lay broken on the hearth.
"He has fainted," said Ralph, still holding his burden; "turn that bench to the fire."
No one stirred. Every one stood for the moment as if stupefied. Sim's head hung over Ralph's arm: his face was as pale as death.
"Out of the way," said Ralph, brushing past a great lumbering fellow, with his mouth agape.
The company found their tongues at last. Were they to sit with "this hang-gallows of a tailor"? The landlord, thinking himself appealed to, replied that he "couldn't hev na brulliment" in his house.
"There need be no broil," said Ralph, laying the insensible form on a seat and proceeding to strip off the wet outer garments. Then turning to the hostess, he said,—
"Martha, bring me water, quick."
Martha turned about and obeyed him without a word.
"He'll be better soon," said Ralph to Robbie Anderson. He was sprinkling water on the white face that lay before him. Robbie had recovered his wakefulness, and was kneeling at Sim's feet, chafing his hands.
Rotha stood at her father's side, motionless.
"There, he's coming to. Martha," said Ralph, "hadn't you better take Rotha to the kitchen fire?"
The two women left the room.
Sim's eyes opened; there was a watery humor in them which was not tears. The color came back to his cheeks, but with the return of consciousness his face grew thinner and more haggard. He heaved a heavy sigh, and seemed to realize his surroundings. With the only hand disengaged (Robbie held one of them) he clutched at Ralph's belt.
"I'm better—let me go," he said in a hoarse voice, trying to rise.
"No!" said Ralph,—"no!" and he gently pushed him back into his recumbent position.
"You had best let the snuffling waistrel go," said one of the men in a surly tone. "Maybe he never fainted at all."
It was the blacksmith who had growled at the mention of Ralph's name in Ralph's absence. They called him Joe Garth.
"Be silent, you loon," answered Robbie Anderson, turning upon the last speaker.
Ralph seemed not to have heard him.
"Here," he said, tossing Sim's coat to Matthew, who had returned with a new pipe to his seat in the chimney corner, "dry that at the fire." The coat had been growing hard with the frost.
"This wants the batling stone ower it," said the old weaver, spreading it out before him.
"See to this, schoolmaster," said Ralph, throwing Sim's cap into his lap.
Monsey jumped, with a scream, out of his seat as though stung by an adder.
Ralph looked at him for a moment with an expression of pity.
"I might have known you were timid at heart, schoolmaster. Perhaps you're gallant over a glass."
There could be no doubt of little Monsey's timidity. All his jests had forsaken him.
Sim had seen the gesture that expressed horror at contact even with his clothes. He was awake to every passing incident with a feverish alertness.
"Let me go," he said again, with a look of supplicatory appeal.
Old Matthew got up and opened the door.
"Sista, there's some betterment in the weather, now; it teem't awhile ago."
"What of that?" asked Ralph; but he understood the observation.
"For God's sake let me go," cried Sim in agony, looking first at one face and then at another.
"No," said Ralph, and sat down beside him. Robbie had gone back to his bench.
"Ye'll want the bull-grips to keep him quiet," said old Matthew to Ralph, with a sneer.
"And the ass's barnicles to keep your tongue in your mouth," added Ralph sternly.
"For fault of wise men fools sit on the bench, or we should hev none of this," continued Matthew. "I reckon some one that's here is nigh ax't oot by Auld Nick in the kirk of the nether world."
"Then take care you're not there yourself to give something at the bridewain."
Old Mathew grumbled something under his breath.
There was a long silence. Ralph had rarely been heard to speak so bitterly. It was clear that opposition had gone far enough. Sim's watery eyes were never for an instant still. Full of a sickening apprehension, they cast furtive glances into every face. The poor creature seemed determined to gather up into his wretched breast the scorn that was blasting it. The turf on the hearth gave out a great heat, but the tailor shivered as with cold. Then Ralph reached the coat and cap, and, after satisfying himself that they were dry, he handed them back to Sim, who put them on. Perhaps he had mistaken the act, for, rising to his feet, Sim looked into Ralph's face inquiringly, as though to ask if he might go.
