"Did he, by God! Doan't he wish he knawed!"
"He does knaw, Will—least he said he did."
"Never dream it, Phoebe. 'T is a lie. For why? 'Cause if he did knaw I shouldn't—but theer, I've never tawld 'e, an' I ban't gwaine to now. Awnly I'll say this,—if Grimbal really knawed he'd have—but he can't knaw, and theer 's an end of it."
"To think I should have been frighted by such a story all these weeks! An' not true. Oh! I wish I'd told 'e when he sent the message. 'T would have saved me so much."
"Ess, never keep nothin' from me, Phoebe. Theer 's troubles that might crush wan heart as comes a light load divided between two. What message?"
"Some silly auld story 'bout a suit of grey clothes. He said I was to tell 'e the things was received by the awner."
Will Blanchard stood still so suddenly that it seemed as though magic had turned him into stone. He stood, and his hands unclasped, and Phoebe's church service which he carried fell with a thud into the road. His wife watched him change colour, and noted in his face an expression she had never before seen there.
"Christ A'mighty!" he whispered, with his eyes reflecting a world of sheer amazement and even terror; "he does knaw!"
"What? Knaw what, Will? For the Lard's sake doan't 'e look at me like that; you'll frighten my heart into my mouth."
"To think he knawed an' watched an' waited all these years! The spider patience o' that man! I see how 't was. He let the world have its way an' thought to see me broken wi'out any trouble from him. Then, when I conquered, an' got to Miller's right hand, an' beat the world at its awn game, he—an' been nursing this against me! The heart of un!"
He spoke to himself aloud, gazing straight before him at nothing.
"Will, tell me what 't is. Caan't your awn true wife help 'e now or never?"
Recalled by her words he came to himself, picked up her book, and walked on. She spoke again and then he answered,—
"No, 't is a coil wheer you caan't do nought—nor nobody. The black power o' waitin'—'t is that I never heard tell of. I thought I knawed what was in men to the core—me, thirty years of age, an' a ripe man if ever theer was wan. But this malice! 'T is enough to make 'e believe in the devil."
"What have you done?" she cried aloud. "Tell me the worst of it, an' how gert a thing he've got against you."
"Bide quiet," he answered. "I'll tell 'e, but not on the public road. Not but he'll take gude care every ear has it presently. Shut your mouth now an' come up to our chamber arter breakfast an' I'll tell 'e the rights of it. An' that dog knawed an' could keep it close all these years!"
"He's dangerous, an' terrible, an' strong. I see it in your faace, Will."
"So he is, then; ban't no foxin' you 'bout it now. 'T is an awful power of waitin' he've got; an' he haven't bided his time these years an' years for nothin'. A feast to him, I lay. He've licked his damned lips many a score o' times to think of the food he'd fat his vengeance with bimebye."
"Can he taake you from me? If not I'll bear it."
"Ess fay, I'm done for; credit, fortune, all gone. It might have been death if us had been to war at the time."
She clung to him and her head swam.
"Death! God's mercy! you've never killed nobody, Will?"
"Not as I knaws on, but p'r'aps ban't tu late to mend it. It freezes me—it freezes my blood to think what his thoughts have been. No, no, ban't death or anything like that. But 't is prison for sure if—"
He broke off and his face was very dark.
"What, Will? If what? Oh, comfort me, comfort me, Will, for God's sake! An' another li'l wan comin'!"
"Doan't take on," he said. "Ban't my way to squeal till I'm hurt. Let it bide, an' be bright an' cheery come eating, for mother 's down in the mouth at losin' Chris, though she doan't shaw it."
Mrs. Blanchard, with little Timothy, joined the breakfast party at Monks Barton, and a certain gloom hanging over the party, Mr. Blee commented upon it in his usual critical spirit.
"This here givin' in marriage do allus make a looker-on down in the mouth if he 's a sober-minded sort o' man. 'T is the contrast between the courageousness of the two poor sawls jumpin' into the state, an' the solid fact of bein' a man's wife or a woman's husband for all time. The vows they swear! An' that Martin's voice so strong an' cheerful! A teeming cause o' broken oaths the marriage sarvice; yet each new pair comes along like sheep to the slaughter."
"You talk like a bachelor man," said Damaris.
"Not so, Mrs. Blanchard, I assure 'e! Lookers-on see most of the game. Ban't the mite as lives in a cheese what can tell e' 'bout the flavour of un. Look at a married man at a weddin'—all broadcloth an' cheerfulness, like the fox as have lost his tail an' girns to see another chap in the same pickle."
"Yet you tried blamed hard to lose your tail an' get a wife, for all your talk," said Will, who, although his mind was full enough, yet could generally find a sharp word for Mr. Blee.
"Bah to you!" answered the old man angrily. "That for you! 'T is allus your way to bring personal talk into high conversation. I was improvin' the hour with general thoughts; but the vulgar tone you give to a discourse would muzzle the wisdom o' Solomon."
Miller Lyddon here made an effort to re-establish peace and soon afterwards the meal came to an end.
Half an hour later Phoebe heard from her husband the story of his brief military career: of how he had enlisted as a preliminary to going abroad and making his fortune, how he had become servant to one Captain Tremayne, how upon the news of Phoebe's engagement he had deserted, and how his intention to return and make a clean breast of it had been twice changed by the circumstances that followed his marriage. Long he took in detailing every incident and circumstance.
"Coming to think," he said, "of coourse 't is clear as Grimbal must knaw my auld master. I seed his name raised to a Major in the Western Morning News a few year agone, an' he was to Okehampton with a battalion when Hicks come by his death. So that's how't is; an' I ban't gwaine to bide Grimbal's time to be ruined, you may be very sure of that. Now I knaw, I act."
"He may be quite content you should knaw. That's meat an' drink enough for him, to think of you gwaine in fear day an' night."
"Ess, but that's not my way. I ban't wan to wait an enemy's pleasure."
"You won't go to him, Will?"
"Go to un? Ess fay—'fore the day's done, tu."
"That's awnly to hasten the end."
"The sooner the better."
He tramped up and down the bedroom with his eyes on the ground, his hands in his pockets.
"A tremendous thing to tumble up on the surface arter all these years; an' a tremendous time for it to come. 'T was a crime 'gainst the Queen for my awn gude ends. I had to choose 'tween her an' you; I'd do the same to-morrow. The fault weern't theer. It lay in not gwaine back."
"You couldn't; your arm was broke."
"I ought to have gone back arter 't was well. Then time had passed, an' uncle's money corned, an' they never found me. But theer it lies ahead now, sure enough."
"Perhaps for sheer shame he'll bide quiet 'bout it. A man caan't hate another man for ever."
"I thought not, same as you, but Grimbal shaws we 'm wrong."
"Let us go, then; let us do what you thought to do 'fore faither comed forward so kind. Let us go away to furrin paarts, even now."
"I doubt if he'd let me go. 'T is mouse an' cat for the minute. Leastways so he's thought since he talked to 'e. But he'll knaw differ'nt 'fore he lies in his bed to-night. Must be cut an' dried an' settled."
"Be slow to act, Will, an'—"
"Theer! theer!" he said, "doan't 'e offer me no advice, theer's a gude gal, 'cause I couldn't stand it even from you, just this minute. God knaws I'm not above takin' it in a general way, for the best tried man can larn from babes an' sucklings sometimes; but this is a thing calling for nothin' but shut lips. 'T is my job an' I've got to see it through my own way."
"You'll be patient, Will? 'T isn't like other times when you was right an' him wrong. He's got the whip-hand of 'e, so you mustn't dictate."
"Not me. I can be reasonable an' just as any man. I never hid from myself I was doin' wrong at the time. But, when all's said, this auld history's got two sides to it—'specially if you remember that 't was through John Grimbal's awn act I had to do wan wrong thing to save you doin' a worse wan. He'll have to be reasonable likewise. 'T is man to man."
Will's conversation lasted another hour, but Phoebe could not shake his determination, and after dinner Blanchard departed to the Red House, his destination being known to his wife only.
But while Will marched upon this errand, the man he desired to see had just left his own front door, struck through leafless coppices of larch and silver beech that approached the house, and then proceeded to where bigger timber stood about a little plateau of marshy land, surrounded by tall flags. The woodlands had paid their debt to Nature in good gold, and all the trees were naked. An east wind lent a hard, clean clearness to the country. In the foreground two little lakes spread their waters steel-grey in a cup of lead; the distance was clear and cold and compact of all sober colours save only where, through a grey and interlacing nakedness of many boughs, the roof of the Red House rose.
John Grimbal sat upon a felled tree beside the pools, and while he remained motionless, his pipe unlighted, his gun beside him, a spaniel worked below in the sere sedges at the water's margin. Presently the dog barked, a moor-hen splashed, half flying, half swimming, across the larger lake, and a snipe got up and jerked crookedly away on the wind. The dog stood with one fore-paw lifted and the water dripping along his belly. He waited for a crack and puff of smoke and the thud of a bird falling into the water or the underwood. But his master did not fire; he did not even see the flushing of the snipe; so the dog came up and remonstrated with his eyes. Grimbal patted the beast's head, then rose from his seat on the felled tree, stretched his arms, sat down again and lighted his pipe.
The event of the morning had turned his thoughts in the old direction, and now they were wholly occupied with Will Blanchard. Since his fit of futile spleen and fury after the meeting with Phoebe, John had slowly sunk back into the former nerveless attitude. From this an occasional wonder roused him—a wonder as to whether the woman had ever given her husband his message at all. His recent active hatred seemed a little softened, though why it should be so he could not have explained. Now he sometimes assured himself that he should not proceed to extremities, but hang his sword over Will's head a while and possibly end by pardoning him altogether.
Thus he paltered with his better part and presented a spectacle of one mentally sick unto death by reason of shattered purpose. His unity of design was gone. He had believed the last conversation with Phoebe in itself sufficient to waken his pristine passion, but anger against himself had been a great factor of that storm, apart from which circumstance he made the mistake of supposing that his passion slept, whereas in reality it was dead. Now, if Grimbal was to be stung into activity, it must be along another line and upon a fresh count.
