'What's the matter wi' the wench?' demanded Mrs. Rusker, almost sternly. 'Come, come,' she continued, her brief anger fading at the sight of Julia's distress, 'have a bit o' sperrit. Now, will you try it? Spake the word, an' I'll goo to the Divil this minute.'
This wholesale self-abandonment in the cause of love produced no effect on Julia, except to frighten her. Mrs. Rusker argued and reasoned, but finding her fears too obdurate to be moved by any such means, left the house in dudgeon, whereat poor Julia only cried the more. But Mrs. Rusker's confidence in her plan was unshaken, and her persistency unchecked. She would save the silly girl against her will, since it must be so, and half an hour after she had crossed the Mountain threshold she was in her trap, en route for the dwelling of the wizard.
She found that celebrity alone, and opened fire on him at once.
'Ruffis, I want thy help, an' I'm willin' to pay fur it.' The necromancer's fishy eye brightened. Things were going poorly with him, the rising generation followed newer lights unevident in his earlier days, and his visitors were mostly of Mrs. Rusker's age, and were getting fewer day by day.
'My skill's at your service, ma'am, such as it is,' he answered, with gravity.
'I want some'at as 'd send a body to sleep—mek 'em sleep for a long time, wi'out hurtin' 'em. Can you doit?'
'Why, yis; I could do that much, I think.' His tone and manner intimated vaguely how much more he could have done, and his disappointment at the facility of his task. 'But,' he added prudently, 'it's a job as ain't s' easy as you might fancy.'
Mrs. Busker laid a sovereign on the table.
'Wilt do it for that?' she asked.
The wizard stole a look at her. She was obviously very much in earnest.
'The hingredients,' he said, 'is hard to find, and harder to mix in doo perportions.'
'I must have it now, and at once,' said Mrs. Busker.
'That,' said Rufus, 'ain't possible.' Mrs. Jenny laid a second piece of gold beside the first 'It's a dangerous bisness, missus,' he went on. 'Theer's noofangled laws about. 'Twas only last wik as that young upstart, Doctor Hodges, comes an' threatens me with persecution as a rogue an' vagabond, a-obtainin' money under false pertences for practisin' my lawful an' necessary art. Why, it ain't so long since I cured his mother o' the rheumatiz, as is more nor he can dew, wi' all his drugs, an' the pestle an' mortar o'er his door.'
'You ought to know as you're safe wi' me, Rufus,' said Mrs. Rusker. 'Who should I tell? Why, I should tell o' myself tew, at that raate; an' is that likely?'
'It's dangerous, missus,' repeated the wizard.
'Well, if yo' won't, I must try them as wull,' said Mrs. Jenny, rising and taking up the coins.
'I didn't say as I wouldn't,' returned Rufus. 'Theer's no call to be so uppish But if I tek a chance like that I expect to be paid for it.'
'Two pound ud mek it wuth your while to do more than that.'
'I'll dew it,' said the wizard. 'Give us the money?'
'Wheer's the stuff?'
'Why, it ain't made yet. D'you think as I can percure a precious hessence like that all of a minute?'
'Then mek it, an' I'll gie you the money.'
'Gi' me a pound in advance, an' I'll bring it to you.' And on that understanding the bargain was made, and the time fixed for the delivery of the potion. The intervening time was filled in by the astute wizard journeying to a neighbouring town and procuring from a chemist a sleeping draught, which he paid for out of Mrs. Busker's sovereign. He turned up at Laburnum Cottage at the stipulated hour, handed over the draught (having previously washed off the chemist's label), received his second sovereign, and departed.
Mrs. Rusker, with the fateful bottle in the bosom of her dress, betook herself again to Mountain Farm. Her unfeigned interest in the patient, and the intimacy she had so long enjoyed with the whole family, made the house almost as free to her as was her own, and when she took possession of Julia in the capacity of nurse she was made welcome, and the poor girl's other attendants hoped much from her ministration. Julia was undoubtedly very ill, so ill that even Samson Mountain forbore to force her to descend to the parlour in which Mr. Tom Raybould nervously awaited her coming, and where, on Samson's return from his daughter's chamber, the pair sat and drank their beer together in miserable silence, broken by spasmodic attempts at conversation regarding crops and politics. The doctor had been called in, and, knowing nothing of the grief which was the poor girl's only ailment, had been too puzzled by the symptoms of her malady to be of any great service. She was feverish, excited, with a furred tongue and a hot skin. He had prescribed a mild tonic and departed. Mrs. Jenny, intent on the execution of her plan, gained solitary charge of her patient by telling Mrs. Mountain that her attendance on her daughter had already told upon her, and advising a few hours' rest.