"Not yet, Sim," said Ralph. "You shall go when I go. You lodge with me to-night."
Monsey in the corner looked aghast, and crept closer under the flitch of bacon that hung above him.
"Men," said Ralph, "hearken here. You call it a foul thing to kill a man, and so it is."
Monsey turned livid; every one held his breath. Ralph went on,—
"Did you ever reflect that there are other ways of taking a man's life besides killing him?"
There was no response. Ralph did not seem to expect one, for he continued,—
"You loathe the man who takes the blood of his fellow-man, and you're right so to do. It matters nothing to you that the murdered man may have been a worse man than the murderer. You're right there too. You look to the motive that inspired the crime. Is it greed or revenge? Then you say, 'This man must die.' God grant that such horror of murder may survive among us." There was a murmur of assent.
"But it is possible to kill without drawing blood. We may be murderers and never suspect the awfulness of our crime. To wither with suspicion, to blast with scorn, to dog with cruel hints, to torture with hard looks',—this is to kill without blood. Did you ever think of it? There are worse hangmen than ever stood on the gallows."
"Ay, but he's shappin' to hang hissel'," muttered Matthew Branthwaite. And there was some inaudible muttering among the others.
"I know what you mean," Ralph continued. "That the guilty man whom the law cannot touch is rightly brought under the ban of his fellows. Yes, it is Heaven's justice."
Sim crept closer to Ralph, and trembled perceptibly.
"Men, hearken again," said Ralph. "You know I've spoken up for Sim," and he put his great arm about the tailor's shoulders; "but you don't know that I have never asked him, and he has never said whether he is innocent or not. The guilty man may be in this room, and he may not be Simeon Stagg. But if he were my own brother—my own father—"
Old Matthew's pipe had gone out; he was puffing at the dead shaft. Sim rose up; his look of abject misery had given place to a look of defiance; he stamped on the floor.
"Let me go; let me go," he cried.
Robbie Anderson came up and took him by the hand; but Sim's brain seemed rent in twain, and in a burst of hysterical passion he fell back into his seat, and buried his head in his breast.
"He'll be hanged with the foulest collier yet," growled one of the men. It was Joe Garth again. He was silenced once more. The others had begun to relent.
"I've not yet asked him if he is innocent," continued Ralph; "but this persecution drives me to it, and I ask him now."
"Yes, yes," cried Sim, raising his head, and revealing an awful countenance. A direful memory seemed to haunt every feature.
"Do you know the murderer?"
"I do—that is—what am I saying?—let me go."
Sim had got up, and was tramping across the floor. Ralph got up too, and faced him.
"It is your duty, in the sight of Heaven, to give that man's name."
"No, no; heaven forbid," cried Sim.
"It is your duty to yourself and to—"
"I care nothing for myself."
"And to your daughter—think of that. Would you tarnish the child's name with the sin laid on the father's—"
"God in heaven help me!" cried Sim, tremulous with emotion. "Ralph, Ralph, ask me no more—you don't know what you ask."
"It is your duty to Heaven, I say."
He put his hand on Sim's shoulder, and looked steadily in his eyes. With a fearful cry Sim broke from his grasp, sprung to the door, and in an instant was lost in the darkness without. Ralph stood where Sim had left him, transfixed by some horrible consciousness. A slow paralysis seemed to possess all his senses. What had he read in those eyes that seemed to live before him still?
"Good neet," said old Matthew as he got up and trudged out. Most of the company rose to go. "Good night," said more than one, but Ralph answered nothing. Robbie Anderson was last.
"Good night, Ralph," he said. His gruff voice was thick in his throat.
"Aye, good night, lad," Ralph answered vacantly.
Robbie had got to the door, and was leaning with one hand on the door-frame. Coming back, he said,—
"Ralph, where may your father be to-night?"