Then, as he reflected by the little tarns, there approached Will Blanchard himself; and Grimbal, looking up, saw him standing among white tussocks of dead grass by the water-side and rubbing the mud off his boots upon them. For a moment his breath quickened, but he was not surprised; and yet, before Will reached him, he had time to wonder at himself that he was not.
Blanchard, calling at the Red House ten minutes after the master's departure, had been informed by old Lawrence Vallack, John's factotum, that he had come too late. It transpired, however, that Grimbal had taken his gun and a dog, so Will, knowing the estate, made a guess at the sportsman's destination, and was helped on his way when he came within earshot of the barking spaniel.
Now that animal resented his intrusion, and for a moment it appeared that the brute's master did also. Will had already seen Grimbal where he sat, and came swiftly towards him.
"What are you doing here, William Blanchard? You're trespassing and you know it," said the landowner loudly. "You can have no business here."
"Haven't I? Then why for do'e send me messages?"
Will stood straight and stern in front of his foe. His face was more gloomy than the sombre afternoon; his jaw stood out very square; his grey eyes were hard as the glint of the east wind. He might have been accuser, and John Grimbal accused. The sportsman did not move from his seat upon the log. But he felt a flush of blood pulse through him at the other's voice, as though his heart, long stagnant, was being sluiced.
"That? I'd forgotten all about it. You've taken your time in obeying me."
"This marnin', an' not sooner, I heard what you telled her when you catched Phoebe alone."
"Ah! now I understand the delay. Say what you've got to say, please, and then get out of my sight."
"'T is for you to speak, not me. What be you gwaine to do, an' when be you gwaine to do it? I allow you've bested me, God knaws how; but you've got me down. So the sooner you say what your next step is, the better."
The older man laughed.
"'T isn't the beaten party makes the terms as a rule."
"I want no terms; I wouldn't make terms with you for a sure plaace in heaven. Tell me what you be gwaine to do against me. I've a right to knaw."
"I can't tell you."
"You mean as you won't tell me?"
"I mean I can't—not yet. After speaking to your wife I forgot all about it. It doesn't interest me."
"Be you gwaine to give me up?"
"Probably I shall—as a matter of duty. I'm a bit of a soldier myself. It's such a dirty coward's trick to desert. Yes, I think I shall make an example of you."
Will looked at him steadily.
"You want to wake the devil in me—I see that. But you won't. I'm aulder an' wiser now. So you 'm to give me up? I knawed it wi'out axin'."
"And that doesn't wake you?"
"No. Seein' why I deserted an' mindin' your share in drivin' me."
Grimbal did not answer, and Will asked him to name a date.
"I tell you I shall suit myself, not you. When you will like it least, be sure of that. I needn't pretend what I don't feel. I hate the sight of you still, and the closer you come the more I hate you. It rolls years off me to see your damned brown face so near and hear your voice in my ear,—years and years; and I'm glad it does. You've ruined my life, and I'll ruin yours yet."
There was a pause; Blanchard stared cold and hard into Grimbal's eyes; then John continued, and his flicker of passion cooled a little as he did so,—
"At least that's what I said to myself when first I heard this little bit of news—that I'd ruin you; now I'm not sure."
"At least I'll thank you to make up your mind. 'T is turn an' turn about. You be uppermost just this minute. As to ruining me, that's as may be."
"Well, I shall decide presently. I suppose you won't run away. And it 's no great matter if you do, for a fool can't hide himself under his folly."
"I sha'n't run. I want to get through with this and have it behind me."
"You're in a hurry now."
"It 's just an' right. I knaw that. An' ban't no gert odds who 's informer. But I want to have it behind me—an' you in front. Do 'e see? This out o' hand, then it 's my turn again. Keepin' me waitin' 'pon such a point be tu small an' womanish for a fight between men. 'T is your turn to hit, Jan Grimbal, an' theer 's no guard 'gainst the stroke, so if you're a man, hit an' have done with it."
"Ah! you don't like the thought of waiting!"
"No, I do not. I haven't got your snake's patience. Let me have what I've got to have, an' suffer it, an' make an' end of it."
"You're in a hurry for a dish that won't be pleasant eating, I assure you."
"It's just an' right I tell 'e; an' I knaw it is, though all these years cover it. Your paart 's differ'nt. I lay you 'm in a worse hell than me, even now."
"A moralist! How d' you like the thought of a damned good flogging—fifty lashes laid on hot and strong?"
"Doan't you wish you had the job? Thrashing of a man wi' his legs an' hands tied would just suit your sort of courage."
"As to that, they won't flog you really; and I fancy I could thrash you still without any help. Your memory 's short. Never mind. Get you gone now; and never speak to me again as long as you live, or I shall probably hit you across the mouth with my riding-whip. As to giving you up, you're in my hands and must wait my time for that."
"Must I, by God? Hark to a fule talkin'! Why should I wait your pleasure, an' me wi' a tongue in my head? You've jawed long enough. Now you can listen. I'll give myself up, so theer! I'll tell the truth, an' what drove me to desert, an' what you be anyway—as goes ridin' out wi' the yeomanry so braave in black an' silver with your sword drawed! That'll spoil your market for pluck an' valour, anyways. An' when I've done all court-martial gives me, I'll come back!"
He swung away as he spoke; and the other sat on motionless for an hour after Will had departed.
John Grimbal's pipe went out; his dog, weary of waiting, crept to his feet and fell asleep there; live fur and feathers peeped about and scanned his bent figure, immobile as a tree-trunk that supported it; and the gun, lying at hand, drew down a white light from a gathering gloaming.
One great desire was in the sportsman's mind,—he already found himself hungry for another meeting with Blanchard.
PHOEBE TAKES THOUGHT
That night Will sat and smoked in his bedroom and talked to Phoebe, who had already gone to rest. She looked over her knees at him with round, sad eyes; while beside her in a cot slept her small daughter. A candle burned on the mantelpiece and served to illuminate one or two faded pictures; a daguerreotype of Phoebe as a child sitting on a donkey, and an ancient silhouette of Miller Lyddon, cut for him on his visit to the Great Exhibition. In a frame beneath these appeared the photograph of little Will who had died at Newtake.
"He thinks he be gwaine to bide his time an' let me stew an' sweat for it," said the man moodily.
"Awnly a born devil could tell such wickedness. Ban't theer no ways o' meetin' him, now you knaw? If you'd speak to faither—"
"What 's the use bringing sorrow on his grey hairs?"
"Well, it's got to come; you knaw that. Grimbal isn't the man to forgive."
"Forgive! That would be worst of all. If he forgived me now I'd go mad. Wait till I've had soldier law, then us'll talk 'bout forgiving arter."
Phoebe shivered and began to cry helplessly, drying her eyes upon the sheet.
"Theer—theer," he said; "doan't be a cheel. We 'm made o' stern stuff, you an' me. 'T is awnly a matter of years, I s'pose, an' the reason I went may lessen the sentence a bit. Mother won't never turn against me, an' so long as your faither can forgive, the rest of the world's welcome to look so black as it pleases."
"Faither'll forgive 'e."
"He might—just wance more. He've got to onderstand my points better late days."
"Come an' sleep then, an' fret no more till marnin' light anyway."
"'Tis the thing hidden, hanging over my head, biding behind every corner. I caan't stand it; I caan't wait for it. I'll grow sheer devil if I've got to wait; an', so like as not, I'll meet un faace to faace some day an' send un wheer neither his bark nor bite will harm me. Ess fay—solemn truth. I won't answer for it. I can put so tight a hand 'pon myself as any man since Job, but to sit down under this—"
"Theer's nought else you can do," said Phoebe. She yawned as she spoke, but Will's reply strangled the yawn and effectually woke her up.
"So Jan Grimbal said, an' I blamed soon shawed un he was out. Theer's a thing I can do an' shall do. 'T will sweep the ground from under un; 't will blaw off his vengeance harmless as a gun fired in the air; 't will turn his malice so sour as beer after thunder. I be gwaine to give myself up—then us'll see who's the fule!"
Phoebe was out of bed with her arms round her husband in a moment.
"No, no—never. You couldn't, Will; you daren't—'tis against nature. You ban't free to do no such wild thing. You forget me, an' the li'l maid, an' t' other comin'!"
"Doan't 'e choke me," he said; "an' doan't 'e look so terrified. Your small hands caan't keep off what's ahead o' me; an' I wouldn't let 'em if they could. 'T is in this world that a chap's got to pay for his sins most times, an' damn short credit, tu, so far as I can see. So what they want to bleat 'bout hell-fire for I've never onderstood, seeing you get your change here. Anyway, so sure as I do a trick that ban't 'zactly wise, the whip 's allus behind it—the whip—"
He repeated the word in a changed voice, for it reminded him of what Grimbal had threatened. He did not know whether there might be truth in it. His pride winced and gasped. He thought of Phoebe seeing his bare back perhaps years afterwards. A tempest of rage blackened his face and he spoke in a voice hoarse and harsh.
"Get up an' go to bed. Doan't whine, for God's sake, or you'll drive me daft. I've paid afore, an' I'll pay again; an' may the Lard help him who ever owes me ought. No mercy have I ever had from living man,—'cept Miller,—none will I ever shaw."
"Not to-morrow, Will—not this week. Promise that, an' I'll get into bed an' bide quiet. For your love o' me, just leave it till arter Christmas time. Promise that, else you'll kill me. No, no, no—you shaa'n't shout me down 'pon this. I'll cry to 'e while I've got life left. Promise not till Christmas be past."
"I'll promise nothing. I must think in the peace o' night. Go to sleep an 'bide quiet, else you'll wake the li'l gal."
"I won't—I won't—I'll never sleep again. Caan' t'e think o' me so well as yourself—you as be allus thinking o' me? Ban't I to count in an awful pass like this? I'm no fair-weather wife, as you knaws by now. If you gives yourself up, I'll kill myself. You think I couldn't, but I could. What's my days away from you?"
"Hush, hush!" he said. "Be you mad? 'T is a matter tu small for such talk as that."
"Promise, then, promise you'll be dumb till arter Christmas."
"So I will, if you 'm that set on it; but if you knawed what waitin' meant to the likes o' me, you wouldn't ax. You've got my word, now keep quiet, theer 's a dear love, an' dry your eyes."
