The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Life of Thomas Wanless, Peasant, by Alexander Johnstone Wilson This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org Title: The Life of Thomas Wanless, Peasant Author: Alexander Johnstone Wilson Release Date: November 25, 2011 [EBook #38136] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1 *** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE LIFE OF THOMAS WANLESS *** Produced by Moti Ben-Ari and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net (This book was produced from scanned images of public domain material from the Google Print project.)
|I.||A HELOT'S NURTURE,||11|
|II.||A PHILANTHROPIC PARSON,||24|
|III.||THE "ALLOTMENT" CURE FOR HUNGER,||31|
|VI.||NATURE OF A SERMON,||85|
|VII.||MEN FOR A STANDING ARMY,||96|
|VIII.||VERY ARISTOCRATIC COMPANY,||115|
|IX.||AN OLD, OLD STORY,||123|
|XI.||A MERE PEASANT MAIDEN,||139|
|XII.||HIGH AND LOW BREEDING,||150|
|XIII.||PREACHERS OF "WORDS",||157|
|XV.||TOO BAD FOR DESCRIPTION,||179|
|XVI.||A BETTER QUEST,||186|
|XVII.||NOTHING THAT IS NEW,||195|
|XVIII.||SWEET ARE THE USES OF ADVERSITY,||209|
|XIX.||THE LOST ONE IS FOUND,||217|
|XX.||THE LAST LONG SLEEP OF ALL,||226|
|XXI.||THE JOURNEY'S END,||236|
Some years ago it was my habit to spend the long vacation in a quiet Warwickshire village, not far from the fashionable town of Leamington. I chose this spot for its sweet peace and its withdrawnness; for the opportunities it gave me of wandering along the beautiful tree-shaded country lanes; for its nearness to such historical spots as Warwick, Kenilworth, and Stratford-on-Avon, to all of which I could either walk or ride in a morning. But I love a quiet village for its own sake above most things, and would rather spend my leisure amongst its simple cottage folk, take my rest on the bench at the village alehouse door, and walk amid the smock-frocked peasantry to the grey village church, than mingle with the fashionable, over-dressed, prurient, hollow-hearted, and artificial products of civilisation that constitute themselves society—yea a thousand-fold rather. To me the restfulness of a little village, with its cots nestling among the drowsy trees in a warm summer day, is a foreshadowing of the rest of heaven. So I settled myself in little Ashbrook, in a room sweet and cool, of its little inn, and laughed at the foolish creatures who, with weary, purposeless steps trode daily the Leamington Parade with hearts full of all envy and jealousy at sight of such other descendants of our tattooed ancestors as fortune might enable to gaud their bodies more lavishly than they. These droned their idle life away flirting, reading the skim-milk, often unwholesome, literature of the fashionable library; jabbering about dress, and picking characters to pieces; shooting in the gardens at archery meetings; patronising religious shows and thinking it refinement. And I? I wander forth alone, filling my sketch-book with whatsoever takes my fancy, or, in sociable moods, drink my ale in rustic company, talking of hard winters and low wages, the difficulty of living, of rural incidents, and the joys and sorrows of those toilers by whose hard labour the few are made rich. They are not faultless, these rustics, but they are very human, and their vices are unsophisticated vices—the art of gilding iniquity, of luxuriously tricking out a frivolous existence in the most subtle conceits of dress and demeanour, has not yet reached them. When they sin they do not sublimise their sins into the little peccadilloes and amusements incident to civilisation. So I love them; marred and crooked and dull-witted though they may be, they suit my humour, and fall in with my tastes for the open air, the free expanse of landscape, the grand old trees, and the verdure-clothed banks of the sleepy streams.
It was in this village that I met my peasant. He was not a man easy to pick acquaintance with, for he mingled little among the gossips of the place. Never once did I see him at the village inn or in church. He lived apart in a little cottage near the Warwick end of the village, with his wife and a little lass of ten or eleven summers—his granddaughter. I often met him in the early morning going to market with his baskets of vegetables, or in the cool of the evening, when he would go out with his little girl skipping and dancing by his side. And the very first time I saw him he awakened in me a strong interest. There was something striking in his aspect—a still calm was on his face, and at the same time a hardness lay about the mouth, and in the wrinkles around the eyes, which was almost repellant. His figure had been above the middle height; and although now bent and gaunt-looking, had still an aspect of calm energy and decayed strength. But what struck me most was the grand, almost majestic outline of his profile, and the keenness of his yet undimmed eye, which flashed from beneath grey shaggy eyebrows with a light that entered one's soul. The face was thoroughly English in type, with features singularly regular, the forehead broad, the nose aquiline, the chin large; and still in old age round and clean and full, though the cheeks had fallen in and the mouth had become drawn and hard. Had one met this man in "society," dressed in correct evening costume, surrounded by courtly dames in half-dress, one would have been struck by the individuality of that grand, grey face. Meanly clad, bent, and leaning on a common oaken staff, the face and figure of this old peasant were such as once looked at could not be easily forgotten. This also was a man with a soul in him; ay, and with a heart too; for does not his eye rest with an inexpressibly sad tenderness on the slim girl by his side when she interrupts his reverie with the eager query, "Grand-dad, grand-dad! Oh look at this poor dead bird in the path; who could have killed it?"
My interest in this solitary man was keenly roused; and, from the inquiries I made, I learned enough of his history to make me anxious to know him. But that was not a desire easily gratified. Although always courteous in returning my "good evening," he did so with an air that forbade conversation, and gave me back but monosyllables to any remarks I might make about the weather, the crops, or the child. He was not rude, only reserved and dry, and that not with me only. To nearly all the villagers his manner was the same. Only two may be said to have been frequenters of his house, the old schoolmaster and the sexton. Even his wife had few or no gossips. Yet everyone seemed to respect him, and many spoke of him with a kind of friendly pity. Whether or not the respect was partly due to the fact that the old man was supposed to have means—that is, that although no longer able to do more than cultivate his little garden and allotment patch, he was yet not on the parish—I cannot say, but it was clear that the kindliness at least was genuine. And so no one intruded on him. All saluted him respectfully and left him to himself, save perhaps when one of the village milk dealers might give him a lift on his way to market. Sometimes on a warm evening I have seen him seated at his cottage door with a newspaper on his knee, smoking his evening pipe, and answering the greetings of passers by. But except his two old friends, and perhaps some village children playing with his little one, there was no gathering of neighbours; no gossips leant over his fence to discuss village scandals and local politics. He was a man apart; and thus it happened that my first holiday in the village passed away leaving me still a stranger to old Thomas Wanless.
But for an accident we might have been strangers still, and I would not have troubled the world with this old peasant's history. I was walking home one morning from Leamington, whither I had gone to buy some fresh colours and a sketch-book, when I heard in a hollow behind me a vehicle of some sort coming along the road at a great pace. Almost immediately a dog-cart driven tandem overtook and passed me. It contained a stout, rather blotched-looking man, who might be any age from thirty-five to fifty, and a groom. Just beyond the road took rather a sharp turn to the right, dipping into another hollow, and the dog-cart had hardly disappeared round the corner when I heard a shrill scream of pain, followed by oaths, loud and deep, uttered in a harsh, metallic, but husky voice. I ran forward and immediately came upon Thomas Wanless's little girl lying moaning in the road, white and unable to move, grasping a bunch of wild flowers in one hand. Half-a-crown lay amongst the dust near her, and the dog-cart was dashing over the crest of the further slope, apparently on its way to the Grange. Without pausing to think, but cursing the while the heartlessness of those who seemed to think half-a-crown compensation enough for the injury done to this little one, I flung my parcel over the hedge, and gathering the half-fainting child as gently as I could in my arms, hurried with her to her grandfather's cottage. It was a good half-mile walk, partly through the village. The child was heavy, and I arrived hot and out of breath, followed by several matrons who had caught sight of me as I passed by, and who stood round the door with anxious faces. A milkman's cart met me on the way, and I begged its occupant to drive with all speed to Warwick for a surgeon, as the child had been run over. The man answered yes, and went.
When I burst into Thomas's house he was dozing in his armchair, but the noise woke him and brought his wife in from the garden. "Oh, my God," cried Thomas, as he caught sight of the child; and he tried to rise, but sank again into his seat pale as death, and trembling all over. His wife burst into tears, but immediately swept an old couch clear of some clothes and child's playthings, and there I laid poor Sally, as the old woman called her, half unconscious and still moaning. Rapidly Mrs. Wanless loosened the child's clothes, and as she did so I told them what had occurred. When I described the man who had run over the child, I was startled by a sudden flash of angry scorn, almost of hate, that mantled over the old man's face. He clutched the arms of his chair convulsively, and half rose from his seat as he almost hissed out the words—"By Heaven, the child has been killed by its own father." He seemed to regret the words as soon as uttered, and tried to hide his confusion by eagerly inquiring of his wife if she had found out where Sally was hurt. The effort failed him, however, and he remained visibly embarrassed by my presence. I would have left, but I too was anxious to see where Sarah was hurt, so I turned to the couch to give Thomas time to recover himself. As I did so, Sally screamed. Her grandmother had attempted to draw down her loosened dress, and in doing so had disturbed the child's legs, causing acute pain.
I judged at once that a leg was either bruised or broken, and begged Mrs. Wanless to feel gently for the hurt. Almost immediately the child uttered a scream, crying, "Oh, my right leg, my right leg;" and a brief examination proved the fact that it was broken just a little way below the knee. The sobbing of the child unnerved Mrs. Wanless, and she seemed about to faint, so I led her to a seat, gave her a glass of water, and returned to Sarah, turning her carefully flat on her back, and kneeling down, gently removed her stocking from the broken limb, which I then laid straight out on the couch, propping it on either side with such soft articles as I could lay hands on. That done, I told Sarah to lie as still as she could until the doctor came, when he would soon ease her pain. Soothing the child thus, and hardly thinking of the old people, I was suddenly interrupted by Thomas. He had risen from his chair, and, leaning on his staff, had approached the couch. He stood there for a little, looking at his little maiden with an expression of intense pain and sorrow on his face. Then he turned to me, and, without speaking, held out his hand. I rose to my feet, grasped it, and, suddenly bethinking myself for the first time, uncovered my head. The tears gathered in my eyes in spite of myself. I knew in my heart that Thomas Wanless and I were friends.
And great friends we became in time. At first I went to the cottage daily to enquire after little Sarah, who progressed favourably under the Warwick surgeon's care; and when she was past all danger and pain, I went to talk with old Thomas. Gradually his heart opened to me; and bit by bit I gathered up the main incidents of his history. A commonplace history enough, yet tragic too; for Thomas was no commonplace man. There was a depth of passion beneath that still hard face; a wealth of feeling, a range of thought that to me was utterly astounding. What had not this village labourer known and suffered; what sorrow; what baffled hope; yea, what despair; and, through despair, what peace! As I sat by his chair on the summer evenings and listened to his talk with his old friends, or walked with him in the by-lanes, gathering from his lips the leading events of his life, my heart often burned within me. Yet, refined reader, gentle reader, Thomas Wanless was only a peasant; a man that sold vegetables and flowers from door to door in little Warwick town to eke out his means of subsistence. His was the toiler's lot; the lot without hope for this world, whose natural end is want, and a pauper's grave.
Can I hope to interest you in this man's history? I confess I have my doubts. There is tragedy in it; it is mostly tragedy; but then it is the tragedy of the low born. I shall not be able to introduce you to any arch plotter; to groups of refined adulteresses clad in robes of satin and blazoned with jewels and gold, at once the sign and the fruit of their shame. Nor can I promise to unweave startling plots, or to deal in mysterious horrors such as cause the flesh of dainty ladies to creep with a delicious excitement. No; the incidents of Thomas Wanless's story are mostly those of a plain English villager, doomed to suffer and to bear his share of the load of our national greatness; one above the common level in his personal qualities to be sure, but nowise above the common lot. Those who cannot bear to read of such, had better close the book.
Read by you or not, Thomas Wanless's story I must write, for it is a story that all the upper powers of these realms would do well to ponder—from the serene defenders of the faith, with their high satellite, lord bishops in lawn sleeves, downwards. The day is coming, and coming soon, when the men of Thomas Wanless's stamp will invite these dignitaries to give an account of themselves, and to justify the manner of their being under penalty of summary notice to quit.
The grandfather of Thomas Wanless had been a small Warwickshire yeoman, whom the troublous times towards the latter end of the last century, family misfortunes, and the pressure of the large landowners, had combined to reduce in circumstances. His son Jacob had, therefore, found himself in the position of a day labourer on the farms around Ashbrook, raised above his fellow labourers only by the fact that he could sign his name, and that, through his wife, he owned a small freehold cottage with about a quarter of an acre of garden in the village. His unusual literary accomplishments, and his small possession did little to relieve him from the common miseries which pressed more or less on all, but most, of course, on the lowest class, during the years that succeeded the "glorious" Napoleonic wars. The winter of 1819, therefore, found him wrestling with the bitter energy of a hungry despair to get bread for a family of six children. The task proved too much for him, and he was reluctantly driven to let his oldest boy Thomas go to work on the Whitbury farm for a shilling a week. Thomas had been trying to pick up some inkling of the art of reading at a dame's school in the village, but had not made much progress—could, when thus launched on the world, do no more than spell out the Sermon on the Mount, or the first verses of the 1st chapter in John's Gospel, and ere a year was well over he had forgotten even that. There were no demagogues in those days disturbing peaceful villages with clamours for education; no laws prohibiting the labour of little children at tasks beyond their strength.
The squires, the parsons, and the larger farmers had the law in their own hands, and combined to keep the lower orders in ignorance, giving God thanks that they had the power so to do. The sporting parson of Ashbrook of that day even thought it superfluous to teach those d——d labourers' brats the Catechism. He appeared to think his duty done when he had stumbled through the prayers once a week in church. That, at least, was the range of his spiritual duties. For the rest, he considered it of the highest moment that his tithes should be promptly paid; that all poaching should be summarily punished, and that the hunting appointments of the shire should always be graced by his presence. It was also a point of duty with him always to vote true blue, and never to miss a good dinner at any aristocratic table within his reach. He would say grace with fervour, and drink the good wines till his face grew purple and his eyes bloodshot. If he had another mission in life, it was to do his best to divert in sublime disregard of merit or human wants, the charity which some reluctantly contrite sinner of former days had left for the poor of the parish, to the use of creatures who had excited his good feeling by their obsequiousness.
So it came to pass that little Thomas Wanless was launched on the world at the early age of eight, at the age when the well-to-do begin to think of sending their children to school. Clad in a sort of blue smock and heavy clog boots; patched, not over-warm breeches and stockings, Thomas had to face the wintry blasts in the early morning, for it was a good mile walk to Whitbury Farm. There, all day long, he either trudged wearily by the sides of the horses at plough, often nearly frozen with cold, or did rough jobs about the cattle or pigs in the muck-littered farmyard. Weary, heavy hearted, and hungry, the lad came home at night to his meagre supper of thin oatmeal porridge, or of black bread flavoured with coarse bacon, washed down sometimes with a little thin ale or cider. Often he had for dinner only dry bread and a little watery cheese, and rarely or never any meat or milk. Supper over the boy crept straight to bed. For two years this was the life the boy led, and at the end of these two years his wage was but eighteenpence a week. No food was given him save, perhaps, an occasional hunch of bread surreptitiously conveyed to him beneath the apron of a dairymaid endowed with fellow feeling. What need to fill up the picture of these years—who does not know it now? The long autumn days spent watching the corn, often, weary with watching, and hungry, falling asleep by the hedge side. The dreary winters, the hard pallet, and still harder fare, the scant clothing and chilled blood, the crowded sleeping rooms and wan stunted figures; find you not all the history of lives like this set forth in Parliamentary Blue Books for legislators to ponder over and mend, if they can or care. Thomas Wanless suffered no more hardships than millions that have gone before him, or that follow after to this day, bearing on their weary, patient shoulders the burden of our magnificent civilization. He and the others suspected not that this was their allotted mission in our immaculate order of society; but the concrete sufferings of his lot he could feel. For him the harsh words and cruel blows of the farmer were real enough, and, in the misery of his present sufferings, his young life lost its joy and hope. For him the birds that sang in the sweet spring time brought no melody of heaven, the autumn with its golden grain no joy. He knew only of labour, and men's hardness, and was familiar mostly with hunger and cold and pain. The divine order of the British Constitution had ordained it—why should he complain? If my lord and my lady lived in wasteful luxury, if proud squires and their henchmen trod crops under foot in their pursuit of sport, totally regardless of a people's necessities; if vermin, strictly preserved, ate the bread of the poor in order that the lordly few might indulge the wild brute passion for slaughter, deemed by them a mark of high-breeding, what was that to Thomas and his kind? Had not those people a right to their pleasure? Was not the land theirs, by theft or fraud it might be, but still theirs by a power none dared gainsay? All that was as clear as day, and religion itself was distinctly on the side of the upper classes. The Church through its tithes shared in their exclusive privileges, and the parson of the parish was a diligent guardian of property. On the rare occasions when he preached a sermon his theme was the duty of the poor to be contented and obedient. Men who dared to think, he classed as rioters, who, like poachers and rick-burners, were an abomination to the Lord. Who so dared to question the divine order of British society, deserved, in the parson's view, everlasting death. Wealth, in short, according to this beautiful gospel, was for them that had it or could steal it within the lines of the constitution, and for the poor there was degradation, hunger, rags, and, by way of hope, a chance of the pauper's heaven.
It must be all right, of course; but somehow, gradually, to little Thomas it did not appear so. Very young and ignorant as he was, strange thoughts began to stir within him. At home he saw his father sinking more and more into the hopeless state of a man whose only earthly hope was the parish workhouse; he saw his mother beaten to the earth with the weary work of rearing a family of six children, without the means of giving them enough to eat. One by one these went out, like himself, from their little three-roomed cottage to try and earn the bread they needed. The girls worked in the fields like the rest. All were, like himself, uneducated, and, in spite of all, the wolf could hardly be kept from the door when bread was dear, as it often was in those days. His father's wages never averaged more than 8s. a-week the year round. But what did that matter? Had not the parish provided a poorhouse, and did it not give bread of a kind to every miserable groundling whom it could not drive beyond its bounds? They ought surely to have been contented. Yet Thomas, who saw and often felt their hunger, and contrasted it with the coarse profusion at the farm, and the pampered condition of the squire's menials at the Grange—he doubted many things.
The sight of a meeting of fox-hunters, and of the rush of their horses across the cultivated land, filled him with wrath even then. The life he saw around him had no unity in it. Thus it happened that, by the time he was 13, though still stunted in body, he had begun to assert some amount of dogged independence, and was driven away from Whitbury farm because he flew at his drunken master for striking him with the waggoner's whip.
With some difficulty he got work after this, at 2s. a week and his dinner, on a small dairy farm called the Brooks, which lay a mile further from the village, on the Stratford Road. There he got better treatment. His master was a quiet hard-working man, who had himself a hard struggle to meet his rent, maintain his stock of nine cows, and get a living. His own troubles had tended rather to soften than harden his nature. Thomas, though having to work early and late, at least always got his warm dinner, and often received a draught of milk from the motherly housewife. Here, therefore, he began to grow; his stunted limbs straightened out; his chest expanded, and, by the time he was seventeen he gave the promise of becoming a more than usually stalwart labourer.
While Thomas was still new at this dairy farm, and while the remembrance of his defiance was still fresh in the minds of farmer Pemberton, of Whitbury, and his family, he was subjected to an outrage which almost killed him, and left a mark on his mind which was fresh and vivid to the day of his death. Farmer Pemberton's sons resolved to have a lark with the "impudent young devil." Their first idea was to catch Thomas as he came home at night, and, after trouncing him soundly, duck him in the stinking pond formed by the farm sewage. On consulting their friend, the eldest son of Lawyer Turner, of Warwick, he, however, said that it would be better to frighten the little beggar into doing something they might get him clapped into jail for. Led by this young knave, the farmer's three sons disguised themselves by blackening their faces and donning old clothes. Then, armed with bludgeons and knives, they lay in wait for Thomas as he came home from work in the gloom of an October evening. Their intention was to seize him, and amid great demonstrations of knives and fearful imprecations, order him to take them to Farmer Pemberton's rickyard. Once there they intended to force him to set fire to some straw in the yard, and then seize him for fire-raising. As young Turner said, they might easily in this way swear him into jail for a twelvemonth.
This diabolical plot was actually and literally carried out upon this poor, ignorant, peasant lad by four young men, supposed to be educated and civilised; and it might have had all the disastrous consequences they could have wished but for an accident. A labourer on the farm overheard part of the conversation of the plotters as they marshalled themselves on the night of the expedition, and, as soon as the coast was clear, stole off to warn the boy's father. Jacob Wanless and he at once roused the neighbours; and, after a delay of perhaps twenty minutes, half a dozen men started for Whitbury Farm, while as many took the Stratford Road to try to save the boy from capture.
The latter party was too late; Thomas was caught near a cross-road about a quarter of a mile from the farm. Two disguised men rushed upon him from opposite sides of the road with savage growls, their blackened faces half hid in mufflers. Brandishing clubs and knives, they demanded his name. Thomas gave one piercing yell of terror and dashed forward, but was seized and held fast. Gripping him by the collar of his smock till he was nearly choked, young Turner again demanded his name, and, on Thomas gasping it out, roared in his ear, "then you are the villain we want. You must take us to farmer Pemberton's rickyard and stables. We are rick-burners, and will kill you unless you obey." Whereat he flourished a knife, and drew the back of it across his own throat, with a significant gurgle. Thomas trembled in every limb, tried to speak, but his tongue failing him, burst into a wail of crying instead, and sank to the ground. The scoundrels laughed hoarsely, and, amid a volley of oaths, hauled him to his feet. Then forcing him on his knees, Turner ordered him to swear to lead them to the place, and keep faith with them. As the boy hesitated, they stood over him crying, "Swear, swear, you obstinate pig, or you die," and Turner held the knife to his heart. Thoroughly cowed and terror stricken, Thomas gasped out, "I swear." A man on each side then laid hold of him, hauled him to his feet and led him towards the farm, the other two ruffians acting guards, muttering foul oaths, and brandishing their cudgels within an inch of his face in a way that froze his very heart's blood with terror.
Arrived at the barn, they produced a tinderbox, and, lighting a match, ordered Thomas to set fire to a heap of loose straw that lay near the barn door. Thomas refused. A dim glimmer of the fact that he was being hoaxed had risen through his fears. He thought he knew the voices of at least two of his tormentors, and he grew bolder. Twice the order was repeated amid ominous handling of knives, but he sullenly bade them light the straw themselves, and thrust his hands into his pockets. After a third refusal one of the Pembertons struck him in the face a blow that loosened three of his teeth, and made his nose bleed profusely. Then once more he was asked to light the straw, but the only reply was a piercing cry for help. In a moment a gag was thrust into his bleeding mouth, and he was flung on the ground, where they proceeded to pinion his hands and his feet. Before completing the tying, Turner hissed into his ear, "Hold up your hand to say you yield, you little devil, or we will beat you to death." But Thomas lay still, so the whole four of them commenced to push him about with their feet, and to strike him with their sticks, amid growls and horrid oaths. Then Thomas lost consciousness. When he awoke again he was at home in his mother's bed. His mother was kneeling by his side weeping bitterly, and his father stood over him holding a feeble rushlight, watching for the return of life. The boy was in great pain, especially about the legs and abdomen, and could not move his left arm at all. His face was swollen, his lips and gums lacerated and sore, and he lay tossing in pain till the grey morning light, when he dropt off into a fitful sleep. A fortnight elapsed before he was able to resume work.
The rescuing party had reached the farm barely in time to prevent the brutal ruffians from carrying their sport to perhaps a fatal conclusion. Guided by the curses and laughter, Jacob and his friends had rushed upon the savages in the midst of the kicking, and Jacob himself in a frenzy of rage wrenched a cudgel from the nearest of them, felled him to the earth with it, and dragged his son from amongst the others' feet. The man he struck happened to be Turner; and, seeing him down, the cowardly young Pembertons took to their heels before the slower moving labourers could capture them. Turner, all bleeding as he was, they attempted to take with them in order to give him into custody, but on the way to the village he tripped up one of his guards, wrenched himself free, and bolted. An outrage like this surely could not go unpunished. Jacob Wanless determined that it should not, and went to a Warwick lawyer, a rival of old Turner's, with a view to get redress. This lawyer, Overend by name, was a sort of pettifogger, who laid himself out for poor men's work. In his way he was clever enough; but, unfortunately, he often got drunk; and, even when sober, was hardly a match for old Turner. When Thomas's case came before the justices, Jacob, therefore, fared badly. Overend had just enough drink to make him violent and abusive, and the result was that his witnesses were so bamboozled and browbeaten by both Turner and the bench that they became confused, and gave incoherent answers; so it was not very difficult, false swearing being easy, for Turner and his clients to make Thomas the criminal. His attack on old Pemberton's person was raked up in proof of his bad disposition, and his presence in the farmyard was attributed to motives of revenge. As a result, instead of obtaining redress, Jacob's case was dismissed by the magistrates, and he and his son admonished. The chairman of the day, Squire Polewhele, of Middlebury, told Jacob he might be thankful that they did not put his son in jail for assault. There could be no doubt in his opinion that the young scamp had gone to farmer Pemberton's rickyard with malicious intent, for it was clear that he was an ill-conditioned rascal, and if his father did not take better care of his upbringing he might live to see him come to a bad end.
Such was Jacob's consolation. It took him and his son six months to pay Overend's bill of 30s. The unlucky labourer who had brought the news of the plot fared perhaps worse than anybody, for old Pemberton, at the instigation of his sons, turned him off at a moment's notice. It was nearly four months before the poor fellow could get another steady job, and he and his family were all winter chargeable on the rates.
As for the boy Thomas, his nervous system had received such a shock that it became a positive agony to him to have to trudge home from his work in the dark winter nights, and when his father was unable to go to meet him he always ran at the top of his speed past Whitbury farm, his heart within him palpitating like to burst. All his life long, so deep was the impression that fright made on him, a certain nervous tremor seized him whenever he found himself alone on a strange road on a moonless night.
The rest of the boyhood of Thomas Wanless was uneventful. He grew in mind and in stature, and suffered less withal from hunger than many of his order. At the age of twenty he took a wife, following in that respect the habits of those around him. 'Tis the fashion nowadays to inveigh against early marriages, and especially against the poor who marry early. By such a practice it is declared miseries are heaped upon them, and our pauper roll is augmented. This is an easy way to push aside one of the most perplexing social problems that this country has ever had to face. With the growth of wealth marriage has become a luxury even to the rich, and for the comparatively poor a forbidden indulgence. As a consequence of this the youth of the present day avoid marriage with all its hampering ties. A code of morals has thus grown up which may be said to be paving the way for a coming negation of all morality.
A young man may commit almost any crime against a young woman with impunity so long as he steers clear of all hints of marriage. The relations of the sexes are under this modern code utterly unnatural and fruitful of corruption. Nor can it be otherwise while a man is forbidden under penalty of social ostracism to take a wife. To marry is almost as sure a way to renounce the world, with all its hopes and advantages, as of old was the taking of a monastic vow. What the next generation will be, what licenses it will give itself under the modern restrictions which outrage all that is best in humanity, I must not venture to predict. But that corruption is spreading on all hands, that flippancy, folly, and worse, dominate the relationships of the young of both sexes is even now too apparent.
But I am travelling far from Thomas Wanless's history. He at all events felt no social restraint save that of poverty, which he did not fear, and so he married young. The lad had, indeed, little choice.
His mother died when he was 19, and one of his sisters, the youngest of the family, was also dead. The other had married and gone to a village five miles beyond Warwick. Of his three brothers, one only remained at home, a boy of 14. William, the next in age to himself, had been kidnapped at Gloucester, and carried off to sea in a Government ship; and the other boy, Jacob, had a place as stable-boy at Melton Priory, Lord Raven's place, near which his married sister lived. There was no woman, therefore, at home to cook food for the three that were left. His father was too broken down to dream of marrying again, there were no houses in the miserable overcrowded village where the three could be taken in to lodge together, and so, unless they separated, what could Thomas do but marry? He was willing enough, of course, being, like all country lads of his years, honestly in love; and so at twenty he brought home his wife to take his mother's place in the old freehold cottage, soon to be his own. Sarah Leigh was a year or two older than her husband, and had been an under-housemaid at the Grange, the family seat of Squire Wiseman, who was the greatest man of the parish, and lord of the manor. Her experiences there were not, perhaps, such as best fitted her to be a labourer's wife, and at first she was inclined to commiserate herself. But at bottom Sarah was a woman of sense, and by the time her second child arrived had grown into a staid, affectionate housewife, ever cheerfully busy in making her home comfortable.
Prudent or not, Thomas thus found himself in a humble and modest way happy. He was now acting as under-waggoner at a farm called Grimscote, near Warwick, and had as much as 9s. 6d. a week in summer, besides beer and extra money in harvest. In winter his work was also regular, though his wages were then only 8s. a week. His duties often took him considerable distances away from home. He was frequently at Coventry and Stratford-on-Avon, and he had once been as far as Worcester, and as his observant faculties were keen, he took mental notes of what he saw. Full of pity for the misery that he everywhere met, the feelings of his boyhood became keener, and his independence of spirit more out-spoken. Already this had attracted in a passing way the attention of the authorities, and some even went so far as to shake their wiseacre heads over him, and dubiously hint that he might be dangerous.
In the years that elapsed between the close of the Napoleonic wars and the passing of the Reform Bill, as indeed often since, the debasement and misery of the agricultural poor rose to agony point, and soon after Thomas Wanless's marriage an outbreak of popular discontent, based on hunger, stirred a little the smooth surface of society. It became necessary, for very shame, to at least appear to do something for the pauperised masses on whose backs "society" was supported. Accordingly, a pseudo philanthropic agitation was started in the rural districts with the object of bettering, or rather of seeming to better, the peasant's lot. Mass meetings were held, parsons and even bishops threw themselves into the movement, patronised it, and sought to guide it to a consummation safe for themselves and their "dear church," itself then so great a landowner.
For rustic miseries these high personages had one main panacea, and one only. This was not free land, fixity of tenure for the besotted farmers always so content to lie at the feet of their earthly lords; it was not disendowment of the Church and the distribution of its lands among the people from whom they had been taken originally by chicane and greed; nor was it the dismissal, with due payment, of those inheritors of the ancient marauders and appropriators of the soil, with all that is on it and under it, for whom the people have been kept as slaves for many generations. No; none of these things did the servants of the British deity, that idealisation of the sacred rights of feudal property, advocate. Far be such traitor conduct from them. Their cure for the agricultural distress was the "allotment system." To these reformers the free migration of labour, the abolition of that abomination of the poor law which prevented the poor from leaving their parishes, was as nothing compared with allotments. Landlords and parish authorities had but to permit the labourers to cultivate for themselves little patches of land, let to them at a good rent, and what opulence would these serfs not reach.
In the agitation on this tremendous reform, Thomas Wanless took a keen interest, and then first felt sorely his inability to read. He tried to recall the lessons of his childhood, but could not, and was ashamed to apply for help. Few, indeed, amongst his neighbours could have helped him. His wife was as uneducated as himself, so he had to be contented with gathering the purport of what was going on from those he met at market or mill. As far as his mind could comprehend the question it was very clearly made up. He was convinced that all this agitation about professed interest in the down-trodden labourers would do them no good, and he doubted whether any good was meant.
"It's not a bit of charity land we want," he always said. "What I maintain is that you and me an' the likes of us ought to get 10 acres or more at a fair honest rent if we can do wi' it, and let's take our chance. Why shouldn't I be able to keep cows and grow corn as well as the farmer? He often wastes more than three labourers' families could live on, and yet pays his rent. I tell ye, lads, this talk of 'lotments and half acres, and all that, is just damned nonsense, an' that's what it be."
Sentiments like these did not make Thomas popular with the upper powers, and had old Parson Field been alive he might have smarted for his freedom of speech. But the old parson had died shortly before the noise about allotments came to a head, and the new vicar was supposed to be of a different stamp. He was reputed to be a favourite of one of those strange fungoid excrescences of Christianity, the "Lord" Bishop of the diocese, who recommended him for the vacancy, and as he was young and ignorant of the world, he began his work with some moral fervour and a tendency to religious zeal. The Rev. Josiah Codling, M.A., of Jesus College, Cambridge, was in fact a young man of liberal, not to say democratic tendencies. He had been sufficiently impressed by some of the more glorious precepts of the faith he came to teach to wish in a general sort of a way to do good. Left to follow his higher impulses he probably might have led a life of active philanthropy, and the democratic thoroughness of the Christian faith might have enabled him to do something to lift the down-trodden people who formed the bulk of his flock. It was well, at all events, that Mr. Codling began with good intent. He was hardly warm in the parish before he went into the allotment agitation with the feverish enthusiasm of inexperience, and he also had the temerity to start a school. Dismissing the old parish clerk who had drowsily mumbled the "amens" and "we beseech Thee's" for nigh forty years, he brought a young man from Birmingham who knew something of the three R's, and was rumoured to have even conned a Latin primer, and constituted him parish clerk and schoolmaster. The vicarage coach-house was turned into a schoolroom till better could be provided, and the vicar and his assistant began, the one to hunt up pupils, and the other to guide their feet in the way of knowledge.
The farmers for a time looked on, scarce able to realise the meaning of this innovation, but the more they looked the less they liked what they saw. So they grumbled when they met in the churchyard on Sundays, and shook their heads portentously over their beer or brandy punch at market ordinaries, hinting that the "Squoire" should interfere. In their bovine manner they soon began to place stumbling-blocks in the vicar's path. A sudden demand for the services of boys and girls sprang up. Nearly every farmer in the district found that he needed a new ploughboy or kitchen wench, and the universal shilling rose to eighteenpence a week, from the sheer pressure of this demand. Nothing daunted, Parson Codling determined to start a night school, and if possible get the grown lads and young men to attend. He succeeded in inducing nearly thirty youths to come to this night class, and among the first to do so was Thomas Wanless. Here was his chance, he thought, and he seized it with avidity. Soon the numbers thinned away. Some left because they could see no good in learning, but most of them because their masters on hearing of the class threatened to dismiss them at once unless they promised to stop "going to play the fool with that young Varsity ninny o' a parson, as knew nowt o' plain country folks' wants;" and at the end of a month the young schoolmaster had only seven pupils. To these he stuck fast, and they made great progress that winter, for the poor pale-faced Birmingham lad was an enthusiast in his way. Thomas and he became close friends, and the former drank in the current political ideas which William Brown brought with him from Birmingham as a sponge drinks up water. Early and late, at every spare moment, Thomas was busy with his book, and by the time spring came round again he was able to read with tolerable ease the small county newspaper that found its way a week old from the Grange to the village inn. He had read the Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and some other books lent him by the vicar, who looked upon him as his model scholar, and took glory to himself over the labourer's success.
From that winter forth, however, the enthusiasm of the new vicar for education sensibly died away. Naturally fitful in disposition, he craved for immediate results, and, if they came not, his hopes were disappointed, and his efforts at once relaxed. The pressure of the upper powers of his parish was also beginning to tell on his unsophisticated mind. He met with little overt opposition, for that might have been both troublesome and impolitic. But quiet social forces worked on him continually to bring him round to a proper sense of his position as local priest of feudalism. When he dined out, which often happened, his host would chaff him on his attempts to make scholars of those loafing rascals of labourers. Squire Wiseman in particular gravely assured him that he was encouraging dangerous ideas among a very dissolute and indefinitely corrupt lot of pariahs. Educate them and they would altogether go to the devil.