'I don't feel very well,' Mrs. Mountain confessed. 'Not a wink o' sleep have I had iver since Samson came home last night. Nor him nayther, for the matter o' that, though he tried to desave me by snorin', whinever I spoke to him; an' as for any sympathy—well, you know him aforetime, Jenny—I might as well talk to that theer poker.'
Then Jenny was fluent in condolence, and at last got the old lady out of the room.
'When did you take your medicine last, my dear?' she asked the patient 'Ain't it time as you had another drop?'
'It doesn't do me any good,' said the patient fretfully. She knew better herself what was wrong with her than anybody else could guess, and only longed passionately to be alone and free to think and cry over her lost love and broken hopes.
'Why, my dear, you've on'y took one dose yit,' said Machiavel. 'You must give it time. I'll pour you out another.' Her back was towards the patient as she clattered about among the glasses on the table with a shaking hand. She poured out the wizard's potion, the phial clinking against the edge of the glass like a castanet, and her heart beating so that she almost feared Julia would hear it The girl at first pettishly refused the draught, but Mrs. Jenny, in her guilty agitation, made short work of her objections, and poured it down her throat almost by main force.
'Maids must do as their elders bid 'em,' she said, as she returned the glass to its place.
'It doesn't taste the same,' moaned the patient
'You're like all th' other sick folk I iver nursed. As fall o' fancies as you can stick,' said Mrs. Jenny. 'Lie quiet, and try an' go to sleep.'
The girl lay silent, and Mrs. Jenny, more than half wishing the whole business had never been begun, sat and listened to her breathing. She stirred and sighed once or twice, but after a while lay so utterly still that the old lady ventured to approach the bed. Julia's face was almost as white as her pillow, and her breath was so light that it hardly stirred the coverlet above her bosom.
'It's a-workin,' said Mrs. Rusker.
Mrs. Jenny's simple faith in the talents of Rufus Smith underwent a severe trial during the ensuing night. She had left Julia still sleeping, and the memory of the last glance she had bestowed upon the white face in the light of the carefully-shaded candle haunted her all night, and roused a foreboding too dismal to be expressed, or even formulated in definite thought. The matchmaker lay and trembled all night at that terrible idea, and again the pale-faced dawn visited a sleepless pillow, and found her haggard with anxiety and lack of sleep. Juliet's query to the Friar had been, 'What if the potion should not work?' but Mrs. Jenny's terrified inquiry of her own soul was, 'What if it had worked too well?' What if it had killed Julia in very deed? It was too horrible to happen, Mrs. Jenny said to herself. Too horrible to think of. But, if it had happened, she would have nothing else to think of all her life, and the fancy drove her nearly mad.
She was dressed and afoot even earlier than on the preceding morning. She crept out and encircled the Mountain Farm in a radius of a mile or thereabouts, looking anxiously towards it at every step, as if its silent walls might speak comfort or confirm her fears, even at that distance. The house looked peaceful enough amid its surrounding trees under the tranquilly broadening light of dawn, but Mrs. Rusker knew how ghastly white the face of the poor child she loved as her own might look in that roseate glow. Presently a thin line of smoke curled from a chimney on the noiseless air. The farm was waking to its daily round of life. A burly figure on horseback came towards her as she stood on a little eminence. She waited long enough to identify Samson Mountain, and hid among the ferns and bushes until the horse's hoof-beats had clattered swiftly by on the stony road below her, and faded in the distance.