He put her into bed, and soon stretched himself beside her. Then she clung to him as though powers were already dragging him away for ever. Will, bored and weary, was sorry for his wife with all his soul, and kept grunting words of good cheer and comfort as he sank to sleep. She still begged and prayed for delay, and by her importunity made him promise at last that he would take no step until after New Year's Day. Then, finding she could win no more in that direction, Phoebe turned to another aspect of the problem, and began to argue with unexpected if sophistic skill. Her tears were now dry, her eyes very bright beneath the darkness; she talked and talked with feverish volubility, and her voice faded into a long-drawn murmur as Will's hearing weakened on the verge of unconsciousness.
"Why for d' you say you was wrong in what you done? Why d' you harp an' harp 'pon that, knawin' right well you'd do the same again to-morrow? You wasn't wrong, an' the Queen's self would say the same if she knawed. 'T was to save a helpless woman you runned; an' her—Queen Victoria—wi' her big heart as can sigh for the sorrow of even such small folks as us—she'd be the last to blame 'e."
"She'll never knaw nothin' 'bout it, gude or bad. They doan't vex her ears wi' trifles. I deserted, an' that's a crime."
"I say 't weern't no such thing. You had to choose between that an' letting me die. You saved my life; an' the facts would be judged the same by any as was wife an' mother, high or low. God A'mighty 's best an' awnly judge how much you was wrong; an' you knaw He doan't blame 'e, else your heart would have been sore for it these years an' years. You never blamed yourself till now."
"Ess, awften an' awften I did. It comed an' went, an' comed an' went again, like winter frosts. True as I'm living it comed an' went like that."
Thus he spoke, half incoherently, his voice all blurred and vague with sleep.
"You awnly think 't was so. You'd never have sat down under it else. It ban't meant you should give yourself up now, anyways. God would have sent the sojers to find 'e when you runned away if He'd wanted 'em to find 'e. You didn't hide. You looked the world in the faace bold as a lion, didn't 'e? Coourse you did; an' 't is gwaine against God's will an' wish for you to give yourself up now. So you mustn't speak an' you must tell no one—not even faither. I was wrong to ax 'e to tell him. Nobody at all must knaw. Be dumb, an' trust me to be dumb. 'T is buried an' forgot. I'll fight for 'e, my dearie, same as you've fought for me many a time; an' 't will all fall out right for 'e, for men 's come through worse passes than this wi' fewer friends than what you've got."
She stopped to win breath and, in the silence, heard Will's regular respiration and knew that he slept. How much he had heard of her speech Phoebe could not say, but she felt glad to think that some hours at least of rest and peace now awaited him. For herself she had never been more widely awake, and her brains were very busy through the hours of darkness. A hundred thoughts and schemes presented themselves. She gradually eliminated everybody from the main issue but Will, John Grimbal, and herself; and, pursuing the argument, began to suspect that she alone had power to right the wrong. In one direction only could such an opinion lead—a direction tremendous to her. Yet she did not shrink from the necessity ahead; she strung herself up to face it; she longed for an opportunity and resolved to make one at the earliest moment.
Now that night was the longest in the whole year; and yet to Phoebe it passed with magic celerity.
Will awakened about half-past five, rose immediately according to his custom, lighted a candle, and started to dress himself. He began the day in splendid spirits, begotten of good sleep and good health; but his wife saw the lightness of heart, the bustling activity of body, sink into apathy and inertia as remembrance overtook his wakening hour. It was like a brief and splendid dawn crushed by storm-clouds at the very rise of the sun.
Phoebe presently dressed her little daughter and, as soon as the child had gone down-stairs, Will resumed the problems of his position.
"I be in two minds this marnin'," he said. "I've a thought to tell mother of this matter. She 'm that wise, I've knawed her put me on the right track 'fore now, an' never guess she'd done it. Not but what I allus awn up to taking advice, if I follow it, an' no man 's readier to profit by the wisdom of his betters than me. That's how I've done all I have done in my time. T' other thought was to take your counsel an' see Miller 'pon it."
"I was wrong, Will—quite wrong. I've been thinking, tu. He mustn't knaw, nor yet mother, nor nobody. Quite enough knaws as 't is."
"What's the wisdom o' talkin' like that? Who 's gwaine to hide the thing, even if they wanted to? God knaws I ban't. I'd like, so well as not, to go up Chagford next market-day an' shout out the business afore the world."
"You can't now. You must wait. You promised. I thought about it with every inch of my brain last night, an' I got a sort of feeling—I caan't explain, but wait. I've trusted you all my life long an' allus shall; now 't is your turn to trust me, just this wance. I've got great thoughts. I see the way; I may do much myself. You see, Jan Grimbal—"
Will stood still with his chin half shorn.
"You dare to do that," he said, "an' I'll raise Cain in this plaace; I'll—"
He broke off and laughed at himself.
"Here be I blusterin' like a gert bully now! Doan't be feared, Phoebe. Forgive my noise. You mean so well, but you caan't hide your secrets, fortunately. Bless your purty eyes—tu gude for me, an' allus was, braave li'l woman!
"But no more of that—no seekin' him, an' no speech with him, if that's the way your poor, silly thought was. My bones smart to think of you bearin' any of it. But doan't you put no oar into this troubled water, else the bwoat'll capsize, sure as death. I've promised 'e not to say a word till arter New Year; now you must promise me never, so help you, to speak to that man, or look at un, or listen to a word from un. Fly him like you would the devil; an' a gude second to the devil he is—if 't is awnly in the matter o' patience. Promise now."
"You 'm so hasty, Will. You doan't onderstand a woman's cleverness in such matters. 'T is just the fashion thing as shaws what we 'm made of."
"Promise!" he thundered angrily. "Now, this instant moment, in wan word."
She gave him a single defiant glance. Then the boldness of her eyes faded and her lips drooped at the corners.
"I promise, then."
"I should think you did."
A few minutes later Will was gone, and Phoebe dabbed her moist eyes and blamed herself for so clumsily revealing her great intention,—to see John Grimbal and plead with him. This secret ambition was now swept away, and she knew not where to turn or how to act for her husband.
NEW YEAR'S EVE AND NEW YEAR'S DAY
From this point in his career Will Blanchard, who lacked all power of hiding his inner heart, soon made it superficially apparent that new troubles had overtaken him. No word concerning his intolerable anxieties escaped him, but a great cloud of tribulation encompassed every hour, and was revealed to others by increased petulance and shortness of temper. This mental friction quickly appeared on the young man's face, and his habitual expression of sulkiness which formerly belied him, now increased and more nearly reflected the reigning temperament of Blanchard's mind. His nerves were on the rack and he grew sullen and fretful. A dreary expression gained upon his features, an expression sad as a winter twilight brushed with rain. To Phoebe he seldom spoke of the matter, and she soon abandoned further attempts to intrude upon his heart though her own was breaking for him. Billy Blee and the farm hands were Will's safety-valve. One moment he showered hard and bitter words; the next, at sight of some ploughboy's tears or older man's reasonable anger, Will instantly relented and expressed his sorrow. The dullest among them grew in time to discern matters were amiss with him, for his tormented mind began to affect his actions and disorder the progress of his life. At times he worked laboriously and did much with his own hands that might have been left to others; but his energy was displayed in a manner fitful and spasmodic; occasionally he would vanish altogether for four-and-twenty hours or more; and none knew when he might appear or disappear.
It happened on New Year's Eve that a varied company assembled at the "Green Man" according to ancient custom. Here were Inspector Chown, Mr. Chapple, Mr. Blee, Charles Coomstock, with many others; and the assembly was further enriched by the presence of the bell-ringers. Their services would be demanded presently to toll out the old year, to welcome with joyful peal the new; and they assembled here until closing time that they might enjoy a pint of the extra strong liquor a prosperous publican provided for his customers at this season.
The talk was of Blanchard, and Mr. Blee, provided with a theme which always challenged his most forcible diction, discussed Will freely and without prejudice.
"I 'most goes in fear of my life, I tell 'e; but thank God 't is the beginning of the end. He'll spread his wings afore spring and be off again, or I doan't knaw un. Ess fay, he'll depart wi' his fiery nature an' horrible ideas 'pon manuring of land; an' a gude riddance for Monks Barton, I say."
"'Mazing 't is," declared Mr. Coomstock, "that he should look so black all times, seeing the gude fortune as turns up for un when most he wants it."
"So 't is," admitted Billy. "The faace of un weer allus sulky, like to the faace of a auld ram cat, as may have a gude heart in un for all his glowerin' eyes. But him! Theer ban't no pleasin' un. What do he want? Surely never no man 's failed on his feet awftener."
"'T is that what 's spoilin' un, I reckon," said Mr. Chappie. "A li'l ill-fortune he wants now, same as a salad o' green stuff wants some bite to it. He'd grumble in heaven, by the looks of un. An' yet it do shaw the patience of God wi' human sawls."
"Ess, it do," answered Mr. Blee; "but patience ban't a virtue, pushed tu far. Justice is justice, as I've said more 'n wance to Miller an' Blanchard, tu, an' a man of my years can see wheer justice lies so clear as God can. For why? Because theer ban't room for two opinions. I've give my Maker best scores an' scores o' times, as we all must; but truth caan't alter, an' having put thinking paarts into our heads, 't is more 'n God A'mighty's Self can do to keep us from usin' of'em."
"A tremenjous thought," said Mr. Chapple.
"So 't is. An' what I want to knaw is, why should Blanchard have his fling, an' treat me like dirt, an' ride rough-shod awver his betters, an' scowl at the sky all times, an' nothin' said?"
"Providence doan't answer a question just 'cause we 'm pleased to ax wan," said Abraham Chown. "What happens happens, because 't is foreordained, an' you caan't judge the right an' wrong of a man's life from wan year or two or ten, more 'n you can judge a glass o' ale by a tea-spoon of it. Many has a long rope awnly to hang themselves in the end, by the wonnerful foresight of God."
"All the same, theer'd be hell an' Tommy to pay mighty quick, if you an' me did the things that bwoy does, an' carried on that onreligious," replied Mr. Blee, with gloomy conviction. "Ban't fair to other people, an' if 't was Doomsday I'd up an' say so. What gude deeds have he done to have life smoothed out, an' the hills levelled an' the valleys filled up? An' nought but sour looks for it."