"Tell you what it is, sir," shouted a half-drunk J.P. one evening as the vicar and some half dozen others sat over their wine after dinner at Squire Wiseman's: "Tell you what it is; we must get you a wife; blest if that wouldn't give you something better to do, my boy, than trying to make gentlemen of those damn'd skulking labourers."
The company ha ha'd with delight, and the parson blushed to the very root of his hair.
"Capital idea, 'pon my life!" said the host; "and I know just the girl for you, Codling—at least my wife does, for she was remarking only last night what a pity it was—"
"Please, sir," said the butler suddenly, after whispering for a short time with a maid who had entered the room, "Timms would like to speak wi' you. He says he's found poacher's snares in the Ashwood coppice, and he wants two or three fellows to help him watch the place."
"Damn the fellow! can't he let a man eat his dinner in peace! Tell him to go to the devil, Robins, and—and I'll see him to-morrow morning."
"Yes, sir. But, sir, Timms says—"
"Curse Timms, and you too! Do you hear what I say?" roared the squire, and Robins vanished.
The conversation did not get back to the subject of Codling's marriage; and the host, after playing absently with his glass for a minute or two, got up hastily, and muttering, "Excuse me, gentlemen, only I think I had better see Timms after all," left the room.
That night three poachers—a Warford villager and two shoemakers from Warwick—were caught in the coppice, and lodged in Warwick jail.
In two days it was all over Ashbrook village that the vicar was going to get married. The servants at the Grange had told the news to their friends in confidence.
The village gossips were right. Lady Harriet Wiseman did find the vicar a wife, though not just then. The vicar's young zeal, his vague ideas, had first to be moderated or abandoned. Bit by bit he was brought down to the prosaic realities of parish life, which embraced obligations unheard of in Holy Writ. That says nothing about the necessity for upholding feudalism. A mere twelvemonths' labour at reforming the morals and refining the minds of the rustics by means of the schoolmaster was not quite enough to bring young Codling to a proper sense of his position. A few more vagaries, a little further indulgence in the pleasure of sowing religious wild oats, and then the vicar would be ready to contract that highly advantageous marriage, which forms the goal of so many a parson's ambition.
That accomplished, Codling might be considered tamed. The one further aberration of his which we have to notice was his plunge into the allotment agitation. As the excitement over teaching the rustics their alphabet and multiplication table began to die out in his mind, this new whim came handily to take its place and prevent him from feeling like a deserter. Here, he declared, was the true remedy for the miseries of the rural poor; he had become convinced that to educate them first was to begin at the wrong end. The first thing was to make them comfortable in their homes, and then they might learn to read with more advantage. The schoolmaster was by no means to be thrown over, but meanwhile Codling said the most important thing was that the labourers should have patches of land to grow cabbages and potatoes.
The vicar's new fad, as it was called, did not excite the same amount of hostility amongst the squirearchy of the neighbourhood as his effort at education, but the farmers liked it as ill. Squire Wiseman was indeed opposed to the experiment, and had there been no other landed proprietor of influence in the parish, the vicar's fuss would have left no results. But fortunately, in some respects, for the labourers, nearly all Ashbrook village, and a good deal of the rolling meadow land to the south of it, and that lay between wooded knolls, belonged to an eccentric old fellow, named Hawthorn. The people called him Captain Hawthorn, perhaps to distinguish him from the Squire, but he had never known more of military life than three months' service as a subaltern in a militia regiment. This Hawthorn was an oddity. A dry, withered, rather small man, of between 50 and 60, slovenly in dress, and full of a sardonic humour, he was constantly to be met walking in the country lanes, and as often as not conversing with waggoners, poachers, and such country people as came in his way. He was therefore distrusted by the other big people of his neighbourhood; but the common people loved him. The new vicar had hardly been a week in the parish ere he was warned by the gentry to beware of this old man. Old Polewhele of Middlebury roundly declared that Hawthorn was an infidel; and the Dowager-Countess of Leigholm, Lady Harriet Wiseman's mother, felt sure that he was in league with the Evil One, for he was always muttering to himself, or else talking to a one-eyed, mangy, tailless cur, that followed him everywhere, and which had more than once snarled at her in a very vicious manner. Her ladyship, however, had a private grudge against him, in that he had on several occasions been wicked enough to win money from her at cards, and take it too—a crime she was never known to forgive.
Whatever his relationship with, or belief in, the unseen powers, Hawthorn alone of the landed gentry furthered Codling's latest project, and made it a success in spite of the fact that the fitful zealot was at the point of throwing the whole thing at his heels in disgust. Codling felt that he had a right to be disheartened when his projects were not adopted forthwith, and moreover, he was getting under weigh as a lover, and that made other occupations irksome. He had done all he could, he said to himself, and yet nobody was converted. Wiseman laughed at him good humouredly as usual, and the farmers sent old Sprigg of Knebesley, as their spokesman, to tell him that in their opinion "'lotments would be the ruin of all honest labour. Gi'e the labourers land," he said, "and they'll skulk at home instead of doin' an honest day's work for us. They're the laziest vagabonds in creation, and the only thing you can do is to keep them dependent on the rates, and when ye want 'em to work, stop supplies. Hunger's the only prod for cattle o' that kidney."
The vicar was rapidly becoming convinced that he had made a mistake, but he had gone so far that he could hardly at once back out, so he resolved to make one final attempt to carry his point, in which he would obtain the aid of a brother parson. This device would, he thought, enable him to retreat gracefully from his false position. The man he summoned to his help was a Leicestershire rector, whose consuming zeal had induced him to become a sort of itinerant evangelist of the allotment system. What could be better than to get such a brilliant apostle to address a mass meeting at Ashbrook. With the failure of a prophet to convince landlords and farmers, Codling felt that his weak-kneedness might be justified.
The Rev. Henry Slocome's services were therefore secured, and notices of the coming meeting were posted on the church doors and in the neighbourhood for a fortnight in advance. As there was no building large enough, the meeting was to be held beneath the old elm on Ashbrook Green. The news excited great interest amongst the labourers who, on the Saturday evening in July when the meeting was held, gathered to the number of about 200 men and women from all the villages in the neighbourhood. A strange sight they presented as they stood with upturned faces around the waggon on which the vicar, the parish clerk, and the speaker of the evening were perched. Grey wizened faces, watery eyes, blueish hungry-like lips these men and women had—a weird, hopeless-looking, toil-bent congregation of the have-nots.
Young men were stunted and shrivelled with labour and want, and old men were gaunt and twisted with exposure, overwork, and rheumatism. Verily if allotments were to do these people good, the work of the self-chosen missionary, who had come to set the country on fire, was not to be contemned. But it boded ill for the success of his efforts that never a landed proprietor in the district gave the meeting his countenance. Just, however, as business began the crowd of labourers was recruited by from 20 to 30 young farmers and farmers' sons. These stood apart, ranging themselves on the left of the meeting near the churchyard wall, and rather behind the waggon. They were too far off to hear well, but near enough for interruptions, and they accordingly indulged frequently in groans, ironical laughter, or jeers at the labourers. Two of the Pembertons were there, the two who had succeeded their father at Whitbury farm, and there also was hulking young Turner from Warwick, half drunk as usual.
The labourers themselves were in high good humour, and indulged in a great deal of rough chaff at each other's expense. A noted poacher in particular came in for much attention, and amongst other things was asked if he would "haul a cove afore the justices if he caught him snaring rabbits in his 'lotment?" But all this was hushed when the vicar and his ally mounted the waggon and began proceedings. I cannot give you the speech of the Rev. Henry Slocome, for Thomas had but a dim recollection of it, his attention being too much occupied watching the ongoings of the farmers. These for a time contented themselves with making a noise, but that was far too tame a kind of fun to satisfy such bright sparks long, and they soon began to shy small pebbles among the crowd, aiming at such hats or sticks as were prominent. This raised a clamour which interrupted the meeting, and matters were brought to a crisis by one of these stones hitting Thomas Wanless on the cheek. It was a sharp-edged bit of flint which cut the cheek open, and made Thomas furious. Turning his bleeding face, now barely visible in the gathering dusk, to the crowd, and heedless of the vicar's shouts for silence, he exclaimed—"Lads, are you going to stand this stone-throwing any longer; are these slave-drivers to be allowed to bully us on our own village green?"
"No, no, no," shouted the labourers in a chorus.
"Let us thrash them, then," he replied, "and teach them that we have the right to live."
He was answered with a shout and a rush. In vain the orator parson and the vicar gesticulated and roared; in vain the parish clerk, at Codlings' suggestion, jumped from the waggon and tried to hold the people back. The tall figure of Thomas Wanless, the sight of blood on his face, his fiery looks and determined attitude, completely carried the labourers away. More stones too were thrown, and the jeers that accompanied them hurt almost more than stones. A conflict was now inevitable.
Seeing the younger labourers gathering round Wanless for an onset, Turner, ever the leader in mischief, hastily collected his forces, and drew them back against the churchyard wall. They had hardly time ere the labourers were upon them.
"Come on, boys," Wanless shouted, without waiting to form an array, hardly, indeed, waiting to see who was following him. Clenching his teeth and drawing himself together he dashed up the slope, and singling out Turner, closed with him, and sent his stick flying over the churchyard wall. A moment after Turner himself was rolling amongst the feet of those who had hurried after Wanless. The strife now became general, and for a time all was wild confusion. Gradually, however, the fight, as it were, gathered into knots round the leading men on either side. Big Tom Pemberton had been struck at by a puny little handful of pluck, whose slender frame and pinched face indicated an absence of stamina which ill-fitted him for a struggle with that stalwart bully. He was instantly caught by the throat and bent backwards. Had Wanless not happened to look that way Pemberton might have broken his back, for he proceeded to twist him round and double him over his knee, but Wanless was passing, and swift as lightning, his stick came down on Pemberton's head. The blow staggered him, and made him let go. Pushing him aside, Thomas seized the pale-faced lad and hurried him out of the fight. Turning, he skirted along the edge of the battle to cheer his comrades and help others that might be in distress, dealing a blow here, and tripping up a foe there, and dodging many a stroke aimed at himself. Comparatively scathless, but somewhat blown, he worked his way back to the thick of the struggle, and immediately found himself face to face with the other Pemberton, who had just ended a tough fight with the blacksmith, and like Wanless, was a little spent. He, however, made for Thomas the moment he saw him, and they closed in a fierce wrestle. They tugged and tore at each other for a moment or two, and then went down together, falling on their sides, Wanless, being, if anything, rather undermost. In the fight that followed for supremacy, Pemberton's greater weight, for he was fuller, taller, and stouter than Thomas, seemed to promise him the victory; but with a violent wrench, Wanless so far freed himself as to get his knees planted against Pemberton's body, when, with a final tug, he broke free and sprang to his feet. Bill Pemberton also scrambled up, and they then began hitting at each other wildly with their fists. A kind of ring gathered round them, each side cheering its champion, but the fight was not an equal one. The young farmer was too fat and heavy, and Thomas's random blows punished him fearfully. Blood trickled down his face, and he was gasping for breath before they had fought five minutes, and Thomas finished the contest by rushing at Pemberton and throwing him crashing amongst his followers' feet. They dragged him out of the melée, and, their fury redoubled, returned to make a combined onset on the labourers. Had they been at all equally matched in numbers, the farmers would now probably have driven their foes from the field, and, overmatched as they were, they twice forced the labourers back on the old folks, and women still huddled round the waggon eagerly watching the fight through the gathering darkness.
But Wanless and his lieutenant, the young blacksmith, again and again rallied their forces and advanced to the attack. At last, edging round to the upper end of the churchyard, which lay aslant a considerable declivity, they bore down on the flank of the farmers' party, with a rush that carried everything before it. Before they could rally themselves, the farmers were huddled together, and, amid random blows, kicks, and oaths, driven pell mell clear off the green, as far as the vicarage gate. There they tried to make a stand, but the momentum and numbers of the labourers, now swollen by many of the women, were too much for them, and they were finally chased from the village, amid the derisive shouts of the victors. They retired, cursing and vowing vengeance as they went.
The fight over, the people, panting and exhausted, drew slowly together by the waggon once more, recounting their exploits and showing their wounds. One man had got his arm broken, and many had severe cuts, bruises, and sprains, but, on the whole, the damage done had been slight.
It was now almost dark, and the crowd soon began to ask whether there was to be any more speechifying. The old people, who had stayed by the waggon, thought the meeting must be at an end. "The vicar," they said, "had gone off in a huff, taking t'other parson wi' him, when he found nary a one mindin' a bit what he said." So the labourers were in doubts what to do. Some wanted to go home, having thrashed the farmers, "a good nights job enough;" others thought a deputation ought to go to the vicarage to try and mollify the parson, for after all allotments might be worth having.
Just as the dispute was waxing warm, the light of a lantern shone out from behind the tree, and, coming round to the waggon, attracted attention. Thinking it was the parsons come back, the labourers ceased their talk to listen; but what they heard was the voice of Captain Hawthorn swearing at his servant for not lighting the way better. The servant paid no attention to the oaths, but cast his light over the waggon, and exclaimed: "Here we are, sir. Here's where the strange cove was a spouting. But, by the Lord Harry! he's hooked it!" he added in a disappointed tone.
"Strange cove! What's that I hear, Francis? Francis, you scamp, don't you know that's blasphemy? Hooked it! He! he! D—— the fellow! that comes of picking up London servants." Then, changing his tone, the Captain almost shouted, "Help me up, Francis. I want to see these scoundrels. How the devil is a man to get into this waggon? Find me a chair, will you, eh?"
"Please, sir, can't you manage to mount by the wheel, sir," answered his servant, and after some trouble the Captain did get in by the wheel, swearing much, and followed by his servant with the lantern. The dog then wanted to mount also, but, being fat and heavy couldn't manage it, so sat down and began to yelp. This caused a fresh outburst of swearing, and ultimately Francis had to get out again and hoist the dog in, as the brute would allow none of the people to touch him.
Quiet and order being restored, Hawthorn stood forward, took the lantern from his servant's hand, and, raising it, proceeded very deliberately to survey the crowd before him. Most of their faces, and many of their names were well known to him; and he addressed some of those he knew with some characteristic greeting. The wounded men appeared to interest him specially, and it was ludicrous to hear him rate one fellow for being unable to protect his handsome face, and condole with another on the coming interview with his wife. He discovered the countenance of his own groom disfigured by a cut on the nose and a black eye, and he held the light over it, chuckling loudly, till the fellow fairly ducked under. "Ha, Silas, you thief," he said, "I have always told you that you would get punished some day for your vanity, and sure enough the dairymaid will marry the blacksmith in less than a month, if you show that face to her. Gad, you'll frighten my old mare out of her wits, too, with that diabolical figure-head of yours. You had better go home to your mother and get it mended."
"By heavens," he exclaimed, again casting his light on another face, "there's poacher Dick. Were you in the fray, Dick, my boy? No, no, it cannot be; he's been mauling the gamekeepers, and has taken refuge amongst you lads, eh?"
"No, no; he fought with us all square," was the answer, and the crowd laughed, and the Captain chuckled again and again.
Suddenly laying down the lantern he shouted, "Three cheers for the victors of Ashbrook fight," a call instantly responded to amid great good humour and much laughter.
"Three cheers for the Captain," called a voice in the crowd, and off went the huzzas again.
"Drop that nonsense, will you, boys; drop it, I say," roared the Captain, and added as soon as he could make himself heard above the din, "what the devil are you cheering me for? I didn't help you to win the fight, did I?"
"No, but you cheered us for it," answered a dozen voices together.
"And that's more than any other squire in Warwickshire would 'a' done," cried young Wanless.
"Is that you, Tom Wanless?" queried Hawthorn.
"Then you are a damned fool, Tom, and know nothing about it. All Englishmen like to see pluck, don't they, you young rascal?"
The ironical tone of this query was perceptible to all, and raised an answering laugh of irony, amid which Wanless shouted back—
"We ain't Englishmen, we labourers, except when we list and let ourselves be shot by the thousand when some big chap with a handle to his name says, March! An' even then the big chaps get all the rewards, and such o' the common lot as escape hardly get leave to beg. No, no, sir; we ain't Englishmen, we are only Englishmen's slaves."
"Drop that, Tom Wanless," interrupted Hawthorn; "drop it. Good Lord, man, do you suppose I came here to listen to a speech from you, when I kept well without earshot of the parsons. And, Gad, that reminds me—Where are the parsons? Francis! Francis!"
"Yes sir, yes sir," answered that staid person, hurriedly coming forward.
"Humph, making love to the wenches at my very elbow, you graceless dog. Go and tell the vicar with my compliments, that I want to speak to him out here in this old waggon with the bottom half out. Gad, I'll be through it, I do believe, before you get back. Could that shouting fellow have stamped holes in it," he added to himself, as Francis disappeared. "Shouldn't wonder," and chuckling again at the idea, he sat down on the side of the waggon, quite oblivious of the expectant crowd around him. An impatient hum soon broke on his ear, and he lifted his head and called out, "Go home to bed, you mutinous pack; you'll be defrauding your masters of an hour's work to-morrow morning."
"No fear of that, sir; and we want to hear what you have got to say to us."
"Say to you! Ah, yes, to be sure I have something to say; but we must wait for the parson, boys."
"Here he comes! Here he comes!" shouted voices from the edge of the crowd, and after a little bustling the ruddy face of Codling, and the grey head of his friend gleamed over the side of the waggon in the dim candle-light.
"Glad to see you, sir, I'm sure," said Hawthorn to the vicar graciously; "and you, too, sir," turning to Mr. Slocome. "Sorry I didn't hear your speech; Gad, you have put new life into the boys; they've smashed the farmers. 'Pon my soul, sir, I didn't think they had it in them. You must be a powerful orator, and I wish I had been here sooner."
"Pardon me, sir, I have not the advantage," stammered Slocome. "I did not cause the fight, God forbid. I did all I could to stop it; my mission is not to stir up sedition, sir, but to preach peace." This last remark in a tone of high offence.
"He, he, he!" laughed the cynical squire. "Well, well, we shan't dispute the point. The boys did fight, and well, too, as you must allow. Licked the farmers, by Jove; and I tell you what, Mr. Vicar," turning again to Codling, "I mean to show my appreciation of their pluck by doing something for them. What do you propose it should be?"
"I'm afraid, sir," answered the vicar, pompously, "I can't abet you in your design, or lend it my countenance. I am deeply grieved that my humbler parishioners should have so far forgotten themselves as to create a disturbance in the village to-night. It has been my wish to do them good, and for that end I held this meeting, and brought my esteemed brother here to imbue their minds with the principles of forethought and thrift. But they interrupted his address with an unseemly riot, led, I am sorry to say, by a young man of whom I had hoped better things. Bitterness between man and man, class and class, has been created by the conduct of which you have been guilty to-night, my friends, and you may be sure, though I wish you well, it will be long before I again make the mistake of seeking to increase your material comforts." Turning again to Hawthorn, he added, "I must beg you to excuse me, sir, but I cannot remain here to behold a landed proprietor of this parish, the landlord, in fact, of these villagers, acting as an inflamer of sedition," and with lofty bow, and a wave of his hand, dimly visible to his listeners, Codling turned to go.
"Stay a moment," roared Hawthorn, reaching forth his stick as if to catch the vicar by the collar of his coat. "Stop, sir; don't let him go, boys, I also have something to say." The vicar stood still, looking rather foolish, and Hawthorn continued—"You have made an accusation against my tenants, and I, as their representative and spokesman, must ask you to substantiate those charges. I don't care a curse what you say about myself, but I'm not going to stand by and see these men slandered. Tell me, sir, who began the disturbance?"
"It was—I believe—I—fancy—some people on the outskirts of the meeting—people from Warwick I should imagine."
"Bah! can't you speak out like a man, instead of beating about the bush like a fool? Who began the disturbance?" The old Captain was clearly getting excited.
"The—the farmers and—but—" blurted out Codling.
"Ah! the farmers was it?" interrupted Hawthorn, "and would you have had these lads stand still like asses to be thwacked? Do you mean to come out here and deliberately blame my tenants for having spirit enough left to resent insult and abuse? A nice parson you are—a fine preacher of peace. Suppose it had been the other way, and the farmers had been taunted and stoned by the labourers until they turned and thrashed them. What would you have said then? No doubt that these wretches deserved their fate. I hate all this snivelling cant about the obligation of the poor to submit to whatever is put upon them."
Hawthorn spoke fast and bitterly, and, as he ended, his audience broke into ringing cheers much prolonged.
Codling stood dumb, and looked so cowed and sheepish that Slocome tried a diversion.
"Captain Hawthorn—I believe—and good people," he began, but his voice was drowned amid cries of "Silence—hold your tongue; we want to hear the Captain."
"I have a little more to say, my boys," Hawthorn answered. "My chief object in coming here, and in asking the Vicar to come here, was to tell you that I have decided to assign to you, the men of my own village, the twenty acre field just by on Warwick road, to be made into allotment gardens. I admire"—but he got no further. Shout upon shout, the men cheered, and the women wept and laughed by turns, as if the speaker had promised them all fortunes. The announcement was so unexpected, and the way it was made went so about the hearts of these poor villagers, that they could have hugged the old Captain to death for joy had he let himself within their reach. As it was, they crowded round the waggon to shake hands with him, hustling the Vicar and his friend out of the way, and it was fully five minutes before order could be restored. During the hubbub the Vicar and Mr. Slocome managed to slink away. What Codling may have thought about his own conduct on that evening no one can say, but he evidently resented Hawthorn's freedom of speech most bitterly. He was disgusted also that the people should have got their allotments so obviously without his help, and from this time forth he may be said to have abjured philanthropy. Henceforth he found it safer and much more pleasant to confine his attention to Church ritual and the worship of feudalism.
The labourers never missed the Vicar in their delight over Hawthorn's announcement. They wanted to escort him home in a body, but he would not hear of it. He peremptorily ordered them to go home to bed, and departed with his servant and his dog. A few of the younger men followed him to the end of the village, then sending a parting cheer after him quickly dispersed. Thus ended the great Ashbrook allotment meeting. It was a nine days' wonder in the neighbourhood, and the oddities of Hawthorn were held to be dangerous by the squires, while farmers cursed him for his liberality. But these things did not prevent the labourers from obtaining their allotments, and they were thereby rendered perhaps a degree less hungry for a time.
Nothing serious came directly of the Ashbrook fight. There was a talk of bringing certain labourers before the justices, and the Pembertons in particular uttered loud threats against Tom Wanless, young Satchwell, the blacksmith, and one or two others; but old Hawthorn let it be widely known that if any steps were taken to prosecute the labourers, he would not only provide means for their defence, but enable them also to raise counter actions, in support of which he would compel the Vicar to enter the witness-box. That did not suit the farmers or their abettors, still less Codling, so after a little noisy squabbling the matter dropped.
Henceforth, however, the feud, if such it may be called, between the Pembertons and Wanless was renewed, and became on their part a sleepless desire for petty vengeances. They never missed the smallest opportunity of making him feel their ill-will. Thomas had in other ways enough to bear with in those days, helped though he was by his freehold cottage and allotment. His intelligence told against him with most of the farmers, making them regard him with hatred and suspicion. So he got no opportunity of bettering himself, was, indeed, hardly able to keep his head above water by the severest labour. Many a time did he see other and less skilled workmen preferred before him, and often in harvest had he to work as one of a gang of reapers under another contractor, instead of himself taking the lead. This, by and by, caused him to try and find work at greater distances from home, and he was occasionally away for months at a time wood-cutting, ditch-cutting, toiling early and late for what pittance he could pick up, while his wife struggled at home to make ends meet in spite of her increasing family. By the time Thomas was 35 years old, she had borne him eight children, of whom seven were alive, and it was almost more than mortal could do to bring these up decently on 9s. or 10s. a-week. How his neighbours, who had rent to pay, managed, was more than Thomas could divine, unless they quietly stole what was not given them; as, indeed, most of them did. Many also were so demoralised as to look upon poor relief as a perquisite which they thought it no shame to accept, and even demand, on all occasions. Nearly all poached game, when they had a chance, and boasted of it to each other. In regard to game there was, in fact, no consciousness of wrong-doing in the mind of any labourer, and Thomas himself thought nothing of killing a rabbit or leveret when he had the chance; the only anxiety was not to be caught doing it. There was a clear distinction in his mind between slaying wild animals protected by selfish and abominable laws, and stealing vegetables, fowls, stray eggs, or fruit, which many of his comrades made a practice of doing, pleading in their defence that man must live.
Thomas Wanless had a soul above petty thieving of this kind. Not only was he naturally high-spirited and jealous of a good conscience, but his mind had become considerably expanded by diligent cultivation. He did not again forget his reading, and though his books were few, he still contrived to read enough on odd Sundays in summer, and in the winter evenings, to stimulate his naturally strong thinking powers. His friends, the blacksmith and the parish clerk, were also often in his company, and the three discussed matters of Church and State in the freest possible style over their jugs of thin ale. Poor Brown, the parish clerk and schoolmaster, had not improved his prospects by settling in Ashbrook, for the vicar had long ceased to interest himself in the education of the poor, and the school emoluments had become meagre enough. But Brown had married, and so was, in a measure, rooted to the spot, not knowing where to better himself.
He eked out his parish clerkship with odd accountant jobs for surrounding farmers, and occasionally picked up a crown or two by acting as clerk at country auctions, and his greatest earthly blessing was a contested parliamentary election. Yet life was hard for him withal, and his Radicalism naturally was bitter, for adversity is the best nursery of democratic ideas. It is only the noblest natures that can enjoy prosperity, and yet be just and considerate towards all men. Too often the man who when poor was a blatant Radical becomes a hollow tin kettle sort of creature when he has struggled up from the earth where his Radicalism took birth. I say not that Brown was of this sort, but undeniably poverty and disappointment put an edge on his wit when he dealt with the inequalities of life, and under his leadership Thomas Wanless stood in no danger of becoming an unquestioning pauper. The three friends solved social problems in a style that would have amazed their superiors had they known; nay, that they would have even startled some of the limp and dilettante friends of the people who, in these days, haunt London clubs, and dilate with wondrous volubility on social reform. Thomas's Radicalism, however, never interfered with his work, for his family was more to him than the ills of the State. He viewed these wrongs, perhaps, from too narrow a standpoint for him to be a great social reformer. He felt for his little ones, and for his once blooming, patient wife—now grown brown, gaunt, and hollow-eyed from incessant care, toil, and privation—and the disjointed order of society was to him a personal wrong. His life was, indeed, cheerless; and after his father died and his brother had been killed by a fall from a rick, he often felt lonely and sullen at the heart, working against his fate as a prisoner might in chains. For him this life had no hope, no prospect of rest but the grave.
Struggling bravely, though bitter at the heart, Thomas dragged his family through the terrible years that followed the passing of the Reform Bill—years during which his wife and children were almost as familiar with want as with the light of the sun. How they survived he could hardly tell. "My remembrance of that time," he one day said to me, "is but a kind of confused dream. I ceased to think or feel. I just worked where and when I could; and I swallowed my crust like a dumb beast. But now I thank God that I had health, though then to commit murder would at times to me have seemed as nothing."
In that time Thomas became a strong Chartist, and was a leader among his fellows; and, feeling as he did, it says much for his force of character that there were no outbreaks by the Ashbrook villagers such as occurred in many parts of Warwickshire at that time. His opinions, however, were well known, and he was called a rogue freely enough by his enemies the farmers. More than once he might have suffered unjust imprisonment for his freedom of speech at village gatherings and elsewhere, had not old Squire Hawthorn stood his friend. Ever since Ashbrook fight, that strange old man had taken a special interest in Thomas. It only extended, however, to occasional efforts to keep him out of the grip of the justices, and could hardly perhaps have gone further, for Thomas was proud; and, besides, he was a labourer, and in that lowly lot he was predestined by the laws of the landed oligarchy to remain. Over the great gulf fixed by that mighty trades union of the Take-alls he could never pass.
So passed the years of my friend's early manhood. He was familiar with care; poverty was his abiding portion. A young family gathered round his knee; which he tried to bring up in less ignorance than had been his early lot, but whom he could not always keep less hungry. Thomas had many times difficulty in providing his household with a sufficiency of coarse dry bread. Insufficiently nourished his children were weakly and stunted; little able to wrestle with disease. His two eldest boys were sent to work for good at the age of ten; and the younger of the two died through exposure and hunger before he was twelve. The girls were kept longer at home, hard though the fight for life was; but the third boy (Thomas) was taken on at Squire Hawthorn's own farm, at 2s. per week, when he was little over nine. That same year, Thomas himself had had a fine spell of harvesting; and his wife, having no new baby to provide for, had saved a few shillings by selling vegetables from the allotment garden, to people in Warwick town, so that the winter was faced by the couple in better heart than they had known almost since the day they were married. A pound or two in hand after meeting the bills that the harvest money had to pay! Surely greater bliss no man could know. The thought of such riches made Thomas declare that he might yet escape the workhouse, as, thank God, his father had done. Already, though not forty years old, the shadow of that accursed refuge of the English poor had begun to loom over Thomas's future, grim and horrible as the gate of Hell. As he thought, in his hours of bitterness, of whither his endless toil was carrying him, of the sole "good" that the Take-alls left to him and such as him, he set his teeth and cursed his country. Nor would he believe that for this he had been born. His soul was bitter within him, and, young as he yet was, hard work and harder fare were telling on his stalwart frame.
But this autumn had brought him a gleam of hope; and the stirring events of the time helped to strengthen that hope. All things were changing. The great towns had been roused into political activity by the Reform Bill, and railways were fast revolutionising the habits of the people the land through, as well as opening up new fields of labour. At last, then, and even in sleepy, wealth worshipping, hide-bound England, democracy might be considered born. Thomas was sanguine that in the coming struggles the people would win, and, like all sanguine believers in the future good, his belief expected instant fulfilment. The apostles themselves lived in the belief that the end of the world was at hand. Might not the way-worn and heart-weary agricultural labourer therefore hope? Thomas Wanless, at least, did so. The world was changing for others; for him and his also better times might be at hand. Hitherto, alas, the changes had been mostly to his hurt. Railway-making itself had done his class harm rather than good, for the new iron roads linked the country more and more closely to the great centres of industry. Prices of all kinds of agricultural produce went higher and higher, but without bringing a corresponding increase in the labourer's pay. The landowner grabbed all he could of the augmented gains, and what he left the farmer took. For the hind was there not still the workhouse? Yet the demand for labour was increasing fast, and not all the hungry kerns of Ireland seemed able to meet that demand. For once Thomas and his wife had enjoyed a good year. Was not Leamington Priors growing a big town moreover, and going to have a college of its own to outshine Rugby itself? Surely Ashbrook would benefit from the nearness of so much wealth as this implied. The grounds for this hope were many and obvious. Thomas might yet rent his own little farm, and be independent. His ambition ran no higher, yet the indulgence of it proved him to be a short-sighted fool.
At this time Thomas was an odd or day labourer, taking contract jobs on his own account when he could get them, and working for a daily wage when these failed. This winter found him at work grubbing up old hedges, and helping to lay out anew some land on a farm of Lord Duckford's beyond Radbury. He had to walk about four miles each way daily to and from his work, but as the days were short he lost no time, and the company of a fellow villager engaged with him at the same job made the trudge lighter. And the hopes that lay around his heart helped him more than aught else, as they always help us poor will-o'-the-wisp-led mortals in this dark world.
Alas for these hopes! Thomas Wanless had not been a month at his new work when an epidemic of scarlet fever broke out at Ashbrook, and amongst the first to catch the disease was his youngest child, a girl of two years. Ere ten days had elapsed five out of his seven surviving children were down with the treacherous disease. His eldest boy and girl had had it years before, but the boy was sent home from the farm where he worked for fear of spreading contagion, and the girl was little more than nine years old, so that she could not do much to help the overworked mother.
Crowded together in the long low-roofed attic of the cottage, three of the five lay helpless and wailing for many days. After the first week the other two whose attack had been slight got out of bed, but were kept in the same room to avoid cold. The food of all was poor, the medical attendance miserable and infrequent. Thomas's heart was nearly broken. All his hopes vanished, and the old bitterness settled down on his spirit. The rage of helplessness often swept over him as he looked at his tired and harassed wife, or thought of her left alone, day in and out, with those sick children. The little savings would mostly be needed for the doctor's bill; there was only the 10s. a-week that Thomas happily still earned to stand between the whole family and want. Can anyone wonder that Thomas grew moody, and glowered at the world to which he owed so little?
One evening, in the middle of the third week of their affliction, as he and neighbour Robins were trudging home together through the perplexing obscurity of a grey November fog, the latter said—
"Couldn't we get a rabbit or two, Tummas? They'd make a nice pot for the young ones, poor things; better nor barley gruel, any way."
"I don't mind," said Thomas, in an indifferent tone. "But where can we come at 'em?"
"Oh, there's a warren up in Squire Greenaway's fir coppice to the left here, just off the Banbury road. We can beat it in five minutes. Come on," he added, seizing Thomas's arm.
"All right, let's have some o' the wermin," his friend answered, and presently they turned off the road, making for the coppice.
"You keep up by the fence here, and you'll strike the edge of the wood in no time," said Robins. "The burrows lie mostly along to the right. Crouch down by the holes and be ready. I'll walk round the field and drive the bunnies in. There's sure to be lots feedin' to-night in old Claypole's turmuts."
Thomas obeyed, and the two at once lost sight of each other. Robins, it is to be feared, had often helped himself to a rabbit before now, here and elsewhere, but by some chance Thomas had never yet been a regular poacher. He could not say why, for certainly he had no respect for the game laws. Such, however, was the fact, and he said a queer kind of feeling came over him when he found himself alone, and realised the errand he was upon. But his mind was in tone to be tempted now, and he never thought of turning back. There was, indeed, little time to think of it, for he was among the rabbit-holes in a minute, and choosing a handy bush where the holes were thick he knelt down, grasped his stick and waited. Presently he heard a low whistle from the field below, but quite near, and almost as it reached his ears rabbits by the dozen came hopping up cautiously, and with frequent pauses of watchfulness. The foremost caught sight of Thomas and scudded to the left, whither the whole troop might have followed had not Robins at that instant rushed up and sent a batch of the scared creatures right amongst Thomas's feet. Ere they could get under ground he managed to knock over three, and Robins himself maimed but did not succeed in catching a fourth. Two of the three knocked over were not quite dead, but Robins at once finished them, and as he did so, said:—
"Look here Tummas, you takes the two big uns. You're more in need o' 'em than me," and as he would take no denial the spoil was so divided.
Thomas thanked his friend, and stowing the rabbits inside their coats as best they could, the two carefully made their way out of the coppice, and again took the road for home.
