"If it turns out a fine night, don't come for us. We will walk home," said the squire to the groom as they descended before the vicarage and Stamboul, who had sat on the floor between them, sprang down to the ground.
John was startled when he met Mrs. Goddard. He was amazed at the change in her appearance for which no one had prepared him. She met him indeed very cordially but he felt as though she were not the same woman he had known so short a time before. There was still in her face that delicate pathetic expression which had at first charmed him, there was still the same look in her eyes; but what had formerly seemed so attractive seemed now exaggerated. Her cheeks looked wan and hollow and there were deep shadows about her eyes and temples; her lips had lost their colour and the lines about her mouth had suddenly become apparent where John had not before suspected them. She looked ten years older as she put her thin hand in his and smiled pleasantly at his greeting. Some trite phrase about the "ravages of time" crossed John's mind and gave him a disagreeable sensation, for which it was hard to account. He felt as though his dream were suddenly dead and a strange reality had taken life in its place. Could this be she to whom he had written verses by the score, at whose smile he had swelled with pride, at whose careless laugh he had trembled with shame? She was terribly changed, she looked positively old—what John called old. As he sat by her side talking and wondering whether he would fall back into those same grooves of conversation he had associated with her formerly, he felt something akin to pity for her, which he had certainly never expected to feel. She was not the same as before—even the tone of her voice was different; she was gentle, pathetic, endowed even now with many charms, but she was not the woman he had dreamed of and tried to speak to of the love he fancied was in his heart. She talked—yes; but there were long pauses, and her eyes wandered strangely from him, often towards the windows of the vicarage drawing-room, often towards the doors; her answers were not always to the point and her interest seemed to flag in what was said. John could not fail to notice too that both Mr. Ambrose and Mr. Juxon treated her with the kind of attention which is bestowed upon invalids, and the vicar's wife was constantly doing something to make her comfortable, offering her a footstool, shading the light from her eyes, asking if she felt any draught where she sat. These were things no one had formerly thought of doing for Mrs. Goddard, who in spite of her sad face had been used to laugh merrily enough with the rest, and whose lithe figure had seemed to John the embodiment of youthful activity. At last he ventured to ask her a question.
"Have you been ill, Mrs. Goddard?" he inquired in a voice full of interest. Her soft eyes glanced uneasily at him. He was now the only one of the party who was not in some degree acquainted with her troubles.
"Oh no!" she answered nervously. "Only a little headache. It always makes me quite wretched when I have it."
"Yes. I often have headaches, too," answered John. "The squire told me as we came down."
"What did he tell you?" asked Mrs. Goddard so quickly as to startle her companion.
"Oh—only that you had not been very well. Where is it that you suffer?" he asked sympathetically. "I think it is worst when it seems to be in the very centre of one's head, like a red-hot nail being driven in with a hammer—is that like what you feel?"
"I—yes, I daresay. I don't quite know," she answered, her eyes wandering uneasily about the room. "I suppose you have dreadful headaches over your work, do you not, Mr. Short?" she added quickly, feeling that she must say something.
"Oh, it is all over now," said John rather proudly. But as he leaned back in his chair he said to himself that this meeting was not precisely what he had anticipated; the subject of headaches might have a fine interest in its way, but he had expected to have talked of more tender things. To his own great surprise he felt no desire to do so, however. He had not recovered from the shock of seeing that Mrs. Goddard had grown old.
"Yes," said she, kindly. "How glad you must be! To have done so splendidly too—you must feel that you have realised a magnificent dream."
"No," said John. "I cannot say I do. I have done the thing I meant to do, or I have good reason to believe that I have; but I have not realised my dream. I shall never write any more odes, Mrs. Goddard."
"Why not? Oh, you mean to me, Mr. Short?" she added with something of her old manner. "Well, you know, it is much better that you should not."
"Perhaps so," answered John rather sadly. "I don't know. Frankly, Mrs. Goddard, did not you sometimes think I was very foolish last Christmas?"
"Very," she said, smiling at him kindly. "But I think you have changed. I think you are more of a man, now—you have something more serious—"
"I used to think I was very serious, and so I was," said John, with the air of a man who refers to the follies of his long past youth. "Do you remember how angry I was when you wanted me to skate with Miss Nellie?"
"Oh, I only said that to teaze you," Mrs. Goddard answered. "I daresay you would be angry now, if I suggested the same thing."
"No," said John quietly. "I do not believe I should be. As you say, I feel very much older now than I did then."
"The older we grow the more we like youth," said Mary Goddard, unconsciously uttering one of the fundamental truths of human nature, and at the same time so precisely striking the current of John's thoughts that he started. He was wondering within himself why it was that she now seemed too old for him, whereas a few short months ago she had seemed to be of his own age.
"How true that is!" he exclaimed. Mrs. Goddard laughed faintly.
"You are not old enough to have reached that point yet, Mr. Short," she said. "Really, here we are moralising like a couple of old philosophers!"
"This is a moralising season," answered John. "When we last met, it was all holly-berries and Christmas and plum-pudding."
"How long ago that seems!" exclaimed the poor lady with a sigh.
"Ages!" echoed John, sighing in his turn, but not so much for sadness, it may be, as from relief that the great struggle was over. That time of anxiety and terrible effort seemed indeed very far removed from him, but its removal was a cause of joy rather than of sadness. He sighed like a man who, sitting over his supper, remembers the hard fought race he has won in the afternoon, feeling yet in his limbs the ability to race and win again but feeling in his heart the delicious consciousness that the question of his superiority has been decided beyond all dispute.
"And now you will stay here a long time, of course," said Mrs. Goddard presently.
"I am stopping at the Hall, just now," said John with a distinct sense of the importance of the fact, "and after a week I shall stay here a few days. Then I shall go to London to see my father."
"No one will be so glad as he to hear of your success."
"No indeed. I really think it is more for his sake that I want to be actually first," said John. "Do you know, I have so often thought how he will look when I meet him and tell him I am the senior classic."
John's voice trembled and as Mrs. Goddard looked at him, she thought she saw a moisture in his eyes. It pleased her to see it, for it showed that John Short had more heart than she had imagined.
"I can fancy that," she said, warmly. "I envy you that moment."
Presently the squire came over to where they were sitting and joined them; and then Mrs. Ambrose spoke to John, and Nellie came and asked him questions. Strange to say John felt none of that annoyance which he formerly felt when his conversations with Mrs. Goddard were interrupted, and he talked with Nellie and Mrs. Ambrose quite as readily as with her. He felt very calm and happy that night, as though he had done with the hard labour of life. In half an hour he had realised that he was no more in love with Mrs. Goddard than he was with Mrs. Ambrose, and he was trying to explain to himself how it was that he had ever believed in such a palpable absurdity. Love was doubtless blind, he thought, but he was surely not so blind as to overlook the evidences of Mrs. Goddard's age. All the dreams of that morning faded away before the sight of her face, and so deep is the turpitude of the best of human hearts that John was almost ashamed of having once thought he loved her. That was probably the best possible proof that his love had been but a boyish fancy.
What the little party at the vicarage would have been like, if John's presence had not animated it, would be hard to say. The squire and Mr. Ambrose treated Mrs. Goddard with the sort of paternal but solemn care which is usually bestowed either upon great invalids or upon persons bereaved of some very dear relation. The two elder men occasionally looked at her and exchanged glances when they were not observed by Mrs. Ambrose, wondering perhaps what would next befall the unfortunate lady and whether she could bear much more of the excitement and anxiety to which she had of late been subjected. On the whole the conversation was far from being lively, and Mrs. Goddard herself felt that it was a relief when the hour came for going home.
The vicar had ordered his dog-cart for her and Nellie, but as the night had turned out better than had been expected Mr. Juxon's groom had not come down from the Hall. Both he and John would be glad of the walk; it had not rained for two days and the roads were dry.
"Look here," said the squire, as they rose to take their leave, "Mr. Short had better go as far as the cottage in the dog-cart, to see Mrs. Goddard home. I will go ahead on foot—I shall probably be there as soon as you. There is not room for us all, and somebody must go with her, you know. Besides," he added, "I have got Stamboul with me."
Mrs. Goddard, who was standing beside the squire, laid her hand beseechingly upon his arm.
"Oh, pray don't," she said in low voice. "Why have you not got your carriage?"
"Never mind me," he answered in the same tone. "I am all right, I like to walk."
Before she could say anything more, he had shaken hands with Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose and was gone. Perhaps in his general determination to be good to everybody he fancied that John would enjoy the short drive with Mrs. Goddard better than the walk with himself.
But when he was gone, Mrs. Goddard grew very nervous. One of her wraps could not be found, and while search was being made for it the motherly Mrs. Ambrose insisted upon giving her something hot, in the way of brandy and water. She looked very ill, but showed the strongest desire to go. It was no matter about the shawl, she said; Mr. Ambrose could send it in the morning; but the thing was found and at last Mrs. Goddard and Nellie and John got into the dog-cart with old Reynolds and drove off. All these things consumed some time.