Time crept on, slow but inexorable. She longed, as she had never longed before for anything, for the courage to go to the farmhouse and ask tidings of Julia. But her fear was greater than her longing, and she roamed at random in a circle, never losing sight of the house, but not daring to approach it or be seen from its windows. She dreaded what might be the news to greet her there. She feared her own face, with its haggard lines of sleeplessness and anxious watching. At last, from the very depths of her misery, she plucked the heart of despairing hope, and made for the farm. The farm labourers and country folk she met stared after her. Even their bovine understandings were troubled by her scared face. She scarcely saw them, or anything but the farmhouse, which drew her now with an influence as strong as its repulsion had been an hour ago. She entered the house by the back door, and made straight for the sitting-room. Mrs. Mountain was there, arranging a tray, on which were tea and jam and other homely luxuries. She wore her ordinary look of placid contentment, and at the sight of her quiet face Mrs. Rusker dropped panting, with a vague unformulated feeling of relief, into a chair.
'Sakes alive! Whativer is the matter?' demanded Mrs. Mountain.
'Julia!' panted the visitor. 'How's Julia?'
'Why,' said Mrs. Mountain, 'how should her be?'
'Is she awake yet?' asked Mrs. Jenny, more calmly.
'No. Her was sleepin' when I seed her, jist for a minute, a hour ago. I'm jist goin' upstairs wi' some breakfast for her. Well, I declare, yo' look as pale as a ghost. What's the matter with you?'
'Oh, I've passed a miserable night,' said Mrs. Jenny, in unconscious quotation from her favourite poet. 'I couldn't sleep a-thinkin' o' Julia.'
'Well, then, you do look poorly,' said her hostess, with all her motherly heart warmed by this solicitude for her daughter. 'Why, theer's no cause to fret i' that way. To be sure, Samson might ha' knowed better than to blunder such a thing as that right out, but, then, he's a man, and that'd account for a'most anything. Married life might teach 'em better, you'd think, and yet after nigh on forty year on it he knows no more about women folk than any bachelor i' Barfield. Theer, tek your bonnet off, an' I'll gi' ye a cup o' tay, an' then you can goo upstairs wi' me and see the wench.'
Mrs. Jenny gratefully accepted the proffered tea, and, having drunk it, much to her inward refreshment, accompanied Mrs. Mountain upstairs. As the latter had said, the girl was sleeping still, and Mrs. Busker saw that her position had not changed by a hair's breadth. She lay like a carven statue, her face marble white in the clear morning light.
'I'm a'most doubtful about wakin' her,' said her mother. 'Theer's no doubt as Samson gi'en her a shock, an' sleep's good for her. But her's had welly fifteen hours of it now, if she's been asleep all the tima Julia, my love,' she said softly, almost in the sleeper's ear. 'My sakes, how pale her is. Jenny! come here!'
They both bent above her. Mrs. Rusker's heart was beating like a muffled drum, and seemed, to her own ears, to fill the house with its pulsation.
'Julia!' said Mrs. Mountain again, in a louder voice, and shook the girl with a tremulous hand, 'Julia!'
The white eyelids did not even stir.
'My blessid! Julia! Don't skeer a body i' this way!' She shook the girl again. 'Jenny! whativer's come to the silly wench?'
Mrs. Jenny was more frightened, and with better reason, than her companion. Julia's marble pallor, and the awful stillness of her form—the keenest glance could not detect a quiver in the face or a heave of the bosom—almost stilled that exigent pulse within her own breast with a sudden anguish of despair.
'Oh, Jenny, she's a-dyin'!'
Mrs. Mountain's scream rang through the house, and startled every soul within it, except that marble figure on the bed. Hurried steps came up the stairs, the heavy tread of a man, the light patter of women's feet, and the room filled as if by magic.
'Fetch a doctor,' screamed Mrs. Jenny; 'Julia's a-dyin'!'
Samson Mountain stood for one moment with his hands aloft and his eyes glaring at his daughter. Then he dropped with a sobbing groan into a chair, with his head in his hands. There was a general scream from the women. One, more serviceable than the rest, called from the window to a gaping yokel below in the yard, and bade him ride for help. Her face and voice froze him for a moment, but he caught the words 'Miss Julia,' and two minutes after he was astride a broad-backed plough-horse, making for the distant village.
Samson Mountain sat with his face hidden and spoke no word; at the sight of him his wife's face had turned to sudden rage, and she stood over him like a ruffled hen, and clacked commination of masculine imbecility, intermixed with wild plaints for her child.