By this time it was very dark, and the fog thicker than ever, so that they had never a thought of danger. Yet they had not been unobserved. Tom Pemberton, as ill-luck would have it, had been passing the coppice while the two labourers were after the rabbits, and had either heard their voices or the whistling, made more audible by the fog. Suspecting that poachers were at work, and always eager to do his fellow man an ill turn, Pemberton stopped his walk, and stole along the edge of the field till he reached the gate, where he crouched for his prey. In a few minutes the voices of the approaching labourers reached his ears, and being a coward he crawled along the ground, and lay down in the frozen ditch lest he should be seen, but still kept well within earshot. To his intense satisfaction he recognised one at least of the men by his voice, as they passed him, unconscious of his presence. Robins he could not be sure of, but he had only too good cause to recollect the voice of Wanless. The two were talking of the pleasure their families would have in eating stewed rabbit, and doubtless Pemberton chuckled to himself as he heard. But he had the prudence to keep quite still until the labourers got well beyond hearing. Then he arose and went on his mission of evil. The unsuspecting labourers trudged home in peace. Thomas with even a flicker of gladness at his heart, a flicker that deepened to a glow of thankfulness, when he reached his cottage and learned that the doctor had pronounced the child who had suffered most out of danger. She was the youngest but one, a little girl of four. Before her illness she had been a fair-haired, delicate-looking, but healthy child, with bright, engaging ways, and a sweet merry voice, a great favourite of her father's. Now she was thin and worn, and her lips had become dry and cracked with the fire that had burned and burned in her little body, till all its flesh was consumed. Night after night Thomas had come home, and, changing his wet clothes, had, after a hasty supper, gone up beside his little ones to watch and tend them in the early night, while the mother tried to snatch an hour or two's sleep. Through these weary weeks nothing had wrung his heart so keenly as the sore battle for life made by wee Sally. Hour after hour her little transparent feverish hands would clutch his nervously, as she lay panting in his arms, or wander pitifully about his weather-worn face, her burning touch causing him to shiver to the very marrow of his bones.
"I'se so ill, daddy; I'se so ill," she would keep moaning, and sometimes she would start screaming from an uneasy slumber that gave no rest. Then she grew too ill to speak, and lay gasping and delirious in the close, ill-ventilated attic beside her two sisters, who were themselves part of the time too ill to raise their heads. Thomas thought that death had come for his little girl the night before he brought the rabbits home, and the nearer death seemed to come the more agonising grew the pain at his heart. His wife and he together had watched by Sally's cot till towards morning, fearing that each moment she would choke. But about half-past two the breath began to be more free; she swallowed a little weak tea, and gradually fell into the quietest sleep she had had for more than ten days.
When Thomas left for his day's work she was asleep still, and he had held the hope that she would yet get better to his heart all day. So mixed are the motives that sway men that this very hope made him the more ready to go after the rabbits. The savoury broth might help his little ones—and Sally.
So they were glad that night in the little Ashbrook Cottage. Sally had slept till daylight, and woke quiet, cooler-skinned and hungry. The doctor said she would live yet. Thomas went up as usual beside his little ones, and told them about the rabbits that Robins and he had caught, making them laugh at the thought of to-morrow's treat. He had not waited for supper, and his wife brought it up stairs, spreading it out at the foot of the bed where "baby" and "bludder" Jack lay, and then the whole family enjoyed the luxury of a cup of tea in honour of Sally's improvement. How little the labourer suspected then that the hand of vengeance was already stretched forth to blast him and his joys, it might be, for ever. Yet so it was, and thus does life ever mock us, especially if we be poor. And had not Thomas sinned against the English Baal. The sacred laws of property had been violated by him; he had entered its holy of holies—a game preserve—and must bear the penalty.
The thought did not quite thus shape itself in Tom Pemberton's mind as he crept from his lair and made off as fast as the thick gloom would permit him, to Squire Greenaway's gamekeeper's cottage; but his heart exulted at the thought of the vengeance it was now in his power to wreak. That very night he hoped to see the hated Wanless locked up. In this hope, however, he was disappointed. The gamekeeper was not at home, nor could his wife say exactly where he was. Probably she knew well enough; and certain gamedealers in Leamington also were likely to know, for, like most of his class, this fellow was only a licensed poacher; but Pemberton had to be content with his answer. He told the keeper's wife that he wanted some poachers apprehended, and that he would return to-morrow.
Sure enough he came, and came early, but the keeper was again out, setting his gins probably, and had left word that he would not be back till dinner-time. Ultimately, Pemberton met his man, and the two decided to go and seize Wanless at night in his own cottage. Accordingly, that same evening as Thomas and his family were enjoying their supper together in the attic, they were disturbed by a rude thumping at the door and before Thomas himself could get down to see who was there, the latch was lifted, and in walked Tom Pemberton with the gamekeeper at his heels. The latter was a squat, ill-favoured, heavy man, with small piercing eyes that were never at rest. He sniffed noisily as he entered, and gave vent to a gleeful chuckle as he caught sight of Wanless. Dull Pemberton had grown fat and bloated-looking since the days of the allotment agitation, but his usually stolid, sodden-looking features, were to-night almost animated by the leer of triumph which had displaced the customary sullen vacuity. Yet he was not at his ease; and when Thomas, divining the men's purpose, drew himself up, and holding up his rushlight the better to see the faces of his visitors, flashed a look of scornful defiance at the farmer, that worthy drew back involuntarily.
But the keeper had no feelings, and at once struck in with—
"Sorry to hinterrup' yer feast, my man; but we want ye, d'ye see. God! what a prime smell! Kerruberatin' evidence, eh, farmer? Ye've been poachin', Wanless, that's evident; an' the Squire'll be glad to speak wi' ye about it. Ha! ha!"
For a moment Thomas felt disposed to fight. A thrill of fury swept through him, and he wished he could tear keeper and farmer in pieces with his hands. But that soon passed, and he stood dumbfounded. Hearing the strange voices, his wife stole down the stair, followed by the three children who were able to be about the house, and two of these latter, catching a vague fear of danger, began to cry. Young Tom did not weep, but stole softly up to his father's side. But a minute before all had been happiness, such happiness as a family of miserable groundlings might dare to feel, and now——
Bah! Why give a thought to such wretches. They can have no feelings like my lord and the squire, or his scented and sanctified parsonship. And yet the cold night wind made these sick children shiver as you or I might; and the stricken wife, who had caught the purport of the keeper's speech, was just as ready to faint with grief and terror, as if she had had your feelings or mine. Her first act was to protect the children from harm by trying to shut the door; but Pemberton, with a growl, pushed her back, and she then gathered them in her arms, and sat down on an old box by the fire, weeping silently.
Still Thomas stood, silent but not cowed, and the keeper's wrath began to blaze up.
"Come along, man," he growled, "none of yer hobstinincy, now. We don't want no scenes here; none o' yer blubberin' wife and family kick-ups. Come along."
Then Pemberton plucked up heart to laugh. With a mocking hee! hee! hee! he said—
"We've got you now, Wanless, and no mistake, you d——d old blackguard, an' we'll tame that devilish spirit of yours afore we're done wi' ye. Roast me if we don't."
His voice roused the spirit of Wanless once more. Clenching his hands he stepped forward, moving the keeper aside, and putting his fist in Pemberton's face, said, in a voice that quivered with concentrated passion—
"Hold your tongue, you black-hearted scoundrel, and leave my house this instant, or I'll throw you out at the door. What right have you to enter my door? Be off!"
Pemberton shrank back and looked as if he thought it might be best for him to obey; but the keeper grasped Thomas by the collar from behind and swung him round, at the same time saying—
"Come, come, none o' this nonsense now, Wanless. I'll have no fightin' here, or, by God, if you do I'll transport you, sure's my name's Crabb. You must go with us quietly."
At the threat of transporting him, Thomas's wife uttered a shrill cry of horror, and Thomas himself grew pale, but he was now too much stirred to yield at once. Instead, he shook off the keeper's hand; and demanded fiercely what right he had to arrest him.
The keeper laughed mockingly.
"Well now, that is a good un'. Why, damme, you've been poaching."
"How do you know that? And what is it to you if I have?"
"How do I know? Why, bless my life, I can smell it, you fool. But I beant here to hargify the p'int. I harrest ye on a criminal charge, Wanless, that's all; and I've brought the bracelets, my boy. Just the correct horneyments for chaps like you, he, he," croaked the keeper, with malign glee.
"But where's your warrant?" urged Thomas. "You have no right to enter a man's own house in this way, and haul him wherever you like when it suits you to put out your spites on him. Poachers, faith; who's a poacher, I'd like to know, if you ain't? Leave my house, both of you, or, by God, I'll rouse the village. Tom, Tom," he added, turning to his son, who had again crept to his side, "go and find Sutchwell, and Pease, and——"
"Hold hard there, you —— fool," roared the keeper. "Curse you, d'ye suppose we came here to stand your insolence."
Pemberton closed the door and put his back to it.
"Look ye here, my fine haristocrat," continued the keeper in the boundless wrath of fear, "look ye here, if you don't go quietly, devil take me if I don't get ye a trip to Botany Bay for this job. I'm a sworn constable, and I've got the justices' warrant, surely that's 'nuff for thieves like you. Come, farmer Pemberton," he added more quietly, "help me to hornament this gent," and in a very brief space the two mastered and handcuffed the labourer.
He, indeed, made little resistance, for he began to see that he was at the mercy of these scoundrels. His wife clung to him, but they tore her roughly away. The children wailed in chorus, and "bludder Jack" crept downstairs in his thin nightgown to see what was causing the hubbub, howling like the rest without knowing why. But it was soon all over. Thomas barely got time to kiss his wife, and to whisper to her to tell Hawthorn, ere he was out of the cottage and away with his captors. All down the little village street the shrieks of his family rung in his ears, and his heart within him was like to burst with grief, humiliation, and impotent wrath.
That night he was formally committed by Squire Greenaway himself to be tried for poaching, before the justices at Leamington Priors, on Tuesday next. This was Friday.
In due course Thomas Wanless appeared before the "Justices"—God save them! and, after a very brief trial, was "let off," as one phrased it, with six months' hard labour in Warwick Jail. The only evidence against him was that of Tom Pemberton, but he made no attempt to deny the charge, and as the squires already considered him a "dangerous" fellow, they thought their sentence a model of clemency. So did Pemberton and Keeper Crabb. His judges were Wiseman, Greenaway, the man whose vermin he had helped to thin by just three rabbits, Parson Codling, of Ashbrook, and a bibulous old creature who lived in Leamington Priors, a retired Birmingham merchant, who had been made J.P. for his subservience to the Tories. Greenaway was violent, and rather disposed to give an "exemplary" sentence; Wiseman was contemptuously indifferent, as became a big acred man and the husband of a woman with a handle to her name; and Parson Codling was unctuously severe.
An attempt was made to get Wanless to tell the name of his co-offender, but that he refused, so he was told that his obstinacy had prevented a more lenient sentence, which was false. But something is due to appearances at times, and even from such divine personages as justices of the peace. So careful was the "bench" of proprieties on this occasion, that Codling, on a hint from the chairman, gave Wanless the benefit of a short exhortation before consigning him to the salutary and eminently Christian discipline of the jailer. In the course of this homily, Codling took occasion to observe that he had once hoped better things of the prisoner, but had long ago been forced to give him up. "With grief and sorrow," said the parson, "I have again and again watched his obduracy, and his tendency to consort with agitators, or worse. His fate will, I trust, be a warning to others."
This Parson Codling you will perceive had become tame. Once on a time he had been almost given over to agitation himself; but that danger soon passed, and he was now a proper ornament to and supporter of the British hierarchy. Its morals were his morals. He knew no god but the god of the landed gentry. In his youth the functions of the priestly office had been misunderstood by him; but he had married soon after we last met him a gentlewoman of Worcestershire with £2,000 a year, and that cured him of many weaknesses—amongst others of the foolish craze he once had that the religion of Christ was a religion to be practised. He now knew that it was nothing of the kind. Certain tenets of it had been made up into a creed "to be said or sung," and a singularly complex institution called the Church had been elaborated for the good of public morals, and the support of the English aristocracy—that was all. Therefore could he now wag his head pompously at poor Tom Wanless standing dumb before him; therefore could he now raise his fat soft hands, and thrust from his sight with sanctimonious horror that criminal guilty of rabbit murder. A stranger, unfamiliar with the usages of rural England—that country whose liberties, we are told, all nations admire and envy—might have supposed that Wanless was some foul manslayer, some midnight assassin meeting his just doom. Unhappy stranger, woe on thy ignorance. Know thou that in England no crime is so heinous as the least approach to rebellion against the sacred rights of the Have-alls? "Touch not the land nor anything that is thereon," is to the English landholder all the law and the prophets. So Codling cursed Wanless for his crime, and the doom-stricken labourer passed from his sight.
Captain Hawthorn had been duly apprised of Thomas's misfortune, but was unable to do anything directly to help him. Because of his obnoxious opinions Hawthorn was not a justice of the peace; and he felt that any attempt on his part to appear as the labourer's champion might only end in making the poor fellow's sentence all the heavier. Since the Reform Bill and the Chartist agitations had alarmed the landholders, they had shown less disposition than ever to admit such a nondescript radical as Hawthorn into their society; and his interference in local affairs was so prominently resented on several occasions that he had almost ceased to attempt any. He had even some difficulty in obtaining access to Wanless in jail; but ultimately succeeded, by the help of a little judicious bribery, and the friendly assistance of a mountebank drunken parson, who was in jail for debt during six days of the week, but got bailed out on Sundays, so that he might edify his flock and keep down expenses.
The old man's first greeting to Wanless was in his customary rough form.
"Well, Tom, a nice ass you have made of yourself. Why the devil hadn't you more sense, man? Eh? D—n it, you might have taken some of my rabbits, my boy, and never a keeper would have said you nay."
This was true enough, for Hawthorn had now no keeper, and, for that matter, little game. He allowed his tenants to do as they pleased, and one of the deepest grievances his neighbours had against him, was that these tenants thinned their game wherever their lands marched with his.
To this sally Thomas, however, made no answer beyond a smothered groan. The man's spirit was too much broken to bear rough comfort of this kind, as his visitor instantly perceived. Changing his tone at once, the Captain bent over the bench where the prisoner sat hanging his head, and laying his hand on Thomas's shoulder, added—
"Come, come, Tom, my boy; bless my life! don't lose heart because you've been a fool. I'll see that the chicks don't starve, and you'll soon be out of this, and a man again."
The kind tones of Hawthorn's voice affected Tom more even than the promise. He tried to speak, but his voice broke in sobs.
"Tut, tut. 'Pon my life, don't, Tom, d—n it, man, don't," spluttered the Captain; but, as Tom did not stop, he grasped his hand suddenly and gave it a hearty grip. Then he turned and fled, afraid probably of himself betraying his feelings.
His visit did Thomas much good, and he bore his trials more patiently henceforth, though the bitterness of his heart at times nearly maddened him. I can never forget the description which he gave me in after days of the agonies suffered by him during those horrible six months. We were seated together in his little garden one September evening, the sun was far down in the west, the ruddy glow of a calm, bright autumn evening fell athwart Wanless's grey, worn face, lighting it with a sober brilliance that fitted well the fixed look of sadness that sat on it as he then told me of that dark time. His voice was calm for the most part, although full of subdued passion; and the impression his narrative made on me was so deep that I can almost give you his very words.
"At first," said he, "I felt like a caged wild beast, and could do nothing but chafe. The night in the keeper's out-house, where the villain kept me to save himself trouble, with both hands and feet cruelly tied, had been bad enough; and the nights and days in Leamington lock-up were hard to bear, but a kind of hope sustained me, and I did not fully comprehend what loss of liberty was till I lay in Warwick Jail. For three nights after I entered that hell upon earth I did not sleep a wink. The very air I breathed seemed to choke me. Sometimes I felt so mad that I could hardly keep from dashing my head against the walls of the cell. Had I been alone perhaps I might have done it, but there were five beside myself cooped up in a den not much bigger than my kitchen, and in the darkness I was for a time horribly afraid lest one or other of these men should do me an injury. Though in one sense eager for death, I did not like being killed; and when not raging I was trembling with fear. It was nervousness, no doubt, but you can hardly wonder when I tell you what my neighbours were. One was a burglar from Birmingham, sentenced to transportation for stealing a coat from somebody's hall; two were miners from Dudley way, "doing" sixty days for kicking a chum and breaking his leg, another was a wild, brutish-like day labourer, who had got six months at last Assizes for cutting his wife's throat, not quite to the death, and the last was a poor, hungry youth of a tailor's apprentice, who had got the same sentence for stealing some cloth. We were a strange lot, and I feared these men in the darkness. If one moved, my heart leapt to my mouth; and the horrible language in which some of them indulged, made my flesh creep. That wild labourer especially terrified me. What if the murderous frenzy was to come upon him, and he should try to throttle me in the dark.
"After a few nights, exhausted nature asserted herself, and I slept. Then other thoughts arose in my heart that were still worse to bear—thoughts about my wife and family. Sarah had been allowed to speak to me for a minute or two before I was removed from the Leamington Courthouse to jail, and she then told me that Jack and Fanny caught cold that night, and threatened dropsy. Lucy, also, had had a relapse of the fever. Poor woman, she looked so broken-hearted and worn-out like, and I could say nothing, still less do anything now. 'Oh, Tummas, Tummas, that it should a' coom to this' she cried, and wept bitterly behind her thin old shawl. It was the shawl I married her in, sir; and I thought on the past and the future till I, too, broke down and cried like a child. But what good was that to her; to either of us? Well; I couldn't help it.
"Then she picked up a bit, and tried to cheer me, as women will when the worst comes. She told me that Mrs. Robins was very kind, and had come to look after the children for her that day, having none of her own, and no fear of the infection, and she was sure that the neighbours would never see her want. That was some comfort at the time; but once I came to myself in jail the thought that I was now helpless, that my family might be dying and I unable to reach them, raised anew the agony in my mind. I saw them gathered round our Sally's bed weeping for their absent father. My wife's weary looks and thin white face haunted me in the night seasons far worse than the wife mutilator. What could neighbours do for her in such a strait; what could I do now? The thought of my helplessness came over me with waves of agonising self-abasement and disgust, till my nerves seemed to crack and my brain spin round. Often did I stuff my sleeve into my mouth to stop myself from crying out as I lay tossing on the floor of the den. I would beat my head with my clenched hands till the sparks danced in my eyes, and groan till my neighbours muttered curses through their sleep. Oh, I thought, if I could but get an hour with my little ones, to see wee Sally and the baby in their bed, to watch poor Jack and Fan, and help the worn out mother. An hour! nay, half an hour, only five minutes! God, it was unbearable; it was hell to be caged like this!
"And what had I done to be thus torn from my wife and children, and made to consort with brutal criminals? What had I done? Killed three rabbits, vermin that curse God's earth and devour the bread of the poor. They belonged to nobody any more'n rats or mice or weasels, and did nobody good in this world. Why, the man that had nearly killed his wife was not harder treated than me. What then was my crime? Was I indeed a criminal? I asked myself again and again, and the answer came—'No, Tom Wanless, but you were worse; you were a fool. You knew the power of the landlords; you knew that to them the rabbit was a sacred animal, and that they could punish you if they caught you. You were a fool ever to put yourself in their clutches.' Ah yes, there was the sting of it. How could I hope to escape doom when all the world except the labourers were on one side.
"But though I saw I had been a fool; that made me no better in my mind; rather worse; for, as I tossed and raved in my heart, I took to cursing squire and parson: I cursed, too, the land of my birth, and ended by cursing the God who made me. Ay, that did I. In the darkness I mocked at Him, I swore at Him, and told Him that I wouldn't believe there was a God at all. Why, if He lived, did he suffer scoundrels to call themselves His chosen people, and mock Him by their chattering prayers and mumblings all the time that they lived only to oppress the poor. Life was a curse if that was right.
"Well," Thomas continued, after a short pause, during which he leant back and watched the changing tints of gold flitting across the western sky, "well, that mood also passed, and after the old captain had been to see me I got a little quieter. But the jailers did not make life easy for me, I can tell you. Because I was silent, speaking little, eating little, and hardly fit for the task they set me upon that weary treadmill, they gave me a taste of the whip many a time, and abused me for a sullen gallows bird, but I paid no heed.
"Within a fortnight after my punishment began, little Tom brought me word that two of my children, Jack and Lucy, were dead, and that Fanny was not expected to live. When I heard this news I laughed a bitter laugh, and said, 'Thank God, some good has been done. The squires won't imprison them, anyway!' My boy looked terrified for a moment, and then fell a-weeping bitterly. The sight of him crouching at my feet, and quivering in passionate grief, brought me a bit to. A vision of my dear little ones, of my dying wee Fan, swept over me; my heart yearned for them, and I mingled my tears with my son's. I charged him to be kind to mother, and tried to comfort him. Poor lad, poor lad! He is in Australia now, and has a farm of his own. The sorrow of that time is past for him long ago."
Here my old friend paused, wiping the tears from his eyes furtively, and sighing softly to himself. The dying glow of the sunset was now on his face, gleaming in his silvery hair, and making his sad but animated features shine with a soft glory. I sat still and gazed at him with feelings too strong for speech. After a little he turned to me with a smile, and said:—
"Yes, my friend, that's all passed, and many sorrows beside, nor do I now curse God as I look back upon them. But I cannot tell you more to-night. I didn't think that I should have been moved so much by recalling that old story. Let us go indoors, the night is growing chilly."
Future conversations gave me most of the particulars of that time, but I cannot harrow the reader's feelings with a full recital of all that Thomas Wanless felt and suffered in these six months of misery. Three of his children died while he chafed and toiled in Warwick Jail. The heart-stricken mother alone received their dying words, heard their last farewell. Kind neighbours tried to comfort her. The parson's wife even called, and said, "Poor woman, I'm afraid you've had too many children to bring up. I'll see if the vicar can spare you a few shillings from the poor box;" but the shillings never came, much to Thomas's satisfaction in after days. Perhaps Codling thought the family altogether too reprobate for his charity.
It would have gone hard indeed with Mrs. Wanless and the little ones spared to her but for old Captain Hawthorn. Though verging on seventy, and by no means strong, no single week elapsed all that winter when his cheery voice was not heard in the cottage. Often he came twice a week, but never with any ostentation of charity. On the contrary, he went so far the other way as to pretend to take a bond over the cottage for money, professedly lent to the family, and without which they must have gone into the workhouse. He never, perhaps, felt so like a hypocrite in his life as he did when he took this bond to the jail for Thomas to sign. Young Tom was put back to his work on the home farm, and his wages raised on some pretence or other to six shillings a week. The dry, old man, so hard and repellant, had, after all, a human heart in him that my Lord Bishop of Worcester might have envied had he ever experienced any desire for such an organ. More true sympathy with distress was shown by this hardened old Voltarian since this family had attracted his notice than by all the squires of the district and the parsons to boot. It had not yet become fashionable for the latter to rehearse deeds of philanthropy in pedantic garments. Hawthorn's fault was not want of heart or of sympathy, but a self-centredness which prevented him from seeing his duty, except when, as in this instance, it was forced upon him. Yet, after all, what could he have done to help the poor around him that would not in some way have redounded to their hurt? Charity doles would have demoralised them more than their hard lot did; and any opening of the door for them to help themselves would have brought hatred, contumely, and perhaps real injury to them and him. He could not raise wages by his fiat, nor could he break up his land and distribute it to the people. All the laws of the country, as well as the prejudices of "society," were against him, if he had ever thought of so wild a project; which I do not suppose he ever did. He sat apart and mocked at a world with which he had no sympathy; whose hollowness, self-seeking, and cruelty, hid beneath infinite hypocrisies, he thoroughly understood.
And this good, at least, has to be recorded of him, that he saved the family of Thomas Wanless from want, by consequence, also, in all probability, saving Thomas himself from becoming an abandoned Ishmaelite. The sight of his family beggared, homeless, and in the workhouse, either would have driven him reckless or broken his heart. From that sight, at least, he was saved; and Thomas has often told me that the conduct of the old squire during these six months did more to revive hope in his heart and keep him from losing all faith in God or man, than any other single event of his life. Yet had his heart bitterness enough.
"I remember," he said, one night as we conversed together; "I remember the morning I left jail. It was a warm, May morning, and the air was so fresh and sweet that the first breath of it made me feel quite giddy with joy. 'Free! free! I am free!' I whispered softly to myself, and with difficulty refrained from capering about the road like a madman, as the joyous thought surged through my heart. It lasted only for a few moments. Pain took hold of the heels of my joy as usual. I was a man disgraced. Why should I be glad to get out of jail? Were not its forbidding, gloomy walls the best shelter left for one like me? Why should I be glad? The law of the land had branded me a criminal; let the law makers enjoy paying for their work.
"Ah, no; disgraced as I was, filled with bitter passionate hate of those above me as my heart might be, I was not yet ready to stoop to deliberate crime as a mode of revenge. The memory of my lost children and my lonely, heart-broken wife stole into my heart and brought the tears to my eyes. The four that were left to me would be waiting on this May morning for my home coming. I would go home.
"So I started; but when I reached the castle bridge my heart again failed me. I was weak through long confinement, ill-usage, and want of food, for the messes served to us in that jail were often worse than I would have given to my pig. The very thought of meeting a village neighbour terrified me. My limbs shook, and I crept through a gap in the fence, resolved to hide till night and steal home in the darkness. For a little while I sat behind a bush at the water's edge, feeling a coward, but wholly unable to scold myself for it. Then I crept along the bank of the Avon towards Grimscote, till I reached a clump of osiers, into which I plunged. The ground was very damp, and here and there almost swampy; but presently I found a dry mound, and there I lay down, buried from all eyes. How long I lay I cannot tell, for I paid no heed to time, though I gradually became calmer. Once again I was in contact with nature. The air was full of the music of birds, and the chirp of insects among the grass sounded almost like the movement of life in the very ground itself. A sweet smell of hawthorn blossom came to me from some old trees close by, and now and then I heard the plash of oars on the river, and voices came to me sweet and clear off the water. Gradually I became more hopeful. Life was all around me; the bushes themselves seemed moved by it as I lay beneath their shade. Behind me the traffic of the high road made a constant rattle, and beyond the river I heard the bleating of lambs. And life somehow came back to me also. I arose with new hopes in my breast. All could not yet be lost to me, I somehow felt; and, at any rate, I would go home, for I began to be very hungry.
"I often stopped on the way with weariness and faint-heartedness, but did not again turn back, and by two o'clock in the afternoon I reached my own cottage. My wife welcomed me with a burst of crying. I learnt from her that she had begun to dread that I had done something rash. She and the little ones had gone to meet me in the morning as far as the castle bridge, which they must have reached soon after I lay down among the willows. There they sat for a while hoping that I would come, but seeing nothing of me they crept back again with hearts sad enough, you may be sure. I was not long behind them, and my wife soon brightened enough to be able to eat some dinner with me; but my heart smote me for being so selfish and unkind as to go and hide as if no one had to be considered but myself."
Such in faint outline was Thomas's account of his release from prison. His meeting with his family was sad beyond description. In the short six months of his absence three of his little ones had been put under the sod. Out of a family of eight in all he had now but four left. A great mercy that it was so, some will say; and possibly they may be right. The world's goods are so ill distributed that death is for many the only blessing left. Nevertheless, I question if the sorrow of the labourer at the loss of his children was not keener than that of many who need not fear a want of bread for their offspring. He had toiled and suffered for all the eight, and the love that grows up in the heart through such discipline as his is akin to the deepest and holiest passion known to man. Thomas and his wife mourned for their dead to their own life's end, because the little ones had been part of their life. Is it so with you, pert censor of the miserable poor?
Though sorrowing, Thomas had yet no time to nurse his sorrow. The world had to be faced again, and work to be found. For sentimental griefs and morbid wailings in the world's ear the Wanlesses had no time. At first Thomas got some jobs from Mr. Hawthorn, but he soon saw that they were jobs mostly created on purpose for him, and he could not bear the thought of living on charity, no matter how disguised. Therefore, he began to hunt about for odd work in the neighbourhood, and found much difficulty in getting it. His recent imprisonment told against him everywhere, if not in keeping work from his hands, at all events in low pay for the work. The farmers had now got their feet on his neck, and took it out of him, as they alone knew how; for the brutalised slave is always the cruellest of slave-drivers. But Thomas fought on, and for the best part of a year contrived to exist with the help that young Tom's wages gave. He did no more; nay, not always so much; for he and his wife sometimes wanted their own dinners that their children might have enough. Still he existed; lived through the year somehow and was thankful, notwithstanding the fact that he had made no progress in paying off his debt to the old Captain. "He can take the cottage, Thomas," said his wife. "Someone will pay him rent enough for it, though we can't; but we can get a hovel somewhere."
He was spared this last sacrifice, for about this time old Hawthorn died, and a sealed packet addressed to Thomas Wanless was found among his papers. When the labourer came to open this, he found that it contained his bond with the signature torn off, a receipt in full for the money advanced, and a £20 note. On a slip of paper was written in the Captain's scraggy, trembling hand, "Don't mention this to a living soul, Tom Wanless, or by God I'll haunt you.—E.H." Thus the scorned infidel was soft-hearted and characteristic to the last. His estate passed to a cousin, who soon gave the tenants cause to remember how good the old Captain had been. And once more he had kept the labourer's heart from breaking. The deliverance from debt which this packet brought, and the prodigious wealth a £20 note appeared to be to Thomas, renewed his courage and made him resolve to strike further afield in search of better paid labour. Railway making was at its height all over the country, and he had often thought of becoming a navvy. Now he decided to be one if he could get work on the line down Worcester way. A bit of that line came within fifteen miles of Ashbrook, and he might therefore see his family now and then at least Young Tom was to stay at home, and the 5s. a-week, to which his wages was reduced after old Hawthorn's death, would help to keep house till work was found by his father. The £20 was not to be touched till the very last extremity, and in the meantime Thomas put it in as a deposit in a savings bank at Stratford-on-Avon. He would not deposit it in Warwick lest questions might be asked, and the Captain's dying command be in consequence disobeyed.
The new plans succeeded better almost than Thomas had hoped. He got work on the railway; it was very hard work, but the wages were good; at first he only got 18s. per week, and he began by stinting himself in order to send 10s. of this home; but he soon found that to be a mistake. His work demanded full vigour of body, and to be in full vigour he must be well fed. The other men had meat of some kind three times a day, and Thomas followed their example, with the best results. Not only did he stand by his work with the rest, but he displayed such energy and intelligence that within a few weeks he obtained charge of the work in a deep cutting at 28s. per week. Of this he saved from 12s. to 14s. a-week, after paying for clothes, lodgings, and food. It seemed very little, and he grudged much the cost of his own living; but there was no help for it. Besides, what he saved now was more than all he earned in Ashbrook, except for a few weeks during harvest. Much reason had he to thank the dairyman's wife for feeding him in his youth so as to fit him now for a navvy's toil.
Truly the life was rough, and little to Wanless' liking, yet he worked with a heart and hope rarely his before. Altogether this job lasted for two years, and regularly all that time Thomas went home once a month with his savings. Sometimes he had more than 20 miles to walk each way, but he had health, and never failed. Starting on Saturday evenings, in wet weather and dry, summer and winter, he would reach home early on Sunday morning, when after a good sleep, he passed a few happy hours, and then started on the Sunday afternoon for his work again.
During these two years the attitude of Thomas's mind changed much towards society and its institutions. He may be said for the first time to have become a religious man, and his religion was of the simpler and more unsophisticated type which comes to a man who knows little of dogma, but much of the contents of the Bible. That book was studied by him as something fresh and altogether new on the lonely Sundays he passed amongst the navvies. He took to it at first more because he had no other book to read, but it laid hold of his imagination after a time, and he began to test the world around him by the lofty morality of the New Testament. In due course the thoughts that burned within him found utterance and infected some of his fellow workmen. Almost before he was aware a certain following gathered round him. They drew together in the parlour of the inn, which most of the navvies frequented, and discussed things political and religious on the Saturday and Sunday nights.
The wilder spirits soon nicknamed Thomas and his friends the Saints, and he himself went by the sobriquet of Methody Tom; but, though jeered at and sometimes cursed by the wilder sort, their influence spread, and radical views of society were canvassed among these navvies with a freedom that would have made parson and squire alike shiver with horror had they known. But they did not know. How could they? Such creatures as navvies were not, strictly speaking, human at all. They lived beyond the pale, like the Irish ancestors of many among them, and were essentially of the nature of wild beasts, for whom the policeman's baton or the soldier's musket was the only available moral force.
No parson ever looked near that community of busy workers, whose strong backed labour was swiftly altering the physical conditions of modern civilisation, and calling a new world into being for squire and trader alike. Nay, I am wrong. Thomas informed me that a parson did go astray among the workmen in the cutting of which he had charge. A poor, deluded young curate came round once distributing tracts. The fervour of a yesterday's ordination was upon him, and shone in the rigorous cut of his garments. He thought he might do the navvies good by the sight of him, and bless them with his tracts. But his visit was a failure, and his reception rough. Thomas declared that he felt sorry for the poor fellow, and yet could not refrain from joining in the laugh at his expense. One sturdy northerner, to whom he handed a tract, protested loudly that he "hadn't done nothing to be summonsed for," and when the curate blandly explained that it was a tract, he blessed his stars, and swore that he "took the chap for one of the new peelers." Another was of an opinion that "the parson had a mighty easy job of it," and suggested his taking a turn at the pick; while one more blasphemous than the rest, declared that he didn't know who the Lord Jesus might be, and didn't care; but, in his opinion, it was d——d impudent of him to send any of his flunkeys down their way "a spyin' and a pryin'." They chaffed the poor man about his clothes; begged a yard or two of the tail of his coat to mend their Sunday breeches with; explained how much better he could walk in a short jacket; wanted to know why he wore a white choker—and altogether made such a fool of the poor wretch that he soon turned and fled, amid their jeers and laughter.
That was the only time they ever saw a parson of the Church during these two years; and no doubt this poor curate felt that they were a reprobate crew whom the Church did quite right to abandon to their fate. It is so much pleasanter and easier to play at pietism amongst well-bred, comfortable people "of good society" than to save souls. The sweet order of a gorgeous ritual, the vanities of richly-embroidered garments, squabbles about archaic rites as worthless as an Egyptian mummy—these things are more valuable to the modern parson, and more pleasing in the sight of his God, than the lives of such men as Wanless and his fellow-labourers. For the parson's God is the God of the rich, to whom gorgeous ritual and sensuous music are necessary as foretastes of the blessedness of an æsthetic paradise.
So be it: far be it from me to question the taste of parson or parson's following. They can go their own way, only it may be permitted to one to point out that outside their charmed circle there are forces at work, before the power of which their fair fabric may yet crumble and disappear like sand heaps before the rushing tide. Thomas Wanless and his friends were rude and unlettered, but they had definite ideas enough, and a wild sense of justice. In their dim way they tried to fit together the various parts of the human life that lay around them, and failing to do so, as better than they have failed, they came to the conclusion that they and their class were cheated by the rest. Democracy, communism, subversive ideas of all kinds, therefore, found currency among them, as in ever-growing volume they find currency now. Imagine if you can these men trying to evolve the prototype of a modern Lord Bishop, in lawn sleeves and pompous state, from the simple records of the New Testament. Can you wonder at their failure in that instance, or in many such like? Where could they find church or chapel that was no respecter of persons? in which the possession of money and power was not the ultimate test of true godliness? Is it astonishing that in placing the ideal and actual side by side, these men should have come to the conclusion that the actual was a fraud: that the whole basis of modern society was corrupt?