The squire on the other hand strode briskly forward towards the cottage, not wishing to keep John waiting for him. As he walked his mind wandered back to the consideration of the almost tragic events which were occurring in the peaceful village. He forgot all about John, as he looked up at the half moon which struggled to give some light through the driving clouds; he fell to thinking of Mrs. Goddard and to wondering where her husband might be lying hidden. The road was lonely and he walked fast, with Stamboul close at his heel. The dog-cart did not overtake him before he reached the cottage, and he forgot all about it. By sheer force of habit he opened the white gate and, closing it behind him, entered the park alone.
John's impression of Mrs. Goddard was strengthened by the scene at the vicarage at the moment of leaving. The extraordinary nervousness she betrayed, the anxiety for her welfare shown by Mrs. Ambrose and the grave face of the vicar all favoured the idea that she had become an invalid since he had last met her. He himself fell into the manner of those about him and spoke in low tones and moved delicately as though fearing to offend her sensitive nerves. The vicar alone understood the situation and had been very much surprised at the squire's sudden determination to walk home; he would gladly have seized his hat and run after his friend, but he feared Mrs. Ambrose's curiosity and moreover on reflection felt sure that the dog-cart would overtake Mr. Juxon before he was half way to the cottage. He was very far from suspecting him of the absence of mind which he actually displayed, but it was a great relief to him to see the little party safe in the dog-cart and on the way homeward.
Mrs. Goddard was on the front seat with old Reynolds, and John, who would have preferred to sit by her side a few months ago, was glad to find himself behind with Nellie. It was a curious instinct, but he felt it strongly and was almost grateful to the old man for stolidly keeping his seat. So he sat beside Nellie and talked to her, to the child's intense delight; she had not enjoyed the evening very much, for she felt the general sense of oppression as keenly as children always feel such things, and she had long exhausted the slender stock of illustrated books which lay upon the table in the vicarage drawing-room.
"There is no more skating now," said John. "What do you do to amuse yourselves?"
"I am studying history with mamma," answered Nellie, "and that takes ever so much time, you know. And then—oh, we are beginning to think of the spring, and we look after the violet plants in the frames."
"It does not feel much like spring," remarked John.
"No—and mamma has not been well lately, so we have not done much of anything."
"Has she been ill long?" asked John.
"No—oh no! Only the last two or three days, ever since—" Nellie stopped herself. Her mother had told her not to mention the tramp's visit.
"Ever since when?" asked John, becoming suddenly interested.
"Ever since the last time the Ambroses came to tea," said Nellie with a readiness beyond her years. "But she looks dreadfully, does not she?"
"Dreadfully," answered John. Then, leaning back and turning his head he spoke to Mrs. Goddard. "I hope you are quite warm enough?" he said.
"Quite—thanks," answered she, but her voice sounded tremulous in the night. It might have been the shaking of the dog-cart. In a few minutes they drew up before the door of the cottage. John sprang to the ground and almost lifted Mrs. Goddard from the high seat.
"Where is Mr. Juxon?" she asked anxiously.
John looked round, peering into the gloom. A black cloud driven by the strong east wind was passing over the moon, and for some moments it was almost impossible to see anything. The squire was nowhere to be seen. John turned and helped Nellie off the back seat of the dog-cart.
"I am afraid we must have passed him," he said quietly. Formerly Mrs. Goddard's tone of anxiety as she asked for the squire would have roused John's resentment; he now thought nothing of it. Reynolds prepared to move off.
"Won't you please wait a moment, Reynolds?" said Mrs. Goddard, going close to the old man. She could not have told why she asked him to stay, it was a nervous impulse.
"Why?" asked John. "You know I am going to the Hall."
"Yes, of course. I only thought, perhaps, you and Mr. Juxon would like to drive up—it is so dark. I am sure Mr. Ambrose would not mind you taking the gentlemen up to the Hall, Reynolds?"
"No m'm. I'm quite sure as he wouldn't," exclaimed Reynolds with great alacrity. He immediately had visions of a pint of beer in the Hall kitchen.
"You do not think Mr. Juxon may have gone on alone, Mr. Short?" said Mrs. Goddard, leaning upon the wicket gate. Her face looked very pale in the gloom.
"No—at would be very odd if he did," replied John, who had his hands in his greatcoat pockets and slowly stamped one foot after another on the hard ground, to keep himself warm.
"Then we must have passed him on the road," said Mrs. Goddard. "But I was so sure I saw nobody—"
"I think he will come presently," answered John in a reassuring tone. "Why do you wait, Mrs. Goddard? You must be cold, and it is dangerous for you to be out here. Don't wait, Reynolds," he added; "we will walk up."
"Oh please don't," cried Mrs. Goddard, imploringly.
John looked at her in some surprise. The cloud suddenly passed from before the moon and he could see her anxious upturned face quite plainly. He could not in the least understand the cause of her anxiety, but he supposed her nervousness was connected with her indisposition. Reynolds on his part, being anxious for beer, showed no disposition to move, but sat with stolid indifference, loosely holding the reins while Strawberry, the old mare, hung down her head and stamped from time to time in a feeble and antiquated fashion. For some minutes there was total silence. Not a step was to be heard upon the road, not a sound of any kind, save the strong east wind rushing past the cottage and losing itself among the withered oaks of the park opposite.
Suddenly a deep and bell-mouthed note resounded through the air. Strawberry started in the shafts and trembled violently.
"Stamboul! Stamboul!" The squire's ringing voice was heard far up the park. The bloodhound's distant baying suddenly ceased. John thought he heard a fainter cry, inarticulate, and full of distress, through the sighing wind. Then there was silence again. Mrs. Goddard leaned back against the wicket gate, and Nellie, startled by the noises, pressed close to her mother's side.
"Why—he has gone up the park!" exclaimed John in great surprise. "He was calling to his dog—"
"Oh, Mr. Short!" cried Mrs. Goddard in agonised tones, as soon as she could speak, "I am sure something dreadful has happened—do go. Mr. Short—do go and see—"
Something of the extreme alarm that sounded in her voice seized upon John.
"Stay with Mrs. Goddard, Reynolds," he said quickly and darted across the road towards the park gate. John was strong and active. He laid his hands upon the highest rails and vaulted lightly over, then ran at the top of his speed up the dark avenue.
Mr. Juxon, in his absence of mind, had gone through the gate alone, swinging his blackthorn stick in his hand, Stamboul stalking at his heel in the gloom. He was a fearless man and the presence of John during the afternoon had completely dissolved that nervous presentiment of evil he had felt before his guest's coming. But in the short walk of scarcely half a mile, from the vicarage to the cottage, his thoughts had become entirely absorbed in considering Mrs. Goddard's strange position, and for the moment John was quite forgotten. He entered the park and the long iron latch of the wooden gate fell into its socket behind him with a sharp click. Mr. Juxon walked quickly on and Stamboul trod noiselessly behind him. At about a hundred yards from the gate the avenue turned sharply to the right, winding about a little elevation in the ground, where the trees stood thicker than elsewhere. As he came towards this hillock the strong east wind blew sharply behind him. Had the wind been in the opposite direction, Stamboul's sharp nostrils would have scented danger. As it was he gave no sign but stalked solemnly at the squire's heels. The faint light of the half moon was obscured at that moment, as has been seen, by a sweeping cloud. The squire turned to the right and tramped along the hard road.
At the darkest spot in the way a man sprang out suddenly before him and struck a quick blow at his head with something heavy. But it was very dark. The blow was aimed at his head, but fell upon the heavy padded frieze of his ulster greatcoat, grazing the brim of his hat as it passed and knocking it off his head. Mr. Juxon staggered and reeled to one side. At the same instant—it all happened in the space of two seconds, Stamboul sprang past his master and his bulk, striking the squire at the shoulder just as he was staggering from the blow he had received, sent him rolling into the ditch; by the same cause the hound's direction as he leaped was just so changed that he missed his aim and bounded past the murderer into the darkness. Before the gigantic beast could recover himself and turn to spring again, Walter Goddard, who had chanced never to see Stamboul and little suspected his presence, leaped the ditch and fled rapidly through the dark shadow. But death was at his heels. Before the squire, who was very little hurt, could get upon his feet, the bloodhound had found the scent and, uttering his deep-mouthed baying note, sprang upon the track of the flying man. Mr. Juxon got across the ditch and followed him into the gloom.
"Stamboul! Stamboul!" he roared as he ran. But before he had gone thirty yards he heard a heavy fall. The hound's cry ceased and a short scream broke the silence.
A moment later the squire was dragging the infuriated animal from the prostrate body of Walter Goddard. Stamboul had tasted blood; it was no easy matter to make him relinquish his prey. The cloud passed from the moon, driven before the blast, and a ray of light fell through the trees upon the scene. Juxon stood wrestling with his hound, holding to his heavy collar with both hands with all his might. He dared not let go for an instant, well knowing that the frenzied beast would tear his victim limb from limb. But Juxon's hands were strong, and though Stamboul writhed and his throat rattled he could not free himself. The squire glanced at the body of the fallen man, just visible in the flickering moonlight. Walter Goddard lay quite still upon his back. If he was badly wounded it was not possible to say where the wound was.
