"Have you seen my poor sister?"
"I was called last night while at Mrs. Hicks's cottage, and went almost at once. It's very terrible—very. She'll get brain fever if we're not careful. Such a shock! She was walking alone, down in the croft by the river—all in a tremendously heavy dew too. She was dry-eyed and raved, poor girl. I may say she was insane at that sad moment. 'Weep for yourself!' she said to me. 'Let this place weep for itself, for there's a great man has died. He was here and lived here and nobody knew—nobody but his mother and I knew what he was. He had to beg his bread almost, and God let him; but the sin of it is on those around him—you and the rest.' So she spoke, poor child. These are not exactly her words, but something like them. I got her indoors to her mother and sent her a draught. I've just come from confining Mrs. Woods, and I'll walk down and see your sister now before I go home if you like. I hope she may be sleeping."
Will readily agreed to this suggestion; and together the two men proceeded to the valley.
But many things had happened since the night. When Doctor Parsons left Mrs. Blanchard, she had prevailed upon Chris to go to bed, and then herself departed to the village and sat with Mrs. Hicks for an hour. Returning, she found her daughter apparently asleep, and, rather than wake her, left the doctor's draught unopened; yet Chris had only simulated slumber, and as soon as her mother retreated to her own bed, she rose, dressed, crept from the house, and hastened through the night to where her lover lay.
The first awful stroke had fallen, but the elasticity of the human mind which at first throws off and off such terrible shocks, and only after the length of many hours finally accepts them as fact, saved Chris Blanchard from going mad. Happily she could not thus soon realise the truth. It recurred, like the blows of a sledge, upon her brain, but between these cruel reminders of the catastrophe, the knowledge of Clement's death escaped her memory entirely, and more than once, while roaming the dew alone, she asked herself suddenly what she was doing and why she was there. Then the mournful answer knelled to her heart, and the recurrent spasms of that first agony slowly, surely settled into one dead pain, as the truth was seared into her knowledge. A frenzied burst of anger succeeded, and under its influence she spoke to Doctor Parsons, who approached her beside the river and with tact and patience at length prevailed upon her to enter her home. She cursed the land that had borne him, the hamlet wherein he had dwelt; and her mother, not amazed at her fierce grief, found each convulsive ebullition of sorrow natural to the dark hour, and soothed her as best she could. Then the elder woman departed a while, not knowing the truth and feeling such a course embraced the deeper wisdom.
Left alone, her future rose before Chris, as she sat upon her bed and saw the time to come glimmer out of the night in colours more ashy than the moonbeams on the cotton blind. Yet, as she looked her face burned, and one flame, vivid enough, flickered through all the future; the light on her own cheeks. Her position as it faced her from various points of view acted upon her physical being—suffocated her and brought a scream to her lips. There was nobody to hear it, nobody to see the girl tear her hair, rise from her couch, fall quivering, face downward, on the little strip of carpet beside her bed. Who could know even a little of what this meant to her? Women had often lost the men they loved, but never, never like this. So she assured herself. Past sorrows and fears dwindled to mere shadows now; for the awful future—the crushing months to come, rose grim and horrible on the horizon of Time, laden with greater terrors than she could face and live.
Alone, Chris told herself she might have withstood the oncoming tribulation—struggled through the storms of suffering and kept her broken heart company as other women had done before and must again; but she would not be alone. A little hand was stretching out of the loneliness she yearned for; a little voice was crying out of the solitude she craved. The shadows that might have sheltered her were full of hard eyes; the secret places would only echo a world's cruel laughter now—that world which had let her loved one die uncared for, that world so pitiless to such as she. Her thoughts were alternately defiant and fearful; then, before the picture of her mother and Will, her emotions dwindled from the tragic and became of a sort that weeping could relieve. Tears, now mercifully released from their fountains, softened her bruised soul for a time and moderated the physical strain of her agony. She lay long, half-naked, sobbing her heart out. Then came the mad desire to be back with Clement at any cost, and profound pity for him overwhelmed her mind to the exclusion of further sorrow for herself. She forgot herself wholly in grief that he was gone. She would never hear him speak or laugh again; never again kiss the trouble from his eyes; never feel the warm breath of him, the hand-grip of him. He was dead; and she saw him lying straight and cold in a padded coffin, with his hands crossed and cerecloth stiffly tying up his jaws. He would sink into the silence that dwelt under the roots of the green grass; while she must go on and fight the world, and in fighting it, bring down upon his grave bitter words and sharp censures from the lips of those who did not understand.
Before which reflection Death came closer and looked kind; and the thought of his hand was cool and comforting, as the hand of a grey moor mist sweeping over the heath after fiery days of cloudless sun. Death stood very near and beckoned at the dark portals of her thought. Behind him there shone a great light, and in the light stood Clem; but the Shadow filled all the foreground. To go to her loved one, to die quickly and take their mutual secret with her, seemed a right and a precious thought just then; to go, to die, while yet he lay above the earth, was a determination that had even a little power to solace her agony. She thought of meeting him standing alone, strange, friendless on the other side of the grave; she told herself that actual duty, if not the vast love she bore him, pointed along the unknown road he had so recently followed. It was but justice to him. Then she could laugh at Time and Fate and the juggling unseen Controller who had played with him and her, had wrecked their little lives, forced their little passions under a sham security, then snapped the thread on which she hung for everything, killed the better part of herself, and left her all alone without a hand to shield or a heart to pity. In the darkness, as the moon stole away and her chamber window blackened, she sounded all sorrow's wide and solemn diapason; and the living sank into shadows before her mind's accentuated and vivid picture of the dead. Future life loomed along one desolate pathway that led to pain and shame and griefs as yet untasted. The rocks beside the way hid shadowy shapes of the unfriendly; for no mother's kindly hand would support her, no brother's stout arm would be lifted for her when they knew. No pure, noble, fellow-creature might be asked for aid, not one might be expected to succour and cherish in the great strait sweeping towards her. Some indeed there were to look to for the moment, but their voices and their eyes would harden presently, when they knew.
She told herself they must never know; and the solution to the problem of how to keep her secret appeared upon the threshold of the unknown road her lover had already travelled. Now, at the echo of the lowest notes, while she lay with uneven pulses and shaking limbs, it seemed that she was faced with the parting of the ways and must make instant choice. Time would not wait for her and cared nothing whether she chose life or death for her road. She struggled with red thoughts, and fever burnt her lips and stabbed her forehead. Clement was gone. In this supreme hour no fellow-creature could fortify her courage or direct her tottering judgment. Once she thought of prayer and turned from it shuddering with a passionate determination to pray no more. Then the vision of Death shadowed her and she felt his brief sting would be nothing beside the endless torment of living. Dangerous thoughts developed quickly in her and grew to giants. Something clamoured to her and cried that delay, even of hours, was impossible and must be fatal to secrecy. A feverish yearning to get it over, and that quickly, mastered her, and she began huddling on some clothes.
Then it was that the sudden sound of the cottage door being shut and bolted reached her ear. Mrs. Blanchard had returned and knowing that she would approach in a moment, Chris flung herself on the bed and pretended to be sleeping soundly. It was not until her mother withdrew and herself slumbered half an hour later that the distracted woman arose, dressed herself, and silently left the house as we have said.
She heard the river calling to her, and through its murmur sounded the voice of her loved one from afar. The moon shone clear and the valley was full of vapoury gauze. A wild longing to see him once more in the flesh before she followed him in the spirit gained upon Chris, and she moved slowly up the hill to the village. Then, as she went, born of the mists upon the meadows, and the great light and the moony gossamers diamonded with dew, there rose his dear shape and moved with her along the way. But his face was hidden, and he vanished at the first outposts of the hamlet as she passed into Chagford alone. The cottage shadows fell velvety black in a shining silence; their thatches were streaked, their slates meshed with silver; their whitewashed walls looked strangely awake and alert and surrounded the woman with a sort of blind, hushed stare. One solitary patch of light peered like a weary eye from that side of the street which lay in shadow, and Chris, passing through the unbolted cottage door, walked up the narrow passage within and softly entered.
Condolence and tears and buzz of sorrowful friends had passed away with the stroke of midnight. Now Mrs. Hicks sat alone with her dead and gazed upon his calm features and vaguely wondered how, after a life of such disappointment and failure and bitter discontent, he could look so peaceful. She knew every line that thought and trouble had ruled upon his face; she remembered their coming; and now, between her fits of grief, she scanned him close and saw that Death had wiped away the furrows here and there, and smoothed his forehead and rolled back the years from off him until his face reminded her of the strange, wayward child who was wont to live a life apart from his fellows, like some wild wood creature, and who had passed almost friendless through his boyhood. Fully he had filled her widowed life, and been at least a loving child, a good son. On him her withered hopes had depended, and, even in their darkest hours, he had laughed at her dread of the workhouse, and assured her that while head and hands remained to him she need not fear, but should enjoy the independence of a home. Now this sole prop and stay was gone—gone, just as the black cloud had broken and Fate relented.
The old woman sat beside him stricken, shrivelled, almost reptilian in her red-eyed, motionless misery. Only her eyes moved in her wrinkled, brown face, and reflected the candle standing on the mantelpiece above his head. She sat with her hands crooked over one another in her lap, like some image wrought of ebony and dark oak. Once a large house-spider suddenly and silently appeared upon the sheet that covered the breast of the dead. It flashed along for a foot or two, then sat motionless; and she, whose inclination was to loathe such things unutterably, put forth her hand and caught it without a tremor and crushed it while its hairy legs wriggled between her fingers.
To the robbed mother came Chris, silent as a ghost. Only the old woman's eyes moved as the girl entered, fell down by the bier, and buried her face in the pillow that supported her lover's head. Thus, in profound silence, both remained awhile, until Chris lifted herself and looked in the dead face and almost started to see the strange content stamped on it.
Then Mrs. Hicks began to speak in a high-pitched voice which broke now and again as her bosom heaved after past tears.
"The awnly son of his mother, an' she a widow wummon; an' theer 's no Christ now to work for the love of the poor. I be shattered wi' many groans an' tears, Chris Blanchard, same as you be. You knawed him—awnly you an' me; but you 'm young yet, an' memory's so weak in young brains that you'll outlive it all an' forget."
