They talked long and drank more than usual, while the elder man's grim and moody spirit lightened a little before his determination and his wine. The reek of past passions, the wreckage of dead things, seemed to be sweeping out of his mind. He forgot the hour and their engagement until the time fixed for that conference was past. Then he looked at his watch, rose from the table, and hurried to the hall.
"Let us not go," urged Martin. "They will do very well without us, I am sure."
But John's only answer was to pull on his driving gloves. He anticipated some satisfaction from the committee meeting; he suspected, indeed, that he would be asked to take the chair at it, and, like most men, he was not averse to the exercise of a little power in a small corner.
"We must go," he said. "I have important suggestions to make, especially concerning the volunteers. A sham fight on Scorhill would be a happy thought. We'll drive fast, and only be twenty minutes late."
A dog-cart had been waiting half an hour, and soon the brothers quickly whirled down Red House avenue. A groom dropped from behind and opened the gate; then it was all his agility could accomplish to scramble into his seat again as a fine horse, swinging along at twenty miles an hour, trotted towards Chagford.
Silent and motionless sat Blanchard, on the fringe of a bank at the coppice edge. He watched the stars move onward and the shadows cast by moonlight creep from west to north, from north to east. Hawthorn scented the night and stood like masses of virgin silver under the moon; from the Red House 'owl tree'—a pollarded elm, sacred to the wise bird—came mewing of brown owls; and once a white one struck, swift as a streak of feathered moonlight, on the copse edge, and passed so near to Blanchard that he saw the wretched shrew-mouse in its talons. "'Tis for the young birds somewheers," he thought; "an' so they'll thrive an' turn out braave owlets come bimebye; but the li'l, squeakin', blind shrews, what'll they do when no mother comes home-along to 'em?"
He mused drearily upon this theme, but suddenly started, for there came the echo of slow steps in the underwood behind him. They sank into silence and set Will wondering as to what they might mean. Then another sound, that of a galloping horse and the crisp ring of wheels, reached him, and, believing that John Grimbal was come, he strung himself to the matter in hand. But the vehicle did not stop. A flash of yellow light leapt through the distance as a mail-cart rattled past upon its way to Moreton. This circumstance told Will the hour and he knew that his vigil could not be much longer protracted.
Then death stalked abroad again, but this time in a form that awoke the watcher's deep-rooted instincts, took him clean out of himself, and angered him to passion, not in his own cause but another's. There came the sudden scream of a trapped hare,—that sound where terror and agony mingle in a cry half human,—and so still was the hour that Blanchard heard the beast's struggles though it was fifty yards distant. A hare in a trap at any season meant a poacher—a hated enemy of society in Blanchard's mind; and his instant thought was to bring the rascal to justice if he could. Now the recent footfall was explained and Will doubted not that the cruel cry which had scattered his reveries would quickly attract some hidden man responsible for it. The hare was caught by a wire set in a run at the edge of the wood, and now Blanchard crawled along on his stomach to within ten yards of the tragedy, and there waited under the shadow of a white-thorn at the edge of the woods. Within two minutes the bushes parted and, where the foliage of a young silver birch showered above lesser brushwood, a man with a small head and huge shoulders appeared. Seeing no danger he crept into the open, lifted his head to the moon, and revealed the person and features of Sam Bonus, the labourer with whom Will had quarrelled in times long past. Here, then, right ahead of him, appeared such a battle as Blanchard had desired, but with another foe than he anticipated. That accident mattered nothing, however. Will only saw a poacher, and to settle the business of such an one out of hand if possible was, in his judgment, a definite duty to be undertaken by every true man at any moment when opportunity offered.
He walked suddenly from shadow and stood within three yards of the robber as Bonus raised the butt of his gun to kill the shrieking beast at his feet.
"You! An' red-handed, by God! I knawed 't was no lies they told of 'e."
The other started and turned and saw who stood against him.
"Blanchard, is it? An' what be you doin' here? Come for same reason, p'r'aps?"
"I'd make you pay, if 't was awnly for sayin' that! I'm a man to steal others' fur out of season, ban't I? But I doan't have no words wi' the likes o' you. I've took you fair an' square, anyways, an' will just ax if you be comin' wi'out a fuss, or am I to make 'e?"
The other snarled.
"You—you come a yard nearer an' I'll blaw your damned head—"
But the threat was left unfinished, and its execution failed, for Will had been taught to take an armed man in his early days on the river, and had seen an old hand capture more than one desperate character. He knew that instantaneous action might get him within the muzzle of the gun and out of danger, and while Bonus spoke, he flew straight upon him with such unexpected celerity that Sam had no time to accomplish his purpose. He came down heavily with Blanchard on top of him, and his weapon fell from his hand. But the poacher was not done with. As they lay struggling, he found his foot clear and managed to kick Will twice on the leg above the knee. Then Blanchard, hanging like a dog to his foe, freed an arm, and hit hard more than once into Sam's face. A blow on the nose brought red blood that spurted over both men black as ink under the moonlight.
It was not long before they broke away and rose from their first struggle on the ground, but Bonus finally got to his knees, then to his feet, and Will, as he did the same, knew by a sudden twinge in his leg that if the poacher made off it must now be beyond his power to follow.
"No odds," he gasped, answering his thought aloud, while they wrestled. "If you've brawk me somewheers 't is no matter, for you 'm marked all right, an' them squinting eyes of yourn'll be blacker 'n sloes come marnin'."
This obvious truth infuriated Bonus. He did not attempt to depart, but, catching sight of his gun, made a tremendous effort to reach it. The other saw this aim and exerted his strength in an opposite direction. They fought in silence awhile—growled and cursed, sweated and swayed, stamped and slipped and dripped blood under the dewy and hawthorn-scented night. Bonus used all his strength to reach the gun; Will sacrificed everything to his hold. He suffered the greater punishment for a while, because Sam fought with all his limbs, like a beast; but presently Blanchard threw the poacher heavily, and again they came down together, this time almost on the wretched beast that still struggled, held by the wire at hand. It had dragged the fur off its leg, and white nerve fibres, torn bare, glimmered in the red flesh under the moon.