"But be you sure he 'm happy?" inquired Mr. Chapple. "He 'm not the man to walk 'bout wi' a fiddle-faace if 't was fair weather wi' un. He've got his troubles same as us, depend upon it."
Blanchard himself entered at this moment. It wanted but half an hour to closing time when he did so, and he glanced round the bar, snorted at the thick atmosphere of alcohol and smoke, then pulled out his pipe and took a vacant chair.
"Gude evenin', Will," said Mr. Chapple.
"A happy New Year, Blanchard," added the landlord.
"Evening, sawls all," answered Will, nodding round him. "Auld year's like to die o' frost by the looks of it—a stinger, I tell 'e. Anybody seen Farmer Endicott? I've been looking for un since noon wi' a message from my faither-in-law."
"I gived thicky message this marnin'," cried Billy.
"Ess, I knaw you did; that's my trouble. You gived it wrong. I'll just have a pint of the treble X then. 'T is the night for 't."
Will's demeanour belied the recent conversation respecting him. He appeared to be in great spirits, joked with the men, exchanged shafts with Billy, and was the first to roar with laughter when Mr. Blee got the better of him in a brisk battle of repartee. Truth to tell, the young man's heart felt somewhat lighter, and with reason. To-morrow his promise to Phoebe held him no longer, and his carking, maddening trial of patience was to end. The load would drop from his shoulders at daylight. His letter to Mr. Lyddon had been written; in the morning the miller must read it before breakfast, and learn that his son-in-law had started for Plymouth to give himself up for the crime of the past. John Grimbal had made no sign, and the act of surrender would now be voluntary—a thought which lightened Blanchard's heart and induced a turn of temper almost jovial. He joined a chorus, laughed with the loudest, and contrived before closing time to drink a pint and a half of the famous special brew. Then the bell-ringers departed to their duties, and Mr. Chapple with Mr. Blee, Will, and one or two other favoured spirits spent a further half-hour in their host's private parlour, and there consumed a little sloe gin, to steady the humming ale.
"You an' me must see wan another home," said Will when he and Mr. Blee departed into the frosty night.
"Fust time as ever you give me an arm," murmured Billy.
"Won't be the last, I'm sure," declared Will.
"I've allus had a gude word for 'e ever since I knawed 'e," answered Billy.
"An' why for shouldn't 'e?" asked Will.
"Beginning of New Year 's a solemn sarcumstance," proceeded Billy, as a solitary bell began to toll. "Theer 's the death-rattle of eighteen hunderd an' eighty-six! Well, well, we must all die—men an' mice."
"An' the devil take the hindmost."
Mr. Blee chuckled.
"Let 's go round this way," he said.
"Why? Ban't your auld bones ready for bed yet? Theer 's nought theer but starlight an' frost."
"Be gormed to the frost! I laugh at it. Ban't that. 'T is the Union workhouse, wheer auld Lezzard lies. I likes to pass, an' nod to un as he sits on the lew side o' the wall in his white coat, chumping his thoughts between his gums."
"He 'm happier 'n me or you, I lay."
"Not him! You should see un glower 'pon me when I gives un 'gude day.' I tawld un wance as the Poor Rates was up somethin' cruel since he'd gone in the House, an' he looked as though he'd 'a' liked to do me violence. No, he ban't happy, I warn 'e."
"Well, you won't see un sitting under the stars in his white coat, poor auld blid. He 'm asleep under the blankets, I lay."
"Thin wans! Thin blankets an' not many of 'em. An' all his awn doin'. Patent justice, if ever I seed it."
"Tramp along! You can travel faster 'n that. Ess fay! Justice is the battle-cry o' God against men most times. Maybe they 'm strong on it in heaven, but theer 's damned little filters down here. Theer go the bells! Another New Year come. Years o' the Lard they call 'em! Years o' the devil most times, if you ax me. What do 'e want the New Year to bring to you, Billy?"
"A contented 'eart," said Mr. Blee, "an' perhaps just half-a-crown more a week, if 't was seemly. Brains be paid higher 'n sweat in this world, an' I'm mostly brain now in my dealin's wi' Miller. A brain be like a nut, as ripens all the year through an' awnly comes to be gude for gathering when the tree 's in the sere. 'T is in the autumn of life a man's brain be worth plucking like—eh?"
"Doan't knaw. They 'm maggoty mostly at your age!"
"An' they 'm milky mostly at yourn!"
"Listen to the bells an' give awver chattering," said Will.
"After gude store o' drinks, a sad thing like holy bells ringing in the dark afar off do sting my nose an' bring a drop to my eye," confessed Mr. Blee. "An' you—why, theer 's a baaby hid away in the New Year for you—a human creature as may do gert wonders in the land an' turn out into Antichrist, for all you can say positive. Theer 's a braave thought for 'e!"
This remark sobered Blanchard and his mind travelled into the future, to Phoebe, to the child coming in June.
Billy babbled on, and presently they reached Mrs. Blanchard's cottage. Damaris herself, with a shawl over her head, stood and listened to the bells, and Will, taking leave of Mr. Blee, hastened to wish his mother all happiness in the year now newly dawned. He walked once or twice up and down the little garden beside her, and with a tongue loosened by liquor came near to telling her of his approaching action, but did not do so. Meantime Mr. Blee steered himself with all caution over Rushford Bridge to Monks Barton.
Presently the veteran appeared before his master and Phoebe, who had waited for the advent of the New Year before retiring. Miller Lyddon was about to suggest a night-cap for Billy, but changed his mind.
"Enough 's as gude as a feast," he said. "Canst get up-stairs wi'out help?"
"Coourse I can! But the chap to the 'Green Man's' that perfuse wi' his liquor at seasons of rejoicing. More went down than was chalked up; I allow that. If you'll light my chamber cannel, I'll thank 'e, missis; an' a Happy New Year to all."
Phoebe obeyed, launched Mr. Blee in the direction of his chamber, then turned to receive Will's caress as he came home and locked the door behind him.
The night air still carried the music of the bells. For an hour they pealed on; then the chime died slowly, a bell at a time, until two clanged each against the other. Presently one stopped and the last, weakening softly, beat a few strokes more, then ceased to fret the frosty birth-hour of another year.
The darkness slipped away, and Blanchard who had long learned to rise without awakening his wife, was up and dressed again soon after five o'clock. He descended silently, placed a letter on the mantelpiece in the kitchen, abstracted a leg of goose and a hunch of bread from the larder, then set out upon a chilly walk of five miles to Moreton Hampstead. From there he designed to take train and proceed to Plymouth as directly and speedily as possible.
Some two hours later Will's letter found itself in Mr. Lyddon's hand, and his father-in-law learnt the secret. Phoebe was almost as amazed as the miller himself when this knowledge came to her ear; for Will had not breathed his intention to her, and no suspicion had crossed his wife's mind that he intended to act with such instant promptitude on the expiration of their contract.
"I doubted I knawed him through an' through at last, but 't is awnly to-day, an' after this, that I can say as I do," mused Mr. Lyddon over an untasted breakfast. "To think he runned them awful risks to make you fast to him! To think he corned all across England in the past to make you his wife against the danger on wan side, an' the power o' Jan Grimbal an' me drawed up 'pon the other!"
Pursuing this strain to Phoebe's heartfelt relief, the miller neither assumed an attitude of great indignation at Will's action nor affected despair of his future. He was much bewildered, however.
"He'll keep me 'mazed so long as I live, 'pears to me. But he 'm gone for the present, an' I doan't say I'm sorry, knawin' what was behind. No call for you to sob yourself into a fever. Please God, he'll be back long 'fore you want him. Us'll make the least we can of it, an' bide patient until we hear tell of him. He've gone to Plymouth—that's all Chagford needs to knaw at present."
"Theer 's newspapers an' Jan Grimbal," sobbed Phoebe.
"A dark man wi' fixed purposes, sure enough," admitted her father, for Will's long letter had placed all the facts before him. "What he'll do us caan't say, though, seein' Will's act, theer 's nothin' more left for un. Why has the man been silent so long if he meant to strike in the end? Now I must go an' tell Mrs. Blanchard. Will begs an' prays of me to do that so soon as he shall be gone; an' he 'm right. She ought to knaw; but 't is a job calling for careful choice of words an' a light hand. Wonder is to me he didn't tell her hisself. But he never does what you'd count 'pon his doing."
"You won't tell Billy, faither, will 'e? Ban't no call for that."
"I won't tell him, certainly not; but Blee 's a ferret when a thing 's hid. A detective mind theer is to Billy. How would it do to tell un right away an' put un 'pon his honour to say nothing?"
"He mustn't knaw; he mustn't knaw. He couldn't keep a secret like that if you gived un fifty pounds to keep it. So soon tell a town-crier as him."
"Then us won't," promised Mr. Lyddon, and ten minutes after he proceeded to Mrs. Blanchard's cottage with the news. His first hasty survey of the position had not been wholly unfavourable to Will, but he was a man of unstable mind in his estimates of human character, and now he chiefly occupied his thoughts with the offence of desertion from the army. The disgrace of such an action magnified itself as he reflected upon Will's unhappy deed.
Phoebe, meantime, succumbed and found herself a helpless prey of terrors vague and innumerable. Will's fate she could not guess at; but she felt it must be severe; she doubted not that his sentence would extend over long years. In her dejection and misery she mourned for herself and wondered what manner of babe would this be that now took substance through a season of such gloom and accumulated sorrows. The thought begat pity for the coming little one,—utmost commiseration that set Phoebe's tears flowing anew,—and when the miller returned he found his daughter stricken beyond measure and incoherent under her grief. But Mr. Lyddon came back with a companion, and it was her husband, not her father, who dried Phoebe's eyes and cheered her lonely heart. Will, indeed, appeared and stood by her suddenly; and she heard his voice and cried a loud thanksgiving and clasped him close.
Yet no occasion for rejoicing had brought about this unexpected reappearance. Indeed, more ill-fortune was responsible for it. When Mr. Lyddon arrived at Mrs. Blanchard's gate, he found both Will and Doctor Parsons standing there, then learnt the incident that had prevented his son-in-law's proposed action.
