THE TORCH AND OTHER TALES
Author of Tryphena
New York: The MacMillan Company
I. 'SANTA CLAUS' II. THE RETURNED NATIVE III. JOHN AND JANE IV. THE OLD SOLDIER V. WHEN FOX WAS FERRYMAN VI. MOTHER'S MISFORTUNE VII. STEADFAST SAMUEL VIII. THE HOUND'S POOL IX. THE PRICE OF MILLY BASSETT X. THE AMBER HEART XI. THE WISE WOMAN OF WALNA XII. THE TORCH XIII. 'SPIDER' XIV. THE WOODSTOCK XV. THE NIGHT-HAWK
Nobody knew where Teddy Pegram came from or why the man ordained to settle down in Little Silver. He had no relations round about and couldn't, or wouldn't, tell his new neighbours what had brought him along. But he bided a bit with Mrs. Ford, the policeman's wife, as a lodger, and then, when he'd sized up the place and found it suited him, he took a tumble-down, four-room cottage at the back-side of the village and worked upon it himself and soon had the place to his liking. A most handy little man he was and could turn his skill in many directions. And he'd do odd jobs for the neighbours and show a good bit of kindness to the children. He lived alone and looked after himself, for he could cook and sew like a woman—at least like the clever ones. In fact there didn't seem nothing he couldn't do. And his knowledge extended above crafts, for he'd got a bit of learning also and he'd talk with Johns at the shop-of-all-sorts about business, or with Samual Mutters, the chemist, about patent medicines, or with butcher or baker concerning their jobs, or with policemen about crime, and be worth attending to on any subject.
His pleasure, however, was sporting, and not until he'd dwelt among us a good bit did a measure of doubt in that matter creep into our praise of the man.
Round about fifty he might have been—a clean-shaved, active chap, five feet three inches high, and always bursting with energy. He had grizzled hair and a blue chin and eyes so bright and black as shoe-buttons. A hard mouth and lips always pursed up over his yellow teeth; but though it looked a cruel sort of mouth, nought cruel ever came out of it save in the matter of politics. He was a red radical and didn't go to church, yet against that you could set his all-round good-will and friendship and his uncommon knack of lending a hand to anybody in his power to serve. But he was up against the Government, and would talk so fierce of a night sometimes at the 'Barley Sheaf' that Ned Chown, the landlord, who was a true blue, didn't think so well on Mr. Pegram as the most of us. Friends he made, but hadn't much use for the women, though he declared himself as not against them. He was a bachelor-minded man by nature, and yet, what ain't so common in that sort, he liked childer and often had a halfpenny in his pocket for one of his pets.
Mrs. Ford, however, he regarded as a great and trustworthy friend, and her husband also, for, from the time he lodged with them, they all agreed uncommon well, and Joseph Ford, the policeman, was high in his praises of Teddy from the first. He happened to be a very radical thinker himself, did Joseph, but, as became his calling, put law and order first; and you felt that the newcomer agreed on that matter and didn't want to do anything contrary to the constitution, but just advance the welfare of the under-dog by proper means; so Joseph said there was no fault in the man and praised his opinions.
In truth Teddy Pegram appeared to be a very great stickler for the law and held it in high respect—so he always declared—and reckoned that those who put themselves within the reach of it deserved all they got. He might say doubtful things to Joseph Ford's ear now and again, but nought the policeman could fairly quarrel with, because both Joseph and Minnie, his wife, owed Teddy a bit by now, and, doting on their little son as they did, felt a bit weak to the man in that quarter.
Their only child was six years old, and the amazing beauty of young Joey Ford made him many friends beside Mr. Pegram. He was one of they children that look too good and too beautiful for this world, and you feel that, by rights, they did ought to grow a pair of wings and fly away to heaven. And for that matter, old Jane Marks, who was famous for seeing and pointing out the dark side of all human hopes, warned Minnie more'n once against putting her whole trust in the beautiful boy.
"To my eye there's early death looking out of his eyes," Jane Marks would say. "Such blue eyes belong to the sky, Minnie, and there's more to it than his angel face, because the child's so parlous good that it ain't straining truth to say the Old Adam be left out of him. And granted that, this vale of tears is no place for such a boy. Heaven's his home," Mrs. Marks would say, "and so you must fortify yourself for an early loss."
Minnie didn't worry, however, because her son was a strong lad and sturdy as well as lovely. He'd gotten his father's fine shape and his mother's gentle heart, and though good as gold, he weren't a Mary-boy, as we say—one of them gentle, frightened childer who can't let go their mother's apron. That sort, if they grow up, turn into indoor man-servants and ain't very powerful as a rule in their bodies or intellects; but Joey was a brave young lad enough and had already fixed on his father's profession for his own.
And Teddy Pegram took most powerful to him and made him many a game and many a clever toy. He'd walk with the child to the woods sometimes and teach him the ways of birds and beasts, and show him how to catch 'em; for Ted was a rare sportsman and deeply skilled in all the branches of it. And 'twas his bent in that direction led to the extraordinary affair of this tale; though it was a good year before the crash came and for a long time no cloud arose to darken his steadfast friendship with the Fords. You might say they was more than friends, for Teddy explained to the young couple that he stood alone in the world, without chick or child of his own, and felt very wishful to have some special interest in his fellow creatures.
"I followed the sea," he told them once, "and that's why I'm so handy all round. But my passion be sporting, and now, having earned a little competence, I've retired from the ocean and don't want to hear nor yet see it no more. And you folk suit me and I suit you, so I'll put you first, and if all goes well in the time to come, I dare say your lad, if not yourselves, will be the gainers."
They was very pleased, of course, and Minnie showed it by fussing over the man a bit and looking after his linen now and then and doing such chores for him as he'd let her do; but he was very independent and, finding he weren't over anxious for her and her husband to be in his house, though always very willing to come to hers, she gave over her attempts to befriend him in that direction. Little Joey, however, was always welcome and he'd often drop in on the old sailor and never in vain. Teddy was fond of sporting dogs and he'd got a lurcher bitch from somewhere, and when she bore a litter, six weeks before Christmas, he had the thought to give Joey the best of the bunch. When they was a fortnight old, he drowned all but one, and on Christmas Eve, after the child was to bed and asleep, he took the little dog over and stopped and had a drink and explained his purpose.
'Twas strange to 'em to hear the hard-faced, grim-looking chap talk so tender of their only one; but they liked it well enough and fell in with his wish. He'd promised to eat his Christmas dinner along with them and Joey; but the pup was to come as a rare surprise next morning, and though Minnie Ford didn't much hold with a young dog about her spick and span home, she couldn't withstand the little silky creature, nor yet Teddy's wish to pleasure the child.
"You do this, Minnie," he said, for he called the family by their Christian names by now. "You keep the dog till dawn and then you put him in the stocking, what's hanging at the foot of Joey's bed, along with your own gifts afore you call him. Then first thing he sees when he rises up to grab his toys will be the little dog atop of all the rest."
Which Minnie promised to do and did do, and Joey toddled over the minute after he'd swallowed his breakfast to tell Mr. Pegram how 'Santa Claus' had sent him the wonderfullest little dinky dog ever was seen.
"I'm the Santa Claus that sent it, my lovely cherub," said Teddy, kissing his beautiful face; and 'Santa Claus' he was to Joey from that day forward. It pleased the man well to be so called, and he got the nickname in Joseph Ford's house and became 'Santa Claus' to all of 'em.
"There's much in a name," said Teddy, "and more in that one than you may guess. For I was mate of a ship so called once on a time and had some of my best voyages in her."
The friendship tightened after that Christmas and it weren't till many a long month later and the fall of another year that anything happened to strain it.
They had all got to be so friendly as you please and then in the 'Barley Sheaf' one day, Joseph Ford heard Ned Chown laughing with a customer or two, and, afore they knew it, he picked up a word. He didn't let 'em guess he'd heard, however, but ordered his beer and spoke of something else, which they was very willing to do; for Joseph happened to be a mighty smart officer, and secret subjects sometimes got mentioned that weren't meant for his ear.
It happened that poaching was in the air a good bit just then, for the big Oakshott covers ran half a mile from Little Silver and there had been a lot more trouble than usual that winter and the old head-keeper dismissed and a younger and sterner man engaged from up North. But the robbery went on and there's no doubt a lot of pheasants slipped away to an unknown market. Joseph Ford was so keen as the game-keepers to lay the rogues by the heels, for the police had heard a few hard words from the Lord of the Manor on the subject; but the general opinion ran that some clever rascals from far ways off in the South Hams were responsible; while the new keeper from Yorkshire, who had a large experience of poachers' tricks, said most steadfast that in his judgment it was local men with the advantages of being on the spot. They raked the poulterers in three market towns round about, but all gave a very good and straight account of their birds; and the mystery interested us a lot, for, of course, Little Silver had its doubtful customers like every other place.
And what Joseph Ford had heard, with a smothered laugh or two, was the name of his fast friend, Teddy Pegram, along with the disappearance of the Oakshott game. He gave no sign, but it hit him with a good bit of force, because he'd marked one or two things himself that made him restless, and he knew Teddy didn't pretend any great sorrow to think the pheasants were being stole. The man loved sport, and farmers round about let him shoot their rabbits and partridges also; but he knew very well pheasants were different, though he always argued against all game laws. So Joseph counted to give Teddy a word in season on the quiet, and he done so.
"I heard your name whispered in the public-house a few nights agone," he said, "and I didn't like it too well, Pegram, because they named it along with this here poaching. They little thought I'd heard, of course, and I didn't undeceive 'em, but—there 'tis—and I'd avoid the appearance of evil if I was you and bide in on moony nights, which we know very well you do not."
The other showed much surprise to hear such a thing. He was playing along with Joey and the little dog at the time, and teaching the puppy to learn tricks. The creature was full of brains, as mongrels are apt to be, and Joey loved it dearly, and loved the giver only less. He'd called it 'Choc,' because the puppy loved chocolates so well as Joey himself, and the dog had grown to be his dearest treasure.
Well, Teddy gave over his games now and stood up and showed a great deal of annoyance. His bead-black eyes flashed and his jaw stood out, as it always did when he was vexed.
