MRS. HENRY WOOD
ILLUSTRATED BY HAROLD PIFFARD
LONDON & GLASGOW COLLINS' CLEAR-TYPE PRESS
CHAP. PAGE I. RACHEL FROST 7
II. THE WILLOW POND 19
III. THE NEWS BROUGHT HOME 26
IV. THE CROWD IN THE MOONLIGHT 32
V. THE TALL GENTLEMAN IN THE LANE 36
VI. DINAH ROY'S "GHOST" 47
VII. THE REVELATION AT THE INQUEST 55
VIII. ROBIN'S VOW 60
IX. MR. VERNER'S ESTRANGEMENT 67
X. LADY VERNER 72
XI. LUCY TEMPEST 77
XII. DR. WEST'S HOME 86
XIII. A CONTEMPLATED VOYAGE 96
XIV. THE NIGHT BEFORE THE WEDDING 104
XV. A TROUBLED MIND 106
XVI. AN ALTERED WILL 114
XVII. DISAPPEARED 118
XVIII. PERPLEXITY 125
XIX. THE REVELATION TO LADY VERNER 129
XX. DRY WORK 136
XXI. A WHISPERED SUSPICION 139
XXII. PECKABY'S SHOP 145
XXIII. DAYS AND NIGHTS OF PAIN 156
XXIV. DANGEROUS COMPANIONSHIP 164
XXV. HOME TRUTHS FOR LIONEL 168
XXVI. THE PACKET IN THE SHIRT-DRAWER 175
XXVII. DR. WEST'S SANCTUM 181
XXVIII. MISS DEBORAH'S ASTONISHMENT 191
XXIX. AN INTERCEPTED JOURNEY 196
XXX. NEWS FROM AUSTRALIA 200
XXXI. ROY EATING HUMBLE PIE 209
XXXII. "IT'S APPLEPLEXY" 215
XXXIII. JAN'S REMEDY FOR A COLD 218
XXXIV. IMPROVEMENTS 225
XXXV. BACK AGAIN 231
XXXVI. A MOMENT OF DELIRIUM 237
XXXVII. NEWS FOR LADY VERNER: AND FOR LUCY 248
XXXVIII. THE MISSES WEST EN PAPILLOTES 254
XXXIX. BROTHER JARRUM 258
XL. A VISIT OF CEREMONY 268
XLI. A SPECIAL VISION TOUCHING MRS. PECKABY 278
XLII. A SURPRISE FOR MRS. TYNN 287
XLIII. LIONEL'S PRAYER FOR FORGIVENESS 298
XLIV. FARMER BLOW'S WHITE-TAILED PONY 307
XLV. STIFLED WITH DISHONOUR 312
XLVI. SHADOWED-FORTH EMBARRASSMENT 318
XLVII. THE YEW-TREE ON THE LAWN 328
XLVIII. MR. DAN DUFF IN CONVULSIONS 336
XLIX. "I SEE'D A DEAD MAN!" 338
L. MR. AND MRS. VERNER 349
LI. COMMOTION IN DEERHAM 353
LII. MATTHEW FROST'S NIGHT ENCOUNTER 360
LIII. MASTER CHEESE'S FRIGHT—OTHER FRIGHTS 370
LIV. MRS. DUFF'S BILL 380
LV. SELF WILL 390
LVI. A LIFE HOVERING IN THE BALANCE 396
LVII. A WALK IN THE RAIN 401
LVIII. THE THUNDER-STORM 407
LIX. A CASUAL MEETING ON THE RIVER 412
LX. MISS DEB'S DISBELIEF 422
LXI. MEETING THE NEWS 430
LXII. TYNN PUMPED DRY 435
LXIII. LOOKING OUT FOR THE WORST 443
LXIV. ENDURANCE 449
LXV. CAPTAIN CANNONBY 453
LXVI. "DON'T THROTTLE ME, JAN!" 461
LXVII. DRESSING UP FOR A GHOST 464
LXVIII. A THREAT TO JAN 473
LXIX. NO HOME 478
LXX. TURNING OUT 485
LXXI. UNPREMEDITATED WORDS 493
LXXII. JAN'S SAVINGS 498
LXXIII. A PROPOSAL 505
LXXIV. TO NEW JERUSALEM ON A WHITE DONKEY 509
LXXV. AN EXPLOSION OF SIBYLLA'S 519
LXXVI. AN UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL 526
LXXVII. AN EVENING AT LADY VERNER'S 534
LXXVIII. AN APPEAL TO JOHN MASSINGBIRD 540
LXXIX. A SIN AND A SHAME 546
LXXX. RECOLLECTIONS OF A NIGHT GONE BY 550
LXXXI. A CRISIS IN SIBYLLA'S LIFE 558
LXXXII. TRYING ON WREATHS 565
LXXXIII. WELL-NIGH WEARIED OUT 573
LXXXIV. GOING TO THE BALL 578
LXXXV. DECIMA'S ROMANCE 586
LXXXVI. WAS IT A SPECTRE? 592
LXXXVII. THE LAMP BURNS OUT AT LAST 598
LXXXVIII. ACHING HEARTS 606
LXXXIX. MASTER CHEESE BLOWN UP 615
XC. LIGHT THROWN ON OBSCURITY 625
XCI. MEDICAL ATTENDANCE GRATIS 633
XCII. AT LAST! 641
XCIII. LADY VERNER'S "FEAR" 645
XCIV. IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN JAN! 654
XCV. SUNDRY ARRIVALS 659
The slanting rays of the afternoon sun, drawing towards the horizon, fell on a fair scene of country life; flickering through the young foliage of the oak and lime trees, touching the budding hedges, resting on the growing grass, all so lovely in their early green, and lighting up with flashes of yellow fire the windows of the fine mansion, that, rising on a gentle eminence, looked down on that fair scene as if it were its master, and could boast the ownership of those broad lands, of those gleaming trees.
Not that the house possessed much attraction for those whose taste savoured of the antique. No time-worn turrets were there, or angular gables, or crooked eaves, or mullioned Gothic casements, so chary of glass that modern eyes can scarcely see in or out; neither was the edifice constructed of gray stone, or of bricks gone black and green with age. It was a handsome, well-built white mansion, giving the promise of desirable rooms inside, whose chimneys did not smoke or their windows rattle, and where there was sufficient space to turn in. The lower windows opened on a gravelled terrace, which ran along the front of the house, a flight of steps descending from it in its midst. Gently sloping lawns extended from the terrace, on either side the steps and the broad walks which branched from them; on which lawns shone gay parterres of flowers already scenting the air, and giving promise of the advancing summer. Beyond, were covered walks, affording a shelter from the sultry noontide sun; shrubberies and labyrinths of many turnings and windings, so suggestive of secret meetings, were secret meetings desirable; groves of scented shrubs exhaling their perfume; cascades and rippling fountains; mossy dells, concealing the sweet primrose, the sweeter violet; and verdant, sunny spots open to the country round, to the charming distant scenery. These open spots had their benches, where you might sit and feast the eyes through the live-long summer day.
It was not summer yet—scarcely spring—and the sun, I say, was drawing to its setting, lighting up the large clear panes of the windows as with burnished gold. The house, the ornamental grounds, the estate around, all belonged to Mr. Verner. It had come to him by bequest, not by entailed inheritance. Busybodies were fond of saying that it never ought to have been his; that, if the strict law of right and justice had been observed, it would have gone to his elder brother; or, rather, to that elder brother's son. Old Mr. Verner, the father of these two brothers, had been a modest country gentleman, until one morning when he awoke to the news that valuable mines had been discovered on his land. The mines brought him in gold, and in his later years he purchased this estate, pulled down the house that was upon it—a high, narrow, old thing, looking like a crazy tower or a capacious belfry—and had erected this one, calling it "Verner's Pride."
An appropriate name. For if ever poor human man was proud of a house he has built, old Mr. Verner was proud of that—proud to folly. He laid out money on it in plenty; he made the grounds belonging to it beautiful and seductive as a fabled scene from fairyland; and he wound up by leaving it to the younger of his two sons.
These two sons constituted all his family. The elder of them had gone into the army early, and left for India; the younger had remained always with his father, the helper of his money-making, the sharer of the planning out and building of Verner's Pride, the joint resident there after it was built. The elder son—Captain Verner then—paid one visit only to England, during which visit he married, and took his wife out with him when he went back. These long-continued separations, however much we may feel inclined to gloss over the fact, do play strange havoc with home affections, wearing them away inch by inch.
The years went on and on. Captain Verner became Colonel Sir Lionel Verner, and a boy of his had been sent home in due course, and was at Eton. Old Mr. Verner grew near to death. News went out to India that his days were numbered, and Sir Lionel Verner was instructed to get leave of absence, if possible, and start for home without a day's loss, if he would see his father alive. "If possible," you observe, they put to the request; for the Sikhs were at that time giving trouble in our Indian possessions, and Colonel Verner was one of the experienced officers least likely to be spared.
But there is a mandate that must be obeyed whenever it comes—grim, imperative death. At the very hour when Mr. Verner was summoning his son to his death-bed, at the precise time that military authority in India would have said, if asked, that Colonel Sir Lionel Verner could not be spared, death had marked out that brave officer for his own especial prey. He fell in one of the skirmishes that took place near Moultan, and the two letters—one going to Europe with tidings of his death, the other going to India with news of his father's illness—crossed each other on the route.
"Steevy," said old Mr. Verner to his younger son, after giving a passing lament to Sir Lionel, "I shall leave Verner's Pride to you."
"Ought it not to go to the lad at Eton, father?" was the reply of Stephen Verner.