Both fighters were now growing weaker, and each knew that a few minutes more must decide the fortune of the battle. Bonus still fought for the gun, and now his weight began to tell. Then, as he got within reach, and stretched hand to grasp it, Blanchard, instead of dragging against him, threw all his force in the same direction, and Sam was shot clean over the gun. This time they twisted and Will fell underneath. Both simultaneously thrust a hand for the weapon; both gripped it, and then exerted their strength for possession. Will meant using it as a club if fate was kind; the other man, rating his own life at nothing, and, believing that he bore Blanchard the grudge of his own ruin, intended, at that red-hot moment, to keep his word and blow the other's brains out if he got a chance to do so.
Then, unheard by the combatants, a distant gate was thrown open, two brilliant yellow discs of fire shone along the avenue below, and John Grimbal returned to his home. Suddenly, seeing figures fighting furiously on the edge of the hill not fifty yards away, he pulled up, and a din of conflict sounded in his ears as the rattle of hoof and wheel and harness ceased. Leaping down he ran to the scene of the conflict as fast as possible, but it was ended before he arrived. A gun suddenly exploded and flashed a red-hot tongue of flame across the night. A hundred echoes caught the detonation and as the discharge reverberated along the stony hills to Fingle Gorge, Will Blanchard staggered backwards and fell in a heap, while the poacher reeled, then steadied himself, and vanished under the woods.
"Bring a lamp," shouted Grimbal, and a moment later his groom obeyed; but the fallen man was sitting up by the time John reached him, and the gun that had exploded was at his feet.
"You 'm tu late by half a second," he gasped. "I fired myself when I seed the muzzle clear. Poachin' he was, but the man 's marked all right. Send p'liceman for Sam Bonus to-morrer, an' I lay you'll find a picter."
"Ess fay, an' no harm done 'cept a stiff leg. Best to knock thicky poor twoad on the head. I heard the scream of un and comed along an' waited an' catched my gen'leman in the act."
The groom held a light to the mangled hare.
"Scat it on the head," said Will, "then give me a hand."
He was helped to his feet; the servant went on before with the lamp, and Blanchard, finding himself able to walk without difficulty, proceeded, slowly supporting himself by the poacher's gun.
Grimbal waited for him to speak and presently he did so.
"Things falls out so different in this maze of a world from what man may count on."
"How came it that you were here?"
"Blamed if I can tell 'e till I gather my wits together. 'Pears half a century or so since I comed; yet ban't above two hour agone."
"You didn't come to see Sam Bonus, I suppose?"
"No fay! Never a man farther from my thought than him when I seed un poke up his carrot head under the moon. I was 'pon my awn affairs an' comed to see you. I wanted straight speech an' straight hitting; an' I got 'em, for that matter. An' fightin' 's gude for the blood, I reckon—anyway for my fashion blood."
"You came to fight me, then?"
"I did—if I could make 'e fight."
"With that gun?"
"With nought but a savage heart an' my two fistes. The gun belongs to Sam Bonus. Leastways it did, but 't is mine now—or yours, as the party most wronged."
"Come this way and drink a drop of brandy before you go home. Glad you had some fighting as you wanted it so bad. I know what it feels like to be that way, too. But there wouldn't have been blows between us. My mind was made up. I wrote to Plymouth this afternoon. I wrote, and an hour later decided not to post the letter. I've changed my intentions altogether, because the point begins to appear in a new light. I'm sorry for a good few things that have happened of late years."
Will breathed hard a moment; then he spoke slowly and not without more emotion than his words indicated.
"That's straight speech—if you mean it. I never knawed how 't was that a sportsman, same as you be, could keep rakin' awver a job an' drive a plain chap o' the soil like me into hell for what I done ten year agone."
"Let the past go. Forget it; banish it for all time as far as you have the power. Blame must be buried both sides. Here's the letter upon my desk. I'll burn it, and I'll try to burn the memory often years with it. Your road's clear for me."
"Thank you," said Blanchard, very slowly. "I lay I'll never hear no better news than that on this airth. Now I'm free—free to do how I please, free to do it undriven."
There was a long silence. Grimbal poured out half a tumbler of brandy, added soda water, then handed the stimulant to Will; and Blauchard, after drinking, sat in comfort a while, rubbed his swollen jaw, and scraped the dried blood of Bonus off his hands.
"Why for did you chaange so sudden?" he asked, as Grimbal turned to his desk.
"I could tell you, but it doesn't matter. A letter in the mind looks different to one on paper; and duty often changes its appearance, too, when a man is honest with himself. To be honest with yourself is the hardest sort of honesty. I've had speech with others about this—my brother more particularly."
"I wish to God us could have settled it without no help from outside."
Grimbal rang the bell, then answered.
"As to settling it, I know nothing about that. I've settled with my own conscience—such as it is."
"I'd come for 'Yes' or 'No.'"
"Now you have a definite answer."
"An' thank you. Then what 's it to be between us, when I come back? May I ax that? Them as ban't enemies no more might grow to be friends—eh?"
What response Grimbal would have made is doubtful. He did not reply, for his servant, Lawrence Vallack, entered at the moment, and he turned abruptly upon the old man.
"Where 's the letter I left upon my desk? It was directed to Plymouth."
"All right, sir, all right; don't worrit. I've eyes in my head for my betters still, thank God. I seed un when I come to shut the shutters an' sent Joe post-haste to the box. 'T was in plenty of time for the mail."
John emptied his lungs in a great respiration, half-sigh, half-groan. He could not speak. Only his fingers closed and he half lifted his hand as though to crush the smirking ancient. Then he dropped his arm and looked at Blanchard, asking the question with his eyes that he could find no words for.
"I heard the mail go just 'fore the hare squealed," said Will stolidly, "an' the letter with it for certain."
Grimbal started up and rushed to the hall while the other limped after him.
"Doan't 'e do nothin' fulish. I believe you never meant to post un. Ess, I'll take your solemn word for that. An' if you didn't mean to send letter, 't is as if you hadn't sent un. For my mind weer fixed, whatever you might do."
"Don't jaw, now! There 's time to stop the mail yet. I can get to Moreton as soon or sooner than that crawling cart if I ride. I won't be fooled like this!"
He ran to the stables, called to the groom, clapped a saddle on the horse that had just brought him home, and in about three minutes was riding down the avenue, while his lad reached the gate and swung it open just in time. Then Grimbal galloped into the night, with heart and soul fixed upon his letter. He meant to recover it at any reasonable cost. The white road streaked away beneath him, and a breeze created by his own rapid progress steadied him as he hastened on. Presently at a hill-foot, he saw how to save a mile or more by short cuts over meadow-land, so left the highway, rode through a hayfield, and dashed from it by a gap into a second. Then he grunted and the sound was one of satisfaction, for his tremendous rate of progress had served its object and already, creeping on the main road far ahead, he saw the vehicle which held the mail.