"Too bad!" he said, "and if I knew who the man was, I'd have him up for libel I reckon. I may or may not agree about the damn birds, but I wouldn't have made a policeman my fast friend in this place if I weren't a straight man, and I'm a good bit surprised, Joseph, that you thought it worth your while to name such a thing to me. And I'll go out of a moony night when and where I please so long as it's a free country. So now then!"
He sulked a bit and didn't come to see the Fords for a week, though Joey was over often enough to see him, and Joseph felt rather interested to mark how the little man had taken it. But then 'Santa Claus' made friends again and came into Sunday supper and brought a pheasant along with him!
He made a lot of fun about it and pretended as he'd shot it in the coverts over night; and presently he told Joseph that, if he wanted to run him in, he'd best to go to Mercer's at Newton Abbot first and find out if he'd bought it all decent and in order, or if he had not. So the matter dropped, and all was firm friends again till the blow fell.
Poaching went on, and Joseph noted that Teddy was apt to be from home a bit and would often go away for a day or two. And the new head-keeper, who was sleepless on the job, traced where a car had come across one of the drives in Oakshott's by night, for the wheels had scored the grass; and where the thing had stood was a dead bird the blackguards had overlooked.
The pheasant had been shot roosting and an air-gun was the weapon, for they found the slug in it.
And the next thing was that just afore the end of the season, Joseph Ford set out to lend a hand with the job on his own, unknown to anybody but the head-keeper. He worked out of his business hours and off the regular policeman's beats, and the keeper, who now felt pretty sure one of his own under-men was in it, and he'd got treachery to deal with, put Joseph up to a secret plan. Oakshott's is a huge place and the six keepers kept there couldn't be everywhere; but an unknown seventh man might steal a march on the rogues and lie hid when 'twas given out the others were somewhere else. And that was done by Joseph, with a very startling result.
The season had near reached an end, when on a quiet moonlight night in January, Joseph kept his third secret watch at the edge of the North Wood. He'd got there at dusk, being off duty at the time, and there he bided; and then, just after moonrise, he saw a dog slip past him within ten yards, and he knew the dog very well, and his heart sank.
Behind the lurcher came her master, and Teddy, with something in his hand that glinted, popped by, silent as a ghost and was gone into the covers.
But Joseph knew he'd be bound to come out on the high road, same way he went in, so he bided there and an hour passed and then twenty minutes more, and meantime the policeman heard the purr of a motor and saw a small car without lights draw up on the dark side of the lane twenty yards off. There was only one man in it and Joseph felt glad there weren't more. He chanced Pegram for a minute then and nipped out on the driver just as he was lighting a cigarette. He proved to be a young fellow from so far off as Torquay, and he didn't put up no fight whatever, feeling no fear on his own account. He was working for wages and doing what he was told, and he caved in at once and obeyed the policeman's orders, that worse might not overtake him. So he sat tight and waited, and then Teddy Pegram and his dog and his air-gun crept out of the woods with a load of ten birds. They roosted in the spruce firs, you understand, and 'twas as easy to slay them as blackbeetles, for Teddy's eyes, helped by the moon, marked 'em above his head quick enough.
Then Joseph Ford walked out from behind the car and the little man saw his games were ended, for Ford was a very powerful chap and could have eaten him if he'd wanted to do so.
But Teddy used his tongue for all it was worth, though at first he didn't guess he was up against it.
"Lucky 'twas you," he said. "If it had been your mate, I'd have met with a difficulty. Very smart, Joseph! You've bowled me out all right, so we'll cry quits and least said soonest mended."
But the policeman wasn't in no mood like that.
"Come, Pegram," he answered. "I'd sooner have took any man on earth but you, and you've put me in a cruel fix, and that's all there is to it. Give me that air-gun and get in the car and say nought if you please."
T'other had a lot to say, however. They talked for ten minutes, but the poacher couldn't move the policeman, though he appealed to his friendship and so on. Then Joseph saw a look that he never had seen afore in the little man's eyes and was startled, but not afeared. For a minute Teddy glared like a devil in the moonlight, and an awful evil expression fairly flooded his face.
"Think twice," he said. "For God's sake think twice, Ford, afore you do this. There's a lot more to me than you know—a lot I've thought to overcome—suffering, misery, curses, disgrace. But if you take me to the 'cooler' to-night—hear me on my oath: you'll be sorry as long as you live, for I'm built that way."
"I am sorry already," answered Joseph, "I'm as sorry as any living man can be, and 'tis a bitter cruel thing for me that you've forced this upon me. I warned you—most serious I done so—and what more could I do? You've none to thank for this but yourself and you well know it. But my duty's my duty, and I don't break my policeman's oath for you, or any man living."
"You ain't on duty to-night, however," replied Teddy.
"A policeman's always on duty," said Ford, "and 'tis vain to threat or argue. I've got no choice."
But the other did argue still, and when he saw he was done, he threatened also and said hard, terrible words. They went in one of Joseph's ears and out of the other, of course, and he only wanted to get a painful job out of hand by now. So he cut it short, and in another minute pretty well lifted Teddy into the car and bade the driver carry 'em to Little Silver.
Pegram said no more after that, but a fiend glared out of his eyes as he stared on the other, and Joseph, though he'd seen some hard cases, said afterwards that he never wanted to look on such a wicked face again.
But the look was dead when they got to the police-station, and Ford tumbled his man into a cell, then handed the pheasants over to the Inspector and made his report.
There was a good deal of stir about it and some applause for the policeman when the Justices gave Teddy two months' hard labour. And that was that. But what you may call the interesting part of the affair happened after, for when the two months was up, instead of selling his house and taking himself off to practise his games elsewhere, if Teddy Pegram didn't return to Little Silver, meek as Moses, and a reformed character!
Poor Joey, when he heard his dearest friend was in trouble, had wept a lot of tears and took on very bad and even said hard things to his father for catching 'Santa Claus' and sending him to prison. But he'd got resigned to his loss, for two months is a long time in a child's mind. And he'd walk every day to look at Pegram's house and pet the poacher's dog. 'Twas thought the creature ought to be shot, and the head-keeper at Oakshott's, who knew the cleverness of the animal, was strong for it; but humanity be full of strange twists and the Squire himself it was who ordered the cur should live and be tended.
"Let the dog be there to welcome him back," said the Squire in his easy way. "The dog's done nothing but his duty and done it mighty well by all accounts."
He was pleased, you see, because he'd got to the bottom of the mystery, and he had a great trustful faith in human nature and hoped that Teddy would turn from his bad ways after a taste of klink. And it certainly looked as if the good man was right.
Little Joey would often take 'Choc' to see his mother on her chain at Teddy's house while the man was put away. And he'd carry the poor creature a tidy bone also when he could get one. And how long that two months was to the lurcher, who shall say? But one fine morning Pegram was back again, and he welcomed the child same as he'd already welcomed his dog, and Joey went back full of great joy to say as his friend was home once more and terrible pleased to see him. Which interested Joseph and Minnie Ford a good bit, for they guessed that they'd made a bitter and dangerous enemy in that quarter and little thought to see the man again. Yet he'd come back and, more wonderful still, afore he'd been home a week, he made bold to step in one night and shake their hands and say 'twas a very nice thing to be home in his own den a free man! They felt mazed to see him among 'em, so cheerful and full of talk as if he'd been away for a holiday. And Joseph wondered a lot and felt it on the tip of his tongue to name the past and express friendly hopes for the future. But he didn't, and it weren't till he saw 'Santa Claus' down to the gate on his way home, that the little chap spoke.
"Say nought and try to forget," he said. "You done your duty and that's all the best and worst of us can do. Be my friend, for I've got but few."
Then he was gone, and Joseph woke to a surer trust in humanity and felt our common nature crying to him to believe it; while his own policeman's nature warned him to do no such thing. He talked far into the night with his wife; but she was all for believing.
"Us be Christians," said Minnie, "and well we know how the Lord works. He's come to right thinking by chastisement, and his heart's softened and never will I believe a man as loves the little ones like him be so very bad. He's paid for what he done and, if he wants to forget and forgive, 'tis everybody's place to do the same."
"That sounds all right," granted Joseph. "And who be I to say he's not a repentant man? But—you didn't see his face, with ten devils staring out of his eyes, when I took him."
"Us'll watch and pray for him," answered Minnie. "My heart tells me the poor man won't fall again."
And they left it at that and Minnie prayed and Joseph watched; and the woman triumphed over her husband a good bit as time went on, for Teddy Pegram never looked back so far as could be seen, until, little by little, even Joseph felt that his spell in the jug had changed Teddy to a member of society a good bit out of the common.
His friends reckoned that, when another autumn came, the strain would be too much and the old poacher might be found to fall; but, as Ned Chown pointed out, it weren't very likely as Pegram would fall again in the same place.
"If he was minded to fall, he'd sling his hook and go and fall somewhere else, where he weren't known," he said, and indeed Teddy had made the same remark himself. He stuck to lawful sport and went his quiet way, until that happened which looked as though he might soon be minded to flit.
In the fall he sold his cottage to Ned Chown, who owned a few little dwellings already and was a great believer in the virtue of house property; but Pegram only let the inn-keeper have it on one condition and that was that he should be allowed to go on living in it while he chose to do so. He explained to Joseph Ford that he never meant to leave Little Silver; but that he was very poor and a thought pressed for money, and glad to have the value of the house in his pocket again.
So another year passed over 'em all, and the end of the strange business of 'Santa Claus' came on another Christmas Eve, when he dropped in to see the Fords and express his friendship and good wishes. They'd quite slipped back into the old, kindly understanding, and Joseph felt long since convinced that his stern dealing had been the salvation of the man—a fact Teddy himself often declared, without shame. They cared for him a lot by now, and Minnie never tired of singing his praises, and the child never felt a day well spent if his friend didn't come into it.