"What's the lad at Eton to me?" cried the old man. "I'd not have left it away from Lionel, as he stood first, but it has always seemed to me that you had the most right to it; that to leave it away from you savoured of injustice. You were at its building, Steevy; it has been your home as much as it has been mine; and I'll never turn you from it for a stranger, let him be whose child he may. No, no! Verner's Pride shall be yours. But, look you, Stephen! you have no children; bring up young Lionel as your heir, and let it descend to him after you."
And that is how Stephen Verner had inherited Verner's Pride. Neighbouring gossipers, ever fonder of laying down the law for other people's business than of minding their own, protested against it among themselves as a piece of injustice. Had they cause? Many very just-minded persons would consider that Stephen Verner possessed more fair claim to it than the boy at Eton.
I will tell you of one who did not consider so. And that was the widow of Sir Lionel Verner. When she arrived from India with her other two children, a son and daughter, she found old Mr. Verner dead, and Stephen the inheritor. Deeply annoyed and disappointed, Lady Verner deemed that a crying wrong had been perpetrated upon her and hers. But she had no power to undo it.
Stephen Verner had strictly fulfilled his father's injunctions touching young Lionel. He brought up the boy as his heir. During his educational days at Eton and at college, Verner's Pride was his holiday home, and he subsequently took up his permanent residence at it. Stephen Verner, though long married, had no children. One daughter had been born to him years ago, but had died at three or four years old. His wife had died a very short while subsequent to the death of his father. He afterwards married again, a widow lady of the name of Massingbird, who had two nearly grown-up sons. She had brought her sons home with her to Verner's Pride, and they had made it their home since.
Mr. Verner kept it no secret that his nephew Lionel was to be his heir; and, as such, Lionel was universally regarded on the estate. "Always provided that you merit it," Mr. Verner would say to Lionel in private; and so he had said to him from the very first. "Be what you ought to be—what I fondly believe my brother Lionel was: a man of goodness, of honour, of Christian integrity; a gentleman in the highest acceptation of the term—and Verner's Pride shall undoubtedly be yours. But if I find you forget your fair conduct, and forfeit the esteem of good men, so surely will I leave it away from you."
And that is the introduction. And now we must go back to the golden light of that spring evening.
Ascending the broad flight of steps and crossing the terrace, the house door is entered. A spacious hall, paved with delicately-grained marble, its windows mellowed by the soft tints of stained glass, whose pervading hues are of rose and violet, gives entrance to reception rooms on either side. Those on the right hand are mostly reserved for state occasions; those on the left are dedicated to common use. All these rooms are just now empty of living occupants, save one. That one is a small room on the right, behind the two grand drawing-rooms, and it looks out on the side of the house towards the south. It is called "Mr. Verner's study." And there sits Mr. Verner himself in it, leaning back in his chair and reading. A large fire burns in the grate, and he is close to it: he is always chilly.
Ay, always chilly. For Mr. Verner's last illness—at least, what will in all probability prove his last, his ending—has already laid hold of him. One generation passes away after another. It seems but the other day that a last illness seized upon his father, and now it is his turn: but several years have elapsed since then. Mr. Verner is not sixty, and he thinks that age is young for the disorder that has fastened on him. It is no hurried disorder; he may live for years yet; but the end, when it does come, will be tolerably sudden: and that he knows. It is water on the chest. He is a little man with light eyes; very much like what his father was before him: but not in the least like his late brother Sir Lionel, who was a very fine and handsome man. He has a mild, pleasing countenance: but there arises a slight scowl to his brow as he turns hastily round at a noisy interruption.
Some one had burst into the room—forgetting, probably, that it was the quiet room of an invalid. A tall, dark young man, with broad shoulders and a somewhat peculiar stoop in them. His hair was black, his complexion sallow; but his features were good. He might have been called a handsome man, but for a strange, ugly mark upon his cheek. A very strange-looking mark indeed, quite as large as a pigeon's egg, with what looked like radii shooting from it on all sides. Some of the villagers, talking familiarly among themselves, would call it a hedgehog, some would call it a "porkypine"; but it resembled a star as much as anything. That is, if you can imagine a black star. The mark was black as jet; and his pale cheek, and the fact of his possessing no whiskers, made it all the more conspicuous. He was born with the mark; and his mother used to say—But that is of no consequence to us. It was Frederick Massingbird, the present Mrs. Verner's younger son.
"Roy has come up, sir," said he, addressing Mr. Verner. "He says the Dawsons have turned obstinate and won't go out. They have barricaded the door, and protest that they'll stay, in spite of him. He wishes to know if he shall use force."
"No," said Mr. Verner. "I don't like harsh measures, and I will not have such attempted. Roy knows that."
"Well, sir, he waits your orders. He says there's half the village collected round Dawson's door. The place is in a regular commotion."
Mr. Verner looked vexed. Of late years he had declined active management on his estate; and, since he grew ill, he particularly disliked being disturbed with details.
"Where's Lionel?" he asked in a peevish tone.
"I saw Lionel ride out an hour ago. I don't know where he is gone."
"Tell Roy to let the affair rest until to-morrow, when Lionel will see about it. And, Frederick, I wish you would remember that a little noise shakes me: try to come in more quietly. You burst in as if my nerves were as strong as your own."
Mr. Verner turned to his fire again with an air of relief, glad to have got rid of the trouble in some way, and Frederick Massingbird proceeded to what was called the steward's room, where Roy waited. This Roy, a hard-looking man with a face very much seamed with the smallpox, was working bailiff to Mr. Verner. Until within a few years he had been but a labourer on the estate. He was not liked among the poor tenants, and was generally honoured with the appellation "Old Grips," or "Grip Roy."
"Roy," said Frederick Massingbird, "Mr. Verner says it is to be left until to-morrow morning. Mr. Lionel will see about it then. He is out at present."
"And let the mob have it all their own way for to-night?" returned Roy angrily. "They be in a state of mutiny, they be; a-saying everything as they can lay their tongues to."
"Let them say it," responded Frederick Massingbird. "Leave them alone, and they'll disperse quietly enough. I shall not go in to Mr. Verner again, Roy. I caught it now for disturbing him. You must let it rest until you can see Mr. Lionel."
The bailiff went off, growling. He would have liked to receive carte-blanche for dealing with the mob—as he was pleased to term them—between whom and himself there was no love lost. As he was crossing a paved yard at the back of the house, some one came hastily out of the laundry in the detached premises to the side, and crossed his path.
A very beautiful girl. Her features were delicate, her complexion was fair as alabaster, and a bright colour mantled in her cheeks. But for the modest cap upon her head, a stranger might have been puzzled to guess at her condition in life. She looked gentle and refined as any lady, and her manners and speech would not have destroyed the illusion. She may be called a protegee of the house, as will be explained presently; but she acted as maid to Mrs. Verner. The bright colour deepened to a glowing one when she saw the bailiff.
He put out his hand and stopped her. "Well, Rachel, how are you?"
"Quite well, thank you," she answered, endeavouring to pass on. But he would not suffer it.
"I say, I want to come to the bottom of this business between you and Luke," he said, lowering his voice. "What's the rights of it?"
"Between me and Luke?" she repeated, turning upon the bailiff an eye that had some scorn in it, and stopping now of her own accord. "There is no business whatever between me and Luke. There never has been. What do you mean?"
"Chut!" cried the bailiff. "Don't I know that he has followed your steps everywhere like a shadder; that he has been ready to kiss the very ground you trod on? And right mad I have been with him for it. You can't deny that he has been after you, wanting you to be his wife."
"I do not wish to deny it," she replied. "You and the whole world are quite welcome to know all that has passed between me and Luke. He asked to be allowed to come here to see me—to 'court' me, he phrased it—which I distinctly declined. Then he took to following me about. He did not molest me, he was not rude—I do not wish to make it out worse than it was—but it is not pleasant, Mr. Roy, to be followed whenever you may take a walk. Especially by one you dislike."
"What is there to dislike in Luke?" demanded the bailiff.
"Perhaps I ought to have said by one you do not like," she resumed. "To like Luke, in the way he wished, was impossible for me, and I told him so from the first. When I found that he dodged my steps, I spoke to him again, and threatened that I should acquaint Mr. Verner. I told him, once for all, that I could not like him, that I never would have him; and since then he has kept his distance. That is all that has ever passed between me and Luke."
"Well, your hard-heartedness has done for him, Rachel Frost. It has drove him away from his native home, and sent him, a exile, to rough it in foreign lands. You may fix upon one as won't do for you and be your slave as Luke would. He could have kept you well."
"I heard he had gone to London," she remarked.
"London!" returned the bailiff slightingly. "That's only the first halt on the journey. And you have drove him to it!"
"I can't help it," she replied, turning to the house. "I had no natural liking for him, and I could not force it. I don't believe he has gone away for that trifling reason, Mr. Roy. If he has, he must be very foolish."
"Yes, he is foolish," muttered the bailiff to himself, as he strode away. "He's a idiot, that's what he is! and so be all men that loses their wits a-sighing after a girl. Vain, deceitful, fickle creatures, the girls be when they're young; but once let them get a hold on you, your ring on their finger, and they turn into vixenish, snarling women! Luke's a sight best off without her."
Rachel Frost proceeded indoors. The door of the steward's room stood open, and she turned into it, fancying it was empty. Down on a chair sat she, a marked change coming over her air and manner. Her bright colour had faded, her hands hung down listless; and there was an expression on her face of care, of perplexity. Suddenly she lifted her hands and struck her temples, with a gesture that looked very like despair.
"What ails you, Rachel?"
The question came from Frederick Massingbird, who had been standing at the window behind the high desk, unobserved by Rachel. Violently startled, she sprang up from her seat, her face a glowing crimson, muttering some disjointed words, to the effect that she did not know anybody was there.