Do not, I beseech you, pass lightly by the doings of these men, most sublime Lord Bishops, most serene peers of the realm, smug buyers of county votes. These ideas are spreading all around you. Few possessed them fifty years ago among the agricultural poor; but there, as elsewhere, democracy is getting educated, is awaking to the reality of things, and will make its feelings known to you in a manner you little dream of one of these days. Your Olympus will prove but a molehill when the earth shakes with the onset of the millions on whose necks you have sat all these ages. Titles are a mockery, hereditary dignities a contempt, in the eyes of men who live face to face with the hard realities of existence. A new life is abroad in the world. The image-breaker is exalted above my Lord Bishop in all his glory of lawn sleeves and piety in uniform by men like Wanless and his friends. They want to know, not what part "my lord" professes to act, what creed this or that snug Church dignitary chants or drones; but what his life is worth? What are you? in short, is the question, not what you give yourself out to be; and, depend upon it, if the answer is unsatisfactory, you and your hypocrisies will disappear together.
Nothing struck me so forcibly in my intercourse with Wanless as the extraordinary bitterness with which he spoke of the English Church. To it he seemed in his later life to have transferred the greater part of his hatred of the landed gentry. He viewed it as an organised blasphemy, and worse than that, as the jailor, so to say, by whom the chains of a miserable captivity had been rivetted for ages on the limbs of the toiling poor. The ground for this attitude of mind on the part of the labourer was easily discovered. He read his Bible much, and endeavoured to fit its precepts and the example of its greatest characters to the life around him, and of course he failed. The more he tried to bring together the presentment of Christianity afforded by the modern Church and teaching of the New Testament, the more he saw their divergencies. This set him pondering, and he soon came to the conclusion that this modern institution was not Christian at all, but Pagan. It was a department of State, paid by the State, and employed by it for the purpose of deluding the people into the belief that the existing order of life was divinely appointed. How effectively it had done this work, he said, let history show. The clergy had aided and abetted the gentry in all their robberies of the people; it had been the instrument of many flagrant thefts of endowments left for the education of the poor; there never had been a reform proposed calculated to benefit the people that had not been ardently opposed by this organised band of hypocrites, and no class of the community was so habitually, so flagrantly selfish as preachers. Take them all in all, Thomas Wanless declared, the people who preached for a trade, be they dissenters or Anglican, gave him a lower idea of human nature than any navvy he ever met. "Their trade makes them bad," he often declared; "and I suppose I ought to pity the miserable wretches, but they do so much mischief that I really cannot."
Once I recollect urging the commonplace argument that there were many good men among them, but he caught me up short with—
"Yes, yes, I admit all that; but that proves nothing in favour of either the Church or the parson's trade. These men would have been good anywhere, as Papists, Mohamedans, or Hindus, just as certainly as in church or chapel. It is their nature to, and they cannot help it. But their very goodness is a curse to people, sir—yes, a curse, for they prop up fabrics and institutions that but for them would long ago have been too rotten to stand."
Thus it will be seen that Wanless, though in his way a profoundly religious man, was in no sense a sectary. He was in fact ranged among the iconoclasts. He sighed for a living faith, not a dead creed; and were he living to-day he would certainly give his hearty support to that band of men who wage war on the shams of modern creeds, who mock unceasingly at the disgusting spectacle of men who call themselves disciples of Christ wrangling over the cut and embroidery of garments, and trying to make themselves martyrs for the sake of a candle or two. The tractarian movement attracted Thomas's attention in a dim way, and he was amused at the frightful din made by the conversions to Romanism which accompanied that curious upheaval of mediævalism. Not that he understood much of the meaning of what was going on. It was not worth discovering, he said; but he was amused over it, and roundly declared that for this and all other ills of the Church there was but one cure—to take away its money. "Let these parsons try living by faith," he would often exclaim. "If they believe in God as they say, why do they not trust him for a living? Their proud stomachs would come down a bit if they are just turned adrift in a body and let shift for themselves. But Lord, what a howl they'll make if the people get up and say we'll have no more of your mummeries, we want our money for a better purpose. They won't think much about God then, I can tell you. It will be every man for himself, and who can grab the most. I never have any patience with parsons, never. They are bad from the beginning, bad all through, self-deluders and misleaders of others at the best, and at the worst—well, not much more except in degree."
"These are the mere ravings of an ignorant peasant," most readers will exclaim. I do not deny that in a certain sense they may seem only that. Yet look around and consider the signs of the times before you dismiss these things as of no significance. What means the spread of secularism amongst the working classes of the present day, the contempt for religion and parsons which most of them display? Is it not a most ominous indication of future trouble for serene lord bishops and their brood when events bring them face to face with the people? I do not admire Charles Bradlaugh's teaching on many points; but I cannot deny the power that he and such as he wield on the common people. It is a power that increases with the spread of education; and what does it betoken? Only this; that in time, for one man among the peasantry who now thinks like Thomas Wanless there will be tens of thousands. The churches and chapels themselves, with their exceedingly worldly respectability, produce these men more certainly than all the teachings of the Bradlaughs; nay, Bradlaugh himself is directly the product of a corrupt, time-serving and utterly blasphemous church organisation. Therefore be not too contemptuous of sentiments like those of this peasant. They are significant of many things—of a coming democracy that will at least try to burn up the rottenness of our modern ultra Pagan-civilization.
On other questions than those of Church and State the opinions of Thomas Wanless were equally uncompromising, and, perhaps, equally impracticable. His intelligence was far deeper than his reading, and much of his political economy, as well as of his code of social morals, was taken from the Bible. To my thinking he could have gone to no better book, but I am also free to admit that his too exclusive study of it gave a quaint and sometimes impracticable turn to his conceptions that may lead many to have a poor opinion of his wisdom.
On the land question, for example, he grew to be a kind of disciple of Moses. He would have had the whole country parcelled out amongst the people—each family enjoying the inalienable right to a certain bit of the soil. The year of jubilee was also, in his eyes, a most merciful and just provision for freeing the unfortunate, or the children of the spendthrift, from the grasp of the usurer—always the most relentless of men—and he often exclaimed—"How much better my lot would have been to-day had a jubilee year brought back to me and mine the land my grandfathers sacrificed in the stress of hard times." And not to land only would he have applied this principle, but to all kinds of indebtedness. "A limit of time should be fixed," he said, "beyond which the debtor should be free from his debt, unless he had committed a crime." The national debt itself he would have treated on this principle; and few things excited his wrath more quickly than any mention of the heavy burden which the consolidated debt continued to be to the English people. In national matters he would have had no debt remaining beyond 30 years, on the principle that it was a crime to cast the burdens of the present on posterity. Freedom to borrow indefinitely was in his eyes, moreover, the cause of much abominable robbery and crime. Next to the Church, however, the object of his deepest hatred and strongest contempt was modern kingship; and here again his inspiration was drawn from the Bible. He told me that he often read Samuel's description of the curse of kingship to his children on Sunday evenings, with a view to make them proper Republicans; and his greatest interest in modern history consisted in tracing the working of this curse in England for the last 200 years. To this evil principle he declared that we owed most of our social miseries, all our wars of aggression, our national debt, our social corruptions, our bad land laws, our standing army, and perhaps even our Established Church, with all its crop of spiritual, moral, and social perversions.
It is easy to understand how a man holding opinions like these should exercise a tremendous influence on the better class of his fellow-workmen. To those who gathered about him in the evenings he was never weary of enlarging on topics like these; and had the nature of the work in hand kept the men permanently together, Thomas must in time have appeared as the leader of a formidable school of democrats. But the navvy is here to-day and gone to-morrow, and the seed which Thomas sowed was scattered far and wide ere two years were over. The good he did is therefore untraceable, yet doubtless his work bore fruit in ways and places unseen, and in after days may have increased the receptivity of the labouring poor after a fashion that the modern agitator thought due wholly to his own exertions.
Over the wild Irishmen who formed the majority of the gangs on the line Thomas never obtained any influence; and, in his opinion, they were either a race of men bad from its very beginning, or whose nature had been warped and debased by a long course of shameful tyranny and deep-rooted habits of submission to degrading superstitions. However produced, the Irish, in his esteem, were wretched creatures. They lacked honesty and independence, and would beg like pariahs one hour from a man whom they would treacherously murder the next in their drunken furies. More than once he had the greatest difficulty in keeping clear of the devastating fights with which these wild men of the west were in the habit of finishing up their drunken revels, and once he, and the more respectable men who followed him, had to arm themselves and help to protect some villages in the neighbourhood of the line from being stormed and sacked by a squad of Irishmen out for a spree. Life surrounded by such elements was dreary at the best, and, good though the wages might be, Thomas was not sorry when the job was finished, and the way open for him to return once more to his own little cottage in Ashbrook.
Had Thomas Wanless known what was in store for him in the future he might have elected to leave Ashbrook for ever, and continue the life of a railway navvy. As such his pay was good, and by thrift he might save enough money either to venture on small contracts for himself, or start some kind of business in one of the growing midland towns. But Thomas did not consider these possibilities. The life he led grew more and more repulsive to him as time went on; and he yearned unceasingly for the quietude of his native village, and for his own fireside peace. Besides, he hungered to get back to work on the land. If he could not get fields of his own to till, at least he might hope to again help to till the fields of others, and to watch the corn bloom and ripen as of yore.
So when the local bit of railway was made, Thomas came home to Ashbrook, and once more went abroad among his neighbours; once more he accepted the labourer's lot, with its hard fare and starvation pay. He returned late in autumn when work was scarce; but his wife and he had saved money in the past two years, and he managed to live with the help of what odd jobs he could get, and without much trenching on his store till spring came round. Fortunately his son Thomas had been able to cultivate the allotment patch in his father's absence, and in spite of the fact that the new owner of the soil had doubled their rent, it had paid for its cultivation very well. The growing importance of Leamington provided all surrounding villages with an improving vegetable and fruit market, of which Thomas's wife and family had taken full advantage in his absence. So well indeed had they done, that he himself indulged for a short time in dreams of becoming a market gardener; but he soon found that there was no chance for him in that direction. He might get work from the farmers around, but no landlord would rent him the few necessary acres. A broken man when he left Ashbrook to become a navvy; his absence had not improved his position. On the contrary, the parish magnates rather looked upon him as a greater black sheep than ever. The old ideas about the rights of landowners to the labour of the hind, as well as to the lion's share of the products of that labour, had by no means died out, and it was still a moral crime in the eyes of the landlord for a labourer to have enough daring and independence of spirit, to enable him to seek work in another part of the country. In some respects Wanless was therefore a greater pariah when he came home than when he went away, and the summit of offence was reached when the report got abroad that he had actually made some money, and wanted to rent a little farm. Squire Wiseman had condescended to mention this report to Parson Codling, and they both agreed that this kind of thing must be discountenanced, else the country would not be fit for respectable persons to live in. "The idea," Wiseman had exclaimed, "of this d——d poacher-thief wanting to become a farmer! why bless my life, we shall have our butlers wanting to be members of parliament next." And this seemed to be the general opinion, so that the only practical outcome of Thomas's ambition was a greater difficulty in procuring work, and a further advance in the rent of his allotment. The successor of old Captain Hawthorn took this mode of expressing his concurrence in the general opinion, rather than that of a summary ejectment, he being a practical man, and wise in his generation. It was better policy to take the profits of Thomas's labours than to turn him adrift, and have to pay rates for the maintenance of him and his family.
Against the odds and prejudices thus at work, Wanless fought manfully for more than two years. When he could get work he laboured at it early and late, and when, as often happened, work was denied him, he tended his little garden and his allotment patch with the closeness of a Chinese farmer. His flowers were the pride of the village, and his care coaxed the old trees in his garden into a degree of fruit-bearing that almost put to shame the vigour of their youth. Yet he could not always make ends meet; and when he began to see his little hoard melting away, his heart once more failed him. If the farmers would not have him he must once more try elsewhere, and again a local railway afforded him a refuge. He became a "ganger" on the Stratford line at 14s. a-week, and for more than four years made his daily journey backwards and forwards on his "beat," winter and summer, in cold and heat, well or ill. In one sense, this work was not so hard as a farm labourer's or a navvy's is, but it told on the health as much. Exposure, thin clothing, and poor food did their work rapidly enough, and Thomas's limbs began to stiffen, and his back to grow bent before his time. Like his fellows, he promised to become an old man at 50, but he would have stuck to his work had not a sharp attack of pleurisy laid him up in the winter of 1855, and once more compelled him to seek to live by farm labour. He could not face the bleak unsheltered railway track again, and even if he could, there was no room for him. His place had been filled up. With a weary heart and a spirit well-nigh crushed, Thomas once more looked for work on the farms around Ashbrook. "Is there no hope for us, Sally, lass?" he would often cry. "Must we go to the workhouse at last?" "Ay, the workhouse, the workhouse!" he would exclaim. "The parsons promise us a deal in the other world, but that's the best they think we deserve here. Well, perhaps they mean to give us a better relish for the other world when it comes."
Thomas had one thing to cheer him, though, and no doubt that gave him more courage to face the world again than he otherwise would have had. His precious son, young Tom, had emigrated to Australia about a year before this terrible illness had enfeebled his father. He had gone as an assisted emigrant, but the old man had given him £10 of old Hawthorn's £20 to begin the New World upon. The parting had cost the family much, and the father most of all; but they felt it to be for the best. There was no room to grow in the old land; in the new there was a great freedom. The lad dreamt of gold nuggets; but the wiser father bade him stick to the land as soon as he could get a bit to stick to.
This departure was a loss to the family purse, for the youth had obtained pretty steady work, and generously gave all into the keeping of his mother. But Jane and Jacob were now also out into the world, winning such bread as they could get, and the family burden was therefore lighter. Jane was general servant to a dissenting draper in Leamington, and Jacob enjoyed the proud distinction of being waggoner's boy at Whitbury farm, now tenanted by a go-ahead Scotch ex-bailiff, who had succeeded the Pembertons when they went to the dogs with drink and horse-dealing. This hard-fisted, ferret-eyed agriculturist worked his men and boys as they had never been worked before, but he did not make the hours of labour so long, and he paid them a trifle better than his neighbours, whose jealousy and dislike he thereby increased. Probably he rather liked to be contemned by his fellows. It increased the self-sufficiency of his righteousness, and made him the more proud of being a strict Calvinistic Presbyterian, endowed with a conscience as inelastic as his creed. Be that as it may, this man gave Jacob Wanless 10s. a week and made the lad work for it. Jacob was not then 17, and at his previous place had only obtained half that sum with a grudge. But then his work had been a long day's drawl too often, while now his duty as under waggoner was practically a good 10 to 12 hours' toil as stable assistant, feeder of stalled cattle, and general labourer about the farm.
From these causes Wanless had some ground for hope, although work was difficult for him to get, and his power to do it when got less than it had been. And when he looked round him his causes for thankfulness multiplied. Was not his neighbour Hewens, the under gardener at the Grange, worse off than he, with a younger family of seven, one of whom was an object, and a weekly income averaging about 9s. a week all the year round. Thomas's old and tried friend Satchwell, the blacksmith, too, with his three children living and a wife dying in decline, had surely a harder lot than he, for all the coldness of farmers and contumely of parish deities.
As spring warmed into summer, indeed, Wanless's strength and heart came back to him in a measure. His hopes were chastened, but they were there still, and asserted their life. Good news came from his far-away son, too. Young Tom had taken his father's advice, and, avoiding the charms of gold digging, had gone to work at high pay on a sheep run. Already he spoke of buying a farm of his own, and getting father and mother and all the rest to join him in the colony. Surely any man's heart would warm at prospects like these, and Thomas so far entertained the project as to talk it over with his friends, Brown, Satchwell, and Robins, who agreed in thinking it "mighty fine," and in wishing that they could mount and go along. "A vain wish, friends," Brown would say, "vain so far as I am concerned, for I cannot herd sheep or hold a plough, and they want neither parish clerks nor schoolmasters in the bush." Robins felt that he was too old and too poor to think of the change, and Satchwell sighed often as he thought on what a sea voyage might yet do for his wife. But as for Thomas, of course he could go when his son sent him the money, they said; and he, remembering that he had still a few pounds of his hoard unspent, almost thought that he could. His family should have the first chance, though. Jane and Jacob might both be able in another year to get away to the new country so full of hope; and it was best that the old hulk should stay at home, perhaps. So ran his thoughts for these two, but he always stopped when he reached Sally, his youngest living child, and precious to him as the apple of his eye. She was the fairest of the family, and her father's darling above all the others. Her, at all events, he felt he could not part with. If she went away at all her mother and he must go too.
As yet "wee Sal," as she was called, though by this time nigh fourteen years old, had not been suffered to go out to service. She had got more schooling than the others, thanks to the better means that her father had during part of her childish years; thanks likewise to his partiality for her. In this you will say he was weak; but let him who is strong on such a point fling stones. I cannot blame Thomas much for committing so common a sin as to love most yearningly his youngest child; but I admit that his fondness was perhaps to her hurt. Not that she was taught to love idleness or things above her station. Far from that. Kept at home though she was, she had to work. In the summer season she helped her mother to tend the garden, and to carry flowers, vegetables, and fruit to Leamington for sale. Under her mother's eye she at other times learned something of laundry work. But her schooling; what could she do with that? Did it not tend to give her vain thoughts above her lot; for her lot was fixed more even than that of her brothers. The peasant maid could never hope to advance to aught beyond some kind of upper service in a rich man's family; a service often increasingly degrading in proportion as it is nominally high. She might become a ladies' maid, perhaps, and marry a butler in time, or she might fill her head with vanities, and in apeing those above her sink to the gutter. The love of Thomas for his child exposed her to many risks, when it took the form of getting old Brown to teach her all he knew. If she could only get to the new country at the other end of the world all that might be changed. She might be happy and prosperous as an Australian farmer's wife. Yes, that would be best; but they must all go. Neither Thomas nor his wife, who shared his partiality, could think of parting with Sally. Jacob might go first to help Tom to gather means to take out the rest; and Jane might even go with him could a way be found; but not Sally: that sacrifice would be too much.
In all probability the emigration plan might have been carried out in this sense that very winter, if an emigration agent could have been got to take Jacob and Jane, had not misfortune once more found the labourer and smitten his hopes. Jacob enlisted. He was by no means a bad boy, but like all youths, enjoyed what is called a bit of fun; and, in fun, he had betaken himself to a kind of hiring fair held in Warwick, in November, and called the "Mop." There was no need for him to go, as he was not out of work, but the day was a kind of prescriptive holiday, and others were going, so why not Jacob? Idle, careless, and brisk as a lark, the lad followed where others led; drank for the sake of good companionship more than his unaccustomed head could carry; and when in a wild, devil-may-care mood was picked up by a recruiting sergeant, who soon joked and argued him into taking the shilling. A neighbour saw the boy, half-tipsy, following the sergeant and his party through the fair with recruit's ribbons fluttering round his head, and rushed home to tell Thomas as fast as his legs could carry him. The old man was horror-struck; and the boy's mother broke into bitter wailing. Thomas, however, wasted no time in useless grief, but took the road for Warwick, within three minutes of hearing the news, in the hope of being in time to buy his boy off. He had an idea that if he managed to pay the smart-money before Jacob was sworn in, the lad might escape with little difficulty. But he was too late. The sergeant was too well up to his work to wait in Warwick all night, in order that parents might come in the morning and beleaguer him for their betrayed children. Long before Thomas reached the town and began his search for his son the sergeant had gone off with his entire netful to Birmingham.
As soon as Thomas found this to be the case he made for the railway station, intending to follow his boy without asking himself whether it would do any good. But there again he was baulked. The cheap train to Birmingham had passed long before, a porter told him, and there was nothing that night but the late and dear express. For this Thomas had not enough money in addition to what would be required to buy off Jacob, so he had no help for it but to go home. This he did with a heart heavy enough. Well did he know that ere he could reach Birmingham to-morrow he would be too late. Recruiting sergeants do not linger at their work, especially after the army had been reduced by war and disease as it then had been in the Crimea. Before ten o'clock next morning Jacob, still dazed with yesterday's unwonted debauch, was sworn in before a Birmingham J.P., and not all the money his father possessed could then release him. Henceforth, till his years of service were out, he must go and kill or be killed at the bidding of these "sovereigns and statesmen," whose business it still, alas, is to make strife in the world.
This untoward event was in many ways a knock-down blow to the old labourer and his wife. She, however, sorrowed mostly on personal grounds, and dwelt on gloomy prospects of wounds and violent deaths as the only lot now open for her son—bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh—whom she had nursed and tended from the womb only for this. Like a good housewife, she mourned also the loss of Jacob's wages, which not only helped to keep the wolf from the door, but also served to nourish the hope that one day all might yet see the new land of promise. If any savings could be pointed to they were always in the mother's eyes due to those wonderful earnings of her boy's.
Thomas shared these feelings with his wife, but he had others into which she did not enter. The emigration scheme had, perforce, to be given up, and that was to him a far more bitter thought than to his wife, who declared that she did not mind if they all went, but hung back at the thought of "putting one after another of her children into a living tomb," as she phrased it. But the deepest pain of all to Thomas probably lay in the humiliation he felt in having a son a soldier. The trade of murder, as he called it, was to his mind the most degrading to which a man's hands could be set. He firmly believed that standing armies were a mockery of the Almighty, and that the nations which fostered them would sooner or later sink to perdition beneath the blows of divine vengeance. Armies led to wars, and wars were the curse of the world, he averred, and when contradicted was ready to prove to his antagonist that all the wars in which England had been engaged since the revolution of 1688, were dictated by the worst passions of mankind. Either, he said, they were undertaken to consolidate the power of a rapacious faction over the lives, liberties, and means of the people at large, or they were actuated by mere bestial greed, by inordinate vanity and love of power, or by mulish obstinacy and hatred or fear of liberty, and it was amazing to hear what arrays of facts he brought forth in support of his thesis. As a general conclusion he, of course, urged that, but for kings and priests, most of the wars of the modern world would never have come about. He did not know which cause was most effective, but inclined to think it was the priests. Certainly the sight of ministers of Christ so-called, unctuously blessing red-handed and red-coated murderers by wholesale, and training their children to go and do likewise, was in his opinion one of the most revolting things under God's sky.
You can, therefore, well understand with what bitterness of heart he thought of the fate of his boy. He brooded over it; it became more terrible in his sight than an actual crime. If Jacob had stolen and been transported for breaking the law, Thomas could not have felt more shame and humiliation than now haunted him. He almost cursed his son, and he did unstintedly curse the system under which the lad had been caught up by the agent of the State and spirited away from his labour. How it was done he knew but too well; and when afterwards Jacob himself told the story, it only confirmed what he had all along felt to be true. The boy had never intended to enlist; but the drink, imprudently taken, had gone to his head. The sergeant first cajoled him, and then, when he had taken the fatal shilling, terrified him with threats of what would befall if he broke faith with the Queen. So he took the oaths and went away to practice the goose step, and moralise on the oddness of things in the world. An officer, he now learnt, could sell out at a high price and retire; but the common soldier belonged to the State, and had to be bought back therefrom if he wished to be free. For Jacob there came no such redress.
Gloom settled on the heart of his father, and on the little home in Ashbrook after this great blow, and, but for the spur of hard necessity, Thomas thought he should have laid down his burden altogether. Happily, duty called him to work for others, if not for himself; and work brought its usual blessing—a healing of the wounds and a revival of life in the heart. All was not yet lost, though the buffets of adversity were frequent and sore.
Indeed, in one sense Jacob's enlistment brought good to the family, for it gave Thomas work at Whitbury Farm. Once more, after so many vicissitudes, he came back to the old place. A changed place it proved to be, but, on the whole, the change was for the better. The work was hard, but the farmer was not brutal like the Pembertons, who had ruined themselves by wild living, been sold up, and had disappeared none knew whither.
Jacob himself had plenty of time to rue his folly, and he did rue it bitterly. At first in Chatham, and afterwards in various Irish barracks, he spent seven dreary years, wishing many a time he were dead, and regretting that his fate did not lead him to India, where a mutineer's bullet might have ended his career. Possessing much of his father's energy of nature and many of his father's habits of thought, the idle and seemingly purposeless life of a barrack became at times almost more than the young man could endure. Had he fallen into the loose ways of many among his comrades, it is probable that he would have capped the folly of enlisting by the military crime of desertion. Fortunately he kept his soul clean, and managed to utilise some portion of his time in improving his mind. The mental wants of the soldier were not cared for in his time, as they have begun to be since; but there were a few books available in most barracks, and in Ireland a kindly old adjutant, who had himself risen from the ranks, discovered Jacob's thirst in time to afford him some assistance. Save for "providences" like these, and for the stout heart that grew within him as he developed into full manhood, Jacob's life as a soldier would have represented only wasted years.
Three more years in this way passed over Thomas Wanless and his family—years marked by no incident of great importance. The dull uniformity of their struggles with the ills of life has no dramatic interest. Under it characters may be shaped and twisted like trees by the east wind; but the graduations of change are mostly imperceptible to those that endure the daily buffetings, and are beyond the scope of the chronicler. Some day in the lapse of years, a man wakes up suddenly to find himself changed, and looks back upon a former self with wonder and astonishment, with thankfulness, it may be, for the drastic cleansing he has endured, or with that flash of horror at the sudden vision of the pit into which he has all the time been slowly sinking. In these years, while a father labours for his children's bread, and thanks God that the bread comes to him for his labour, his children grow up, develop characters, assume attitudes in the world he never suspects, bringing him joy or sorrow as the fruit is bitter or sweet. All is changing ever; life moves onward, and the one generation perceives not the path that the next shall follow. Ah! the mystery of life. What does it all mean? The wrong triumphs often; the high hopes are dashed; weariness and pain haunt us wherever we go; the fruit of the sweet blossom is ashes and exceeding great bitterness; yet we hope on, plod on, battle till the end comes—and the judgment: then perhaps we shall know.
As yet, however, the unkindly blows of a hard fate had not broken Thomas Wanless's spirit: far otherwise. His heart might fail him beneath the greater of his misfortunes, but when the storm had overpassed, his head rose again, his eye yet brightened, and the laughter of hope broke forth once more: so was it now. Steady work soothed the pain of Jacob's disgrace, and in time the boy's own cheerfulness and manifest improvement made his father begin to think good might be brought forth out of evil in this case also. His daughter Jane continued to do well, and was looking towards promotion in her sphere—such promotion as consists in being one among many fellows, instead of the solitary drudge in the family of a small retail merchant. With the higher wages that followed elevation, Jane hoped also to be able to help her parents more. That was Jane's ambition, so far as confessed, and it did her credit. There might be something behind that, which was her own; but for the present her father and mother stood first.
Then the news from Tom was ever good. He prospered with the colony of Victoria, where he had settled, and might in time be a rich man, though as yet his means were, for the most part, hid in the land he had bought.
Life, therefore, was not at all dark in those years of quiet toil, either for Thomas or his family; and yet a cloud was gathering on the horizon; a little cloud that might grow till all the life became wrapped in its darkness.
The enlistment of Jacob had compelled Sally to go to service like her sister. Thomas yielded to this necessity most reluctantly, and his friends, even his wife, said he was foolishly fond of the girl. He would not admit that it was over-fondness; it was solicitude, he said. An undefined feeling of dread haunted him about the last and best loved that was left. She was fairer than any girl of the village, and without being exactly giddy, she was thoughtless and merry-hearted; too easily led away; too guilelessly trustful of others. How could he let this tender, unprotected maiden go out into the world, and fight her life-battle alone among strangers? Many a prayer had he prayed in secret that this sacrifice might be spared; but in this also the heavens were as brass. The time had come when she must either go or starve, and with a heavy heart he gave his consent. It was hardly given when his wife in her turn woke up to the danger of the step. She then sought to bring Thomas to revoke the decision, and try one more year; but it was too late. Sally herself was now eager to go. Her pride was touched. She would no longer be a burden to her parents, and must take a place like her sister.
"But in another year, Sally, we may all be able to go to Australia," the mother pleaded.
"Well, I can work for money to help us to go there," was the answer; and the mother had to yield.
Sally found a place as drudge to a newly-married couple in Warwick—a young surgeon and his wife. They had imprudently married on his "prospects," and had to use many shifts to hide their poverty, lest the world, which can only measure men's worth by the length of their purses, should pass him by. It was thus a poor place, especially for one like Sally, who had been better educated than probably any one else of her class in the whole shire; and the wages were poor. At first they gave her 1s. 6d. a-week with her food, but after six months they gave her 2s., partly to prevent neighbours from gossiping about their want of means.
Here the girl remained for two years, not because she liked the place, but because her parents told her that it was good to be able to say that she had been so long in one family. Then she removed to the household of a lawyer as housemaid, where two servants were kept, and had been in that place over a year when her father met with an accident which laid him up for many weeks. It seems that in building a rick he had somehow been knocked off by a sheaf flung up at him thoughtlessly before he had adjusted the previous one. He raised his one hand mechanically to catch it, and his other slipped from under him. Being near the edge, he rolled off heavily, striking the wheel of the waggon as he fell. The rick was high, and the fall so severe, that, when picked up and examined, Thomas was found to have badly bruised his shoulder and fractured two of his ribs.
A long and tedious illness followed, during which Thomas was unable to earn anything. Until young Tom could know and send money the old folks were therefore likely again to feel the pinch of want, and it would take many months to bring help from Australia. Some of the old hoard was still left, but doctors' bills and necessary dainties soon made a hole in that. In nursing her husband, too, Mrs. Wanless was prevented from earning anything herself. There was no one to go to market with the little garden produce that might be to spare. Neighbours were helpful, but they could do little where all alike lived in daily converse with want. Thomas's master was kindly, and declared that he would not see them starve, but Thomas liked to be independent, and took umbrage at the tone in which the charity was offered.
Talking of these things, and of the difficulties of the future, one Sunday evening, when Sally was down from Warwick, the girl suddenly asked why she could not go to a better place where her wages might be of more use. She had only 3s. a week where she was, and felt sure she could earn more.
Her parents were for letting well alone. "All the extra money you can get, Sally, won't amount to much," her mother said, and her father urged her to wait for Tom's letter. Who knew that Tom might not be sending money to take them all away to the new country? But Sally was positive, according to her impulsive nature. She was now nearly 18, she said, and was sure she could earn more. "Besides, mother," she added, "I want to better myself. I am learning nothing where I am, and never will, and I hate messing about with so many children. They ought to keep a nurse, but they can't afford it, missis says; and I'm sure I'm nothing but a slave. Why should you object?"
Why, indeed. There were no good grounds for it in her eyes, and none tangible to her parents. The result, therefore, was that Sally sought and found a new place.
It so happened that what servants call "a good place" was not so difficult to find when Sally went to seek it, as it had been some years before. The growing wealth of a portion of the nation was telling every year with increased force on the demand for domestic servants; and at the same time manufacturers were everywhere drawing more and more of the female population into employments in the great industrial centres of the Midlands. In any case, therefore, Sally Wanless would probably soon have found a place of some kind in a gentleman's family; but, unknown to herself, her good looks had already been working in her behalf. She had attracted the attention of the housekeeper at the Grange one day that the two had chanced to meet in a grocer's shop in Warwick. When Sally went out the housekeeper asked after her, and told the grocer that she was just in want of "a still-room maid," whatever that may be. The grocer gave Sally a good character as far as he knew her, and said further that he believed the girl wanted a new place. What the housekeeper heard elsewhere also pleased her; and in due time Sally was engaged at the, to her, fabulous wages of £10 per annum. Perhaps, had Lady Harriet Wiseman known that the pretty girl who thus entered her house in the humble capacity of still-room maid, was the daughter of "that seditious old poaching scamp, Wanless," as the squires called Sally's father, she might have vetoed her housekeeper's action. But that finely-distilled aristocrat did not condescend to notice such trivial matters as the coming and going of menials. She barely knew the names of some of the oldest servants about the place, and when she had occasion to speak to any of them—a thing she avoided as much as possible—gave all alike the name of Jane. She viewed her domestic world from afar. She was of the gods, and her menials were of the sons and daughters of men. To her their lives were unknown; of their hopes and feelings she knew less than she did of the varied dispositions of her dogs. They were there to minister to her every want and whim, to bend the knee, bate the breath, and lower the eye before her when she crossed their path, and if they did these things silently as machinery, it was well. Her sole duty was to find them food and wages, and she kept her contract. But if they failed in one iota they were dismissed.
It would be unfair to suppose that Lady Harriet was an exceptionally hard woman, because this was her relationship with her household. She was indeed nothing of the kind. On the contrary, in some respects she was a kind-hearted person enough, and would for example have turned away her housekeeper on the spot, had she been made aware that the servants were badly fed or uncomfortable in their bedrooms, or anything of that sort. Sins of that kind affected the reputation of her mansion, and jarred, moreover, on her sense of comfortableness. To have life flow easily, to see and feel none of the roughnesses of existence—this was Lady Harriet's ideal. For the rest—how could she help it if menials were low creatures? They were born so, and it was for her comfort probably that Providence thus ordered the gradations of society. She had been heard, moreover, to plume herself upon the exceptionally good treatment her servants got, and to declare that she knew it to be much better than that of her sister, who was the wife of a lord bishop of a neighbouring diocese, and a woman of fashion.
Lady Harriet was, in short, an average sample of the modern English aristocrat. Nay, in some respects she was better than the average woman of her class, for she was gifted with some touch of the shrewd brains that had lifted her grandfather, the London clothier, to great wealth and an Irish peerage. In another sphere, as the parsons say, she might have distinguished herself as a woman of affairs, but she loved ease, disliked trouble, and wrapped her mind up in the refinements proper to high birth and breeding. First amongst these she placed exemption from all the cares and duties of maternity, and from the worries of household management. Her aim was not lofty, and even her ladyship had begun to fear that somehow her life had been a failure. A weary look was often seen on her face—visible to the meanest domestic—telling all who saw it that luxury could not insure any poor mortal from care any more than from disease and death. But cannot one trace the hideous grinning skull beneath the skin of the fairest and loftiest in the land? Care comes to all, and sorrow, and pain, and for years before Sally went to the Grange, the mistress thereof had felt the worm gnawing at her heart.
For one thing, her husband, now a man beyond sixty, was rapidly losing the little wits he had possessed. His life was to all appearance most prosperous. To the envy of many, he had made much money through the railway speculations of the preceding decade; and by material standard of the time should have been supremely happy. But he drank and over-ate himself, and his self-indulgences in these and other ways made him gouty and diseasedly fat. His life had thus become a misery to himself and to all around him, even before he had become really old; and now his memory was failing him, a sottish stupidity was stealing over his brain, so that it was with much difficulty that his wife could rouse him to attend to the most necessary affairs of his estates. Peevish and ill-conditioned when in pain, stupified with wine when well, and at all times of a dreary vacuity of mind, this pillar of the State, wielder of men's votes, arbiter of parish fates and men's fortunes, was not a lovable man to live with. To outsiders he might be an object of pity or scorn; but to his wife! Ah, well, the servants said she looked worried. Let it pass.
And yet had this been all she might have been in a fashion happy, for she could turn off much of the ill-humour of her husband on his servants by simply avoiding him. Other troubles, however, were coming thick upon her, and making her look as old as the Squire, although she was nigh ten years younger. Three children of the five she had borne were alive—two daughters and a son. Of course the son, being also the heir, was made much of, fawned on by mother and menial alike, and equally, of course, he grew up a remarkable creature. Who has not known such without longing for a whip of scorpions, and a strong arm to wield it? One daughter had married a soldier—a showy man of good family but small fortune, who sold out, became stock-gambler, and bankrupt in the brief space of eighteen months; and then bolted to Australia to try sheep-farming with a few hundreds given him by his friends to get rid of him. He had left his wife and three children to the care of his mother-in-law. The eldest daughter—eldest also of the family—was slightly deformed, and had never left home, though some poor curates had cast longing looks at her, hoping perhaps, that the money and influence she would have might be the means of bringing them preferment. But they were not men of family, and Lady Harriet would have none of them. The deformed daughter was left otherwise to her own devices; and was probably the happiest in the house, as she certainly was the gentlest. These were small troubles too, and Lady Harriet could not afford to make herself long unhappy over them; but it was otherwise with those of her son.