Joey was in bed and asleep before Pegram called in his character of 'Santa Claus'; but he'd not forgot his gift and produced a fine box of sweets, to be put on top of the child's stocking along with a Christmas card. He looked in on sleeping Joey also and smiled to see the child in the land of dreams with his dog asleep beside him. And then he gave Minnie a gift also—a piece of very fine cloth to make herself a gown. And he promised to come and eat his Christmas dinner along with them, which Joseph insisted he should do. Ford was on night duty at the time and he left the house with the old poacher and saw him to his own home, while good words passed between them. Then young Ford went to his beat and wondered as he walked at such a fine reformation, and felt proud of himself to think he'd had a hand in it. Yet, though seldom it came uppermost in his thoughts, by some chance, the ancient, awful look on Teddy's face rose to his mind that Christmas Eve. Joseph had a theory, sure founded on Scripture, and he stoutly believed that the poacher had harboured a devil in him in the past.
"Yet now without a doubt it has been cast out," thought Joseph, "and no man will ever see it look out of his eyes no more, because it have gone, thank God."
His duty done he went home to rest; but the man's sleep was broken just after peep-o'-day by the awfullest scream ever he heard.
His child it was. Joey slept in a little room alongside his parents and, of course, Minnie was up to him like a flash of lightning, with Joseph after her. He said at a later time that 'Santa Claus' had got in his dreams and he had suffered all night from a great uneasiness; but he was sleeping sound enough when, just after six o'clock, the child screamed and screamed again. And still he screamed when his mother got to him and his father followed after, stopping only to light a candle.
Poor Joey was out of bed with his mother's arms round him when his father got there; and on the bed lay Teddy's box of sweets scattered over the cover-lid, with the Christmas stocking dragged up also, but its contents not yet explored. The sweeties came first, and Joey had opened them and now he screamed and pointed and screamed again, but for the moment couldn't speak. He pointed into one corner of his little cubby-hole, and then the tears came flooding his cheeks and he stopped screaming and clung to his mother and wept as if his heart would break.
Ford, policeman-like, saw it all instanter, and a curtain seemed to lift off his soul, and there glared the eyes of 'Santa Claus' into his mind's eyes. In a second he put two and two together and understood why, deep in his brain that night, had hidden such a feeling of stark care.
"Have you touched they sweets?" he asked, shaking the little boy to make him attend. "Speak for your life, Joey! Have you ate one?"
Still the child couldn't collect himself. He screamed again when his father shook him, and it was clear some fearful thing had overtook him; but his grief didn't rise from no pain of body, and in truth the answer to Joseph's question lay before his eyes, if he'd but understood the truth. No scream would Joey have screamed, nor tear shed, if he'd helped himself from the box; but 'twas a case when a big heart saved a little body, for Joey had put another creature before himself and the first sweetie out of the gift had went to his pup. 'Twas chocolates 'Santa Claus' had left, and when the dog's jaws closed upon his little master's gift, he gave one jump and leapt off the bed and was stone dead in three seconds before the child got to him.
All that the parents presently learned from the shaking babe, and the moment Joseph grasped the truth, he left his wife to praise God and got on his clothes and ran without ceasing to Teddy Pegram's house. And in no Christmas temper did he run neither, for he'd have well liked, in his fury, to rob the hangman of a job. The size of the intended crime swept over him in all its horror as he measured the past and remembered all that the poacher had said and done; and his feet very near gave under him to think of what a fellow creature can harbour hid from every other human eye.
But he wasn't overmuch surprised to find Teddy Pegram didn't answer the door, nor yet to discover the place was all unlocked. He doubted not that his awful enemy had departed overnight, and it came out presently that the last at Little Silver to see Pegram was Ford himself on the previous evening.
So he left it at that, then, and went home and joined his wife in blessing the Maker for His mercy and calming the sorrows and terrors of their little lad.
An unrestful Christmas for the local police, and the countryside was soon busy over Teddy Pegram, while next day the box of chocolates received attention and was found so full of venom as the poisoner could pack 'em.
A nine days' wonder and no more, for though the police was so placed they could soon learn a lot they didn't know about the would-be murderer, the wretch himself escaped 'em that time. But a very interesting thing threw light, and when Teddy's cottage came to be hunted over, though not a stick offered to show who he might be, or where he might have sped, some fingerprints was took by the police and they got a good picture off an empty bottle in a cupboard and another off a frying-pan. And so it got to be understood that 'Santa Claus' was a famous criminal, who had come to Little Silver straight from seven years of penal servitude for manslaughter and had a record so long as from Newgate to Prince town. And he was sixty-three years old, or so they thought.
They traced him back to London and lost him there; but five years afterwards Hiram Linklater, for that was his famous name, swung in earnest for murder of a woman in the Peak of Derbyshire. Always for rural districts he was and a great one for the wonders of nature. He told the chaplain of his adventures at Little Silver, and expressed penitence afore he dropped. He also said that nothing in his whole career had given him more pleasure than to hear how his Christmas Eve effort down in Devonshire had miscarried after all. And he pointed out how, by the will of God, his own gift to the little boy had saved him!
And he was said to have made a brave end; which no doubt ain't as difficult as people imagine.
'Tis the like of Hiram Linklater I reckon, as keep up the sentiment of approval for capital punishment; because even in the softest head, it must be granted that a baby-poisoner is the sort that's better under the earth than on it.
THE RETURNED NATIVE
Of course, every human being did ought to be interesting to their fellow creatures, and yet, such is the weakness of human nature, that we all know folk so cruel dull in mind and body that an instinct rises in us to flee from 'em at sight and never go where there's a chance of running across 'em. It ain't Christian, but everybody knows such deadly characters none the less, and you might say without straining charity, that Mrs. Pedlar was such a one.
Being a widow she had that triumphant fact to show how somebody had found her interesting enough to wed, and there's no doubt, by God's all-seeing goodness, the dull people do find each other out and comfort one another.
Jane Pedlar couldn't have been particular dreadful to Noah Pedlar else he wouldn't have married her and stopped with her, for they was thirty years wed before he dropped, and though she was too dull to have any childer, or ever larn to cook a mutton chop so as a man could eat it with pleasure, yet she held him. He didn't leave much money, because he never earned much, yet he did a pretty good stroke for Jane before he died, and got his employer, Farmer Bewes, to let Jane bide safe in her cottage for her lifetime.
There weren't nothing written between master and man; but Nicholas Bewes, who owned the place, came to see Noah Pedlar on his death-bed, and when Noah put up a petition for Mrs. Pedlar to be allowed to bide rent free to her end, Bewes, who was a bit on the sentimental side and minded that the old chap had worked for him and his father before him for more than half a century, promised that Jane might have the use of the house for her life.
Noah Pedlar had never rose to be farmer's right-hand man or anything like that. He was a humble creature, faithful unto death, but no use away from hedge-tacking and such rough jobs; yet he'd done his duty according to his limits, however narrow they might be, and so he got his way on his death-bed, and, in the sudden surprise that such a landmark as Noah was going home, Farmer Bewes gave his promise.
But that was twenty year agone, and Nicholas Bewes had grown oldish himself now, and Jane was thought to be nearer eighty than seventy by her neighbours. Friends she had not, except for Mrs. Cobley; but there's no doubt, though a much younger woman, Mary Cobley had a sort of feeling for Jane; and there was Milly Boon also—Jane's orphan niece, who lived along with her and kept house for her. She was a good friend too.
The adventure began, you may say, when a returned native came back to Little Silver, and 'twas Mary Cobley's son Jack who did so.
He'd gone to sea when he was fifteen, but kept in touch with his folk and left the sea and found work in the West Indies and bided there for five-and-twenty years. And now he came back, brown as a berry and ugly as need be. At forty you might say Jack Cobley couldn't be beat for plainness; and yet, after all, I've seen better-looking men that was uglier, if you understand me, because, though his countenance put you in mind of an old church gargoyle, yet it was kindly and benevolent in its hideousness, and he had good, trustful eyes; and, to the thinking mind, a man's expression matters more than the shape of his mouth or the cut of his nose.
Jack hadn't much to say about his adventures, for he was a very quiet man and better liked to list than talk; but he didn't make no splash when he came back and he was content to settle with his mother and till her little vegetable patch.
He'd stand a drink at the 'Man and Horse' public-house and, if he felt himself among friends, he'd open out a bit and tell stories of the land where he had lived and worked; but he proved to be the retiring sort and hadn't got anything to say about money. In fact, it didn't seem to be a subject that interested him over much and there was nothing in his apparel, or manner of life, or general outlook that seemed to show as he'd done very well in foreign parts.
So the people came to the natural conclusion that if he'd made any sort of pile, it was a small one, while some folk went to extremes and reckoned that Jack had come back to his mother without a bean, and was content to live on her and share her annuity. Because Mrs. Cobley, though her husband left little beyond his cottage, which was his own, took one hundred and fifty pounds per annum for life under the will of the last lady of the Manor of Little Silver.
Mary had served her ladyship as maid for fifteen years before she took Cobley, and she was a tower of strength to that important woman and had come to be generously remembered according.
So Jack was a mystery, in a manner of speaking. He bought himself a horse, and a good one, and was very fond of riding round about over the moor and joining in a meet of foxhounds sometimes; but that was his only pleasure; and his mother, when a woman here and there asked if her son was minded to wed, would answer that she'd never heard him unfold his feelings on that matter, and reckoned he'd got no intentions towards the women.
"He's so much impressed by his own ugliness," Mary Cobley would tell them, "that he never would rise to the thought of axing a female to take him; though I tell the man that the better sort of woman ain't prone to pick a husband, like a bird picks a cherry, for the outside."
Which was true, of course, for modesty might be said to be Jack's strong suit, and he couldn't abear the thought of inflicting his ugly mug on a nice young woman, which was the only sort of woman he felt he'd got any use for.
Then, after he'd been home six months, he found his parent in tears one night, and she explained the fatal situation that had arose with respect to her neighbour, Mrs. Pedlar.
"Poor Jane be up against it," she said. "Things have come to a climax in that quarter at last and, by all accounts, she's got to leave her lifelong home. And God judge Nicholas Bewes, for he's doing a thing that will put him on the wrong side of the Books."