"Never, never, mother! Theer 's no more life for me—not here. He's callin' to me—callin' an' callin' from yonder."
"You'll outlive an' forget," repeated the other. "I cannot, bein' as I am. An', mind this, when you pray to Heaven, ax for gold an' diamonds, ax for houses an' lands, ax for the fat of the airth; an' ax loud. No harm in axin'. Awnly doan't pitch your prayers tu dirt low, for ban't the hardness of a thing stops God. You 'm as likely or onlikely to get a big answer as a little. See the blessin' flowin' in streams for some folks! They do live braave an' happy, with gude health, an' gude wives, an' money, an' the fruits of the land; they do get butivul childer, as graws up like the corners of the temple; an' when they come to die, they shut their eyes 'pon kind faaces an' lie in lead an' oak under polished marble. All that be theers; an' what was his—my son's?"
"God forgot him," sobbed Chris, "an' the world forgot him—all but you an' me."
The old woman shifted her hands wearily.
"Theer's a mort for God to bear in mind, but 't is hard, here an' there, wheer He slips awver some lowly party an' misses a humble whisper. Clamour if you want to be heard; doan't go with bated breath same as I done. 'T was awnly a li'l thing I axed, an' axed it twice a day on my knees, ever since my man died twenty-three year agone. An' often as not thrice Sundays, so you may count up the number of times I axed if you mind to. Awnly a li'l rubbishy thing you might have thought: just to bring his fair share o' prosperity to Clem an' keep my bones out the poorhouse at the end. But my bwoy 's brawk his neck by a cruel death, an' I must wear the blue cotton."
"No, no, mother."
"Ess. Not that it looks so hard as it did. This makes it easy—" and she put her hand on her son's forehead and left it there a moment.
Presently she continued:
"I axed Clem to turn the bee-butts at my sister's passing—Mrs. Lezzard. But he wouldn't; an' now they'll be turned for him. Wise though the man was, he set no store on the dark, hidden meaning of honey-bees at times of death. Now the creatures be masterless, same as you an' me; an' they'll knaw it; an' you'll see many an' many a-murmuring on his graave 'fore the grass graws green theer; for they see more 'n what we can."
She relapsed into motionless silence and, herself now wholly tearless, watched the tears of Chris, who had sunk down on the floor between the mother and son.
"Why for do you cry an' wring your hands so hard?" she asked suddenly. "You'm awnly a girl yet—young an' soft-cheeked wi' braave bonny eyes. Theer'll be many a man's breast for you to comfort your head on. But me! Think o' what's tearin' my auld heart to tatters—me, so bleared an' ugly an' lonely. God knaws God's self couldn't bring no balm to me—none, till I huddle under the airth arter un; but you—your wound won't show by time the snaw comes again."
"You forget when you loved a man first if you says such a thing as that."
"Theer's no eternal, lasting fashion o' love but a mother's to her awn male childer," croaked the other. "Sweethearts' love is a thing o' the blood—a trick o' Nature to tickle us poor human things into breeding 'gainst our better wisdom; but what a mother feels doan't hang on no such broken reed. It's deeper down; it's hell an' heaven both to wance; it's life; an' to lose it is death. See! Essterday I'd 'a' fought an' screamed an' took on like a gude un to be fetched away to the Union; but come they put him in the ground, I'll go so quiet as a lamb."
Another silence followed; then the aged widow pursued her theme, at first in the same dreary, cracked monotone, then deepening to passion.
"I tell you a gude wife will do 'most anything for a husband an' give her body an' soul to un; but she expects summat in return. She wants his love an' worship for hers; but a mother do give all—all—all—an' never axes nothin' for it. Just a kiss maybe, an' a brightening eye, or a kind word. That's her pay, an' better'n gawld, tu. She'm purty nigh satisfied wi' what would satisfy a dog, come to think on it. 'T is her joy to fret an' fume an' pine o' nights for un, an' tire the A'mighty's ear wi' plans an' suggestions for un; aye, think an' sweat an' starve for un all times. 'T is her joy, I tell 'e, to smooth his road, an' catch the brambles by his way an' let 'em bury their thorns in her flesh so he shaa'n't feel 'em; 't is her joy to hear him babble of all his hopes an' delights; an' when the time comes she'll taake the maid of his heart to her awn, though maybe 't is breakin' wi' fear that he'll forget her in the light of the young eyes. Ax your awn mother if what I sez ban't God's truth. We as got the bwoys be content wi' that little. We awnly want to help theer young shoulders wi' our auld wans, to fight for 'em to the last. We'll let theer wives have the love, we will, an' ax no questions an'—an' we'll break our hearts when the cheel 's took out o' his turn—break our hearts by inches—same as I be doin' now."
"An' doan't I love, tu? Weern't he all the world to me, tu? Isn't my heart broken so well as yours?" sobbed Chris.
"Hear this, you wummon as talks of a broken heart," answered the elder almost harshly. "Wait—wait till you 'm the mother of a li'l man-cheel, an' see the shining eyes of un a-lookin' into yourn while your nipple's bein' squeezed by his naked gums, an' you laugh at what you suffered for un, an' hug un to you. Wait till he'm grawed from baby to bwoy, from bwoy to man; wait till he'm all you've got left in the cold, starved winter of a sorrowful life; an' wait till he'm brought home to 'e like this here, while you've been sittin' laughin' to yourself an' countin' dream gawld. Then turn about to find the tears that'll comfort 'e, an' the prayers that'll soothe 'e, and the God that'll lift 'e up; but you won't find 'em, Chris Blanchard."
The girl listened to this utterance, and it filled her with a sort of weird wonder as at a revelation of heredity. Mrs. Hicks had ever been taciturn before her, and now this rapid outpouring of thoughts and phrases echoed like the very speech of the dead. Thus had Clement talked, and the girl dimly marvelled without understanding. The impression passed, and there awoke in Chris a sudden determination to whisper to this bereaved woman what she could not even tell her own mother. A second thought had probably changed her intention, but she did not wait for any second thought. She acted on impulse, rose, put her arms round the widow, and murmured her secret. The other started violently and broke her motionless posture before this intelligence.
"Christ! And he knawed—my son?"
"Then you needn't whisper it. There's awnly us three here."
"An' no others must knaw. You'll never tell—never? You swear that?"
"Me tell! No, no. To think! Then theer's real sorrow for you, tu, poor soul—real, grawin' sorrow tu. Differ'nt from mine, but real enough. Yet—"
She relapsed into a stone-like repose. No facial muscle moved, but the expression of her mind appeared in her eyes and there gradually grew a hungry look in them—as of a starving thing confronted with food. The realisation of these new facts took a long time. No action accompanied it; no wrinkle deepened; no line of the dejected figure lifted; but when she spoke again her voice had greatly changed and become softer and very tremulous.
"O my dear God! 't will be a bit of Clement! Had 'e thought o' that?"
Then she rose suddenly to her feet and expression came to her face—a very wonderful expression wherein were blended fear, awe, and something of vague but violent joy—as though one suddenly beheld a loved ghost from the dead.
"'T is as if all of un weern't quite lost! A li'l left—a cheel of his! Wummon! You'm a holy thing to me—a holy thing evermore! You'm bearin' sunshine for your summertime and my winter—if God so wills!"
Then she lifted up her voice and cried to Chris with a strange cry, and knelt down at her feet and kissed her hands and stroked them.
"Go to un," she said, leaping up; "go to Clem, an' tell un, in his ear, that I knaw. It'll reach him if you whisper it. His soul ban't so very far aways yet. Tell un I knaw, tu—you an' me. He'd glory that I knawed. An' pray henceforrard, as I shall, for a bwoy. Ax God for a bwoy—ax wi'out ceasin' for a son full o' Clem. Our sorrows might win to the Everlasting Ear this wance. But, for Christ's sake, ax like wan who has a right to, not fawning an' humble."
The woman was transfigured as the significance of this news filled her mind. She wept before a splendid possibility. It fired her eyes and straightened her shrivelled stature. For a while her frantic utterances almost inspired Chris with the shadow of similar emotions; but another side of the picture knew no dawn. This the widow ignored—indeed it had not entered her head since her first comment on the confession. Now, however, the girl reminded her,—
"You forget a little what this must be to me, mother."
"Light in darkness."
"I hadn't thought that; an the gert world won't pity me, as you did when I first told you."
"You ban't feared o' the world, be you? The world forgot un. 'T was your awn word. What's the world to you, knawin' what you knaw? Do 'e want to be treated soft by what was allus hell-hard to him? Four-and-thirty short years he lived, then the world beginned to ope its eyes to his paarts, an' awnly then—tu late, when the thread of his days was spun. What's the world to you and why should you care for its word, Chris Blanchard?"
"Because I am Chris Blanchard," she said. "I was gwaine to kill myself, but thought to see his dear face wance more before I done it. Now—"
"Kill yourself! God's mercy! 'T will be killing Clem again if you do! You caan't; you wouldn't dare; theer's black damnation in it an' flat murder now. Hear me, for Christ's sake, if that's the awful thought in you: you'm God's chosen tool in this—chosen to suffer an' bring a bwoy in the world—Clem's bwoy. Doan't you see how't is? 'Kill yourself'! How can 'e dream it? You've got to bring a bwoy, I tell 'e, to keep us from both gwaine stark mad. 'T was foreordained he should leave his holy likeness. God's truth! You should be proud 'stead o' fearful—such a man as he was. Hold your head high an' pray when none's lookin', pray through every wakin' hour an' watch yourself as you'd watch the case of a golden jewel. What wise brain will think hard of you for followin' the chosen path? What odds if a babe's got ringless under the stars or in a lawful four-post bed? Who married Adam an' Eve? You was the wife of un 'cordin' to the first plan o' the livin' God; an' if He changed His lofty mind when't was tu late, blame doan't fall on you or the dead. Think of a baaby—his baaby—under your breast! Think of meetin' him in time to come, wi' another soul got in sheer love! Better to faace the people an' let the bairn come to fulness o' life than fly them an' cut your days short an' go into the next world empty-handed. Caan't you see it? What would Clem say? He'd judge you hard—such a lover o' li'l childer as him. 'T is the first framework of an immortal soul you've got unfoldin', like a rosebud hid in the green, an' ban't for you to nip that life for your awn whim an' let the angels in heaven be fewer by wan. You must live. An' the bwoy'll graw into a tower of strength for 'e—a tower of strength an' a glass belike wheer you'll see Clem rose again."