This pampered darling of his mother, this remarkable youth whose leading idea was that the world and all that was therein had been created expressly for him—if, indeed, he had ever stopped in his career of selfish lust to form an idea so definite—this youth of many privileges, before whom the path of life was rolled smooth and carpeted, on whom the sun dare not shine too freely nor any wintry storm beat untempered, was now causing his mother more agony than she ever imagined she could bear and live. She felt she was wronged somehow in having so much sorrow by one she so deeply loved. Had she not done everything for him all his life, given him all he asked, made the whole household his slaves, forbidden his masters to task his brain with too many studies, poured handfuls of pocket-money into his lap, and in all ways treated him like a demi-god? Yes, yes; she knew that no mother could have done more, felt it in her heart as she reviewed the past, and yet had not this precious boy been stabbing her to the heart every day of his life? Lady Harriet felt that the world was out of joint.
Others, less blind, will say that this nurture would have destroyed the noblest of natures. On a commonplace mind like Cecil Wiseman's its effect was disastrous. The young man was, about the time of Sally Wanless's entry on service at the Grange, some twenty-four years of age, and handsome enough to look upon. When he liked his manners were engaging, and his conversation not without shrewdness. But its range was limited to matters of the stable. He had no acquaintance with literature outside the sporting papers and some filthy English novels. French he had never learned to read. He shone more in the stable than in drawing-rooms, and understood the philosophy of horse jockeys, or racing touts, better than the difference between right and wrong. If he had a pet ambition it was to "make a pot of money" on a horse, and if he had not been the heir to a great estate he might have distinguished himself as a horse-dealer, that is, had he not come to the treadmill before he got the chance.
The social position to which he was born saved him the trouble of choosing a profession, and from the grasp of the law, but it did not prevent him from being a criminal worse than many a poor wretch in the dock. A commission had been bought for him some years before in a regiment of dragoons, and by means of money he was now a captain, but there was little about him of the soldier. When not bawling on a race course he was lounging about the clubs of Pall Mall, playing billiard matches for high stakes, or losing money at cards with the freehandedness of a gentleman of fashion. What leisure these high occupations left him was devoted to the society of loose women, by whom his purse was just as freely emptied.
Naturally a career of this kind cost much, and soon Lady Harriet was driven to her wits' end to find her son the means he demanded, and at the same time to hide his extravagance from his father. The old man was growing stupid, but not on the side of lavishness. On the contrary, he clung to his money the more tenaciously, the more he felt that, and all other earthly goods slipping from him, and woke to snappish inquisitiveness when his name was wanted at the bottom of a cheque.
For a time Cecil's mother smuggled considerable sums for her boy through the household accounts, and by pinching herself in the matter of new clothes and jewels, managed to keep him afloat. But soon his wastefulness went far beyond the range of such petty expedients. From hundreds his losses grew to thousands, and she was in despair. Again and again did she beseech her darling to be careful, to restrain himself, to have pity on her grey hairs. She might as well have prayed to the church steeple. Cecil abused her, and told her that he would have money, get it how he might; if she did not give it him the Jews would, and it would be the worse for her. Sometimes she thought she must tell his father, but the courage and truth of heart were alike wanting for a course so open. Once she threatened Cecil with this dreaded alternative, and he wrote back that he did not see why she could not put his father's name to a cheque, and be done with it. And he spoke of the old man's grasping tendencies in terms unfit for transcription.
Verily, Nemesis was overtaking this poor woman, and bitter care had become her familiar friend, though she knew hardly the fringe of her son's iniquity. He weltered in a pool of corruption, caring for nobody, loving no one but himself, despising natural affection, trampling it under his feet with the unconsciousness of a demon, and crying for money, money, as a horse leech seeks for blood. Such are some of the characteristics of the family under whose roof the daughter of Thomas Wanless now found herself, a stranger, bewildered with the splendour around her, and the signs of a wealth greater than her imagination had ever conceived.
Sarah Wanless did not quite suit the housekeeper, Mrs. Weaver, as still-room maid. She was not sufficiently acquainted with the work, and got flurried when the deputy tyrant of the household scolded her, which, after the first few days, was many times a-day. So, after a month of this purgatory, she was transferred to the nursery as under-nurse to the children of Lady Harriet's daughter, Mrs. Morgan. There her position was in some respects improved, though the head nurse was a woman of vulgar instincts, and given to nagging, as women verging on forty, face to face with old maidhood, often are. Doubtless she had had her sorrows and disappointments, and felt that the world had been unkind to her—a feeling which justifies much unloveliness here below in other folks than old maids.
However, Sally endured her lot in hope, and soon began to find a certain pleasure in her work, for she liked children. There were two boys and a girl, the girl being youngest, and at this time two years old. The drudgery was, therefore, less severe than if there had been babies in arms, and, as the children were not naturally ill disposed, though imperious as became their birth, they and the new nurse soon got on very well together. Part of every fine day was spent out of doors, and that also helped to make petty troubles bearable. It is only bitter care and sorrow that seem heavier under God's sky than within four walls. At first the upper nurse always formed one of the party, and was rather a nuisance in her persistent endeavours to check what she called "ungenteel beayvour." Her voice was a chorus ever intruding with "Master Morgan, you mustn't do this," or, "Miss Ethel, you shocking girl, don't beayve so," and the key did not conduce to harmony, but, like every other discord in the world, it deafened the ears that heard, and the young ones enjoyed themselves in spite of it.
Nor did this drawback last long, for, some three months after Sarah entered the nursery, fate, or the spirit of mischief, ordered things so that the head nurse once more fell in love. The object of her mature affection was the new farm bailiff, a gigantic Welshman some few years her junior, and the prosecution of their courtship made the presence of Sarah inconvenient. As a stroke of policy, therefore, she was often sent off with the two elder children to wander through the park and gardens, or into the woods, as the whims of the children or her own might dictate, while the "baby," as the youngster was still called, went with the other nurse in quest of Mr. Peacock. Then Sarah was in bliss. She danced along with the little ones, singing as she went, romped around the old park trees or through thickets, and often brought her charges home splashed and dirty, with their clothes all torn, but in a state of delight not to be described. And the scoldings that ensued did not somehow hurt Sarah's feelings much. Life was strong within her, and her heart was light.
All this time, in fact, Sally Wanless was developing into a lovely woman. Her slim, rather lanky figure grew rounder and increased in gracefulness. Her face, ah! how many a lordly dame would have envied her, would have thanked Heaven for a daughter with such a face! It was impossible to look on it and not be struck with its beauty. Her complexion was fair like her mother's, but her features resembled her father's. The face was a fine soft oval, the nose aquiline, the brow perhaps narrower than strong intellect demanded, but high and open, and the eyes of greyish blue were large and full of dancing mirth. A certain sensuousness lay hid in the lines of the mouth, but it betokened rather an unformed character than a bent of disposition. Under the right guidance, Sally's mouth might yet grow as firm in its lines as her father's. Poor lass, would she get that guidance?
Well, well, think not of evil now. Try rather to picture this fair peasant maiden in your mind. Behold her all innocent as she is, romping through the park with the children, dressed in her clean, neat, print gown, with her rich brown hair perhaps broken loose and tossing about her shoulders as she runs hither and thither, chased by the shouting little ones. And as you look, remember that this fair lass was but a peasant's child, born to serfdom at the best. Between her and those children there was hardly a human bond.
Think not of evil, I have said; and yet at this very time much evil was at hand for poor Sally. Just as I have set her before you, all rosy and bright with exercise, she ran full tilt one day almost into the arms of Captain Cecil Wiseman. The captain was lounging along with his gun under his arm, smoking a pipe of wonderful device, and with a couple of setters at his heels, who barked half in surprise at the sudden apparition. Sarah came rushing from behind a clump of rhododendrons, and almost fell at the Captain's feet, through the violent wrench she gave herself to avoid a collision. Cecil Wiseman opened his heavy eyes, stared in impudent wonder for a moment, and then, as if moved to involuntary respect by what he saw, doffed his hat, and mumbled something or other, Sally did not wait to hear what. Blushing all over her already flushed face, she darted off to hide her confusion, followed by the shouting children, from whom she had been fleeing.
After that meeting the captain suddenly found his nephews and niece interesting. He condescended to play with them so often, that his mother began to take heart. Her son was going to turn out a fine fellow, after all, and, poor boy, she had perhaps been too hard on him for his wild oat sowing. It was part of the education of gentlemen in his position, and, no doubt, contributed to endow them with that contempt for the feelings of the common people proper to aristocrats. So Lady Harriet was happier. Her son found means to come home oftener, and stayed longer when he did come. He even took some interest in the affairs of the estate, went to church occasionally, and asked some of the farmers' names.
Never for a moment did Cecil's mother imagine that he was merely engaged in stalking down the under nurse of his sister's children, and that the greater the difficulty he experienced in doing so, the more his passion incited him to acts of apparent self-denial. He grew an adept in hypocrisy in order to put the girl, his mother, everyone, off the scent, and it became positively astonishing to see how his habits changed, and his wits sharpened, under the stimulus of this now exciting hunt. He displayed cunning and ingenuity of device worthy of a better cause.
In early summer, for example, he spent whole mornings teaching the two elder children to ride, walking or trotting with them all round the park, and to all appearance heedless of the nurse girl, who was left alone with the youngest, when her superior chose to be elsewhere. At other times, if he met her with the children, which was often enough,—it seemed to be always by chance,—he would be busy discussing horticulture with the gardener, fishing, or going for a row on the pond, off to the warren to shoot, always occupied, and always ready to express noisy surprise at finding the "pups" there, as he called the little ones. When he went on wet days to play in the children's room, it was always in company with his sister, who, however, was usually driven off within a few minutes of her entrance, by the row that "Uncle" systematically started.
All this and much more, Captain Cecil Wiseman, the nobly born aristocrat, put himself to the trouble to do, and suffer, in order that he might work the ruin of an innocent, unsuspecting, country maiden. For long, he had no apparent success, for Sally Wanless was shielded by her very innocence, and she was also very shy, so that it was most difficult to get near her. By degrees, however, she became familiar with the Captain's face and figure, and his presence ceased to be either repulsive to her or to frighten her. Not very tall, heavy in make, and, with fluffy, sodden features, and a skin already over red from dissipation, Captain Cecil was by no means an attractive person. His voice, too, was harsh, and his eye evil. For all that, patience and cunning carried the day. Labouring incessantly to throw the girl off her guard, he succeeded, and as soon as he had done so, he knew the game to be in his own hands. It is a terrible mystery this power which evil-minded men gain over women. They fascinate them, as snakes are said to fascinate birds, till they become powerless, and fall helpless and abandoned into the jaws of destruction.
By slow degrees then the captain drew Sally into his power, and seduced her. He had stalked his game, with more than a hunter's patience, but he triumphed. Bewildered, surprised, horrified, the poor girl scarcely knew what had befallen her, felt only a vague dread and consciousness that somehow, for her, the world was all altered, that where joy and hope had been, there was now the ashes of a burnt-out fire. Ah, poor young lass, this squire's son, this noble captain of Her Majesty's Dragoon Guards, had done his best to destroy you, body and soul, and boasted of the deed. In proportion, as the task was hard, he exulted at his success. To destroy the life of a virtuous girl was almost a greater triumph to him than to be first in at the death of a fox. To win this triumph he had stooped to lies black as hell, and cared not. His end gained, his interest in his victim at once sank, and soon he hated the sight of her sad, tear-swollen face. Ah, God! that these things should be, and men have no shame for the shameless seducer, no horror of his blasting career.
But had this maiden no guilt, then? Yes, she had guilt of a kind. She was inclined to be vain of her beauty, and her betrayer fastened on that weakness. His flattery pleased her, till she grew, half unconsciously, proud that so fine a gentleman as this captain creature should notice her. This pride begat conceit and a foolish confidence in herself that made her betrayal easy. After what her parents had taught her, she ought to have known better. True pride, a jealous care for her womanhood, should have possessed her. Instead of that she grew giddy, and so was allured to her destruction, like the moth to the candle. Thus far she was guilty; but wilt thou condemn her, O censor? And if so, what of the man? Is it not strange that he, so much more guilty, should go scatheless; that to "society," as the froth at the top insolently calls itself, this base creature, this loathsome seducer, should be as good as ever? For him the lofty mothers of the aristocracy would have no censure, in him their daughters, should whispers of his deeds reach their ears, would have a livelier interest. Amongst most people he would bear repute as a "man of gallantry," a "dreadful lady-killer;" at worst, a "rake" of the dirt-heroic kind that heightened rather than otherwise his eligibility as a match for the fairest of the daughters exhibited for sale in the markets of Belgravia and Mayfair. A man that could ruin a country maiden and then fling her from him, all heedless of her broken heart, with no more thought of her than if she had been a dead dog, must, in the view of society, be a man of spirit. As for the ruined one—faugh! speak not of a thing so repulsive. Let her die in the street.
After the high-born Captain Cecil Wiseman had accomplished his purpose, Sarah Wanless lost her attraction for him. With a fiendish guile he had tracked her down, and now that the chase was over, the victory won, why should he bother himself further? Sarah's beauty was not less; nay, was rather enhanced by the new sadness that shaded her face; but the Captain hardly looked at her again. These confounded wenches were so given to whimpering, and this serene aristocrat hated "scenes." Had Sally been bold and of brazen iniquity, like many of the stained ones he knew in the greenrooms of London theatres, she might possibly have held this lust-consumed reptile a little longer in her power, but being only a simple village maiden slowly awakening to the horror of the fate that had befallen her, the sight of her tearful face made him avoid her. What had he to do with the consequences of sin and folly? Was not the world bound to make his vices pleasant to him?
This thoroughbred captain in Her Majesty's Dragoon Guards left Sally then, and sought other attractions, his appetite whetted by his success. Even as he snared Sarah Wanless his roving eye had sighted other game.
The vicar's wife, Mrs. Codling, had several daughters whom, like a judicious mother, she was anxious to marry well. These the Captain had deigned to notice somewhat in the course of his long visits at the Grange while Sally's destruction was in progress. At church more than once his greedy eye had rested on the vicar's pew with a hard gaze of admiration, and on week days his footsteps had begun to stray towards the vicarage often enough to set Mrs. Codling's brain a-scheming. It would be indeed a triumph, she felt, if the heir of Squire Wiseman could be got to marry one of her daughters. But that was a job which needed the most delicate handling, for if Lady Harriet got wind of her designs, the consequences would be more than Mrs. Codling felt able to face. At the best the parson's daughter would have been considered no fit match for so great a personage as this ill-doing guardsman, but, as things were, the very idea of such a marriage would have been received at the Grange with unutterable scorn.
Times were in many ways changed with the vicar since that day now long past, when his soft, fat hands were uplifted in holy repulsion of the horrible rabbit-slaying criminal who stood before him doomed. For one thing he had gathered a family around him, and for another he had been overtaken by poverty—a poverty that came of greed. The living of Ashbrook was worth in money about £250 a year, and there was a good vicarage with a large garden and paddock, so that altogether Mr. Codling was as well off in the country as he would have been with £500 a year in town. To this income, itself above starvation point many degrees, Mrs. Codling had added an income of nearly £2,000, which made the home more than comfortable. A contented man would have been very happy with such a provision, judged even by the standard of the Spectator, which admires Christianity with a well filled purse, but Mr. Codling wanted more, like most parsons. One would think from the eagerness shown by such to possess themselves either of rich wives or of large incomes made out of nothing, that somehow Christianity and poverty are things that cannot exist together. Luxury is certainly essential to the true faith of the majority of modern parsons. Without it they shrivel up, grow morose, full of evil thoughts, such as envy and malice, and instead of an example are a warning.
Parson Codling, then, took the common clerical fever. During the railway mania he saw men spring suddenly from poverty to great wealth, and very soon came to the conclusion that nothing would be easier than for him to do as they did. Entirely ignorant of the game of speculation, Codling took to speculating with the fearlessness of a master in the art, and following a common rut of fortune, he for a time succeeded. One land speculation in which he joined, and where the shareholders of a new line of railway were fleeced of fabulous thousands, cleared him, it was said, about £1800, and he did well with sundry purchases of shares. Naturally, success made him bolder. He bought anything and everything, became an expert user of stock exchange slang, and deeply versed in the "rigs" and dodges of the share market. Some of the squires around began to envy him, others cursed him for a nuisance, but still he made money, and no doubt would have gone on making it indefinitely had somebody always been found ready to buy when he wanted to sell. Unluckily for him, the day came when he could not sell at any price, and as he had been lifted clean off his feet by the elation of his early speculative successes, he only came back to the hard earth to find himself ruined. The crisis of 1847 did not break out without much foreshadowing to prudent men, but to the Rev. Josiah Codling it came like the trumpet of doom. Till the very last he clung to the hope that a rise in the share markets would set him free. That fatal October therefore passed like a whirlwind, leaving Codling stripped of all he had previously made and some £40,000 in debt. To save him from public exposure and disgrace, his wife had to part with nearly all her property in Worcester, and they were glad, ultimately, to escape with as much as yielded about £200 a-year beyond the value of the living. Had all the creditors been fairly paid they would not have retained a penny, but Codling struggled and wheedled, and, it is said, shed copious floods of tears over his hard fate, until pitying people let him go.
Such an untoward end of the glorious visions in which the vicar had indulged naturally embittered his home circle. Mrs. Codling could not forgive her lord for ruining her, and took to reviling the poor wretch early and late. The miserable fellow would have borne his misfortunes ill enough even if sympathised with. Being reviled, he bore them not at all. He drowned them in drink. At first he stupified himself with brandy; but that proving too dear for his means, he relapsed to gin, and led a sodden existence.
All too late his wife saw the blunder she had made, and tried to wean him back to sobriety. Failing in that, her pride and cunning came to the rescue. She smothered her tears and veiled her sorrows before the world, hiding at the same time her husband's infirmity as much as possible from the public eye. The lot was hard, her punishment severe, but she braced herself to it with a woman's patient courage, and straightway opened her heart to new hopes and dreams of better days to come. Henceforth the aim of her life must be to get her four daughters settled in life. Alas! the settlements would need to be humbler now than those she had once dreamed of. The tables of the great ones of the parish were not now open to them as they had been before her money had gone, and before Codling took to drink. There was not even a barrack in the neighbourhood, with its successive bevies of foolish young officers to prey upon—only Leamington with its dawdling crowds of nobodies. Ah, well, the most had to be made of the opportunities that offered.
These being the circumstances of the family at the vicarage, this the mental attitude of Mrs. Codling, who could wonder that her soured spirit rose once more within her with a feeling akin to gratitude towards a merciful providence, when Captain Wiseman came in her way? Despair had sometimes nearly marked her down for his prey, and lo! here was the Prince of the fairy tale. Dresses were forthwith obtained for the girls such as they had not worn for years, for happily their mother had still a few jewels left which she could pawn or sell. And being handsome girls—two of them particularly so—they soon attracted a good deal of the roving guardsman's attention. At first a little flirtation with them gave a pleasant variety to his existence, rendered just a little monotonous by the labour of stalking down Sally Wanless. The shrewd mother contrived that his opportunities should be frequent. The old pony chaise was furbished up anew and the girls took to driving the fat, wheezy, old pony about the country in a manner new and far from agreeable to it. In this way they managed to cross the Captain's trail much after his own style with Sally. During that winter he hunted a good deal, and the Codling girls developed an enthusiasm for the sport which made them haunt meets far and near. Months before the Captain flung Sarah from him he had thus become familiar with the sight of these girls, and no sooner was she well destroyed than he began to develop a preference for the youngest but one—Adelaide or Adela Codling. Miss Adela was a buxom, roystering, kind of girl, of handsome features, light brains, and abundant animal spirits. Already, though but nineteen, she had a reputation amongst her acquaintances of being what the pump-room gossip of Leamington styled "fastish." She affected outré fashion in dress, and was always ready to lead a revolt against established proprieties. To play the boisterous hoyden at a harvest home or farmer's Christmas dance, where she could scandalise all the sober domestic virtue of the parish and make every buxom farmer's lass wild with jealousy by her extravagant flirtations with the young men, delighted Miss Adelaide beyond measure.
This free young lady was most to the Captain's taste of all the four, but her mother felt disappointed at the preference. It not only left the eldest girl out in the cold, but made Mrs. Codling's task more dangerous. Adela had no prudence, and unripe plans might become known to Lady Harriet through her folly. Besides, her ladyship would probably be harder to persuade into accepting Adela as a daughter-in-law than any of the other three.
So thought the prudent, anxious mother; but she was too wise to interfere. A risk must be taken in any case, and she resolved to let the captain have his way, bracing herself to greater vigilance and higher flights of matrimonial diplomacy than ever. And she found a much more efficient ally in the Captain than she had expected. Men, in her opinion, were never prudent in love matters, but this man was as cautious as a diplomat on a secret mission. It did not suit him any more than Mrs. Codling that his mother should scent danger in his visits to the vicarage. In such a place as Ashbrook and in ordinary circumstances all their care would have gone for nothing; but, happily for their plans, her ladyship did not go out much now, and called seldom on any of her neighbours. Her husband, the estate, her miserable son, any one of them would have given her grief or work enough to keep her well at home. When she went abroad, therefore, it was generally for an hour's drive out and home, or to Leamington or Warwick on business.
Just now she was struggling hard not to lose the dream of hope that had for a short time gladdened her heart about her boy, and was failing in the effort. Notwithstanding his long visits to the Grange, his demands for money continued to be insatiable. He always put his necessities down to the bad conduct of the Jews. They had got him fast, he said, and would give him no peace. But as bill after bill got paid, only to be succeeded by a new crop, Lady Harriet began to doubt the truth of this tale, and in her unhappiness shut herself up more than ever. The Captain had only to spend a little of the money wrung from his mother in bribing her maid, and he was free to destroy all the women of the parish if he chose.
Lady Harriet did not even hear of her son's ongoings with Sally Wanless, though to the menials of her household and the gossips of the village they had furnished for months back one of the most delightful and engrossing topics of conversation that the oldest among them had ever been permitted to share in. It was better than the most sensational romance of the London Journal; for was not this drama being acted out before their very eyes? They took the same delight in it, though keener and deeper, that they would have taken in any sport involving the death of the weaker creature, and few among them cared in the least for the girl whose danger they failed not to see. Among the young her beauty excited envy, and they virtuously rejoiced that her pride would yet bring her sorrow. All, young and old, loved an intrigue for itself; and would not have spoiled their sport for the world. The servants at the Grange carried their tales to the village, and the village gossips drew together in the fields, on the road, by the pump, at cottage doors, to roll the sweet morsel of scandal under their tongues.
All this time Sarah's parents were kept in ignorance of what was afoot. Neither dreamt of danger to their daughter, because neither was aware of the fiend who pursued her. As for Sarah herself, she behaved better after she had begun to feel the spell of the Captain's fascination upon her than before; was more demure and obedient. This she was half unconsciously, half from a wish to propitiate her father and mother in view of she knew not what.
Pausing not to think, heedless of the smiles and whispers, the nods and winks that greeted her wherever she went, all of them signs full of warning to one disposed to alarm, free, happy-hearted Sally Wanless plunged into the abyss.
Ruined and forsaken, she came to herself only to find that she had entered a new world. Sorrow and darkness dwelt within where light had been; and around her all was changed. The silent hints of her fellow servants gave place to open taunts and scorn. None pity a fallen woman so little as her fellow women, and Sally's fellow servants were not long in making her life an unrelieved agony. The bloom forsook her cheek, her step became listless, her eyes dull and sunken. She literally withered before her tormentors, and they pitied her not.
A change so great soon attracted the attention of her parents, especially as for a little time her manner in her visits to them became suddenly dashed with recklessness. The wretched girl, in trying to be her old self, was, like a bad actor, overdoing her part. Her parents grew uneasy, and the uneasiness gave place to alarm when Sally grew pale and silent. Afraid to speak, hoping it might be some cross in love matters, which most young lasses experience, both her father and mother yearned after their daughter. At length the accidental discovery of some trumpery trinket of the Captain's, which Sally wore round her neck, led to the revelation of all their daughter's peril and loss, although the knowledge came too late.
The ribbon by which the trinket hung had become loose, and it fell on the floor. Before Sally could pick it up, her mother's hand was on it. Holding it to the light, she found that it was a gaudy looking locket, and instantly demanded where Sally had got this. Taken by surprise Sally answered at once,
"From Captain Wiseman."
"From Captain Wiseman! Oh, Sally!" That was all she said; but the tone and the look went to the girl's heart and tore it with a new misery. Her father turned in his chair and looked at her for a minute or two without speaking. She took his gaze to mean rebuke, and mechanically tried to escape from the house. Then her father spoke.
"Stay, Sarah," he said. "Go with your mother to the boys' room. We must know what this means."
Equally mechanically she obeyed, suffering her mother to lead her away.
Left alone, Thomas said that he did not think of anything particular for some time. He just sat still as if animation was suspended, a dull feeling of pain, a sense of stunnedness possessing his whole being. The fate of his pretty daughter was before his inward eye all the time. He gazed at it and realized it, but it did not move him. His emotions were frozen up.
It was some time before the mother and daughter came back, and the girl would not face her father. He rose to bid her good night. She hesitated a moment and then muttering, "I shall be late," turned and fled from the house.
Mrs. Wanless told her husband that she could make nothing of the girl.
"I plead with her," she said; "I scolded her and tried to work on her feelings, but she just hid her face in her hands, and rolled and moaned like to break her heart."
Poor, lone lass, her tale needed no words to make it plain. Already it was known to all the village, and this Sunday night the hideous reality entered the minds of her parents, breeding there a sorrow the keenest they had ever known.
At the Grange, too, who was there knew not? That Sunday night Sally was actually late as she had said, and the scolding, seasoned with brutal taunts, which she had to endure from her superior, might have stung the girl to retaliation had not a deeper pain laid hold of her spirit. She paid no heed to the taunts and broad allusions of her neighbour, whose heart was perhaps the bitterer from the recent failure of her own last effort at husband-catching. A fire raged in Sally's heart that seemed to be consuming her very life. Her one hope now was to die. That would be best. As soon as possible she crept silently away to bed. How blessed is the darkness to the soul that is ashamed! Sally's grief, deep and bitter though it might be, was little to the sorrow and pain she had left that night in the home of her childhood. The deathly calm in her father's mind was succeeded by a storm before which Sally's sobs were as the wailings of an infant. His spirit had been stirred to its depths by many storms in the past, and needed much to rouse it now, but what he had learned to-night was surely enough. In the darkness of the night the full horror of what had befallen his daughter and himself was pressed in upon his thoughts till his heart rose in bitterness unspeakable. Was it true, then, he asked himself again and again, that his child, the darling of his old age, had been ruined by this cub of the oppressor? Had this blackest of all wrongs been added to all the rest? There was but one answer, and as he brooded over the shame and misery that would fall upon his daughter and on all the family, as he thought of this heartless seducer going through the world scathless, passion swelled within him. An impulse to vengeance swept over him. Had the Captain been within reach of Thomas's hands then, the old man might have slain him. Yes, he felt he could die cheerfully for his daughter's sake, were her wrongs fully avenged. Ah, if he could thus bring back her good name! But would not mere vengeance be sweet? To take the scoundrel's life-blood! He set his teeth, his frame shook under the gust of his terrible agony of grief, hatred, and shame, and he longed for the daylight that he might go and find the seducer of his precious one. The desire for revenge was strong upon him with the strength of a great temptation.
Then his mood changed. The fierce fires burnt themselves low. Weary and exhausted he lay still, and for the first time became aware that his wife was silently weeping by his side. He had thought she slept. A softer mood stole into his heart, but he could not speak of the grief that consumed them both. In the morning he rose, weary and sad, to go about his day's work. Days passed before he made up his mind what to do, and during these days, his wife waited with anxious patience, too wise to worry her husband. At last, he resolved to bring her home. Anger and revenge were conquered thus far, and love and pity for his child were victorious.
"We must take Sally's shame to ourselves, mother," he said to his wife, when his mind was made up. "I know it will be hard for you, harder than you think; but she is our flesh and blood, and we must stand by her. What say ye, wife?"
"An' what can I say, Thomas? I've been wishin' her home ever since Sunday, for I'm sure she'll die where she is. Oh! my poor darling; God pity her. The sin is surely not hers;" and Mrs. Wanless wept, but her heart was glad that the father was ready to shield and forgive. Sometimes, as she watched the hard stern lines of his face, or his fixed gaze of wrath, she had dreaded a sterner decision. But now again Thomas's better nature had triumphed, and his faith in the everlasting justice inclined him to mercy.
As this talk took place on the Thursday evening, it was thought best to wait for Sally's return on Sunday, rather than to excite comment by going at once in quest of her. Her mother had stolen to the Grange on the previous Monday morning, to find out whether Sally had gone back, and had then seen and heard enough to make her dread another visit.
But they waited in vain for Sally that Sunday. She never came near her father's house, but spent her hours of liberty alone in the woods, afraid to face her father, and vaguely wishing she were dead. Her mother must go and tell her what had been decided on, after all.
So on the Monday morning, Mrs. Wanless again set out for the Grange. With sickening heart and trembling steps, she crept along the sweeping avenue like a thief in dread of being seen. The day was grey and cold, as the latter days of April often are, and the leaden clouds threatened rain. It was one of those days when spring has, as it were, turned back to give a farewell hand-shake to winter. A chilly blast swept along the ground in gusts, and made one shiver; the world looked dreary and forbidding; birds were silent; and as one looked abroad on the cheerless world, and mournful sky, one grew unconsciously to have a shut-in kind of feeling. If only a rift would appear in that grey canopy, then one might breathe and have hope. Who has not come under the spell of such days? To whom have they not seemed to increase the bitterness of sorrow, to add weight to the burden of disappointment?
Mrs. Wanless was probably all the sadder this morning that the day was sad, though her thoughts were too fixed on Sally to be overborne by any idle impressions from the leaden aspect of the landscape. Or perhaps she felt that the day and her feelings were in wonderful unison. A beautiful spring morning might have jarred on her spirit. Spring sunshine is so gladsome, so full of hope, and Mrs. Wanless had no hope, only a longing to bring her daughter home and hide her away out of the world's sight.
Intent on her errand, she approached the house—a large, square building, with innumerable staring windows and a bare lawn in front, where a poor woman could find no hiding place—but as she neared the servants' door round in the east end of the mansion she paused irresolute. She remembered the reception of a week ago, the whispers and nods and innuendos of the wenches who came and went with a wonderful bustle of extemporized activity as she stood speaking to her daughter just by the door. If Sally would but come out, she thought, as once and again she turned back unable to muster courage, and cowered by the garden wall, which approached that end of the house, wherein lay the servants' quarters, with her old shepherd's plaid shawl gathered tightly round her. But no one came save menials, out of whose sight the poor bruised mother would fain have kept herself. The children of the gentlefolks would not be out of doors that day. It was too cold.
At last Mrs. Wanless nerved herself to a desperate effort, left the shelter of the garden wall, and walked as firmly as she could up to the kitchen door, and feebly knocked. She waited a long time as it seemed to her palpitating heart, but no answer came. Her knock had not been heard, so she tried again, this time a little less feebly. It was no use—nobody minded her. Would she go away? Nay, she dared not do that. She would wait, somebody was sure to turn up presently. The resolution was hardly formed when the door opened, and her daughter and she stood face to face. A scared look came into the girl's eyes as she exclaimed, "You here again, mother;" the blood mantled to her forehead, and she half stepped back. But her mother caught her by the arm feverishly, and led her away from the house, saying—
"Oh, Sally, I do so want to see you, but I didn't like to come in again. Why didn't you coom home last night?"
Sally tried to frame some excuse, but her voice failed her; she turned pale as death, and hung her head.
"Why didn't you, dear;" her mother repeated, in a dull, mechanical sort of way. Sally's feelings overcame her. She burst into tears, and through her sobs gasped out—
"I thought you—father—wouldn't let me come back."
Her mother did not at once reply, she was too pained, and also too keenly alive to the eyes that were at many a window gloating over her daughter's misery. Almost roughly she tightened her grasp on the girl's arm, and hurried her round the corner of the garden wall, never halting till safely behind a clump of evergreens. Then she released her daughter, turned, and clasped her to her breast. Both wept now, and, as she wept, the poor, stricken mother cried—
"Ah, Sally, Sally, my pet, my pet, you mustn't think on us like that," in tones that expressed reproach and love and pity and misery all in one. But no word of reproach did she utter.
It was some time before the two were composed enough to say much about anything. Sally roused herself first, for she suddenly recollected that she had orders to be quick back. She had been sent out for milk for the nursery.
"I must run, mother," she said hurriedly, "or Mary Crane will nag at me;" and she made as if to go.
"Wait a moment, Sally dear," her mother answered. "I had nearly forgotten what I came for; A-dear! a-dear! you mustn't stand no more of Mary Crane's naggings, Sally; an' if she begins to-day, you're to give up the place and coom home. Now, mind, Sally," she added, eagerly, "that will be best, give up your place;" for Sally seemed to shrink from the idea of coming home.
"It was father as said it, Sally dear. Father says you must coom home. He can't a-bear to see you suffering and abused in this big house as you've been so wronged in; an' ye'll do what father wishes, won't you, my pet?"
"Is it really true, mother. Are you sure that father will let me coom home?"
"My dear, he sent me to tell ye. Oh, say ye'll coom home, Sally?"
"But father'll be angry with me and scold me, mother, and I can't abide that—oh, I can't, I can't," and Sally shook her head despairingly, the gleam of hope vanishing from her eyes.
"No, Sally, your father wonnot scold ye. Surely you know him better nor that. He is too heart-broke about ye a' ready to have any scoldings left, an' he was never hard to ye. Coom, now; say you'll give up the place, and it will be all right."
This and much more the mother said, pleading as for her daughter's life, and she won her point. Once Sally's dread of her father was somewhat removed, she caught eagerly at the prospect of escape from the Grange. Any change would be like going from Hell to Heaven that would take her away from that place of torment. So anxious was she to get away, once her mind became fixed, that she never once thought of the burden she would be to her parents. But for the inexorable month's warning, she would have taken flight that night.
Mother and daughter parted almost the moment that the former was assured of Sally's readiness to come home, and Sally, nearly half-an-hour late, sped on her errand. It was with a glow on her face and a light in her eye that had been absent for many a day, that she ultimately reappeared in the nursery. Her bright looks seemed to add fuel to the wrath of the upper nurse, who burst out on Sally before she was well in at the door.
"I shan't stand this no longer, miss, depend on't," the soured, elderly maiden wound up. "I'm a decent woman, I ham, and don't mean to be disgraced by the likes o' you, not if I knows it. I've stood a lot too much from you a'ready, shameless gipsy that ye are. Your hongoin's is just past bearin', and I mean to tell Mrs. Morgan this very day as 'ow she must get another nurse an she means to keep you."
