'I am happy to hear it, for although, Miss Palmer, I consider you as a friend rather than a serving-maid, and allow my particular friends to show you kindness, I must remind you that you are not in the class of life from which a country squire would choose a wife.'
Mr Lambert had left the parlour with the Squire, and Bryda felt that he, at least, knew the real position of affairs.
Mrs Lambert's words made her heart beat fast with mingled fear and indignation, and she determined to lose no time in writing to Bet, and telling her the sale must at once be thought of, for Mr Bayfield was inexorable, and he must have the money.
The next morning was fair and bright.
The bells of the Bristol churches were ringing a joyous peal, telling out the glad tidings that the Lord was risen, and Mrs Lambert, arrayed in her best gown, leaning on her gold-headed walking-stick, with Bryda at her side carrying her big books, went to the service at the cathedral.
The anthem had again a message for Bryda, as on that first Sunday long ago. Even so in Christ shall all be made alive, sounded the triumphal strain, and then there came into her young heart the question, had she any part or lot in the risen Christ? Bryda had never been confirmed. Confirmations in those days were of rare occurrence, and the remote country districts were reached by the Bishop of the diocese at long intervals. But Mrs Lambert, being a rigid observer of times and seasons, went up to the altar, at the conclusion of the morning prayer and short dry sermon, to receive the Holy Communion, as it is set forth in the prayer book that such is the duty of all members of the Church three times a year at least, of which Easter is one.
Mrs Lambert put out her hand to Bryda as she left the pew, as if she needed her support, but poor Bryda shook her head and whispered,—
'I cannot come, madam.'
Mrs Lambert gave her a reproving glance, and one of her friends, seeing her dilemma, came forward and gave the old lady an arm to the altar.
Bryda sank down on her knees, and all unbidden tears forced their way through her fingers. She felt outside, poor child, and uncared for, and so sorely in need of some help in what was likely to be a crisis in her life.
If the Squire persisted, what should she do? Then, with a great longing of prayer, she asked for wisdom to do what was best and right—and to marry the Squire could never be best and right. Better let everything at the farm be sold. Better let her grandfather suffer than consent to what would be a sin. Then the remembrance of Mrs Lambert's words the day before made her cheeks burn, and she rose up at last determined to let Betty know that immediate steps must be taken and the large sum raised to pay off the debt.
That afternoon Jack Henderson was not disappointed of his walk. He appeared dressed in his best, with a large bunch of primroses, bought in the market the day before in his hand, and two or three in his buttonhole.
The bunch he presented to Bryda, who returned with them, for a minute, to the parlour, and filling a vase with water, placed them on the little table where the volume of sermons lay.
'Mr Henderson brought them for me, madam,' she said. 'It is too large a posy to carry, so I will beg you to accept them.'
Mrs Lambert was pleased to sniff the flowers and say,—
'I am much obleeged to you, my dear. Mr Lambert considers Mr Henderson's nephew a very respectable young man. I have no objections to your keeping his company—he is, of course, in your own class of life,' she said significantly.
'What have you done with the posy, Bryda,' Jack asked.
'It was far too big to carry with me, so I put the poor flowers in water. Now let us go up on the Downs. I am in the mood for a long stroll. Don't be cross about the posy, Jack.'
'I am not cross that I know of,' was the reply.
Then there was a long climb to the heights above the Hot Wells, and at last, on the vantage ground where the old snuff-mill stood, now the well-known observatory, the two sat down on a boulder of limestone to rest. There were no houses near, thus nothing interrupted the view in any direction. The budding woods on the other side of the great gorge, now spanned by the famous Suspension Bridge, were just wearing their first delicate veil of emerald. Away, far away, the blue mountains of the Welsh coast stood out against the clear sky, and the sloping sides of the Mendips, where Dundry Tower stands like a sentinel on guard over the city, were bathed in the soft radiance of the April day, while now and again the chime of bells was borne on the breeze.
For some minutes both were silent, Jack toying with the small pebbles at his feet, Bryda gazing out at the hills where her home lay hid, and forgetting poor Jack's presence in her own meditation. Jack was the first to break the silence. There had sprung up between him and Bryda, since Christmas, a certain reserve which seemed to raise a barrier between him and his fondest hopes.
'I say, Bryda,' he began, 'I am very unhappy. Can't you give me a kind word?'
'Why, Jack, what is the matter?' she said carelessly. 'I thought I was unhappy this morning, but now I think no one ought to be sad to-day. So the bells tell me. Hearken!'
'I am sad, though,' poor Jack rejoined. 'I love you, Bryda. You must know it. I have loved you all my life—I shall love you till I die. I am tied to this silversmith's business—but my uncle has no children, he takes more kindly to me than he did, and the last year I have pleased him better. When he dies I shall come into the business, and then—'
Bryda turned and looked straight into Jack's frank, honest face. She tried to speak lightly.
'So after all, Jack, your mother was right, and you will be a Bristol alderman some day, or perhaps mayor.'
Jack's foot gave an impatient kick against the pebbles beneath it.
'What has that to do with the question?' he said. 'Bryda, can you care for me? Can you love me? That's the real question.'
'Jack, I have always cared for you, you know that. Now let us talk of something else.'
'No,' Jack said, 'I am not to be put off like this. Give me a plain answer. When I can give you all you ought to have, you know, will you be my wife? I love you so that if you can't promise to be my wife I don't care what becomes of me. I shall be off in one of the ships from the quay, and get drowned—drown myself, I daresay.'
'Nonsense, Jack; be sensible. I do not feel as if I could promise to marry anybody. There is trouble at home, and I am thinking more of that just now than anything else,' and in spite of herself her colour deepened on her cheeks and the tears dimmed her eyes.
'Look here, Bryda, has that villain Bayfield anything to do with this? Do you care for him? I hear he has been gallivanting after you, curse him.'
'Hush, Jack. On this beautiful day—Easter day—don't have wicked feelings. If you went to church this morning—'
'I didn't. I was too miserable,' Jack interrupted.
'Well, I am sorry for that,' she said very gently, 'because if you had gone you would have heard the words which tell us to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, Jack. I have thought so much more of religion since I came to Bristol, I don't quite know why, but I have thought how, if we really love God, He will keep us safe—safe from evil passions such as we have seen possess poor Tom Chatterton. I could cry when I think that when he was only a little boy of eleven he could write those beautiful verses on "Christmas Day," and not long ago the lines on "Faith," and yet get so mastered by his passion that he could actually write a will to be read when he had sinned against God by killing himself to-day. And he is now cast out on the world, which will break his poor mother's heart.'
But Jack Henderson did not care to hear about the mad apprentice just then. He rose from his seat with a gesture of impatience.
'I don't want to hear about Tom Chatterton,' he said. 'I asked you a plain question, and I want a plain answer.'
'Well, then, dear Jack, we shall always be friends, I hope. But I could not—no, I could not promise more.'
'Very well,' he said moodily. 'But look here, Bryda, if I thought that scoundrel Bayfield had anything to do with this I'd break every bone in his body—I swear I would!'
'You have no right to speak to me like this,' Bryda replied. 'You have no right to suppose that the Squire has anything to do with what I say to you.'
'Haven't I, then? What did he mean by sneaking in last Christmas with presents, and daring to—' Jack stopped, and then in a choked voice he said, 'Don't be angry with me, Bryda; that would be worse than all.'
'No, I won't be angry if you are good,' she said, in a tone she would have used to soothe a child, 'and now let us go round by the village and down by Bristol to the Hot Wells.'
Yes, Clifton was then only a village, and Chatterton had already sung its charms in lines which ought to be known and prized by those who live in the Clifton of these days. It is true Clifton is no longer 'the sweet village' which the boy poet describes, though it may still be
The loved retreat of all the rich and gay,
it is not the Clifton of a century and more ago. Now it is rather a city of mansions and stately crescents, of colleges and schools, than a village. Full of the busy workers in literature and art, of philanthropists and philosophers, of churches and chapels, looking down from the elevation of her rocky fastnesses over the yellow Avon creeping below, 'its sullen billows rolling a muddy tide.'