"The shame of it. My mother and Will—Will who's a hard judge, an' such a clean man."
"'Clean'! Christ A'mighty! You'd madden a saint of heaven! Weern't Clem clean, tu? If God sends fire-fire breaks out—sweet, livin' fire. You must go through with it—aye, an' call the bwoy Clem, tu. Be you shamed of him as he lies here? Be you feared of anything the airth can do to you when you look at him? Do 'e think Heaven's allus hard? No, I tell 'e, not to the young—not to the young. The wind's mostly tempered to the shorn lamb, though the auld ewe do oftentimes sting for it, an' get the seeds o' death arter shearing. Wait, and be strong, till you feel Clem's baaby in your arms. That'll be reward enough, an' you won't care no more for the world then. His son, mind; who be you to take life, an' break the buds of Clem's plantin'? Worse than to go in another's garden an' tear down green fruit."
So she pleaded volubly, with an electric increase of vitality, and continued to pour out a torrent of words, until Chris solemnly promised, before God and the dead, that she would not take her life. Having done so, some new design informed her.
"I must go," she said; "the moon has set and dawn is near. Dying be so easy; living so hard. But live I will; I swear it, though theer's awnly my poor mad brain to shaw how."
"Clem's son, mind. An' let me be the first to see it, for I feel't will be the gude pleasure of God I should."
"An' you promise to say no word, whatever betides, an' whatever you hear?"
"Dumb I'll be, as him theer—dumb, countin' the weeks an' months."
"Day's broke, an' I must go home-along," said Chris. She repeated the words mechanically, then moved away without any formal farewell. At the door she turned, hastened back, kissed the dead man's face again, and then departed, while the other woman looked at her but spoke no more.
Alone, with the struggle over and her object won, the mother shrank and dwindled again and grew older momentarily. Then she relapsed into the same posture as before, and anon, tears bred of new thoughts began to trickle painfully from their parched fountains. She did not move, but let them roll unwiped away. Presently her head sank back, her cap fell off and white hair dropped about her face.
Fingers of light seemed lifting the edges of the blind. They gained strength as the candle waned, and presently at cock-crow, when unnumbered clarions proclaimed morning, grey dawn with golden eyes brightened upon a dead man and an ancient woman fast asleep beside him.
John Grimbal, actuated by some whim, or else conscious that under the circumstances decorum demanded his attendance, was present at the funeral of Clement Hicks. Some cynic interest he derived from the spectacle of young Blanchard among the bearers; and indeed, as may be supposed, few had felt this tragic termination of his friend's life more than Will. Very genuine remorse darkened his days, and he blamed himself bitterly enough for all past differences with the dead. It was in a mood at once contrite and sorrowful that he listened to the echo of falling clod, and during that solemn sound mentally traversed the whole course of his relations with his sister's lover. Of himself he thought not at all, and no shadowy suspicion of relief crossed his mind upon the reflection that the knowledge of those fateful weeks long past was now unshared. In all his quarrels with Clement, no possibility of the man breaking his oath once troubled Will's mind; and now profound sorrow at his friend's death and deep sympathy with Chris were the emotions that entirely filled the young farmer's heart.
Grimbal watched his enemy as the service beside the grave proceeded. Once a malignant thought darkened his face, and he mused on what the result might be if he hinted to Blanchard the nature of his frustrated business with Hicks at Oke Tor. All Chagford had heard was that the master of the Red House intended to accept Clement Hicks as tenant of his home farm. The fact surprised many, but none looked behind it for any mystery, and Will least of all. Grimbal's thoughts developed upon his first idea; and he asked himself the consequence if, instead of telling Blanchard that he had gone to learn his secret, he should pretend that it was already in his possession. The notion shone for a moment only, then went out. First it showed itself absolutely futile, for he could do no more than threaten, and the other must speedily discover that in reality he knew nothing; and secondly, some shadow of feeling made Grimbal hesitate. His desire for revenge was now developing on new lines, and while his purpose remained unshaken, his last defeat had taught him patience. Partly from motives of policy, partly, strange as it may seem, from his instincts as a sportsman, he determined to let the matter of Hicks lie buried. For the dead man's good name he cared nothing, however, and victory over Will was only the more desired for this postponement. His black tenacity of purpose won strength from the repulse, but the problem for the time being was removed from its former sphere of active hatred towards his foe. How long this attitude would last, and what idiosyncrasy of character led to it, matters little. The fact remained that Grimbal's mental posture towards Blanchard now more nearly resembled that which he wore to his other interests in life. The circumstance still stood first, but partook of the nature of his emotions towards matters of sport. When a heavy trout had beaten him more than once, Grimbal would repair again and again to its particular haunt and leave no legitimate plan for its destruction untried. But any unsportsmanlike method of capturing or slaying bird, beast, or fish enraged him. So he left the churchyard with a sullen determination to pursue his sinister purpose straightforwardly.
All interested in Clement Hicks attended the funeral, including his mother and Chris. The last had yielded to Mrs. Blanchard's desire and promised to stop at home; but she changed her mind and conducted herself at the ceremony with a stoic fortitude. This she achieved only by an effort of will which separated her consciousness entirely from her environment and alike blinded her eyes and deafened her ears to the mournful sights and sounds around her. With her own future every fibre of her mind was occupied; and as they lowered her lover's coffin into the earth a line of action leapt into her brain.
Less than four-and-twenty hours later it seemed that the last act of the tragedy had begun. Then, hoarse as the raven that croaked Duncan's coming, Mr. Blee returned to Monks Barton from an early visit to the village. Phoebe was staying with her father for a fortnight, and it was she who met the old man as he paddled breathlessly home.
"More gert news!" he gasped; "if it ban't too much for wan in your way o' health."
"Nothing wrong at Newtake?" cried Phoebe, turning pale.
"No, no; but family news for all that."
The girl raised her hand to her heart, and Miller Lyddon, attracted by Billy's excited voice, hastened to his daughter and put his arm round her.
"Out with it," he said. "I see news in 'e. What's the worst or best?"
"Bad, bad as heart can wish. A peck o' trouble, by the looks of it. Chris Blanchard be gone—vanished like a dream! Mother Blanchard called her this marnin', an' found her bed not so much as creased. She've flown, an' there's a braave upstore 'bout it, for every Blanchard's wrong in the head more or less, beggin' your pardon, missis, as be awnly wan by marriage."
"But no sign? No word or anything left?"
"Nothing; an' theer's a purty strong faith she'm in the river, poor lamb. Theer's draggin' gwaine to be done in the ugly bits. I heard tell of it to the village, wheer I'd just stepped up to see auld Lezzard moved to the work'ouse. A wonnerful coorious, rackety world, sure 'nough! Do make me giddy."
"Does Will know?" asked Mr. Lyddon.
"His mother's sent post-haste for un. I doubt he 'm to the cottage by now. Such a gude, purty gal as she was, tu! An' so mute as a twoad at the buryin', wi' never a tear to soften the graave dust. For why? She knawed she'd be alongside her man again 'fore the moon waned. An' I hope she may be. But 't was cross-roads an' a hawthorn stake in my young days. Them barbarous ancient fashions be awver, thank God, though whether us lives in more religious times is a question, when you see the things what happens every hour on the twenty-four."
"I must go to them," cried Phoebe.
"I'll go; you stop at home quietly, and don't fret your mind," answered her father.
"Us must all do what us can—every manjack. I be gwaine corpse-searchin' down valley wi' Chapple, an' that 'mazin' water-dog of hisn; an' if 't is my hand brings her out the Teign, 't will be done in a kind, Christian manner, for she's in God's image yet, same as us; an' ugly though a drownin' be, it won't turn me from my duty."
HIS GRANITE CROSS
Succeeding upon the tumultuous incidents of Clement's death and Chris Blanchard's disappearance, there followed a period of calm in the lives of those from whom this narrative is gleaned. Such transient peace proved the greater in so far as Damaris and her son were concerned, by reason of an incident which befell Will on the evening of his sister's departure. Dead she certainly was not, nor did she mean to die; for, upon returning to Newtake after hours of fruitless searching, Blanchard found a communication awaiting him there, though no shadow of evidence was forthcoming to show how it had reached the farm. Upon the ledge of the window he discovered it when he returned, and read the message at a glance:
"Don't you nor mother fear nothing for me, nor seek me out, for it would be vain. I'm well, and I'm so happy as ever I shall be, and perhaps I'll come home-along some day.—CHRIS."
On this challenge Will acted, ignored his sister's entreaty to attempt no such thing, and set out upon a resolute search of nearly two months' duration. He toiled amain into the late autumn, but no hint or shadow of her rewarded the quest, and sustained failure in an enterprise where his heart was set, for his mother's sake and his own, acted upon the man's character, and indeed wrought marked changes in him. Despite the letter of Chris, hope died in Will, and he openly held his sister dead; but Mrs. Blanchard, while sufficiently distressed before her daughter's flight, never feared for her life, and doubted not that she would return in such time as it pleased her to do so.
"Her nature be same as yours an' your faither's afore you. When he'd got the black monkey on his shoulder he'd oftentimes leave the vans for a week and tramp the very heart o' the Moor alone. Fatigue of body often salves a sore mind. He loved thunder o' dark nights—my husband did—and was better for it seemin'ly. Chris be safe, I do think, though it's a heart-deep stroke this for me, 'cause I judge she caan't 'zactly love me as I thought, or else she'd never have left me. Still, the cold world, what she knaws so little 'bout, will drive her back to them as love her, come presently."