Nearly if not quite as much as this had been said to Sarah Wanless before now, and she had borne it silently with a bitter heart, because she found herself alone in the world. But to-day she was bolder from the consciousness within her that she was not yet wholly forsaken. Driven to bay by this woman's tongue, she turned upon her, and with flashing eyes, a voice trembling with passion, cried—
"And I have stood too much from you, Mary Crane. You have behaved to me worse than if I had been a dog, and you're a hard-hearted, selfish woman. What right have you to trample upon me, as if you was a saint and more? You've a black enough mind any way, and mebbe you've done worse nor me before now, for all your spiteful pride and down-looking on a poor, heart-stricken girl, as never did you no harm. Shame on you, Mary Crane, I would not exchange my lot for yours yet, if it was to give me a heart like yours. And you need not trouble Mrs. Morgan with your tales. I've made up my mind to stand your insolence no longer. I'll go to Mrs. Morgan myself and give up my place, and tell her how you've used me."
This unexpected outburst fairly took the nurse's breath away. She stuttered with inarticulate passion, and danced again in the agony of rage. A torrent of abuse was on her tongue, but she only managed to hiss out an opprobrious epithet at the girl, at the sound of which Sally faced her like one transformed. Drawing her form up to its full height, and holding her clenched hands close by her sides, she marched straight at nurse Crane, and fairly stood over her with her face a-flame and lips set, every feature rigid with scorn and wrath. Crane's heart died within her. She cowered and hid her face in her hands.
"Say that word again, Mary Crane," Sally demanded in a low, passion-thrilled voice, but Mary Crane uttered never a sound.
"Say it again, will you!" Sally repeated in low tones. "Dare to call me that name again, and I'll——" But Sarah had no threat big enough for her wrath. She caught her breath sharp, and came closer to her enemy, suddenly bent down and laid hold of Mary Crane's head with both her hands, forcing her to turn up her face.
But Crane would not look at her. With a half wail, half shriek, her knees gave way under her, and she sank on the floor wriggling as if about to take a fit.
Sarah looked at her for a moment contemptuously, and then turned away, while the heroic mood was upon her, to seek an interview with Mrs. Morgan.
That lady received the announcement of her under-nurse with her usual high-bred indifference, merely saying, "Oh, very well, you can go." But, as the girl turned away, something in her manner made Mrs. Morgan scrutinise her keenly. The girl seemed changed even to the eyes of the aristocratic lady, and, perhaps, she, too, began to suspect her, for Sally thought that she saw an expression of mingled contempt and annoyance on Mrs. Morgan's face, of which she caught a last glimpse on turning to shut the door behind her. It might have been only her own heated fancy, but, all the same, Sally's brief spell of courage was over from that moment. Happily Mary Crane vexed her no more openly, but she took her revenge in secret.
Mrs. Morgan's suspicions had been in reality so far excited as to cause her to make further inquiries. She called Mary Crane into her room one day and questioned her about "this girl, Sarah—What's her name?" Mary Crane for a little time would tell nothing. She now both hated and feared Sally Wanless, and until she could discover exactly where the girl stood with her mistress, she was not going to commit herself. Her remarks were therefore cautiously shaped at first, with a view to draw her mistress out. She prevaricated, dropped hints, and tried to measure the extent of Mrs. Morgan's knowledge before revealing her own. There was not only the girl to consider, but also the Captain. It might be more than her own place was worth to "blab on the Capting."
Either Mrs. Morgan was obtuse or ignorant, for she gave no response for some time to Mary's stream of words. "You see, 'm, as Sarah's a light sort of girl, 'm, as is allus a-runnin' after the men, 'm. She mayn't be bad, 'm, but she don't beayve proper for one in her station. I'm sure, 'm, I've told her times enough as no good id come of her upsittin' ways, and her ongoin' with the gentlemens—a gentleman in particler—'as hoften shocked me, 'm."
Thus she ran on, till Mrs. Morgan, quite bewildered, exclaimed—
"But what has the girl done, then, Mary?"
"Laws, 'm, 'ow should I know, 'm. Hax herself, 'm, hax the—a gentleman as you knows, 'm, knows hintimate, 'm."
"A gentleman I know intimately—what do you mean? I know no gentleman. Surely you don't mean Captain Wiseman?"
"Well, 'm, I don't know, 'm. You see, 'm, I thought the family mightn't like it——"
"That will do, Mary, that will do. I want no more beating about the bush. Tell me, yea or nay, has Captain Wiseman been noticing this girl?"
"Yes, 'm, he 'as, 'm; but I don't think——"
"Never mind what you think, you are sure of that fact?"
"Oh, yes, 'm, quite."
"Ah, thank you; then that'll do for the present," and she motioned to Crane to leave the room.
That worthy departed not quite satisfied. She had doubts as to whether her mistress liked to know the truth, doubted also if she had done Sarah as much harm as she wished to. But she showed none of these mental clouds in the servants' hall. There, in Sally's absence, she was triumphant, and the "said she's" and "said I's" with which the tale was embellished, served to emphasise the triumph which she indicated that the interview had been to her diplomatic skill. She only confessed to one regret. Mrs. Morgan had somehow cut the interview short, "just when I was a-goin' to tell her all about it."
Mrs. Morgan, however, did not need to be told all about it. She knew the habits of her brother, and, her interest once aroused, managed to put this and that together so well as to arrive before many minutes at a tolerably shrewd conclusion. "This, then," she said to herself, "is the secret of Captain Cecil's wonderful reform." That reflection at once brought her face to face with the question—Shall I or shall I not tell my mother? It was not a question so easily answered as it seemed. Mrs. Morgan was inclined to do it from her dislike of the Captain, who had always absorbed too much of his mother's attention—ought I to have said love?—for the good feelings of the rest of the family. But, then, this very preference made it difficult to decide. She might enrage her mother, and there were family money matters yet to settle, in the disposition of which a mother's displeasure might cause permanent changes. For these and other reasons, "too numerous to mention," Mrs. Morgan hesitated. She would wait on events, on her mother's moods and her own; so avoiding a decision.
That seemed easiest, and yet it proved the hardest course to Mrs. Morgan, who had quite a vulgar woman's delight in retailing scandal. Before a week was out she found it expedient to tell all. Her mother and she held a long conference in secret on the Friday after Sally had given up her place. What they said to each other will never be known; but one decision came of it that was at once acted upon. Sarah Wanless was dismissed that night by the orders of Lady Harriet, who sent her own maid with the message. "Jane," as she was called, delivered it with curt insolence, and at the same time flung a month's wages, which Lady Harriet had likewise sent, on the table, with a significant gesture, as if to say, "You are too unclean, Sally Wanless, to be touched by a superior person like me."
When Sarah went home, which she did as soon as her small box was packed up, and told her parents that she was dismissed, her father was so indignant that he wanted to send the extra weeks' wages back. His wife, however, persuaded him that it was better to let things alone. "The money," she said, "is her right, and can do us no harm; and Sally is well out of that den anyway." And Mrs. Wanless was right.
I wonder where Christians find authority for our modern treatment of illegitimacy? Preachers of all sects are never tired of telling us that they preach peace and goodwill among men. Their religion is to redeem all wrongs, to make mankind better, to lift the fallen, and cheer the broken-hearted. So at least they say, but when we look for deeds, we do not find many in this lower world. The fulfilment of the Christian ideal is prudently (?) adjourned to the next, above or below. Wherever one turns in contemplation of modern Christianity, one finds a ghastly divergence between its professions and its practice, and at no point is this more visible than in the behaviour of the Churches towards women who have sinned. Taking their tone from a corrupt society, which desires to enjoy its vices, and to prey upon its women without taking upon itself responsibilities which the poor besotted Turk even never dreams of shirking, the dispensers of the gospel of peace lead the chorus of reprobation which is heaped upon the woman, who, like the virgin mother so many of them profess to worship, bears the burden of maternity in shame and loneliness. No distinction is drawn between woman and woman—rarely or ever is the guilt of the man considered; the duties of fatherhood can be neglected by the seducer with tacit, nay, often with the full approbation of society and the Churches. But on the woman a penalty falls that is worse than death. She has yielded to the seducer, and henceforth she must be pressed down and cast out, unless—and the distinction is important—she be a sinner of the highest caste in society, when the sin may be covered with lies as with an embroidered garment; or, unless she belong to the lowest, where the difference between morality and immorality is too often nearly indistinguishable—thirteen centuries of more or less well-paid-for priestly instruction notwithstanding. Speaking broadly, however, the law of social life condemns the "unattached" woman and her offspring to obloquy and degradation, and it does this not merely without the protest of the Churches, but by their full sanction. For ages priests of all hues have arrogated to themselves the power of regulating the union of the sexes; without their rites and blessings no two human beings could become man and wife. When two were thus united the universal cry was "What God hath joined together let no man put asunder." The priest, in fact, arrogated to himself the power of the Deity. His "joining" was God's, and none but his held on Earth or in Heaven. Greater blasphemy has hardly ever been committed even by priests. By this abominable fraud—this false assumption of authority—deeper social wrongs have come upon the world than from any other priestly assumption whatsoever. The priest has habituated society to disregard all ties formed in what is called an illegitimate manner. It has sanctioned the desertion of women by their seducers, and what is even worse, the desertion of children by their fathers and mothers, for, of course, if the parents were not priest-joined, the offspring must be of the devil. A man may, according to this dogma, have lived the life of a fiend, ruining women, bringing children into the world to live or die as the poor law or hunger should order; but this is no hindrance to his obtaining the blessing of "the Church" should he one day take it into his head to submit to be married to one woman—for gain, for any reason, or none.
Scoundrel and saint are alike welcome to the priest's services and blessings if the marriage fees be paid; and with the full concurrence and blessing of any sectary in the world, a man may disjoin himself from a woman or women he has lived with for years in order to take another, if there was no marriage uniting him to these he deserted. God, of course, could not be expected to "join" those who never sought a priest's help. The whole basis of this treatment of the sexes is grossly and blasphemously immoral, and the fruits of it are visible on every side. To it we owe the highly nourishing character of the "social evil" quite as much as to man's inherent depravity, and we shall never really begin to overcome that evil until the whole of the teachings and assumptions of the sects, as applied to marriage and divorce, are swept clean out of the public mind.
Who is there to whom the history of some poor woman betrayed and deserted is not known—a woman, it may be, tender-hearted and true, as worthy of wifehood as any of her sex? Did society pity that woman? Have you pitied her? Perhaps, but would you not also gather up your garments and pass by on the other side, if you met her in public? Habit is so strong, you will say in excuse; yes, yes, habit is strong, and the woman is weak. Why should one heed her? She brought her fate on herself. Leave her to perish. The man she loved has left her, and the world treats her no worse than he. If her own sex spits upon her and hisses at her, what can man do? These be the thoughts of most men over broken lives, and most readers may therefore feel impatient that I should linger over the ruin and fall of a poor peasant lass. Yet what can I do? my task is to write the history of this family; its sorrows and failings, its burdens and tears, are all that it has wherewith to claim the world's attention. And to my thinking, they mean much. Their lives were real to them, as yours, reader, is to you, and they had a part in making up the pitiful social life of this decrepit old England possibly just as high as yours.
Therefore must I ask you to turn aside with me for a moment to look again on Sally Wanless, when she reappears from her seclusion—a shame mother, with a babe born to sorrow and shame in her arms. I have said reappears, but she has not yet ventured to meet the, to her, scathing gaze of the people in the village street. She steals into the little garden behind her father's cottage, and there, in the soft September afternoons, you would find her seated beneath the shade of an old apple tree, face to face with her doom, and looking at it as one who has no hope.
In some people the soul wakes late; some, indeed, appear to pass through the world without its ever awakening. They may be bright-hearted people, full of animal life and spirits, capable of much work and a few sacrifices, yet they have never risen up to full consciousness of the meaning of life, to its higher impulses, and its terrible risks and obligations. No great inward commotion has ever visited them; they vegetate tamely on till they reach the grave. Others, like Thomas Wanless, awake early to consciousness of the mystery and burden of existence, and battle with hopes and fears their lives long.
Would that his daughter had also found the realities of living ere the curse of life had come upon her! But she did not. Her awakening came too late. While it was possible she hid from herself the meaning of her fall, and refused to look at the awful questions which for the first time surged in upon her soul. It was not possible for long. When the wail of her infant first broke on her ear she awoke and was stricken with the full consciousness of what she had lost. Her past life stood out before her as something apart; its hopes belonged to another state of existence, to a life in which her future could have no part. All lonely at the heart she had borne the pains of motherhood, and a feeble infant lay by her side bearing witness against her now and evermore. No father welcomed it. The sound of its feeble cry brought a forsakenness about the mother's heart nothing could remove. In vain her mother soothed her. In vain her true-hearted father, bravely hiding away his shame and grief, took the little one in his arms and fondled it with a fatherhood that assumed all the sin and all the responsibilities of his child. Sarah could not be comforted. Blank despair took possession of her. Why was she not dead? Why did the child live? Surely they would be both better dead and buried out of sight for ever? This was the under tone of her thoughts now, save when at times, and as she grew strong again, gusts of passion like her father's would sweep over her soul. Then she felt for moments as if she could compel the world to stop and witness her revenge. Should a fit like this master her, what might one so desperate not do? Hers was a soul awake and in prison, but if it burst its bonds?
Let the gay and frivolous, the light talkers, the young and giddy, the tempter and the tempted, stop to look upon this ruin. Is it a small thing, do you think, for a man to have the undoing of this woman and child laid to his charge. He passes in the world unharmed, nay, admired, probably, the very women in secret whispering admiringly of his prowess. But does that make his guilt the less? Is there no retributive justice dogging his heels, from which all the glories and adulations of earth cannot shield him? Look at the history of such men, and be they kings or carters, you will find that they become degraded wretches, moral abortions, repulsive ruins of humanity, as the result of their crimes against woman. Yea, the woman is avenged, though only after death comes the judgment.
But Sally Wanless thought not of revenge, that calm September evening, on which my memory pictures her through the mirror of other eyes, seated, half in shadow, half in sunlight, beneath the old apple tree. Her baby lies asleep on her lap, the sunlight glints through the leaves on her hair, and flickers now and then across the infant's face—but she heeds neither child nor light. A far-away look is in her eyes—a look that tells of longing, for what will never be hers again on earth. The evening sun-glow throws into relief the pale, pinched face with its unresigned hungry look, for in that face there is no welcome to the sober autumn warmth. The dull fire of Sally's eyes is the fire of an unquenchable pain. Where is there room in her life for joy any more? Her eye does not trace heaven's battlemented walls, in those grand masses of white clouds—the blue expanse beyond is not eloquent of the near world unseen. No; her thoughts are self-centred; she never looks upward. Day after day she sits here, still and silent, as one stunned. Her spirit seems at such times as if beaten to the earth, never to rise again. The child sometimes fails to interest or rouse her. When its wails demand attention, she will fondle and kiss it much, as if it were made of wood.
Alas; poor Sally, winsome lass. How many such as you go aching through the world, broken-hearted, and forsaken,—waiting for the judgment to come, when, as they still, perhaps, lingeringly hope, the wrong shall be righted for evermore.
Her parents yearned after their daughter, and yet feared to break in rudely upon her brooding spirit. Neighbours came too, full of kindly promises and curiosity, ready to speak volumes of comforting words; but Sally shrank from contact with them,—preferred the garden seat, or her own garret window.
Thomas became broken-hearted about his child. He could not get her to so much as look at him. Often times he laid his hands softly on her bent head, and whispered—"Sally, my lass, cheer up a bit. Don't break mother's heart and mine, by taking on so." But Sally merely wept, and bent still lower over her babe. They could not get her to go out during the day—only at night would she creep along by the hedge-rows, in the most unfrequented paths, accompanied by her mother, and hiding the child as much as possible, beneath her shawl, when it was not asleep at home. Her morbid fancy made her think that everyone knew her shame. She could not see people talking together without a rush of blood to her face, as if she felt the talk must be of her.
And how fared it all this time with her seducer? As the world elects, it shall always fare. From it he had neither frown nor word of rebuke. Those that knew his sin thought as little about it as he did, and that was apparently never at all. He took no more notice of Sarah Wanless and the infant girl she had borne to him, than if they had been dogs. Nay, far less, for they were hateful to his selfish, ease-loving nature, and therefore he rigorously banished them from his sight and thoughts. Just as before, he took his "pleasure" coming and going to town, and living the life of sottish ease, as became a man of fashion and a court soldier. At the Vicarage his welcome was just as warm as ever, although every soul within its walls was quite aware of the ruin he had brought on the poor peasant's daughter. Mrs. Codling's verdict naturally was, that it served the gipsy right, and and her father too. He was always an insolent fellow, who never showed proper respect for the Olympians, and this would perhaps take down his pride a bit. This was the view of the matter insinuated to Adelaide, who had become "skittish" when the news first reached her ears, thereby, however, increasing the ardour with which the captain followed her. Mrs. Codling had quite made up her mind, that through Adelaide she would succeed in catching the Captain as a son-in-law, and therefore took occasion to put "matters in their proper light."
"Of course, my dear," she would say, "we shall have to get rid of the girl and her brat, for it might be unpleasant to have them in the parish; but the Captain can manage all that, never fear, and if the whole nest of them remove to another part of the country, the parish will have a good riddance. I daresay a few pounds will do it, for all that old rascal's pride."
Adelaide was soon satisfied, and soon, also, her flippant tongue had disseminated this view of the case all over the parish; for Adelaide would talk to the housemaid when no better listener was to be had.
Thus was the Captain's way made smooth to him, and the country side soon became as full of his ongoings with "the parson's girl" as ever it had been about his intrigue with Sally Wanless.
Thomas Wanless himself saw and heard much, for his cottage was not very far from the Vicarage road, and the Captain sometimes forgot himself, and passed his very door, instead of taking up the back street. Doubtless it never entered the Captain's head that any peasant would accost him about such a trifle as the ruin of his daughter. He ought rather to feel honoured thereat. What he did fear was the girl herself—he having a fine gentlemanly dread of "scenes."
Nevertheless, Thomas's wrath was awakened anew at the sight of this "cool blackguard," as he most irreverently styled the Captain, and soon the feeling extended to them that "harboured him." It was borne in upon his spirit, as the Methodists say, that he must denounce the "ruffian." Yes, yes, he thought, this must be done; till it was done there would be no relief in his mind. He had borne too much in silence, but that this harbouring of criminals should go on before his face was more than he could stand.
"It will do no good," his wife said, as he declared his purpose to her.
"Good!" he answered, "who wants or expects good to come to them or us? I expect none, but I must and shall tell the blackguard what I think of him."
Yet this was easier said than done. He could not well stop the Captain in the street, for he nearly always drove or rode, and never once passed Thomas's cottage door on foot. It was utterly useless to call at the Grange, for no one would see him. Obsequious menials might even set the dogs at him, or trump up a charge against him and put him in jail. Besides, Thomas had no time except on Sundays to go in quest of his enemy, and on Sundays the Captain was usually at the Vicarage. In the bitterness of spirit which these thoughts brought him to, Thomas might have, perhaps, done something rash, but happily necessity prevented him. He had now to work, if possible, harder than ever—early and late at the farm, on his allotment, in the little garden at his cottage, he laboured for the means of life—and did but poorly, though the work kept him up and helped him to control the fire that burned within him.
At last the chance he longed for came suddenly, and without his seeking it. He was passing the Vicarage garden one beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, and heard voices on the little lawn which lay between the hedge and the house. Laughter and the chatter of merry tongues fell on his ear, and one hard man's voice he instantly guessed must be that of Captain Wiseman. To reach that conclusion and the resolve to face his daughter's seducer then and there may be said to have constituted one mental effort. A rush of strong emotion swept over him and made him feel, as he opened the Vicarage gate and slipped within, as if God had laid a mission upon him to lay bare the iniquity of this man and of those who countenanced him. Under the influence of this feeling he straightened himself and strode across the grass direct to the place where he heard the voices.
The scene that burst upon his view if possible heightened his courage, and I can well imagine that the rough, toil-gnarled, weather-buffeted old man looked like an avenging fate to those whose privacy he had thus invaded. Always dignified and noble in aspect, the anger at his heart now doubtless made him heroic.
Mrs. Codling and her four daughters were seated in a group on chairs in front of a sort of arbour that stood at the further end of the lawn, and a little behind the western end of the house, not far from the churchyard, from which it was hidden by a clump of evergreens and a wall. Behind Adelaide Codling, leaning over her chair, and apparently teasing her in a familiar nonchalant way, stood Captain Wiseman. As he faced the gate he was the first to catch sight of Thomas Wanless, and although he hardly knew Sally's father by sight, he appeared to guess intuitively that a "scene" was at hand. His red face grew redder still, his talk suddenly ceased, and an ugly scowl gathered on his fleshly brow. Mrs. Codling's back was towards the approaching peasant, but the Captain's sudden silence and the look he gave made her turn round just as Thomas came up. She also divined that trouble was at hand, and, bridling up at the idea of that "disgusting creature" parading his girl's shameless conduct before her pure-minded daughters, prepared at once for action.
"See if the Vicar can come out, my dear," she said to the girl nearest to her, and then addressing Thomas, cried in tones meant to be frigidly severe, but which only succeeded in being savagely spiteful—
"If you want the Vicar, my good man, go to the house. You have no right to enter this garden."
She might just as well have addressed the nearest tree. Thomas paid no attention to her, but stalking up to the Captain, glared at him till that wretched being shivered with fear in spite of himself. Perhaps this "gallant" soldier thought Wanless would knock him down, and that may have been the peasant's first impulse. However, he did not, but instead turned after a minute or so to Mrs. Codling, and asked, with stern abruptness—
"Madam, do you know who this man is?"
For a brief space the woman seemed scared and cowed by the tones and at the face she saw looming above her. "Good gracious me!" she exclaimed, half to herself. "What does the man mean?" Then, recovering courage, added, "I do believe the creature is crazy. I'm very sorry, Captain Wiseman, but really I fear you will have to come to the rescue of us weak women. Do speak to him and order him off."
At this two of the girls began to scream, but Adelaide giggled.
"Since you give me no answer, madam," Thomas struck in, "I shall tell you who this man is," and he stepped round and backed a little, so as to be able to look at both the Captain and the Vicar's wife. "This man is the seducer of my daughter," he continued. "He has committed a crime against her and against me which is worse than murder in the sight of God. He is the father of a helpless child that, for all he cares, might be flung into a roadside ditch to die. For his cold-blooded villainy that child and my child must suffer all their days. This man, I tell you," and here his voice rang all over the place, "this man has broken an innocent girl's heart, and you know it, madam, and you harbour him. Shame on you!"
Mrs. Codling grew pale with rage, and tried to speak; but before she got a word out Thomas had turned to the Captain, who took a step forward as if to collar him.
"Captain Wiseman," he said; and at the sudden, sharp address that wretch paused, grew mottled in the face, and dropped the raised hand by his side. "What!" cried the labourer, "would you dare to touch me, you low, libertine scoundrel? Stand back, lest I have to sully my hands by choking the life out of you, reptile that you are!"
How much further Thomas might have gone I know not, but by this time Mrs. Codling had got her voice and charged in turn. She ordered Thomas to leave the place, and in shrill tones threatened him with the police, with the Captain's vengeance, with the Vicar's wrath, called him a hoary old sinner, and well-nigh swore at him for polluting the ears of her precious daughters with the story of his own girl's immorality. It was a fearful torrent, Thomas afterwards confessed. Until then he had never known the length of a woman's tongue. But it came to an end at last, for Mrs. Codling lost her breath. With a parting shot to the effect that Thomas had only got what he deserved, and it was like father like child—low wretches all—the ruffled woman relapsed into a fuming silence. Somehow the tirade brought relief to Thomas's overcharged heart. It had an amusing and grotesque side that struck him forcibly in spite of himself, and it was therefore with a certain sense as of laughter welling up through his heart of sorrow—a feeling for which he would fain have reproached himself—that he answered in a voice that bore down all attempts at interruption—
"Poor lady, I did not come here to quarrel with you, far from it. God forgive you for having such ill feelings, and you a parson's wife too. But what could one expect when you harbour scamps like this fine military seducer here? That's enough to make your heart the abode of all that is wicked. I bear you no malice though, far from it. I would warn you to mend your steps in time. You call me names, and accuse me of bringing my corrupt affairs before the pure ears of your daughters. Take care, woman, take care. The serpent that destroyed my precious lass has not lost his fangs, and your turn to mourn as I mourn may be nearer than you think. Because you have fine clothes and luxuries, and live in a grand house, you think that the ills of the poor cannot reach you. Take care, I say, or the day may come when I can return your taunt, and tell you that if you had set a better example to your children, if you had guarded them against evil company, you might have been spared much sorrow and humiliation." With this, Thomas turned to go, but the cries of Mrs. Codling arrested him.
"The wretch," she shrieked. "Josiah, do, for heaven's sake, speak to this low fellow. His foul abuse is positively sickening." And as the Vicar shuffled up in obedience to the summons, his wife, turning to the gallant rake, added, "I'm so sorry, Captain, that you should have been insulted here. This must be very disagreeable to you."
The Captain found voice to assure her that it did not matter. He didn't "care a hang, you know," and gave it as his opinion that a strategic movement towards the house might be the best end of the affair.
"Yes, yes," cried Adelaide, "let us go indoors and leave that fellow to speak to the trees. He'll soon tire of that;" and she proceeded to gather up the stray wraps.
But before this noble plan of out-manœuvring an enemy could be carried out, the Vicar and Thomas had encountered each other, and Mrs. Codling had to rush to the defence of her husband.
"My good man," the Vicar had begun. "Eh, Thomas Wanless is it? Dear me! You forget yourself, sir. You mustn't behave in this way in my garden, and before ladies, too. Go away, go away, and come to me to-morrow if you have anything to complain of. I'll see you in my study."
"Come to you!" answered the peasant in tones of amazement and scorn. "Come to you! what could you do, you whited sepulchre? You God-forsaken, poor, tippling creature. Mind your own affairs," and he laughed a bitter laugh, as once more he turned to go.
The Vicar also turned and slunk away with a scared guilty look, but his wife's wrath found outlet anew.
"This is too bad," she screamed after Wanless, "the low scoundrel. Oh, Captain Wiseman, I do wish you would thrash the fellow to within an inch of his life. Oh dear! oh dear! will nobody pity me," and she fairly wept with rage.
The last that Thomas heard of them was the Captain explaining in his most persuasive words that "By Jove, you know, it would hardly be the thing for me to take to fisticuffs with a low labourer-ruffian, else, by Gad, nothing would have delighted me more than to beat him to a pulp, you know."
Thomas turned and gazed in the direction of the speaker as if to invite him to come and try, but the Captain was busy hurrying the ladies into the house, and though near enough to see well the look on Thomas's face, he showed no sign of accepting the implied challenge.
It was Mrs. Codling who, brave to the last, and woman-like, gave the parting shot.
"Be off, you low blackguard," she screamed, and then disappeared within the house. It afterwards transpired that she caught sight of some of the servants watching the encounter with Wanless from a window, and had much comfort from the blowing up she gave them. Her superfluous temper was thereby wholesomely expended.
Thomas Wanless went home that afternoon struggling with a feeling of disappointment in which there mingled a certain degree of shame. He had never entered the Vicar's grounds with the intention of either wrangling with the Vicar or his wife. A desire to expose a scoundrel was his sole motive, and he had felt a sense of the heroic as he proceeded to seek his daughter's betrayer. Had that man abused him, or struck him, or in any way given him the opportunity of letting loose his wrath, he would have, perhaps, felt that a duty had been discharged. Instead of that, Thomas had merely fallen out with a sharp-tongued, not over-sensitive woman, and abused a poor parson who, whatever his failings, had not at the moment the least intention to act otherwise than as a peace-maker. The heroics had all vanished, and in their place was something grotesque and ludicrous. The more Thomas thought of it the more he felt that he had that day vindicated neither his own honour nor his daughter's, and he resolved that henceforth he should bear his sorrows in silence.
Perhaps this self-condemnation was not quite reasonable, for Mrs. Codling provoked Wanless most unjustifiably. She, at all events, got no more than she deserved. But the labourer was sensitive and proud, and these feelings made him prefer silent endurance to the loss of self-respect. Could he have foreseen the consequences which seemed at least to flow from his one effort at bringing home to the sinner his sin, he might have had still greater doubts about the wisdom of the course he pursued on that calm October Sunday afternoon.
For one thing, the noise of the row between the Captain and Thomas was soon heard all over Ashbrook. The Vicarage servants retailed it with many embellishments to their friends—as a secret, of course—and Adelaide Codling herself let out some episodes to her then bosom friend. Presently, and in due course, the tale reached the Grange, where it took the circumstantial and easily comprehended form of an account of a great fight between the Captain and the labourer, in which the latter had got two black eyes, a broken nose, cut lips, a thumb out of joint, and some said three, some five teeth knocked down his throat by the scientific handling of the gallant guardsman. It was nothing to the purpose to say that the labourer had been seen going about his work as usual, for people of his sort thought nothing of maulings that would have nearly been the death of superior persons—like flunkeys and valets.
In some such guise, the story ultimately reached the ears of Mrs. Morgan, who was so much shocked at the idea of a fight between her brother and a low labouring fellow that she felt constrained to tell her mother, especially as the fight was alleged to have taken place on the Vicarage lawn, in presence of the Vicar's family. Mrs. Morgan, keener sighted than her mother now was, had for some time been aware of the ambitions of Mrs. Codling, so far at any rate as to disapprove of the constant intercourse which the Captain had with the Vicarage. In telling her story, therefore, it was possible for her also to lay emphasis upon the Captain's relationship with the Codlings, which she took care to do, and as she flattered herself much that she succeeded admirably.
At first it seemed as if she had done nothing of the kind. The Juno of the parish, Lady Harriet Wiseman, forgot everything for a time in her wrath at the abominable presumption of a labourer in fighting with her blue-blooded son, and was eager to have him arrested and punished. In vain Mrs. Morgan pleaded the scandal such a step would cause; her wrathful ladyship would hear never a word. Nothing pacified her till she had spoken to her son on the subject, and she had so set her heart upon making an example of that vagabond fellow, who had troubled the parish ever since she could remember, that she was positively more angry than before when her son told her that what she wished could not be done for the best of all reasons—there had been no fight. Then her wrath fell partly on her son, and they quarrelled. She asked him what he was doing at the Vicarage. He replied that it was none of her business, and left her with the seeds of jealous suspicion in her heart.
Next time the Captain met his sister, he rounded upon her, and, according to common report, called her "a damned meddlesome fool" for interfering in his affairs. Thus matters were likely to become ravelled at the Grange. Perhaps it was to lull suspicion and allow the heated atmosphere to cool that the Captain soon after this betook himself to Newmarket, and thence to London. Before he went he gave a private hint to the head gamekeeper that he would not be inconsolable if that questionable functionary could manage to make out a case of night-poaching against Thomas Wanless. An underling heard of the plot and warned Thomas to take care, and though Thomas never poached, the warning was probably needful enough.
The row at the Grange was the least significant of the consequences that flowed from Thomas Wanless's visit to the Vicarage Gardens. Mrs. Morgan had apparently indicated to her mother the suspicions she entertained as to the aims of Mrs. Codling, and Lady Harriet, afraid to tackle her son about his amours, attacked Mrs. Codling instead. It was plainly enough intimated to that scheming woman that Lady Harriet disapproved of the constant visits of the Captain to the Vicarage, and Mrs. Codling was asked to discourage them.
A sensible person would have deferred to the wishes of the greatest lady in the parish on a point so delicate, but Mrs. Codling proved to be anything but sensible. Afraid of exciting the wrath of Lady Harriet by open hostility, she took refuge in underhand plots. The intercourse between the Captain and her daughter, which had hitherto been carried on, in a manner, openly, was now changed, with the mother's connivance, into a secret intrigue. By this change the whole moral attitude of the family became debased. Captain Wiseman was astute enough to see through the would-be mother-in-law's motives, and cunning enough to egg her on in a course of duplicity and folly. His mother need know nothing, he represented, till all was over. No doubt she would at first resent a secret marriage, but when she saw she could no longer help it, her wrath would soon cool down.
With talks like these it may be supposed that Adelaide Codling, apt pupil as she was, soon came to look upon a secret marriage as just the one thing desirable and necessary to secure her happiness; and, from this conclusion, it was but a step to destruction. Probably enough Captain Wiseman had never any intention of marrying the girl, but whether or not, he certainly had abandoned it, when, after a few weeks of secret meetings and clandestine letter writing, he succeeded in persuading her to join him in London. She left home just after Christmas, in secret to all appearance, though the village gossips would have it that her mother knew of her flight beforehand, and nobody doubted that she had run away after the Captain. In vain did Mrs. Codling give out that her daughter had been called away suddenly to visit a sick aunt. Nobody believed her. Secret intrigues cannot be successfully carried out in a quiet country village, and what was declared to be the true version of the flight was current in all the country side within a week of Adelaide's departure.
Unthinkingly, Mrs. Robins repeated this story to Mrs. Wanless one day in Sally's hearing, and immediately repented of her folly, for Sally uttered a low moan and fainted. From that day the gloom of her life seemed deeper. With unceasing tenderness and watchfulness her parents had sought to bring back hope to their lost one's heart, and until this ugly bit of gossip reached her they had hopes of succeeding. Sally had began to talk a little more freely, and, recognising the burden she was to her parents, was becoming anxious to get a situation of some kind—provided always that it might be far away, where no one would know her. But from the time she came back to consciousness on this unhappy day, darkness again settled down on her spirit. She sat apart brooding, as when first her babe lay on her lap. That babe itself appeared to grow almost hateful in her sight, and was left to the care of her mother, weary though the old woman was with work and sorrow. With mouth hard set and eyes looking wistfully sometimes, as if in terror, into a world far away from the home nest, Sally heeded no one. Her father again grew deeply concerned about her, and tried casually to draw her out of the trance that seemed to chain her soul. It was useless. She answered him in monosyllables or never at all. At times too, and when he spoke to her, a strange, resolute look would gather on her face. It was not exactly obstinacy, though she certainly was unyielding. Rather was it a look as of one who had made up her mind to a great sacrifice, and feared that she might be betrayed into abandoning a duty. At that look her father always somehow grew afraid. It was evident to him that his daughter in some way connected Adelaide Codling's flight with her own life, but how he could not guess.
But his fears were only too well grounded, for one day, Sally, too, disappeared. Watching her opportunity when the babe was asleep, her mother busy washing, and her father away at the farm, she dressed herself as if for a walk, went out, and did not return. All day her mother had endured the keenest anxiety in the hope that Sally would come back. She was unwilling to send for her husband, and could only make one or two cautious inquiries through her nearest neighbours. They knew nothing; Sally had been seen, of course, but she looked and walked as usual, with hasty steps and eyes bent on the ground. Though startled at the news, Thomas was not surprised. The flight only fulfilled his own forebodings. Swallowing a morsel of food he started for Warwick, and soon learnt there that a girl answering to Sally's description had left by the slow London train at eleven o'clock. On his way home he bitterly reproached himself that he had not taken means to make such a step impossible. The two or three pounds that Sally had brought home with her he had scrupulously left untouched, and these she had taken with her, as also the few trinkets given to her by the Captain. Thomas had no doubt whatever that Sally had fled to London.
For a time this blow positively dazed Thomas and his wife. Once more their nights were nights of sorrow and tears, and for them the mornings brought no joy. Only the little one that lay sleeping in its wee cot was all unconscious of trouble, or that its presence added poignancy to the bitterness with which the labourer and his wife mourned for their lost one.