It was a terrible moment. Mr. Juxon felt that he could not leave the man thus, not knowing whether he were alive or dead; and yet while all his strength was exerted to the full in controlling the bloodhound, it was impossible to approach a step nearer. He was beginning to think that he should be obliged to take Stamboul to the Hall and return again to the scene of the disaster.
"Mr. Juxon! Juxon! Juxon!" John was shouting as he ran up the park.
"This way! look sharp!" yelled the squire, foreseeing relief. John's quick footsteps rang on the hard road. The squire called again and in a moment the young man had joined him and stood horror-struck at what he saw.
"Don't touch the dog!" cried the squire. "Don't come near him, I say!" he added as John came forward. "There—there has been an accident, Mr. Short," he added in calmer tones. "Would you mind seeing if the fellow is alive?"
John was too much startled to say anything, but he went and knelt down by Goddard's body and looked into his face.
"Feel his pulse," said the squire. "Listen at his heart." To him it seemed a very simple matter to ascertain whether a man were alive or dead. But John was nervous; he had never seen a dead man in his life and felt that natural repulsion to approaching death which is common to all living creatures. There was no help for it, however, and he took Walter Goddard's limp hand in his and tried to find his pulse; he could not distinguish any beating. The hand fell nerveless to the ground.
"I think he is dead," said John very softly, and he rose to his feet and drew back a little way from the body.
"Then just wait five minutes for me, if you do not mind," said Mr. Juxon, and he turned away dragging the reluctant and still struggling Stamboul by his side.
John shuddered when he was left alone. It was indeed a dismal scene enough. At his feet lay Walter Goddard's body, faintly illuminated by the struggling moonbeams; all around and overhead the east wind was howling and whistling and sighing in the dry oak branches, whirling hither and thither the few brown leaves that had clung to their hold throughout the long winter; the sound of the squire's rapidly retreating footsteps grew more faint in the distance; John felt that he was alone and was very uncomfortable. He would have liked to go back to the cottage and tell Mrs. Goddard of what had happened, and that Mr. Juxon was safe; but he thought the squire might return and find that he had left his post and accuse him of cowardice. He drew back from the man's body and sheltered himself from the wind, leaning against the broad trunk of an old oak tree. He had not stood thus many minutes when he heard the sound of wheels upon the hard road. It might be Mrs. Goddard, he thought. With one more glance at the prostrate body, he turned away and hurried through the trees towards the avenue. The bright lamps of the dog-cart were almost close before him. He shouted to Reynolds.
"Whoa, January!" ejaculated that ancient functionary as he pulled up Strawberry close to John Short. Why the natives of Essex and especially of Billingsfield habitually address their beasts of burden as "January" is a matter best left to the discrimination of philologers; obedient to the familiar words however, Strawberry stood still in the middle of the road. John could see that Mrs. Goddard was seated by the side of Reynolds but that Nellie was not in the cart.
"Oh, Mrs. Goddard, is that you?" said John. "Mr. Juxon will be here in a moment. Don't be frightened—he is not hurt in the least; awfully bad luck for the tramp, though!"
"The tramp?" repeated Mrs. Goddard with a faint cry of horror.
"Yes," said John, whose spirits rose wonderfully in the light of the dog-cart lamps. "There was a poor tramp hanging about the park—poaching, very likely—and Mr. Juxon's dog got after him, somehow, I suppose. I do not know how it happened, but when I came up—oh! here is Mr. Juxon himself—he will tell you all about it."
The squire came up in breathless haste, having locked Stamboul into the house.
"Good Heavens! Mrs. Goddard!" he ejaculated in a tone of profound surprise. But Mrs. Goddard gave no answer. The squire sprang upon the step and looked closely at her. She lay back against old Reynolds's shoulder, very pale, with her eyes shut. It was evident that she had fainted. The old man seemed not to comprehend what had happened; he had never experienced the sensation of having a lady leaning upon his shoulder, and he looked down at her with a half idiotic smile on his deeply furrowed face.
"She's took wuss, sir," he remarked. "She was all for comin' up the park as soon as Master John was gone. She warn't feelin' herself o' no account t' evenin'."
"Look here, Mr. Short," said the squire decisively. "I must ask you to take Mrs. Goddard home again and call her women to look after her. I fancy she will come to herself before long. Do you mind?"
"Not in the least," said John cheerfully, mounting at the back of the dog-cart.
"And—Reynolds—bring Mr. Short back to the Hall immediately, please, and you shall have some beer."
"All right, sir."
John supported the fainting lady with one arm, turning round upon his seat at the back. Old Strawberry wheeled quickly in her tracks and trotted down the avenue under the evident impression that she was going home. Mr. Juxon dashed across the ditch again to the place where Walter Goddard had fallen.
The squire knelt down and tried to ascertain the extent of the man's injuries; as far as he could see there was a bad wound at his throat, and one hand was much mangled. But there seemed to have been no great flow of blood. He tore open the smock-frock and shirt and put his ear to the heart. Faintly, very faintly, he could hear it beat. Walter Goddard was alive still—alive to live for years perhaps, the squire reflected; to live in a prison, it was true, but to live. To describe his feelings in that moment would be impossible. Had he found the convict dead, it would be useless to deny that he would have felt a very great satisfaction, tempered perhaps by some pity for the wretched man's miserable end, but still very great. It would have seemed such a just end, after all; to be killed in the attempt to kill, and to have died not by the squire's hand but by the sharp strong jaws of the hound who had once before saved the squire's life. But he was alive. It would not take much to kill him; a little pressure on his wounded throat would be enough. Even to leave him there, uncared for, till morning in the bleak wind, lying upon the cold ground, would be almost certain to put an end to his life. But to the honour of Charles James Juxon be it said that such thoughts never crossed his mind. He pulled off his heavy ulster greatcoat, wrapped it about the felon's insensible body, then, kneeling, raised up his head and shoulders, got his strong arms well round him and with some difficulty rose to his feet. Once upright, it was no hard matter to carry his burthen through the trees to the road, and up the avenue to his own door.
"Holmes," said Mr. Juxon to his butler, "this man is badly hurt, but he is alive. Help me to carry him upstairs."
There was that in the squire's voice which brooked neither question nor delay when he was in earnest. The solemn butler took Walter Goddard by the feet and the squire took him by the shoulders; so they carried him up to a bedroom and laid him down, feeling for the bed in the dark as they moved. Holmes then lit a candle with great calmness.
"Shall I send for the medical man, sir?" he asked quietly.
"Yes. Send the gig as fast as possible. If he is not at home, or cannot be found, send on to the town. If anybody asks questions say the man is a tramp who attacked me in the park and Stamboul pulled him down. Send at once, and bring me some brandy and light the fire here."
"Yes, sir," said Holmes, and left the room.
Mr. Juxon lighted other candles and examined the injured man. There was now no doubt that he was alive. He breathed faintly but regularly; his pulse beat less rapidly and more firmly. His face was deadly pale and very thin, and his half-opened eyes stared unconsciously upwards, but they were not glazed nor death-like. He seemed to have lost little blood, comparatively speaking.
"Bah!" ejaculated the squire. "I believe he is only badly frightened, after all."
Holmes brought brandy and warm water and again left the room. Mr. Juxon bathed Goddard's face and neck with a sponge, eying him suspiciously all the while. It would not have surprised him at any moment if he had leaped from the bed and attempted to escape. To guard against surprise, the squire locked the door and put the key in his pocket, watching the convict to see whether he noticed the act or was really unconscious. But Goddard never moved nor turned his motionless eyeballs. Mr. Juxon returned to his side, and with infinite care began to remove his clothes. They were almost in rags. He examined each article, and was surprised to find money in the pockets, amounting to nearly sixty pounds; then he smiled to himself, remembering that the convict had visited his wife and had doubtless got the money from her to aid him in his escape. He put the notes and gold carefully together in a drawer after counting them, and returning to his occupation succeeded at last in putting Goddard to bed, after staunching his wounds as well as he could with handkerchiefs.
He stood long by the bedside, watching the man's regular breathing, and examining his face attentively. Many strange thoughts passed through his mind, as he stood there, looking at the man who had caused such misery to himself, such shame and sorrow to his fair wife, such disappointment to the honest man who was now trying to save him from the very grasp of death. So this was Mary Goddard's husband, little Nellie's father—this grimy wretch, whose foul rags lay heaped there in the corner, whose miserable head pressed the spotless linen of the pillow, whose half-closed eyes stared up so senselessly at the squire's face. This was the man for whose sake Mary Goddard started and turned pale, fainted and grew sick, languished and suffered so much pain. No wonder she concealed it from Nellie—no wonder she had feared lest after many years he should come back and claim her for his wife—no wonder either that a man with such a face should do bad deeds.
Mr. Juxon was a judge of faces; persons accustomed for many years to command men usually are. He noted Walter Goddard's narrow jaw and pointed chin, his eyes set near together, his wicked lips, parted and revealing sharp jagged teeth, his ill-shaped ears and shallow temples, his flat low forehead, shown off by his cropped hair. And yet this man had once been called handsome, he had been admired and courted. But then his hair had hidden the shape of his head, his long golden moustache had covered his mouth and disguised all his lower features, he had been arrayed by tailors of artistic merit, and he had had much gold in his pockets. He was a very different object now—the escaped convict, close cropped, with a half-grown beard upon his ill-shaped face, and for all ornament a linen sheet drawn up under his chin.