The poet who sang its praises, and with his wonderful eagle glance over the page of Bristol history seized the salient points to introduce into his ode, is at once one of the most famous and the saddest memories lingering round this City of the West, from which her younger sister of to-day has sprung, and to which she owes her origin and her wealth.
Jack and Bryda parted at the entrance of Dowry Square, and with a long and wistful gaze at the face he loved so well he turned sadly away.
'I am a rough suitor,' he said to himself, 'I shall never win her. She is too far above me, too good, too clever, but'—and poor Jack tore the primroses from his coat and threw them away—'oh, Heaven! how I love her!'
ON THE HILLSIDE.
The next week was spent by Chatterton in bidding his friends good-bye, presenting some young ladies of his acquaintance with gingerbread, the boyish side of his nature coming to the front, and with it a loving tenderness to his mother and sister.
Full of hope since the money had been collected for him, and glad to be turning his back on Bristol, Chatterton was in one of his most winning moods.
The soft spring weather had changed, cold winds blew, and instead of soft April showers hail fell, blown in little heaps along Dowry Square by the breath of the keen north-west wind.
Bryda was standing by the parlour window, looking out into the square, just before dinner was served on Sunday.
It was somewhat of a relief to her to think Jack would not come to-day, or, if he came, she could make the excuse of cold and a headache and decline to take a Sunday stroll.
The remembrance of poor Jack's sad face as they parted haunted her, and she said to herself she wished she had been kinder to him, and she wished, oh! how she wished he had loved Betty instead of her. Bryda had written to Betty as she had determined, and sent the letter by the carrier, folded in thick paper and fastened by a string. The post in the rural districts was very irregular in those days, and the carrier's charge for delivering a parcel was even less than the postage of a letter. Bryda wondered she had received no answer yet from Betty. She had told her to reply on the return of the carrier on Saturday, and she knew that if the letter was left at the office in Corn Street she would be sure to get it on Saturday evening.
But no reply had come. Bryda had spoken to Mr Lambert that morning about the affairs at Bishop's Farm, and he had advised that before the Squire could take any decided steps an appraiser, in the old man's interests, should be dispatched to the farm to value the stock and the furniture, and find out how far it would cover the debt and the expenses.
'I must wait till I hear from my sister,' Bryda had said. 'I dare not take them by surprise; it would frighten poor grandfather, and upset him again. I hope Betty will soon answer my letter.'
'Well,' Mr Lambert had replied, 'young ladies must please themselves, as they take care to do; but if I might presume to advise, I should say accept the Squire's proposal. I should have thought he was a likely fellow to gain a fair maiden's favour.'
Bryda had no reply to make to this, and now, as she stood looking out on the square, she saw a boy crossing it and looking at the houses, as if uncertain at which to stop. Presently he came up to the door and rang the bell, giving also a great thud with the knocker. The footboy hastened up to open the door, and Bryda, going into the passage, heard her name.
'Does Miss Palmer live here?'
Bryda advanced and said,—
'Yes; I am Miss Palmer.'
'This is for you, miss,' the boy said. 'I was to say it was urgent.'
Bryda took from the boy's hand a crumpled bit of paper, on which was written,—
'Come at once to the old thorn tree half-way up the hill—great distress, I must see you. I will be there at three o'clock.
The paper was so crumpled that it was hard to decipher the writing, but it was Betty's, of that Bryda felt sure. She went hastily to the parlour.
'Madam Lambert,' she said, 'I am come to ask leave to start at once to meet my sister. She is in great trouble—give me leave—'
'To meet her—where? You agitate me, Miss Palmer.'
'Oh! I pray you let me go,' and Bryda, scarcely waiting for an answer, ran upstairs, threw on her cloak and covered her head with its hood, and then was out of the house and on her way towards Rownham Ferry.
'The shortest way, oh! which is the shortest way. Shall I be able to get to the thorn tree by three o'clock. I know the tree, and the road when I am once out of Bristol.'
At this moment she met Chatterton, whom she stopped, waking him from one of his dreams.
'Oh, Miss Palmer, I was on my way towards the square, hoping I might be so happy as to meet you and your true knight. But what ails you?'
'I have had a summons to meet Bet, my sister. She is in great trouble, something has happened. Put me in the way to get to the road to Dundry.'
'I will show you the way, and glad to do so,' Chatterton said. 'I am sorry for your distress, Miss Palmer, but let us hope things are not so bad as you fear. I am in good heart to-day,' he said, his fine face shining with hope and boyish gladness, 'let me give you some of my "Holy sister's" influence.'
Then he walked with Bryda to the ferry. When once on the other side of the river she could find her way to the foot of the winding road which led up to Dundry.
Bryda held the crumpled piece of paper in her hand and scanned it again.
'Bet has written it so ill I can scarce read it,' she said. 'That word is distress, is it not, Mr Chatterton?'
Chatterton took the paper and examined it closely.
'It is the hand of one who can write well if she choose—and do you know your sister's handwriting?'
'Yes, I know she takes a long time to write, but I expect she was hurried and distressed, and these are tears which have blotted the paper. What can it be? Oh, what can the trouble be? Good-bye, and thank you. I must go, as it is full three miles to the old thorn tree.'
'I know it,' Chatterton said, 'I know it. It is where a by-road turns off towards Bath. I wish you good luck, Miss Palmer.'
Then Chatterton turned, and went back with his swift pace the way he came.
He met, as he expected, Jack Henderson, who had been to Dowry Square and heard that Miss Palmer had been called away on some business, but where the footboy did not know.
When Chatterton met Jack, he was walking with a downcast air, and Chatterton had slapped him on the back before he was aware of his presence.
'Whither away, Master Jacques the melancholy?'
'I am in no mood for jests. Tom, let me go.'
'Yes, but let me tell you something first. A certain fair damsel you know, has crossed the ferry, and is wandering unprotected up the road to Dundry. Be a good knight and follow her, for it strikes me she may need your presence.'
'What do you mean?' Jack said.
'What I say. Your fair lady is in trouble, summoned to the old thorn tree half-way up the hill by her sister, who is in dire need. I have my suspicions that the paper she showed me is not wrote by her by whom it is pretended. Speed away, honest Jack, and see what you will see.'
But Jack stood still; he was always slow of perception, and never took up any idea hastily. 'She may not want me,' he thought; 'she may be angry, as she was last Sunday, but—' As Chatterton gave him another sharp slap on his back, as a parting encouragement to set off, he said aloud,—
'Well, I may as well walk that way as any other; it's no odds to me.'
Chatterton then left him. He was on his way to his good friend Mr Clayfield's, and was to meet there several of the friends who had been kind to him and stood by him in the distress of Easter eve.
Jack Henderson pulled himself together and began his walk, crossed the ferry, and went on in the direction which Chatterton had pointed out, greatly wondering what Betty could possibly have to say to Bryda which she could not have put down on paper.
'Perhaps that brute has put an execution in the farm, turning out the old man into the road, like enough. Well, I may as well follow, for it's a lonely road for her, and there's lots of ill-looking fellows lurking about birds nesting and ratting on Sundays.' Then Jack heaved a deep sigh as he said, 'P'r'aps she won't mind my taking care of her for once, though a week ago she just treated me as if I was naught to her.' And as Jack recalled the scene on the summit of St Vincent's Rocks he felt a pain at his heart, which, as he thought, time would never cure.
Meantime Bryda pressed bravely on, though the storms of hail often beat on her face, and then the cloud breaking, great fields of deepest blue sky appeared in the rifts, and now and again the sun shone out brightly on the young leaves and primrose banks, as if to reassure them that the present cold was but an afterthought of winter, and that spring and May would soon reign again.