Thomas Wanless, however, was not a man to abandon himself long to useless grief. The more keen the pain the more certain was his nature to rise and fight for deliverance, and before long he had made up his mind that, while he had life, his child should not be abandoned. Cost what it would, he must follow her to that dreadful city whose horrors darkened his imagination. The lost one should be found, and, if God would but help him, saved. So he resolved, although as yet he knew not how his resolution could be carried out.
For a day or two he brooded over it, afraid almost to tell his wife. The fear was weak. No sooner did Mrs. Wanless know what her husband meant to do than she became almost cheerful, and brought her ready wit to bear on all possible plans for enabling him to go. Full of a true woman's self-sacrificing spirit, she at first proposed to go out charring, and so make a living, but the child made that impossible. The utmost she could do was to continue to take in washing, and even that would be a severe strain upon her, with a babe to tend. At best, too, it would afford her only a precarious living, and nothing possible could be left to help her husband in London.
Unable to decide on ways and means, but yet determined to carry out their one great plan, they ended by casting their trust on Providence, leaving the future to take care of itself. As a first step, Thomas went to Stratford, and withdrew the few pounds left in the bank there,—some £10 or £12. That done, he next went to consult his daughter Jane, as to what help she could give. Jane had little, and was saving that little to get married and to emigrate; but when the whole matter was laid before her, she, too, fell in with her father's plans, and offered him her money.
"No, no, I cannot take that," he answered. "I hope to get work in London, and cash enough to keep soul and body together. I only ask you to help your mother with it, should she be in need—to help her all you can, in fact."
Jane promised all the more cheerfully, perhaps, that her little all was not immediately to be taken from her to help in this hunt after Sarah.
Mrs. Wanless also wanted her husband to write to Tom, telling him the circumstances, and asking for help, but to this he would in nowise consent.
"Tom," he said, "needs all his money just now, and what he sends must come of his own goodwill. Besides we shall get Sally back again, and then the best thing will be to send her out to Tom. She wouldn't go if she thought Tom knew what had befallen her. Jacob does not yet know, Jane will keep silence, and there is no need for Tom to be enlightened."
This reasoning was unanswerable, and Mrs. Wanless had to acquiesce with what heart she could. Nay, more than that, sore against her will, she had to submit to see her husband start for London with only £5 in his pocket. The rest he insisted leaving with her, on the same grounds as he had refused Jane's savings. "I shall get work, my dear," he said; "never mind me," and she had to yield.
Possibly Thomas would have been less confident had he known what going to London, and work in London, meant; but in spite of his dread of the great city, his conceptions were so hazy, that in his heart, as he afterwards confessed, he never contemplated needing to work there at all. He hoped to find Sarah in a day or two, or at most within a week, and once found, was sure that she would come home. His wife, it turned out, formed a truer conception of the task before him, although she had never seen a bigger town than Leamington or Warwick. But her fears did not abate her husband's confidence. Without fixing dates, he told his master and all whom it concerned, that he expected to be back soon. Struck, perhaps, by the generous purpose of the man, Thomas's master thrust a couple of sovereigns into his hand as they parted, but Thomas would not accept them. In spite of all the farmer could say, Thomas stoutly maintained that he had enough. "My own means are sufficient," he said.
"Your own means sufficient," laughed the shrewd Scot. "Well, I like that! Man, how much hae ye got?"
"Five pounds," said Thomas.
"Five pounds! Five pounds to go to London, and look for a runaway girl with! Good heavens, man, that'll no keep ye a week. Ye'll starve, Wanless, lang afore you find the lassie, if ye ever find her. God, man, if that's a' you can scrape for the job, you'd better bide where ye are?"
"That I cannot do," Thomas answered. "Starve or not, I must go and seek my child."
The farmer looked at him for a moment, gave a grunt of amazement, and turned on his heel, with the remark—
"Well, well, Wanless, a wilful man must hae his way, they say, and you must have yours, I suppose, but, faith, I doubt you'll rue your folly."
And with that consolatory observation, Thomas parted from a master whom he had learnt to respect, for the rough outside hid a not unkindly nature.
The liking was mutual, and was not on Robson's part lessened by the refusal of his man to take the two sovereigns. The sturdy independence of his hind was a thing so uncommon, that it excited his admiration, and stirred his somewhat dulled natural feelings of generosity. Many a time during the absence of her husband, Mrs. Wanless had cause to bless the "Missus o' Whitbury Farm" for acts of unostentatious kindness which that motherly Scotchwoman needed, it must be said, little prompting to perform. On her husband's suggestion, she called one day at the cottage, and at once took an interest in the pale, sad woman, and the little child. Thereafter, many little presents of milk, and of butter and cheese, found their way to the cottage from Whitbury Farm. And what Mrs. Wanless felt most grateful of all for, was that these things were never sent to her by servants, but were brought either by Mrs. Robson herself, or by one of her daughters. The farmer's wife did not try to make Mrs. Wanless feel that she was a miserable dependent upon her bounty. She had not in that respect, as yet, acquired English manners. In the Lowlands of Scotland, I am told, there is no abject class like the English agricultural labourer, and these hard Scotch farmer folks had still to learn that their hinds were not human beings of like passions and feelings with themselves.
Thomas Wanless set out for London, within a week after his daughter's disappearance, on a dull, cold, January morning. His farewells were cheerful, but his heart was downcast enough, and the further the slow, crawling train took him from home the heavier his heart became. It was dark long before he reached Paddington, to be there turned out upon the murky bewilderment of London streets, knowing not where to turn his footsteps.
Mechanically he followed the string of people and cabs flowing out of the station into Praed Street, the lamps of which showed faintly through damp, smoke-charged air. Then he paused irresolute. A sense of loneliness and hopelessness stole over him, intensified probably by hunger, for he had eaten nothing save a crust of bread and cheese since early morning. He was as one lost, as helpless in the crush of whirling humanity as a wind-driven clot of foam on a storm-tossed sea. Amid all this hurry and bustle of human life, where could he go? how find lodgings? Fairly overwhelmed by the sense of desolation, he leant against a wall to try and collect his thoughts, and mentally prayed for courage and guidance.
For some minutes he stood thus self-absorbed, when a rather kindly voice, speaking almost in his ear, roused him with a
"Good evening, mate. Be you a stranger?"
"Yes," Thomas answered, looking up. "Yes, I came up from Warwick to-day, and never was in London before."
"Be ye in want o' work then, or not?" the voice demanded.
"Why, yes, if I can get work I'll be glad of it; but it wasn't that exactly as brought me here. You see——." But Thomas checked himself, and turned a scrutinising gaze on his interlocutor. He saw a rather grimy, ill-clad, thick-set man, whose face seemed as kindly as his voice, though its expression was barely discernible, except by the eyes, which shone brightly in the dull, yellow light of the neighbouring lamp. By the sack-like covering which the man wore on his back, and by his be-smudged appearance generally, Thomas judged that he must be a labourer among coals. He was poor at any rate, and he looked kindly; so after a brief inspection, to which the stranger submitted in silence, and as a matter of course, Thomas resumed—
"You see, I'm come up to look for a lass of mine as has runned away."
"Ah!" ejaculated the stranger. "Ah!" and then he stopt with his mouth open, as if embarrassed by this sudden confidence. But he soon recovered himself, and after relieving his feelings with a "Well, I never! Who'd a thowt it?" came back to practical business, by asking Thomas if he knew of a bed anywhere.
Thomas said "No."
"Well, then," answered the man, "you just come along with me. You ain't likely to find the gal to-night, and you can't stand there till mornin'! Perhaps my missus can give you a shake-down in the corner somewhere."
Thomas was only too glad to accept the stranger's offer, and, hoisting his bundle of clothes over his shoulder, with his stick through the knot, he at once assented, and followed wheresoever the other led. They trudged along for a good half-hour, mostly in silence, for Thomas was in no mood for talking, and his companion appeared to have no gifts in that direction. At length they reached the door of a dingy, tumble-down house in that now happily abolished slum, Agar Town, and into this the coal-heaver turned, saying—
"Mind the steps, friend. The stairs is rather out of repair." In this rickety, filthy, old tenement the coal-heaver rented two rooms on the third floor. He had a wife and three poor sallow-looking children, who were frightened when they saw a strange man enter with their father. The man introduced his wife as Mrs. Godbehere, and said his own name was William. They invited Thomas, who in turn had given his name, to share their supper, and he contributed to the feast the remainder of his bread and cheese. Consulted about a bed, Mrs. Godbehere declared that it was impossible for her to give Thomas one, and he agreed with her. She knew, however, a neighbour who had a lodging to let; 2s. 6d. a-week she charged for a small room with a bed in it—the lodger to find and cook his own food. In this room Thomas was ultimately installed, and right thankful he was to find a roof above his head in that appalling city. The walk along Marylebone and Euston Roads had impressed him more profoundly than ever with a sense of the vastness of London. It was like a first lesson in the meaning of infinity, and it struck him with a feeling of dread. Oft times did he ask himself that night whether he was not, indeed, mad in attempting to trace Sarah in such a sea of human beings. But mad or not, he resolved that his task should not be lightly abandoned.
Thus occupied he passed a restless night, and got up weary next morning. His bed, he found to his cost, was not over clean, and it was with a depressing sense of comfortlessness that he went to seek the Godbeheres. The coal-heaver had already gone to his work, but Mrs. Godbehere directed him to an eating-house near by, where he went and had some breakfast. Refreshed a little, he forthwith started on his quest. He would wander the myriad streets of London till he found his lost one, he had said to himself.
And day after day, night after night, he did wander hither and thither through the most frequented thoroughfares of London, returning late and worn-out to his miserable lodging. A growing hopelessness lay at his heart, and made him sometimes almost unable to drag his limbs past each other, but he held on with a dogged persistence that was almost sullen. Through Godbehere's friendliness, and the pressure of his own heart agony, he had scraped acquaintance with sundry policemen, but they could give him no effective help. One would suggest that he ought to keep a close watch about the Strand, another mentioned Oxford Street and the Circus, or the Haymarket. All agreed, in their callous sort of way, that "if she had followed a man to London, she was a'most sure to find her way to the streets before long." Thomas did not doubt it. He knew the pride of his daughter too well to doubt it. Rather than bear among her kindred the brand which her unfallen sisterhood would put upon her, she would face a life of open shame, where none could cast stones at her. So Thomas held on his way, but never got a glimpse of his lost one. His means were nearly exhausted, for, pinch as he might, it costs money to live in London. Yet he would not surrender. No, he would work. But how could he get work—he, a mere street loafer, and as lonely in London as if it had been a desert. London with its hurrying crowds, its rush of vehicles, its roar and bustle, and flowing lights, fairly broke down his imagination. He felt himself a helpless atom amid a mass of atoms that knew nothing of his misery, and grew too weak-hearted almost to seek for work. But for his quest, he felt—sometimes even said to himself—that he could lie down in the gutter and die. Possibly his wretched lodging and the sleepless nights he had passed in his pain had much to do with this utter collapse of mind. I cannot decide, but he has told me that never till that time did he realise the sustaining power of a fixed idea. "I came to find Sally," he said, "and I held to that." For that he braved not only hunger and cold, but the horrors of the night in the most abandoned thoroughfares of London. For that he mingled in the crowds of educated and other roughs that frequented theatre doors, and the doors of the coffee-houses and prostitute dens in the Haymarket and Gardens. For that he endured cursing and foul language inconceivable, stood to see men and women hurrying themselves into worse than a fiend's condition by their self-indulgence and sin. Into low dancing rooms he penetrated, often to be bundled out neck and crop as a spy, or at best to be horrified by filthy jokes or still more filthy exhibitions of obscenity. That very Agar Town, in which he lived, he again and again explored, facing its stenches and miseries, its wantonness and riot, and worst of all, its terrible crowds of weary, sin-rotting, broken-hearted, down-beaten, and unfortunate humanity. Often did he see women there peering out of their dingy, rag-stuffed windows, that bore traces of having once been as fair as rash Sally. Nay, the very rag-pickers who lodged in its garrets, Godbehere assured him, had many of them once been "flaunting women of the town." Women of the town, indeed, and was not the town doomed? Thomas thought that it was. To him London was already hell. The fumes of abominations choked his mental senses, and made him long to escape.
Nevertheless, his mind was fixed. He could not go without his child, and in order to carry out his purpose he must work. By the friendly help of Godbehere he ultimately obtained employment in the coal yard at Paddington-wages 2s. 6d. per day. He felt rich and strong for his task henceforth, and as soon as he could he removed to a rather better lodging near his work. At a waste, as he considered it, of several evenings' lodging-seeking, he found a small clean room in the neighbourhood of Lindengrove, for which, including a plain breakfast, he paid 5s. 6d. a-week. His landlady was an elderly widow who kept three lodgers, and she rather demurred to Thomas's demand for a latch-key, so that he might go in and out at nights as he pleased, but his sad, earnest face, and his remark that he was looking for a lost daughter, conquered her fears. Thomas had his key, and felt a kind of thankfulness that if he did find Sally he could now bring her to a better refuge than the vermin-filled hole in Agar Town.
Five weeks had well-nigh passed, and Thomas was no nearer his object, to all appearance, than the day he arrived in London. But now that he had work he felt more assured of his purpose, and therefore less sad. So he sent home cheery letters to his wife, bidding her hope yet for Sally, telling her he felt that God would not forsake her or them. All his letters his wife got read to her by the schoolmaster, and then passed them on to Jane. Money he would have sent, but could not. All that was left after paying his food and the clothes he needed for his work he spent in his quest. For work did not cause him to abate his vigilance, nor did it much reduce his wanderings. As soon as the yard closed he hurried home, changed his clothes, swallowed a cup of tea, and, sometimes on foot, sometimes on the top of an omnibus, he made his way to the usual haunts of vice. There he would wander, haunting theatre doors, peering into refreshment bars, and sometimes spending sixpence to get inside a low music hall. The sights he saw froze his very heart's blood with horror, and he often asked himself—Is all this vice, then, the product of our civilisation? Where is the Christianity in the habits of a people who permit tens of thousands of their fellow beings to rot and perish as a matter of course, and prate about the social evil in their sleek respectable way as if it was a dispensation of heaven? How many of these poor girls, whose lives had been blasted, who now brazenly mocked "society," and laid snares for the destruction of its darlings, had mothers, perhaps, even now weeping for them in secret? As he thought of these things he felt as if he could wander, like Jonah, through the streets, preaching the doom of this city of Sodom, whose streets already savoured of the bottomless pit.
Thoughts of this kind were brought home to him with terrible force one night that he saw Adelaide Codling. He was standing watching the play-goers leaving Drury Lane, when his eye suddenly caught the face of that girl amid a group of women and "swells," amongst the latter of whom was Captain Wiseman. She was showily dressed, and had a profusion of glaring jewellery scattered about her person, and she was talking fast, and laughing in a loud, defiant sort of way. But Wanless could see that she was not happy. As she drew near where he stood he could mark the restlessness of her eye, and the nervous boldness of her manner, and he pitied her. Is this what she has come to already? he thought to himself, and involuntarily shivered. Ah! if his own sweet lass was now like this, could he reclaim her? Would it not be too late? Adelaide Codling passed on, unconscious of the presence of her fellow-villager, saw not the pleading look that crossed his face, the eager step forward he took as if to speak with her. She entered a cab with Wiseman and two others, and disappeared from sight.
The eagerness of Thomas to find his lost one was intensified after that night. Hardly a night-watchman in all the district escaped his importunities, and from most of them the old man met with a rough kindness that soothed him even in his absorbing grief. One old sergeant he met in the Strand, and who had more than once listened to his descriptions and his queries, advised him to alter his beat. "There are a great many haunts of streetwalkers," he said, "besides the Strand and the Haymarket. Why not try the south side of the river, or up Islington way? There is the East-end, too, and Oxford Street and Holborn. Yes, none knew where a girl may get to, once she cuts adrift in London. Such heaps of them takes to the streets nowadays, that you can find some in every thoroughfare in London."
Wanless felt the observation true, alas! too true, but what could he do? His means would not allow him to search the whole city. He took a wider range, however, going by turns to one part of the town, now another, sometimes as far as the Angel and Upper Street, Islington, sometimes south to the Elephant and Castle, and the vice haunts of Walworth and the Borough. Occasionally, too, he searched the bridges across the river, but always with a sort of dread that his doing so was a confession that he believed his girl capable of drowning herself.
The winter was moving away thus, and Thomas Wanless was rapidly losing his vigour. Hard work and constant vigils, coupled with a sore heart, and a weak appetite, pulled the man down, and by February he had to confess that the long walks were too much for his strength. Mercifully, the weather often made it impossible for him to go out at night, and when it did clear up, he contented himself with going somewhere to watch the stream of people passing by. "I will wait," he said to himself, "for my darling to come to me." He could not even stand very long, but usually sought the rest of a friendly doorstep, and at times a recess on a bridge, watching, with tender wistfulness, the stream of life hurrying on around him. Strange to say, he had more than once seen Adelaide Codling since that night at the theatre, and somehow that always gave him hope. Her face seemed to say to him, "Your daughter cannot be far away."
Often the "unfortunates" came and talked to him, not rudely in their wantonness—alas! poor, forsaken waifs—forsaken by all save God—but soberly, as if moved to speak to this still, sad-eyed, grey-faced old man, who looked out on the world so keenly, and withal, with such tenderness in his look. They would tell him fragments of their stories—sad enough all, and wonderfully alike—tales of seduction, and heartless desertion, varied only by the degree of turpitude usually exhibited in the man. At one time it would be the tale of a light-headed girl, seduced by her master—a married man—who huddled her out of sight, to hide his shame. Many came from garrison towns, the seduced of the officers there; quiet country parsonages gave their quota of girls educated to feel, and therefore hurrying the faster to their doom, when once cut off from their families by the devices of their betrayers. One woman excited Thomas's pity deeply. Though wasted and fast dying, she still had traces of great beauty when he first met her, leaning wearily on the parapet of Waterloo Bridge, looking out on the water below. She flashed defiance—the defiance of a hunted being—at him when he first spoke to her, but he soon won her heart, and got her story. A fair blonde, oval-faced English girl, she had been comely to look upon, and was wholesome at the heart even yet, for all her misery. She was the victim of a parson, now high in the counsels of the church. The villain was but a curate when he seduced her—the only child of her mother, and she a widow. He promised to marry her, of course, and wiled his way to her heart. Then when he had got all he wanted, and found that she was with child, he cast her off, daring her to lay the babe to his paternity, and spreading a story to the effect that he had found other lovers at her heels. Broken hearted, she buried her head and obeyed, but the shame killed her mother. "I could not die," the daughter said to Wanless; "I have often tried to kill myself, but fear keeps me back now, after all that's past, and it kept me back then. My child died, thank Heaven! I was alone in the world. I drifted to London seeking work, and found it hard to get. When I offered myself for a servant's place, people said I was too well educated, and suspected that something must be wrong. I could have taught in a school, perhaps, but had no one to recommend me. I was hungry; I hated mankind, and cursed them. I said I would betray and destroy men for revenge! and the way was easy! oh, so easy. It has led me here; and now if I could but jump over and be done with it all!"
Involuntarily Thomas put forth his hand to hold her back; but he needed not to do so. The poor woman sank fainting at his feet. He tried to rouse her, but could not; and finally put her in a cab and took her to the hospital. Within a week she died there of brain fever. The doctors said her strength had been too much reduced by privation before the disease seized her for her to be able to survive it. And she was only one among tens of thousands all pressed down the same loathsome course by our "Christian civilisation." Nay, forgive the epithet, there is nothing Christian about it. It is only the civilisation of a priest-born respectableness. The droning hypocrites that we are!
At times Wanless stood by the doors of low music halls and of theatres, but the door-keepers usually ordered him off. He looked too like a detective for their taste. Then he would watch the doors of confectioners' shops, too—those shops which cloak brothels of the vilest type—staring there in the face of day, unheeded by the authorities, who must wink at some kind of outlet for the suppressed brutal passions of polished society. More than once Adelaide Codling had crossed his path at such times, and still in the company of Wiseman; but each succeeding time he saw her, Wanless thought the boldness of her manner had an increased dash of despair in it. The fate that she had come after was eating into even her light, giddy heart. The last time he spied her was one night when he stood close by the door of a café near Regent Street. The light fell full on her face as the Captain and she passed in from their cab, and her face was painted. Already, then, the bloom of youth has vanished, Thomas thought. Her hard but not unmusical laugh had given place to a grating cackle, and a leer of affected gaiety had replaced the merry eye. Poor, erring wanderer, and had a few months brought you to this? Already was the shadow of society's ruthless judgment upon you; could you even now see the blight of your life, the dreary street, the hard world's scorn, the early grave? Ah! yes, and who shall describe the devouring agony that gnawed at that girl's heart? Did she not see day by day the ebbing away of Wiseman's love? Love? God forgive me for defiling that sacred word. It was only his brutish passion that was dying. He was becoming tired of this toy his handling had smudged, and she saw it all—prepared herself for the hour when he would turn his back upon her and go to hunt down other prey. And only six months ago! Ah, parson, parson, has the iron not entered your soul? What is this that your Christian civilisation has done to your daughter? Has it made you ashamed even to look for her? Poor, hide-bound, "respectable" sinner that you are, you shall behold her again, though you sought her not—though her mother bade you close your heart and home against her for ever, because she had with that mother's help allowed herself to be betrayed.
One cold March night Thomas Wanless had strayed on to Waterloo Bridge in his coal-begrimed dress. Something, he could not have said what, had impelled him to go there that night. He had taken a hasty supper at a coffee-house near the coal yard to save time. He felt he was "superstitious," yet he went, whispering to his heart "who knows but I may see my child to-night," and trying to be cheerful.
Paying the toll at the north side, he wandered backwards and forwards till the chill from the river began to enter his bones. The one he looked for came not to him—still he could not drag himself away. He sat down in a recess and cowered below the parapet for shelter, waiting for he knew not what. It might have been ten o'clock. He had sat quite an hour, and was nearly going to sleep with weariness, inaction, and cold, when a rustle of a woman's dress near him spurred his faculties into active watchfulness. Peering into the darkness, made visible by the feeble shimmer of the lamp on the parapet, he discovered a woman approach him, crouching down in the recess on the other side of the bridge, weeping bitterly, though almost in silence. Raising himself on his elbow, he was about to speak to her when she started up with a wild despairing gesture, and, jumping on the seat, flung away her shawl.
"Yes," he heard her say to herself, with a wailing resoluteness, "I'll do it; I'll die," and with one look of farewell to the world, where no hope was left for her, a look of despair and horror that gleamed through the darkness, she clutched the parapet and drew herself on to it.
It was all the work of a moment, a flash of time, but Wanless had sprung to his feet at the sound of her voice, and was half across the bridge by the time the woman got upon the parapet. Then he saw her last look, and the gleam of a neighbouring lamp revealed her features. She was Adelaide Codling, and the recognition so startled Wanless that he staggered and for a moment stopped short. In that moment she was lost. Even as the cry burst from his lips, "Adelaide Codling, Adelaide, Adelaide," she threw herself over, as if the sight of a man approaching her had given the last spur to her despair. He reached the parapet but in time to hear the dull splash of her body in the dark tide rolling beneath. As she felt the water close round her, a cry—weird, unearthly, terrible,—broke from the girl's lips, and then all was silent, till the waves threw her up again on the other side of the bridge, when a hollow, dying wail wandered over the river—the last farewell of this poor waif of humanity, sacrificed to the pleasures of the scoundrels who "bear rule" among us, and call themselves refined.
Wanless was already at the toll-house, panting and hardly able to speak. But his look was enough, and presently there arose a shouting to lightermen and bargemen. Boats were put off by those who had heard the splash and the cry. A crowd gathered to see. In little more than a quarter of an hour a shout rose from the water far down towards Blackfriars, for the tide was running out, and the girl had gone rapidly down stream. "Saved! saved!" was the cry, and they had, indeed, found the body of Adelaide Codling. She herself had gone. The cold had killed her rather than the length of time she had been in the water—the cold and the shock.
Thomas waited to hear the result of the doctor's efforts at the police office, and then saw the body deposited in a neighbouring deadhouse. No clue to her identification was found upon the body, the poor girl had taken care of that, more mindful of her friends in death than they of her living. But Thomas felt bound to tell the police sergeant what he knew. He gave his own address and that of the Rev. Josiah Codling, but could not tell where the girl lived, or what had been the immediate cause of her suicide. The police, seeing that the upper classes were in question, decided to keep names quiet for the present—but communicated with the girl's father, and arranged that the inquest should be delayed for two days to permit him to attend. Thomas himself was told that he would be summoned as a witness, and then went his way.
He hardly knew how he got home to his lodgings that night.
The inquest on the body of Adelaide Codling was held in the upper room of a low-class public house in Upper Thames Street. Thomas Wanless obtained liberty to absent himself from work that day, at his own charges, of course, and punctually at three in the afternoon—the appointed hour—he entered the parlour of the inn. He was carefully dressed in the now threadbare and shiny suit of black, which had been his Sunday costume for many years.
A small knot of men had gathered in the room, and a desultory kind of chat was going on when Thomas entered. Two or three were grumbling at the nuisance of these "coroner's 'quests," which took men away from their business, the majority were "having something to drink," and all were utterly indifferent to the business that had brought them there.
Presently the coroner bustled into the room with his clerk. The latter hurriedly called over some names, which were answered, and then produced a greasy-looking volume in leather which he called "the book." This talisman he put into the hands of the man nearest him, to whom he mumbled some cabalistic words, at the end of which the book was passed along and kissed in a foolish sort of way by the chosen twelve. Having in this manner "constituted the jury," proceedings commenced with a procession to "view the body," led by the coroner. It lay in a rough wooden shell coffin, in a dark hole attached to an old city church, and used as a mortuary. Wanless followed the little crowd in a stunned sort of way. To his simple, rustic mind it was a dreadful thing that men should be able to go so carelessly about such a solemn duty. At the mortuary he was surprised to see the Vicar. The old man stood by his child's head, gazing at it in a helpless, dazed way, as if hardly conscious of what it all meant. No emotion was visible on his face, no tears broke from his eyes when a policeman, softened by the sight, led him gently away to the inn parlour out of the way of coroner and jury.
The "viewing" over, the Court returned to the inn to take evidence. Of that there was very little, beyond the personal testimony of the police, until Thomas Wanless was called. When his name was mentioned, Thomas saw the old Vicar start, and for the first time look up with something like intelligence in his glance, then a scared, shrinking sort of expression stole across his features, as if he had suddenly thought of home and cruel village tongues. But he listened quietly to all the old labourer had to say. It was not much, for a proper-minded coroner would not have suffered "family secrets" to be too freely exposed, nor had Wanless himself any desire to tell more than was absolutely needful.
"I saw the deceased," he said, "climb upon the parapet of Waterloo Bridge opposite where I sat, and I ran towards her, but before I could reach her she had gone over. As she prepared to spring she gave one last look behind her, and I knew her to be our Vicar's daughter. I called her by name, but it was too late."
The sad cadence of Thomas's voice, and his obvious superiority of mien, did not prevent one of the jury from asking him in a brutal tone—
"And what were you doing there, my man?"
"I was looking for my own child," answered the old labourer. "At first I thought I had found her, till I saw the face."
"Ah!" ejaculated the coroner. "Had you then——?" but his better impulse stopped him, and he did not finish the question. Thomas, however, understood it, and replied at once, almost under his breath—
"Yes, your Honour, I have lost a daughter, and Captain Wiseman, the same ruffian destroyed her that enticed away the Vicar's poor lass now lying yonder."
His words sent a shudder through the room, and Thomas was vexed he had spoken them ere they were well out of his mouth, for they seemed to goad the Vicar into a state of active terror which gave him energetic utterance. The more vulgar of the jury pricked up their ears at the sound of scandal, and one of them said—"Can you give us a clue then as to how this poor girl came to drown herself?"
"Oh, for God's sake don't," the Vicar interposed, starting to his feet, and stretching forth his hand beseechingly towards the labourer; "for God's sake don't expose it, Wanless." Then he collapsed again, and began to weep violently, so that Wanless felt sorry for him, and was relieved when the loud voice of the coroner was heard again ruling that "it was quite unnecessary to rake up disagreeables." He saw the "aristocracy in the business," in short, and it pleased him to be strict. Thomas, therefore, was asked a number of venture questions, whether he knew where the deceased lived, or whether he was aware of her circumstances, &c., questions to which he had mostly to answer "No." His examination was, therefore, soon ended, and the coroner was beginning to tell the jury that it was a common case, requiring the usual verdict, "Suicide while in a state," merely, when, to everybody's surprise, the Vicar intimated that he had a statement to make.
He rose, trembling visibly, and looked round with a vacant eye till he caught sight of Wanless, who had fallen back, and was standing near the door. Then his look changed, and, with something like energy, he exclaimed—"I wish to ask you, gentlemen, not to believe what that man says. He has a spite against my family, and against the family at——" Here he stopped suddenly, afraid to mention the name of his child's destroyer, and the solemn voice of the peasant was heard saying—"God forgive you, Josiah Codling," softly, as if to himself. But the Vicar heard, and his trembling increased so much that when a blunt juryman interposed with—"How do you account for your daughter's suicide then?" he could only stammer a feeble—"I'm sure I cannot say."
"But surely you knew her whereabouts—what she was doing?"
"N-n-no, I cannot say I did quite. My wife—that is her mother—told me that she was visiting an aunt in Kent, and I believed it was so."
"But were there no letters, then? Didn't your daughter write to you at times?" persisted the juryman, though the coroner began to fidget and look black.
"Letters!" repeated the Vicar, as if struck with a new idea; "no, I believe not. Yes, I think she did write to her mother—to my wife that is to say. At least I saw the envelope of one letter. I picked it out of the coal scuttle in the breakfast room, but Adelaide—that is my daughter—did not write to me—not that I recollect."
"Humph! I see, 'grey mare the better horse,'" muttered the juryman—a bluff, not unkindly-looking man, and then there fell a moment of deep silence on the Court. The Vicar stood, bearing himself up with his hands on the table before him, and seemed to have more to say. But when after a brief pause, the impatient Coroner ejaculated—"Well, sir! have you done?" the Vicar answered—"Y-yes, I think so. I only wished you not to judge my child hastily," and sat down.
A few moments more and the jury had given their verdict—"the usual one" as the coroner described it—a verdict permitting the corpse to have Christian burial, and all was over. The majority of the jury adjourned to the bar to refresh themselves, and interchange opinions on, what one of them called, "this jolly queer case." The bar-keeper himself joined in the conversation, and Wanless heard him enlarging upon the corruptions of the "Hupper classes," as he followed the Vicar down stairs. But there was no danger that comments of this kind would get into the newspapers. A paragraph about the suicide did, indeed, appear in several morning journals, but there was no mention of the seducer's name. Such a thing as an adjournment to obtain Wiseman's evidence was not even hinted. The coroner, jury, press, and all might have been bought up by the Wiseman family, so discreet was the silence—and, perhaps, some of them were. The press, at all events, was well gagged by an infamous law of libel; and as there had been no sensational or melodramatic incidents connected with the girl's end, it was easy to bury all the story in oblivion—for time. The "gallant" Captain might roll serenely on his way. Nothing could disturb him here except disease and the moral leprosy bred of his crimes. "After death comes the judgment."
When the little gathering had dispersed, the Vicar and Thomas Wanless found themselves alone together. Both had waited to let the unfamiliar faces disappear. Neither had thought at the moment that this shyness would bring them face to face. The peasant was the first to realise the situation, and as he looked at the broken-down old man before him, he was stirred with pity. On the impulse of the moment he went to where Codling stood, and laying his hand on his arm, said—
"Can I be of any use to you, sir?"
The Vicar started and turned hastily away, shaking Thomas's hand from his arm, at the same time answering—"No, no, Thomas Wanless, I have nothing to say to you. You have done me enough mischief for one day!"
"I have done you no mischief, sir. God forbid that I should harm you. Had it been possible I would have saved you this pain,—I would have rescued your daughter."
"Rescued my daughter, would you?" and Codling laughed a low, bitter laugh. "Rescued my daughter! Why cannot you look after your own, Thomas Wanless? I do not want your help."
"I watch for my child night and day," said the peasant solemnly. "It was in seeking her that I met yours—too late. There is ever a prayer in my heart that when I find my Sally I may not be too late for her also. Ah! poor Sally!" he sighed, and the Vicar, taking no more notice of him, he presently added—"Come out of this place, sir. It is not wise for you to stop here when there is so much yet to be done."
The Vicar took Wanless's words as insinuating that he wanted to drink, which was far enough from what Thomas intended. But the guilty are ever prone to think themselves in danger, and it was with more heat and energy of manner than he had yet shown that the Vicar turned and faced his fellow-villager.
"Go away, you loafing, good-for-nothing fellow," he almost shouted, "surely you have gratified your revenge sufficiently for one day, without standing there to mock at my sorrow, as you have already done your best to make my name a by-word." With that he moved towards the door. But Thomas stood dumbfounded between him and it, and the Vicar, too impatient now to wait for the peasant's slow motions, actually gave him a shove on one side, and hurried outside, muttering to himself as he went.
When Wanless crept out a minute or two later, still feeling heart-sore at the Vicar's treatment, he caught sight of that poor wretch through the adjoining door of the private bar, which opened to let some one out as he passed by. Codling was standing, and with trembling hand stirring a large tumbler of hot brandy and water.
Wanless stopped involuntarily, and then turning back to the bar he had just left, asked for a glass of ale. It would give him a pretext for waiting to see what became of the poor parson. In a very short time he heard Codling's voice beyond the partition ordering another double glass, and the sound shocked him so much that he put down his glass of ale half consumed, and, acting on the impulse of the moment, burst in upon the Vicar through the swing door of the compartment, crying, as he did so—
"For God's sake, don't, Mr. Codling. Leave that, and come away with me. It's a shame to see a minister of the Gospel drowning his grief in liquor. Come away at once." And he again laid hold of Codling's arm.
The drink he had already swallowed had raised the Vicar's courage, and he turned on Wanless with a look of scornful bitterness that boded a storm. But Wanless was also wrought to a high pitch, and there was a commanding sternness in his eye that served to cow the drunkard, whose wrath seemed to die within him. He looked hesitatingly around, and at sight of some bystanders grinning, a flush of shame spread over his face.
"For shame, I say," Wanless continued in a low tone, paying as little heed to the angry looks as he had done to the former taunts. "Will you stand here besotting yourself, and allow your child to be flung into a pauper's grave?"
"What business is that of yours?" the Vicar replied sullenly, but in a low voice. "Mind your own paupers, and let me and my affairs alone."
"That I will not—cannot do—Mr. Codling," Wanless answered. "Consider, sir, she was your child. You fondled her on your knee but the other day, and were proud to hear her lisp the name of father. Come away, sir, for God's sake, the body may be gone if we waste more time here;" and giving the Vicar no further chance to remonstrate, Thomas seized his arm, and dragged him out of the place away to the deadhouse.
They were indeed barely in time. Some men were about to nail up the remains of Adelaide in the rough shell where it lay, whether preparatory to burial, or in order to convey it to some hospital dissecting room, I would not venture to say. At any rate, a small bribe made them desist, and one of them even directed the Vicar to find an undertaker if he wished to give his child Christian burial in other than a pauper's trench.