Well, Jack had called on Mrs. Pedlar, of course, her being his mother's friend; but, like most other people, he'd found the poor woman parlous uninteresting. Her niece, however, was different, for in Milly Boon the folk granted you could find nought but beauty and good temper, and remarkable patience for a young woman. She was a lovely piece, with pretty gold hair and high complexion, and grey, bright eyes. Her mouth was rose-red and tolerable small, but always ready for a smile, and she was a slim, active creature, a towser for work, yet full of the joy of life and ready enough for a mite of pleasure if it came her way.
A good few courted her, but she had no eye for 'em, though civil to all; but now a desperate man was in the market, and he showed such a lot of determination over her and was so cruel set upon Milly that folk said he'd be bound to have his way—and why not?
'Twas Farmer Bewes—his son Richard—who wanted afore all else to have Milly to wife, and it looked right and reasonable, because he was the handsomest man in Little Silver, or ten miles round for that matter; and folk agreed they would make a mighty fine pair. Dicky was a flaxen chap, too, and shaved clean and had a beautiful face without a doubt. He stood six feet two inches, and was finely put together. But there was a black mark against him where the women were concerned, and he'd done a few things he didn't ought; because girls went silly over him.
An only child was Richard, and the apple of his father's eye, and spoilt from his cradlehood by both parents; and so, when he wanted Milly Boon, they didn't see why not, though she was a pauper, because his father felt that it might be a good thing for Dick to wed a wife and settle down.
But it takes two to a job of that sort, and Milly hung fire, much to the misery of young Bewes. He spared no pains in his courting, and told her how she was making an old man of him before his time and robbing him of his sleep, and his appetite, and his wish to live and so on; but she knew very well indeed he'd said all that and a lot more to other maidens, and she felt, deep down in her nature, he wasn't the right one for her, despite his fine appearance and education. For he was a clever man and had been taught knowledge at a Secondary School.
So things stood when Mary Cobley broke her sad tale to her son, while he sat and sucked his pipe and listened on a winter evening, with the wind puffing the peat smoke from the fire into the room off and again.
"'Tis like this," she said. "Farmer's hard up, or so he says, and wants to sell Mrs. Pedlar's cottage over her head. But there's one way out and only one. Of course, Bewes be a lot too crafty to put it in words; but he's let it soak into Jane's mind very clever that if Milly Boon was to see her way to take Richard Bewes, then all would be well; but if she cannot rise to it, he's cruel afraid he must sell."
"And why for should Milly Boon take Richard Bewes?" asked Jack.
"First, because he loves her with all his heart, I believe, and it would be a natural thing, them being the finest young man and woman in the place; and second, because everything points for it," declared Mrs. Cobley. "I wouldn't go so far as to say Milly wouldn't have come to it herself given patience in the man, for he's a fine, ornamental chap and would make a husband for a woman to be proud of. Besides, Milly has got nought but herself to offer. She's dependent on Jane for the clothes on her back, so Bewes would be a lot higher than she might ever have hoped to rise. She ain't the only pebble on the beach even as a good-looker."
"She can't take him if she don't love him, however," said Jack.
But Mrs. Cobley didn't set much store on that.
"Oh, yes, she could," the old woman replied. "Where there's respect, love often follows. And there's Jane to be remembered. Jane's been a good aunt to Milly and, in my opinion, the girl ought to see her duty and her pleasure go together, and wed young Bewes."
"And, if she don't?" asked Mr. Cobley.
"Then Jane's in the street and it will be her death, because at her age you can't transplant her. You hook her out of that nice little house and she'll wilt away like a flower and very soon die of it."
Jack said no more, for he seldom wasted words, but he turned the matter over in his mind and took occasion to see Jane Pedlar a few days after and find out if what his mother had said was true.
"Because, ma'am," he said; "such things sound a thought contrary to religion and justice in my mind."
"They be," admitted Jane. "They be clean contrary to justice and religion both; but justice and religion are got so weak in Little Silver, that nothing don't surprise me."
Well, Jack was all for caution, and he said but little. He ordained, however, to look into the problem on his mother's account, and no better man could have done it. His first thought was whether farmer might not be reasonable.
"Maybe the maiden's only holding off the young man as maidens will, and be the right one for him after all," he said.
"Maybe 'tis so," his mother replied, "but meantime poor dear Jane Pedlar be suffering far too much for an old woman."
So Jack, he takes occasion to have a sight of young Bewes. They met riding to hounds together, and though Richard Bewes counted himself a good many sizes bigger and more important than the returned native, he was affable and friendly and rather pleased Jack by his opinions and his good sportsmanship.
But Cobley knew very well there's a sort of men very sporting in the open among their neighbours and very much the reverse when they are out of sight; and he also knew there's a sort very frank and honest to their fellow men, but very much the reverse to their fellow women. So he just took stock and had speech with Richard off and on and heard the gossip and figured up Dick pretty well.
"I see the manner of man he is," he told Mrs. Cobley, "and I judge that if he had a strong and sensible partner—a woman with her head screwed on the right way—she could handle him all right and keep him decent and straight. But she must be a woman of character who will win his respect and keep his affection—a woman who'll love him very well and serve him faithfully, but stand no messing about, nor any sort of nonsense. So the question rises, be Milly Boon that sort of woman?"
His mother didn't know.
"She's a lovely creature," said Mary, "and a good woman and faithful to her aunt, and that's all I know about her."
"Then, for your sake, I'll look deeper into it," Jack promised, and done so according.
He went in for a dish of tea once and again, much to Mrs. Pedlar's astonishment, for 'twas a novelty to have a male come in her house; but Jack took it all very pleasant and heard her wrongs and condoled with her sufferings and much hoped that things might get themselves righted and Farmer Bewes be honest and keep his promise to the dead.
And meantime, he took stock of Milly Boon, and, after his first amazement at her beauty and her lovely voice, and beseeching eyes, he studied her character. And, after due thought, he came to the conclusion that, though in his opinion a very beautiful nature belonged to Milly, and she was not only lovely, but of a gracious and gentle spirit, yet he couldn't feel she was built to get the whip-hand of a man like Dicky Bewes.
He was properly sorry for all parties that it had to be so, but after a bit of study and thought over Milly he concluded she was in her right not to take young Bewes, because no such match would be like to pay her in the long run.
"She wants a very different man from Dicky," he told his mother, "and though, such is her fine character, I'm sure she'd like to do all in her power for Mrs. Pedlar, yet to ask her to put a rope round her neck and douse her light for evermore, married to a man she couldn't love, be a thought out of reason in my view."
And Mrs. Cobley said perhaps it might be.
There was a fortnight to run yet before Nicholas Bewes launched his thunderbolt on Mrs. Pedlar and bade her be gone, and during them days two men were very busy—one for himself and t'other for other people.
Dicky Bewes, he fought to wear down Milly and bring her into his arms, and Jack Cobley, he went into calculations and took stock of the cottage in dispute and finally came to conclusions with himself on the subject. He felt that if only a personable man could come along and win the girl's affection, 'twould put her in a strong position, for he was jealous on her account by now and wished her well; but nobody round about troubled to court Milly Boon after the people knew that Dick Bewes was making the running, for they felt he'd win her sure enough if he had patience to hold on.
So, as there was none else to hope for as might come forward and save the situation for Jane Pedlar, Jack resolved that he was called upon for the task.
He larned the market value of the cottage and then, three days afore the thunderbolt was timed to fall, he went up over to Nicholas Bewes and had a tell with the man.
For two mortal hours did they sit together smoking their pipes, and turning over the situation, and Bewes was bound to grant, when Jack was gone, that the chap possessed a lot of sound sense, though mouth-speech weren't his strong point, and it took him a deal of time to make his meaning clear. But none the less he could do so, when a listener was content not to hurry him, and Nicholas Bewes listened very patient, the more willingly because what Jack had to say interested him a lot.
He was a thought put about first, however, because Cobley didn't mince words.
"'Tis like this, if I may say so," he began. "Your son's wishful to marry Milly Boon—a good bit against her will, by all accounts; but you be on his side, naturally, and want to see him happy, so you've put a loaded pistol to old Mrs. Pedlar's head and told her if her niece don't take your boy, she's got to quit her home."
"What business might that be of yours, Jack Cobley?" he asked, and the visitor explained.
"On the face of it, none," he said; "but I wouldn't have come afore you only to say I disapproved, because you'd say my opinion didn't matter a damn. So I've come because I'm wishful to be in it and let you know my right so to be. There's the cottage and there's your son, and if you think that Milly Boon be the right one for your Richard, then I'm not saying a little judicious pressure ain't reasonable. But, to pleasure my mother, who's very addicted to old Mrs. Pedlar, I've looked into that question and, to say it kindly, I may tell you that Milly Boon is not suited to your Richard."
"You've a right to your opinion," answered Bewes; "and I've an equal right not to care one damn for your opinion as you say."
"Just so," admitted Jack. "Not for a moment do my opinion in itself matter to anybody, Farmer; but if I'm so positive sure that I'm right, then it becomes a duty to voice myself, though no man likes voicing himself less than me. And, because I'm so sure, after due consideration of the pair of 'em, I be come afore you to make suggestions."
"Perhaps you want her yourself, Jack?" suggested Nicholas, pulling his grey beard and shutting one eye.
"Me!" laughed Cobley, much amused. "Do a toad want a bird of Paradise? No, no. She's a lovely piece, and she's got a kindly nature; but she's the humble, gentle sort, and what your son wants, if he's going to be a successful husband and not a failure, is a woman who'll be his equal in strength of character and hold her own. He's wilful, to say it kindly, and he's fond of the girls, and no doubt, with such a handsome face as his, he finds they be easy prey. You know him better than I do and you very well know if he's to be worthy of you and Little Silver he must have a strong partner to guide him right."
"You've given a lot of thought to it, I see," he said.
"Nothing to do else for the minute," answered Jack. "And I'm not saying a word against your Richard. He's pleased with himself and he sits a horse so amazing fine that it's a treat to look at him, because I understand such things; but being of a mind that Milly Boon ain't the perfect partner for him, I'm here—in friendship. Mind you, I wouldn't have thrust in if I hadn't happened to find out the girl's got no use for him. If she wanted him, 'twould be different and I should have kept my mouth shut, of course; but she do not, and if she takes him it will be for one reason only—to save her aunt. And that ain't going to lay the foundation of a happy marriage—is it? So I've ordained to chip in. And even so, I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't a firm proposition to make."