Bryda's way led along a lonely road. There were no villages, only here and there a shepherd's hut, and not a house to be seen. A few ragged boys foraging in the hedges for birds' nests, or paddling in a little wayside stream for tadpoles, were the only people she saw. The ascent was long and steep, but Bryda stepped quickly on, and at last the thorn tree, with its rugged, gnarled trunk, came in sight.
Here the road branched off in two directions; that to the left led across the side of the hill towards Bath, the other down to the village of Bower Ashton, and following straight on led to Dundry, beyond which was Bishop's Farm.
When Bryda reached the old crooked thorn, which was but scantily covered with blossoms in its old age, she looked in vain for Betty.
The Bristol bells were ringing for evensong as she was climbing the hill, and she had quickened her step fearing she might be late.
Bryda sat down to rest on an old milestone which stood close by and waited, but still no Betty appeared. Presently she was conscious of footsteps approaching, and turning her head, sprang to her feet to meet, not Betty, but Mr Bayfield.
'What is the matter, sir, at the farm? Betty sent for me—she is in great distress—can you tell me?'
'I am come instead of your sister,' Mr Bayfield said, and pitying Bryda's face of alarm, he said, 'Nothing is wrong. I am only come here to claim your promise. Easter has come and is nearly gone. I am prepared to bury the very remembrance of the debt. I am prepared to leave your grandfather a free man for the rest of his life, and give him a written pledge of this, if you will consent to be mine.'
Bryda started back. The helplessness of her position came over her. Alone on that lonely hillside—alone, and with no hope of escape.
'Hearken, fairest and dearest,' Mr Bayfield began, 'I am not one to be turned from anything I have set my heart on. I mean to have you, and so,' he said with emphasis, 'you had best come to me graciously.'
'I did not promise,' Bryda said firmly. 'It is cowardly in you, sir, to try to put me thus in the wrong.'
'Now, now, fair lady, that is going too far. I made certain conditions, you accepted them. I have been true to my part of the agreement—you must, nay shall, reward me. I have a horse and gig a little further up yonder by-road. I shall drive you to Bath, and then I will marry you to-morrow morning. Come. You shall reign like a queen in my old home, and I will do all you desire. Come.'
And Mr Bayfield laid a firm hand on Bryda's arm, looking down into her terror-struck face with eyes in which his determination and his passion shone almost fiercely.
Bryda did not scream or cry, or even struggle. The spirit that was in her rose above her fears, and looking steadily at Mr Bayfield she said,—
'I will not be forced to marry you, sir. Let me go. Every penny of your claim shall be paid, but I will not marry you.'
A laugh greeted these words, and yet when Bryda said, after a momentary pause, 'I trust in God, and He will deliver me,' the laugh was changed into a tone of entreaty. Something in this girl there was which, in spite of himself, commanded respect. So small, so fragile as she looked in his power, in his hands, lured thither by his treachery, as a bird is lured to the snare, he yet quailed as Bryda repeated, 'He will deliver me.'
'Nay, Bryda,' he began in a gentler tone, 'I love you. I offer you all I have. I make you honourable proposals, when some men might—'
A loud voice was now heard.
'What are you doing here—eh?' And in another moment Jack Henderson strode up, and putting his arm round Bryda, said defiantly, 'Touch her again if you dare.'
'Touch her!' Mr Bayfield said, with cool irony, 'touch her! I am to marry her to-morrow morning at Bath, so, my good fellow, I advise you to go back the way you came, and remember the old adage and mind your own business.'
'Is this true, Bryda?' Jack said, still holding her with his strong arm, 'is this true?'
'No, Jack, no, it is not true—it is false.'
Then Jack sprang upon the Squire and struck him across the face.
'Leave her!' he shouted, 'leave go this instant, you scoundrel!'
'Yes, to give you your deserts, you young rascal.'
The two men closed in a deadly struggle, and Jack, the lion roused within him, got the mastery, though his adversary fought in a more scientific way, as one who had been well accustomed to such conflicts.
Bryda stood by the old thorn tree too terrified to move, only entreating Jack to stop for her sake, only crying aloud in her despair to Mr Bayfield to stop.
But the fight grew ever fiercer and fiercer, and at last, with one mighty blow of his huge arm, Jack had his adversary at his feet, his knee on his chest, his hand at his throat.
So tremendous was the force with which the young giant had felled the Squire that his fall made a heavy thud on the hard road.
Just at this moment a storm-cloud came sweeping over the hillside, and hail fell in a thick, sharp shower.
'Swear you will leave her, swear you will not touch her again,' Jack gasped out, for he was breathless with rage and exertion.
But there was no answer. Suddenly Jack relaxed his hold, and rising, stood staring down at the inanimate form before him, on which the hail beat with blinding fury.
Bryda drew near, and clasping her hands, said,—
'You have killed him, Jack Henderson, you have killed him! Oh, God have mercy on you and on me!'
Jack stood motionless as one in a dream. Blood was streaming down his cheeks from a cut in the temple, and his face was almost as wan and livid as that which was turned up to the darkened sky, on which the pitiless hailstones danced and leaped, unheeded and unfelt.
Thus they stood, when steps were heard plodding down the hill, and old Silas, the shepherd from Bishop's Farm, came up.
'What's to do?' he said. 'Miss Biddy, my dear, what's to do?'
'Get a doctor,' she gasped. 'They have had a fight, and—he is—hurt.'
'Dead,' Silas said, looking down at Mr Bayfield as he had looked down on the lamb a year ago, 'dead. His skull is cracked, I'll warrant.'
'Oh, go for a doctor, Jack. Run quick to Bristol and send a doctor. Oh, Jack! Jack!'
Her voice seemed to wake Jack from his stupor.
'Yes,' he said, 'I'll send a doctor. Yes. Good-bye, Bryda, good-bye, and—' Jack covered his face with his hands, and sobs shook his large frame. 'He angered me past bearing, Bryda. I did it for your sake,' he sobbed. 'Say one word to me before I go.'
'Oh, Jack! Jack! What can I say except God forgive you?' She laid her little hand tenderly on Jack's fingers, through which the tears were trickling, and repeated, 'Yes, God forgive you and help me.'
* * * * *
It fell out that Jack Henderson, running headlong down the hill, met a village doctor, in his high gig, returning from a long and weary round of country visits.
Jack hailed him, and the doctor drew up his tired nag.
'There's a man lying on the hill half a mile up the road. Go to him quick—it's life or death.'
'Why, you are covered with blood, young man,' the doctor said, as Jack flew past on his downward way to Bristol. 'I say,' he shouted, 'come back. I may want help.'
But Jack took no heed, and the doctor, whipping up his old mare, soon reached the place where Mr Bayfield lay.
The storm-cloud had passed, and again there was a gleam of sunshine flooding the country side with fitful radiance.
When the doctor leaped down from his gig he found Bryda alone, kneeling by the motionless form. Silas had gone, at her bidding, down the by-road which branched off the highway, where she remembered she had heard Mr Bayfield say a horse and gig were waiting.
'Is he dead? Oh, say he is not dead!' Bryda moaned. 'Say he is not dead!'
But the doctor did not reply. He unfastened the high cravat, with its lace ends, unbuttoned the two-fold waistcoats, one of cherry colour the other of buff, the deep red edge showing against the paler hue. He flung back the frilled shirt and put his head against Mr Bayfield's side, took the long, limp hands in his, put his finger on the pulse, and finally drew his large watch from his fob and looked narrowly down at its round white-rimmed dial.
'No, he is not dead,' he said shortly to Bryda; 'go to my gig, open the well behind, and bring me a black case—make haste.'
Bryda staggered to her feet and did as she was bid. The doctor unstrapped the case, and taking out a small bottle, dropped some of its contents between the Squire's lips.
A slight movement of the eyelids followed just as old Silas returned with the horse and gig, which had been waiting with a servant till Mr Bayfield joined them about a quarter of a mile down the lane.
'Who did it?' the servant asked. 'Whose work is this?'
'It was a fight,' Bryda faltered; 'it was a fight.'
'A fair fight—eh? Who began it?'