So, with greater philosophy than her son could muster, Damaris practised patience; while Will, after a perambulation of the country from north to south, from west to east, after weeks on the lonely heaths and hiding-places of the ultimate Moor, after visits to remote hamlets and inquiries at a hundred separate farmhouses, returned to Newtake, worn, disappointed, and gloomy to a degree beyond the experience of those who knew him. Neither did the cloud speedily evaporate, as was most usual with his transient phases of depression. Circumstances combined to deepen it, and as the winter crowded down more quickly than usual, its leaden months of scanty daylight and cold rains left their mark on Will as time had never done before.
During those few and sombre days which represented the epact of the dying year, Martin Grimbal returned to Chagford. He had extended his investigations beyond the time originally allotted to them, and now came back to his home with plenty of fresh material, and even one or two new theories for his book. He had received no communications during his absence, and the news of the bee-keeper's death and his sweetheart's disappearance, suddenly delivered by his housekeeper, went far to overwhelm him. It danced joy up again through the grey granite. For a brief hour splendid vistas of happiness reopened, and his laborious life swept suddenly into a bright region that he had gazed into longingly aforetime and lost for ever. He fought with himself to keep down this rosy-fledged hope; but it leapt in him, a young giant born at a word. The significance of the freedom of Chris staggered him. To find her was the cry of his heart, and, as Will had done before him, he straightway set out upon a systematic attempt to discover the missing girl. Of such uncertain temper was Blanchard's mind at this season, however, that he picked a quarrel out of Martin's design, and questioned the antiquary's right to busy himself upon an undertaking which the brother of Chris had already failed to accomplish.
"She belonged to me, not to you," he said, "an' I done all a man could do to find her. See her again we sha'n't, that's my feelin', despite what she wrote to me and left so mysterious on the window. Madness comed awver her, I reckon, an' she've taken her life, an' theer ban't no call for you or any other man to rip up the matter again. Let it bide as 't is. Such black doin's be best set to rest."
But, while Martin did not seek or desire Will's advice in the matter, he was surprised at the young farmer's attitude, and it extracted something in the nature of a confession from him, for there was little, he told himself, that need longer be hidden from the woman's brother.
"I can speak now, at least to you, Will," he said. "I can tell you, at any rate. Chris was all the world to me—all the world, and accident kept me from knowing she belonged to another man until too late. Now that he has gone, poor fellow, she almost seems within reach again. You know what it is to love. I can't and won't believe she has taken her life. Something tells me she lives, and I am not going to take any man's word about it. I must satisfy myself."
Thereupon Blanchard became more reasonable, withdrew his objections and expressed a very heartfelt hope that Martin might succeed where he had failed. The lover entered methodically upon his quest and conducted the inquiry with a rigorous closeness and scrupulous patience quite beyond Will's power despite his equally earnest intentions. For six months Martin pursued his hope, and few saw or heard anything of him during that period.
Once, during the early summer, Will chanced upon John Grimbal at the first meeting of the otter hounds in Teign Vale; but though the younger purposely edged near his enemy where he stood, and hoped that some word might fall to indicate their ancient enmity dead, John said nothing, and his blue eyes were hard and as devoid of all emotion as turquoise beads when they met the farmer's face for one fraction of time.
Before this incident, however, there had arisen upon Will's life the splendour of paternity. A time came when, through one endless night and silver April morning, he had tramped his kitchen floor as a tiger its cage, and left a scratched pathway on the stones. Then his mother hasted from aloft and reported the arrival of a rare baby boy.
"Phoebe 's doin' braave, an' she prays of 'e to go downlong fust thing an' tell Miller all 's well. Doctor Parsons hisself says 't is a 'mazing fine cheel, so it ban't any mere word of mine as wouldn't weigh, me bein' the gran'mother."
They talked a little while of the newcomer, then, thankful for an opportunity to be active after his long suspense, the father hurried away, mounted a horse, and soon rattled down the valleys into Chagford, at a pace which found his beast dead lame on the following day. Mighty was the exhilaration of that wild gallop as he sped past cot and farm under morning sunshine with his great news. Labouring men and chance wayfarers were overtaken from time to time. Some Will knew, some he had never seen, but to the ear of each and all without discrimination he shouted his intelligence. Not a few waved their hats and nodded and remembered the great day in their own lives; one laughed and cried "Bravo!" sundry, who knew him not, marvelled and took him for a lunatic.
Arrived at Chagford, familiar forms greeted Will in the market-place, and again he bawled his information without dismounting.
"A son 'tis, Chapple—comed an hour ago—a brave li'l bwoy, so they tell!"
"Gude luck to it, then! An' now you'm a parent, you must—"
But Will was out of earshot, and Mr. Chapple wasted no more breath.
Into Monks Barton the farmer presently clattered, threw himself off his horse, tramped indoors, and shouted for his father-in-law in tones that made the oak beams ring. Then the miller, with Mr. Blee behind him, hastened to hear what Will had come to tell.
"All right, all right with Phoebe?" were Mr. Lyddon's first words, and he was white and shaking as he put the question.
"Right as ninepence, faither—gran'faither, I should say. A butivul li'l man she've got—out o' the common fine, Parsons says, as ought to knaw—fat as a slug wi' 'mazin' dark curls on his wee head, though my mother says 'tis awnly a sort o' catch-crop, an' not the lasting hair as'll come arter."
"A bwoy! Glory be!" said Mr. Blee. "If theer's awnly a bit o' the gracious gudeness of his gran'faither in un, 'twill prove a prosperous infant."
"Thank God for a happy end to all my prayers," said Mr. Lyddon. "Billy, get Will something to eat an' drink. I guess he's hungry an' starved."
"Caan't eat, Miller; but I'll have a drop of the best, if it's all the same to you. Us must drink their healths, both of 'em. As for me 'tis a gert thing to be the faither of a cheel as'll graw into a man some day, an' may even be a historical character, awnly give un time."
"So 'tis a gert thing. Sit down; doan't tramp about. I lay you've been on your feet enough these late hours."
Will obeyed, but proceeded with his theme, and though his feet were still his hands were not.
"Us be faced wi' the upbringing an' edication of un. I mean him to be brought up to a power o' knowledge, for theer's nothin' like it. Doan't you think I be gwaine to shirk doin' the right thing by un', Miller, 'cause it aint so. If 'twas my last fi'-pun' note was called up for larnin' him, he'd have it."
"Theer's no gert hurry yet," declared Billy. "Awnly you'm right to look in the future and weigh the debt every man owes to the cheel he gets. He'll never cost you less thought or halfpence than he do to-day, an', wi'out croakin' at such a gay time, I will say he'll graw into a greater care an' trouble, every breath he draws."
"Not him! Not the way I'm gwaine to bring un up. Stern an' strict an' no nonsense, I promise 'e"
"That's right. Tame un from the breast. I'd like for my paart to think as the very sapling be grawin' now as'll give his li'l behind its fust lesson in the ways o' duty," declared Mr. Blee. "Theer 's certain things you must be flint-hard about, an' fust comes lying. Doan't let un lie; flog it out of un; an' mind, 'tis better for your arm to ache than for his soul to burn."
"You leave me to do right by un. You caan't teach me, Billy, not bein' a parent; though I allow what you say is true enough."
"An' set un to work early; get un into ways o' work so soon as he's able to wear corduroys. An' doan't never let un be cruel to beastes; an' doan't let un—"
"Theer, theer!" cried Mr. Lyddon. "Have done with 'e! You speak as fules both, settin' out rules o' life for an hour-old babe. You talk to his mother about taming of un an' grawing saplings for his better bringing-up. She'll tell 'e a thing or two. Just mind the slowness o' growth in the human young. 'T will be years before theer's enough of un to beat."
"They do come very gradual to fulness o' body an' reason," admitted Billy; "and 't is gude it should be so; 't is well all men an' women 's got to be childer fust, for they brings brightness an' joy 'pon the earth as babies, though 't is mostly changed when they 'm grawed up. If us could awnly foretell the turnin' out o' childern, an' knaw which 't was best to drown an' which to save in tender youth, what a differ'nt world this would be!"
"They 'm poor li'l twoads at fust, no doubt," said Will to his father-in-law.
"Ess, indeed they be. 'T is a coorious circumstance, but generally allowed, that humans are the awnly creatures o' God wi' understandin', an' yet they comes into the world more helpless an' brainless, an' bides longer helpless an' brainless than any other beast knawn."
"Shouldn't call 'em 'beastes' 'zactly, seem' they've got the Holy Ghost from the church font ever after," objected Billy. "'T is the differ'nce between a babe an' a pup or a kitten. The wan gets God into un at christenin', t' other wouldn't have no Holy Ghost in un if you baptised un over a hunderd times. For why? They 'm not built in the Image."
"When all's said, you caan't look tu far ahead or be tu forehanded wi' bwoys," resumed Will. "Gallopin' down-long I said to myself, 'Theer's things he may do an' things he may not do. He shall choose his awn road in reason, but he must be guided by me in the choice.' I won't let un go for a sailor—never. I'll cut un off wi' a shillin' if he thinks of it."
"Time enough when he can walk an' talk, I reckon," said Billy, who, seeing how his master viewed the matter, now caught Mr. Lyddon's manner.
"Ess, that's very well," continued Will, "but time flies that fast wi' childer. Then I thought, 'He'll come to marry some day, sure's Fate.' Myself, I believe in tolerable early marryin's."
"By God! I knaw it!" retorted Mr. Lyddon, with an expression wherein appeared mingled feelings not a few; "Ess, fay! You'm right theer. I should take Time by the forelock if I was you, an' see if you can find a maiden as'll suit un while you go back-along through the village."
"Awnly, as 'tis better for the man to number more years than the wummon," added Billy, "it might be wise to bide a week or two, so's he shall have a bit start of his lady."
"Now, you'm fulin me! An' I caan't stay no more whether or no, 'cause I was promised to see Phoebe an' my son in the arternoon. Us be gwaine to call un Vincent William Blanchard, arter you an' me, Miller; an' if it had been a gal, us meant to call un arter mother; an' I do thank God 'bout the wee bwoy in all solemn soberness, 'cause 'tis the fust real gude thing as have falled to us since the gwaine of poor Chris. 'Twill be a joy to my mother an' a gude gran'son to you, I hope."