"What proposition can you make, Jack?" asked Mr. Bewes, loading his pipe again. "My son be sure as death he's found the right one at last, and he may be so right in his opinion as you. And, be it as it will, how are you going to come between me and Dicky?"
"If your own conscience don't, I cannot," allowed the other. "But, it's like this. Supposing, first, you grant as an honest man it would be an ugly thing to sacrifice a harmless woman to your boy's passion. Then you say, if I ain't going to gain no political advantage out of leaving Mrs. Pedlar rent-free in a valuable house, where do I come in?
"Well, you rich men are pushed as often for money as the poor ones. I know that, and a man may have fifty thousand behind him and yet be bothered for a couple of hundred. And so I say this. Let any match between Dick and Milly go forward clean and not dirty. If they be meant for each other, let him win her fair, as a decent man wants to win a woman, or not at all. That won't do him no hurt. And, meantime, since it may be a thorn in your side having Mrs. Pedlar there, I'll buy the house. There's nothing on your conscience that can forbid you to sell, and you can leave the old woman's fate to me."
Mr. Bewes didn't answer very quick. He looked at Jack and his mind moved fast, though his tongue did not.
At length, however, he spoke. He'd felt surprised to hear Jack was a moneyed man, for the general conclusion ran that he'd come back with nought; then, being hopeful, Mr. Bewes jumped to the other extreme and guessed perhaps that Cobley was rich after all and keeping his savings hid.
"Of course," he said, "I've thought of that, and there's more than one would make me a price to-morrow if I felt minded to sell."
"I'm sure there is," answered Jack. "It's a very handy little property if it was attended to."
"And more than an acre of good ground to it."
"Just over an acre—ground that be run to waste for years, but could be made good."
"And what would you feel like paying, Jack, if I was to see your point about my boy?" asked Bewes.
"You do see that point, master," answered Cobley, "because you're clever and straight, else you wouldn't stand where you do. When you was young, you wouldn't have drove no woman into a corner for love, nor yet married her on a sacrifice. And I dare swear, if Dicky saw it like that, he'd be a lot too proud to carry on, but start again and start fair. As to what I'll pay, if you're a seller, the price lies with you."
"I've thought to auction it," answered Mr. Bewes, which was true, because he had done so.
"I'd like none the less to buy it at a fair figure and save you the trouble. You'll be knowing, I expect, what would satisfy you in money down."
Then they talked for another solid hour, farmer trying to get Jack to name a price so as he might run it up, and Jacky determined not to do so.
In despair, at last, Nicholas said 'twas Cobley's for seven hundred pounds, well knowing the price ran about three hundred too high. In fact, Jack told him so; and then Bewes fetched his whisky bottle and they went at it again; and then they closed, and a good bit to farmer's astonishment, Cobley fetched a cheque-book out of his pocket and wrote a cheque on the spot as though to the manner born.
Four hundred and seventy-five pounds he paid, and as Nicholas Bewes confessed to Jack, 'twas only the money in his pocket put enough iron into him to stand up to his son, afterwards.
But what Nicholas might have to say to Richard didn't trouble Cobley over much. He got his receipt and Bewes promised the deed should be drawn when he saw his lawyer to Moreton next market-day.
So they parted tolerable good friends, and it was understood between 'em that Jack should tell Mrs. Pedlar how things stood at his own time and nobody should be told who the purchaser was.
It happened, however, that he did not tell Jane after all, for, going down from Bewes in the red of the sunset, Jack fell in with Milly Boon, whose gait was set for the farm. He passed her a good evening, then marked a world of woe in her face and the smudge of tears upon it, clear to see in the last of the light, so he bade her stand a moment and tell him why for she was going up the hill.
"'Tis private business, Mr. Cobley," she said, making to pass on; but he heard by the flutter in her speech she'd been weeping, and in his slow way held her back while he thought it out. He was got to know her tolerable well by now, so he commanded her to bide and listen.
"You don't pass, Milly," he said, "till you tell me why for you be going."
"To have tea along with Mrs. Bewes," she answered.
He didn't believe that, however.
"'Tis too late for tea," he said. "You'll be going up to tell Bewes you'll take his son if he'll let your aunt bide."
She didn't answer.
"So you can just turn round again and march home," went on Jack, "because the case is altered. 'Twas a very fine thought and worthy of you in a manner of speaking, Milly; but you can console yourself with your good intentions now; because, in a word, the house is sold, and it don't belong to farmer no more."
She stared and shook, and he touched her elbow and turned her back to the village.
"Go home and tell Mrs. Pedlar the house be sold," ordered Jack. "And you tell her also I've heard of the man that's bought it. She won't be called to do nought but stop there rent-free as before; and the man's pleased with his property and will work up the garden for his own purposes and mend the leaks and put on some fresh paint come spring."
Milly was too staggered to grasp it all at once, and by the time she began to see the blessed thing that was happening, Jack had gone.
So she went home light-foot with her sorrows beginning to fade and her heart beating happy again. And Mrs. Pedlar praised her God far into the night, though 'twas a full week before she could grasp the truth and wake care-free of a morning.
But she heard nought of the purchaser, and the mystery grew, because Mrs. Cobley heard nought either; and then there come a nice open sort of morning with just a promise of another spring in the air, and when Milly looked out of her chicket window, who should she see in their ruinous cabbage patch but Jack with his tools going leisurely to work to clean the dirty ground.
She told her aunt, and they talked a bit and come to a conclusion afore they asked him in to have a bite of breakfast.
"'Tis clear he's jobbing for the owner," said Jane Pedlar. "No doubt he'll very soon put a different face on the ground, such an orderly man as him, and such a lover of the soil; but I'm sorry in a way."
"Why for?" asked her niece. "A nicer man than Mr. Cobley don't walk."
"A very nice man indeed if it wasn't for his face," admitted the old woman, "and I've got to like even his face, because of his gentle and doggy eyes; but I'm sorry, because this shows only too clear the general opinion touching Mr. Cobley is the right one."
"And what's the general opinion?" inquired Milly.
"That he's come home so poor as he went off," answered Jane Pedlar. "Because if he'd saved a little money he wouldn't be doing rough work for another man."
Milly saw the force of that and said no more at the time.
And then Cobley spoke to his mother one night and owned to a gathering dejection.
"I like to see a job through," he said, "and I'm casting around pretty far and wide for a man that might be good enough for that girl. She's a beautiful and simple character, in my opinion, and her heart's as fine as her face; but it won't do for her to get a fellow who is reckless and too fond of himself. She must have the right one, who puts her first, and though there's a few decent chaps in the running, now they know Dicky Bewes is down and out, yet I wouldn't say there's just the chap anybody would choose for her."
Well, Mrs. Cobley looked at him with a good bit of astonishment, for such modesty she couldn't believe ever dwelt in a male. She knew, under promise of secrecy, that Jack was a tolerable rich man; but he'd bade her not breathe the fact.
And Mary Cobley knew something else also, which she couldn't very well tell her son till now, so she'd kept her secret; but when she heard as he was busy finding somebody as might be good enough for Milly Boon, the woman in her broke loose and she said a thing she'd never said afore.
"Of all zanies, you be the biggest in the parish," said Mrs. Cobley; "and however you had the wits to win a fortune and make hard-headed men in the West Indies believe in you, I'm gormed if I know, Jack!"
He was put about at that.
"Would you say as I didn't ought to meddle in her affairs no more?" he asked. "You see, I've comed to feel very kindly to the lovely creature, and I'd work my fingers to the bone to find the man worthy of her; but if I'm too pushing—"
"Pushing!" she said. "God's light! You be a lot too retreating, Jack, and always was. Because you've got a face full of character, unlike other men's, why for should you suppose 'twas a bug-a-boo to frighten the woman? Don't your heart look out of your eyes, you silly man? How old are you?"
"Forty," answered Jack.
"And she's twenty-five, ain't she?"
"Who?" asked Jack.
"You did out to be put in an asylum, though, my son," said Mrs. Cobley. "Milly Boon is the woman I'm aiming at, and it may or may not interest you to larn that she loves you better than anything on earth—you—you she loves, you gert tomfool!"
Jack looked as if he'd been struck by lightning and his pipe fell out of his mouth and broke on the hearth.
"'Tis most any odds you're mistook," he said, with a voice that showed what a shock he'd suffered. "Such things be contrary to nature."
"Nought's contrary to nature where a woman's concerned," answered Mrs. Cobley as one who knew. "They be higher than nature, and a young woman in love defies all things but her Maker—if not Him."
"I'll see," said Jack; and he went to see instanter.
Mrs. Pedlar was keeping her bed for the moment with a tissick to the tubes, and when the man got there he found Milly busy over the ancient woman's supper. And, as he told her, he was glad she happed to be alone, though sorry for the reason.
And then in his direct, queer way he said:
"What's this I hear tell from my mother, Milly? She says you be got to love me?"
And something in his great, hungry eyes, and the very words in his question made it so plain as need be to Milly Boon that Jack was more than glad to hear the news. And she went up to him and kissed him; and then he very near throttled her.
'Twas a most happy and restful affair altogether; and when, about two hours after, poor Mrs. Pedlar croaked out over their heads for her soup, and axed Milly where she was got to be, the maiden cried out:
"I be in Jack Cobley's arms, Aunt Jane, and 'tis him owns the house, and us be going to get married direckly minute!"
JOHN AND JANE
If you be built on a grand scale, there's always people to feel the greatness, and though, when you hap to be a knave, their respect is a bit one-sided, still there it is: greatness will be granted.
In the case of John Warner, he weren't a knave, but his greatness, so to call it, took the form of such a complete and wondrous selfishness that you was bound to own a touch of genius in the masterful way he bent all things to his purpose and came out top over his neighbours. The man was an only son, and what might have been chastened in his youth was fostered by a silly mother, who fell in love with his fine appearance and never denied him a pleasure she could grant. And his father weren't no wiser, so when, at five-and-twenty, he found himself an orphan and Wych Elm Farm his own, lock, stock, and barrel, young John Warner come to his kingdom with a steadfast determination to get the best he could for himself out of life and make it run to his own pattern so far as unsleeping wit of man could do.