Poor Bryda burst into weeping.
'Oh, do not ask me—do not ask me,' she murmured.
'Poor little dear!' said the doctor. 'Was it a fight about you—eh? Why, it's one of old Farmer Palmer's grand-daughters, I declare. Cheer up, my pretty one, yours is not the first pretty face which has made mischief between two suitors. There! there! he isn't dead yet, and he may live. I can't say yet, but we must get him home. How far is it?'
'A matter of twelve miles, sir.'
'Well, we must lay him across my shandry, it's more roomy than his gimcracky gig. And you,' he said, turning to the servant, 'must lead the horse. I'll watch him, and we can make a roughish sort of bed with the cushions from the gig. And what shall I do with you, my dear?' the doctor asked.
'Nothing! nothing! I must go back to Bristol. Madam will be so angry. Silas, give my love to Betty, and tell her I will write to her. I dare not go home—no, I dare not, Silas. Aunt Dorothy would say it was all my fault, and so it is! so it is!' Then Bryda turned away, saying, 'He is not dead, you are sure?'
'Quite certain sure,' Silas replied. 'But lor' bless you, Miss Biddy, come along home; you look like a ghost!'
'No, no, I must go back, and I must see—' She dared not mention the name even to Silas. 'I must tell him the Squire is not dead.'
Then, with a terror at her heart, and a nameless dread as if a phantom of evil were pursuing her, Bryda fled downhill with a speed which surprised herself, and reached the ferry just as the Bristol clocks struck six.
When she found herself at Dowry Square she first recognised how faint and worn out she was—she had not tasted food since breakfast. She could hardly totter into the little lobby, and when she tried to tell the footboy to let Mrs Lambert know she was too tired to come into the parlour, she fell prone upon the floor, and remembered nothing till she found herself on the couch in the parlour, the twilight deepening, and Madam Lambert sitting by her like a gaoler, with a glass of brandy on the little table, which she insisted on Bryda sipping.
It was all like a dreadful dream. Bryda's head ached, and she was too bewildered to say much.
Madam Lambert poured out a string of questions. Had she seen her sister? What was the bad news? Was the poor old man dead, or had he had a stroke? Had the Squire put bailiffs into the house? What was wrong at the farm?
But Bryda had just presence of mind enough to keep back the real facts of the case. It had struck her that Jack Henderson would be in danger of his life if, indeed, it turned out that the Squire was dead—in danger, too, if he were seriously hurt. So she parried all questions, and went feebly to the door murmuring,—
'I am so tired. May I go to bed?'
'To bed, sure you may, and I will get Mrs Symes to bring you up some hot posset. I don't wish to pry, Miss Palmer, but I should like to hear what has upset you? I think it is my due.'
'To-morrow—to-morrow,' Bryda said. 'I cannot talk now. I cannot—'
'There is some mystery, depend upon it,' Mrs Lambert said, as she folded her mittened hands and twirled her thumbs one over the other, in a meditative mood; 'but I'll ring for Symes to get her a hot posset, poor thing.'
THE LAST EVENING.
Bryda rose and went about her accustomed duties the next day with a wan, white face and wistful, anxious eyes.
She was longing for news, and yet dare not ask a question lest she should betray Jack Henderson's share in the scene on the hillside the day before. She was haunted by the memory of that rigid upturned face on which the hail beat so mercilessly. It was always before her; and there was no one near with whom to share her fears. It happened that Mr Lambert was called away on business to Bath, and bustled off to the coach office immediately after breakfast, and had only time to say to Bryda,—
'You look as if you had seen a ghost, Miss Palmer.' Then, with a laugh, 'Ah! I remember it was at Easter you were to make your decision. Well, well, don't take it too much to heart. Good-bye, mother. Don't expect me till you see me,' and then the little lawyer, bristling with importance, was gone.
It was a long and weary day—cold and stormy; and after Bryda had finished her domestic duties she could only sit in the parlour with Mrs Lambert, listening for the sound of every step upon the pavement, starting when the door bell rang, and relieved when Sam appeared in the parlour with some message or note for Mr Lambert, which was to be delivered to him on his return.
Even if Chatterton had still been at the office Bryda might have gained some news. She wondered if the story of the fray had reached Bristol, for birds of the air do carry a matter even from the loneliness of the upward path to the table-land of the Mendips. But the day dragged wearily on to evening, and still no news. Mrs Lambert was very fractious and fault-finding, and complained that a hole in a bit of lace had been so ill mended that she must have every thread unpicked. Then the water for the tea was smoked, and the 'muffin' too much buttered, with a dozen more grievances of a like character, which were simple torture to poor Bryda's heavy, anxious heart.
Just as the twilight of the spring evening was deepening, and Mrs Lambert ordered Bryda to fetch the candles and lay the cloth for supper, a very gentle ring at the bell was heard—so gentle this time that it did not attract Mrs Lambert's attention, and Bryda was in the hall before Sam had time to appear.
As he opened the door Bryda heard a voice she knew to be Chatterton's.
'I must see Miss Palmer,' he said. 'Let me in, you little fool.'
Sam made a grimace and said,—
'You ain't wanted here. They say you are a bad 'un—so be off.'
Then Bryda sprang forward.
'Let me speak to Mr Chatterton,' she said; and in another moment she was standing on the doorstep with him.
'I have brought you a message, Miss Palmer. I saw Jack Henderson aboard ship for America last night. He bid me say you need never trouble about him again, but that, wherever he goes, he will hold you in remembrance. Poor fellow! he seemed in frightful misery about killing the man; but if, as he says, in fair fight, there is nothing so extraordinary in it—it happens every day—only last week, in Bath, a man was killed in a duel.'
'But it is dreadful—dreadful!' Bryda exclaimed, 'because it is all my fault. And Jack gone—do you say quite gone?'
'Yes, he is a long way down channel by this time. Now, Miss Palmer, do not take on; things are sure to brighten for you.'
'Oh! he ought to have waited till he knew more. It was cowardly of Jack—'
'Well you know he did not feel sure you cared for him—thought maybe it was the Squire after all.'
'Have you heard anything else?' Bryda asked. 'Is it the talk of Bristol what happened yesterday?'
'Well, it is known, because Mr Barrett has been sent for to the Squire to try to mend his broken head. It is a pity Henderson did not wait till he knew whether he was dead or alive. I should have thought you would have heard something from Corn Street, for no doubt there is a row there at Jack's absence from the silversmith's shop.'
'Mr Lambert is away for the day,' Bryda said. 'Oh, it has been such a long, long day. I am so miserable, so wretched. I dare not stay a minute longer. Good-bye.'
'A long good-bye, a last good-bye, Miss Palmer. I am off to London by the coach to-morrow. Wish me better fortune than I have had here. If you could visit my poor mother sometimes I should be glad. She takes on at the idea of parting with me. You see you can't make a mother see that leaving her is for her son's benefit. No,' he said, 'it's gospel truth, there is no love to compare with a mother's;' and he added, 'Though I love the muse, and love and court her as a knight would court his ladye love, I love my mother, who, dear soul, never understood a word of poetry in her life—and sister is almost as bad. But, bless them both, they will be glad enough when I come back to Bristol famous.'
Then, with the courtesy of the knights of old of whom he spoke, Chatterton doffed his cap, bowed low, and, kissing Bryda's hand, was gone.
It was his last night in Bristol. He was off by the mail to London the next day, but scantily provided with clothes, though his mother had done her best, but scantily provided with money, but full to overflowing with high hope and enterprise. Of his bulky manuscripts—his much-cherished possession—he never lost hold throughout the long, cold journey. They were securely packed by his own hand in a canvas bag; his mother might pack his clothes, his sister might mend his stockings, and water them with her tears as she rolled them up and placed them in the heavy trunk, but no hand but his own should touch his manuscripts, for they represented to him, poor boy, silver and gold, and what he cared more for—Fame.