The squire was surprised that he did not recover consciousness, seeing that he breathed regularly and was no longer so pale as at first. A faint flush seemed to rise to his sunken cheeks, and for a long time Mr. Juxon stood beside him, expecting every moment that he would speak. Once he thought his lips moved a little. Then Mr. Juxon took a little brandy in a spoon and raising his head poured it down his throat. The effect was immediate. Goddard opened wide his eyes, the blood mounted to his cheeks with a deep flush, and he uttered an inarticulate sound.
"What did you say?" asked the squire, bending over him.
But there was no answer. The sick man's head fell back upon the pillow, though his eyes remained wide open and the flush did not leave his cheeks. His pulse was now very high, and his breathing grew heavy and stertorous.
"I hope I have not made him any worse," remarked Mr. Juxon aloud, as he contemplated his patient. "But if he is going to die, I wish he would die now."
The thought was charitable, on the whole. If Walter Goddard died then and there, he would be buried in a nameless grave under the shadow of the old church; no one would ever know that he was the celebrated forger, the escaped convict, the husband of Mary Goddard. If he lived—heaven alone knew what complications would follow if he lived.
There was a knock at the door. Mr. Juxon drew the key from his pocket and opened it. Holmes the butler stood outside.
"Mr. Short has come back, sir. He asked if you wished to see him."
"Ask him to come here," replied the squire, to whom the tension of keeping his solitary watch was becoming very irksome. In a few moments John entered the room, looking pale and nervous.
John Short was in absolute ignorance of what was occurring. He attributed Mrs. Goddard's anxiety to her solicitude for Mr. Juxon, and if he had found time to give the matter serious consideration, he would have argued very naturally that she was fond of the squire. It had been less easy than the latter had supposed to take her home and persuade her to stay there, for she was in a state in which she hardly understood reason. Nothing but John's repeated assurances to the effect that Mr. Juxon was not in the least hurt, and that he would send her word of the condition of the wounded tramp, prevailed upon her to remain at the cottage; for she had come back to consciousness before the dog-cart was fairly out of the park and had almost refused to enter her own home.
The catastrophe had happened, after eight and forty hours of suspense, and her position was one of extreme fear and doubt. She had indeed seen the squire at the very moment when she fainted, but the impression was uncertain as that of a dream, and it required all John's asseverations to persuade her that Mr. Juxon had actually met her and insisted that she should return to the cottage. Once there, in her own house, she abandoned herself to the wildest excitement, shutting herself into the drawing-room and refusing to see anyone; she gave way to all her sorrow and fear, feeling that if she controlled herself any longer she must go mad. Indeed it was the best thing she could do, for her nerves were overstrained, and the hysterical weeping which now completely overpowered her for some time, was the natural relief to her overwrought system. She had not the slightest doubt that the tramp of whom John had spoken, and whom he had described as badly hurt, was her husband; and together with her joy at Mr. Juxon's escape, she felt an intolerable anxiety to know Walter's fate. If in ordinary circumstances she had been informed that he had died in prison, it would have been absurd to expect her to give way to any expressions of excessive grief; she would perhaps have shed a few womanly tears and for some time she would have been more sad than usual; but she no longer loved him and his death could only be regarded as a release from all manner of trouble and shame and evil foreboding. With his decease would have ended her fears for poor Nellie, her apprehensions for the future in case he should return and claim her, the whole weight of her humiliation, and if she was too kind to have rejoiced over such a termination of her woes, she was yet too sensible not to have fully understood and appreciated the fact of her liberation and of the freedom given to the child she loved, by the death of a father whose return could bring nothing but disgrace. But now she did not know whether Walter were alive or dead. If he was alive he was probably so much injured as to preclude all possibility of his escaping, and he must inevitably be given up to justice, no longer to imprisonment merely, but by his own confession to suffer the death of a murderer. If on the other hand he was already dead, he had died a death less shameful indeed, but of which the circumstances were too horrible for his wife to contemplate, for he must have been torn to pieces by Stamboul the bloodhound.
She unconsciously comprehended all these considerations, which entirely deprived her of the power to weigh them in her mind, for her mind was temporarily loosed from all control of the reasoning faculty. She had borne much during the last three days, but she could bear no more; intellect and sensibility were alike exhausted and gave way together. There were indeed moments, intervals in the fits of hysteric tears and acute mental torture, when she lay quite still in her chair and vaguely asked herself what it all meant, but her disturbed consciousness gave no answer to the question, and presently her tears broke out afresh and she tossed wildly from side to side, or walked hurriedly up and down the room, wringing her hands in despair, sobbing aloud in her agony and again abandoning herself to the uncontrolled exaggerations of her grief and terror. One consolation alone presented itself at intervals to her confused intelligence; Mr. Juxon was safe. Whatever other fearful thing had happened, he was safe, saved perhaps by her warning—but what was that, if Walter had escaped death only to die at the hands of the hangman, or had found it in the jaws of that fearful bloodhound? What was the safety even of her best friend, if poor Nellie was to know that her father was alive, only to learn that he was to die again?
But human suffering cannot outlast human strength; as a marvellous adjustment of forces has ordered that even at the pole, in the regions of boundless and perpetual cold, the sea shall not freeze to the bottom, so there is also in human nature a point beyond which suffering cannot extend. The wildest emotions must expend themselves in time, the fiercest passions must burn out. At the end of two hours Mary Goddard was exhausted by the vehemence of her hysteric fear, and woke as from a dream to a dull sense of reality. She knew, now that some power of reflection was restored to her, that the squire would give her intelligence of what had happened, so soon as he was able, and she knew also that she must wait until the morning before any such message could reach her. She took the candle from the table and went upstairs. Nellie was asleep, but her mother felt a longing to look at her again that night, not knowing what misery for her child the morrow might bring forth.
Nellie lay asleep in her bed, her rich brown hair plaited together and thrown back across the pillow. The long dark fringes of her eyelashes cast a shade upon the transparent colour of her cheek, and the light breath came softly through her parted lips. But as Mary Goddard looked she saw that there were still tears upon her lovely face and that the pillow was still wet. She had cried herself to sleep, for Martha had told her that her mother was very ill and would not see her that night; Nellie was accustomed to say her prayers at her mother's knee every evening before going to bed, she was used to having her mother smooth her pillow and kiss her and put out her light, leaving her with sweet words, to wake her with sweet words on the next morning, and to-night she had missed all this and had been told moreover that her mother was very ill and was acting very strangely. She had gone to bed and had cried herself to sleep, and the tears were still upon her cheeks. Shading the light carefully from the child's eyes, Mary Goddard bent down and kissed her forehead once and then feeling that her sorrow was rising again she turned and passed noiselessly from the room.
But Nellie was dreaming peacefully and knew nothing of her mother's visit; she slept on not knowing that scarcely a quarter of a mile away her own father, whom she had been taught to think of as dead, was lying at the Hall, wounded and unconscious while half the detectives in the kingdom were looking for him. Had Nellie known that, her sleep would have been little and her dreams few.
There was little rest at the Hall that night. When Reynolds had driven John back to the great house he found his way to the kitchen and got his beer, and he became at once a centre of interest, being overwhelmed with questions concerning the events of the evening. But he was able to say very little except that while waiting before the cottage he had heard strange noises from the park, that Master John had run up the avenue, that Mrs. Goddard had taken Miss Nellie into the house and had then insisted upon being driven towards the Hall, that they had met Master John and the squire and that Mrs. Goddard had been "took wuss."
Meanwhile John entered the room where Mr. Juxon was watching over Walter Goddard. John looked pale and nervous; he had not recovered from the unpleasant sensation of being left alone with what he believed to be a dead body, in the struggling moonlight and the howling wind. He was by no means timid by nature, but young nerves are not so tough as old ones and he had felt exceedingly uncomfortable. He stood a moment within the room, then glanced at the bed and started with surprise.
"Why—he is not dead after all!" he exclaimed, and going nearer he looked hard at Goddard's flushed face.
"No," said Mr. Juxon, "he is not dead. He may be dying for all I know. I have sent for the doctor."
"Was he much hurt?" asked John, still looking at the sick man. "He looks to me as though he were in a fever."
"He does not seem so badly hurt. I cannot make it out at all. At first I thought he was badly frightened, but I cannot bring him to consciousness. Perhaps he has a fever, as you say. This is a most unpleasant experience, Mr. Short—your first night at the Hall, too. Of course I am bound to look after the man, as Stamboul did the damage—it would have served him right if he had been killed. It was a villainous blow he gave me—I can feel it still. The moral of it is that one should always wear a thick ulster when one walks alone at night."
"I did not know he struck you," said John in some surprise.
"Jumped out of the copse at the turning and struck at me with a bludgeon," said Mr. Juxon. "Knocked my hat off, into the bargain, and then ran away with Stamboul after him. If I had not come up in time there would have been nothing left of him."
"I should say the dog saved your life," remarked John, much impressed by the squire's unadorned tale. "What object can the fellow have had in attacking you? Strange—his eyes are open, but he does not seem to understand us."