"What were you and Roy discussing so eagerly in the yard?" continued Frederick Massingbird. But the words had scarcely escaped his lips, when the housekeeper, Mrs. Tynn, entered the room. She had a mottled face and mottled arms, her sleeves just now being turned up to the elbow.
"It was nothing particular, Mr. Frederick," replied Rachel.
"Roy is gone, is he not?" he continued to Rachel.
"Rachel," interposed the housekeeper, "are those things not ready yet, in the laundry?"
"Not quite. In a quarter of an hour, they say."
The housekeeper, with a word of impatience at the laundry's delay, went out and crossed the yard towards it. Frederick Massingbird turned again to Rachel.
"Roy seemed to be grumbling at you."
"He accused me of being the cause of his son's going away. He thinks I ought to have noticed him."
Frederick Massingbird made no reply. He raised his finger and gently rubbed it round and round the mark upon his cheek: a habit he had acquired when a child, and they could not entirely break him of it. He was seven-and-twenty years of age now, but he was sure to begin rubbing that mark unconsciously, if in deep thought. Rachel resumed, her tone a covert one, as if the subject on which she was about to speak might not be breathed, even to the walls.
"Roy hinted that his son was going to foreign lands. I did not choose to let him see that I knew anything, so remarked that I had heard he was gone to London. 'London!' he answered; 'that was only the first halting-place on the journey!'"
"Did he give any hint about John?"
"Not a word," replied Rachel. "He would not be likely to do that."
"No. Roy can keep counsel, whatever other virtues he may run short of. Suppose you had joined your fortunes to sighing Luke's, Rachel, and gone out with him to grow rich together?" added Frederick Massingbird, in a tone which could be taken for either jest or earnest.
She evidently took it as the latter, and it appeared to call up an angry spirit. She was vexed almost to tears. Frederick Massingbird detected it.
"Silly Rachel!" he said, with a smile. "Do you suppose I should really counsel your throwing yourself away upon Luke Roy?—Rachel," he continued, as the housekeeper again made her appearance, "you must bring up the things as soon as they are ready. My brother is waiting for them."
"I'll bring them up, sir," replied Rachel.
Frederick Massingbird passed through the passages to the hall, and then proceeded upstairs to the bedroom occupied by his brother. A sufficiently spacious room for any ordinary purpose, but it did not look half large enough now for the litter that was in it. Wardrobes and drawers were standing open, their contents half out, half in; chairs, tables, bed, were strewed; and boxes and portmanteaus were gaping open on the floor. John Massingbird, the elder brother, was stowing away some of this litter into the boxes; not all sixes and sevens, as it looked lying there, but compactly and artistically. John Massingbird possessed a ready hand at packing and arranging; and therefore he preferred doing it himself to deputing it to others. He was one year older than his brother, and there was a great likeness between them in figure and in feature. Not in expression: in that, they were widely different. They were about the same height, and there was the same stoop observable in the shoulders; the features also were similar in cast, and sallow in hue; the same the black eyes and hair. John had large whiskers, otherwise the likeness would have been more striking; and his face was not disfigured by the strange black mark. He was the better looking of the two; his face wore an easy, good-natured, free expression; while Frederick's was cold and reserved. Many people called John Massingbird a handsome man. In character they were quite opposite. John was a harum-scarum chap, up to every scrape; Fred was cautious and steady as Old Time.
Seated in the only free chair in the room—free from litter—was a tall, stout lady. But that she had so much crimson about her, she would have borne a remarkable resemblance to those two young men, her sons. She wore a silk dress, gold in one light, green in another, with broad crimson stripes running across it; her cap was of white lace garnished with crimson ribbons, and her cheeks and nose were crimson to match. As if this were not enough, she wore crimson streamers at her wrists, and a crimson bow on the front of her gown. Had you been outside, you might have seen that the burnished gold on the window-panes had turned to crimson, for the setting sun had changed its hue: but the panes could not look more brightly, deeply crimson, than did Mrs. Verner. It seemed as if you might light a match at her face. In that particular, there was a contrast between her and the perfectly pale, sallow faces of her sons; otherwise the resemblance was great.
"Fred," said Mrs. Verner, "I wish you would see what they are at with the shirts and things. I sent Rachel after them, but she does not come back, and then I sent Mary Tynn, and she does not come. Here's John as impatient as he can be."
She spoke in a slow, somewhat indifferent tone, as if she did not care to put herself out of the way about it. Indeed it was not Mrs. Verner's custom to put herself out of the way for anything. She liked to eat, drink, and sleep in undisturbed peace; and she generally did so.
"John's impatient because he wants to get it over," spoke up that gentleman himself in a merry voice. "Fifty thousand things I have to do, between now and to-morrow night. If they don't bring the clothes soon, I shall close the boxes without them, and leave them a legacy for Fred."
"You have only yourself to thank, John," said his mother. "You never gave the things out until after breakfast this morning, and then required them to be done by the afternoon. Such nonsense, to say they had grown yellow in the drawers! They'll be yellower by the time you get there. It is just like you! driving off everything till the last moment. You have known you were going for some days past."
John was stamping upon a box to get down the lid, and did not attend to the reproach. "See if it will lock, Fred, will you?" said he.
Frederick Massingbird stooped and essayed to turn the key. And just then Mrs. Tynn entered with a tray of clean linen, which she set down. Rachel followed, having a contrivance in her hand, made of silk, for the holding of needles, threads, and pins, all in one.
She looked positively beautiful as she held it out before Mrs. Verner. The evening rays fell upon her exquisite face, with its soft, dark eyes and its changing colour; they fell upon her silk dress, a relic of Mrs. Verner's—but it had no crimson stripes across it; upon her lace collar, upon the little edge of lace at her wrists. Nature had certainly intended Rachel for a lady, with her graceful form, her charming manners, and her delicate hands.
"Will this do, ma'am?" she inquired. "Is it the sort of thing you meant?"
"Ay, that will do, Rachel," replied Mrs. Verner. "John, here's a huswife for you!"
"A what?" asked John Massingbird, arresting his stamping.
"A needle-book to hold your needles and thread. Rachel has made it nicely. Sha'n't you want a thimble?"
"Goodness knows," replied John. "That's it, Fred! that's it! Give it a turn."
Frederick Massingbird locked the box, and then left the room. His mother followed him, telling John she had a large steel thimble somewhere, and would try to find it for him. Rachel began filling the huswife with needles, and John went on with his packing.
"Hollo!" he presently exclaimed. And Rachel looked up.
"What's the matter, sir?"
"I have pulled one of the strings off this green case. You must sew it on again, Rachel."
He brought a piece of green baize to her and a broken string. It looked something like the cover of a pocket-book or of a small case of instruments.
Rachel's nimble fingers soon repaired the damage. John stood before her, looking on.
Looking not only at the progress of the work, but at her. Mr. John Massingbird was one who had an eye for beauty; he had not seen much in his life that could match with that before him. As Rachel held the case up to him, the damage repaired, he suddenly bent his head to steal a kiss.
But Rachel was too quick for him. She flung his face away with her hand; she flushed vividly; she was grievously indignant. That she considered it in the light of an insult was only too apparent; her voice was pained—her words were severe.
"Be quiet, stupid! I was not going to eat you," laughed John Massingbird. "I won't tell Luke."
"Insult upon insult!" she exclaimed, strangely excited. "You know that Luke Roy is nothing to me, Mr. Massingbird; you know that I have never in my life vouchsafed to give him an encouraging word. But, much as I despise him—much as he is beneath me—I would rather submit to have my face touched by him than by you."
What more she would have said was interrupted by the reappearance of Mrs. Verner. That lady's ears had caught the sound of the contest; of the harsh words; and she felt inexpressibly surprised.
"What has happened?" she asked. "What is it, Rachel?"
"She pricked herself with one of the needles," said John, taking the explanation upon himself; "and then said I did it."
Mrs. Verner looked from one to the other. Rachel had turned quite pale. John laughed; he knew his mother did not believe him.
"The truth is, mother, I began teasing Rachel about her admirer, Luke. It made her angry."
"What absurdity!" exclaimed Mrs. Verner testily, to Rachel. "My opinion is, you would have done well to encourage Luke. He was steady and respectable; and old Roy must have saved plenty of money."
Rachel burst into tears.
"What now!" cried Mrs. Verner. "Not a word can anybody say to you lately, Rachel, but you must begin to cry as if you were heart-broken. What has come to you, child? Is anything the matter with you?"
The tears deepened into long sobs of agony, as though her heart were indeed broken. She held her handkerchief up to her face, and went sobbing from the room.
Mrs. Verner gazed after her in very astonishment. "What has taken her? What can it possibly be?" she uttered. "John, you must know."
"I, mother! I declare to you that I know no more about it than Adam. Rachel must be going a little crazed."
THE WILLOW POND.
Before the sun had well set, the family at Verner's Pride were assembling for dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Verner, and John Massingbird: neither Lionel Verner nor Frederick Massingbird was present. The usual custom appeared somewhat reversed on this evening: while roving John would be just as likely to absent himself from dinner as not, his brother and Lionel Verner nearly always appeared at it. Mr. Verner looked surprised.
"Where are they?" he cried, as he waited to say grace.
"Mr. Lionel has not come in, sir," replied the butler, Tynn, who was husband to the housekeeper.
"And Fred has gone out to keep some engagement with Sibylla West," spoke up Mrs. Verner. "She is going to spend the evening at the Bitterworths, and Fred promised, I believe, to see her safely thither. He will take his dinner when he comes in."
Mr. Verner bent his head, said the grace, and the dinner began.