A few friends stood with his tearful mother and sobbing sister at the coach office at the Bush Inn to bid him farewell. He took both mother and sister in his arms and kissed them lovingly, said good-bye to the others, and then he sprang, still grasping his precious bag in his hand, into what was called 'the basket' of the mail coach, and cheaper, by reason of its low position outside the clumsy, lumbering vehicle, and then he was off.
Not one backward glance did he give of regret to Bristol. He was sore at what he conceived to be the ill treatment he had received from his native city, and burning with desire to avenge his wrongs by returning to it crowned with the laurel wreath of Fame, to be courted instead of spurned, to have at his feet those who had trampled on him, and to find his native City of the West awaking at last to the fact it had been so slow to recognise that he was a son of whom it might be justly proud.
The fulfilment of the last part of his high-set hope may perhaps have come, and now, at the distance of a hundred and twenty years, the figure of the marvellous boy stands out with a distinct personality which no 'animated bust' could give it. Time throws a veil of charity over his faults, and deep pity stirs in every heart, as in mine to-day as I write these fragments gathered from his short life, that he had no anchor of the soul on which to take firm hold in the troubled waters of that stormy sea on which he was launched on the 26th day of April 1770.
Deep pity, too, that no kindly hand was outstretched to help him in his hours of darkness, no voice to tell him of One to whom he might turn as of old one turned in his despair with the cry of 'My Father, I have sinned,' to find as he did pardon and peace.
* * * * *
Full tidings came to poor Bryda the day after she had parted with Chatterton—tidings from the farm. An ill-written and hurried letter from Betty was left at the office by the carrier that morning, and brought by Mr Lambert to Dowry Square when he returned for dinner.
Bryda opened the letter with trembling fingers. She could not dare to read it in the presence of others.
'DEAR BRYDA,'—Bet said,—'They brought the Squire here Sunday evening like to die. They could not get him further. The doctor said it would kill him outright. He is laid in the parlour, for they could not carry him upstairs. Two gentlemen justices have been here to-day, and the constables are on the search for him who did the deed. The doctor thinks he knew him. Oh, Bryda, it was Jack Henderson. Mr Barrett has come from Bristol, and shakes his head over the Squire. He neither speaks nor moves. It is dreadful. Can you come home? And, Bryda, you must know was it Jack—and where is Jack? If they catch him—oh, it will be more than we can bear. The doctor is not sure it was Jack. His face was covered with blood when he met him running downhill like a madman. Was it Jack?—Your sister, BET, in sorrow and love.'
Was it Jack? Ah, yes, she knew it only too well, and on her return to the parlour she found Mr Lambert telling the story in his short, concise, lawyer-like fashion, Madam Lambert nodding and ejaculating from time to time, 'Good Heavens!' and Sam listening with open mouth to the story as he waited at table.
'The young scapegrace's mother has been at Corn Street to-day. She is in a towering rage against you, Miss Palmer. She looks on you as the cause of the fray. The constables can hear naught of the boy, and he is got off scot-free, I daresay. Well, it's no use crying over spilt milk. You had best have taken my advice, Miss Palmer, and married the Squire.'
'Oh,' Bryda cried, with the cry of a hunted animal in pain, 'oh, spare me, sir, spare me. I—I cannot bear it.'
'Compose yourself, for goodness' sake, Miss Palmer, or you will make me ill. You agitate me, and before my footman, too. Pray, miss, be quiet.'
But poor Bryda had lost all self-control, and crying aloud 'Spare me,' she left the parlour.
But her fate pursued her, for Sam opened the door to Mrs Henderson, who came hastily in, brushing past Sam, and saying, as Bryda was hastening upstairs,—
'Stop, Bryda Palmer. Let me at least tell you what I think of you, you minx. To draw my poor son into a mess like this, to ruin his prospects, to turn him into a hunted felon—he who never so much as hurt a worm, he who is my eldest son, like to make his fortune, come in for his uncle's business and his money. Oh, did I not warn him that you were a good-for-nothing hussy, thinking yourself clever, and a wit, and a poetess. Yes, you may well cry and moan.'
'My good woman,' said Mr Lambert, now coming into the hall, 'I can't have any brawling here. You must be so good as to leave the house. My mother is not fit for any agitating scene. Come now, why rage at poor Miss Palmer? Pretty girls like her are sure to get suitors and set them by the ears. I daresay you did the same in your day, may do it now you are a fair widow—eh?'
This soothing flattery had the desired effect. Mrs Henderson calmed down, and the torrent of her abuse was stemmed. Then the mother's love asserted itself, and she said, in a tone of real sorrow,—
'But if I have lost Jack, my fine, handsome boy, no one can give him back to me, and I was so proud of him. But I won't stay here. Why should I?' and then Mrs Henderson, covering her face with her handkerchief was gone.
Bryda felt as if the last straw had been laid on her heavy burden, the last drop in the bitter cup. She went to her room and lay down on her bed, worn out with misery. Should she go home? Was it kind to leave Betty with all this trouble alone, with no one to sympathise? And yet how she dreaded her aunt's tongue and the neighbours' gossip—and how she dreaded to see the Squire's face, the face that haunted her night and day, lying on the road, with the hailstones dancing on it unheeded.
Perhaps, happily for Bryda, she was left no choice in the matter. When she went back to the parlour it was time for tea, of which she was sharply reminded.
Bryda went about the preparations as usual, washed the silver left from dinner, which no one but herself was ever allowed to touch, and listened in dumb patience to Mrs Lambert's tirade against the world in general and herself in particular.
Mrs Lambert was one of those people who do not concern themselves greatly about the misfortunes of others if they are allowed to see and hear of them at a distance. But it is quite a different thing if by any chance the misfortunes of another affect directly or indirectly their own particular comfort.
Thus, when Bryda said in a choked voice,—
'Will you grant me leave to go home, madam, and release me from my engagement in your service?'
'Go home! Leave me, after all my kindness to you, leave me with no one to take your place! A pretty thing indeed! No, miss, you will stay here till this day six months, according to agreement. Then, if it suits me, I may send you packing. Go home, indeed! You would not have a vastly warm welcome, methinks. No, stay here, do your duty in the station of life into which it has pleased God to call you, and you will find activity the best cure for any uneasiness,' Mrs Lambert concluded, with dignified emphasis.
Bryda was about to remonstrate, but she felt it would be useless. She must try to possess her soul in patience, and hope that after a little time Mrs Lambert might relent, and, at least, give her leave of absence for a few days.
But the efforts to keep up an appearance of cheerfulness, and to be at Madam Lambert's beck and call, was a very great strain on her.
Then the gossips who came in to supper or tea were for some days full of the event of the previous Sunday, and Bryda had to sit by and listen to various versions of the story—to reports which one day would be that the murderer had been caught, and the next that the Squire was dead. And then there were whispered questions not intended for Bryda's ear, which concerned her, she was sure, and ominous shakes of the head and glances of curiosity, till often Bryda was constrained to throw down her work and leave the parlour.
So passed the long and miserable weeks, with now and again a message from Bet, or a few lines hastily scrawled, and often scarcely legible. The Squire was alive, but light in his head, and seemed to know nothing, nor heed nothing. There seemed no comfort anywhere. Jack was, it is true, out of reach and safe whatever happened; but, as is often the case, the faithful lover of her youth was, by separation, raised to a very much higher level than when he was with her every Sunday, and poor Bryda's heart ached with self-reproach and vain longings that she had been kinder to poor Jack who loved her so well.
It was one day in June, when all Nature was rejoicing in the freshness of early summer, that Mr Barrett called at 6 Dowry Square and asked to see Miss Palmer.
Bryda was in the kitchen, doing her best to prepare a particular dish to please Mr Lambert for his supper-party that night, when Sam came down to say Mr Barrett wanted to see her on business. Bryda threw off her large apron, pulled her sleeves over her elbows, and with a hasty glance at the little bit of square glass, which distorted her face beyond recognition, she hastened upstairs with a beating heart. She found Mr Barrett in the hall.