"Go home, go home," said Mr. Lyddon. "Get along with 'e this minute, an' tell your wife I'm greatly pleased, an' shall come to see her mighty soon. Let us knaw every day how she fares—an'—an'—I'm glad as you called the laddie arter me. 'Twas a seemly thought."
Will departed, and his mind roamed over various splendid futures for his baby. Already he saw it a tall, straight, splendid man, not a hair shorter than his own six feet two inches. He hoped that it would possess his natural wisdom, augmented by Phoebe's marvellous management of figures and accounts. He also desired for it a measure of his mother's calm and stately self-possession before the problems of life, and he had no objection that his son should reflect Miller Lyddon's many and amiable virtues.
He returned home, and his mother presently bid him come to see Phoebe. Then a sudden nervousness overtook Will, tough though he was. The door shut, and husband and wife were alone together, for Damaris disappeared. But where were all those great and splendid pictures of the future? Vanished, vanished in a mist. Will's breast heaved; he saw Phoebe's star-bright eyes peeping at him, and he touched the treasure beside her—oh, so small it was!
He bent his head low over them, kissed his wife shyly, and peeped with proper timidity under the flannel.
"Look, look, Will, dearie! Did 'e ever see aught like un? An' come evenin', he 'm gwaine to have his fust li'l drink!"
THE KNIGHT OF FORLORN HOPES
The child brought all a child should bring to Newtake, though it could not hide the fact that Will Blanchard drifted daily a little nearer to the end of his resources. But occasional success still flattered his ambition, and he worked hard and honestly. In this respect at least the man proved various fears unfounded, yet the result of his work rarely took shape of sovereigns. He marvelled at the extraordinary steadiness with which ill-fortune clung to Newtake and cursed when, on two quarter-days out of the annual four, another dip had to be made into the dwindling residue of his uncle's bequest. Some three hundred pounds yet remained when young Blanchard entered upon a further stage of his career,—that most fitly recorded as happening within the shadow of a granite cross.
After long months of absence from home, Martin Grimbal returned, silent, unsuccessful, and sad. Upon the foundations of facts he had built many tentative dwelling-places for hope; but all had crumbled, failure crowned his labours, and as far from the reach of his discovery seemed the secret of Chris as the secrets of the sacred circles, stone avenues, and empty, hypaethral chambers of the Moor. Spiritless and bitterly discouraged, he returned after such labours as Will had dreamed not of; and his life, succeeding upon this deep disappointment, seemed far advanced towards its end in Martin's eyes—a journey whose brightest incidents, happiest places of rest, most precious companions were all left behind. This second death of hope aged the man in truth and sowed his hair with grey. Now only a melancholy memory of one very beautiful and very sad remained to him. Chris indeed promised to return, but he told himself that such a woman had never left an unhappy mother for such period of time if power to come home still belonged to her. Then, surveying the past, he taxed himself heavily with a deliberate and cruel share in it. Why had he taken the advice of Blanchard and delayed his offer of work to Hicks? He told himself that it was because he knew such a step would definitely deprive him of Chris for ever; and therein he charged himself with offences that his nature was above committing. Then he burst into bitter blame of Will, and at a weak moment—for nothing is weaker than the rare weakness of a strong man—he childishly upbraided the farmer with that fateful advice concerning Clement, and called down upon his head deep censure for the subsequent catastrophe. Will, as may be imagined, proved not slow to resent such an attack with heart and voice. A great heat of vain recrimination followed, and the men broke into open strife.
Sick with himself at this pitiable lapse, shaken in his self-respect, desolate, unsettled, and uncertain of the very foundations on which he had hitherto planted his life, the elder man existed through a black month, then braced himself again, looked out into the world, set his dusty desk in order, and sought once more amidst the relics of the past for comfort and consolation. He threw himself upon his book and told himself that it must surely reward his pains; he toiled mightily at his lonely task, and added a little to man's knowledge.
Once it happened that the Rev. Shorto-Champernowne met Martin. Riding over the Moor after a visit to his clerical colleague of Gidleigh, the clergyman trotted through Scorhill Circle, above northern Teign, and seeing a well-known parishioner, drew up a while.
"How prosper your profound studies?" he inquired. "Do these evidences of aboriginal races lead you to any conclusions of note? For my part, I am not wholly devoid of suspicion that a man might better employ his time, though I should not presume to make any such suggestion to you."
"You may be right; but one is generally unwise to stamp on his ruling passion if it takes him along an intellectual road. These cryptic stones are my life. I want to get the secret of them or find at least a little of it. What are these lonely rings? Where are we standing now? In a place of worship, where men prayed to the thunder and the sun and stars? Or a council chamber? Or a court of justice, that has seen many a doom pronounced, much red blood flow? Or is it a grave? 'T is the fashion to reject the notion that they represent any religious purpose; yet I cannot see any argument against the theory. I go on peeping and prying after a spark of truth. I probe here, and in the fallen circle yonder towards Cosdon; I follow the stone rows to Fernworthy; I trudge again and again to the Grey Wethers—that shattered double ring on Sittaford Tor. I eat them up with my eyes and repeople the heath with those who raised them. Some clay a gleam of light may come. And if it does, it will reach me through deep study on those stone men of old. It is along the human side of my investigations I shall learn, if I learn anything at all."
"I hope you may achieve your purpose, though the memoranda and data are scanty. Your name is mentioned in the Western Morning News as a painstaking inquirer."
"Yet when theories demand proof—that's the rub!"
"Yes, indeed. You are a knight of forlorn hopes, Grimbal," answered the Vicar, alluding to Martin's past search for Chris as much as to his present archaeologic ambitions. Then he trotted on over the river, and the pedestrian remained as before seated upon a recumbent stone in the midst of the circle of Scorhill. Silent he sat and gazed into the lichens of grey and gold that crowned each rude pillar of the lonely ring. These, as it seemed, were the very eyes of the granite, but to Martin they represented but the cloak of yesterday, beneath which centuries of secrets were hidden. Only the stones and the eternal west wind, that had seen them set up and still blew over them, could tell him anything he sought to know.
"A Knight of Forlorn Hopes," mused the man. "So it is, so it is. The grasshopper, rattling his little kettledrum there, knows nearly as much of this hoary secret as I do; and the bird, that prunes his wing on the porphyry, and is gone again. Not till some Damnonian spirit rises from the barrow, not till some chieftain of these vanished hosts shall take shape out of the mists and speak, may we glean a grain of this buried knowledge. And who to-day would believe ten thousand Damnonian ghosts, if they stirred here once again and thronged the Moor and the moss and the ruined stone villages with their moonbeam shapes?
"Gone for ever; and she—my Chris—my dear—is she to dwell in the darkness for all time, too? O God, I would rather hear one whisper of her voice, feel one touch of her brown hand, than learn the primal truth of every dumb stone wonder in the world!"
CONCERNING THE GATE-POST
So that good store of roots and hay continue for the cattle during those months of early spring while yet the Moor is barren; so that the potato-patch prospers and the oats ripen well; so that neither pony nor bullock is lost in the shaking bogs, and late summer is dry enough to allow of ample peat-storing—when all these conditions prevail, your moorman counts his year a fat one. The upland farmers of Devon are in great measure armed against the bolts of chance by the nature of their lives, the grey character of even their most cheerful experiences and the poverty of their highest ambitions. Their aspirations, becoming speedily cowed by ill-requited toil and eternal hardship, quickly dwarf and shrink, until even the most sanguine seldom extend hope much beyond necessity.
Will grumbled, growled, and fought on, while Phoebe, who knew how nobly the valleys repaid husbandry, mourned in secret that his energetic labours here could but produce such meagre results. Very gradually their environment stamped its frosty seal on man and woman; and by the time that little Will was two years old his parents viewed life, its good and its evil, much as other Moor folks contemplated it. Phoebe's heart was still sweet enough, but she grew more selfish for herself and her own, more self-centred in great Will and little Will. They filled her existence to the gradual exclusion of wider sympathies. Miller Lyddon had given his grandson a silver mug on the day he was baptised, though since that time the old man held more aloof from the life of Newtake than Phoebe understood. Sometimes she wondered that he had never offered to assist her husband practically, but Will much resented the suggestion when Phoebe submitted it to him. There was no need for any such thing, he declared. As for him, transitory ambitions and hopes gleamed up in his career as formerly, though less often. So man and wife found their larger natures somewhat crushed by the various immediate problems that each day brought along with it. Beyond the narrow horizon of their own concerns they rarely looked, and Chagford people, noting the change, declared that life at Newtake was tying their tongues and lining their foreheads. Will certainly grew more taciturn, less free of advice, perhaps less frank than formerly. A sort of strangeness shadowed him, and only his mother or his son could dispel it. The latter soon learnt to understand his father's many moods, and would laugh or cry, show joy or fear, according to the tune of the man's voice.
There came an evening in mid-September when Will sat at the open hearth and smoked, with his eyes fixed on a fire of scads. He remained very silent, and Phoebe, busy about a small coat of red cloth, to keep the cold from her little son's bones during the coming winter, knew that it was not one of her husband's happiest evenings. His eyes were looking through the fire and the wall behind it, through the wastes and wildernesses beyond, through the granite hills to the far-away edge of the world, where Fate sat spinning the threads of the lives of his loved ones. Threads they looked, in his gloomy survey of that night, much deformed with knot and tangle, for the Spinner cared nothing at all about them. She suffered each to wind heedlessly away; she minded not that they were ugly; she spared no strand of gold or silver from her skein of human happiness to brighten the grey fabric of them. So it seemed to Will, and his temper chimed with the rough night. The wind howled and growled down the chimney, uttered many a sudden yell and ghostly moan, struck with claws invisible at the glowing heart of the peat fire, and sent red sparks dancing from a corona of faint blue flame.
 Scad = the outer rind of the peat, with ling and grass still adhering to it.
"Winter's comin' quick," said Phoebe, biting her thread.
"Ess, winter's allus comin' up here. The fight begins again so soon as ever 't is awver—again and again and again, 'cordin' to the workin' years of a man's life. Then he turns on his back for gude an' all, an' takes his rest, wheer theer's no more seasons, nor frost, nor sunshine, in the world under."