Later—but not much later, for it was scarcely dark yet—Rachel Frost was leaving the house to pay a visit in the adjoining village, Deerham. Her position may be at once explained. It was mentioned in the last chapter that Mr. Verner had had one daughter, who died young. The mother of Rachel Frost had been this child's nurse, Rachel being an infant at the same time, so that the child, Rachel Verner, and Rachel Frost—named after her—had been what is called foster-sisters. It had caused Mr. Verner, and his wife also while she lived, to take an interest in Rachel Frost; it is very probable that their own child's death only made this interest greater. They were sufficiently wise not to lift the girl palpably out of her proper sphere; but they paid for a decent education for her at a day-school, and were personally kind to her. Rachel—I was going to say fortunately, but it may be as just to say unfortunately—was one of those who seem to make the best of every trifling advantage: she had grown, without much effort of her own, into what might be termed a lady, in appearance, in manners, and in speech. The second Mrs. Verner also took an interest in her; and nearly a year before this period, on Rachel's eighteenth birthday, she took her to Verner's Pride as her own attendant.
A fascinating, lovable child had Rachel Frost ever been: she was a fascinating, lovable girl. Modest, affectionate, generous, everybody liked Rachel; she had not an enemy, so far as was known, in all Deerham. Her father was nothing but a labourer on the Verner estate; but in mind and conduct he was superior to his station; an upright, conscientious, and, in some degree, a proud man: her mother had been dead several years. Rachel was proud too, in her way; proud and sensitive.
Rachel, dressed in her bonnet and shawl, passed out of the house by the front entrance. She would not have presumed to do so by daylight; but it was dusk now, the family not about, and it cut off a few yards of the road to the village. The terrace—which you have heard of as running along the front of the house—sloped gradually down at either end to the level ground, so as to admit the approach of carriages.
Riding up swiftly to the door, as Rachel appeared at it, was a gentleman of some five or six and twenty years. Horse and man both looked thoroughbred. Tall, strong, and slender, with a keen, dark blue eye, and regular features of a clear, healthy paleness, he—the man—would draw a second glance to himself wherever he might be met. His face was not inordinately handsome; nothing of the sort; but it wore an air of candour, of noble truth. A somewhat impassive face in repose, somewhat cold; but, in speaking, it grew expressive to animation, and the frank smile that would light it up made its greatest charm. The smile stole over it now, as he checked his horse and bent towards Rachel.
"Have they thought me lost? I suppose dinner is begun?"
"Dinner has been in this half-hour, sir."
"All right. I feared they might wait. What's the matter, Rachel? You've been making your eyes red."
"The matter! There's nothing the matter with me, Mr. Lionel," was Rachel's reply, her tone betraying a touch of annoyance. And she turned and walked swiftly along the terrace, beyond reach of the glare of the gas-lamp.
Up stole a man at this moment, who must have been hidden amid the pillars of the portico, watching the transient meeting, watching for an opportunity to speak. It was Roy, the bailiff; and he accosted the gentleman with the same complaint, touching the ill-doings of the Dawsons and the village in general, that had previously been carried to Mr. Verner by Frederick Massingbird.
"I was told to wait and take my orders from you, sir," he wound up with. "The master don't like to be troubled, and he wouldn't give none."
"Neither shall I give any," was the answer, "until I know more about it."
"They ought to be got out to-night, Mr. Lionel!" exclaimed the man, striking his hand fiercely against the air. "They sow all manner of incendiarisms in the place, with their bad example."
"Roy," said Lionel Verner, in a quiet tone, "I have not, as you know, interfered actively in the management of things. I have not opposed my opinion against my uncle's, or much against yours; I have not come between you and him. When I have given orders, they have been his orders, not mine. But many things go on that I disapprove of; and I tell you very candidly that, were I to become master to-morrow, my first act would be to displace you, unless you could undertake to give up these nasty acts of petty oppression."
"Unless some of 'em was oppressed and kept under, they'd be for riding roughshod over the whole of us," retorted Roy.
"Nonsense!" said Lionel. "Nothing breeds rebellion like oppression. You are too fond of oppression, Roy, and Mr. Verner knows it."
"They be a idle, poaching, good-for-nothing lot, them Dawsons," pursued Roy. "And now that they be behind-hand with their rent, it is a glorious opportunity to get rid of 'em. I'd turn 'em into the road, without a bed to lie on, this very night!"
"How would you like to be turned into the road, without a bed to lie on?" demanded Lionel.
"Me!" returned Roy, in deep dudgeon. "Do you compare me to that Dawson lot? When I give cause to be turned out, then I hope I may be turned out, sir, that's all. Mr. Lionel," he added, in a more conciliating tone, "I know better about out-door things than you, and I say it's necessary to be shut of the Dawsons. Give me power to act in this."
"I will not," said Lionel. "I forbid you to act in it at all, until the circumstances shall have been inquired into."
He sprung from his horse, flung the bridle to the groom, who was at that moment coming forward, and strode into the house with the air of a young chieftain. Certainly Lionel Verner appeared fitted by nature to be the heir of Verner's Pride.
Rachel Frost, meanwhile, gained the road and took the path to the left hand; which would lead her to the village. Her thoughts were bent on many sources, not altogether pleasant, one of which was the annoyance she had experienced at finding her name coupled with that of the bailiff's son, Luke Roy. There was no foundation for it. She had disliked Luke, rather than liked him, her repugnance to him no doubt arising from the very favour he felt disposed to show to her; and her account of past matters to the bailiff was in accordance with the facts. As she walked along, pondering, she became aware that two people were advancing towards her in the dark twilight. She knew them instantly, almost by intuition, but they were too much occupied with each other yet to have noticed her. One was Frederick Massingbird, and the young lady on his arm was his cousin, Sibylla West, a girl young and fascinating as was Rachel. Mr. Frederick Massingbird had been suspected of a liking, more than ordinary, for this young lady; but he had protested in Rachel's hearing, as in that of others, that his was only cousin's love. Some impulse prompted Rachel to glide in at a field-gate which she was then passing, and stand behind the hedge until they should have gone by. Possibly she did not care to be seen.
It was a still night, and their voices were borne distinctly to Rachel as they slowly advanced. The first words to reach her came from the young lady.
"You will be going out after him, Frederick. That will be the next thing I expect."
"Sibylla," was the answer, and his accents bore that earnest, tender, confidential tone which of itself alone betrays love, "be you very sure of one thing: that I go neither there nor elsewhere without taking you."
"Oh, Frederick, is not John enough to go?"
"If I saw a better prospect there than here, I should follow him. After he has arrived and is settled, he will write and report. My darling, I am ever thinking of the future for your sake."
"But is it not a dreadful country? There are wolves and bears in it that eat people up."
Frederick Massingbird slightly laughed at the remark. "Do you think I would take my wife into the claws of wolves and bears?" he asked, in a tone of the deepest tenderness. "She will be too precious to me for that, Sibylla."
The voices and the footsteps died away in the distance, and Rachel came out of her hiding-place, and went quickly on towards the village. Her father's cottage was soon gained. He did not live alone. His only son, Robert—who had a wife and family—lived with him. Robert was the son of his youth; Rachel the daughter of his age; the children of two wives. Matthew Frost's wife had died in giving birth to Robert, and twenty years elapsed ere he married a second. He was seventy years of age now, but still upright as a dart, with a fine fresh complexion, a clear bright eye, and snow-white hair that fell in curls behind, on the collar of his white smock-frock.
He was sitting at a small table apart when Rachel entered, a candle and a large open Bible on it. A flock of grandchildren crowded round him, two of them on his knees. He was showing them the pictures. To gaze wonderingly on those pictures, and never tire of asking explanations of their mysteries, was the chief business of the little Frosts' lives. Robert's wife—but he was hardly ever called anything but Robin—was preparing something over the fire for the evening meal. Rachel went up and kissed her father. He scattered the children from him to make room for her. He loved her dearly. Robin loved her dearly. When Robin was a grown-up young man the pretty baby had come to be his plaything. Robin seemed to love her still better than he loved his own children.
"Thee'st been crying, child!" cried old Matthew Frost. "What has ailed thee?"
Had Rachel known that the signs of her past tears were so palpable as to call forth remark from everybody she met, as it appeared they were doing, she might have remained at home. Putting on a gay face, she laughed off the matter. Matthew pressed it.
"Something went wrong at home, and I got a scolding," said Rachel at length. "It was not worth crying over, though."
Mrs. Frost turned round from her saucepan.
"A scolding from the missis, Rachel?"
"There's nobody else at Verner's Pride should scold me," responded Rachel, with a charming little air of self-consequence. "Mrs. Verner said a cross word or two, and I was so stupid as to burst out crying. I have had a headache all day, and that's sure to put me out of sorts."
"There's always things to worry one in service, let it be ever so good on the whole," philosophically observed Mrs. Frost, bestowing her attention again upon the saucepan. "Better be one's own missus on a crust, say I, than at the beck and call of others."
"Rachel," interrupted old Matthew, "when I let you go to Verner's Pride, I thought it was for your good. But I'd not keep you there a day, child, if you be unhappy."
"Dear father, don't take up that notion," she quickly rejoined. "I am happier at Verner's Pride than I should be anywhere else. I would not leave it. Where is Robin this evening?"
The answer was interrupted by the entrance of Robin himself. A short man with a red face, somewhat obstinate-looking. His eye lighted up when he saw Rachel; Mrs. Frost poured out the contents of her saucepan, which appeared to be a compound of Scotch oatmeal and treacle. Rachel was invited to take some, but declined. She lifted one of the children on her knee—a pretty little girl named after herself. The child did not seem well, and Rachel hushed it to her, bringing down her own sweet face caressingly upon the little one's.
"So I hear as Mr. John Massingbird's a-going to London on a visit?" cried Robin to his sister, holding out his basin for a second supply of the porridge.
The question had to be repeated three times, and then Rachel seemed to awake to it with a start. She had been gazing at vacancy, as if buried in a dream.
"Mr. John? A visit to London? Oh, yes, yes; he is going to London."