Meanwhile Blanchard and the man-servant stood and watched John Grimbal's furious departure.
"Pity," said Will. "No call to do it. I've took his word, an' the end 's the same, letter or no letter. Now let me finish that theer brandy, then I'll go home."
But Mr. Vallack heard nothing. He was gazing out into the night and shaking with fear.
"High treason 'gainst the law of the land to lay a finger on the mail. A letter posted be like a stone flinged or a word spoken—out of our keeping for all time. An' me to blame for it. I'm a ruined man along o' taking tu much 'pon myself an' being tu eager for others. He'll fling me out, sure 's death. 'T is all up wi' me."
"As to that, I reckon many a dog gets a kick wheer he thinks he 's earned a pat," said Will; "that's life, that is. An' maybe theer's sore hearts in dumb beasts, tu, sometimes, for a dog loves praise like a woman. He won't sack 'e. You done what 'peared your duty."
Blanchard then left the house, slowly proceeded along the avenue and presently passed out on to the highroad. As he walked the pain of his leg diminished, but he put no strain upon it and proceeded very leisurely towards home. Great happiness broke into his mind, undimmed by aching bones and bruises. The reflection that he was reconciled to John Grimbal crowded out lesser thoughts. He knew the other had spoken truth, and accepted his headlong flight to arrest the mail as sufficient proof of it. Then he thought of the possibility of giving himself up before Grimbal's letter should come to be read.
At home Phoebe was lying awake in misery waiting for him. She had brought up to their bedroom a great plate of cold bacon with vegetables and a pint of beer; and as Will slowly appeared she uttered a cry and embraced him with thanksgivings. Upon Blanchard's mind the return to his wife impressed various strange thoughts. He soothed her, comforted her, and assured her of his safety. But to him it seemed that he spoke with a stranger, for half a century of experience appeared to stretch between the present and his departure from Monks Barton about three hours before. His wife experienced similar sensations. That this cheerful, battered, hungry man could be the same who had stormed from her into the night a few short hours before, appeared impossible.
A PAIR OF HANDCUFFS
Mr. Blee, to do him justice, was usually the first afoot at Monks Barton, both winter and summer. The maids who slept near him needed no alarum, for his step on the stair and his high-pitched summons, "Now then, you lazy gals, what be snorin' theer for, an' the day broke?" was always sufficient to ensure their wakening.
At an early hour of the morning that dawned upon Will's nocturnal adventures, Billy stood in the farmyard and surveyed the shining river to an accompaniment of many musical sounds. On Monks Barton thatches the pigeons cooed and bowed and gurgled to their ladies, cows lowed from the byres, cocks crew, and the mill-wheel, already launched upon the business of the day, panted from its dark habitation of dripping moss and fern.
Billy sniffed the morning, then proceeded to a pig's sty, opened a door within it, and chuckled at the spectacle that greeted him.
"Burnish it all! auld sow 's farrowed at last, then. Busy night for her, sure 'nough! An' so fine a litter as ever I seed, by the looks of it."
He bustled off to get refreshment for the gaunt, new-made mother, and as he did so met Ted Chown, who now worked at Mr. Lyddon's, and had just arrived from his home in Chagford.
"Marnin', sir; have 'e heard the news? Gert tidings up-long I 'sure 'e."
"Not so gert as what I've got, I'll lay. Butivul litter 't is. Come an' give me a hand."
"Bonus was catched poachin' last night to the Red House. An' he've had his faace smashed in, nose broke, an' all. He escaped arter; but he went to Doctor fust thing to-day an' got hisself plastered; an' then, knawin' 't weern't no use to hide, comed right along an' gived hisself up to faither."
"My stars! An' no more'n what he desarved, that's certain."
"But that ban't all, even. Maister Jan Grimbal's missing! He rode off last night, Laard knaws wheer, an' never a sign of un seed since. They've sent to the station 'bout it a'ready; an' they 'm scourin' the airth for un. An' 't was Maister Blanchard as fought wi' Bonus, for Sam said so."
"Guy Fawkes an' angels! Here, you mix this. I must tell Miller an' run about a bit. Gwaine to be a gert day, by the looks of it!"
He hurried into the house, met his master and began with breathless haste,—
"Awful doin's! Awful doin's, Miller. Such a sweet-smellin' marnin', tu! Bear yourself stiff against it, for us caan't say what remains to be told."
"What's wrong now? Doan't choke yourself. You 'm grawin' tu auld for all the excitements of modern life, Billy. Wheer's Will?"
"You may well ax. Sleepin' still, I reckon, for he comed in long arter midnight. I was stirrin' at the time an' heard un. Sleepin' arter black deeds, if all they tell be true."
"The bwoy Ted's just comed wi' it. 'T is this way: Bonus be at death's door wi' a smashed nose, an' Blanchard done it; an' Jan Grimbal's vanished off the faace o' the airth. Not a sign of un seed arter he drove away last night from the Jubilee gathering. An' if 't is murder, you'll be in the witness-box, knawin' the parties same as you do; an' the sow 's got a braave litter, though what's that arter such news?"
"Guess you 'm dreamin', Blee," said Mr. Lyddon, as he took his hat and walked into the farmyard.
Billy was hurt.
"Dreamin', be I? I'm a man as dreams blue murders, of coourse! Tu auld to be relied on now, I s'pose. Theer! Theer!" he changed his voice and it ran into a cracked scream of excitement. "Theer! P'r'aps I'm dreamin', as Inspector Chown an' Constable Lamacraft be walkin' in the gate this instant moment!"
But there was no mistaking this fact. Abraham Chown entered, marched solemnly to the party at the door, cried "Halt!" to his subordinate, then turned to Mr. Lyddon.
"Good-day to you, Miller," he said, "though 't is a bad day, I'm fearin'. I be here for Will Blanchard, alias Tom Newcombe."
"If you mean my son-in-law, he 's not out of bed to my knawledge."
"Dear sawls! Doan't 'e say 't is blue murder—doan't 'e say that!" implored Mr. Blee. His head shook and his tongue revolved round his lips.
"Not as I knaws. We 'm actin' on instructions from the military to Plymouth."