"You'm glumpy, dear heart. What's amiss? What's crossed 'e? Tell me, an' I lay I'll find a word to smooth it away. Nothin' contrary happened to market?"
"No, no—awnly my nature. When the wind's spelling winter in the chimbley, an' the yether's dead again, 't is wisht lookin' forrard. The airth 's allus dyin', an' the life of her be that short, an' grubbing of bare food an' rent out of her is sour work after many years. Thank God I'm a hopeful, far-seem' chap, an' sound as a bell; but I doan't make money for all my sweat, that's the mystery."
"You will some day. Luck be gwaine to turn 'fore long, I hope. An' us have got what's better 'n money, what caan't be bought."
"The li'l bwoy?"
"Aye; if us hadn't nothin' but him, theer's many would envy our lot."
"Childer's no such gert blessin', neither."
"Will! How can you say it?"
"I do say it. We 'm awnly used to keep up the breed, then thrawed o' wan side. I'm sick o' men an' women folks. Theer's too many of 'em."
"But childer—our li'l Will. The moosic of un be sweeter than song o' birds all times, an' you'd be fust to say so if you wasn't out of yourself."
"He 'm a braave, small lad enough; but theer again! Why should he have been pitched into this here home? He might have been put in a palace just as easy, an' born of a royal queen mother, 'stead o' you; he might have opened his eyes 'pon marble walls an' jewels an' precious stones, 'stead of whitewash an' a peat fire. Be that baaby gwaine to thank us for bringing him in the world, come he graw up? Not him! Why should he?"
"But he will. We 'm his faither an' mother. Do 'e love your mother less for bearin' you in a gypsy van? Li'l Will's to pay us noble for all our toil some day, an' be a joy to our grey hairs an' a prop to our auld age, please God."
"Ha, ha!—story-books! Gi' me a cup o' milk; then us'll go to bed."
She obeyed; he piled turf upon the hearth, to keep the fire alight until morning, then took up the candle and followed Phoebe through another chamber, half-scullery, half-storehouse, into which descended the staircase from above. Here hung the pale carcase of a newly slain pig, suspended by its hind legs from a loop in the ceiling; and Phoebe, many of whose little delicacies of manner had vanished of late, patted the carcase lovingly, like the good farmer's wife she was.
"Wish theer was more so big in the sties," she said.
Arrived at her bedside, the woman prayed before sinking to rest within reach of her child's cot; while Will, troubling Heaven with no petition or thanksgiving, was in bed five minutes sooner than his wife.
"Gude-night, lad," said Phoebe, as she put the candle out, but her husband only returned an inarticulate grunt for answer, being already within the portal of sleep.
A fair morning followed on the tempestuous night, and Winter, who had surely whispered her coming under the darkness, vanished again at dawn. The Moor still provided forage, but all light was gone out of the heather, though the standing fern shone yellow under the sun, and the recumbent bracken shed a rich russet in broad patches over the dewy green where Will had chopped it down and left it to dry for winter fodder. He was very late this year in stacking the fern, and designed that labour for his morning's occupation.
Ted Chown chanced to be away for a week's holiday, so Will entered his farmyard early. The variable weather of his mind rarely stood for long at storm, but, unlike the morning, he had awakened in no happy mood.
A child's voice served for a time to smooth his brow, now clouded from survey of a broken spring in his market-cart; then came the lesser Will with a small china mug for his morning drink. Phoebe watched him sturdily tramp across the yard, and the greater Will laughed to see his son's alarm before the sudden stampede of a belated heifer, which now hastened through the open gate to join its companions on the hillside.
"Cooshey, cooshey won't hurt 'e, my li'l bud!" cried Phoebe, as Ship jumped and barked at the lumbering beast. Then the child doubled round a dung-heap and fled to his father's arms. From the byre a cow with a full udder softly lowed, and now small Will had a cup of warm milk; then, with his red mouth like a rosebud in mist and his father's smile magically and laughably reproduced upon his little face, he trotted back to his mother.
A moment later Will, still milking, heard himself loudly called from the gate. The voice he knew well enough, but it was pitched unusually high, and denoted a condition of excitement and impatience very seldom to be met with in its possessor. Martin Grimbal, for it was he, did not observe Blanchard, as the farmer emerged from the byre. His eye was bent in startled and critical scrutiny of a granite post, to which the front gate of Newtake latched, and he continued shouting aloud until Will stood beside him. Then he appeared on his hands and knees beside the gate-post. He had flung down his stick and satchel; his mouth was slightly open; his cap rested on the side of his head; his face seemed transfigured before some overwhelming discovery.
Relations were still strained between these men; and Will did not forget the fact, though it had evidently escaped Martin in his present excitement.
"What the deuce be doin' now?" asked Blanchard abruptly.
"Man alive! A marvel! Look here—to think I have passed this stone a hundred times and never noticed!"
He rose, brushed his muddy knees, still gazing at the gate-post, then took a trowel from his bag and began to cut away the turf about the base of it.
"Let that bide!" called out the master sharply. "What be 'bout, delving theer?"
"I forgot you didn't know. I was coming to see you on my way to the Moor. I wanted a drink and a handshake. We mustn't be enemies, and I'm heartily sorry for what I said—heartily. But here's a fitting object to build new friendship on. I just caught sight of the incisions through a fortunate gleam of early morning light. Come this side and see for yourself. To think you had what a moorman would reckon good fortune at your gate and never guessed it!"
"Fortune at my gate? Wheer to? I aint heard nothin' of it."
"Here, man, here! D' you see this post?"
"Not bein' blind, I do."
"Yet you were blind, and so was I. There 's excuse for you—none for me. It's a cross! Yes, a priceless old Christian cross, buried here head downward by some profane soul in the distant past, who found it of size and shape to make a gate-post. They are common enough in Cornwall, but very rare in Devon. It's a great—a remarkable discovery in fact, and I'm right glad I found it on your threshold; for we may be friends again beside this symbol fittingly enough—eh, Will?"
"Bother your rot," answered the other coldly, and quite unimpassioned before Martin's eloquence. "You doubted my judgment not long since and said hard things and bad things; now I take leave to doubt yours. How do 'e knaw this here 's a cross any more than t' other post the gate hangs on?"
Martin, recalled to reality and the presence of a man till then unfriendly, blushed and shrank into himself a little. His voice showed that he suffered pain.
"I read granite as you read sheep and soil and a crop ripening above ground or below—it's my business," he explained, not without constraint, while the enthusiasm died away out of his voice and the fire from his face. "See now, Will, try and follow me. Note these very faint lines, where the green moss takes the place of the lichen. These are fretted grooves—you can trace them to the earth, and on a 'rubbing,' as we call it, they would be plainer still. They indicate to me incisions down the sides of a cross-shaft. They are all that many years of weathering have left. Look at the shape too: the stone grows slightly thinner every way towards the ground. What is hidden we can't say yet, but I pray that the arms may be at least still indicated. You see it is the base sticking into the air, and more's the pity, a part has gone, for I can trace the incisions to the top. God knows the past history of it, but—"
"Perhaps He do and perhaps He doan't," interrupted the farmer. "Perhaps it weer a cross an' perhaps it weern't; anyway it's my gate-post now, an' as to diggin' it up, you may be surprised to knaw it, Martin Grimbal, but I'll see you damned fust! I'm weary of all this bunkum 'bout auld stones an' circles an' the rest; I'm sick an' tired o' leavin' my work a hunderd times in summer months to shaw gaping fules from Lunnon an' Lard knaws wheer, them roundy-poundies 'pon my land. 'Tis all rot, as every moorman knaws; yet you an' such as you screams if us dares to put a finger to the stone nowadays. Ban't the granite ours under Venwell? You knaw it is; an' because dead-an'-gone folk, half-monkeys belike, fashioned their homes an' holes out of it, be that any cause why it shouldn't be handled to-day? They've had their use of it; now 'tis our turn; an 'tis awnly such as you be, as comes here in shining summer, when the land puts on a lying faace, as though it didn't knaw weather an' winter—'tis awnly such as you must cry out against us of the soil if we dares to set wan stone 'pon another to make a wall or to keep the blasted rabbits out the young wheat."
"Your attitude is one-sided, Will," said Martin Grimbal gently; "besides, remember this is a cross. We're dealing with a relic of our faith, take my word for it."
"Faith be damned! What's a cross to me? 'Tisdoin' more gude wheer't is than ever it done afore, I'll swear."
"I hope you'll live to see you're wrong, Blanchard. I've met you in an evil hour it seems. You're not yourself. Think about it. There's no hurry. You pride yourself on your common sense as a rule. I'm sure it will come to your rescue. Granted this discovery is nothing to you, yet think what it means to me. If I'd found a diamond mine I couldn't be better pleased—not half so pleased as now."
Will reflected a moment; but the other had not knowledge of character to observe or realise that he was slowly becoming reasonable.
"So I do pride myself on my common sense, an' I've some right to. A cross is a cross—I allow that—and whatever I may think, I ban't so small-minded as to fall foul of them as think differ'nt. My awn mother be a church-goer for that matter, an' you'll look far ways for her equal. But of coourse I knaw what I knaw. Me an' Hicks talked out matters of religion so dry as chaff."
"Yet a cross means much to many, and always will while the land continues to call itself Christian."
"I knaw, I knaw. 'Twill call itself Christian long arter your time an' mine; as to bein' Christian—that's another story. Clem Hicks lightened such matters to me—fule though he was in the ordering of his awn life. But s'pose you digs the post up, for argeyment's sake. What about me, as have to go out 'pon the Moor an' blast another new wan out the virgin granite wi' gunpowder? Do'e think I've nothin' better to do with my time than that?"
Here, in his supreme anxiety and eagerness, forgetting the manner of man he argued with, Martin made a fatal mistake.
"That's reasonable and business-like," he said. "I wouldn't have you suffer for lost time, which is part of your living. I'll give you ten pounds for the stone, Will, and that should more than pay for your time and for the new post."
He glanced into the other's face and instantly saw his error. The farmer's countenance clouded and his features darkened until he looked like an angry Redskin. His eyes glinted steel-bright under a ferocious frown; the squareness of his jaw became much marked.