Passing that way himself some hours earlier, Will had been suddenly surprised to see blue smoke rising from a chimney of the house. It was a very considerable time before such event might reasonably be expected and a second look alarmed Blanchard's heart, for on the little chimney-stack he knew each pot, and it was not the kitchen chimney but that of his mother's bedroom which now sent evidence of a newly lighted fire into the morning.
In a second Will's plans and purposes were swept away before this spectacle. A fire in a bedroom represented a circumstance almost outside his experience. At least it indicated sickness unto death. He was in the house a moment later, for the latch lifted at his touch; and when he knocked at his mother's door and cried his name, she bade him come in.
"What's this? What's amiss with 'e, mother? Doan't say 't is anything very bad. I seed the smoke an' my heart stood still."
She smiled and assured him her illness was of no account.
"Ban't nothing. Just a shivering an' stabbing in the chest. My awn fulishness to be out listening to they bells in the frost. But no call to fear. I awnly axed my li'l servant to get me a cup o' tea, an' she comed an' would light the fire, an' would go for doctor, though theer ban't no 'casion at all."
"Every occasion, an' the gal was right, an' it shawed gude sense in such a dinky maid as her. Nothin' like taaking a cold in gude time. Do 'e catch heat from the fire?"
Mrs. Blanchard's eyes were dull, and her breathing a little disordered. Will instantly began to bustle about. He added fuel to the flame, set on a kettle, dragged blankets out of cupboards and piled them upon his mother. Then he found a pillow-case, aired it until the thing scorched, inserted a pillow, and placed it beneath the patient's head. His subsequent step was to rummage dried marshmallows out of a drawer, concoct a sort of dismal brew, and inflict a cup upon the sick woman. Doctor Parsons still tarrying, Will went out of doors, knocked a brick from the fowl-house wall, brought it in, made it nearly red hot, then wrapped it up in an old rug and applied it to his parent's feet,—all of which things the sick woman patiently endured.
"You 'm doin' me a power o' gude, dearie," she said, as her discomfort and suffering increased.
Presently Doctor Parsons arrived, checked Will in fantastic experiments with a poultice, and gave him occupation in a commission to the physician's surgery. When he returned, he heard that his mother was suffering from a severe chill, but that any definite declaration upon the case was as yet impossible.
"No cause to be 'feared?" he asked.
"'T is idle to be too sanguine. You know my philosophy. I've seen a scratched finger kill a man; I've known puny babes wriggle out of Death's hand when I could have sworn it had closed upon them for good and all. Where there 's life there 's hope."
"Ess, I knaw you," answered Will gloomily; "an' I knaw when you say that you allus mean there ban't no hope at all."
"No, no. A strong, hale woman like your mother need not give us any fear at present. Sleep and rest, cheerful faces round her, and no amateur physic. I'll see her to-night and send in a nurse from the Cottage Hospital at once."
Then it was that Miller Lyddon arrived, and presently Will returned home. He wholly mistook Phoebe's frantic reception, and assumed that her tears must be flowing for Mrs. Blanchard.
"She'll weather it," he said. "Keep a gude heart. The gal from the hospital ban't coming 'cause theer 's danger, but 'cause she 'm smart an' vitty 'bout a sick room, an' cheerful as a canary an' knaws her business. Quick of hand an' light of foot for sartin. Mother'll be all right; I feel it deep in me she will."
Presently conversation passed to Will himself, and Phoebe expressed a hope this sad event would turn him from his determination for some time at least.
"What determination?" he asked. "What be talkin' about?"
"The letter you left for faither, and the thing you started to do," she answered.
"'S truth! So I did; an' if the sight o' the smoke an' then hearin' o' mother's trouble didn't blaw the whole business out of my brain!"
He stood amazed at his own complete forgetfulness.
"Queer, to be sure! But coourse theer weern't room in my mind for anything but mother arter I seed her stricken down."
During the evening, after final reports from Mrs. Blanchard's sick-room spoke of soothing sleep, Miller Lyddon sent Billy upon an errand, and discussed Will's position.
"Jan Grimbal 's waited so long," he said, "that maybe he'll wait longer still an' end by doin' nothin' at all."
"Not him! You judge the man by yourself," declared Will. "But he 's made of very different metal. I lay he's bidin' till the edge of this be sharp and sure to cut deepest. So like 's not, when he hears tell mother 's took bad he'll choose that instant moment to have me marched away."
There was a moment's silence, then Blanchard burst out into a fury bred of sudden thought, and struck the table heavily with his fist.
"God blast it! I be allus waitin' now for some wan's vengeance! I caan't stand this life no more. I caan't an' I won't—'t is enough to soften any man's wits."
"Quiet! quiet, caan't 'e?" said the miller, as though he told a dog to lie down. "Theer now! You've been an' gived me palpitations with your noise. Banging tables won't mend it, nor bad words neither. This thing hasn't come by chance. You 'm ripening in mind an' larnin' every day. You mark my word; theer 's a mort o' matters to pick out of this new trouble. An' fust, patience."
"Patience! If a patient, long-suffering man walks this airth, I be him, I should reckon. I caan't wait the gude pleasure of that dog, not even for you, Miller."
"'T is discipline, an' sent for the strengthening of your fibre. Providence barred the road to-day, else you'd be in prison now. Ban't meant you should give yourself up—that's how I read it."
"'T is cowardly, waitin' an' playin' into his hands; an' if you awnly knawed how this has fouled my mind wi' evil, an' soured the very taste of what I eat, an' dulled the faace of life, an' blunted the right feeling in me even for them I love best, you'd never bid me bide on under it. 'T is rotting me—body an' sawl—that's what 't is doin'. An' now I be come to such a pass that if I met un to-morrow an' he swore on his dying oath he'd never tell, I shouldn't be contented even wi' that."
"No such gude fortune," sighed Phoebe.
"'T wouldn't be gude fortune," answered her husband. "I'm like a dirty chamber coated wi' cobwebs an' them ghostly auld spiders as hangs dead in unsecured corners. Plaaces so left gets worse. My mind 's all in a ferment, an' 't wouldn't be none the better now if Jan Grimbal broke his damned neck to-morrow an' took my secret with him. I caan't breathe for it; it 's suffocating me."
Phoebe used subtlety in her answer, and invited him to view the position from her standpoint rather than his own.
"Think o' me, then, an' t' others. 'T is plain selfishness, this talk, if you looks to the bottom of it."
"As to that, I doan't say so," began Mr. Lyddon, slowly stuffing his pipe. "No. When a man goes so deep into his heart as what Will have before me this minute, doan't become no man to judge un, or tell 'bout selfishness. Us have got to save our awn sawls, an' us must even leave wife, an' mother, and childer if theer 's no other way to do it. Ban't no right living—ban't no fair travelling in double harness wi' conscience, onless you've got a clean mind. An' yet waitin' 'pears the only way o' wisdom just here. You've never got room in that head o' yourn for more 'n wan thought to a time; an' I doan't blame 'e theer neither, for a chap wi' wan idea, if he sticks to it, goes further 'n him as drives a team of thoughts half broken in. I mean you 'm forgettin' your mother for the moment. I should say, wait for her mendin' 'fore you do anything."
Back came Blanchard's mind to his mother with a whole-hearted swing.
"Ess," he said, "you 'm right theer. My plaace is handy to her till she 'm movin'; an' if he tries to take me before she 'm down-house again, by God! I'll—"
"Let it bide that way then. Put t' other matter out o' your mind so far as you can. Fill your pipe an' suck deep at it. I haven't seen 'e smoke this longful time; an' in my view theer 's no better servant than tobacco to a mind puzzled at wan o' life's cross-roads."
MR. LYDDON'S TACTICS
In the morning Mrs. Blanchard was worse, and some few days later lay in danger of her life. Her son spent half his time in the sick-room, walked about bootless to make no sound, and fretted with impatience at thought of the length of days which must elapse before Chris could return to Chagford. Telegrams had been sent to Martin Grimbal, who was spending his honeymoon out of England; but on the most sanguine computation he and his wife would scarcely be home again in less than ten days or a fortnight.
Hope and gloom succeeded each other swiftly within Will Blanchard's mind, and at first he discounted the consistent pessimism of Doctor Parsons somewhat more liberally than the issue justified. When, therefore, he was informed of the truth and stood face to face with his mother's danger, hope sank, and his unstable spirit was swept from an altitude of secret confidence to the opposite depth of despair.
Through long silences, while she slept or seemed to do so, the young man traced back his life and hers; and he began to see what a good mother means. Then he accused himself of many faults and made impetuous confession to his wife and her father. On these occasions Phoebe softened his self-blame, but Mr. Lyddon let Will talk, and told him for his consolation that every mother's son must be accused of like offences.
"Best of childer falls far short," he assured Will; "best brings tu many tears, if 't is awnly for wantonness; an' him as thinks he've been all he should be to his mother lies to himself; an' him as says he has, lies to other people."
Will's wild-hawk nature was subdued before this grave crisis in his parent's life; he sat through long nights and tended the fire with quiet fingers; he learnt from the nurse how to move a pillow tenderly, how to shut a door without any sound. He wearied Doctor Parsons with futile propositions, but the physician's simulated cynicism often broke down in secret before this spectacle of the son's dog-like pertinacity. Blanchard much desired to have a vein opened for his mother, nor was all the practitioner's eloquence equal to convincing him such a course could not be pursued.
"She 'm gone that gashly white along o' want o' blood," declared Will; "an' I be busting wi' gude red blood, an' why for shouldn't you put in a pipe an' draw off a quart or so for her betterment? I'll swear 't would strengthen the heart of her."
Time passed, and it happened on one occasion, while walking abroad between his vigils, that Blanchard met John Grimbal. Will had reflected curiously of late days into what ghostly proportions his affair with the master of the Red House now dwindled before this greater calamity of his mother's sickness; but sudden sight of the enemy roused passion and threw back the man's mind to that occasion of their last conversation in the woods.
Yet the first words that now passed were to John Grimbal's credit. He made an astonishing and unexpected utterance. Indeed, the spoken word surprised him as much as his listener, and he swore at himself for a fool when Will's retort reached his ear.