"Theer 's allus wickedness hid under a alias notwithstanding," declared Billy, rather disappointed; "have 'e found Jan Grimbal?"
"They be searchin' for un. Jim Luke, Inspector to Moreton, an' his men be out beatin' the country. But I'm here, wi' my staff, for William Blanchard. March!"
Lamacraft, thus addressed, proceeded a pace or two until stopped by Mr. Lyddon.
"No call to go in. He'll come down. But I'm sore puzzled to knaw what this means, for awnly last night I heard tell from Jan Grimbal's awn lips that he'd chaanged his mind about a private matter bearin' on this."
"I want the man, anyways, an' I be gwaine to have un," declared Inspector Chown. He brought a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and gave them to the constable.
"Put up them gashly things, Abraham Chown," said the miller sternly. "Doan't 'e knaw Blanchard better 'n that?"
"Handcuffed he'll be, whether he likes it or not," answered the other; "an' if theer's trouble, I bid all present an' any able-bodied men 'pon the premises to help me take him in the Queen's name."
Billy hobbled round the corner, thrust two fingers into his mouth, and blew a quavering whistle; whereupon two labourers, working a few hundred yards off, immediately dropped their tools and joined him.
"Run you here," he cried. "P'lice be corned to taake Will Blanchard, an' us must all give the Law a hand, for theer'll be blows struck if I knaw un."
"Will Blanchard! What have he done?"
"Been under a alias—that's the least of it, but—God, He knaws—it may rise to murder. 'T is our bounden duty to help Chown against un."
"Be danged if I do!" said one of the men.
"Nor me," declared the other. "Let Chown do his job hisself—an' get his jaw broke for his trouble."
But they followed Mr. Blee to where the miller still argued against Lamacraft's entrance.
"Why didn't they send soldiers for un? That's what he reckoned on," said Mr. Lyddon.
"'T is my job fust."
"I'm sorry you've come in this high spirit. You knaw the man and ought to taake his word he'd go quiet and my guarantee for it."
"I knaw my duty, an' doan't want no teachin' from you."
"You're a fule!" said Miller, in some anger. "An' 't will take more 'n you an' that moon-faced lout to put them things on the man, or I'm much mistaken."
He went indoors while the labourers laughed, and the younger constable blushed at the insult.
"How do 'e like that, Peter Lamacraft?" asked a labourer.
"No odds to me," answered the policeman, licking his hands nervously and looking at the door. "I ban't feared of nought said or done if I've got the Law behind me. An' you'm liable yourself if you doan't help."
"Caan't wait no more," declared Mr. Chown. "If he's in bed, us'll take un in bed. Come on, you!"
Thus ordered to proceed, Lamacraft set his face resolutely forward and was just entering the farm when Phoebe appeared. Her tears were dry, though her voice was unsteady and her eyelids red.
"Gude mornin', Mr. Chown," she said.
"Marnin', ma'am. Let us pass, if you please."
"Are you coming in? Why?"
"Us caan't bide no more, an' us caan't give no more reasons. The Law ban't 'spected to give reasons for its deeds, an' us won't be bamboozled an' put off a minute longer," answered Chown grimly. "March, I tell 'e, Peter Lamacraft."
"You caan't see my husband."
"But we'm gwaine to see un. He've got to see me, an' come along wi' me, tu. An' if he's wise, he'll come quiet an' keep his mouth shut. That much I'll tell un for his gude."
"If you'll listen, I might make you onderstand how 'tis you caan't see Will," said Phoebe quietly. "You must knaw he runned away an' went soldiering before he married me. Then he comed back for love of me wi'out axin' any man's leave."
"So much the worse, ma'am; he'm a desarter!"
"The dark wickedness!" gasped Mr. Blee; "an' him dumb as a newt 'bout it all these years an' years! The conscience of un!"
"Well, you needn't trouble any more," continued Phoebe to the policemen. "My husband be gwaine to take this matter into his awn hands now."
Inspector Chown laughed.
"That's gude, that is!—now he 'm blawn upon!"
"He 's gwaine to give himself up—he caan't do more," said Phoebe, turning to her father who now reappeared.
"Coourse he caan't do more. What more do 'e want?" the miller inquired.
"Him," answered Mr. Chown. "No more an' no less; an' everything said will be used against him."
"You glumpy auld Dowl!" growled a labouring man.
"All right, all right. You just wait, all of 'e! Wheer's the man? How much longer be I to bide his pleasure? March! Damn it all! be the Law a laughing-stock?" The Inspector was growing very hot and excited.
"He's gone," said Phoebe, as Mr. Lamacraft entered the farm, put one foot on the bottom step of the stairs, then turned for further orders. "He's gone, before light. He rested two hours or so, then us harnessed the trap an' he drove away to Moreton to take fust train to Plymouth by way o' Newton Abbot. An' he said as Ted Chown was to go in arter breakfast an' drive the trap home."
"Couldn't tell me nothin' as had pleased me better," said the miller. "'T is a weight off me—an' off him I reckon. Now you 'm answered, my son; you can telegraph back as you corned wi' your auld handcuffs tu late by hours, an' that the man's on his way to give hisself up."
"I've only got your word for it."
"An' what better word should 'e have?" piped Billy, who in the space of half a minute had ranged himself alongside his master. "You to question the word o' Miller Lyddon, you crooked-hearted raven! Who was it spoke for 'e fifteen year ago an' got 'em to make 'e p'liceman 'cause you was tu big a fule to larn any other trade? Gert, thankless twoad! An' who was it let 'em keep the 'Green Man' awpen two nights in wan week arter closin' time, 'cause he wanted another drop hisself?"
"Come you away," said the Inspector to his constable. "Ban't for the likes of we to have any talk wi' the likes o' they. But they'll hear more of this; an' if theer's been any hookem-snivey dealin's with the Law, they'll live to be sorry. An' you follow me likewise," he added to his son, who stood hard by. "You come wi' me, Ted, for you doan't do no more work for runaway soldiers, nor yet bald-headed auld antics like this here!"
He pointed to Mr. Blee, then turned to depart.
"Get off honest man's land, you black-bearded beast!" screamed Billy. "You 'm most like of any wan ever I heard tell of to do murder yourself; an' auld as I be, I'd crawl on my hands an' knees to see you scragged for 't, if 't was so far as the sun in heaven!"