"You dare to say that, do'e? An' me as good a man, an' better, than you or your brother either! Money—you remind me I'm—Theer! You can go to blue, blazin' hell for your granite crosses—that's wheer you can go—you or any other poking, prying pelican! Offer money to me, would 'e? Who be you, or any other man, to offer me money for wasted time? As if I was a road scavenger or another man's servant! God's truth! you forget who you'm talkin' to!"
"This is to purposely misunderstand me, Blanchard. I never, never, meant any such thing. Am I one to gratuitously insult or offend another? Typical this! Your cursed temper it is that keeps you back in the world and makes a failure of you," answered the student of stones, his own temper nearly lost under exceptional provocation.
"Who says I be a failure?" roared Will in return. "What do you know, you grey, dreamin' fule, as to whether I'm successful or not so? Get you gone off my land or—"
"I'll go, and readily enough. I believe you're mad. That's the conclusion I'm reluctantly driven to—mad. But don't for an instant imagine your lunatic stupidity is going to stand between the world and this discovery, because it isn't."
He strapped on his satchel, picked up his stick, put his hat on straight, and prepared to depart, breathing hard.
"Go," snorted Will; "go to your auld stones—they 'm the awnly fit comp'ny for 'e. Bruise your silly shins against 'em, an' ax 'em if a moorman's in the right or wrong to paart wi' his gate-post to the fust fule as wants it!"
Martin Grimbal strode off without replying, and Will, in a sort of grim good-humour at this victory, returned to milking his cows. The encounter, for some obscure reason, restored him to amiability. He reviewed his own dismal part in it with considerable satisfaction, and, after going indoors and eating a remarkably good breakfast, he lighted his pipe and, in the most benignant of moods, went out with a horse and cart to gather withered fern.
Mrs. Blanchard now dwelt alone, and all her remaining interests in life were clustered about Will. She perceived that his enterprise by no means promised to fulfil the hopes of those who loved him, and realised too late that the qualities which enabled her father to wrest a living from the moorland farm were lacking in her son. He, of course, explained it otherwise, and pointed to the changes of the times and an universal fall in the price of agricultural produce. His mother cast about in secret how to help him, but no means appeared until, upon an evening some ten days after Blanchard's quarrel with Grimbal over the gate-post, she suddenly determined to visit Monks Barton and discuss the position with Miller Lyddon.
"I want to have a bit of a tell with 'e," she said, "'pon a matter so near to your heart as mine. Awnly you've got power an' I haven't."
"I knaw what you'm come about before you speak," answered the other." Sit you down an' us'll have a gude airing of ideas. But I'm sorry we won't get the value o' Billy Blee's thoughts 'pon the point, for he's away to-night."
Damaris rather rejoiced than sorrowed in this circumstance, but she was too wise to say so.
"A far-thinkin' man, no doubt," she admitted.
"He is; an' 't is straange your comin' just this night, for Blee's away on a matter touching Will more or less, an' doan't reckon to be home 'fore light."
"What coorious-fashion job be that then?"
"Caan't tell 'e the facts. I'm under a promise not to open my mouth, but theer's no gert harm. Martin Grimbal's foremost in the thing so you may judge it ban't no wrong act, and he axed Billy to help him at my advice. You see it's necessary to force your son's hand sometimes. He'm that stubborn when his mind's fixed."
"A firm man, an' loves his mother out the common well. A gude son, a gude husband, a gude faither, a hard worker. How many men's all that to wance, Miller?"
"He is so—all—an' yet—the man have got his faults, speaking generally."
"That's awnly to say he be a man; an' if you caan't find words for the faults, 't is clear they ban't worth namin'."
"I can find words easy enough, I assure 'e; but a man's a fule to waste breath criticising the ways of a son to his mother—if so be he's a gude son."
"What fault theer is belongs to me. I was set on his gwaine to Newtake as master, like his gran'faither afore him. I urged the step hot, and I liked the thought of it."
"So did he—else he wouldn't have gone."
"You caan't say that. He might have done different but for love of me. 'T is I as have stood in his way in this thing."
"Doan't fret yourself with such a thought, Mrs. Blanchard; Will's the sort as steers his awn ship. Theer's no blame 'pon you. An' for that matter, if your faither saved gude money at Newtake, why caan't Will?"
"Times be changed. You've got to make two blades o' grass graw wheer wan did use, if you wants to live nowadays."
"Hard work won't hurt him."
"But it will if he reckons't is all wasted work. What's more bitter than toiling to no account, an' knawin all the while you be?"
"Not all wasted work, surely?"
"They wouldn't allow it for the world. He's that gay afore me, an' Phoebe keeps a stiff upper lip, tu; but I go up unexpected now an' again an' pop in unawares an' sees the truth. You with your letter or message aforehand, doan't find out nothing, an' won't."
"He'm out o' luck, I allow. What's the exact reason?"
"You'll find it in the Book, same as I done. I knaw you set gert store 'pon the Word. Well, then, 'them the Lard loveth He chasteneth.' That's why Will's languishin' like. 'T won't last for ever."
"Ah! But theer's other texts to other purpose. Not that I want 'e to dream my Phoebe's less to me than your son to you. I've got my eye on 'em, an' that's the truth; an' on my li'l grandson, tu."
"Theer's gert things buddin' in that bwoy."
"I hope so. I set much store on him. Doan't you worrit, mother, for the party to Newtake be bound up very close wi' my happiness, an' if they was wisht, ban't me as would long be merry. I be gwaine to give Master Will rope enough to hang himself, having a grudge or two against him yet; then, when the job's done, an' he's learnt the hard lesson to the dregs, I'll cut un down in gude time an' preach a sarmon to him while he's in a mood to larn wisdom. He's picking up plenty of information, you be sure—things that will be useful bimebye: the value of money, the shortness o' the distance it travels, the hardness o' Moor ground, an' men's hearts, an' such-like branches of larning. Let him bide, an' trust me."
The mother was rendered at once uneasy and elated by this speech. That, if only for his wife and son's sake, Will would never be allowed to fail entirely seemed good to know; but she feared, and, before the patronising manner of the old man, felt alarm for the future. She well knew how Will would receive any offer of assistance tendered in this spirit.
"Like your gude self so to promise; but remember he 'm of a lofty mind and fiery."
"Stiff-necked he be, for certain; but he may graw quiet 'fore you think it. Nothing tames a man so quick as to see his woman and childer folk hungry—eh? An' specially if 't is thanks to his awn mistakes."
Mrs. Blanchard flushed and felt a wave of anger surging through her breast. But she choked it down.
"You 'm hard in the grain, Lyddon—so them often be who've lived over long as widow men. Theer 's a power o' gude in my Will, an' your eyes will be opened to see it some day. He 'm young an' hopeful by nature; an' such as him, as allus looks up to gert things, feels a come down worse than others who be content to crawl. He 'm changing, an' I knaw it, an' I've shed more 'n wan tear awver it, bein' on the edge of age myself now, an' not so strong-minded as I was 'fore Chris went. He 'm changing, an' the gert Moor have made his blood beat slower, I reckon, an' froze his young hope a bit."
"He 's grawiug aulder, that's all. 'T is right as he should chatter less an' think more."
"I suppose so; yet a mother feels a cold cloud come awver her heart to watch a cheel fighting the battle an' not winning it. Specially when she can awnly look on an' do nothin'."
"Doan't you fear. You 'm low in spirit, else you'd never have spoke so open; but I thank you for tellin' me that things be tighter to Newtake than I guessed. You leave the rest to me. I knaw how far to let 'em go; an' if we doan't agree 'pon that question, you must credit me with the best judgment, an' not think no worse of me for helpin' in my awn way an' awn time."
With which promise Mrs. Blanchard was contented. Surveying the position in the solitude of her home, she felt there was much to be thankful for. Yet she puzzled her heart and head to find schemes by which the miller's charity might be escaped. She considered her own means, and pictured her few possessions sold at auction; she had already offered to go and dwell at Newtake and dispose of her cottage. But Will exploded so violently when the suggestion reached his ears that she never repeated it.
While the widow thus bent her thoughts upon her son, and gradually sank to sleep with the problems of the moment unsolved, a remarkable series of incidents made the night strange at Newtake Farm.
Roused suddenly a little after twelve o'clock by an unusual sound, Phoebe woke with a start and cried to her husband:
"Will—Will, do hark to Ship! He 'm barkin' that savage!"
Will turned and growled sleepily that it was nothing, but the bark continued, so he left his bed and looked out of the window. A waning moon had just thrust one glimmering point above the sombre flank of the hill. It ascended as he watched, dispensed a sinister illumination, and like some remote bale-fire hung above the bosom of the nocturnal Moor. His dog still barked, and in the silence Will could hear a clink and thud as it leapt to the limit of its chain. Then out of the night a lantern danced at Newtake gate, and Blanchard, his eyes now trained to the gloom, discovered several figures moving about it.
"Baggered if it bau't that damned Grimbal come arter my gate-post," he gasped, launched instantly to high wakefulness by the suspicion. Then, dragging on his trousers, and thrusting the tail of his nightshirt inside them, he tumbled down-stairs, with passion truly formidable, and hastened naked footed through the farmyard.
Four men blankly awaited him. Ignoring their leader—none other than Martin himself—he turned upon Mr. Blee, who chanced to be nearest, and struck from his hand a pick.
"What be these blasted hookem-snivey dealings, then?" Will thundered out, "an' who be you, you auld twisted thorn, to come here stealin' my stone in the dead o' night?"
Billy's little eyes danced in the lantern fire, and he answered hastily before Martin had time to speak.
"Well, to be plain, the moon and the dog's played us false, an' you'd best to knaw the truth fust as last. Mr. Grimbal's writ you two straight, fair letters 'bout this job, so he've explained to me, an' you never so much as answered neither; so, seem' this here's a right Christian cross, ban't decent it should bide head down'ards for all time. An' Mr. Grimbal have brought up a flam-new granite post, hasp an' all complete—'t is in the cart theer—an' he called on me as a discreet, aged man to help un, an' so I did; an' Peter Bassett an' Sam Bonus here corned likewise, by my engagement, to do the heavy work an' aid in a gude deed."