He married a pretty woman with a bit of money and he altered a good few of his father's ways and used Jane Slowcombe's dowry to buy up a hundred acres alongside his own. The land had been neglected and wanted patience and cash; but where his lasting interests were concerned, John never lacked for one, nor stinted the other. He was a clever man and a charming man, and his cleverness and his charm appeared in many ways. Over the steel hand of sleepless selfishness John drew the velvet glove of good manners and nice speech. He created the false idea that he never wanted to do more than give and take in the properest spirit you could wish. He spoke the comfortablest words ever a farmer did speak to his fellow-creatures, and many a man was lost afore he knew it when doing business with John Warner, and never realised, till it came to the turn, how a bargain which sounded so well had somehow gone against him after all.
Of course, John prospered exceeding, for amongst his other gifts, he weren't afraid of work. He knew his business very well indeed, and always understood that it was worth his while to take pains with a beginner and paid him in the long run so to do. People felt a good bit interested in him, and though they knew there was a lot to hate in the man, yet they couldn't give a name to it exactly. When a fallen foe was furious and bearded John and shook a fist in his face, as sometimes happened, he'd look the picture of sorrow and amazement and express his undying regrets. But he never went back on nothing, and near though he might sail to the wind, none ever had a handle by which to drag him before the Law. 'Twas just the very genius of selfishness that sped him on his way victorious every time.
He never took no hand in public affairs, nor offered for the Borough Council, nor nothing like that. He might have been a useful man in Little Silver, where we didn't boast more brains than we needed, nor yet enough; but John Warner said he weren't one of the clever ones and felt very satisfied with them that were, and applauded such men as did a bit of work for nothing out of their public spirit. For praise, though cheap, is always welcome, and he had a great art to be generous with what cost him nothing.
He'd pay a man a thought above his market value if he judged him worth it, and he often said that on a farm like Wych Elm, where everything was carried out on the highest grade of farming, 'twas money in any young man's pocket to come to him at all. And nobody could deny that either. And he never meddled in his neighbour's affairs, or offered advice, or unfavourably criticised anything that happened outside his own boundaries.
One daughter only John Warner had, and that was all his family, and her mother struck the first stroke against his happiness and content, for she died and left him a widower at five-and-forty. She fell in a consumption, much to his regret, after they'd been wedded fifteen years; and their girl was called Jane after her, and 'twas noted that though sprung of such handsome parents, Jane didn't favour either but promised to be a very homely woman—a promise she fulfilled.
Her father trained her most industrious to be his right hand, and she grew up with a lively admiration for him and his opinions. Farming interested her a lot, and men mildly interested her; but among the hopeful young blades with an eye on the future who offered to keep company and so on, there was none Jane saw who promised to be a patch on her parent, and after his worldly wisdom and grasp of life and shrewd sense, she found the boys of her own age no better than birds in a hedge. Indeed she had no use for any among 'em, but made John Warner her god, as he meant she should do; for, as she waxed in strength and wits, he felt her a strong right hand. In fact, he took no small pains to identify her with himself for his own convenience, and secretly determined she shouldn't wed if he could help it. Little by little he poisoned her mind against matrimony, praised the independent women and showed how such were better off every way, with no husband and family to fret their lives and spoil their freedom.
Jane was one, or two-and-twenty by now—a pale, small-eyed maiden with a fine, strong body and a great appetite for manual work. There was no taint from her mother in her and she lived out of doors for choice and loved a hard job. She'd pile the dry-built, granite walls with any man, and do so much as him in a day; and folk, looking on her, foretold that she'd be rich beyond dreams, but never know how to get a pennyworth of pleasure out of all her money.
But Jane's one and only idol was her father, and for him she would have done anything in her power. She counted on him being good to live for ever, along of his cautious habits, and she'd give over all thought of any change in the home when the crash came and the even ripple of their lives was broke for her by a very unexpected happening.
Because, much to his own astonishment, John Warner found his mind dwelling on a wife once more—the last thing as ever he expected to happen to him. Indeed the discovery flustered the man not a little, and he set himself to consider such an upheaval most careful and weigh it, as he weighed everything, in the scales of his own future comfort and success. He was a calculating man in all things, and yet it came over him gradual and sure that Mrs. Bascombe had got something to her which made a most forcible appeal and awakened fires he thought were gone out for ever when his wife died. As for Nelly Bascombe, she was a widow and kept a shop-of-all-sorts in Little Silver and did well thereat, and Bascombe had been dead two years when his discovery dropped like a bolt out of a clear sky on John Warner.
It vexed him a bit at first and he put it away, after considering what an upstore a second wife would make in the snug and well-ordered scheme of his existence; but there it was and Nelly wouldn't be put away. So John examined the facts and came to the interesting conclusion that, in a manner of speaking, his own daughter was responsible for his fix. Because, being such a wintry fashion of female, she made all others of the sex shine by contrast, and her father guessed it was just her manly, hard, bustling way that showed up the feminine softness and charming voice and general appealing qualities of Nelly Bascombe.
Nelly was a tall, fine woman of forty years old. Her hair was thick and dark, her eyes a wondrous big pair and so grey as the mist, and her voice to poor Jane's was like a blackbird against a guinea-fowl. Farmer, he dropped in the shop pretty often to pass the time of day and measure her up; and for her part being a man-loving sort of woman, who had lost a good husband, but didn't see no very stark cause why she shouldn't find another, she discovered after a bit what was lurking in the farmer's mind. Then, like the rest of the parish, she wondered, for 'twas never thought that such an own-self man as Warner, and one so well suited by his daughter, would spoil his peace with another wife.
But nobody's cleverer to hide his nature than a lover, and Warner found himself burrowing into Nelly's life a bit and sizing up her character, though full of caution not to commit himself; and she was very near as clever as him, and got to weigh up his points, good and bad, and to feel along with such a man that life might be pleasant enough for a nature like hers. For she was a good manager with a saving disposition. She liked John's handsome appearance and reckoned the fifteen year between 'em would work to suit her. And, more than that, she hated her business, because a shop-of-all-sorts have got a smell to it like nothing else on earth, and Nelly found it cast her spirits down a bit as it always had done. She made no secret of this, and John Warner presently got to see she was friendly disposed towards him and might easily be had for the asking if he asked right. He took his time, however, and sounded Jane, where he well knew the pinch would come.
He gleaned her opinion casual on the subject of a woman here and there, and he found Jane thought well enough of Mrs. Bascombe, whose shop was useful and her prices well within reason. But it was a long time before he made up his mind, the problem being whether to tell Jane of the thing he was minded to do before he done it, or take the step first and break it to her after. In the end he reckoned it safer to do the deed and announce it as an accomplished fact; because he very well knew that she would take it a good bit to heart and hate with all her might any other female reigning at Wych Elm but herself.
And meanwhile, all unknown to farmer, Jane chanced to be having a bit of very mild amusement with a male on her own account.
Martin Ball was known as 'the busy man of Little Silver,' and none but had a good word for him. He was a yellow-whiskered, stout, red-faced and blue-eyed chap with enough energy to drive a steamship. The folk marvelled how he found time for all he undertook. He was Portreeve of the district—an ancient title without much to it nowadays—and he was huckster to a dozen farms for Okehampton Market. He also kept bees and coneys and ran a market-garden of two acres. He served on the Parish Council and he was vicar's warden. And numberless other small chores with money to 'em he also undertook and performed most successful. And then, at forty-two years of age, though not before, he began to feel a wife might be worked into his life with advantage, and only regretted the needful time to find and court the woman.
And even so, but for the temper of his old aunt, Mary Ball, who kept house for him, he would have been content to carry on single-handed.
He knew the Warners very well and Jane had always made a great impression on him by reason of her fearless ways and great powers and passionate love of work; and though he came to see very soon that work was her only passion, beyond her devoted attachment to her father, yet he couldn't but mark that such a woman would be worth a gold-mine to any man who weren't disposed to put womanly qualities first. Of love he knew less than one of his working bees, but maybe had a dim vision at the back of his mind about it, which showed him clear enough that with Jane Warner, love-making could never amount to much. He measured the one against t'other, however, and felt upon the whole that such a woman would be a tower of strength if she could only be got away from her parent.
And so he showed her how he was a good bit interested, and had speech with her, off and on, and made it pretty clear in his scant leisure that she could come to him if she was minded. It pleased her a good bit to find such a remarkable man as Ball had found time to think upon her, and she also liked his opinions and his valiant hunger for hard work. She'd even let herself think of him for five minutes sometimes before she went to sleep of a night, and what there was of woman in her felt a mild satisfaction to know there lived a man on earth she'd got the power to interest. Marriage was far outside her scheme, of course; but there's a lot that wouldn't marry for a fortune, yet feel a good bit uplifted to know they might do so and that a male exists who thinks 'em worth while.
So Jane praised Martin Ball and let him see, as far as her nature allowed, that she thought well of him and his opinions and manner of life; and he began to believe he might get her.
He touched it very light indeed to John Warner one day when they met coming home on horse-back, and then he found himself up against a rock, for when he hinted that Warner would be losing his wonderful daughter some time, the farmer told him that was the very last thing on earth could ever happen.
"Never," said John Warner. "The likes of her be her father's child to her boots. I'm her life, Ball, and there's no thought of marriage in her, nor never will be so long as I'm above-ground. She ain't that sort anyhow, and I'm glad of it."
He wanted it both ways, you see. In his grand powers of selfishness, John had planned to have Nelly for wife by now, and he'd also planned to keep his daughter, well knowing that no wife would do a quarter of what Jane did, or be so valuable on a business basis. Jane for business and Nelly Bascombe for pleasure was his idea.