"That's libel," answered Mr. Chown, with cold and haughty authority; "an' you've put yourself in the grip of the Law by sayin' it, as you'll knaw before you 'm much aulder."
Then, with this trifling advantage, he retreated, while Lamacraft and Ted brought up the rear.
"So theer's an end of that. Now us'll fall to wi' no worse appetites," declared Miller. "An' as to Will," he added, "'fore you chaps go, just mind an' judge no man till you knaw what's proved against him. Onless theer's worse behind than I've larned so far, I'm gwaine to stand by un."
"An' me, tu!" said Mr. Blee, with a fine disregard for his recent utterances. "I've teached the chap purty nigh all he knaws an' I ban't gwaine to turn on un now, onless 't is proved blue murder. An' that Chown 's a disgrace to his cloth; an' I'd pull his ugly bat's ears on my awn behalf if I was a younger an' spryer man."
The fate of John Grimbal was learned within an hour or two of Inspector Chown's departure from Monks Barton; and by the time that Martin Grimbal had been apprised of the matter his brother already lay at the Red House.
John had been found at daybreak upon the grass-land where he rode overnight on his journey to intercept the mail. A moment after he descried the distant cart, his horse had set foot in a hole; and upon the accident being discovered, the beast was found lying with a broken leg within twenty yards of its insensible master. His horse was shot, John Grimbal carried home with all despatch, and Doctor Parsons arrived as quickly as possible, to do all that might be done for the sufferer until an abler physician than himself reached the scene.
Three dreary days saw Grimbal at the door of death, then a brief interval of consciousness rewarded unceasing care, and a rumour spread that he might yet survive. Martin, when immediate fear for his brother's life was relieved, busied himself about Blanchard, and went to Plymouth. There he saw Will, learned all facts concerning the letter, and did his best to win information of the prisoner's probable punishment. Fears, magnified rumours, expressed opinions, mostly erroneous, buzzed in the ears of the anxious party at Monks Barton. Then Martin Grimbal returned to Chagford and there came an evening when those most interested met after supper at the farm to hear all he could tell them.
Long faces grouped round Martin as he made his statement in a grey June twilight. Mr. Blee and the miller smoked, Mrs. Blanchard sat with her hand in her daughter's, and Phoebe occupied a comfortable arm-chair by the wood fire. Between intervals of long silence came loud, juicy, sounds from Billy's pipe, and when light waned they still talked on until Chris stirred herself and sought the lamp.
"They tell me," began Martin, "that a deserting soldier is punished according to his character and with regard to the fact whether he surrenders himself or is apprehended. Of course we know Will gave himself up, but then they will find out that he knew poor John's unfortunate letter had reached its destination—or at any rate started for it; and they may argue, not knowing the truth, that it was the fact of the information being finally despatched made Will surrender. They will say, I am afraid, as they said to me: 'Why did he wait until now if he meant to do the right thing? Why did he not give himself up long ago?'"
"That's easy answered: to please others," explained Mr. Lyddon. "Fust theer was his promise to Phoebe, then his mother's illness, then his other promise, to bide till his wife was brought to bed. Looking back I see we was wrong to use our power against his awn wish; but so it stands."
"I ought to go; I ought to be alongside un," moaned Phoebe; "I was at the bottom of everything from fust to last. For me he run away; for me he stopped away. Mine's the blame, an' them as judge him should knaw it an' hear me say so."
"Caan't do no such vain thing as that," declared Mr. Blee. "'T was never allowed as a wife should be heard 'pon the doin's of her awn husband. 'Cause why? She'd be one-sided—either plump for un through thick an' thin, or else all against un, as the case might stand."
"As to the sentence," continued Martin, "if a man with a good character deserts and thinks better of it and goes back to his regiment, he is not as a rule tried by court-martial at all. Instead, he loses all his former service and has to begin to reckon his period of engagement—six or seven years perhaps—all over again. But a notoriously bad character is tried by court-martial in any case, whether he gives himself up or not; and he gets a punishment according to the badness of his past record. Such a man would have from eighty-four days' imprisonment, with hard labour, up to six months, or even a year, if he had deserted more than once. Then the out-and-out rascals are sentenced to be 'dismissed her Majesty's service.'"
"But the real gude men," pleaded Phoebe—"them as had no whisper 'gainst 'em, same as Will? They couldn't be hard 'pon them, 'specially if they knawed all?"
"I should hope not; I'm sure not. You see the case is so unusual, as an officer explained to me, and such a great length of time has elapsed between the action and the judgment upon it. That is in Will's favour. A good soldier with a clean record who deserts and is apprehended does not get more than three months with hard labour and sometimes less. That's the worst that can happen, I hope."
"What's hard labour to him?" murmured Billy, whose tact on occasions of universal sorrow was sometimes faulty. "'Tis the rankle of bein' in every blackguard's mouth that'll cut Will to the quick."
"What blackguards say and think ban't no odds," declared Mrs. Blanchard. "'Tis better—far better he should do what he must do. The disgrace is in the minds of them that lick theer lips upon his sorrow. Let him pay for a wrong deed done, for the evil he did that gude might come of it. I see the right hand o' God holding' the li'l strings of my son's life, an' I knaw better'n any of 'e what'll be in the bwoy's heart now."
"Yet, when all's said, 'tis a mournful sarcumstance an' sent for our chastening," contended Mr. Blee stoutly. "Us mustn't argue away the torment of it an' pretend 'tis nought. Ban't a pleasing thing, 'specially at such a time when all the airth s gwaine daft wi' joy for the gracious gudeness o' God to the Queen o' England. In plain speech, 't is a damn dismal come-along-of-it, an' I've cried by night, auld though I am, to think o' the man's babes grawin' up wi' this round theer necks. An' wan to be born while he 'm put away! Theer 's a black picksher for 'e! Him doin' hard labour as the Law directs, an' his wife doin' hard labour, tu—in her lonely bed! Why, gormed if I—"
"For God's sake shut your mouth, you horrible old man!" burst out Martin, as Phoebe hurried away in tears and Chris followed her. "You're a disgrace to humanity and I don't hesitate—I don't hesitate at all to say you have no proper feeling in you!"