'Can you come with me to-morrow to Rock House, Miss Palmer? The Squire, Mr Bayfield, was moved to his own home yesterday, and I superintended the removal. He has something on his mind which he says he must tell you, and none but you. Poor fellow, he is a mere wreck of a man. You had better take pity and hear what he has to say, for his position is very forlorn in that rambling old place. I have provided him with an experienced woman as nurse, and his father's friends look in on him, but it is a pitiable case. I will drive you to Rock House. Let me advise you not to delay.'
'I must get leave,' Bryda said, with trembling lips, 'I must get leave. And oh,' she exclaimed, clasping her hands, 'I do dread it—I do dread it.'
'Well, there's nothing to fear. The poor fellow can scarcely lift a finger. Not only his head but his back has had a sharp concussion. He can never be the same man again, unless by a miracle, and we doctors can't work miracles.'
Mrs Lambert gave a very reluctant permission to Bryda, and began to wonder what she should do about the 'chayney' the next day. It was the day for washing and dusting the best 'chayney' in the glass cupboard, but she supposed she must suffer inconvenience—it always was her fate.
'Pray when will you return, miss?' she asked.
'I should like to stay at home for Sunday, madam.'
'Sunday! And who is to walk with me to church? Dear me! how inconsiderate you are! I suppose you think a gentlewoman like me can take Mrs Symes' arm?'
Bryda thought nothing about it, but left the room to tell Mr Barrett she would be ready at the hour he was pleased to name.
'It must be early—say eight o'clock, Miss Palmer;' and he added, looking anxiously into her face, 'don't fret, or we shall have you ill next,' and taking Bryda's little thin hand in his the doctor felt her pulse. 'You are weak as a fly,' he said. 'Give up here and go home. We will talk more of it to-morrow. Good-day.'
During the drive to Rock House the kind-hearted surgeon did his best to divert Bryda from dwelling upon the past or the dreaded interview with Mr Bayfield. He did not know how sharp was the pang his companion felt as the old thorn tree came in sight, nor how she bit her lips and clenched the rail of the high gig with a grasp that gave her physical pain to deaden the terrible ache at her heart.
Mr Barrett talked of many things in all ignorance of the intensity of her feelings, roused by the sight of the very spot where she had last seen Jack and that rigid upturned face.
'You take an interest in the poor boy Chatterton, Miss Palmer, I know. I am afraid the sunshine of his first weeks in London is a little clouded.'
'I have seen his mother once or twice,' Bryda said. 'She showed me his first letter, written in high spirits.'
'Ah, yes! and there have been others since, but they don't deceive George Catcott, who is always thinking of him, having the notion that there never was a poet like him since Shakespeare. He is making a mistake now in rushing into politics in the Middlesex Journal. He sends Catcott the papers. What will Lord Hillsborough or the Lord Mayor care for all his violent reproaches anent this affair at Boston? Not a brass farthing—not they! That's a fine letter to the freeholders of Bristol, I own, in which he chronicles the speech of his glorious Canynge, when he said, "dear as his family were, his country was dearer," or something like that. It is all very fine, but Chatterton has to earn his bread, and I don't think he is going the right way to do it. He seems proud of his intimacy with the editor of the Political Register, but I fear it won't do him much good.'
'He still writes poetry, sir,' Bryda said, 'so his sister tells me,' and she added, with enthusiasm, 'his poetry is beautiful!'
'Yes, yes, you know, I take it, many folks think there never was such a person as "Rowley the priest."'
'Never!' Bryda exclaimed, 'not all those hundreds of years ago.'
Mr Barrett smiled.
'Rowley the priest is one and the same with Thomas Chatterton, so some say—not good George Catcott and not Mr Clayfield. I am in no position to decide the question.'
Mr Barrett talked on, discussing Chatterton and his work, and Bryda grew interested in spite of herself, and was almost surprised when the white gates of Rock House came in sight, and the dreaded moment of the interview was close at hand.
How well she recalled her first and only visit there, more than a year before, the courage that then emboldened her to plead her grandfather's cause, the despair with which she turned away and ran down the avenue of firs, with Flick by her side, and had to confess to herself that her errand was in vain. Then arose those questionings which torture us all when we look back on the irrevocable, and she asked herself,—
'If I had never come here that day, if I had never tried to move his hard heart to pity, all this misery and distress might—would have been saved. Oh! why did I ever come, why did I ever do it?'
These and other thoughts of the same kind filled Bryda's mind as she waited in a dull room opposite the library, where Mr Barrett had left her while he went to prepare the Squire for her coming.
The waiting seemed like hours instead of minutes, and yet when the door opened and Mr Barrett beckoned her to follow him she drew back.
'Oh! I cannot—cannot come.'
Then the good doctor took her trembling, cold little hand in his, and said,—
'Come, my dear, there is nothing to fear. Take courage, you will not regret your visit I am sure.'
Then the door of the same room where Bryda had first seen the Squire opened and closed behind, and she found herself alone with Mr Bayfield.
But could it be he? There was scarcely a trace of the handsome, stalwart young man of thirty left in that pale, emaciated form lying on a couch before her.
'I cannot rise to greet you, madam,' were Mr Bayfield's first words. 'Come nearer, please; I have something to say to you, and my voice is weak.'
Then a long thin hand was outstretched to Bryda, and her fears seemed to vanish. She went up to the couch and said in low tones,—
'I am grieved, sir, to see you so—ill, and—'
The large wistful eyes fastened on Bryda's face had now nothing offensive in their gaze. There was the far-off look in them of one who had done with the world and all the world's sin and sorrow.
'Miss Palmer,' he said, 'I wished to see you to seek forgiveness. You told me on that day long ago I had no mercy; it was true. I had no mercy, and I deceived you cruelly.'
Then from a small pocket-book, worn with age and fastened with a ragged strap, Mr Bayfield took out a paper—two papers.
One, that which he had shown to the old farmer on the night of his first visit; the other dated only a few months before the old Squire's sudden death. He put both into Bryda's hands and said,—
'Read them, and then grant me your pardon if you can.'
Bryda unfolded the papers with trembling fingers, and on the last read:—
'I hereby wish to leave on record, should anything happen to me, that Peter Palmer of Bishop's Farm is not to be pressed for the discharge of his debt to me. The heir of my body, my only son, is a wanderer on the face of the earth. He left me shortly after his sainted mother's death, fifteen years ago, and I have given up all hope of his return; but should he return, I hereby instruct him that I discharge the said Peter Palmer from his liability to me. He is an old man, and a man of many troubles. The sum of money was borrowed in a time of sore anguish, and I will not bring his grey hairs to the grave in added sorrow by demanding payment. This for my son, if ever he returns. And by my will my executors are bound to keep this small estate intact for two years after my decease, and then, should my son make no sign, let it be put into the market, with all my goods and chattels, and the money divided amongst certain poor folk and charities named in my last will and testament.'
(Signed) 'CHARLES BAYFIELD.'
A profound silence reigned as Bryda read the rather illegible writing of the old Squire. When she had finished she looked up, and, with a deep sigh, said simply,—
'I am thankful for grandfather! Oh! if we had known this sooner!'
A spasm of pain passed over Mr Bayfield's face.
'Yes,' he said, 'and there rests my sin against you. This paper, dated only a few months before my father's death, was in this pocket-book, the other paper in the deed box, of which his executors took possession. No one knew of this paper but me. I kept it back, granting the reprieve for your sweet sake. If I had obtained possession of you I might have told you of it—I do not know. I cannot answer for myself—my old self,' he repeated. 'God forgive me, I am punished. Can you forgive me?'
Then he paused again, silent, and Bryda to her latest day remembered how in that profound stillness a thrush outside, in the glory of the summer noontide, broke out into song, and ceasing, the deep sob of an oppressed heart seemed to touch the two extremes of joy and grief, these constantly recurring contrasts in this beautiful world, given to us by a loving Father, richly to enjoy, and where sin is ever sounding its strain of sorrow, and often of despair.