"Do he make much of a stay?"
"I can't tell," said Rachel slightingly. A certain confidence had been reposed in her at Verner's Pride; but it was not her business to make it known, even in her father's home. Rachel was not a good hand at deception, and she changed the subject. "Has there not been some disturbance with the Dawsons to-day? Old Roy was at Verner's Pride this afternoon, and the servants have been saying he came up about the Dawsons."
"He wanted to turn 'em out," replied Robin.
"He's Grip Roy all over," said Mrs. Frost.
Old Matthew Frost shook his head. "There has been ill-feeling smouldering between Roy and old Dawson this long while," said he. "Now that it's come to open war, I misdoubt me but there'll be violence."
"There's ill-feeling between Roy and a many more, father, besides the Dawsons," observed Robin.
"Ay! Rachel, child"—turning his head to the hearth, where his daughter sat apart—"folks have said that young Luke wants to make up to you. But I'd not like it. Luke's a good-meaning, kind-hearted lad himself, but I'd not like you to be daughter-in-law to old Roy."
"Be easy, father dear. I'd not have Luke Roy if he were made of gold. I never yet had anything to say to him, and I never will have. We can't help our likes and dislikes."
"Pshaw!" said Robin, with pardonable pride. "Pretty Rachel is not for a daft chap like Luke Roy, that's a head and ears shorter nor other men. Be you, my dear one?"
Rachel laughed. Her conscience told her that she enjoyed a joke at Luke's undersize. She took a shower of kisses from the little girl, put her down, and rose.
"I must go," she said. "Mrs. Verner may be calling for me."
"Don't she know you be come out?" asked old Matthew.
"No. But do not fear that I came clandestinely—or, as our servants would say, on the sly," added Rachel, with a smile. "Mrs. Verner has told me to run down to see you whenever I like, after she has gone in to dinner. Good-night, dear father."
The old man pressed her to his heart: "Don't thee get fretting again my blessing. I don't care to see thee with red eyes."
For answer, Rachel burst into tears then—a sudden, violent burst. She dashed them away again with a defiant, reckless sort of air, broke, into a laugh, and laid the blame on her headache. Robin said he would walk home with her.
"No, Robin, I would rather you did not to-night," she replied. "I have two or three things to get at Mother Duff's, and I shall stop there a bit, gossiping. After that, I shall be home in a trice. It's not dark; and, if it were, who'd harm me?"
They laughed. To imagine harm of any sort occurring, through walking a mile or so alone at night, would never enter the head of honest country people. Rachel departed; and Robin, who was a domesticated man upon the whole, helped his wife to put the children to bed.
Scarcely an hour later, a strange commotion arose in the village. People ran about wildly, whispering dread words to one another. A woman had just been drowned in the Willow Pond.
The whole place flocked down to the Willow Pond. On its banks, the centre of an awe-struck crowd, which had been quickly gathering, lay a body, recently taken out of the water. It was all that remained of poor Rachel Frost—cold, and white, and DEAD!
THE NEWS BROUGHT HOME.
Seated in the dining-room at Verner's Pride, comfortably asleep in an arm-chair, her face turned to the fire and her feet on a footstool, was Mrs. Verner. The dessert remained on the table, but nobody was there to partake of it. Mr. Verner had retired to his study upon the withdrawal of the cloth, according to his usual custom. Always a man of spare habits, shunning the pleasures of the table, he had scarcely taken sufficient to support nature since his health failed. Mrs. Verner would remonstrate; but his medical attendant, Dr. West, said it was better for him that it should be so. Lionel Verner (who had come in for the tail of the dinner) and John Massingbird had likewise left the room and the house, but not together. Mrs. Verner sat on alone. She liked to take her share of dessert, if the others did not, and she generally remained in the dining-room for the evening, rarely caring to move. Truth to say, Mrs. Verner was rather addicted to dropping asleep with her last glass of wine and waking up with the tea-tray, and she did so this evening.
Of course work goes on downstairs (or is supposed to go on) whether the mistress of a house be asleep or awake. It really was going on that evening in the laundry at Verner's Pride, whatever it may have been doing in the other various branches and departments. The laundry-maids had had heavy labour on their hands that day, and they were hard at work still, while Mrs. Verner slept.
"Here's Mother Duff's Dan a-coming in!" exclaimed one of the women, glancing over her ironing-board to the yard. "What do he want, I wonder?"
"Who?" cried Nancy, the under-housemaid, a tart sort of girl, whose business it was to assist in the laundry on busy days.
"Dan Duff. Just see what he wants, Nancy. He's got a parcel."
The gentleman familiarly called Dan Duff was an urchin of ten years old. He was the son of Mrs. Duff, linen-draper-in-ordinary to Deerham—a lady popularly spoken of as "Mother Duff," both behind her back and before her face. Nancy darted out at the laundry-door and waylaid the intruder in the yard.
"Now, Dan Duff!" cried she, "what do you want?"
"Please, here's this," was Dan Duff's reply, handing over the parcel. "And, please, I want to see Rachel Frost."
"Who's it for? What's inside it?" sharply asked Nancy, regarding the parcel on all sides.
"It's things as Rachel Frost have been a-buying," he replied. "Please, I want to see her."
"Then want must be your master," retorted Nancy. "Rachel Frost's not at home."
"Ain't she?" returned Dan Duff, with surprised emphasis. "Why, she left our shop a long sight afore I did! Mother says, please, would she mind having some o' the dark lavender print instead o' the light, 'cause Susan Peckaby's come in, and she wants the whole o' the light lavender for a gownd, and there's only just enough of it. And, please, I be to take word back."
"How are you to take word back if she's not in?" asked Nancy, whose temper never was improved by extra work. "Get along, Dan Duff! You must come along again to-morrow if you want her."
Dan Duff turned to depart, in meek obedience, and Nancy carried the parcel into the laundry and flung it down on the ironing-board.
"It's fine to be Rachel Frost," she sarcastically cried. "Going shopping like any lady, and having her things sent home for her! And messages about her gownds coming up—which will she have, if you please, and which won't she have! I'll borror one of the horses to-morrow, and go shopping myself on a side-saddle!"
"Has Rachel gone shopping to-night?" cried one of the women, pausing in her ironing. "I did not know she was out."
"She has been out all the evening," was Nancy's answer. "I met her coming down the stairs, dressed. And she could tell a story over it, too, for she said she was going to see her old father."
But Master Dan Duff is not done with yet. If that gentleman stood in awe of one earthly thing more than another, it was of the anger of his revered mother. Mrs. Duff, in her maternal capacity, was rather free both with her hands and tongue. Being sole head of her flock, for she was a widow, she deemed it best to rule with firmness, not to say severity; and her son Dan, awed by his own timid nature, tried hard to steer his course so as to avoid shoals and quicksands. He crossed the yard, after the rebuff administered by Nancy, and passed out at the gate, where he stood still to revolve affairs. His mother had imperatively ordered him to bring back the answer touching the intricate question of the light and the dark lavender prints; and Susan Peckaby—one of the greatest idlers in all Deerham—said she would wait in the shop until he came with it. He stood softly whistling, his hands in his pockets, and balancing himself on his heels.
"I'll get a basting, for sure," soliloquised he. "Mother'll lose the sale of the gownd, and then she'll say it's my fault, and baste me for it. What's of her? Why couldn't she ha' come home, as she said?"
He set his wits to work to divine what could have "gone of her"—alluding, of course, to Rachel. And a bright thought occurred to him—really not an unnatural one—that she had probably taken the other road home. It was a longer round, through the fields, and there were stiles to climb, and gates to mount; which might account for the delay. He arrived at the conclusion, though somewhat slow of drawing conclusions in general, that if he returned home that way, he should meet Rachel; and could then ask the question.
If he turned to his left hand—standing as he did at the gate with his back to the back of the house—he would regain the high road, whence he came. Did he turn to the right, he would plunge into fields and lanes, and covered ways, and emerge at length, by a round, in the midst of the village, almost close to his own house. It was a lonely way at night, and longer than the other, but Master Dan Duff regarded those as pleasant evils, in comparison with a "basting." He took his hands out of his pockets, brought down his feet to a level, and turned to it, whistling still.
It was a tolerably light night. The moon was up, though not very high, and a few stars might be seen here and there in the blue canopy above. Mr. Dan Duff proceeded on his way, not very quickly. Some dim idea was penetrating his brain that the slower he walked, the better chance there might be of his meeting Rachel.
"She's just a cat, is that Susan Peckaby!" decided he, with acrimony, in the intervals of his whistling. "It was her as put mother up to the thought o' sending me to-night: Rachel Frost said the things 'ud do in the morning. 'Let Dan carry 'em up now,' says Dame Peckaby, 'and ask her about the print, and then I'll take it home along o' me.' And if I go in without the answer, she'll be the first to help mother to baste me! Hi! ho! hur! hur-r-r-r!"
This last exclamation was caused by his catching sight of some small animal scudding along. He was at that moment traversing a narrow, winding lane; and, in the field to the right, as he looked in at the open gate, he saw the movement. It might be a cat, it might be a hare, it might be a rabbit, it might be some other animal; it was all one to Mr. Dan Duff; and he had not been a boy had he resisted the propensity to pursue it. Catching up a handful of earth from the lane, he shied it in the proper direction, and tore in at the gate after it.
Nothing came of the pursuit. The trespasser had earthed itself, and Mr. Dan came slowly back again. He had nearly approached the gate, when somebody passed it, walking up the lane with a very quick step, from the direction in which he, Dan, was bound. Dan saw enough to know that it was not Rachel, for it was the figure of a man; but Dan set off to run, and emerged from the gate just in time to catch another glimpse of the person, as he disappeared beyond the windings of the lane.