"Martin's right, Billy," declared Mr. Lyddon without emotion. "You 'm a thought tu quick to meet other people's troubles half way, as I've told 'e before to-night. Ban't a comely trait in 'e. You've made her run off sobbing her poor, bruised heart out. As if she hadn't wept enough o' late. Do 'e think us caan't see what it all means an' the wisht cloud that's awver all our heads, lookin' darker by contrast wi' the happiness of the land, owing to the Jubilee of a gert Queen? Coourse we knaw. But't is poor wisdom to talk 'bout the blackness of a cloud to them as be tryin' to find its silver lining. If you caan't lighten trouble, best to hold your peace."
"What's the use of cryin' 'peace' when us knaws in our hearts 'tis war? Us must look inside an' outside, an' count the cost same as I be doin' now," declared Mr. Blee. "Then to be catched up so harsh 'mong friends! Well, well, gude-night, all; I'll go to my rest. Hard words doan't break, though they may bruise. But I'll do my duty, whether or no."
He rose and shuffled to the door, then looked round and opened his mouth to speak again. But he changed his mind, shook his head, snorted expressively, and disappeared.
"A straange-fashioned chap," commented Mrs. Blanchard, "wi' sometimes a wise word stuck in his sour speech, like a gude currant in a bad dumpling."
THE NIGHT OF JUBILEE
Unnumbered joy fires were writing the nation's thanksgiving across the starry darkness of a night in June. Throughout the confines of Britain—on knolls arising beside populous towns, above the wild cliffs of our coasts, in low-lying lands, upon the banks of rivers, at the fringes of forests and over a thousand barren heaths, lonely wastes, and stony pinnacles of untamed hills, like some mundane galaxy of stars or many-tongued outbreak of conflagration, the bonfires glimmered. And their golden seed was sown so thickly, that from no pile of those hundreds then brightening the hours of darkness had it been possible to gaze into the night and see no other.
Upon the shaggy fastnesses of Devon's central waste, within the bounds, metes, and precincts of Dartmoor Forest, there shone a whole constellation of little suns, and a wanderer in air might have counted a hundred without difficulty, whilst, for the beholders perched upon Yes Tor, High Wilhays, or the bosom of Cosdon during the fairness and clearness of that memorable night, fully threescore beacons flamed. All those granite giants within the field of man's activities, all the monsters whose enormous shades fell at dawn or evening time upon the hamlets and villages of the Moor, now carried on their lofty crowns the flames of rejoicing. Bonfires of varying size, according to the energy and importance of the communities responsible for them, dotted the circumference of the lonely region in a vast, irregular figure, but thinned and ceased towards the unpeopled heart of the waste. On Wattern, at Cranmere, upon Fur Tor, and under the hoary, haunted woods of Wistman, no glad beacons blazed or voices rang. There Nature, ignorant of epochs and heeding neither olympiad nor lustrum, cycle nor century, ruled alone; there, all self-centred, self-contained, unwitting of conscious existence and its little joys, her perfection above praise and more enduring than any chronicle of it, asking for no earthborn acclamations of her eternal reign, demanding only obedience from all on penalty of death, the Mother swayed her sceptre unseen. Seed and stone, blade and berry, hot blood and cold, did her bidding and slept or stirred at her ordinance. A nightjar harshly whirred beneath her footstool; wan tongues of flame rose and fell upon her quaking altars; a mountain fox, pattering quick-footed to the rabbit warren, caught light from those exhalations in his round, green eyes and barked.
Humanity thronged and made merry around numberless crackling piles of fire. Men and women, boys and girls, most noisily rejoiced, and from each flaming centre of festivity a thin sound of human shouting and laughter streamed starward with the smoke.
Removed by brief distance in space, the onlooker, without overmuch strain or imagination, might stride a pace or two backward in time and conceive himself for a moment as in the presence of those who similarly tended beacons on these granite heights of old. Then, truly, the object and occasion were widely different; then, perchance, in answer to evil rumour moving zigzag on black bat-wings through nights of fear, many a bale-fire had shot upwards, upon the keystone of Cosdon's solemn arch, beckoned like a bloody hand towards north and south, and cried danger to a thousand British warriors lurking in moor, and fen, and forest. Answering flames had leapt from Hay Tor, from Buckland Beacon, from Great Mis Tor in the west; and their warning, caught up elsewhere, would quickly penetrate to the heart of the South Hams, to the outlying ramparts of the Cornish wastes, to Exmoor and the coast-line of the north. But no laughter echoed about those old-time fires. Their lurid light smeared wolfskins, splashed on metal and untanned hide, illumined barbaric adornments, fierce faces, wild locks, and savage eyes. Anxious Celtic mothers and maidens stood beside their men, while fear and rage leapt along from woman's face to woman's face, as some gasping wretch, with twoscore miles of wilderness behind him, told of high-beaked monsters moving under banks of oars, of dire peril, of death and ruin, suddenly sprung in a night from behind the rim of the sea.
Since then the peaks of the Moor have smiled or scowled under countless human fires, have flashed glad tidings or flamed ill news to many generations. And now, perched upon one enormous mass of stone, there towered upward a beacon of blazing furze and pine. In its heart were tar barrels and the monster bred heat enough to remind the granite beneath it of those fires that first moulded its elvan ingredients to a concrete whole and hurled them hither.
About this eye of flame crowded those who had built it, and the roaring mass of red-hot timber and seething pitch represented the consummation of Chagford's festivities on the night of Jubilee. The flames, obedient to such light airs as were blowing, bent in unison with the black billows of smoke that wound above them. Great, trembling tongues separated from the mass and soared upward, gleaming as they vanished; sparks and jets, streams and stars of light, shot from the pile to illuminate the rolling depths of the smoke cloud, to fret its curtain with spangles and jewels of gold atid ruby, to weave strange, lurid lights into the very fabric of its volume. Far away, as the breezes drew them, fell a red glimmer of fire, where those charred fragments caught in the rush and hurled aloft, returned again to earth; and the whole incandescent structure, perched as it was upon the apex of Yes Tor, suggested at a brief distance a fiery top-knot of streaming flame on some vast and demoniac head thrust upward from the nether world.