Mr. Juxon walked to the bedside and contemplated the sick man's features with undisguised disgust.
"You villain!" he said roughly. "Why don't you answer for yourself?" The man did not move, and the squire began to pace the room. John was struck by Mr. Juxon's tone: it was not like him, he thought, to speak in that way to a helpless creature. He could not understand it. There was a long silence, broken only by the heavy breathing of Goddard.
"Really, Mr. Short," said the squire at last, "I have no intention of keeping you up all night. The village doctor must have been out. It may be more than an hour before my man finds another."
"Never mind," said John quietly. "I will wait till he comes at all events. You may need me before it is over."
"Do you think he looks as if he were going to die?" asked the squire doubtfully, as he again approached the bedside.
"I don't know," answered John, standing on the other side. "I never saw any one die. He looks very ill."
"Very ill. I have seen many people die—but somehow I have a strong impression that this fellow will live."
"Let us hope so," said John.
"Well—" The squire checked himself. Probably the hope he would have expressed would not have coincided with that to which John had given utterance. "Well," he repeated, "I daresay he will. Mr. Short, are you at all nervous? Since you are so good as to say you will wait until the doctor comes, would you mind very much being left alone here for five minutes?"
"No," answered John, stoutly, "not in the least." To be left in a well-lighted room by the bedside of Walter Goddard, ill indeed, but alive and breathing vigorously, was very different from being requested to watch his apparently dead body out in the park under the moonlight.
With a word of thanks, the squire left the room, and hastened to his study, where he proceeded to write a note, as follows:—
"MY DEAR MR. AMBROSE—The man we were speaking of yesterday morning actually attacked me this evening. Stamboul worried him badly, but he is not dead. He is lying here, well cared for, and I have sent for the doctor. If convenient to you, would you come in the morning? I need not recommend discretion.—Sincerely yours,
"C.J. JUXON. N.B.—I am not hurt."
Having ascertained that Reynolds was still in the kitchen, the missive was given to the old man with an injunction to use all speed, as the vicar might be going to bed and the note was important.
John, meanwhile, being left alone sat down near the wounded man's bed and waited, glancing at the flushed face and staring eyes from time to time, and wondering whether the fellow would recover. The young scholar had been startled by all that had occurred, and his ideas wandered back to the beginning of the evening, scarcely realising that a few hours ago he had not met Mrs. Goddard, had not experienced a surprising change in his feelings towards her, had not witnessed the strange scene under the trees. It seemed as though all these things had occupied a week at the very least, whereas on that same afternoon he had been speculating upon his meeting with Mrs. Goddard, calling up her features to his mind as he had last seen them, framing speeches which when the meeting came he had not delivered, letting his mind run riot in the delicious anticipation of appearing before her in the light of a successful competitor for one of the greatest honours of English scholarship. And yet in a few hours all his feelings were changed, and to his infinite surprise, were changed without any suffering to himself; he knew well that, for some reason, Mrs. Goddard had lost the mysterious power of making him blush, and of sending strange thrills through his whole nature when he sat at her side; with some justice he attributed his new indifference to the extraordinary alteration in her appearance, whereby she seemed now so much older than himself, and he forthwith moralised upon the mutability of human affairs, with all the mental fluency of a very young man whose affairs are still extremely mutable. He fell to musing on the accident in the park, wondering how he would have acted in Mr. Juxon's place, wondering especially what object could have led the wretched tramp to attack the squire, wondering too at the very great anxiety shown by Mrs. Goddard.
As he sat by the bedside, the sick man suddenly moved and turning his eyes full upon John's face stared at him with a look of dazed surprise. He thrust out his wounded hand, bound up in a white handkerchief through which a little blood was slowly oozing, and to John's infinite surprise he spoke.
"Who are you?" he asked in a strange, mumbling voice, as though he had pebbles in his mouth.
John started forward in his chair and looked intently at Goddard's face.
"My name is Short," he answered mechanically. But the passing flash of intelligence was already gone, and Goddard's look became a glassy and idiotic stare. Still his lips moved. John came nearer and listened.
"Mary Goddard! Mary Goddard! Let me in!" said the sick man quite intelligibly, in spite of his uncertain tone. John uttered an exclamation of astonishment; his heart beat fast and he listened intently. The sick man mumbled inarticulate sounds; not another word could be distinguished. John looked for the bell, thinking that Mr. Juxon should be informed of the strange phenomenon at once; but before he could ring the squire himself entered the room, having finished and despatched his note to Mr. Ambrose.
"It is most extraordinary," said John. "He spoke just now—"
"What did he say?" asked Mr. Juxon very quickly.
"He said first, 'Who are you?' and then he said 'Mary Goddard, let me in!' Is it not most extraordinary? How in the world should he know about Mrs. Goddard?"
The squire turned a little pale and was silent for a moment. He had left John with the wounded man feeling sure that, for some time at least, the latter would not be likely to say anything intelligible.
"Most extraordinary!" he repeated presently. Then he looked at Goddard closely, and turned him again upon his back and put his injured hand beneath the sheet.
"Do you understand me? Do you know who I am?" he asked in a loud tone close to his ear.
But the unfortunate man gave no sign of intelligence, only his inarticulate mumbling grew louder though not more distinct. Mr. Juxon turned away impatiently.
"The fellow is in a delirium," he said. "I wish the doctor would come." He had hardly turned his back when the man spoke again.
"Mary Goddard!" he cried. "Let me in!"
"There!" said John. "The same words!"
Mr. Juxon shuddered, and looked curiously at his companion; then thrust his hands into his pockets and whistling softly walked about the room. John was shocked at what seemed in the squire a sort of indecent levity; he could not understand that his friend felt as though he should go mad.
Indeed the squire suffered intensely. The name of Mary Goddard, pronounced by the convict in his delirium brought home more vividly than anything could have done the relation between the wounded tramp and the woman the squire loved. It was positively true, then—there was not a shadow of doubt left, since this wretch lay there mumbling her name in his ravings! This was the husband of that gentle creature with sad pathetic eyes, so delicate, so refined that it seemed as though the coarser breath of the world of sin and shame could never come near her—this was her husband! It was horrible. This was the father of lovely Nellie, too. Was anything wanting to make the contrast more hideous?
Mr. Juxon felt that it was impossible to foresee what Walter Goddard might say in the course of another hour. He had often seen people in a delirium and knew how strangely that inarticulate murmuring sometimes breaks off into sudden incisive speech, astonishing every one who hears. The man had already betrayed that he knew Mary Goddard; at the next interval in his ravings he might betray that she was his wife. John was still standing by the bedside, not having recovered from his astonishment; if John heard any more, he would be in possession of Mrs. Goddard's secret. The squire was an energetic man, equal to most emergencies; he suddenly made up his mind.
"Mr. Short," he said, "I will tell you something. You will see the propriety of being very discreet, in fact it is only to ensure your discretion that I wish to tell you this much. I have reason to believe that this fellow is a convict—do not be surprised—escaped from prison. He is a man who once—was in love with Mrs. Goddard, which accounts for his having found his way to Billingsfield. Yes—I know what you are going to say—Mrs. Goddard is aware of his presence, and that accounts for her excitement and her fainting. Do you understand?"
"But—good heavens!" exclaimed John in amazement. "Why did she not give information, if she knew he was in the neighbourhood?"
"That would be more than could be expected of any woman, Mr. Short. You forget that the man once loved her."
"And how did you—well, no. I won't ask any questions."
"No," said the squire, "please don't. You would be placing me in a disagreeable position. Not that I do not trust you implicitly, Mr. Short," he added frankly, "but I should be betraying a confidence. If this fellow dies here, he will be buried as an unknown tramp. I found no trace of a name upon his clothes. If he recovers, we will decide what course to pursue. We will do our best for him—it is a delicate case of conscience. Possibly the poor fellow would very much prefer being allowed to die; but we cannot let him. Humanity, for some unexplained reason, forbids euthanasia and the use of the hemlock in such cases."
"Was he sentenced for a long time?" asked John, very much impressed by the gravity of the situation.
"Twelve years originally, I believe. Aggravated by his escape and by his assault on me, his term might very likely be extended to twenty years if he were taken again."
"That is to say, if he recovers?" inquired John.
"Precisely. I do not think I would hesitate to send him back to prison if he recovered."
"I do not wonder you think he would rather die here, if he were consulted," said John. "It would not be murder to let him die peacefully—"
"In the opinion of the law it might be called manslaughter, though I do not suppose anything would be said if I had simply placed him here and omitted to call in a physician. He cannot live very long in this state, unless something is done for him immediately. Look at him."
There was no apparent change in Goddard's condition. He lay upon his back staring straight upward and mumbling aloud with every breath he drew.
"He must have been ill, before he attacked me," continued Mr. Juxon, very much as though he were talking to himself. "He evidently is in a raging fever—brain fever I should think. That is probably the reason why he missed his aim—that and the darkness. If he had been well he would have killed me fast enough with that bludgeon. As you say, Mr. Short, there is no doubt whatever that he would prefer to die here, if he had his choice. In my opinion, too, it would be far more merciful to him and to—to him in fact. Nevertheless, neither you nor I would like to remember that we had let him die without doing all we could to keep him alive. It is a very singular case."