They were passing at close quarters,—Blanchard on foot, John upon horseback,—when the latter said,—
"How 's Mrs. Blanchard to-day?"
"Mind your awn business an' keep our name off your lips!" answered the pedestrian, who misunderstood the question, as he did most questions where possible, and now supposed that Grimbal meant Phoebe.
His harsh words woke instant wrath.
"What a snarling, cross-bred cur you are! I should judge your own family will be the first to thank me for putting you under lock and key. Hell to live with, you must be."
"God rot your dirty heart! Do it—do it; doan't jaw—do it! But if you lay a finger 'pon me while my mother 's bad or have me took before she 'm stirring again, I'll kill you when I come out. God 's my judge if I doan't!"
Then, forgetting what had taken him out of doors, and upon what matter he was engaged, Will turned back in a tempest, and hastened to his mother's cottage.
At Monks Barton Mr. Lyddon and his daughter had many and long conversations upon the subject of Blanchard's difficulties. Both trembled to think what might be the issue if his mother died; both began to realise that there could be no more happiness for Will until a definite extrication from his present position was forthcoming. At his daughter's entreaty the miller finally determined on a strong step. He made up his mind to visit Grimbal at the Red House, and win from him, if possible, some undertaking which would enable him to relieve his son-in-law of the present uncertainty.
Phoebe pleaded for silence, and prayed her father to get a promise at any cost in that direction.
"Let him awnly promise 'e never to tell of his free will, an' the door against danger 's shut," she said. "When Will knaws Grimbal 's gwaine to be dumb, he'll rage a while, then calm down an' be hisself again. 'T is the doubt that drove him frantic."
"I'll see the man, then; but not a word to Will's ear. All the fat would be in the fire if he so much as dreamed I was about any such business. As to a promise, if I can get it I will. An' 'twixt me an' you, Phoebe, I'm hopeful of it. He 's kept quiet so long that theer caan't be any fiery hunger 'gainst Will in un just now. I'll soothe un down an' get his word of honour if it 's to be got. Then your husband can do as he pleases."
"Leave the rest to me, Faither."
A fortnight later the cautious miller, after great and exhaustive reflection, set out to carry into practice his intention. An appointment was made on the day that Will drove to Moreton to meet his sister and Martin Grimbal. This removed him out of the way, while Billy had been despatched to Okehampton for some harness, and Mr. Lyddon's daughter, alone in the secret, was spending the afternoon with her mother-in-law.
So Miller walked over to the Red House and soon found himself waiting for John Grimbal in a cheerless but handsome dining-room. The apartment suggested little occupation. A desk stood in the window, and upon it were half a dozen documents under a paper-weight made from a horse's hoof. A fire burned in the broad grate; a row of chairs, upholstered in dark red leather, stood stiffly round; a dozen indifferent oil-paintings of dogs and horses filled large gold frames upon the walls; and upon a massive sideboard of black oak a few silver cups, won by Grimbal's dogs at various shows and coursing meetings, were displayed.
Mr. Lyddon found himself kept waiting about ten minutes; then John entered, bade him a cold "good afternoon" without shaking hands, and placed an easy-chair for him beside the fire.
"Would you object to me lighting my pipe, Jan Grimbal?" asked the miller humbly; and by way of answer the other took a box of matches from his pocket and handed it to the visitor.
"Thank you, thank you; I'm obliged to you. Let me get a light, then I'll talk to 'e."
He puffed for a minute or two, while Grimbal waited in silence for his guest to begin.
"Now, wi'out any beatin' of the bush or waste of time, I'll speak. I be come 'bout Blanchard, as I dare say you guessed. The news of what he done nine or ten years ago comed to me just a month since. A month 't was, or might be three weeks. Like a bolt from the blue it falled 'pon me an' that's a fact. An' I heard how you knawed the thing—you as had such gude cause to hate un wance."
"Well, no man's hate can outlive his reason, surely? I was with 'e, tu, then; but a man what lets himself suffer lifelong trouble from a fule be a fule himself. Not that Blanchard 's all fule—far from it. He've ripened a little of late years—though slowly as fruit in a wet summer. Granted he bested you in the past an' your natural hope an' prayer was to be upsides wi' un some day. Well, that's all dead an' buried, ban't it? I hated the shadow of un in them days so bad as ever you did; but you gets to see more of the world, an' the men that walks in it when you 'm moved away from things by the distance of a few years. Then you find how wan deed bears upon t' other. Will done no more than you'd 'a' done if the cases was altered. In fact, you 'm alike at some points, come to think of it."
"Is that what you've walked over here to tell me?"
"No; I'm here to ax 'e frank an' plain, as a sportsman an' a straight man wi' a gude heart most times, to tell me what you 'm gwaine to do 'bout this job. I'm auld, an' I assure 'e you'll hate yourself if you give un up. 'T would be outside your carater to do it."
"You say that! Would you harbour a convict from Princetown if you found him hiding on your farm?"
"Ban't a like case. Theer 's the personal point of view, if you onderstand me. A man deserts from the army ten years ago, an' you, a sort o' amateur soldier, feels 't is your duty to give un to justice."
"Well, isn't that what has happened?"
"No fay! Nothing of the sort. If 't was your duty, why didn't you do it fust minute you found it out? If you'd writ to the authorities an' gived the man up fust moment, I might have said 't was a hard deed, but I'd never have dared to say 't weern't just. Awnly you done no such thing. You nursed the power an' sucked the thought, same as furriners suck at poppy poison. You played with the picture of revenge against a man you hated, an' let the idea of what you'd do fill your brain; an' then, when you wanted bigger doses, you told Phoebe what you knawed—reckoning as she'd tell Will bimebye. That's bad, Jan Grimbal—worse than poisoning foxes, by God! An' you knaw it."
"Who are you, to judge me and my motives?"
"An auld man, an' wan as be deeply interested in this business. Time was when we thought alike touching the bwoy; now we doan't; 'cause your knowledge of un hasn't grawed past the point wheer he downed us, an' mine has."
"You're a fool to say so. D' you think I haven't watched the young brute these many years? Self-sufficient, ignorant, hot-headed, always in the wrong. What d' you find to praise in the clown? Look at his life. Failure! failure! failure! and making of enemies at every turn. Where would he be to-day but for you?"
"Theer 's a rare gert singleness of purpose 'bout un."
"A grand success he is, no doubt. I suppose you couldn't get on without him now. Yet you cursed the cub freely enough once."
"Bitter speeches won't serve 'e, Grimbal; but they show me mighty clear what's hid in you. Your sawl 's torn every way by this thing, an' you turn an' turn again to it, like a dog to his vomit, yet the gude in 'e drags 'e away."
"Better cut all that. You won't tell me what you've come for, so I'll tell you. You want me to promise not to move in this matter,—is that so?"
"Why, not ezackly. I want more 'n that. I never thought for a minute you would do it, now you've let the time pass so far. I knaw you'll never act so ugly a paart now; but Will doan 't, an' he'll never b'lieve me if I told un."
The other made a sound, half growl, half mirthless laugh.
"You've taken it all for granted, then—you, who know more about what 's in my mind than I do myself? You're a fond old man; and if you'd wanted to screw me up to the pitch of taking the necessary trouble, you couldn't have gone a better way. I've been too busy to bother about the young rascal of late or he'd lie in gaol now."
"Doan't say no such vain things! D' you think I caan't read what your face speaks so plain? A man's eyes tell the truth awftener than what his tongue does, for they 'm harder to break into lying. 'Tu busy'! You be foul to the very brainpan wi' this job an' you knaw it."
"Is the hatred all on my side, d' you suppose? Curse the brute to hell! And you'd have me eat humble-pie to the man who 's wrecked my life?"
"No such thing at all. All the hatred be on your side. He'd forgived 'e clean. Even now, though you 'm fretting his guts to fiddlestrings because of waiting for 'e, he feels no malice—no more than the caged rat feels 'gainst the man as be carrying him, anyway."
"You're wrong there. He'd kill me to-morrow. He let me know it. In a weak moment I asked him the other day how his mother was; and he turned upon me like a mad dog, and told me to keep his name off my lips, and said he'd have my life if I gave him up."
"That's coorious then, for he 's hungry to give himself up, so soon as the auld woman 's well again."
"Talk! I suppose he sent you to whine for him?"
"Not so. He'd have blocked my road if he'd guessed."
"Well, I'm honest when I say I don't care a curse what he does or does not. Let him go his way. And as to proclaiming him, I shall do so when it pleases me. An odious crime that,—a traitor to his country."
"Doan't become you nor me to dwell 'pon that, seeing how things was."
"You think he 's a noble fellow, and that your daughter had a merciful escape. It isn't for me to suggest you are mistaken. Now I've no more time to spare, I'm afraid."
The miller also rose, and as he prepared to depart he spoke a final word.
"You 'm terrible pushed for time, by the looks of it. I knaw 't is hard in this life to find time to do right, though every man can make a 'mazing mort o' leisure for t' other thing. But hear me: you 'm ruinin' yourself, body an' sawl, along o' this job—body an' sawl, like apples in a barrel rots each other. You 'm in a bad way, Jan Grimbal, an' I'm sorry for 'e—brick house an' horses an' dogs notwithstanding. Have a spring cleaning in that sulky brain o' yourn, my son, an' be a man wi' yourself, same as you be a man wi' the world."
The other sneered.
"Don't get hot. The air is cold. And as you've given so much good advice, take some, too. Mind your own business, and let your son-in-law mind his."
Mr. Lyddon shook his head.
"Such words do only prove me right. Look in your heart an' see how 't is with you that you can speak to an auld man so. 'T is common metal shawing up in 'e, an' I'm sorry to find it."
He set off home without more words and, as chance ordered the incident, emerged from the avenue gates of the Red House while a covered vehicle passed by on the way from Moreton Hampstead. Its roof was piled with luggage, and inside sat Chris, her husband, and Will. They spied Mr. Lyddon and made room for him; but later on in the evening Will taxed the miller with his action.
"I knawed right well wheer you'd come from," he said gloomily, "an' I'd 'a' cut my right hand off rather than you should have done it. You did n't ought, Faither; for I'll have no living man come between me an' him."