"At Gaskarth—it's market day—he took the last shearing."
He spoke like one in a sleep. Then Robbie left him.
"Is Rotha ready to go?" he asked.
CHAPTER V. THE EMPTY SADDLE.
The night has been unruly:... Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death. Macbeth.
The storm was now all but over. The moon shone clear, and the clouds that scudded across its face were few. Lauvellen, to the east, was visible to the summit; and Raven Craig, to the west, loomed black before the moon. A cutting wind still blew, and a frost had set in sharp and keen. Already the sleet that had fallen was frozen in sheets along the road, which was thereby made almost impassable even to the sure footsteps of the mountaineer. The trees no longer sighed and moaned with the wind; on the stiffening firs lay beads of frozen snow, and the wind as it passed through them soughed. The ghylls were fuller and louder, and seemed to come from every hill; the gullocks overflowed, but silence was stealing over the streams, and the deeper rivers seemed scarcely to flow.
Ralph and Rotha walked side by side to Shoulthwaite Moss. It was useless for the girl to return to Fornside, Ralph had said. Her father would not be there, and the desolate house was no place for her on a night like this. She must spend the night under his mother's charge.
They had exchanged but few words on setting out. The tragedy of her father's life was settling on the girl's heart with a nameless misery. It is the first instinct of the child's nature to look up to the parent as its refuge, its tower of strength. That bulwark may be shattered before the world, and yet to the child's intuitive feeling it may remain the same. Proudly, steadfastly the child heart continues to look up to the wreck that is no wreck in the eyes of its love. Ah! how well it is if the undeceiving never comes! But when all that seemed strong, when all that seemed true, becomes to the unveiled vision weak and false, what word is there that can represent the sadness of the revealment?
"Do you think, Ralph, that I could bear a terrible answer if I were to ask you a terrible question?"
Rotha broke the silence between them with these words. Ralph replied promptly,—
"Yes, I do. What would you ask?"
The girl appeared powerless to proceed. She tried to speak and stopped, withdrawing her words and framing them afresh, as though fearful of the bluntness of her own inquiry. Her companion perceived her distress, and coming to her relief with a cheerier tone, he said,—
"Don't fear to ask, Rotha. I think I can guess your question. You want to know if—"
"Ralph," the girl broke in hurriedly—she could better bear to say the word herself than to hear him say it—"Ralph, he is my father, and that has been enough. I could not love him the less whatever might happen. I have never asked him—anything. He is my father, and though he be—whatever he may be—he is my father still, you know. But, Ralph, tell me—you say I can bear it—and I can—I feel I can now—tell me, Ralph, was it poor father after all?"
Rotha had stopped and covered up her face in her hands. Ralph stopped too. His voice was deep and thick as he answered slowly,—
"No, Rotha, it was not."
"Not father?" cried the girl; "you know it was not?"
"I know it was not."
The voice again was not the voice of one who brings glad tidings, but the words were themselves full of gladness for the ear on which they fell, and Rotha seemed almost overcome by her joy. She clutched Ralph's arm with both hands.
"Heaven be praised!" she said; "now I can brave anything—poor, poor father!"
After this the girl almost leapt over the frozen road in the ecstasy of her new-found delight. The weight of weary months of gathering suspense seemed in one moment to have fallen from her forever. Half laughing, half weeping, she bounded along, the dog sporting beside her. Her quick words rippled on the frosty air. Occasionally she encountered a flood that swept across the way from the hills above to the lake beneath, but her light foot tripped over it before a hand could be offered her. Their path lay along the pack-horse road by the side of the mere, and time after time she would scud down to the water's edge to pluck the bracken that grew there, or to test the thin ice with her foot. She would laugh and then be silent, and then break out into laughter again. She would prattle to herself unconsciously and then laugh once more. All the world seemed made anew to this happy girl to-night.