"Dig an inch, wan of 'e, and I'll shaw what's a gude deed! I doan't want no talk with you or them hulking gert fules. 'T is you I'd ax, Martin Grimbal, by what right you'm here."
"You wouldn't answer my letters, and I couldn't find it in my heart to leave an important matter like this. I know I wasn't wise, but you don't understand what a priceless thing this is. I thought you'd find the new one in the morning and laugh at it. For God's sake be reasonable and sensible, Blanchard, and let me take it away. There's a new post I'll have set up. It's here waiting. I can't do more."
"But you'll do a darned sight less. Right's right, an' stealin's stealin'. You wasn't wise, as you say—far from it. You'm in the wrong now, an' you knaw it, whatever you was before. A nice bobbery! Why doan't he take my plough or wan of the bullocks? Damned thieves, the lot of'e!"
"Doan't cock your nose so high, Farmer," said Bonus, who had never spoken to Will since he left Newtake; "'t is very onhandsome of 'e to be tellin' like this to gentle-folks."
"Gentlefolks! Gentlefolks would ax your help, wouldn't they? You, as be no better than a common poacher since I turned 'e off! You shut your mouth and go home-long, an' mind your awn business, an' keep out o' the game preserves. Law's law, as you'm like to find sooner'n most folks."
This pointed allusion to certain rumours concerning the labourer's present way of life angered Bonus not a little, but it also silenced him.
"Law's law, as you truly say, Will Blanchard," answered Mr. Blee, "an' theer it do lie in a nutshell. A man's gate-post is his awn as a common, natural gate-post; but bein' a sainted cross o' the Lard sticked in the airth upsy-down by some ancient devilry, 't is no gate-post, nor yet every-day moor-stone, but just the common property of all Christian souls."
"You'm out o' bias to harden your heart, Mr. Blanchard, when this gentleman sez 't is what 't is," ventured the man Peter Bassett, slowly.
"An' so you be, Blanchard, an' 't is a awful deed every ways, an' you'll larn it some day. You did ought to be merry an' glad to hear such a thing 's been found 'pon Newtake. Think o' the fortune a cross o' Christ brings to 'e!"
"An' how much has it brought, you auld fule?"
"Gude or bad, you'll be a sight wuss off it you leave it wheer 't is, now you knaw. Theer'll be hell to pay if it's let bide now, sure as eggs is eggs an' winter, winter. You'll rue it; you'll gnash awver it; 't will turn against 'e an' rot the root an' blight the ear an' starve the things an' break your heart. Mark me, you'm doin' a cutthroat deed an' killin' all your awn luck by leavin' it here an hour longer."
But Will showed no alarm at Mr. Blee's predictions.
"Be it as 't will, you doan't touch my stone—cross or no cross. Damn the cross! An' you tu, every wan of 'e, dirty night birds!"
Then Martin, who had waited, half hoping that Billy's argument might carry weight, spoke and ended the scene.
"We'll talk no more and we'll do no more," he said. "You're wrong in a hundred ways to leave this precious stone to shut a gate and keep in cows, Blanchard. But if you wouldn't heed my letters, I suppose you won't heed my voice."
"Why the devil should I heed your letters? I told 'e wance for all, didn't I? Be I a man as changes my mind like a cheel?"
"Crooked words won't help 'e, Farmer," said the stolid Bassett. "You 'm wrong, an' you knaw right well you 'm wrong, an' theer'll come a day of reckoning for 'e, sure 's we 'm in a Christian land."
"Let it come, an' leave me to meet it. An' now, clear out o' this, every wan, or I'll loose the dog 'pon 'e!"
He turned hurriedly as he spoke and fetched the bobtailed sheep-dog on its chain. This he fastened to the stone, then watched the defeated raiders depart. Grimbal had already walked away alone, after directing that a post which he had brought to supersede the cross, should be left at the side of the road. Now, having obeyed his command, Mr. Blee, Bonus, and Bassett climbed into the cart and slowly passed away homewards. The moon had risen clear of earth and threw light sufficient to show Bassett's white smock still gleaming through the night as Will beheld his enemies depart.
Ten minutes later, while he washed his feet, the farmer told Phoebe of the whole matter, including his earlier meeting with Martin, and the antiquary's offer of money. Upon this subject his wife found herself in complete disagreement with Blanchard, and did not hesitate to say so.
"Martin Grimbal 's so gude a friend as any man could have, an' you did n't ought to have bullyragged him that way," she declared.
"You say that! Ban't a man to speak his mind to thieves an' robbers?"
"No such thing. 'T is a sacred stone an' not your property at all. To refuse ten pound for it!"
"Hold your noise, then, an' let me mind my business my awn way," he answered roughly, getting back to bed; but Phoebe was roused and had no intention of speaking less than her mind.
"You 'm a knaw-nought gert fule," she said, "an' so full of silly pride as a turkey-cock. What 's the stone to you if Grimbal wants it? An' him taking such a mint of trouble to come by it. What right have you to fling away ten pounds like that, an' what 's the harm to earn gude money honest? Wonder you ban't shamed to sell anything. 'T is enough these times for a body to say wan thing for you to say t'other."
This rebuke from a tongue that scarcely ever uttered a harsh word startled Will not a little. He was silent for half a minute, then made reply.
"You can speak like that—you, my awn wife—you, as ought to be heart an' soul with me in everything I do? An' the husband I am to 'e. Then I should reckon I be fairly alone in the world, an' no mistake—'cept for mother."
Phoebe did not answer him. Her spark of anger was gone and she was passing quickly from temper to tears.
"'T is queer to me how short of friends I 'pear to be gettin'," confessed Will gloomily. "I must be differ'nt to what I fancied for I allus felt I could do with a waggon-load of friends. Yet they 'm droppin' off. Coourse I knaw why well enough, tu. They've had wind o' tight times to Newtake, though how they should I caan't say, for the farm 's got a prosperous look to my eye, an' them as drops in dinnertime most often finds meat on the table. Straange a man what takes such level views as me should fall out wi' his elders so much."
"'T is theer fault as often as yours; an' you've got me as well as your mother, Will; an' you've got your son. Childern knaw the gude from the bad, same as dogs, in a way hid from grawn folks. Look how the li'l thing do run to 'e 'fore anybody in the world."
"So he do; an' if you 'm wise enough to see that, you ought to be wise enough to see I'm right 'bout the gate-post. Who 's Martin Grimbal to offer me money? A self-made man, same as me. Yet he might have had it, an' welcome if he'd axed proper."
"Of course, if you put it so, Will."
"Theer 's no ways else to put it as I can see."
"But for your awn peace of mind it might be wisest to dig the cross up. I listened by the window an' heard Billy Blee tellin' of awful cusses, an' he 's wise wi'out knawin' it sometimes."
"That's all witchcraft an' stuff an' nonsense, an' you ought to knaw better, Phoebe. 'T is as bad as setting store on the flight o' magpies, or gettin' a dead tooth from the churchyard to cure toothache, an' such-like folly."
"Ban't folly allus, Will; theer 's auld tried wisdom in some ancient sayings."
"Well, you guide your road by my light if you want to be happy. 'T is for you I uses all my thinking brain day an' night—for your gude an' the li'l man's."
"I knaw—I knaw right well 't is so, dear Will, an' I'm sorry I spoke so quick."
"I'll forgive 'e before you axes me, sweetheart. Awnly you must larn to trust me, an' theer 's no call for you to fear. Us must speak out sometimes, an' I did just now, an' 't is odds but some of them chaps, Grimbal included, may have got a penn'orth o' wisdom from me."
"So 't is, then," she said, cuddling to him; "an' you'll do well to sleep now; an'—an' never tell again, Will, you've got nobody but your mother while I'm above ground, 'cause it's against justice an' truth an' very terrible for me to hear."
"'T was a thoughtless speech," admitted Will, "an' I'm sorry I spake it. 'T was a hasty word an' not to be took serious."
They slept, while the moon wove wan harmonies of ebony and silver into Newtake. A wind woke, proclaiming morning, as yet invisible; and when it rustled dead leaves or turned a chimney-cowl, the dog at the gate stirred and growled and grated his chain against the granite cross.
As Christmas again approached, adverse conditions of weather brought like anxieties to a hundred moormen besides Will Blanchard, but the widespread nature of the trouble by no means diminished his individual concern. A summer of unusual splendour had passed unblessed away, for the sustained drought represented scanty hay and an aftermath of meagre description. Cereals were poor, with very little straw, and the heavy rains of November arrived too late to save acres of starved roots on high grounds. Thus the year became responsible for one prosperous product alone: rarely was it possible to dry so well those stores gathered from the peat beds. Huge fires, indeed, glowed upon many a hearth, but the glory of them served only to illumine anxious faces. A hard winter was threatened, and the succeeding spring already appeared as no vision to welcome, but a hungry spectre to dread.
Then, with the last week of the old year, winter swept westerly on hyperborean winds, and when these were passed a tremendous frost won upon the world. Day followed day of weak, clear sunshine and low temperature. The sun, upon his shortest journeys, showed a fiery face as he sulked along the stony ridges of the Moor, and gazed over the ice-chained wilderness, the frozen waters, and the dark mosses that never froze, but lowered black, like wounds on a white skin. Dartmoor slept insensible under granite and ice; no sheep-bell made music; no flocks wandered at will; only the wind moaned in the dead bells of the heather; only the foxes slunk round cot and farm; only the shaggy ponies stamped and snorted under the lee of the tors and thrust their smoking muzzles into sheltered clefts and crannies for the withered green stuff that kept life in them. Snow presently softened the outlines of the hills, set silver caps on the granite, and brought the distant horizon nearer to the eye under crystal-clear atmosphere. Many a wanderer, thus deceived, plodded hopefully forward at sight of smoke above a roof-tree, only to find his bourne, that seemed so near, still weary miles away. The high Moors were a throne for death. Cold below freezing-point endured throughout the hours of light and grew into a giant when the sun and his winter glory had huddled below the hills.