Great splendour of light gleamed upon a ring of human beings. Adventurous spirits leapt forth, fed the flames with faggots and furze and risked their hairy faces within the range of the bonfire's scorching breath. Alternate gleam and glow played fantastically upon the spectators, and, though for the most part they moved but little while their joy fire was at its height, the conflagration caused a sheer devil's dance of impish light and shadow to race over every face and form in the assemblage. The fantastic magician of the fire threw humps on to straight backs, flattened good round breasts, wrote wrinkles on smooth faces, turned eyes and lips into shining gems, made white teeth yellow, cast a grotesque spell of the unreal on young shapes, of the horrible upon old ones. A sort of monkey coarseness crept into the red, upturned faces; their proportions were distorted, their delicacy destroyed. Essential lines of figures were concealed by the inky shadows; unimportant features were thrown into a violent prominence; the clean fire impinged abruptly on a night of black shade, as sunrise on the moon. There was no atmosphere. Human noses poked weirdly out of nothing, human hands waved without arms, human heads moved without bodies, bodies bobbed along without legs. The heart-beat and furnace roar of the fire was tremendous, but the shouts of men, the shriller laughter of women, and the screams and yells of children could be heard through it, together with the pistol-like explosion of sap turned to steam, and rending its way from green wood. Other sounds also fretted the air, for a hundred yards distant—in a hut-circle—the Chagford drum-and-fife band lent its throb and squeak to the hour, and struggled amain to increase universal joy. So the fire flourished, and the plutonian rock-mass of the tor arose, the centre of a scene itself plutonian.
Removed by many yards from the ring of human spectators, and scattered in wide order upon the flanks of the hill, stood tame beasts. Sheep huddled there and bleated amazement, their fleeces touched by the flicker of the distant fire; red heifers and steers also faced the flame and chewed the cud upon a spectacle outside all former experience; while inquisitive ponies drew up in a wide radius, snorted and sniffed with delicate, dilated nostrils at the unfamiliar smell of the breeze, threw up their little heads, fetched a compass at top speed and so returned; then crowded flank to flank, shoulder to shoulder, and again blankly gazed at the fire which reflected itself in the whites of their shifty eyes.
Fitting the freakish antics of the red light, a carnival spirit, hard to rouse in northern hearts, awakened within this crowd of Devon men and women, old men and children. There was in their exhilaration some inspiration from the joyous circumstance they celebrated; and something, too, from the barrel. Dancing began and games, feeble by day but not lacking devil when pursued under cover of darkness. There were hugging and kissing, and yells of laughter when amorous couples who believed themselves safe were suddenly revealed lip to lip and heart to heart by an unkind flash of fire. Some, as their nature was, danced and screamed that flaming hour away; some sat blankly and smoked and gazed with less interest than the outer audience of dumb animals; some laboured amain to keep the bonfire at blaze. These last worked from habit and forgot their broadcloth. None bade them, but it was their life to be toiling; it came naturally to mind and muscle, and they laughed while they laboured and sweated. A dozen staid groups witnessed the scene from surrounding eminences, but did not join the merrymakers. Mr. Shorto-Champernowne, Doctor Parsons, and the ladies of their houses stood with their feet on a tumulus apart; and elsewhere Mr. Chapple, Charles Coomstock, Mr. Blee, and others, mostly ancient, sat on the granite, inspected the pandemonium spread before them, and criticised as experts who had seen bonfires lighted before the greater part of the present gathering was out of its cradle. But no cynic praising of past time to the disparagement of the present marked their opinions. Mr. Chapple indeed pronounced the fire brilliantly successful, and did not hesitate to declare that it capped all his experience in this direction.
"A braave blaze," he said, "a blaze as gives the thoughtful eye an' nose a tidy guess at what the Pit's like to be. Ess, indeed, a religious fire, so to say; an' I warrant the prophet sat along just such another when he said man was born to trouble sure as the sparks fly up'ard."
Somewhat earlier on the same night, under the northern ramparts of Dartmoor, and upon the long, creeping hill that rises aloft from Okehampton, then dips again, passes beneath the Belstones, and winds by Sticklepath and Zeal under Cosdon, there rattled a trap holding two men. From their conversation it appeared that one was a traveller who now returned southward from a journey.
"Gert, gay, fanciful doin's to-night," said the driver, looking aloft where Cosdon Beacon swelled. "You can see the light from the blaze up-long, an' now an' again you can note a sign in the night like a red-hot wire drawed up out the airth. They 'm sky-rockets, I judge."
"'T is a joyful night, sure 'nough."
The driver illustrated a political ignorance quite common in rural districts ten years ago and not conspicuously rare to-day. He laboured under uneasy suspicions that the support of monarchy was a direct and dismal tax upon the pockets of the poor.
"Pity all the fuss ban't about a better job," he said. "Wan auld, elderly lady 's so gude as another, come to think of it. Why shouldn't my mother have a jubilee?"
"What for? 'Cause she've borne a damned fule?" asked the other man angrily. "If that's your way o' thought, best keep it in your thoughts. Anyhow, I'll knock your silly head off if I hears another word to that tune, so now you knaw."
The speaker was above medium height and breadth, the man who drove him happened to be unusually small.
"Well, well, no offence," said the latter.
"There is offence; an' it I heard a lord o' the land talk that way to-night, I'd make un swallow every dirty word of it. To hell wi' your treason!"
The driver changed the subject.
"Now you can see a gude few new fires," he said. "That's the Throwleigh blaze; an' that, long ways off, be—"
"Yes Tor by the look of it. All Chagford's traapsed up-long, I warn 'e, to-night."
They were now approaching a turning of the ways and the traveller suddenly changed his destination.
"Come to think of it, I'll go straight on," he said. "That'll save you a matter o' ten miles, tu. Drive ahead a bit Berry Down way. Theer I'll leave 'e an' you'll be back home in time to have some fun yet."
The driver, rejoicing at this unhoped diminution of his labours, soon reached the foot of a rough by-road that ascends to the Moor between the homesteads of Berry Down and Creber.
Yes Tor now arose on the left under its cap of flame, and the wayfarer, who carried no luggage, paid his fare, bid the other "good-night," and then vanished into the darkness.
He passed between the sleeping farms, and only watch-dogs barked out of the silence, for Gidleigh folks were all abroad that night. Pressing onwards, the native hurried to Scorhill, then crossed the Teign below Batworthy Farm, passed through the farmyard, and so proceeded to the common beneath Yes Tor. He whistled as he went, then stopped a moment to listen. The first drone of music and remote laughter reached his ear. He hurried onwards until a gleam lighted his face; then he passed through the ring of beasts, still glaring fascinated around the fire; and finally he pushed among the people.
He stood revealed and there arose a sudden whisper among some who knew him, but whom he knew not. One or two uttered startled cries at this apparition, for all associated the newcomer with events and occurrences widely remote from the joy of the hour. How he came among them now, and what event made it possible for him to stand in their midst a free man, not the wisest could guess.