The sight of his daughter's body, when the lid of the case was removed, and the Vicar saw it again, moved him more than it had done at first. The men withdrew, and Thomas and he were left alone with it. Adelaide's features had settled down to the calm stillness of death, and wore a faint semblance of a smile. Sweet and pure she looked, in spite of the soiled garments and tangled hair; but the figure indicated only too clearly what had sent her to a watery grave. She had been about to become a mother.
As he looked old memories rose in the Vicar's imagination, and tears gathered in his dull, sodden eyes. He stooped tremulously and kissed the cold brow. "Poor Addy, poor Addy," he murmured, "to think that you should have come to this," and he sobbed outright—weeping like a child. Like a child too, when the passion was over, he surrendered himself to the guidance of Wanless, without further resistance, who hurried him off to the undertaker. He would like, he said, to have her buried that evening; but that the people said they could not manage; so it was at last arranged to take her to Highgate Cemetery next morning. Thomas had then to find a place where the Vicar could pass the night, for the old man had intended to go home that evening, and ultimately he deposited him at the Tavistock Hotel.
"Will you have something to drink before you go?" said the Vicar, when he had arranged for his bedroom, evidently wanting a pretext for drinking himself, but Thomas said "No," and went away to eat a frugal supper in a humble coffee-shop in Drury Lane.
They buried Adelaide next morning, Thomas again, though with difficulty, obtaining leave of absence. As soon as he saw Codling, Thomas knew that he had been drinking hard the previous night. The poor man's hands shook as with the palsy, his step was unsteady, his eye dull and bloodshot. A low fever seemed to consume him; yet he obviously felt keenly that morning the errand he and the labourer were upon, and though he hardly spoke a word all the way to the grave, he no longer looked at his companion with sullen anger. Rather he seemed to cling to Thomas as a woman clings to her natural protector. And when the earth fell on the coffin lid as the last words of the solemn burial service of the Church of England were uttered—solemn even when gabbled over by the unhappy creatures who have to repeat it every day, and all day long—he broke down again, sobbing and weeping like a child. They waited till the last sod had been placed over the lost Adelaide, and ere he went away the Vicar knelt on the damp earth, praying and weeping bitterly. Then he rose and stretched out his hand to Wanless, whose cheeks were also wet with tears, as if seeking one to lead him. Thomas grasped it, and pressed it, with "God bless and have mercy on you, sir, and on her as lies here."
"Ah! Thomas"—it was the first time the Vicar had called him kindly as of old by his Christian name—"ah! Thomas, my friend, and may God bless you for what you have done this day. But for you I would have deserted my child in death, as I did in life. God forgive me for it."
These words seemed to open his heart, so that he talked to Wanless, all the way back to town, in an eager way, like one who had a confession to make, and could taste no peace till it was done. A sad history enough it was of domestic bitterness, of an enfeebled will, knowing what was right, and doing it not. His impulse was to seek his daughter, just as Thomas's had been, but Mrs. Codling would not hear of it. Her pride did not even allow her to admit that the girl had gone away after her betrayer. She talked of a visit to a relative at a distance, who was her own step-sister, and of Adelaide herself being ill in Kent, poor thing—not in any danger, but not strong enough to return yet—with many lies of a like kind, which the Vicar was weak enough to endorse by his silence.
Wanless also spoke of his quest and his sorrow, and the Vicar listened with sympathy; but when the peasant ventured to urge that it was his duty to denounce, and expose the ravenous wolf, who had destroyed the peace of so many families, Codling shook his head and answered—"No, no, Thomas, I cannot; I dare not. It is too late."
"Why too late, sir? Are you not a minister of Christ, and bound by the office you hold to denounce the sinner and his sin?"
The Vicar shuddered, and sat still for more than a minute without answering. Then he bent forward and took Thomas's hand—they sat on opposite sides of the cab.
"Thomas," he said sadly, "you remember that day of the row in my garden, between you and—and that fiend in human shape. You called me a poor tippling creature that day, and it was true."
"No, no, and I was very sorry," Wanless began—
"Yes, but it was," the Vicar interrupted, "I hated you for exposing me thus; but I felt and knew it was true. I am not a drunkard, Thomas, as the world measures drunkenness, but I tipple. I keep myself alive by stimulants, and bury thus my hopes and aspirations of other days. And I feel that I can do nothing. Who would listen to me or heed my words? Men would say I spoke from spite, and perhaps some even might aver that I was myself the cause of my daughter's ruin. Which also," he added, in a reflective kind of way, "which also might be true. No, no, Thomas, I must bear my burden. My—oh, my daughter, my child, my pet, when I think of you and the past, I have no hope—I can do nothing but tipple."
"Heaven forbid!" exclaimed Wanless; but the Vicar relapsed into silence. All the rest of the way to Paddington, to which he had ordered himself to be driven, he lay back in the corner of the cab, silent, with his eyes closed; but Thomas could see him ever and anon furtively wipe away the tears from his cheeks.
At Paddington, the two men, now friends again, after so many years of divergent ways and worldly fortunes, bade each other a sad farewell. Thomas went back to his coals, and the Vicar went home to his wife and his gin and water. Yet he was not quite as he had been before. More than he himself thought the death of his once loved child stirred the human soul in him, and he was not able again to fall back into sottishness. Though he bore his domestic woes silently, and still drank to dull the gnawing at his heart, he became more tender towards the poor among his flock, more attentive to their wants, more accessible, and softer in manner towards all men. He even preached with sad pathos that woke responsive sympathy in the hearts of his flock, though he did not denounce the ravisher.
But the best proof of all that he had changed much for the better, is found in his conduct to Mrs. Wanless. The memory of the help and sympathy he had received from the old, despised labourer in London, lay warm in his heart, and found frequent expression in visits to the labourer's wife while she was alone, or to both husband and wife, when Wanless came back. The very day after he returned from London, he called and told Mrs. Wanless that he had seen her husband, and that he was well. He made no allusion to other matters, but he patted the head of Sally's child, and sighed as he went away. Perhaps the kindly warmth with which these simple people always greeted him, helped to soothe his later years. In giving he received more than he gave.
In the village the end of his daughter was never rightly known. Wiseman naturally never breathed a word. Rarely was his face seen in Ashbrook, and never in the church while the old Vicar lived. Mrs. Codling gave out that the poor child had been suddenly cut off by fever, and went the length of donning mourning, bemoaning the loss to her friends, braving the scorn of all true hearts, and vainly imagining she was believed, But the people guessed that Adelaide had not died so, and they suspected that Wiseman was at the bottom of her disappearance, though the story of her having committed suicide never got general credence in the village—was only a faint rumour there. So all pitied the poor Vicar, despised his uppish, false-hearted wife, and most hated the young squire. Riches and high station cannot shut men out from the moral results of their deeds, any more than they can ward off death. Nay, Mrs. Codling herself, high as she held her head, well as she acted the part of a sorrowing mother who had been heart-broken by the unexpected news of her dear daughter's sudden death, so prostrated as to be unable to go and see her laid in her grave—even Mrs. Codling felt in some sense that this was true. She grew harder in her ways, and more and more haggard in her looks, like one even at war with herself, and ever losing in the fight—till within three years God took her, and she knew her folly.
A great additional strain had been put upon the spirit of Thomas Wanless, by the death of Adelaide Codling, and he was becoming too weak in body to hold to his purpose. There were nights when he returned to his lonely lodging wishing that he might die, so great was his physical and mental exhaustion. At other times he felt an impulse strong upon him to go home—to "abandon his search for a time," as his inward tempter whispered. But his will was strong, if strength of body or hope might be weak, and he only prayed the more and clung the more to his purpose, the more he felt tempted to turn aside. "How could I face her mother again," he would answer himself, "if I had not found her."
In this conflict of mind, though not of purpose, another month rolled by, and Thomas was threatened with want of work. Fewer men were required in the coal yards as summer came on, and already several had been discharged. It was a dreary prospect enough, but what made it more so to Thomas, were the unbidden flashes of almost gladness that rose in his breast now and then, as the voice of the tempter then said—"Thomas, you will be forced to go home." He felt himself a traitor, and inexpressibly wicked at such moments, and would clench his hand and mutter—"Not yet anyhow, not yet," as he strode mechanically through the streets.
At last he found her. "When hope was calm, and grief was dead" almost, he lighted on his lost child unexpectedly, in a place where he would never have dreamed of looking for her, had it not been for the friendly advice of the police.
All over London there are coffee-houses, tobacco-shops, and confectioner-looking shops, whose real use is to be haunts of vice. Thomas had learned to know this, and his eye was always upon such as he wandered through the streets. Perchance he might see his Sally in one of them some night. He was crawling rather than walking along one of the dingy lanes behind Leicester Square one evening, about eleven o'clock, when, through the open door of a low eating-house, he heard the voice of a woman singing. His heart gave a leap within him. Surely that was Sally's voice. She had been a great singer in her girlhood, and the song he heard the notes of had once been a great favourite with her. What was it, think you? None other than that sweet sentimental ditty, "Be kind to the loved ones at home." Strange melody to be heard in such a place.
The leap of hope in Thomas's heart was followed by a thrill of anguish as he drew near to listen, more assured each moment that here, indeed, he had found his daughter. And was she thinking of home then—here, at the gate of hell. He would go and see. No one was in the outer shop, and the door of the back room stood ajar, so that Thomas walked straight through unchallenged. Pushing open the half-closed inner door, he paused in amazement at the scene disclosed to him. There might have been a score of people in that low-roofed, dingy, smoke-filled room—men and women seated at small tables, and on one or two dilapidated benches against the wall, some were busy eating, all had drink before them—ale, spirits, and even wine—stuff labelled "champagne." Through the haze of tobacco smoke, he saw several of the women with cigarettes in their mouths. All had a reckless, more or less debauched air, and the women in particular struck Thomas—a transitory flash though his glance was—as wearing a look of defiance towards all that the world deemed propriety. Men had women on their knees, or sat on the knees of women, and none seemed to heed the song. One poor outcast woman lay huddled up on the floor by the fire, too drunk to sit, but not too drunk to blaspheme. No one heeded her either.
All these things Thomas saw in the first moment of vision, but he hardly noted them then. His thoughts and his eyes were for his lost child alone. The song did not stop at his entrance, for the singer's face was not towards the door. So the voice guided his eye and—yes, it was she. There she sat in the middle of the room, nearer the fire than a youthful debauchee who sat by her with his arm round her waist. Thomas gazed a moment, and then his whole soul went out in a cry—
"Sally, Sally, oh my pet, my child, I've found you at last," and he advanced towards her, holding out his hands.
The song died instantly, but in its place rose a Babel of tongues. Thomas's cry drew all eyes upon him. Involuntarily some of the less hardened assumed airs of propriety, but the majority of the men started in anger, and a few of the women began to laugh and jeer.
"Damn your impudence, what do you want here?" shouted a copper-faced little wretch, who had been lying half asleep in a woman's lap near the door.
"Get out of this," roared another, and as Thomas made no sign the abuse grew general. The wits of the party cracked jokes over the "heavy father doing the pathetic business," and so on, but amid the din the peasant got close to the table, where his child sat. The instant his call reached her ears, Sally turned a terror-struck gaze upon him, and then buried her face in her hands. He could see she wept, for the sobs shook her, but to his further entreaty to come away she made no response, and he was trying to pull the table aside so as to reach her, when he was roughly seized by the brothel keeper, who had rushed up from the kitchen to see what the noise was about. With an oath he pulled Thomas back.
"What the devil do you want here?" he screeched. "Clear out, or d—n you, I'll give you in custody." The peasant's garb and appearance had enabled the experienced scoundrel to guess at once what was up.
Thomas turned sharp on his assailant, who was a fat, flabby-looking wretch, whose face indicated a vicious career in every line and pimple. At the moment it was lit up by an expression of elfish rage. But when in his turn the peasant seized him with a grip of iron and flung him away as if he had been a street cur barking at his heels, the man's face grew nearly pale with an expression of mingled wrath and fear. The fear kept him near the door, where he stood yelling for help, calling on "Jim" to come and turn this intruder out, volleying oaths and blasphemies, and finally beseeching the intruder not to ruin him, but taking good care all the while not to summon the police.
"Jim" came at last—the "waiter" or bully of the place. He was of stronger build than his master, and at once grabbed Thomas by the collar, purposing to turn him out. But Thomas was endowed with heroic strength in that hour, and three such men would not have driven him from the place. Wrenching himself round, he took his new assailant by the throat, and dashed him back against his master with such force that they both rolled over in the narrow doorway. This feat tickled the company immensely, and they fell to clattering with pewter pots and glasses, and to shouting in derision as encouragement.
Probably Thomas in the end might have been badly beaten by the fiends among whom he had fallen, but from that his daughter saved him. Roused, perhaps, at the sight of the unholy hands laid upon her father, and sickened by the foul jibes of men and women around her, she sprang to her feet, and, pushing round the end of the table where she sat, rushed between the combatants, and flung herself on her father's bosom, in a passion of weeping.
"Do not get yourself hurt for me," she sobbed, "go away and leave me. I'm not worth caring for any more."
Thomas answered by clasping her closer to his bosom, and then putting his arm in hers, he led her from the house, none daring to say him nay. Oaths, shrieks of hysterical laughter, and obscenities followed them as they went, but the look on the peasant's face, and the remembrance of his strength of arm, were enough to protect his daughter and him from further ill-usage.
"Thanks be to God I've found ye, my lass; found ye, never to let ye out o' my sight again in this world," Thomas murmured when he found himself alone in the street with his long-lost one, and there welled up in him a holy joy which was unutterable.
His daughter hung her head, and answered not, but she suffered him to lead her to his lodging. A 'bus took them to the head of Portland Road, and thence they walked. It was past midnight before they got home, and all the house was silent; but Thomas gave his daughter his bedroom, and groped his way to the parlour, where he hoped to get a sleep in an easy chair—first prudently turning the key in Sarah's door, to give her no room for untimely repentance.
There was no sleep for his eyelids that night. The cold alone might have kept him awake in any case; but he was too excited to feel it as other than a stimulus to his thoughts. Past and future rolled before him—his daughter lost, joy at her discovery, pain at the life she had led. The grey dawn found him fevered with his thoughts, shivering in body, burning at the heart. Nevertheless, he had resolved to go home that day by the early train; and with that view he roused the landlady to beg an early breakfast for himself and his child. "I have found my lass," was all he ventured to explain, and the woman answered she was glad to hear it. In his eagerness to go home he forgot to tell the coal agent for whom he worked, and forgot also to draw four days' wages due to him—did not remember till the day after he and his daughter reached Ashbrook.
When Sarah, in answer to her father's summons, came down to breakfast in the front kitchen, it was easy to see that she also had slept little. Her eyes were swollen and red, and she could not eat anything. A cup of hot tea she swallowed, and that was all. Her father spoke to her in the old familiar Warwickshire dialect, and urged her to "eat summat, as she had a long day's journey afoore her," but Sally could not, and to all he spoke answered only in monosyllables. Not until he began to talk directly of going "home" did she wake to anything like animation. The very sound of the word made her weep, and her father led her away to his own room to reason with her.
"Oh, don't ask me to go back," she cried; "I cannot, I cannot; I'm fit only to die."
But her father soothed her, talked to her of her lonely mother watching for her coming, praying to see her child's face again before she died; and when that did not move her, he bade her think of her little babe she had left last year. "How could ye like her to grow up a-lookin' for a mother, Sally, lass, an' not findin' one?" That seemed to touch her more than all his assurances that no one would ever reproach her or cry shame upon her in her own father's house. Still she yielded not, but cried out that she was lost to them all, to every good in this world. "You might not blame me openly," she said, "but I would have the feelin' in my heart all the time that I was a shame an' disgrace to you, and that pity alone kept you from telling me so. No, no, no, I will not go back to Ashbrook."
"Look here, then, Sally," said her father at last, "if you wonnot go back, I'll stay by you. My mind's made up. I'll never lose sight of ye again, not while I'm alive; and if you wonnot go home wi' me, I must bide wi' you. There is no other way. It will kill your mother, and it will kill me, an' leave your child an outcast orphan, but ye are determined, an' it must e'en be so."
This staggered her, but still she yielded not, thinking, doubtless, that her father meant not what he said, till at last, in despair, he told her the story of Adelaide Codling. He spoke of her despairing looks, her rapid descent from wild gaiety to death, of her last farewell to this world, of her lonely grave, and her poor, old, broken-hearted father, and wound up by asking—"Will you face an end like that, Sally? Dare you do it, my child? When I saw her jump on the bridge I thought it was you," he added, with a look that went straight to his daughter's heart. The story had at first been listened to in dogged silence. Then the girl's tears began to flow, at first silently, at last with convulsive sobs. Her father held out his hand as he ceased speaking, and she, moved so deeply as to be lifted out of herself, laid both her hands in his, and said—
"Father, I'll do as ye wish. I'll go home wi' ye." He drew her down on her knees beside him, and prayed fervently for mercy and forgiveness for them both. "But my heart was too full to beg," he afterwards said to me. "I could only give God thanks for his infinite mercy in restoring my lost child."
They missed the morning train, and had to wait till the evening. In the interval Sarah had stripped off the tawdry ornaments she wore, and plucked a gaudy feather from her hat—pleasant incidents which her father noted. In the middle of the night almost they reached the old cottage in Ashbrook, and both were glad that the darkness hid them from every eye save God's.
There was deep joy in Mrs. Thomas Wanless's cottage that night—joy all the deeper for the pain that lay beneath it. Mrs. Wanless was not a demonstrative woman at any time, but that night she embraced her daughter again and again, and held her to her heart with passionate eagerness. Sarah was sad, and after the first momentary flash of delight, shrank back within herself. She went and looked at her child sleeping quietly in its grandmother's bed, but did not kiss or caress it. The joy of the parents was dimmed at sight of this indifference, but when Sarah had retired to rest, Thomas did his best to encourage his wife to hope. "It will soon be all right between mother and child," he prophesied, and this no doubt was their hope. It was long, however, ere they saw any fulfilment of it. In truth, shame took so deep a hold on Sarah's mind that she became a sort of terror to herself. She was so crushed by the past, so utterly incapable of rising out of the darkness that shrouded her mind, that it is probable she would again have fled from her father's roof had she not been prevented by illness. The life of false excitement she had led in London had sapped her constitution, and she had not long returned when her health began to give way. Fits of shivering seized her, then a hacking, dry cough, which could not be dislodged. Her complexion grew transparent, her eye preternaturally bright. She was, in a word, falling into consumption, and in all probability would not live long to endure her misery. This was doubtless the kindest fate that could now befall her, but it was a new grief to her parents when they awoke to consciousness of the fact that this lost one, so lately found again, was slowly vanishing from their sight for ever.
She herself grew happier in the prospect of early death, and from being silent and cold became gentle, opener in her manner, and more kindly to all around her, as if striving by her tender care of her child and her grateful affection for her parents to make the last days of her life on earth a sweet memory. After a time, too, as she became weaker, her heart moved her to talk of the past, and she bit by bit told her mother the story of her flight and her life in the great city. The sum of it all was misery, an agony of soul unspeakable, from which she ultimately found no escape save in drink. Her own motive in running away after Adelaide Codling was not very clear even to herself. Some vague idea of finding that other victim, and of rescuing her from the doom that she herself was stricken by, she had, but the governing motives were shame and pride. Once in the gate of Hell, which London is to tens of thousands every year, she tried to get access to Captain Wiseman, and haunted the entrance of his barracks for a week, but he came not. She did see him at a distance two or three times afterwards, but women such as she was now dared not approach so great a person in the open streets by day. With more persistence she sought for Adelaide Codling, but with no better success. The only occasion when she got near enough to speak to that poor girl was one day that they met by a shop door in Regent Street. Adelaide came forth gorgeously dressed, and carrying her head high just as Sarah passed. They recognised each other, and Sarah stopped to speak, but the other turned away her head with a toss like her mother's, and hurried off.
Soon the peasant's daughter had to abandon all thoughts of others, and face hunger for herself. Her money and trinkets found her in food and lodgings but for a few short days, and then she, having obtained no situation, had to leave the servants' home where she had at first found refuge, and—either starve or take to the streets. Her sin had branded her; she had no "references," and no hope. Had courage only been given her she would have died, but she dared not. It seemed easier to go forth to the streets. The raging "social evil" that mocks in every thoroughfare Christianity and the serene, tithe-sustained worshipping machinery of the State, offered her a refuge. There she could welter and rot if she pleased, fulfilling the excellent economy of life provided for us in these islands. The army composing this evil only musters some 100,000 in London, and is something altogether outside the pale of established and other Christian institutions.
That summer and winter when the lost Sarah faded away and died was a hard time for Thomas Wanless and his wife. Work was precarious, and thus, added to the pain of seeing their child fade away, was the bitter sense of inability to do all that was possible to prolong her life. Nearly all the labourer's savings had disappeared during Thomas's long quest. But they struggled on, complaining to none but God, nor did their trials break their trust in His help. They felt that the kindness with which all friends and neighbours treated them in their sorrow was a proof that the Divine Father of all had not forgotten them. And their daughter herself became a consolation to their grief-worn spirits. A sweet resignation took possession of her mind as she neared the end. The passions of life died away, and the clouds that had hidden her soul for the most part disappeared. Her parents might dream for moments, when her cheeks looked brighter than usual, that she would recover, but she herself knew that death was near, and thanked God.
During this time the Vicar—poor old man—came oftener than ever to the labourer's cottage. He could not be said to assert himself against his wife in doing so, for he came as if by a power stronger than his own wrecked will. When he was seated by the labourer's fireside, he seemed to be at peace. Often for an hour at a time he hardly spoke, but just sat still and looked with a sad kindliness, pathetic to behold, on the wasting form before him, and either stroked her hand held in his own, or gently patting the golden head of the little lass that now began to toddle to his knee. And when the visit was over, the cloud settled down upon him again. He went forth dejected, a hopeless-looking being, and crawled helplessly back to the Vicarage. He called on the morning of Sarah's death. She sank gently to rest on a raw February morning nearly eight months after her return, and within a week of her twenty-first birthday. When Mr. Codling was told, he stood for a moment as if dazed, and then asked to be led to Sarah's bedside. There he stood, gazing long, with bent head, till the tears rose and blinded him. With them the higher emotions of his soul welled up within him, and he turned and took the hand of Wanless, who stood by his side.
"Thomas, my friend," he said, "I envy your daughter that rest. I, too, long to be as she is. Life has become all a waste desert to me; oh, so dreary, dreary." Then, after a pause, he went on—"And I envy you, Thomas, for have you not cause to rejoice that Sarah has died in her father's house forgiven? Had it been but so with my Adelaide; oh, had it been but so, I think—I—hope would not have been lost to me. But I wish I were dead—yes, dead and forgotten," and, letting go the hand he had held, he knelt down by the bedside, buried his face, and wept as he had wept only by his daughter's grave.
Unhappy old man. Who shall judge him; who say that the All-pitying had not forgiven? Calming himself presently, the aged Vicar rose to his feet, and looked again on the dead face, so different in its white purity and smile of peace from the one he had looked on in London. He bent and kissed it, and then suffered the grief-worn but calm old labourer to lead him quietly away. "God bless you and comfort you, sir, and give you His peace," was all that Thomas trusted himself to utter; but sorrow had made these men brothers indeed.
Although Thomas and his wife knew in their hearts that Heaven had been merciful to their child and to themselves in taking her away, their sorrow was nevertheless keen. Nay, in some senses it was keener, because the "might have been" rose before the mind. Here was in truth a waif—a lost one—mercifully removed from further sorrow, but had there been no wreck, how short would her life have seemed, how sad its early close. In Wanless's life, therefore, few days were darker than the day on which he laid Sarah to rest beside the long-lost little ones in the old churchyard. It was little consolation to him that half the village gathered reverently to the funeral, and yet as he thought of the other grave by which he had stood not many months before, his spirit was somehow soothed. The contrast must have struck the Vicar likewise, but he made no sign. He insisted, however, on reading the burial service himself, in spite of the remonstrances of his young curate, who usually did this work. Bareheaded and trembling, pale, and feeble looking, with his white thin hair fluttering in the icy breeze, the sight of their old pastor that day drew tears to many eyes. His tremulous voice seemed more solemn to the listeners that day than ever before, and they loved and pitied the frail old man. More than one villager remarked to his neighbour as they left the grave that he "did not think Mr. Codling would be long in following Sally Wanless."
It was in truth to be so. The Vicar did not live long after, but his was not the next burial. Before he went—months before—old Squire Wiseman died and was buried in the family vault, with the pomp and circumstance that became his station. No one sorrowed at his death, but the lack of grief was hidden by the abundance of display. All the army of underlings were put in mourning at the new squire's expense. Cecil was now lord of the Grange, and one of his first steps was to make it too hot a place for his mother, by filling it with debased men and women—titled fledglings and their harpies, horsey men, and sharpers. The wealthy marriage his mother had sought for him never came off. An Irish peer, needy as Wiseman, but with a more marketable commodity in the shape of his title, had swooped down and carried off the prize. The carpet or "turf" soldier consequently came to his inheritance buried in debt, but that seemed to make him only the more extravagant. His true place was the gutter, but the land was entailed, tenants were squeezable, and though hard up, the new squire floundered on, cursing and a curse.
His debts should have ruined him, but they merely ruined his tenants, impoverished the land, and made those driven to depend on him as beggarly as their master. The weight of this rottenness lay heaviest of all on the labouring poor, who stood undermost in the social scale. Poor farmers meant less labour, badly tilled soil, reduced wages, and the hinds became a picture of misery. All Ashbrook parish suffered for the sins of this sprig of the aristocracy. What of that! Are the sacred, priest-sanctioned, bishop-blessed rights of property to be interfered with because the people want bread? That would be contrary to all law and order, as established by these delicate perverters of the Hebrew Scriptures.
No; better far let the people starve; let the mortgages squeeze those who do not own; make the fair earth bestowed on man—to be cultivated, tended, and rendered fruitful—a waste howling desert, peopled by wild animals, for whose shooting, wealthy pelf-rakers from the centres of trade are ready to pay high rents. Next to our heaven-bestowed Poor Law, the Law of Entail, which binds the land to a name or a family, has been the greatest factor for evil in the national life of England. It has preserved our "institutions;" gives continuity to our history, men assert. Perish the people then, but hold fast to this sheet anchor. "It preserves scoundrels from justice, and the fate they have earned," by reformers. What of that? These men have the right to be abominable—you and I, the workers and the sweaters, the privilege only to bear their abominations.
It has always struck me, though, that the fetish machinery of the English Establishment is imperfect in one particular. While in actual fact all "lord" bishops, and most preachers therein, determinedly oppose whatsoever would emancipate the people from their bondage, the best of them never daring to strike boldly at the root of the evils that threaten England with extinction, that fill the land with misery, that huddle the bulk of our population into the fever dens of her cities—it has struck me, I say, that their liturgy is incomplete, almost hypocritical. A prayer like this should be inserted among the collects of the day, instead, say, of the collect for peace, which comes so ill from the lips of men whose ambition is usually to train some of their children as licensed men-slayers. Let the lawn-sleeved "lord" bishops look to it, then, and take this hint:—
"Sanctify might, O Lord, against right, and make it stronger and stronger. Bless iniquities in high places, and cause the hypocrisy of princes to be exalted in the eyes of the people. Protect the nobility and gentry in their harlotry, and let holiness be measured by the fineness of the garments. Grind the poor in their poverty, and cause them to pay that they owe not. And O Lord, we beseech Thee, suffer not the oppressed to have justice, lest they rise up against us and refuse to give us the tithes we have filched from the indignant. These things do, O Lord, and our lips shall praise Thee."
If you will honestly pray thus, serene "lord" bishops, much-wrangling, gorgeously-embroidered deans, vicars, and incumbents, you will earn the respect of honest men. Whatever you do, I beseech you go not on as you do now, lest the people should one day act. They think not a little even now.
Fare ye well, then, Cecil Wiseman, sham soldier, horse racer, blasphemer, drunkard, seducer, sot, farewell! The upper world "society" protects you, the Church shields you, nay, the priest must e'en bow when you abduct his daughter, and the very Jews themselves, wholesome scourge of your class though they be, cannot utterly ruin you—here. Go your ways—I leave you to God. What witness, think you, will that diseased body, that bloated face and hang-dog look of yours, bear against you in the judgment? In that day your very victims may pity you.
And has not the judgment already come on your mother—cast out, despised, lonely, poor as she is? Alone, she lives in her little jointure house at Kenilworth, white-haired, feeble, full of bitterness of spirit. All the glory of her life has gone. The meanest servant in Warwickshire may look down on her with commiseration. Your sins have torn what heart she had, and she begins to awake to the fact that the law of compensation, the dim foretaste of divine justice, can reach even such as she. To her likewise let us bid adieu.
The closing years of Thomas Wanless's life were years of peace. His strength never came back to him after his daughter's death. Indeed, all the summer that followed it he was beaten down by his old complaint rheumatism, but there was no dread of the workhouse and the pauper's grave upon him now. His boy, Thomas the younger, was prospering in the New World, where landlordism had not yet grown a curse, and insisted on sharing his modest wealth with his parents. Had the old man been well he would probably have sturdily refused this help, but as things were he bowed his head and took what God had given, thankful to his son, thankful to Heaven, and rejoicing above all things that his boy—his three children that remained—were delivered from the life that he himself had led. But what would his end have been save for this assistance? Assuredly a pauper's. Nothing could have saved him from that fate. The doom of the labourer is written. It is part of the recognised glory of the English constitution that he shall die in misery as he lives; that if he becomes disabled, his shall be the pauper's dole.
The prosperity of young Thomas rendered Thomas and his wife less reluctant to let their other children go to Australia. They clung to them, of course, and would have fain kept them, as it were, within sight.
Old Mrs. Wanless was heart-broken at the thought of losing Jane, but she bore her sorrow and made no complaint, when her husband, his own heart torn with grief, said—"Let the lass go. There is hope for her and her husband yonder. Here there is none." Jane therefore married her young gardener in the autumn of the year of Sarah's death, and went away to join young Thomas in Victoria. And the soldier-boy, Jacob, went with them. His time of soldiering was not ended, but his brother Thomas bought him off, and assisted them all to go to the new country. Jacob was the labourer's prodigal son, and was loved accordingly. While he soldiered his parents hardly ever saw him, but he spent a couple of weeks at home before setting sail for Australia; and then the strength of his nature, its likeness to that of his father, and the trials he had endured, brought the old man and him very near to each other. Thus the wrench of parting was keenest for old Thomas in his case, because the joy had been but a flash of light in a dark existence.
"I will never see your face again," the old man said to his children the last Sunday evening they passed together. "To your mother and me this parting will be bitterer than death, because you will live, and we will never hear your voices nor see you more in this world."
"Oh, father, do not say that," sobbed Jane; "you and mother will come out to Australia to us, and we'll all live together and be so happy."
"No, my dear, that will never be. Mother and me are too old to move now. We will stay behind and pray for you. The time will not be long, and we have hope. Be brave, my children, and be God-fearing, and, I doubt not, we shall meet in a better world than this."
In this spirit they parted, and henceforth old Thomas Wanless and his wife were left alone with only the little child that Sarah had bequeathed to them—alone, but not miserable. As the keen edge of sorrow blunted, the old people went about the daily avocations as before, serene in appearance, if often sad in spirit. Thomas never worked again as he had been doing before he went to London, but he became strong enough to tend his garden and his allotment carefully, and to do frequent light jobs for the Scotch tenant of Whitbury farm, whose friend he became. He was thus living almost up to the time when I first made his acquaintance.
Then, as his strength of body failed, his mind, as it seemed to me, grew keener, broader, and more penetrating. He read much, and watched with close interest the ebb and flow of home politics, looking ever for the dawn of a better day for the tillers of the soil. When the Warwickshire labourers broke out in assertion of their right to live, he hailed the event as an omen of better times. Too wise a man to be carried away by the notion that single-handed the unlettered, miserable poor could turn the world upside down, he nevertheless viewed these stirrings among the dry bones as the beginning of great changes. "I shall not live to see the land in the hands of those who till it," he would say, "but I can die in hope now. England will after all be free, and the people will have their own again. Thank God."
This belief cheered his last years, and added to the joy of his death. He died in peace with all men, long indeed, ere his hopes for his fellow-men had seen fruition, but to the last he declared that it was coming, that blessed revolution when State Churches should be no more, and squires, and fox-hunters, and game preservers, and all the social abominations that ground the poor to the dust would be shaken off and left far behind in the progress of the nation.
Three years have come and gone since I stood by the side of Thomas Wanless's eldest son at his death-bed, and by his grave. He almost died of the joy he felt at seeing that son once more, when he had given him to God as one gives the dead. A paralytic stroke seized him within a few hours of young Thomas's arrival, and he never fully recovered his faculties. Within a fortnight a second stroke carried him off, and all the village mourned. His son and I, surrounded by many mourners, laid him to rest in the old churchyard beside his children, among his forgotten forefathers. There now, to be equally forgotten, lay squire, and parson, and parson's wife, all peacefully sleeping, life's fever over, its jealousies and petty dignities laid aside for evermore.
And Mrs. Wanless waits still, attended by her grandchild, young Sarah, now a bright, intelligent, well-educated young woman. When her grandmother joins Thomas in the last rest of all, she will be taken across the ocean to these warm-hearted friends far away, and then the old land will never more see aught of this sturdy peasant stock. But our statesmen think it a blessing they should go.
Obvious punctuation errors repaired.
Hyphen added: "ditch[-]cutting" (p. 49), "broken[-]hearted" (p. 72), "well[-]nigh" (p. 171).
Hyphen removed: "house[-]wife" (p. 15), "ear[-]shot" (p. 58), "dumb[-]founded" (p. 62), "common[-]place" (p. 120), "now[-]a[-]days" (p. 194), "man[-]kind" (p. 197), "dead[-]house" (p. 210), "out[-]cast" (p. 219).
p. 2: "tatooed" changed to "tattooed" (our tattooed ancestors)>
p. 27: "enthusiam" changed to "enthusiasm" (the feverish enthusiasm of inexperience).
p. 27: "portentiously" changed to "portentously" (shook their heads portentously).
p. 34: "meeeting" changed to "meeting" (the meeting was to be held).
p. 35: "wizzened" changed to "wizened" (Grey wizened faces).
p. 41: "diarymaid" changed to "dairymaid" (the dairymaid will marry).
p. 59: "famalies" changed to "families" (the pleasure their families would have).
p. 85: "of of" changed to "of" (sobriquet of Methody Tom).
p. 91: "upheavel" changed to "upheaval" (that curious upheaval).
p. 96: "possibilites" changed to "possibilities" (did not consider these possibilities).
p. 100: "Calvanistic" changed to "Calvinistic".
p. 136: "opportunites" changed to "opportunities" (contrived that his opportunities).
p. 139: "exited" changed to "excited" (her beauty excited envy).
p. 144: "Mrs. Wanlass" changed to "Mrs. Wanless".
p. 179: "thought" changed to "though" (weary though the old woman was).
p. 181: "charing" changed to "charring" (to go out charring).
p. 188: "ricketty" changed to "rickety" (rickety, filthy, old tenement).
p. 193: "Dury Lane" changed to "Drury Lane".
p. 203: "Waterleo Bridge" changed to "Waterloo Bridge".
p. 203: "mein" changed to "mien" (his obvious superiority of mien).
p. 220: "deil" changed to "devil" and "screached" changed to "screeched" ("What the devil do you want here?" he screeched).
p. 224: "desparing" changed to "despairing" (her despairing looks).
p. 237: "Jone" changed to "Jane".
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