All the true woman awoke now in Bryda's heart. She knelt down by the couch, and taking the Squire's hand in both hers, bent her face upon it, and whispered,—
'Yes, I forgive you. I am so sorry,' and in a lower whisper still, 'Please forgive poor Jack; he is gone far away. I shall never, never see him again, and it was all because he loved me. Please forgive him.'
'For your sake, yes,' was the reply, 'for your sake, and pray for me as I lie here alone. Your sister has tried to make me a better man. She was as an angel of God sent to drive out the evil spirits in me. My mother!—ah! my mother used to pray for me—and in this very room I have prayed at her knee. Once, in my fits of passion and rage, she told me of a king who like me had an evil spirit—Saul, yes, it must have been Saul—and she prayed God that one of His angels might be sent to me to drive it out. Two angels have come at last—you and your sister—and I shall never forget you. Kiss me on the forehead before you go—a seal of forgiveness, of pardon.'
Bryda rose and did as he asked her, and then without another word left the room.
* * * * *
Mr Barrett dropped her at the farm, where Betty received her, and, flinging her arms round this gentle sister, she said,—
'Oh, Betty! dear Bet! take me upstairs. I can bear no more.'
No, she could bear no more—overwrought, and ill in mind and body, Bryda lay down in her tent-bed in the upper chamber of Bishop's Farm; and Mrs Lambert, to her intense surprise and vexation, was obliged to look for someone else to supply Bryda's place, mend and clear starch her lace, and prepare dainty dishes for Mr Lambert's friends, attend her to the cathedral, and indulge all her whims.
It is never too late to mend, though, of all ugly weeds which grow unchecked in the human heart, selfishness is the hardest to pluck up, especially if for seventy years it has flourished unchecked.
* * * * *
Bryda lay in a state of feverish exhaustion on her bed for many weeks, tended with loving care by Betty, who did her best to divert her mind from sad thoughts.
Betty said very little about the time when the Squire lay in the parlour below, and Bryda was too languid to ask many questions.
In the farm things seemed to have taken a turn for the better. Peter Palmer, having been assured that he was delivered from debt, seemed to take a new lease of life. The wheat harvest promised to be plentiful, the berry crop had been good, and old Silas reported well of the sheep, the last flock driven to Bristol market having fetched a fair price from the dealers; and as to the poultry, Dorothy Burrow declared that, now Goody Renton was dead, the later broods were all healthy, and that it was her evil eye which had done to death so many in previous summers.
Mr Barrett was still in occasional attendance on the Squire, and never failed to stop at Bishop's Farm when he passed, either going or coming.
He was always cheery and hopeful, and in advance of the general practitioner of those days in many ways. He brought Bryda books and newspapers; but when she asked news of Thomas Chatterton he would put off a direct answer.
Another question, often on her lips, about the Squire he parried; and when she asked, 'Is there any way of getting Jack Henderson back—of letting him know?' Mr Barrett would shake his head.
'I am afraid not; but don't vex yourself, my dear. He may be making his fortune, and come back one day a rich man.'
'Ah! but he will always have that face before him, lying dead, as he thought. Even now I can't forget it.'
'Oh! come, come! the Squire is better. He was able to set his hand to a document to-day, and Nurse says he is not so wandering in his sleep. He'll do in time.'
And while these glowing August days of 1770 went on, and the golden corn ripened, and the trees in the orchard were laden with rosy fruit, while the hills wore their imperial robes of purple and gold, and partridges, all unconscious of their coming fate, rose in covies from the stubble, London streets were hot and dusty, and there, up and down, paced the boy poet, nearing the tragic end of all his bright dreams and all his proud aspirations.
The pathetic story need not be told in detail here. From the moment when he left Mr Lambert's house, and went to try his fortune in the great city of London, he drifted away from his Bristol friends and Bristol ties.
Mr Barrett and his staunch friend Mr George Catcott had letters from him, and it is plain that he applied to Mr Barrett for a certificate to go out as a ship's surgeon.
But this request he could not honestly grant. Letters to his mother and sister are also preserved, which are pathetic, indeed, as they are evidently written with the one desire of keeping them in ignorance of his real condition.
He sends them presents, and denies himself food that he may do so. He writes of orders for copy for the reviews and magazines, and keeps up the hope of the mother he loves so well, when his own hope was dying day by day.
One hot morning Bryda was lying in her upper chamber in the old farmhouse, paper and pens at her side, on a little table, where Betty, her faithful sister, had placed a little jar of monthly roses and mignonette. Life was returning to her, and she rose from her couch, and throwing a shawl over her head, without telling Betty, she crept feebly downstairs and went out into the orchard, the boughs of the old apple trees, heavy with their rosy and russet load, touching her as she passed. Bryda went through the wicket-gate and sank down on the boulder where long ago she sat meditating on the dead lamb, and, hearing the chime of the Bristol bells, was filled with desire to take flight to the busy city, and had consented to write to Madam Lambert and let Jack Henderson convey the letter to Bristol the next day.
Jack—where was Jack? An exile and a wanderer for her sake, and her heart failed her when she thought she should never see him again, never be able to atone to him for what he had suffered. The knights of old, of whom Thomas Chatterton wrote, rescued their lady loves from the grasp of lawless men, and, at the risk of life and limb, were ready to die in the attempt. And poor Jack had done the deed worthy of the knights of old, and how severely he had been punished.
As Bryda went over the past she heard quick footsteps behind her. The wicket-gate opened and shut with a click, and Mr Barrett stood by her side.
'Well done, my fair lady,' he said. 'I wanted to get you into the open air. You have stolen a march on Betty, who is hastening after me with another shawl and a cloak.'
Then, as Betty came up full of fear that Bryda should suffer, and covering the ground with an old cloak that Bryda's feet might rest upon it, Mr Barrett's cheery manner suddenly changed. With a deep sigh he said,—
'I have had sad news to-day. The poor boy, poor Chatterton, is dead—aye, and worse, died by his own hand.'
'Dead!' both girls exclaimed in an awe-struck tone.
'Yes, and we in Bristol have all been guilty in the matter. Poor George Catcott is racked by self-reproach, and well he may be, well may I be. He was starving and half-mad, that last letter to Catcott shows. We should have sent someone to him, poor, poor boy. I shall find it hard to forgive myself, I know that. And in that letter he said "I am no Christian—"'
Mr Barrett's voice was choked with emotion, and, unable to say another word, he went hastily down the lane, and very soon his horse's feet and the wheels of his high gig were heard rattling on the highroad beyond.
'Oh, Bryda, don't fret,' Betty said, as poor Bryda covered her face with her hands.
'I would like to be alone,' Bryda replied. 'Leave me, dear, just a little while. Come back for me, but leave me now.'
Betty obeyed, and Bryda was left alone once more to face the great mystery of death.
'Yes,' she thought, 'he was mad. He could not be taken to account for his actions. How his eyes flamed, as if a fire burned in their depths. How he would fall into silence all of a sudden. How he would burst out into wild rage, and then how gentle and kind he could be. How gentle to me that last night when he came to tell me about Jack.' Then Bryda looked up into the clear sky above her head, as if to seek an answer to her question there, as if there she could solve this mystery.
And although not in words, there came to her soul a great overpowering sense of the Love of God; and in that Love alone we can find the key which opens out the boundlessness of His mercy.
Like as a father pities! When man is pitiless and forgetful, when man judges with a hard judgment, the All-loving One remembers our frame, and in His love and in His pity redeems and pardons.
Ten years had passed away, and Peter Palmer had long been laid to rest under the yew tree shade in the village churchyard.
Dorothy Burrow had found a soft place in the heart of a neighbouring farmer, and had taken to herself a second husband, and gone to live near Bath.
The old farm had passed into other hands, and little fair-haired children played under the boughs of the orchard, whence many of the old trees had been cleared and young ones planted in their stead.