"'Twarn't Rachel, at all events," was his comment. And he turned and pursued his way again.
It was somewhere about this time that Tynn made his appearance in the dining-room at Verner's Pride, to put away the dessert, and set the tea. The stir woke up Mrs. Verner.
"Send Rachel to me," said she, winking and blinking at the tea-cups.
"Yes, ma'am," replied Tynn.
He left the room when he had placed the cups and things to his satisfaction. He called for Rachel high and low, up and down. All to no purpose. The servants did not appear to know anything of her. One of them went to the door and shouted out to the laundry to know whether Rachel was there, and the answering shout "No" came back. The footman at length remembered that he had seen her go out at the hall door while the dinner was in. Tynn carried this item of information to Mrs. Verner. It did not please her.
"Of course!" she grumbled. "Let me want any one of you particularly, and you are sure to be away! If she did go out, she ought not to stay as long as this. Who's this coming in?"
It was Frederick Massingbird. He entered, singing a scrap of a song; which was cut suddenly short when his eye fell on the servant.
"Tynn," said he, "you must bring me something to eat. I have had no dinner."
"You cannot be very hungry, or you'd have come in before," remarked Mrs. Verner to him. "It is tea-time now."
"I'll take tea and dinner together," was his answer.
"But you ought to have been in before," she persisted; for, though an easy mistress and mother, Mrs. Verner did not like the order of meals to be displaced. "Where have you stayed, Fred? You have not been all this while taking Sibylla West to Bitterworth's."
"You must talk to Sibylla West about that," answered Fred. "When young ladies keep you a good hour waiting, while they make themselves ready to start, you can't get back precisely to your own time."
"What did she keep you waiting for?" questioned Mrs. Verner.
"Some mystery of the toilette, I conclude. When I got there, Amilly said Sibylla was dressing; and a pretty prolonged dressing it appeared to be! Since I left her at Bitterworth's, I have been to Poynton's about my mare. She was as lame as ever to-day."
"And there's Rachel out now, just as I am wanting her!" went on Mrs. Verner, who, when she did lapse into a grumbling mood, was fond of calling up a catalogue of grievances.
"At any rate, that's not my fault, mother," observed Frederick. "I dare say she will soon be in. Rachel is not given to stay out, I fancy, if there's a chance of her being wanted."
Tynn came in with his tray, and Frederick Massingbird sat down to it. Tynn then waited for Mr. Verner's tea, which he carried into the study. He carried a cup in every evening, but Mr. Verner scarcely ever touched it. Then Tynn returned to the room where the upper servants took their meals and otherwise congregated, and sat down to read a newspaper. He was a little man, very stout, his plain clothes always scrupulously neat.
A few minutes, and Nancy came in, the parcel left by Dan Duff in her hand. The housekeeper asked her what it was. She explained in her crusty way, and said something to the same effect that she had said in the laundry—that it was fine to be Rachel Frost. "She's long enough making her way up here!" Nancy wound up with.
"Dan Duff says she left their shop to come home before he did. If Luke Roy was in Deerham one would know what to think!"
"Bah!" cried the housekeeper. "Rachel Frost has nothing to say to Luke Roy."
Tynn laid down his paper, and rose. "I'll just tell the mistress that Rachel's on her way home," said he. "She's put up like anything at her being out—wants her for something particular, she says."
Barely had he departed on his errand, when a loud commotion was heard in the passage. Mr. Dan Duff had burst in at the back door, uttering sounds of distress—of fright—his eyes starting, his hair standing on end, his words nearly unintelligible.
"Rachel Frost is in the Willow Pond—drownded!"
The women shrieked when they gathered in the sense. It was enough to make them shriek. Dan Duff howled in concert. The passages took up the sounds and echoed them; and Mrs. Verner, Frederick Massingbird, and Tynn came hastening forth. Mr. Verner followed, feeble, and leaning on his stick. Frederick Massingbird seized upon the boy, questioning sharply.
"Rachel Frost's a-drowned in the Willow Pond," he reiterated. "I see'd her."
A moment of pause, of startled suspense, and then they flew off, men and women, as with one accord, Frederick Massingbird leading the van. Social obligations were forgotten in the overwhelming excitement, and Mr. and Mrs. Verner were left to keep house for themselves. Tynn, indeed, recollected himself, and turned back.
"No," said Mr. Verner. "Go with the rest, Tynn, and see what it is, and whether anything can be done."
He might have crept thither himself in his feeble strength, but he had not stirred out of the house for two years.
THE CROWD IN THE MOONLIGHT.
The Willow Pond, so called from its being surrounded with weeping willows, was situated at the corner of a field, in a retired part of the road, about midway between Verner's Pride and Deerham. There was a great deal of timber about that part; it was altogether as lonely as could be desired. When the runners from Verner's Pride reached it, assistance had already arrived, and Rachel, rescued from the pond, was being laid upon the grass. All signs of life were gone.
Who had done it?—what had caused it?—was it an accident?—was it a self-committed act?—or was it a deed of violence? What brought her there at all? No young girl would be likely to take that way home (with all due deference to the opinion of Master Dan Duff) alone at night.
What was to be done? The crowd propounded these various questions in so many marvels of wonder, and hustled each other, and talked incessantly; but to be of use, to direct, nobody appeared capable. Frederick Massingbird stepped forward with authority.
"Carry her at once to Verner's Pride—with all speed. And some of you"—turning to the servants of the house—"hasten on, and get water heated and blankets hot. Get hot bricks—get anything and everything likely to be required. How did she get in?"
He appeared to speak the words more in the light of a wailing regret, than as a question. It was a question that none present appeared able to answer. The crowd was increasing rapidly. One of them suggested that Broom the gamekeeper's cottage was nearer than Verner's Pride.
"But there will be neither hot water nor blankets there," returned Frederick Massingbird.
"The house is the best. Make haste! don't let grass grow under your feet."
"A moment," interposed a gentleman who now came hastily up, as they were raising the body. "Lay her down again."
They obeyed him eagerly, and fell a little back that he might have space to bend over her. It was the doctor of the neighbourhood, resident at Deerham. He was a fine man in figure, dark and florid in face, but a more impassive countenance could not well be seen, and he had the peculiarity of rarely looking a person in the face. If a patient's eyes were mixed on Dr. West's, Dr. West's were invariably fixed upon something else. A clever man in his profession, holding an Edinburgh degree, and practising as a general practitioner. He was brother to the present Mrs. Verner; consequently, uncle to the two young Massingbirds.
"Has anybody got a match?" he asked.
One of the Verner's Pride servants had a whole boxful, and two or three were lighted at a time, and held so that the doctor could see the drowned face better than he could in the uncertain moonlight. It was a strange scene. The lonely, weird character of the place; the dark trees scattered about; the dull pond with its bending willows; the swaying, murmuring crowd collected round the doctor and what he was bending over; the bright flickering flame of the match-light; with the pale moon overhead, getting higher and higher as the night went on, and struggling her way through passing clouds.
"How did it happen?" asked Dr. West.
Before any answer could be given, a man came tearing up at the top of his speed; several men, indeed, it may be said. The first was Roy, the bailiff. Upon Roy's leaving Verner's Pride, after the rebuke bestowed upon him by its heir, he had gone straight down to the George and Dragon, a roadside inn, situated on the outskirts of the village, on the road from Verner's Pride. Here he had remained, consorting with droppers-in from Deerham, and soothing his mortification with a pipe and sundry cans of ale. When the news was brought in that Rachel Frost was drowned in the Willow-pond, Roy, the landlord, and the company collectively, started off to see.
"Why, it is her!" uttered Roy, taking a hasty view of poor Rachel. "I said it wasn't possible. I saw her and talked to her up at the house but two or three hours ago. How did she get in?"
The same question always; from all alike: how did she get in? Dr. West rose.
"You can move her," he said.
"Is she dead, sir?"
Frederick Massingbird—who had been the one to hold the matches—caught the doctor's arm.
"Not dead!" he uttered. "Not dead beyond hope of restoration?"
"She will never be restored in this world," was the reply of Dr. West. "She is quite dead."
"Measures should be tried, at any rate," said Frederick Massingbird warmly.
"By all means," acquiesced Dr. West. "It will afford satisfaction, though it should do nothing else."
They raised her once more, her clothes dripping, and turned with quiet, measured steps towards Verner's Pride. Of course the whole assemblage attended. They were eagerly curious, boiling over with excitement; but, to give them their due, they were earnestly anxious to afford any aid in their power, and contended who should take turn at bearing that wet burden. Not one but felt sorely grieved for Rachel. Even Nancy was subdued to meekness, as she sped on to be one of the busiest in preparing remedies; and old Roy, though somewhat inclined to regard it in the light of a judgment upon proud Rachel for slighting his son, felt some twinges of pitying regret.
"I have knowed cases where people, dead from drownding, have been restored to life," said Roy, as they walked along.
"That you never have," replied Dr. West. "The apparently dead have been restored; the dead, never."
Panting, breathless, there came up one as they reached Verner's Pride. He parted the crowd, and threw himself almost upon Rachel with a wild cry. He caught up her cold, wet face, and passing his hands over it, bent down his warm cheek upon it.
"Who has done it?" he sobbed. "What has done it? She couldn't have fell in alone."
It was Robin Frost. Frederick Massingbird drew him away by the arm. "Don't hinder, Robin. Every minute may be worth a life."
And Robin, struck with the argument, obeyed docilely like a little child.
Mr. Verner, leaning on his stick, trembling with weakness and emotion, stood just without the door of the laundry, which had been hastily prepared, as the bearers tramped in.
"It is an awful tragedy!" he murmured. "Is it true"—addressing Dr. West—"that you think there is no hope?"
"I am sure there is none," was the answer. "But every means shall be tried."