"I made it clear I was on my awn paart," explained Mr. Lyddon; but that night Will wrote a letter to his enemy and despatched it by a lad before breakfast on the following morning.
"Sir," he said, "this comes to say that Miller seen you yesterday out of his own head, and if I had knowed he was coming I would have took good care to prevent it.
Time passed, and Mrs. Blanchard made a slow return to health. Her daughter assumed control of the sick-room, and Martin Grimbal was denied the satisfaction of seeing Chris settled in her future home for a period of nearly two months. Then, when the invalid became sufficiently restored to leave Chagford for change of air, both Martin and Chris accompanied her and spent a few weeks by the sea.
Will, meantime, revolved upon his own affairs and suffered torments long drawn out. For these protracted troubles those of his own house were responsible, and both Phoebe and the miller greatly erred in their treatment of him at this season. For the woman there were indeed excuses, but Mr. Lyddon might have been expected to show more wisdom and better knowledge of a character at all times transparent enough. Phoebe, nearing maternal tribulation, threw a new obstacle in her husband's way, and implored him by all holy things, now that he had desisted from confession thus far, to keep his secret yet a little longer and wait for the birth of the child. She used every possible expedient to win this new undertaking from Will, and her father added his voice to hers. The miller's expressed wish, strongly urged, frequently repeated, at last triumphed, and against his own desire and mental promptings, Blanchard, at terrible cost to himself, had promised patience until June.
Life, thus clouded and choked, wrought havoc with the man. His natural safety-valves were blocked, his nerves shattered, his temper poisoned. Primitive characteristics appeared as a result of this position, and he exhibited the ferocity of an over-driven tame beast, or a hunted wild one. In days long removed from this crisis he looked back with chill of body and shudder of mind to that nightmare springtime; and he never willingly permitted even those dearest to him to retrace the period.
The struggle lasted long, but his nature beat Blanchard before the end, burst its bonds, shattered promises and undertakings, weakened marital love for a while, and set him free by one tremendous explosion and victory of natural force. There had come into his head of late a new sensation, as of busy fingers weaving threads within his skull and iron hands moulding the matter of his brain into new patterns. The demon things responsible for his torment only slept when he slept, or when, as had happened once or twice, he drank himself indifferent to all mundane matters. Yet he could not still them for long, and even Phoebe had heard mutterings and threats of the thread-spinners who were driving her husband mad.
On an evening in late May she became seriously alarmed for his reason. Circumstances suddenly combined to strangle the last flickering breath of patience in Will, and the slender barriers were swept away in such a storm as even Phoebe's wide experience of him had never parallelled. Miller Lyddon was out, at a meeting in the village convened to determine after what fashion Chagford should celebrate the Sovereign's Jubilee; Billy also departed about private concerns, and Will and his wife had Monks Barton much to themselves. Even she irritated the suffering man at this season, and her sunken face and chatter about her own condition and future hopes of a son often worried him into sheer frenzy. His promise once exacted she rarely touched upon that matter, believing the less said the better, but he misunderstood her reticence and held it selfish. Indeed, Blanchard fretted and chafed alone now; for John Grimbal's sustained silence had long ago convinced Mr. Lyddon that the master of the Red House meant no active harm, and Phoebe readily grasped at the same conclusion.
This night, however, the flood-gates crumbled, and Will, before a futile assertion from Phoebe touching the happy promise of the time to come and the cheerful spring weather, dashed down his pipe with an oath, clenched his hands, then leapt to his feet, shook his head, and strode about like a maniac.
"Will! You've brawk un to shivers—the butivul wood pipe wi' amber that I gived 'e last birthday!"
"Damn my birthday—a wisht day for me 't was! I've lived tu long—tu long by all my years, an' nobody cares wan salt tear that I be roastin' in hell-fire afore my time. I caan't stand it no more—no more at all—not for you or your faither or angels in heaven or ten million babies to be born into this blasted world—not if I was faither to 'em all. I must live my life free, or else I'll go in a madhouse. Free—do 'e hear me? I've suffered enough and waited more 'n enough. Ban't months nor weeks neither—'t is a long, long lifetime. You talk o' time dragging! If you knawed—if you knawed! An' these devil-spinners allus knotting an' twisting. I could do things—I could—things man never dreamed. An' I will—for they 'm grawing and grawing, an' they'll burst my skull if I let 'em bide in it. Months ago I've sat on a fence unbeknawnst wheer men was shooting, an' whistled for death. So help me, 't is true. Me to do that! Theer 's a cur for 'e; an' yet ban't me neither, but the spinners in my head. Death 's a party easily called, mind you. A knife, or a pinch o' powder, or a drop o' deep water—they 'll bring un to your elbow in a moment. Awnly, if I done that, I'd go in company. Nobody should bide to laugh. Them as would cry might cry, but him as would laugh should come along o' me—he should, by God!"
"Will, Will! It isn't my Will talking so?"
"It be me, an' it ban't me. But I'm in earnest at last, an' speakin' truth. The spinners knaw, an' they 'm right. I'm sick to sheer hate o' my life; and you've helped to make me so—you and your faither likewise. This thing doan't tear your heart out of you an' grind your nerves to pulp as it should do if you was a true wife."
"Oh, my dear, my lovey, how can 'e say or think it? You knaw what it has been to me."
"I knaw you've thought all wrong 'pon it when you've thought at all. An' Miller, tu. You've prevailed wi' me to go on livin' a coward's life for countless ages o' time—me—me—creepin' on the earth wi' my tail between my legs an' knawin' I never set eyes on a man as ban't braver than myself. An' him—Grimbal—laughing, like the devil he is, to think on what my life must be!"
"I caan't be no quicker. The cheel's movin' an' bracin' itself up an' makin' ready to come in the world, ban't it? I've told 'e so fifty times. It's little longer to wait."
"It's no longer. It's nearer than sleep or food or drink. It's comin' 'fore the moon sets. 'T is that or the madhouse—nothin' else. If you'd felt the fire as have been eatin' my thinking paarts o' late days you'd knaw. Ban't no use your cryin', for 't isn't love of me makes you. Rivers o' tears doan't turn me no more. I'm steel now—fust time for a month—an' while I'm steel I'll act like steel an' strike like steel. I've had shaky nights an' silly nights an' haunted nights, but my head 's clear for wance, an' I'll use it while 'tis."
"Not to do no rash thing, Will? For Christ's sake, you won't hurt yourself or any other?"
"I must meet him wance for all."
"He 'm at the council 'bout Jubilee wi' faither an' parson an' the rest."
"But he'll go home arter. An' I'll have 'Yes' or 'No' to-night—I will, if I've got to shake the word out of his sawl. I ban't gwaine to be driven lunatic for him or you or any. Death's a sight better than a soft head an' a lifetime o' dirt an' drivelling an' babbling, like the brainless beasts they feed an' fatten in asylums. That's worse cruelty than any I be gwaine to suffer at human hands—to be mewed in wan of them gashly mad-holes wi' the rack an' ruins o' empty flesh grinning an' gibbering 'pon me from all the corners o' the airth. I be sane now—sane enough to knaw I'm gwaine mad fast—an' I won't suffer it another hour. It's come crying and howling upon my mind like a storm this night, an' this night I'll end it."
"Wait at least until the morning. See him then."
"Go to bed, an' doan't goad me to more waiting, if you ever loved me. Get to bed—out of my sight! I've had enough of 'e and of all human things this many days. An' that's as near madness as I'm gwaine. What I do, I do to-night."
She rose from her chair in sudden anger at his strange harshness, for the wife who has never heard an unkind word resents with passionate protest the sting of the first when it falls. Now genuine indignation inflamed Phoebe, and she spoke bitterly.
"'Enough of me'! Ess fay! Like enough you have—a poor, patient creature sweatin' for 'e, an' thinkin' for 'e, an' blotting her eyes with tears for 'e, an' bearin' your childer an' your troubles, tu! 'Enough of me.' Ess, I'll get gone to my bed an' stiffen my joints wi' kneelin' in prayer for 'e, an' weary God's ear for a fule!"
His answer was an action, and before she had done speaking he stretched above him and took his gun from its place on an old beam that extended across the ceiling.
"What in God's name be that for? You wouldn't—?"
"Shoot a fox? Why not? I'm a farmer now, and I'd kill best auld red Moor fox as ever gave a field forty minutes an' beat it. You was whinin' 'bout the chicks awnly this marnin'. I'll sit under the woodstack a bit an' think 'fore I starts. Ban't no gude gwaine yet."
Will's explanation of his deed was the true one, but Phoebe realised in some dim fashion that she stood within the shadow of a critical night and that action was called upon from her. Her anger waned a little, and her heart began to beat fast, but she acted with courage and promptitude.
"Let un be to-night—auld fox, I mean. Theer 'm more chicks than young foxes, come to think of it; an' he 'm awnly doin' what you forget to do—fighting for his vixen an' cubs."
She looked straight into Will's eyes, took the gun out of his hands, climbed on to a chair, and hung the weapon up again in its place.
He laughed curiously, and helped his wife to the ground again.
"Thank you," she said. "Now go an' do what you want to do, an' doan't forget the future happiness of women an' childer lies upon it." Her anger was nearly gone, as he spoke again.
"How little you onderstand me arter all these years—an' never will—nobody never will but mother. What did 'e fear? That I'd draw trigger on the man from behind a tree, p'r'aps?"
"No—not that, but that you might be driven to kill yourself along o' having such a bad wife."
"Now we 'm both on the mad road," he said bitterly. Then he picked up his stick and, a moment later, went out into the night.
Phoebe watched his tall figure pass over the river, and saw him silhouetted against dead silver of moonlit waters as he crossed the stepping-stones. Then she climbed for the gun again, hid it, and presently prepared for her father's return.
"What butivul peace an quiet theer be in ministerin' to a gude faither," she thought, "as compared wi' servin' a stormy husband!" Then sorrow changed to active fear, and that, in its turn, sank into a desolate weariness and indifference. She detected no semblance of justice in her husband's outburst; she failed to see how circumstances must sooner or late have precipitated his revolt; and she felt herself very cruelly misjudged, very gravely wronged.