The lichen-covered roof of the homestead had been repaired, and the appearance of the place bespoke prosperity and comfort.
It was a May evening in 1780 when heavy footsteps were heard coming slowly up the lane at the side of the farm, and a tall athletic man went to the wicket-gate and leaned upon it with folded arms.
Presently a woman, with a child in her arms, came up to him and said,—
'Good evening. Fine weather, isn't it? There was a sharp shower this morning, and we can almost see the things growing.'
'Who lives here at Bishop's Farm?'
'I do,' was the prompt reply. 'My husband bought the place when Peter Palmer died four years ago. Are you a stranger in these parts?'
'Yes; that is, I knew the place once, years ago—ten years ago.'
'Ah, there's many changes in ten years! I can scarce believe it is twelve since I married, only for the children,' looking fondly down on a crowd of little boys and girls who were under the care of a tall girl of ten, 'only the children tell me it's true.'
'Do you happen to know where the Miss Palmers are? Are they—married?'
'One is married to the Squire at Rock House—a grand match it was. But she was a pretty, notable girl, and nursed him, so I hear, in an illness; but it was all before we came from the other side of Bath.'
'What do you mean? What is the Squire's name?'
'Bayfield, of course, of Rock House, six or seven miles off Binegar way. The other sister lives with Mrs Henderson, who had a seizure just about the time Farmer Palmer died. She was a fine ladyish person, and things would have gone to wrack and ruin if Miss Palmer had not gone to her. She has been like a mother to the girls, and taught them lots of things. Two are out in service, and one in Mrs Hannah More's school.' Jack turned away, the woman calling after him,—
'Come in and rest, sir, and take a cup of cider. You look very tired.'
But Jack shook his head and set off at a quick pace towards his mother's house.
No one recognised him; he was bronzed with exposure to the air, and his face was deeply lined with care, so that he looked prematurely old. His thick curly hair was streaked with grey, and his huge frame was a little bent, as he leaned heavily on his stick. The news he had heard filled his heart with strangely mixed feelings. The Squire was alive, the great burden of manslaughter, which had lain so heavily upon him for ten long years of exile, was removed. But Bryda had married him.
Of course he saw it all—desire in her part to atone for what he had done for her sake. Did not the woman say she had nursed him through an illness? Yes, it was all plain—Bryda was lost to him for ever.
He could not make up his mind to see her, but he would like to see Betty, and so he walked on slowly towards his mother's house.
He felt more like a man in a dream as he passed all the familiar objects on the road—all associated with the love of his whole life.
A high gig passed him at a quick trot. Looking up, he recognised his brother, his red hair gleaming in the sunshine; but he did not see him, or, if he saw him, did not recognise him.
'He looks prosperous, anyhow,' Jack thought, as he looked back at the cart wheeling swiftly down the road. The children at a few cottage doors looked up from their play to gaze at the traveller. 'They don't know me. No one knows,' he thought bitterly. Then he remembered that the children of ten years ago were men and women now. 'How could these little things know him? Betty won't know me,' he said, 'like as not. Well, I must see her. I must hear what she can tell me, and then I shall be off again. I could never, never look on her face—the wife of that man—never.'
He was at the garden gate of his old home now, against which two large lilac bushes grew, and, now in full blossom, scented the air with their fragrance.
Jack took up his position so that he was shielded from observation by the overhanging boughs of one of the bushes, and looked up the straight path to the house.
Everything was apparently well cared for, and the borders on either side of the path were full of spring flowers. Flowers, too, were in boxes on the ledges of the windows, and the diamond panes of the lattices bright and clear.
Jack noticed all these little details, and the gambols of two grey kittens in the porch, an old dog lying, with his nose on his paws, entirely regardless of his frisky neighbours.
Presently a maid-servant brought out an easy-chair and a cushion, and was followed by two figures—his mother, leaning heavily on the arm of—Betty, her poor head shaking tremulously, and her querulous voice raised in some complaint about the position of the chair.
Betty! But was it Betty? There had been many changes in ten years, but as Jack's eyes, shaded by his hand, examined the figure leaning over his mother's chair and gently arranging the cushions, his heart gave a great bound, and then seemed to stop beating. He clenched the gate for support, and knew that he was looking at his lost love—Bryda.
The gate gave a sharp click as his heavy hand grasped it, and Bryda looked up. She came swiftly down the path and said,—
'Can I do anything for you? You look—' Then, with a sudden radiance illuminating her beautiful face, she exclaimed, 'Jack, I am so glad!'
Jack was still mastered by the strength of his emotion, and was speechless, his broad chest heaving, and the words he would have spoken refused to be uttered.
Yes, it was Bryda. The girl had changed into the woman, but except an added sweetness and refinement in her face she was the idol of Jack's dreams.
'Come outside, please,' she said, laying her little hand on his and pushing open the gate. 'Your mother could not bear the shock of joy your return would give her. I must prepare her for it. Come round to the garden behind and sit down in the arbour. You look so ill, Jack, I must fetch you something.'
He found his voice at last.
'Are you married, Bryda?'
'Married! Oh, no. I will tell you all if you will only come and rest. Married! No, Jack, I came here to take care of your mother and sister, because it was through me they lost you. Your poor mother had no one to nurse her, and I have been so happy here. The children love me, I think; and as to Tim, he is a very good fellow, and takes me as a sister.' She did not add how often the said Tim had asked her to marry him, nor how many other suitors had in vain tried to win her favour.
'And Betty, then, is the fine lady. The woman at the farm told me it was you who had married the Squire.'
A cloud of sadness passed over Bryda's face as that name was mentioned.
'Betty is not a fine lady,' she said; 'she is still the same dear unselfish Betty she ever was. She is very happy, and David Bayfield is a good husband. Betty is the mistress of Rock House, and the gentry all around respect her, for she never takes airs on herself—she is far, far above that.'
'I never knew he was alive till an hour ago,' Jack said, with a deep sigh; 'it is a burden lifted, it is a chain loosed from my neck—that it is, Bryda.'
Bryda's beautiful eyes were full of tears.
'Yes, dear,' she said gently, 'I know how great the relief must be. And now, Jack, let us forget the sad past. The Squire, David Bayfield, is not a strong man, and cannot hunt or ride to cover, but he has done much for the estate, and Bet and he are good to the poor, and kind—how kind—to the sad and sorrowful. Now I must go and tell your mother I have heard of you.'
'But first—first, Bryda, tell me, can you love me? It is too much to ask, I know; but I have made money out in America, and if you can care for a stupid fellow like me—you are so clever and so beautiful. Oh, Bryda, can you care for me at last?'
'I think I can, Jack,' she said, with a sweet smile. 'Ten years of separation have taught me many things, and one is—' He put his arm round her and drew her towards him. 'And one is,' she whispered, 'that I have always loved you, and that, though you never knew it, I should never, never have married any man but you.'
Sweet were the mutual happiness and thankfulness of that May day to Jack Henderson and Bryda; and as they sat for a few blissful minutes in the arbour, which had been Mrs Henderson's pride in earlier days, Bryda said,—
'All through these long years I have never lost hope, and although, as poor Chatterton said, "She did seem to take her high flight, shrouded in mist, and with her blinded eyes," I always knew I should greet her some day—"the holy sister, sweeping through the sky in crown of gold and robe of lily white." I shall have to make you love Chatterton's poetry, Jack. Poor boy, I never forget him. You must love poetry now, Jack.'
'I shall love you,' Jack said firmly. 'Won't that be enough for a dullard like me?'
'No, not quite enough,' she said, laughing. 'And now wait here while I go and tell your mother that the wanderer is come home.'
COLSTON AND COMPANY, PRINTERS, EDINBURGH.
- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation, punctuation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. Typographical errors corrected in the text: Page 36 neeedlework changed to needlework Page 37 missing quotes added Page 41 whether changed to whither Page 53 missing quote added Page 54 tonight changed to to-night Page 61 Dorory changed to Dowry Page 62 auther changed to author -