True enough, nature meant her for a heartsome lass. Her hair was dark, and had a tangled look, as though lately caught in brambles or still thick with burrs. Her dark eyebrows and long lashes shaded the darkest of black-brown eyes. Her mouth was alive with sensibility. Every shade of feeling could play upon her face. Her dress was loose, and somewhat negligently worn; one never felt its presence or knew whether it were poor or fine. Her voice, though soft, was generally high-pitched, not like the whirl of wind through the trees, but like its sigh through the long grass, and came, perhaps, to the mountain girl from the effort to converse above the sound of these natural voices. There was a tremor in her voice sometimes, and, when she was taken unawares, a sidelong look in her eyes. There was something about her in these serious moods that laid hold of the imagination. She had surely a well of strength which had been given for her own support and the solace of others at some future moment, only too terrible. But not to-night, as she tripped along under the moonlight, did the consciousness of that moment overshadow her.
And what of Ralph, who strode solemnly by her side? A change had come over him of late. He spoke little, and never at all of the scenes he had witnessed in his long campaign—never of his own share in them. He had become at once an active and a brooding man. The shadow of a supernatural presence seemed to hang over everything. Tonight that shadow was blacker than before.
In the fulness of her joy Rotha had not marked the tone in which Ralph spoke when he gave her in a word all the new life that bounded in her veins. But that tone was one of sadness, and that word had seemed to drain away from veins of his some of the glad life that now pulsated in hers. Was it nothing that the outcast among men whom he alone, save this brave girl, had championed, had convinced him of his innocence? Nothing that the light of a glad morning had broken on the long night of the blithe creature by his side, and brightened her young life with the promise of a happier future?
"Look, Ralph, look at the withered sedge, all frost-covered!" said Rotha in her happiness, tripping up to his side, with a sprig newly plucked in her hand. Ralph answered her absently, and she rattled on to herself, "Rotha shall keep you, beautiful sedge! How you glisten in the moonlight!" Then the girl broke out with a snatch of an old Border ballad,—
Dacre's gane to the war, Willy, Dacre's gane to the war; Dacre's lord has crossed the ford, And left us for the war.
"Poor father," she said more soberly, "poor father; but he'll come back home now—come back to our own home again"; and then, unconscious of the burden of her song, she sang,—
Naworth's halls are dead, Willy, Naworth's halls are dead; One lonely foot sounds on the keep, And that's the warder's tread.
The moon shone clearly; the tempest had lulled, and the silvery voice of the girl was all that could be heard above the distant rumble of the ghylls and the beat of Ralph's heavy footsteps. In a moment Rotha seemed to become conscious that her companion was sad as well as silent. How had this escaped her so long? she thought.
"But you don't seem quite so glad, Ralph," she said in an altered tone, half of inquiry, half of gentle reproach, as of one who felt that her joy would have been the more if another had shared it.
"Don't I? Ah, but I am glad—that is, I'm glad your father won't need old Mattha's bull-grips," he said, with an attempt to laugh at his own pleasantry.
How hollow the laugh sounded on his own ears! It was not what his father would have called heartsome. What was this sadness that was stealing over him and stiffening every sense? Had he yet realized it in all its fulness? Ralph shook himself and struck his hand on his breast, as though driving out the cold. He could not drive out the foreboding that had taken a seat there since Sim looked last in his eyes and cried, "Let me go."
Laddie frisked about them, and barked back at the echo of his own voice, that resounded through the clear air from the hollow places in the hills. They had not far to go now. The light of the kitchen window at Shoulthwaite would be seen from the turn of the road. Only through yonder belt of trees that overhung the "lonnin," and they would be in the court of Angus Ray's homestead.
"Ralph," said Rotha—she had walked in silence for some little time—"all the sorrow of my life seems gone. You have driven it all away." Her tremulous voice belied the light laugh that followed.
He looked down at her tear-dimmed eyes. Was her great sorrow indeed gone? Had he driven it away from her? If so, was it not all, and more, being gathered up into his own heart instead? Was it not so?