"Most singular," echoed John.
"Besides—there is another thing. Suppose that he had attacked me as he did, but that I had killed him with my stick—or that Stamboul had made an end of him then and there. The law would have said it served him right—would it not? Of course. But if I had not quite killed him, or, as has actually happened, he survived the embraces of my dog, the law insists that I ought to do everything in my power to save the remnant of his life. What for? In order that the law may give itself the satisfaction of dealing with him according to its lights. I think the law is very greedy, I object to it, I think it is ridiculous from that point of view, but then, when I come to examine the thing I find that my own conscience tells me to save him, although I think it best that he should die. Therefore the law is not ridiculous. Pleasant dilemma—the impossible case! The law is at the same time ridiculous and not ridiculous. The question is, does the law deduce itself from conscience, or is conscience the direct result of existing law?"
The squire appeared to be in a strangely moralising mood, and John listened to him with some surprise. He could not understand that the good man was talking to persuade himself, and to concentrate his faculties, which had been almost unbalanced by the events of the evening.
"I think," said John with remarkable good sense, "that the instinct of man is to preserve life when he is calm. When a man is fighting with another he is hot and tries to kill his enemy; when the fight is over, the natural instinct returns."
"The only thing worth knowing in such cases is the precise point at which the fight may be said to be over. I once knew a young surgeon in India who thought he had killed a cobra and proceeded to extract the fangs in order to examine the poison. Unfortunately the snake was not quite dead; he bit the surgeon in the finger and the poor fellow died in thirty-five minutes."
"Dreadful!" said John. "But you do not think this poor fellow could do anything very dangerous now—do you?"
"Oh, dear me, no!" returned the squire. "I was only stating a case to prove that one is sometimes justified in going quite to the end of a fight. No indeed! He will not be dangerous for some time, if he ever is again. But, as I was saying, he must have been ill some time. Delirium never comes on in this way, so soon—"
Some one knocked at the door. It was Holmes, who came to say that the physician, Doctor Longstreet, had arrived.
"Oh—it is Doctor Longstreet is it?" said the squire. "Ask him to come up."
Doctor Longstreet was not the freethinking physician of Billingsfield. The latter was out when Mr. Juxon's groom went in search of him, and the man had driven on to the town, six miles away. The doctor was an old man with a bright eye, a deeply furrowed forehead, a bald head and clean shaved face. He walked as though his frame were set together with springs and there was a curious snapping quickness in his speech. He seemed full of vitality and bore his years with a jaunty air of merriment which inspired confidence, for he seemed perpetually laughing at the ills of the flesh and ready to make other people laugh at them too. But his bright eyes had a penetrating look and though he judged quickly he generally was right in his opinion. He entered the room briskly, not knowing that the sick man was there.
"Now, Mr. Juxon," he said cheerfully, "I am with you." He had the habit of announcing his presence in this fashion, as though his brisk and active personality were likely to be overlooked. A moment later he caught sight of the bed. "Dear me," he added in a lower voice, "I did not know our patient was here."
He went to Walter Goddard's side, looked at him attentively, felt his pulse, and his forehead, glanced at the bandages the squire had roughly put upon his throat and hand, drew up the sheet again beneath his chin and turned sharply round.
"Brain fever, sir," he said cheerfully. "Brain fever. You must get some ice and have some beef tea made as soon as possible. He is in a very bad way—curious, too; he looks like a cross between a ticket of leave man and a gentleman. Tramp, you say? That would not prevent his being either. You cannot disturb him—don't be afraid. He hears nothing—is off, the Lord knows where, raving delirious. Must look to his scratches though—dangerous—inflammation. Do you mind telling me what happened—how long he has been here?"
The squire in a few words informed Doctor Longstreet of the attack made upon him in the park. The doctor looked at his watch.
"Only two hours and a half since," he remarked. "It is just midnight now, very good—the man must have been in a fever all day—yesterday, too, perhaps. He is not badly hurt by the dog—like to see that dog, if you don't mind—the fright most likely sent him into delirium. You have nothing to accuse yourself of, Mr. Juxon: it was certainly not your fault. Even if the dog had not bitten him, he would most likely have been in his present state by this time. Would you mind sending for some ice at once? Thank you. It was very lucky for the fellow that he attacked you just when he did—secured him the chance of being well taken care of. If he had gone off like this in the park he would have been dead before morning."
The squire rang and sent for the ice the doctor demanded.
"Do you think he will live?" he asked nervously.
"I don't know," answered Doctor Longstreet, frankly. "Nobody can tell. He is very much exhausted—may live two or three days in this state and then die or go to sleep and get well—may die in the morning—often do—cannot say. With a great deal of care, I think he has a chance."
"I am very anxious to save him," said the squire, looking hard at the physician.
"Very good of you, I am sure," replied Doctor Longstreet, cheerfully. "It is not everybody who would take so much trouble for a tramp. Of course if he dies people will say your dog killed him; but I will sign a paper to the effect that it is not true. If he had left you and your dog alone, he would have been dead in the morning to an absolute certainty."
"How very extraordinary!" exclaimed the squire, suddenly realising that instead of causing the man's death Stamboul had perhaps saved his life.
"It was certainly very odd that he should have chosen the best moment for assaulting you," continued the doctor. "It is quite possible that even then he was under some delusion—took you for somebody else—some old enemy. People do queer things in a brain fever. By the bye has he said anything intelligible since he has been here?"
John Short who had been standing silently by the bedside during the whole interview looked up quickly at the squire, wondering how he would answer. But Mr. Juxon did not hesitate.
"Yes. Twice he repeated a woman's name. That is very natural, I suppose. Do you think he will have any lucid moments for some time?"
"May," said the doctor, "may. When he does it is likely to be at the turning point; he will either die or be better very soon after. If it comes soon he may say something intelligible. If he is much more exhausted than he is now, he will understand you, but you will not understand him. Meningitis always brings a partial paralysis of the tongue, when the patient is exhausted. Most probably he will go on moaning and mumbling, as he does now, for another day. You will be able to tell by his eye whether he understands anything; perhaps he will make some sign with his head or hand. Ah—here is the ice."
Doctor Longstreet went about his operations in a rapid and business like fashion and John gave what assistance he could. The squire stood leaning against the chimney-piece in deep thought.
Indeed he had enough to think of, when he had fully weighed the meaning of the doctor's words. He was surprised beyond measure at the turn things had taken; for although, as he had previously told John, he suspected that Goddard must have been in a fever for several hours before the assault, it had not struck him that Stamboul's attack had been absolutely harmless, still less that it might prove to have been the means of saving the convict's life. It was terribly hard to say that he desired to save the man, and yet the honest man in his heart prayed that he might really hope for that result. It would be far worse, should Goddard die, to remember that he had wished for his death. But it would be hard to imagine a more unexpected position than that in which the squire found himself; by a perfectly natural chain of circumstances he was now tending with the utmost care the man who had tried to murder him, and who of all men in the world, stood most in the way of the accomplishment of his desires.
He could not hide from himself the fact that he hated the sick man, even though he hoped, or tried to hope for his recovery. He hated him for the shame and suffering he had brought upon Mary Goddard in the first instance, for the terrible anxiety he had caused her by his escape and sudden appearance at her house; he hated him for being what he was, being also the father of Nellie, and he hated him honestly for his base attempt upon himself that night. He had good cause to hate him, and perhaps he was not ashamed of his hatred. To be called upon, however, to return good for such an accumulated mass of evil was almost too much for his human nature. It was but a faint satisfaction to think that if he recovered he was to be sent back to prison. Mr. Juxon did not know that there was blood upon the man's hands—he had yet to learn that; he would not deign to mention the assault in the park when he handed him over to the authorities; the man should simply go back to Portland to suffer the term of his imprisonment, as soon as he should be well enough to be moved—if that time ever came. If he died, he should be buried decently in a nameless grave, "six feet by four, by two," as Thomas Reid would have said—if he died.
Meanwhile, however, there was yet another consideration which disturbed the squire's meditations. Mrs. Goddard had a right to know that her husband was dying and, if she so pleased, she had a right to be at his bedside. But at the same time it would be necessary so to account for her presence as not to arouse Doctor Longstreet's suspicions, nor the comments of Holmes, the butler, and of his brigade in the servants' hall. It was no easy matter to do this unless Mrs. Goddard were accompanied by the vicar's wife, the excellent and maternally minded Mrs. Ambrose. To accomplish this it would be necessary to ask the latter lady to spend a great part of her time at the Hall in taking care of the wretched Goddard, who would again be the gainer. But Mrs. Ambrose was as yet ignorant of the fact that he had escaped from prison; she must be told then, and an effort must be made to elicit her sympathy. Perhaps she and the vicar would come and stop a few days, thought the squire. Mrs. Goddard might then come and go as she pleased. Her presence by her husband's bedside would then be accounted for on the ground of her charitable disposition.
While Mr. Juxon was revolving these things in his mind he watched the doctor and John who were doing what was necessary for the sick man. Goddard moaned helplessly with every breath, in a loud, monotonous tone, very wearing to the nerves of those who heard it.