And then John offered for Mrs. Bascombe, after making it clear to her that he was going to do so and finding the running good. He put it in his masterly language and said that he'd be her willing slave, and hinted how, when he was gathered home, the farm would be her own for life and so on; and while knowing very well that John weren't going to be her slave or nothing like that, Mrs. Bascombe reckoned the adventure about worth while, having took a fancy to him and longing most furious to escape the shop-of-all-sorts. And so she said "Yes," though hiding a doubt all the time, and Warner, who hated to have any trouble hanging over him, swore he was a blessed and a fortunate man, kissed her on the lips, and went home instanter to tell Jane the news. He broke it when supper was done and they sat alone—her darning and him mixing his 'nightcap,' which was a drop of Hollands, a lump of sugar and a squeeze of lemon in hot water.
"I've got glad news for you, Jane," he said. "Long I've felt 'twas a cheerless life for you without another woman to share your days on a footing of affection and friendship and—more for your sake than my own—I've ordained to wed again. Not till I heard you praise her did I allow my thoughts to dwell on Mrs. Bascombe, but getting better acquaint, I found her all you said, and more. A woman of very fine character—so fearless and just such a touzer for work as yourself, and, in a word, seeing that you did ought to have a fellow-woman to share your labours and lighten your load, I approached her and she's took me. And I thank God for it, because you and her will be my right and left hand henceforward; and the three of us be like to pull amazing well together. 'Tis a great advancement for Wych Elm in my judgment, and I will that the advantage shall be first of all for you."
She heard him out with her little eyes on his face and her darning dropped and her jaw dropped also, as if she'd been struck dead. But he expected something like that, because he very well knew Jane would hate the news and make a rare upstore about it. He was all for a short battle and very wishful to go to bed the conqueror. But he did not. Jane hadn't got his mellow flow of words, nor yet his charming touches when he wanted his way over a job; but she shared a good bit of his brain-power and she grasped at this fatal moment, with the future sagging under her feet, that she'd never be able to put up no fight nor hold her own that night. In fact, she knew, as we all do, that you can't do yourself justice after you've been knocked all ends up by a thunderbolt. But she kept her nerve and her wits and looked at him and shut her mouth and put up her work in her workbasket.
"Good night, father," she said. "Us'll talk about it to-morrow, if you please."
Then she rose up and went straight to her chamber.
He was sorry for himself, though not at all surprised; and he finished his liquor, locked the house and retired. An hour had passed before he went to bed, and he listened at Jane's door and ordained that if by evil chance he heard her weeping he'd go in and say comforting words and play the loving father and advance his own purpose at the same time. But Jane weren't weeping; she was snoring, and John Warner nodded and went on. He couldn't help admiring her, however, even at that moment.
"She's saving all her powers for to-morrow," thought Jane's parent; and she was. She slept according to her custom, like a dormouse, and woke refreshed to put up the fight of her life. They got to it after breakfast, when the house-place was empty, and Warner soon found that, if he were to have his will, 'twould be needful to call on Heaven to help him.
Jane didn't waste no time, and if her father had astonished her, she had quite so fine a surprise for him after she'd thought it all over and collected herself.
"'Tis in a nutshell," she said. "All my life I've put you afore everything on earth but my Maker, and I was minded so to continue. I've been everything any daughter ever was to a father, and you have stood to me for my waking and sleeping thought ever since I could think at all. And now you want me to go under in my home and see another take my place. Well, dad, that's your look-out, of course, and if you think Mrs. Bascombe will be more useful to you than me, then take her. But I'll say here and now, please, that if you be going to marry, I shall leave Wych Elm for good and all, because I couldn't endure for another woman to be over me and closer to your interests than what I am. Never, never could I endure it. Is that quite clear?"
He looked at her and filled his tobacco pipe while he done so.
"So clear as can be, Jane," he said. "'Tis like your fine courage and affection to feel so. But I make bold to believe you haven't weighed this come-along-of-it same as I have, and find yourself getting up in the air too soon. I could no more see Wych Elm without you than I could see myself without you, and the affection I feel for Mrs. Bascombe is on a different footing altogether. Love of a wife and love of a daughter don't clash at all. They be different things, and she would no more come between me and you and our lifelong devotion than love of man would come between you and me."
He flowed on like that, so clever as need be, and she listened with a face that didn't show a spark of the thought behind it. But he failed to move her an inch, because, unknown to him, she'd got a fine trump card up her sleeve, of course.
He saw presently that he wasn't making no progress and sighed a good bit and turned on a pathetic note, which he had at command, and blew his nose once or twice; but these little touches didn't move Jane, so he ventured to ask her what her future ideas might be away from Wych Elm, if such a fearful thing was thinkable.
"God, He knows," said John Warner, "as I never thought to be up against life like this, and find myself called to choose by you, who was the apple of my very eye, between a wife and an only child; but since you can have the heart to come between me and a natural affection towards Mrs. Bascombe, may I venture to ask, dear Jane, what your own plans might be if you could bring yourself to do such a deed as to leave me?"
"That's easy," she answered. "If your love for me was not strong enough to conquer your love for Nelly Bascombe, then I'm very much afraid, father, my love for you might go down in its turn, before my feelings for another man. In a word, dad, if I felt I wasn't the queen of your home no more, I should turn my attention to being queen of another."
He stared at that.
"Never heard anything more interesting, dear child," he said. "'Tis a wonderful picture to see you reigning away from Wych Elm. But though I'm sure there's a dozen men would thank their stars for such a wife as you, I can't but feel in these hard times that few struggling bachelors would be equal even to such a rare woman, unless it was in her power to bring 'em something besides her fine self."
She smiled at that and rather expected it.
"I thought you'd remind me how it stood and I was a pauper if you so willed," she replied. "But we needn't go into figures, because the man I'm aiming at knows you very well, and he'll quite understand that if he was to get me away from you, there won't be no flags flying when I go to him, nor yet any marriage portion. He ain't what you might call a struggling bachelor, however, but a pretty snug man by general accounts."
"And who might he be, I wonder?" asked John; because in his heart he didn't believe for a moment there was any such a man in the world; and when Jane declined to name Martin Ball, her father was more than ever convinced that she was bluffing.
"We will suffer a month to pass, Jane," he told her. "Let a full month go by for us to see where we stand and get the situation clear in our minds. Certain it is that nought that could happen will ever cloud my undying affection for you, and I well know I'm the light also to which your fine daughterly devotions turn. So let this high matter be dead between us till four weeks have slipped by."
"Like your sense to suggest it," she answered.
And the subject weren't named again between 'em till somebody else named it.
But meantime John didn't hesitate to take the affair in strict secrecy to the woman who had promised to wed him; and when the engagement was known, of course, Martin Ball struck while the iron was hot and felt a great bound of hope that Jane would now look upon him with very different eyes. And even while he hoped, his spirit sank a bit now and again in her company. But he put the weak side away and told himself that love was at best a fleeting passion.
Jane didn't say much to him herself, because in truth she would have a thousand times sooner bided at Wych Elm with her parent than wed the busy man of Little Silver; but Martin screwed himself to the pinch and urged her to let there be a double wedding. He found her very evasive, however, for hope hadn't died in Jane, and she knew by a good few signs her father was hating the thought of losing her. The idea of Jane away from Wych Elm caused him a lot of deep inconvenience, and Nelly Bascombe seemingly weren't so much on his side as he had hoped. Of course the woman well knew that life at Wych Elm would be far more unrestful with Jane than without her, and so she rather took the maiden's view and tried to make John see it might be better if his girl was to leave 'em. And this she did because it happened, after a week had passed, she knew a lot more about the truth than Mr. Warner could. He still clung to the hope that Jane was lying and that no man wanted her; and even if such man existed, John, well understanding that his daughter was not the sort to fill the male eye in herself, doubted not that the lover would soon cry off if he heard Jane's prospects were gone. He voiced this great truth to Nelly Bascombe, and he'd have been a good bit surprised to know that on the very day he did so, she reported his intentions word for word to the man most interested. Because, when the situation unfolded, Martin Ball had gone to Mrs. Bascombe in hope to get some useful aid from her.
They were acquaint, because Nelly sold Ball's honey in her shop, but more than that Martin didn't know of the woman. She had a good name for sense, however, and when he heard that she had taken Warner, he saw what her power must now be in that quarter and asked for a tell in private. Which she was agreeable to give him, and in truth they saw each other a good few times and traversed over the situation most careful.
Nelly had a way to understand men and she listened to Martin and liked the frank fashion he faced life. He was honest as the day, though fretting a bit because Jane Warner wouldn't say "Yes" and be done with it. He'd wanted to go to her father, too, and let John know his hopes; but that Jane wouldn't allow at this stage of the affair.
"In fact, she won't let me whisper a word," said Martin to Mrs. Bascombe, "and 'tis treason to her in a way my coming to you at all; but I feel terrible sure you can help, and it looks as if it would be all right and regular and suit everybody if she was to take me and leave the coast clear for you when you wed her parent."
"It does look like that to a plain sight," admitted Nelly, "but in truth things be very different. And for your confidence, in strict secrecy, I can give you mine. Warner don't want her to go. He badly wants me and her both, while, for her part, she don't want to go and hates the thought; but, so far, she's determined to do so if I come."
"That ain't love, however," argued Mr. Ball.
"It ain't," admitted Nelly Bascombe, "and you mustn't fox yourself to think she'll come to you for love. A good helper she'd be to any man in her own way; but she belongs to the order of women who can't love very grand as a wife. She do love as a daughter can love a father, however, and it's very clear to me that John Warner is her life in a manner of speaking. On the other hand, it would upset her existence to the very roots if I went to Wych Elm at farmer's right hand, where naturally I should be."
Mr. Ball listened and nodded, and his blue eyes rested upon Mrs. Bascombe's grey ones.
"You throw a great light," he said. "In a word, there was deeper reasons far than any growing affection for me that have made her so on-coming of late?"
"God forbid as I should suggest such a thing as that," answered Nelly. "You're a sort of man to please any woman, if I may say so; but I'm only telling you what lies in her mind. And I'll say more in fairness to the both of you. Her father don't believe there is a man after her at all. Jane's just sitting on the fence, in fact, and waiting to see if she can't shake him off me. And if I'm turned down, then you'll be turned down. 'Tis rather amusing in a way."