The laundry was cleared of the crowd, and their work began. One of the next to come up was old Matthew Frost. Mr. Verner took his hand.
"Come in to my own room, Matthew," he said. "I feel for you deeply."
"Nay, sir; I must look upon her."
Mr. Verner pointed with his stick in the direction of the laundry.
"They are shut in there—the doctor and those whom he requires round him," he said. "Let them be undisturbed; it is the only chance."
All things likely to be wanted had been conveyed to the laundry; and they were shut in there, as Mr. Verner expressed it, with their fires and their heat. On dragged the time. Anxious watchers were in the house, in the yard, gathered round the back gate. The news had spread, and gentlepeople, friends of the Verners, came hasting from their homes, and pressed into Verner's Pride, and asked question upon question of Mr. and Mrs. Verner, of everybody likely to afford an answer. Old Matthew Frost stood outwardly calm and collected, full of inward trust, as a good man should be. He had learned where to look for support in the darkest trial. Mr. Verner in that night of sorrow seemed to treat him as a brother.
One hour! Two hours! and still they plied their remedies, under the able direction of Dr. West. All was of no avail, as the experienced physician had told them. Life was extinct. Poor Rachel Frost was really dead!
THE TALL GENTLEMAN IN THE LANE.
Apart from the horror of the affair, it was altogether attended with so much mystery that that of itself would have kept the excitement alive. What could have taken Rachel Frost near the pond at all? Allowing that she had chosen that lonely road for her way home—which appeared unlikely in the extreme—she must still have gone out of it to approach the pond, must have walked partly across a field to gain it. Had her path led close by it, it would have been a different matter: it might have been supposed (unlikely still, though) that she had missed her footing and fallen in. But unpleasant rumours were beginning to circulate in the crowd. It was whispered that sounds of a contest, the voices being those of a man and a woman, had been heard in that direction at the time of the accident, or about the time; and these rumours reached the ear of Mr. Verner.
For the family to think of bed, in the present state of affairs, or the crowd to think of dispersing, would have been in the highest degree improbable. Mr. Verner set himself to get some sort of solution first. One told one tale; one, another: one asserted something else; another, the exact opposite. Mr. Verner—and in saying Mr. Verner, we must include all—was fairly puzzled. A notion had sprung up that Dinah Roy, the bailiffs wife, could tell something about it if she would. Certain it was, that she had stood amid the crowd, cowering and trembling, shrinking from observation as much as possible, and recoiling visibly if addressed.
A word of this suspicion at last reached her husband. It angered him. He was accustomed to keep his wife in due submission. She was a little body, with a pinched face and a sharp red nose, given to weeping upon every possible occasion, and as indulgently fond of her son Luke as she was afraid of her husband. Since Luke's departure she had passed the better part of her time in tears.
"Now," said Roy, going up to her with authority, and drawing her apart, "what's this as is up with you?"
She looked round her, and shuddered.
"Oh, law!" cried she, with a moan. "Don't you begin to ask, Giles, or I shall be fit to die."
"Do you know anything about this matter, or don't you?" cried he savagely. "Did you see anything?"
"What should I be likely to see of it?" quaked Mrs. Roy.
"Did you see Rachel fall into the pond? Or see her a-nigh the pond?"
"No, I didn't," moaned Mrs. Roy. "I never set eyes on Rachel this blessed night at all. I'd take a text o' scripture to it."
"Then what is the matter with you?" he demanded, giving her a slight shake.
"Hush, Giles!" responded she, in a tone of unmistakable terror. "I saw a ghost!"
"Saw a—what?" thundered Giles Roy.
"A ghost!" she repeated. "And it have made me shiver ever since."
Giles Roy knew that his wife was rather prone to flights of fancy. He was in the habit of administering one sovereign remedy, which he believed to be an infallible panacea for wives' ailments whenever it was applied—a hearty good shaking. He gave her a slight instalment as he turned away.
"Wait till I get ye home," said he significantly. "I'll drive the ghosts out of ye!"
Mr. Verner had seated himself in his study, with a view of investigating systematically the circumstances attending the affair, so far as they were known. At present all seemed involved in a Babel of confusion, even the open details.
"Those able to tell anything of it shall come before me, one by one," he observed; "we may get at something then."
The only stranger present was Mr. Bitterworth, an old and intimate friend of Mr. Verner. He was a man of good property, and resided a little beyond Verner's Pride. Others—plenty of them—had been eager to assist in what they called the investigation, but Mr. Verner had declined. The public investigation would come soon enough, he observed, and that must satisfy them. Mrs. Verner saw no reason why she should be absent, and she took her seat. Her sons were there. The news had reached John out-of-doors, and he had hastened home full of consternation. Dr. West also remained by request, and the Frosts, father and son, had pressed in. Mr. Verner could not deny them.
"To begin at the beginning," observed Mr. Verner, "it appears that Rachel left this house between six and seven. Did she mention to anybody where she was going?"
"I believe she did to Nancy, sir," replied Mrs. Tynn, who had been allowed to remain.
"Then call Nancy in," said Mr. Verner.
Nancy came, but she could not say much: only that, in going up the front stairs to carry some linen into Mrs. Verner's room, she had met Rachel, dressed to go out. Rachel had said, in passing her, that she was about to visit her father.
"And she came?" observed Mr. Verner, turning to Matthew Frost, as Nancy was dismissed.
"She came, sir," replied the old man, who was having an incessant battle with himself for calmness; for it was not there, in the presence of others, that he would willingly indulge his grief. "I saw that she had been fretting. Her eyes were as red as ferrets'; and I taxed her with it. She was for turning it off at first, but I pressed for the cause, and she then said she had been scolded by her mistress."
"By me!" exclaimed Mrs. Verner, lifting her head in surprise. "I had not scolded her."
But as she spoke she caught the eye of her son John, and she remembered the little scene of the afternoon.
"I recollect now," she resumed. "I spoke a word of reproof to Rachel, and she burst into a violent flood of tears, and ran away from me. It surprised me much. What I said was not sufficient to call forth one tear, let alone a passionate burst of them."
"What was it about?" asked Mr. Verner.
"I expect John can give a better explanation of it than I," replied Mrs. Verner, after a pause. "I went out of the room for a minute or two, and when I returned, Rachel was talking angrily at John. I could not make out distinctly about what. John had begun to tease her about Luke Roy, I believe, and she did not like it."
Mr. John Massingbird's conscience called up the little episode of the coveted kiss. But it might not be altogether prudent to confess it in full conclave.
"It is true that I did joke Rachel about Luke," he said. "It seemed to anger her very much, and she paid me out with some hard words. My mother returned at the same moment. She asked what was the matter; I said I had joked Rachel about Luke, and that Rachel did not like it."
"Yes, that was it," acquiesced Mrs. Verner. "I then told Rachel that in my opinion she would have done well to encourage Luke, who was a steady young man, and would no doubt have a little money. Upon which she began weeping. I felt rather vexed; not a word have I been able to say to her lately, but tears have been the answer; and I asked what had come to her that she should cry for every trifle as if she were heart-broken. With that, she fell into a burst of sobs, terrifying to see, and ran from the room. I was thunderstruck. I asked John what could be the matter with her, and he said he could only think she was going crazed."
John Massingbird nodded his head, as if in confirmation. Old Matthew Frost spoke up, his voice trembling with the emotion that he was striving to keep under—
"Did she say what it was that had come to her, ma'am?"
"She did not make any reply at all," rejoined Mrs. Verner. "But it is quite nonsense to suppose she could have fallen into that wild burst of grief simply at being joked about Luke. I could not make her out."
"And she has fallen into fretting, you say, ma'am, lately?" pursued Matthew Frost, leaning his venerable white head forward.
"Often and often," replied Mrs. Verner. "She has seemed quite an altered girl in the last few weeks!"
"My son's wife has said the same," cried old Matthew. "She has said that Rachel was changed. But I took it to mean in her looks—that she had got thinner. You mind the wife saying it, Robin?"
"Yes, I mind it," shortly replied Robin, who had propped himself against the wall, his arms folded and his head bent. "I'm a-minding all."
"She wouldn't eat a bit o' supper," went on old Matthew. "But that was nothing," he added; "she used to say she had plenty of food here, without eating ours. She sat apart by the fire with one o' the little uns in her lap. She didn't stay over long; she said the missus might be wanting her, and she left; and when she was kissing my poor old face, she began sobbing. Robin offered to see her home—"
"And she wouldn't have it," interrupted Robin, looking up for the first time with a wild expression of despair. "She said she had things to get at Mother Duff's, and should stop a bit there, a-gossiping. It'll be on my mind by day and by night, that if I'd went with her, harm couldn't have come."
"And that was how she left you," pursued Mr. Verner. "You did not see her after that? You know nothing further of her movements?"
"Nothing further," assented Robin. "I watched her down the lane as far as the turning, and that was the last."
"Did she go to Mrs. Duff's, I wonder?" asked Mr. Verner.
Oh, yes; several of those present could answer that. There was the parcel brought up by Dan Duff, as testimony; and, if more had been needed, Mrs. Duff herself had afforded it, for she made one of the crowd outside.
"We must have Mrs. Duff in," said Mr. Verner.
Accordingly, Mrs. Duff was brought in—a voluble lady with red hair. Mr. Verner politely asked her to be seated, but she replied that she'd prefer to stand, if 'twas all the same. She was used to standing in her shop, and she couldn't never sit for a minute together when she was upset.
"Did Rachel Frost purchase things of you this evening, Mrs. Duff?"
"Well, she did, and she didn't," responded Mrs. Duff. "I never calls it purchasing of things, sir, when a customer comes in and says, 'Just cut me off so and so, and send it up.' They be sold, of course, if you look at it in that light; but I'm best pleased when buyers examines the goods, and chats a bit over their merits. Susan Peckaby, now, she—"
"What did Rachel Frost buy?" interrupted Mr. Verner, who knew what Mrs. Duff's tongue was, when it was once set going.