"There is little to be done," said Doctor Longstreet at last. "He must be fed—alternately a little beef tea and then a little weak brandy and water. We must try and keep the system up. That is his only chance. I will prescribe something and send it back by the groom."
"You are not going to leave us to-night?" exclaimed the squire in alarm.
"Must. Very sorry. Bad case of diphtheria in town—probably die before morning, unless I get there in time—I would not have come here for any one else. I will certainly be here before ten—he will live till then, I fancy, and I don't believe there will be any change in his condition. Good-night, Mr. Juxon—beef tea and brandy every quarter of an hour. Good-night, Mr.—" he turned to John.
"Short," said John. "Good-night, doctor."
"Ah—I remember—used to be with Mr. Ambrose—yes. Delighted to meet you again, Mr. Short—good-night."
The doctor vanished, before either the squire or John had time to follow him. His departure left an unpleasant sense of renewed responsibility in the squire's mind.
"You had better go to bed, Mr. Short," he said kindly. "I will sit up with him."
But John would not hear of any such arrangement; he insisted upon bearing his share of the watching and stoutly refused to leave the squire alone. There was a large dressing-room attached to the room where Goddard was lying; the squire and John finally agreed to watch turn and turn about, one remaining with Goddard, while the other rested upon the couch in the dressing-room aforesaid. The squire insisted upon taking his watch first, and John lay down. It was past midnight and he was very tired, but it seemed impossible to sleep with the sound of that loud, monotonous mumbling perpetually in his ears. It was a horrible night, and John Short never forgot it so long as he lived. Years afterwards he could not enter the room where Goddard had lain without fancying he heard that perpetual groaning still ringing in his ears. For many hours it continued unabated and unchanging, never dying away to silence nor developing to articulate words. From time to time John could hear the squire's step as he moved about, administering the nourishment prescribed. If he had had the slightest idea of Mr. Juxon's state of mind he would hardly have left him even to rest awhile in the next room.
Fortunately the squire's nerves were solid. A firm constitution hardened by thirty years of seafaring and by the consistent and temperate regularity which was part of his character, had so toughened his natural strength as to put him almost beyond the reach of mortal ills; otherwise he must have broken down under the mental strain thus forced upon him. It is no light thing to do faithfully the utmost to save a man one has good reason to hate, and whose death would be an undoubted blessing to every one who has anything to do with him. Walter Goddard was to Charles Juxon at once an enemy, an obstacle and a rival; an enemy, for having attempted his life, an obstacle, because while he lived he prevented the squire from marrying Mrs. Goddard and a rival because she had once loved him and for the sake of that love was still willing to sacrifice much for him. And yet the very fact that she had loved him made it easier to be kind to him; it seemed to the squire that, after all, in taking care of Goddard he was in some measure serving her, too, seeing that she would have done the same thing herself could she have been present.
Yet there was something very generous and large-hearted in the way Charles Juxon did his duty by the sick man. There are people who seem by nature designed to act heroic parts in life, whose actions habitually take an heroic form, and whose whole character is of another stamp from that of average humanity. Of such people much is expected, because they seem to offer much; no one is surprised to hear of their making great sacrifices, no one is astonished if they exhibit great personal courage in times of danger. Very often they are people of large vanity, whose chiefest vanity is not to seem vain; gifted with great powers and always seeking opportunities of using them, holding high ideas upon most subjects but rarely conceiving themselves incapable of attaining to any ideal they select for their admiration; brave in combat partly from real courage, partly, as I have often heard officers say of a dandy soldier in the ranks, because they are too proud to run away; but, on the whole, heroic by temperament and in virtue of a singular compound of pride, strength and virtue, often accomplishing really great things. They are almost always what are called striking people, for their pride and their strength generally attract attention by their magnitude, and something in their mere appearance distinguishes them from the average mass.
But Charles Juxon did not in any way belong to this type, any more than the other persons who found themselves concerned in the events which culminated in Goddard's illness. He was a very simple man whose pride was wholly unconscious, who did not believe himself destined to do anything remarkable, who regarded his own personality as rather uninteresting and who, had he been asked about himself, would have been the first to disclaim any sentiments of the heroic kind. With very little imagination, he possessed great stability himself and great belief in the stability of things in general, a character of the traditional kind known as "northern," though it would be much more just to describe it as the "temperate" or "central" type of man. Wherever there is exaggeration in nature, there is exaggerated imagination in man. The solid and unimaginative part of the English character is undeniably derived from the Angles or from the Flemish; it is morally the best part, but it is by all odds the least interesting—it is found in the type of man belonging to the plains in a temperate zone, who differs in every respect from the real northman, his distant cousin and hereditary enemy. If Charles Juxon was remarkable for anything it was for his modesty and reticence, in a word, for his apparent determination not to be remarkable at all.
And now, in the extremest anxiety and difficulty, his character served him well; for he unconsciously refused to allow to himself that his position was extraordinary or his responsibility greater than he was able to bear. He disliked intensely the idea of being put forward or thrust into a dramatic situation, and he consequently failed signally to fulfil the dramatic necessities. There was not even a struggle in his heart between the opposite possibilities of letting Goddard die, by merely relaxing his attention, and of redoubling his care and bringing about his recovery. He never once asked himself, after the chances of the patient surviving the fever were stated, whether he would not be justified in sending for some honest housewife from the village to take care of the tramp instead of looking to his wants himself. He simply did his best to save the man's life, without hesitation, without suspecting that he was doing anything extraordinary, doing, as he had always done, the best thing that came in his way according to the best of his ability. He could not wholly suppress the reflection that much good might ensue from Goddard's death, but the thought never for a moment interfered with his efforts to save the convict alive.
But John lay in the next room, kept awake by the sick man's perpetual groaning and by the train of thought which ran through his brain. There were indeed more strange things than his philosophy could account for, but the strangest of all was that the squire should know who the tramp was; he must know it, John thought, since he knew all about him, his former love for Mrs. Goddard and his recent presence in the neighbourhood. The young man's curiosity was roused to its highest pitch, and he longed to know more. He at once guessed that there must have been much intimate confidence between Mr. Juxon and Mrs. Goddard; he suspected moreover that there must be some strange story connected with her, something which accounted for the peculiar stamp of a formerly luxurious life which still clung to her, and which should explain her residence in Billingsfield But John was very far from suspecting the real truth.
His mind was restless and the inaction became intolerable to him. He rose at last and went again into the room where his friend was watching. Mr. Juxon sat by the bedside, the very picture of patience, one leg crossed over the other and his hands folded together upon his knee, his face paler than usual but perfectly calm, his head bent a little to one side and his smooth hair, which had been slightly ruffled in the encounter in the park, as smooth as ever. It was a very distinctive feature of him; it was part of the sleek and spotless neatness which Mrs. Ambrose so much admired.
"It is my turn, now," said John. "Will you lie down for a couple of hours?"
The squire rose. Being older and less excitable than John, he was beginning to feel the need of rest. People who have watched often by the sick know how terribly long are those hours of the night between three o'clock and dawn; long always, but seeming interminable when one is obliged to listen perpetually to a long-drawn, inarticulate moaning, a constant effort to speak which never results in words.
"You are very good," said Mr. Juxon, quietly. "If you will give him the things from time to time, I will take a nap."
With that he went and lay down upon the couch, and in three minutes was as sound asleep as though he were in bed. John sat by the sick man and looked at his flushed features and listened to the hard-drawn breath followed each time by that terrible, monotonous, mumbling groan.
It might have been three-quarters of an hour since the squire had gone to sleep when John thought he saw a change in Goddard's face; it seemed to him that the flush subsided from his forehead, very slowly, leaving only a bright burning colour in his cheeks. His eyes seemed suddenly to grow clearer and a strange look of intelligence came into them; his whole appearance was as though illuminated by a flash of some light different from that of the candles which burned upon the table. John rose to his feet and came and looked at him. The groaning suddenly ceased and Goddard's eyelids, which had been motionless for hours, moved naturally. He appeared to be observing John's face attentively.
"Where is the squire?" he asked quite naturally—so naturally that John was startled.
"Asleep in the next room," replied the latter.
"I did not kill him after all," said Goddard, turning himself a little as though to be more at his ease.
"No," answered John. "He is not hurt at all. Can you tell me who you are?" For his life, he could not help asking the question. It seemed so easy to find out who the fellow was, now that he could speak intelligibly. But Goddard's face contracted suddenly, in a hideous smile.
"Don't you wish you knew?" he said roughly. "But I know you, my boy, I know you—ha! ha! There's no getting away from you, my boy, is there?"
"Who am I?" asked John in astonishment.
"You are the hangman," said Goddard. "I know you very well. The hangman is always so well dressed. I say, old chap, turn us off quick, you know—no fumbling about the bolt. Look here—I like your face," he lowered his voice—"there are nearly sixty pounds in my right-hand trouser pocket—there are—Mary—ah—gave—M—a—"
Again his eyes fixed themselves and the moaning began and continued. John was horror-struck and stood for a moment gazing at his face, over which the deep flush had spread once more, seeming to obliterate all appearance of intelligence. Then the young man put his hand beneath Goddard's head and gently replaced him in his former position, smoothing the pillows, and giving him a little brandy. He debated whether or not he should call the squire from his rest to tell him what had happened, but seeing that Goddard had now returned to his former state, he supposed such moments of clear speech were to be expected from time to time. He sat down again, and waited; then after a time he went to the window and looked anxiously for the dawn. It seemed an intolerably long night.