"It may be, but I ain't much one for a joke," he confessed, and then went on. "Though too busy for love-making and all that, yet I've got my pride, Mrs. Bascombe, and I shouldn't like to be taken as a last resort—amusing though it might be."
"No man would," she answered. "And I hope I'm wrong. She may be turning to you for your qualities. She may be coming for affection after all, knowing you'd prove a very fine husband."
"I would," declared Mr. Ball. "I can tell you, without self-conceit or any such thing, that where I loved I'd stick, and the woman as shared my life would share my all. There's a lot in me only hid because nothing have yet happened to draw it out. I'm busy and I'm wishful to do my little bit of work in the world for other people; but if I was married, my home would be a find thought to me, and my wife would be first always and her comfort and happiness a lot more to me than my own. 'My home' I call it, but it have long been borne in upon me that a home is a hollow word with nought in it but an aunt such as Mary Ball. It may be like blowing my own trumpet, and I wouldn't say it save in an understanding ear; but I do think Jane Warner would find I was good enough."
"She certainly would," admitted Nelly; and deep in her heart, such was her powers of perspection, she couldn't help contrasting Martin's simple nature and open praise of himself with John Warner's cleverer speechifying and far more downy and secret mind.
After that Ball and the widow met a good few times unknown to the farmer and his daughter, and there's no doubt that the more Martin saw of Mrs. Bascombe, the more impressed he felt with her good sense. They couldn't advance each other's interests, however, for all Nelly was able to tell him amounted to nothing. John revealed to her that Jane hadn't taken no steps to relieve the situation, but that she still asserted that she'd got a man up her sleeve; while all Martin could say was that Jane held off and marked time and wouldn't decide for or against.
"At the end of a month," explained Nelly. "John Warner is to get on to Jane again. He's death on her stopping at Wych Elm; but she's given no sign that she will stop if I come. I may also tell you that she's been to see me on the subject and given it as her opinion I'll be doing a very rash act to go to Wych Elm. She says I'll live to find out a lot about her wonderful father as might surprise me painfully."
"And for her part to me," replied Martin Ball, "she says I'm still in her mind as a husband, but there's a good bit to consider and I mustn't name the thing again till she do. In a word, she's still tore in half between her father and me. And I don't like it too well, because, little though I know of love, I feel a screw's loose somewhere still."
Nelly looked at Martin, in doubt whether to tell him something more, or not. But her woman's mind decided to tell him.
"And another curious fact," she said, "I do believe, at the bottom of his mind, which is deep as a well, her father's torn in half between me and her also!"
His blue eyes goggled at that.
"God's goodness!" he cried. "He knows what love is surely—even if she don't. You must be dreaming, woman."
"No," she answered. "You don't dream much at forty years old. He thinks to hide it—my John does—so to call him. But I see it very plain indeed. He knows what amazing gifts his daughter have got, and he knows she's vital to Wych Elm; but he don't know what gifts I have got to put against 'em, and so I do believe that deep out of sight he's weighing her parts against mine."
"That ain't love, however," vowed Martin.
"'Tis one love weighed against another," she told him. "A man over fifty don't love like a boy."
"The depths of human nature!" cried Mr. Ball. "I never thought that such things could be. It looks to me, Mrs. Bascombe, as if—However, I'm too loyal to say it. But you do give one ideas."
"Like father like daughter, I shouldn't wonder," she said thoughtfully.
"Just the same dark fear as was in my mind," he confessed.
He left her then in a mizmaze of deep reflections; but he didn't go until they'd ordained to meet again. A considerable lot more of each other they did see afore the fateful month was done, and the more easily they came together because John Warner began to be very much occupied with Jane at this season. The fourth week had very near sped and still she remained firm; while behind the scenes, when he did see her, John found no help from Nelly Bascombe. In fact he marked that she'd got to grow rather impatient on the subject and didn't appear to be so interested in her fate, or yet his, as formerly.
So things came to a climax mighty fast, and while Warner, who didn't know what it was to be beat where his own comfort was concerned, kept on remorseless at Jane, she hardened her heart more and more against him and finally took the plunge and told Martin Ball as she'd wed when he pleased. He hadn't seen her much for ten days owing to press of business, and when she made up her mind, 'twas she had to write and bid him go walking with her. But he agreed at once so to do and came at the appointed evening hour. And then, afore she had time to speak, he cried out as he'd got a bit of cheerful news for her.
"And I've got a bit of cheerful news for you," said Jane Warner, though not in a very cheerful tone of voice. And then, in a dreary sort of way, she broke her decision.
"Father's going to marry the woman at the shop-of-all-sorts, as you know," explained Jane; "and if him, why not me? And, be it as it will, you've said so oft you could do with me that—"
She stopped to let him praise God and bless her and fall on her neck; but, a good bit to her astonishment, Martin didn't show no joy at all—far from it. He was silent as the grave, for a minute, and then he only axed a question that didn't seem to bear much on the subject.
"Your father haven't seen Mrs. Bascombe to-day, then?" he said.
"Not for a week have he seen her, I believe; but he's been a good bit occupied and worried. He was going to sup with her to-night," answered Jane. "And that's why for I asked you to meet me, Martin."
"What a world!" mused Mr. Ball; and he bided silent so long that the woman grew hot.
"You don't appear to have heard me," she told him pretty sharp, and then he spoke.
"I heard you only too well," he replied. "If my memory serves me, it's exactly three weeks now since last I offered for you, Jane, and your answer was a thought frosty. In fact, you dared me to name the subject again until you might be pleased to."
"Well, and now I do name it," she told him.
"Why, if I may ask?" he said.
'Twas her turn to be silent now. Of course she saw in a moment that things had gone wrong, and she instantly guessed, knowing her father, that 'twas he had made up a deep plot against her behind her back and called the man off her.
So sure felt she that she named it.
"This be father's work," she said. "You've changed your mind, Ball."
"Minds have been changed," he admitted, "and not only mine. But make no mistake, Jane. This has got nothing whatever to do with your father so far as I'm concerned. You've been frank, as you always are, and I'll be the same. And if Mr. Warner be taking a snack with Nelly this evening he'll make good every word I'm telling you. In fact I dare say what you have now got to pretend is bad news, Jane, be really very much the opposite. There's only one person is called to suffer to-night so far as I know, and that's John Warner. And even he may not suffer so much as he did ought. He put Mrs. Bascombe afore you, and so you ordained to keep your threat and leave him. And you come to me to take you and make good your threat."
"You didn't ought to put it like that—it ain't decent," she said. But she knew, of course, she'd lost the man.
"It don't matter now," he replied, "because human nature overthrows decency and delights in surprises—decent and otherwise. What has happened is this. Me and Nelly Bascombe was equally interested in your family, and along of that common interest and seeing a lot of each other and unfolding our opinions, we got equally interested in one another. And then nature cut the knot, Jane, and, in a word, I darned soon found I liked Nelly Bascombe a lot better than ever I liked you, if you'll excuse my saying so; and, what was a lot more to the purpose, she discovered how she liked me oceans deeper than she liked your father."
"My goodness!" cried Miss Warner. "That's the brightest news I've heard this longful time, you blessed man! Oh, Martin, can you get her away from father? I'll love you in real earnest—to my dying day I will—if you can!"
She sparkled out like that and amazed him yet again.
"I have got her away," he said. "And that's what Mr. Warner's going to hear from Nelly to-night, so brace yourself against he comes home."
And that's what John Warner did hear, of course, put in woman's nice language, when he went to sup with his intended. First he was terrible amused to learn that Ball had come courting Nelly because, when he thought on Jane, it looked as if he had been right and she was only putting up a fancied lover to fright him. In fact, he beamed upon Mrs. Bascombe so far, for it looked as though everything was coming his way as usual after all.
But he stopped beaming when she went on and explained that she was forty and Martin Ball forty-two, and that she'd come to feel Providence had planned everything, and how, only too bitter sure, she felt that Martin was her proper partner, and that John would find his good daughter a far more lasting consolation and support than ever she could hope to be at her best.
John Warner had never been known to use a crooked word, and he didn't then. He made no fuss nor yet uproar, for he was a wonder at never wasting an ounce of energy on a lost cause. He only asked one question:
"Are you dead sure of what you're saying, Nelly?" he inquired, looking in her eyes; and she answered that, though cruel grieved to give such a man a pang, she was yet convinced to the roots of her being it must be so.
Then she wept, and he said 'twas vain to work up any excitement on the subject, and that he doubted not it would be all much the same a hundred years hence. And she granted that he was right as usual.
So he left her, and Martin Ball waited, hid behind the hedge, to see him go; and Jane was home before him. Then John told his daughter word for word all that had happened at the shop-of-all-sorts; and he wasn't blind to the joy that looked out of her little eyes. She didn't even say she was sorry for him, but just answered as straight as he had and confessed how she'd offered herself within the hour to Martin Ball and found that his views were very much altered and he didn't want her no more. "And God knows best, father," finished up Jane.
"So it's generally believed," he answered. "And nobody can prove it ain't true. For my part, you was always balanced in my mind very tender against that changeable woman, and nought but a hair turned the balance her way. 'Tis a strange experience for me not to have my will, and I feel disgraced in a manner of speaking; but, if I've lost her, I've gained you, seemingly. And I shan't squeak about it, nor yet go courting no more; and I'll venture to bet, dear Jane, you won't neither."
"Never—never," she swore to him. "I hate every man on earth but you, dad."
She closed his eyes and tied up his chin twenty years after, and when she reigned at Wych Elm, she found but one difficulty—to get the rising generation of men to bide under her rule and carry on.
THE OLD SOLDIER
A woman may be just as big a fool at sour seventy as she was at sweet seventeen. In fact, you can say about 'em, that a woman's always a woman, so long as the breath bides in her body; and my sister, Mary, weren't any exception to the rule. You see, there was only us two, and when my parents died, I married, and took on Brownberry Farm and my sister, who shared and shared alike with me, took over our other farm, by the name of Little Sherberton, t'other side the Dart. A very good farmer, too, she was—knew as much as I did about things, by which I mean sheep and cattle; while she was still cleverer at crops, and I never rose oats like she did at Little Sherberton, nor lifted such heavy turnips as what she did.