Meantime Blanchard passed through a hurricane of rage against his enemy much akin to that formerly recorded of John Grimbal himself, when the brute won to the top of him and he yearned for physical conflict. That night Will was resolved to get a definite response or come to some conclusion by force of arms. His thoughts carried him far, and before he took up his station within the grounds of the Red House, at a point from which the avenue approach might be controlled, he had already fallen into a frantic hunger for fight and a hope that his enemy would prove of like mind. He itched for assault and battery, and his heart clamoured to be clean in his breast again.
Whatever might happen, he was determined to give himself up on the following day. He had done all he could for those he loved, but he was powerless to suffer more. He longed now to trample his foe into the dust, and, that accomplished, he would depart, well satisfied, and receive what punishment was due. His accumulated wrongs must be paid at last, and he fully determined, an hour before John Grimbal came homewards, that the payment should be such as he himself had received long years before on Rushford Bridge. His muscles throbbed for action as he sat and waited at the top of a sloping bank dotted with hawthorns that extended upwards from the edge of the avenue and terminated on the fringe of young coverts.
And now, by a chance not uncommon, two separate series of circumstances were about to clash, while the shock engendered was destined to precipitate the climax of Will Blanchard's fortunes, in so far as this record is concerned. On the night that he thus raged and suffered the gall bred of long inaction to overflow, John Grimbal likewise came to a sudden conclusion with himself, and committed a deed of nature definite so far as it went.
In connection with the approaching Jubilee rejoicings a spirit in some sense martial filled the air, and Grimbal with his yeomanry was destined to play a part. A transient comet-blaze of militarism often sparkles over fighting nations at any season of universal joy, and that more especially if the keystone of the land's constitution be a crown. This fire found material inflammable enough in the hearts of many Devonshire men, and before its warm impulse John Grimbal, inspired by a particular occasion, compounded with his soul at last. Rumoured on long tongues from the village ale-house, there had come to his ears the report of certain ill-considered utterances made by his enemy upon the events of the hour. They were only a hot-headed and very miserable man's foolish comments upon things in general and the approaching festival in particular, and they served but to illustrate the fact that no ill-educated and passionate soul can tolerate universal rejoicings, itself wretched; but Grimbal clutched at this proven disloyalty of an old deserter, and told himself that personal questions must weigh with him no more.
"The sort of discontented brute that drifts into Socialism and all manner of wickedness," he thought. "The rascal must be muzzled once for all, and as a friend to the community I shall act, not as an enemy to him."
This conclusion he came to on the evening of the day which saw Blanchard's final eruption, and he was amazed to find how straightforward and simple his course appeared when viewed from the impersonal standpoint of duty. His brother was due to dine with John Grimbal in half an hour, for both men were serving on a committee to meet that night upon the question of the local celebrations at Chagford, and they were going together. Time, however, remained for John to put his decision into action. He turned to his desk, therefore, and wrote. The words to be employed he knew by heart, for he had composed his letter many months before, and it was with him always; yet now, seen thus set out upon paper for the first time, it looked strange.
"RED HOUSE, CHAGFORD, DEVON.
"To the Commandant, Royal Artillery, Plymouth.
"SIR,—It has come to my knowledge that the man, William Blanchard, who enlisted in the Royal Artillery under the name of Tom Newcombe and deserted from his battery when it was stationed at Shorncliffe some ten years ago, now resides at this place on the farm of Monks Barton, Chagford. My duty demands that I should lodge this information, and I can, of course, substantiate it, though I have reason to believe the deserter will not attempt to evade his just punishment if apprehended. I have the honour to be,
"Your obedient servant,
"Capt. Dev. Yeomanry."
He had just completed this communication when Martin arrived, and as his brother entered he instinctively pushed the letter out of sight. But a moment later he rebelled against himself for the act, knowing the ugly tacit admission represented by it. He dragged forth the letter, therefore, and greeted his brother by thrusting the note before him.
"Read that," he said darkly; "it will surprise you, I think. I want to do nothing underhand, and as you're linked to these people for life now, it is just that you should hear what is going to happen. There's the knowledge I once hinted to you that I possessed concerning William Blanchard. I have waited and given him rope enough. Now he's hanged himself, as I knew he would, and I must act. A few days ago he spoke disrespectfully of the Queen before a dozen other loafers in a public-house. That's a sin I hold far greater than his sin against me. Read what I have just written."
Martin gazed with mildness upon John's savage and defiant face. His brother's expression and demeanour by no means chimed with the judicial moderation of his speech. Then the antiquary perused the letter, and there fell no sound upon the silence, except that of a spluttering pen as John Grimbal addressed an envelope.
Presently Martin dropped the letter on the desk before him, and his face was very white, his voice tremulous as he spoke.
"This thing happened more than ten years ago."
"It did; but don't imagine I have known it ten years."
"God forbid! I think better of you. Yet, if only for my sake, reflect before you send this letter. Once done, you have ruined a life. I have seen Will several times since I came home, and now I understand the terrific change in him. He must have known that you know this. It was the last straw. He seems quite broken on the wheel of the world, and no wonder. To one of his nature, the past, since you discovered this terrible secret, must have been sheer torment."
John Grimbal doubled up the letter and thrust it into the envelope, while Martin continued:
"What do you reap? You're not a man to do an action of this sort and live afterwards as though you had not done it. I warn you, you intend a terribly dangerous thing. This may be the wreck of another soul besides Blanchard's. I know your real nature, though you've hidden it so close of late years. Post that letter, and your life's bitter for all time. Look into your heart, and don't pretend to deceive yourself."
His brother lighted a match, burnt red wax, and sealed the letter with a signet ring.
"Duty is duty," he said.
"Yes, yes; right shall be done and this extraordinary thing made known in the right quarter. But don't let it come out through you; don't darken your future by such an act. Your personal relations with the man, John,—it's impossible you should do this after all these years."
The other affixed a stamp to his letter.
"Don't imagine personal considerations influence me. I'm a soldier, and I know what becomes a soldier. If I find a traitor to his Queen and country am I to pass upon the other side of the road and not do my duty because the individual happens to be a private enemy? You rate me low and misjudge me rather cruelly if you imagine that I am so weak."
Martin gasped at this view of the position, instantly believed himself mistaken, and took John at his word. Thereon he came near blushing to think that he should have read such baseness into a brother's character.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I ought to be ashamed to have misunderstood you so. I could not escape the personal factor in this terrible business, but you, I see, have duly weighed it. I wronged you. Yes, I wronged you, as you say. The writing of that letter was a very courageous action, under the circumstances—as plucky a thing as ever man did, perhaps. Forgive me for taking so mean a view of it, and forgive me for even doubting your motives."
"I want justice, and if I am misunderstood for doing my duty—why, that is no new thing. I can face that, as better men have done before me."
There was a moment or two of silence; then Martin spoke, almost joyfully.
"Thank God, I see a way out! It seldom happens that I am quick in any question of human actions, but for once, I detect a road by which right may be done and you still spared this terrible task. I do, indeed, because I know Blanchard better than you do. I can guess what he has been enduring of late, and I will show him how he may end the torture himself by doing the right thing even now."
"It's fear of me scorching the man, not shame of his own crime."
"Then, as the stronger, as a soldier, put him out of his misery and set your mind at ease. Believe me, you may do it without any reflection on yourself. Tell him you have decided to take no step in the affair, and leave the rest to me. I will wager I can prevail upon him to give himself up. I am singularly confident that I can bring it about. Then, if I fail, do what you consider to be right; but first give me leave to try and save you from this painful necessity."
There followed a long silence. John Grimbal saw how much easier it was to deceive another than himself, and, before the spectacle of his deluded brother, felt that he appreciated his own real motives and incentives at their true worth. The more completely was Martin hoodwinked, the more apparent did the truth grow within John's mind. What was in reality responsible for his intended action never looked clearer than then, and as Martin spoke in all innocence of the courage that must be necessary to perform such a deed, Grimbal passed through the flash of a white light and caught a glimpse of his recent mental processes magnified by many degrees in the blinding ray. The spectacle sickened him a little, weakened him, touched the depths of him, stirred his nature. He answered presently in a voice harsh, abrupt, and deep.
"I've lied often enough in my life," he said, "and may again, but I think never to you till to-day. You're such a clean-minded, big-hearted man that you don't understand a mind of my build—a mind that can't forgive, that can't forget, that's fed full for years on the thought of revenging that frightful blow in the past. What you feared and hinted just now was partly the truth, and I know it well enough. But that is only to say my motives in this matter mixed."
"None but a brave man would admit so mucn, but now you wrong yourself, as I wronged you. We are alike. I, too, have sometimes in dark moments blamed myself for evil thoughts and evil deeds beyond my real deserts. So you. I know nothing but your sense of duty would make you post that letter."
"We've wrecked each other's lives, he and I; only he's a boy, and his life's before him; I'm a man, and my life is lived, for I'm the sort that grows old early, and he's helped Time more than anybody knows but myself."
"Don't say that. Happiness never comes when you are hungering most for it; sorrow never when you believe yourself best tuned to bear it. Once I thought as you do now. I waited long for my good fortune, and said 'good-by' to all my hope of earthly delight."
"You were easier to satisfy than I should have been. Yet you were constant, too,—constant as I was. We're built that way. More's the pity."
"I have absolutely priceless blessings; my cup of happiness is full. Sometimes I ask myself how it comes about that one so little deserving has received so much; sometimes I waken in the very extremity of fear, for joy like mine seems greater than any living thing has a right to."
"I'm glad one of us is happy."
"I shall live to see you equally blessed."
"It is impossible."
There was a pause, then a gong rumbled in the hall, and the brothers went to dinner. Their conversation now ranged upon varied local topics, and it was not until the cloth had been removed according to old-fashioned custom, and fruit and wine set upon a shining table, that John returned to the crucial subject of the moment.
He poured out a glass of port for Martin, and pushed the cigars towards him, then spoke,—
"Drink. It's very good. And try one of those. I shall not post that letter."
"Man, I knew it! I knew it well, without hearing so from you. Destroy the thing, dear fellow, and so take the first step to a peace I fear you have not known for many days. All this suffering will vanish quicker than a dream then. Justice is great, but mercy is greater. Yours is the privilege of mercy, and yet justice shall not suffer either—not if I know Will Blanchard."