But the day came at last and shed a ghastly grey tinge upon the sick-room, revealing as it were the outlines of all that was bad to look at, which the warm yellow candle-light had softened with a kindlier touch. John accidentally looked at himself in the mirror as he passed and was startled at his own pale face; but the convict, labouring in the ravings of his fever, seemed unconscious of the dawning day; he was not yet exhausted and his harsh voice never ceased its jarring gibber. John wondered whether he should ever spend such a night again, and shuddered at the recollection of each moment.
The daylight waked the squire from his slumbers, however, and before the sun was up he came out of the dressing-room, looking almost as fresh as though nothing had happened to him in the night. Accustomed for years to rise at all hours, in all weathers, unimpressionable, calm and strong, he seemed superior to the course of events.
"Well, Mr. Short, you allowed me a long nap. You must be quite worn out, I should think. How is the patient?"
John told what had occurred.
"Took you for the hangman, did he?" said the squire. "I wonder why—but you say he asked after me very sensibly?"
"Quite so. It was when I asked him his own name, that he began raving again," answered John innocently.
"What made you ask him that?" asked Mr. Juxon, who did not seem pleased.
"Curiosity," was John's laconic answer.
"Yes—but I fancy it frightened him. If I were you I would not do it again, if he has a lucid moment. I imagine it was fright that made him delirious in the first instance."
"All right," quoth John. "I won't." But he made his own deductions. The squire evidently knew who he was, and did not want John to know, for some unexplained reason. The young man wondered what the reason could be; the mere name of the wretched man was not likely to convey any idea to his mind, for it was highly improbable that he had ever met him before his conviction. So John departed to his own room and refreshed himself with a tub, while the squire kept watch by daylight.
It was not yet eight o'clock when Holmes brought a note from the vicar, which Mr. Juxon tore open and read with anxious interest.
"MY DEAR MR. JUXON—I received your note late last night, but I judged it better to answer this morning, not wishing to excite suspicion by sending to you at so late an hour. The intelligence is indeed alarming and you will, I daresay, understand me, when I tell you that I found it necessary to communicate it to Mrs. Ambrose—"
The squire could not refrain from smiling at the vicar's way of putting the point; but he read quickly on.
"She however—and I confess my surprise and gratification—desires to accompany me to the Hall this morning, volunteering to take all possible care of the unfortunate man. As she has had much experience in visiting the sick, I fancy that she will render us very valuable assistance in saving his life. Pray let me know if the plan has your approval, as it may be dangerous to lose time.—Yours sincerely,
Mr. Juxon was delighted to find that the difficult task of putting Mrs. Ambrose in possession of the facts of the case had been accomplished in the ordinary, the very ordinary, course of events by her own determination to find out what was to be known. In an hour she might be at Goddard's bedside, and Mrs. Goddard would be free to see her husband. He despatched a note at once and redoubled his attentions to the sick man whose condition, however, showed no signs of changing.
Mrs. Ambrose kept her word and arrived with the vicar before nine o'clock, protesting her determination to take care of poor Goddard, so long as he needed any care. Mr. Juxon warned her that John did not know who the man was, and entreated her to be careful of her speech when John was present. There was no reason why John should ever know anything more about it, he said; three could keep a secret, but no one knew whether four could be as discreet.
The squire took Mrs. Ambrose and her husband to Goddard's room and telling her that Doctor Longstreet was expected in an hour, by which time he himself hoped to have returned, he left the two good people in charge of the sick man and went to see Mrs. Goddard. He sent John a message to the effect that all was well and that he should take some rest while the Ambroses relieved the watch, and having thus disposed his household he went out, bound upon one of the most disagreeable errands he had ever undertaken. But he set his teeth and walked boldly down the park.
At the turn of the avenue he paused, at the spot where Goddard had attacked him. There was nothing to be seen at first, for the road was hard and dry and there was no trace of the scuffle; but as the squire looked about he spied his hat, lying in the ditch, and picked it up. It was heavy with the morning dew and the brim was broken and bent where Goddard's weapon had struck it. Hard by in a heap of driven oak leaves lay the weapon itself, which Mr. Juxon examined curiously. It was a heavy piece of hewn oak, evidently very old, and at one end a thick iron spike was driven through, the sharp point projecting upon one side and the wrought head upon the other. He turned it over in his hands and realised that he had narrowly escaped his death. Then he laid the hat and the club together and threw a handful of leaves over them, intending to take them to the Hall at a later hour, and he turned to go upon his way towards the cottage. But as he turned he saw two men coming towards him, and now not twenty yards away. His heart sank, for one of the two was Thomas Gall the village constable; the other was a quiet-looking individual with grey whiskers, plainly dressed and unassuming in appearance. Instinctively the squire knew that Gall's companion must be a detective. He was startled, and taken altogether unawares; but the men were close upon him and there was nothing to be done but to face them boldly.
Gall made his usual half military salute as he came up, and the man in plain clothes raised his hat politely.
"The gentleman from Lunnon, sir," said Gall by way of introduction, assuming an air of mysterious importance.
"Yes?" said Mr. Juxon interrogatively. "Do you wish to speak to me?"
"The gentleman's come on business, sir. In point of fact, sir, it's the case we was speakin' of lately."
The squire knew very well what was the matter. Indeed, he had wondered that the detective had not arrived sooner. That did not make it any easier to receive him, however; on the contrary, if he had come on the previous day matters would have been much simpler.
"Very well, Gall," answered Mr. Juxon. "I am much obliged to you for bringing Mr.—" he paused and looked at the man in plain clothes.
"Booley, sir," said the detective.
"Thank you—yes—for bringing Mr. Booley so far. You may go home, Gall. If we need your services we will send to your house."
"It struck me, sir," remarked Gall with a bland smile, "as perhaps I might be of use—prefeshnal in fact, sir."
"I will send for you," said the detective, shortly. The manners of the rural constabulary had long ceased to amuse him.
Gall departed rather reluctantly, but to make up for being left out of the confidential interview which was to follow, he passed his thumb round his belt and thrust out his portly chest as he marched down the avenue. He subsequently spoke very roughly to a little boy who was driving an old sheep to the butcher's at the other end of the village.
Mr. Juxon and the detective turned back and walked slowly towards the Hall.
"Will you be good enough to state exactly what the business is," said the squire, well knowing that it was best to go straight to the point.
"You are Mr. Juxon, I believe?" inquired Mr. Booley looking at his companion sharply. The squire nodded. "Very good, Mr. Juxon," continued the official. "I am after a man called Walter Goddard. Do you know anything about him? His wife, Mrs. Mary Goddard, lives in this village."
"Walter Goddard is at this moment in my house," said the squire calmly. "I know all about him. He lay in wait for me at this very spot last night and attacked me. My dog pulled him down."
The detective was somewhat surprised at the intelligence, and at the cool manner in which his companion conveyed it.
"I am very glad to hear that. In that case I will take him at once."
"I fear that is impossible," answered the squire. "The man is raving in the delirium of a brain fever. Meanwhile I shall be glad if you will stay in the house, until he is well enough to be moved. The doctor will be here at ten o'clock, and he will give you the details of the case better than I can. It would be quite impossible to take him away at present."
"May I ask," inquired Mr. Booley severely, "why you did not inform the local police?"
"Because it would have been useless. If he had escaped after attacking me, I should have done so. But since I caught him, and found him to be very ill—utterly unable to move, I proposed to take charge of him myself. Mrs. Goddard is a friend of mine, and of the vicar, who knows her story perfectly well. To publish the story in the village would be to do her a great injury. Mrs. Ambrose, the vicar's wife, who is also acquainted with the circumstances, is at this moment taking care of the sick man. I presume that my promise—I am a retired officer of the Navy—and the promise of Mr. Ambrose, the vicar, are sufficient guarantee—"
"Oh, there is no question of guarantee," said Mr. Booley. "I assure you, Mr. Juxon, I have no doubt whatever that you have acted for the best. Can you tell me how long Goddard has been in the neighbourhood?"
The squire told the detective what he knew, taking care not to implicate Mrs. Goddard, even adding with considerable boldness, for he was not positively certain of the statement, that neither she nor any one else had known where the man was hiding. Mr. Booley being sure that Goddard could not escape him, saw that he could claim the reward offered for the capture of the convict. He asked whether he might see him.
"That is doubtful," said the squire. "When I left him just now he was quite unconscious, but he has lucid moments. To frighten him at such a time might kill him outright."
"It is very easy for me to say that I am another medical man," remarked Mr. Booley. "Perhaps I might say it in any case, just to keep the servants quiet. I would like to see Mrs. Goddard, too."
"That is another matter. She is very nervous. I am going to her house, now, and probably she will come back to the Hall with me. I might perhaps tell her that you are here, but I think it would be likely to shock her very much."
"Well, well, we will see about it," answered Mr. Booley. They reached the house and the squire ushered the detective into the study, begging him to wait for his return.