A name was carried from mouth to mouth, then shouted aloud, then greeted with a little cheer. It fell upon Mr. Blee's ear as he prepared to start homewards; and scarcely had the sound of it set him gasping when a big man grew out of the flame and shadow and stood before him with extended hand.
"Burnish it all! You! Be it Blanchard or the ghost of un?"
"The man hisself—so big as bull's beef, an' so free as thicky fire!" said Will.
Riotous joy sprang and bubbled in his voice. He gripped Billy's hand till the old man jumped and wriggled.
"Free! Gude God! Doan't tell me you've brawke loose—doan't 'e say that! Christ! if you haven't squashed my hand till theer's no feeling in it! Doan't 'e say you've runned away?"
"No such thing," answered Will, now the centre of a little crowd. "I'll tell 'e, sawls all, if you mind to hear. 'Tis this way: Queen Victoria, as have given of the best she've got wi' both hands to the high men of the land, so they tell me, caan't forget nought, even at such a time as this here. She've made gert additions to all manner o' men; an' to me, an' the likes o' me she've given what's more precious than bein' lords or dukes. I'm free—me an' all as runned from the ranks. The Sovereign Queen's let deserters go free, if you can credit it; an' that's how I stand here this minute."
A buzz and hum with cheers and some laughter and congratulations followed Will's announcement. Then the people scattered to spread his story, and Mr. Blee spoke.
"Come you down home to wance. Ban't none up here as cares a rush 'bout 'e but me. But theer 's a many anxious folks below. I comed up for auld sake's sake an' because ban't in reason to suppose I'll ever see another joy fire 'pon Yes Tor rock, at my time o' life. But us'll go an' carry this rare news to Chagford an' the Barton."
They faded from the red radius of the fire and left it slowly dying. Will helped Billy off rough ground to the road. Then he set off at a speed altogether beyond the old man's power, so Mr. Blee resorted to stratagem.
"'Bate your pace; 'bate your pace; I caan't travel that gait an' talk same time. Yet theer's a power o' fine things I might tell 'e if you'd listen."
"'T is hard to walk slow towards a mother an' wife like what mine be, after near a month from 'em; but let's have your news, Billy, an' doan't croak, for God's sake. Say all's well wi' all."
"I ban't no croaker, as you knaws. Happy, are 'e?—happy for wance? I suppose you'll say now, as you've said plenty times a'ready, that you 'm to the tail of your troubles for gude an' all—just in your auld, silly fashion?"
"Not me, auld chap, never no more—so long as you 'm alive! Ha, ha, ha—that's wan for you! Theer! if 't isn't gude to laugh again!"
"I be main glad as I've got no news to make 'e do anything else, though ban't often us can be prophets of gude nowadays. But if you've grawed a streak wiser of late, then theer's hope, even for a scatterbrain like you, the Lard bein' all-powerful. Not that jokes against such as me would please Him the better."
"I've thought a lot in my time, Billy; an' I haven't done thinking yet. I've comed to reckon as I caan't do very well wi'out the world, though the world would fare easy enough wi'out me."
"That's sense so far as it goes," he admitted. "Obedience be hard to the young; to the auld it comes natural; to me allus was easy as dirt from my youth up. Obedience to betters in heaven an' airth. But you—you with your born luck—never heard tell of nothin' like it 't all. What's a fix to you? You goes in wan end an' walks out t' other, like a rabbit through a hedge. Theer you was—in such a tight pass as you might say neither God nor angels could get 'e free wi'out a Bible miracle, when, burnish it all! if the Jubilee Queen o' England doan't busy herself 'bout 'e!"
"'T is true as I'm walkin' by your side. I'd give a year o' my wages to knaw how I could shaw what I think about it."
"You might thank her. 'T is all as humble folks can do most times when Queens or Squires or the A'mighty Hisself spares a thought to better us. Us can awnly say 'thank you.'"
There was a silence of some duration; then Billy again bid his companion moderate his pace.
"I'm forgetting all I've got to tell 'e, though I've news enough for a buke," he said.
"How's Jan Grimbal, fust plaace?"
"On his legs again an' out o' danger if the Lunnon doctor knaws anything. A hunderd guineas they say that chap have had! Your name was danced to a mad tune 'pon Grimbal's lips 'fore his senses corned back to un. Why for I caan't tell 'e. He've shook hands wi' Death for sartain while you was away."
"An' mother, an' wife, an' Miller?"
"Your mother be well—a steadfast woman her be. Joy doan't lift her up, an' sorrow doan't crush her. Theer's gert wisdom in her way of life. 'T is my awn, for that matter. Then Miller—well, he 'm grawin' auld an' doan't rate me quite so high as formerly—not that I judge anybody but myself. An' your missis—theer, if I haven't kept it for the last! 'Tis news four-an-twenty hour old now an' they wrote to 'e essterday, but I lay you missed the letter awin' to me—"
"Well, she've brought 'e a bwoy—so now you've got both sorts—bwoy an' cheel. An' all doin' well as can be, though wisht work for her, thinkin' 'pon you the while."
Will stood still and uttered a triumphant but inarticulate sound—half-laugh, half-sob, half-thanksgiving. Then the man spoke, slow and deep,—
"He shall go for a soldier!"
"Theer! Now I knaw 't is Blanchard back an' no other! Hear me, will 'e; doan't plan no such uneven way of life for un."
"By God, he shall!"
The words came back over Will Blanchard's shoulder, for he was fast vanishing.
"Might have knawed he wouldn't walk along wi' me arter that," thought Billy. Then he lifted up his voice and bawled to the diminishing figure, already no more than a darker blot on the darkness of night.
"For the Lard's love go in quiet an' gradual, or you'll scare the life out of 'em all."
And the answer came back,—
"I knaw, I knaw; I ban't the man to do a rash deed!"
Mr. Blee chuckled and plodded on through the night while Will strode far ahead.
Presently he stood beside the wicket of Mrs. Blanchard's cottage and hesitated between two women. Despite circumstances, there came no uncertain answer from the deepest well-springs of him. He could not pass that gate just then. And so he stopped and turned and entered; and she, his mother, sitting in thought alone, heard a footfall upon the great nightly silence—a sudden, familiar footfall that echoed to her heart the music it loved best.