"She looked in at the shop, sir, while I was a-serving little Green with some bone buttons, that her mother had sent her for. 'I want some Irish for aprons, Mrs. Duff,' says she. 'Cut off the proper quantity for a couple, and send it me up some time to-morrow. I'd not give the trouble,' says she, 'but I can't wait to take it now, for I'm in a hurry to get home, and I shall be wanting the aprons.' 'What quality—pretty good?' said I. 'Oh, you know,' says she; 'about the same that I bought last time. And put in the tape for strings, and a reel of white cotton, No. 30. And I don't mind if you put in a piece of that German ribbon, middling width,' she went on. 'It's nicer than tape for nightcaps, and them sort o' things.' And with that, sir, she was turning out again, when her eyes was caught by some lavender prints, as was a-hanging just in the doorway. Two shades of it, there was, dark and light. 'That's pretty,' says she. 'It's beautiful,' said I; 'they be the sweetest things I have had in, this many a day; and they be the wide width. Won't you take some of it for a gownd?' 'No,' says she, 'I'm set up for cotton gownds.' 'Why not buy a bit of it for a apron or two?' I said. 'Nothing's cleaner than them lavender prints for morning aprons, and they saves the white.' So she looked at it for a minute, and then she said I might cut her off a couple o' yards of the light, and send it up with the other things. Well, sir, Sally Green went away with her buttons, and I took down the light print, thinking I'd cut off the two yards at once. Just then, Susan Peckaby comes in for some gray worsted, and she falls right in love with the print. 'I'll have a gownd of that,' says she, 'and I'll take it now.' In course, sir, I was only too glad to sell it to her, for, like Rachel, she's good pay; but when I come to measure it, there was barely nine yards left, which is what Susan Peckaby takes for a gownd, being as tall as a maypole. So I was in a mess; for I couldn't take and sell it all, over Rachel's head, having offered it to her. 'Perhaps she wouldn't mind having her aprons off the dark,' says Susan Peckaby; 'it don't matter what colour aprons is of—they're not like gownds.' And then we agreed that I should send Dan up here at once to ask her, and Susan Peckaby—who seemed mighty eager to have the print—said she'd wait till he come back. And I cut off the white Irish, and wrapped it up with the tape and things, and sent him."
"Rachel Frost had left your shop, then?"
"She left it, sir, when she told me she'd have some of the lavender print. She didn't stay another minute."
Robin Frost lifted his head again. "She said she was going to stop at your place for a bit of a gossip, Mother Duff."
"Then she didn't stop," responded that lady. "She never spoke a single word o' gossip, or looked inclined to speak it. She just spoke out short, as if she was in a hurry, and she turned clean out o' the shop afore the words about the lavender print had well left her. Ask Sally Green, if you don't believe me."
"You did not see which way she took?" observed Mr. Verner.
"No, sir, I didn't; I was behind my counter. But, for the matter o' that, there was two or three as saw her go out of my shop and take the turning by the pound—which is a good proof she meant to come home here by the field way, for that turning, as you know, sir, leads to nowhere else."
Mr. Verner did know it. He also knew—for witnesses had been speaking of it outside—that Rachel had been seen to take that turning after she left Mrs. Duff's shop, and that she was walking with a quick step.
The next person called in was Master Dan Duff—in a state of extreme consternation at being called in at all. He was planted down in front of Mr. Verner, his legs restless. An idea crossed his brain that they might be going to accuse him of putting Rachel into the pond, and he began to cry. With a good deal of trouble on Mr. Verner's part, owing to the young gentleman's timidity, and some circumlocution on his own, the facts, so far as Dan was cognisant of them, were drawn forth. It appeared that after he had emerged from the field when he made that slight diversion in pursuit of the running animal, he continued his road, and had gained the lonely part near where the pond was situated, when young Broom, the son of Mr. Verner's gamekeeper, ran up and asked him what was the matter, and whether anybody was in the pond. Broom did not wait for an answer, but went on to the pond, and Dan Duff followed him. Sure enough, Rachel Frost was in it. They knew her by her clothes, as she rose to the surface. Dan Duff, in his terror, went back shrieking to Verner's Pride, and young Broom, more sensibly, ran for help to get her out.
"How did young Broom know, or suspect, there was anybody in the pond?" questioned Mr. Verner.
"I dun know, please, sir," sobbed Dan Duff; "that was what he said as he runned off to it. He asked me if I had seen any folks about, and I said I'd only seen that un in the lane."
"Whom did you see in the lane?"
"I dun know who it was, please, sir," returned Dan, sniffing greatly. "I wasn't a-nigh him."
"But you must have been nigh him if you met him in the lane."
"Please, sir, I wasn't in the lane then. I had runned into the field after a cat."
"After a cat?"
"Please, sir, 'twere a cat, I think. But it got away, and I didn't find it. I saw somebody a-passing of the gate up the lane, but I warn't quick enough to see who."
"Going which way?"
"Please, sir, up towards here. If I hadn't turned into the field, I should ha' met him face to face. I dun know who it was."
"Did you hear any noise near the pond, or see any movement in its direction, before you were accosted by Broom?"
"Please, sir, no."
It appeared to be of little use to detain Mr. Duff. In his stead young Broom was called in. A fine-grown young fellow of nineteen, whose temperament may be indicated by two words—cool and lazy. He was desired to give his own explanation.
"I was going home for the night, sir," he began, in answer, "when I heard the sound of voices in dispute. They seemed to come from the direction of the grove of trees near the Willow Pond, and I stayed to listen. I thought perhaps some of the Dawsons and Roy had come to an encounter out there; but I soon found that one of the voices was that of a woman. Quite a young voice it sounded, and it was broke by sobs and tears. The other voice was a man's."
"Only two! Did you recognise them?"
"No, sir, I did not recognise them; I was too far off, maybe. I only made out that it was two—a man's and a woman's. I stopped a few minutes, listening, and they seemed to quiet down, and then, as I was going on again, I came up to Mrs. Roy. She was kneeling down, and—"
"Kneeling down?" interrupted Mr. Verner.
"She was kneeling down, sir, with her hands clasped round the trunk of a tree, like one in mortal fright. She laid hold of me then, and I asked what was the matter with her, and she answered that she had been a'most frightened to death. I asked whether it was at the quarrel, but she only said, 'Hush! listen!' and at last she set on to cry. Just then we heard an awful shriek, and a plunge into the water. 'There goes something into the Willow Pond,' said I, and I was turning to run to it, when Mrs. Roy shrieked out louder than the other shriek had been, and fell flat down on the earth. I never hardly see such a face afore for ghastliness. The moon was shining out full then, and it daunted me to look at her. I thought she was dead—that the fright had killed her. There wasn't a bit o' breath in her body, and I raised her head up, not knowing what to do with her. Presently she heaved a sort of sigh, and opened her eyes; and with that she seemed to recollect herself, and asked what was in the pond. I left her and went off to it, meeting Dan Duff—and we found it was Rachel Frost. Dan, he set on to howl, and wouldn't stay, and I went for the nearest help, and got her out. That's all, sir."
"Was she already dead?"
"Well, sir, when you first get a person out of the water it's hard to say whether they be dead or not. She seemed dead, but perhaps if there had been means right at hand, she might have been brought-to again."
A moan of pain from old Matthew. Mr. Verner continued as it died out—
"Rachel Frost's voice must have been one of those you heard in dispute?"
"Not a doubt of that, sir," replied young Broom. "Any more than that there must have been foul play at work to get her into the pond, or that the other disputing voice must have belonged to the man who did it."
"Softly, softly," said Mr. Verner. "Did you see any man about?"
"I saw nobody at all, sir, saving Dan Duff and Mrs. Roy; and Rachel's quarrel could not have been with either of them. Whoever the other was, he had made himself scarce."
Robin Frost took a step forward respectfully.
"Did you mind, sir, that Mother Duffs Dan spoke to seeing some person in the lane?"
"I do," replied Mr. Verner. "I should like to ask the boy another question or two upon that point. Call him in, one of you."
John Massingbird went out and brought back the boy.
"Mind you have your wits sharp about you this time, Mr. Duff," he remarked. Which piece of advice had the effect of scaring Mr. Duff's wits more completely away than they had been scared before.
"You tell us that you saw a man pass up the lane when you were in the field after the cat," began Mr. Verner. "Was the man walking fast?"
"Please, sir, yes. Afore I could get out o' the gate he was near out o' sight. He went a'most as fast as the cat did."
"How long was it, after you saw him, before you met young Broom, and heard that somebody was in the pond?"
"Please, sir, 'twas a'most directly. I was running then, I was."
As the boy's answer fell upon the room, a conviction stole over most of those collected in it that this man must have been the one who had been heard in dispute with Rachel Frost.
"Were there no signs about him by which you could recognise him?" pursued Mr. Verner. "What did he look like? Was he tall or short?"
"Please, sir, he were very tall."
"Could you see his dress? Was it like a gentleman's or a labourer's?"
"Please, sir, I think it looked like a gentleman's—like one o' the gentlemen's at Verner's Pride."
"Whose? Like which of the gentlemen's?" rang out Mr. Verner's voice, sharply and sternly, after a moment's pause of surprise, for he evidently had not expected the answer.
"Please, sir, I dun know which. The clothes looked dark, and the man were as tall as the gentlemen, or as Calves."
"Calves?" echoed Mr. Verner, puzzled.
John Massingbird broke into an involuntary smile. He knew that their tall footman, Bennet, was universally styled "Calves" in the village. Dan Duff probably believed it to be his registered name.