"You have borne it bravely, Rotha—very bravely," he answered. "Do you think, now, that I could have borne it as you have done?"
There was a tremor in his tone and a tenderness of expression in his face that Rotha had never before seen there.
"Bear it as I have done?" she repeated. "There is nothing you could not bear." And her radiant face was lit up in that white moonlight with a perfect sunshine of beauty.
"I don't know, Rotha, my girl," he answered falteringly; "I don't know—yet." The last words were spoken with his head dropped on to his breast.
Rotha stepped in front of him, and, putting her hand on his shoulder, stopped him and looked searchingly in his face.
"What is this sadness, Ralph? Is there something you have not told me—something behind, which, when it comes, will take the joy out of this glad news you give me?"
"I could not be so cruel as that, Rotha; do you think I could?"
A smile was playing upon his features as he smoothed her hair over her forehead and drew forward the loose hood that had fallen from it.
"And there is nothing to come after—nothing?"
"Nothing that need mar your happiness, my girl, or disturb your love. You love your father, do you not?"
"Better than all the world!" Rotha answered impulsively. "Poor father!"
"Better than all the world," echoed Ralph vacantly, and with something like a sigh. Her impetuous words seemed to touch him deeply, and he repeated them once more, but they died away on his lips. "Better than all the—" Then they walked on.
They had almost reached the belt of trees that overhung the road.
"Ralph," said Rotha, pausing, "may I—kiss you?"
He stooped and kissed her on the forehead. Then the weight about his heart seemed heavier than before. By that kiss he felt that between him and the girl at his side there was a chasm that might never be bridged. Had he loved her? He hardly knew; he had never put it to himself so. Did she not love him? He could not doubt it. And her kiss! yes, it was the kiss of love; but what love? The frank, upturned face answered him but too well.
They were within the shadow of the trees now, and could see the lights at Shoulthwaite. In two minutes more their journey would be done.
"Take my hand, Rotha; you might slip on the frosty road in darkness like this."
The words were scarcely spoken, when Rotha gave a little cry and stumbled. "In an instant Ralph's arm was about her, and she had regained her feet.
"What is that?" she said, trembling with fear, and turning backwards.
"A drift of frozen sleet, no doubt," Ralph said, kicking with his foot at the spot where Rotha slipped.
"No, no," she answered, trembling now with some horrible apprehension.
Ralph had stepped back, and was leaning over something that lay across the road. The dog was snuffling at it.
"What is it?" said Rotha nervously.
He did not answer. He was on his knees beside it; his hands were on it. There was a moment of agonizing suspense.
"What is it?" Rotha repeated.
Still there came no reply. Ralph had risen, but he knelt again. His breath was coming fast. Rotha thought she could hear the beating of his heart.
"Oh, but I must know!" cried the girl. And she stepped backward as though to touch for herself the thing that lay there.
"Nothing," said Ralph, rising and taking her firmly by the hand that she had outstretched,—"nothing—a sack of corn has fallen from the wagon, nothing more." He spoke in a hoarse whisper.
He drew her forward a few paces, but she stopped. The dog was standing where Ralph had knelt, and was howling wofully.
"Laddie, come here," Ralph said; "Rotha, come away."
"I could bear the truth, Ralph—I think I could," she answered.
He put his arm about her, and drew her along without a word. She felt his powerful frame quiver and his strong voice die within him. She guessed the truth. She knew this man as few had known him, as none other could know him.
"Go back, Ralph," she said; "I'll hurry on." And still the dog howled behind them.
Ralph seemed not to hear her, but continued to walk by her side. Her heart sank, and she looked piteously into his face.
And now the noise reached them of hurrying footsteps in front. People were coming towards them from the house. Lanterns were approaching them. In another moment they were in the court. All was astir. The whole household seemed gathered there, and in the middle of the yard stood the mare Betsy, saddled but riderless, her empty wool-creels strapped to her sides.