Julia slept through the tumult as she had slept through the calm, and Mrs. Jenny, kneeling beside her with her face in the bedclothes, moaned love and penitent despair. Samson raised his head at last, and looked with a dazed stare first at his daughter and then at his wife, and left the room without a word, pursued by a hailstorm of reproach. He went into the yard and pottered aimlessly about, looking old and broken on a sudden. The sound of horses' hoofs roused him; it was the rustic messenger returning. 'Where's the doctor?' demanded Samson. 'Gone to Heydon Hey. What am I to dew?' 'Follow him an' fetch him back. Hast not gumption enough to know that?' asked Samson wearily. The man started again, and Samson began once more his purposeless wanderings about the yard. He had no sense of time or place, only a leaden weight on heart and limb, which in all his life he had never known before. He leaned his elbows on the fence of the fold yard, and became conscious of a running figure which neared him rapidly. He watched it stupidly, and it was within twenty yards of him before he recognised it—Dick Reddy, dust and mud to the collar, hatless, and panting.
'Julia!' he gasped. 'Tell me, is it true?' 'Julia's dyin,' said Samson. 'My God!' he cried, with sudden passion, as if his own voice had unlocked the sealed fountain of his grief, 'my little gell's a-dyin'!'
'Mr. Mountain,' said Dick, 'I love her, you know I love her. Let me see her.' His voice, broken with fatigue and emotion, his streaming eyes, his outstretched hands, all pleaded with his words.
'It's all one who sees her now,' said Samson, and leaned his elbows on the fence again. Dick took the despairing speech for a permission, and entered the house. At the bottom of the stairs, in the otherwise deserted hall, he met Mrs. Jenny, a very moving statue of terror.
'Dick,' she said, clutching the young man by the arm, 'I can't abear it any longer. Come in here wi' me.' She pulled him into a side room, and sitting down, abandoned herself to weeping, wringing her hands, and moaning.
'I can't abear it any longer,' she repeated. 'I must tell somebody, an' I'll tell you. It's all my wicked cruel fault.'
The old woman was so crazed with her secret that she would have spoken in the shadow of the gibbet. Ramblingly and incoherently, with many breaks for tears and protestations and self-accusation, she told her story.
'I've killed her, Dick. But it was for your sake and hers as I done it. I reckon they'll hang me, an' it'll serve me right.' She besought him not to betray her, and, in the same breath, announced her intention to surrender herself at once to the parish constable; and, indeed, between fear and remorse and sorrow for the hopeless love she had striven to befriend, was nearly mad. Dick heard her with such amazement as may be best imagined, and suddenly, with a cry that rang in her ears for many a long day afterwards, ran from her and scaled the stairs to Julia's room, led thither by the sound of Mrs. Mountain's weeping. The old woman stared, as well she might, at the intrusion, with a wonder which for a moment conquered sorrow. He went straight to the bed, and leaned over the stark figure upon it.
'She's not dead yet,' he said, more to himself than to the grief-stricken mother. Mrs. Mountain heard the words, and clutched his arm. He turned to her. 'Trust me,' he said, 'and I'll save her.' The wild hope in the mother's eyes was terrible to see. 'I love her,' said Dick. 'You will trust me? Do as I bid you, and you shall have Julia back in an hour.'
Samson Mountain meanwhile wandered in the same purposeless fashion about the farm, and held dumb converse with himself. He was a rough man, something of a brute—a good deal of an animal—but animals have their affections, and he loved Julia as well as it was in his nature to love anything. It was ingrained in him by nature and by years of unquestioned domination to bully and browbeat all defenceless people; but Julia, the most defenceless of his surroundings, had been treated always with a lighter hand. Childlike, she had taken advantyage of her immunity in many little ways, and though Samson had never forborne to bluster at her girlish insubordination, he rather liked it than not, and relished his daughter's independence and spirit. Julia was the only creature in the household who dared to hold her own against him. He was proud of her beauty and what he called her 'lurning,' and, more or less grumblingly, petted her a good deal, and would have spoiled her had she been of spoilable material. But till this heavy blow fell he had never sounded the depths of his own affection for her. The suddenness of the blow stunned and bewildered him. He remembered his words to Dick during their stormy interview in the road, when he had said that he would rather see Julia dead than married to him. Had Providence taken him at his word? He did not say it, he did not even think it consciously, but he would have submitted to almost any conceivable indignity at the hands of Abel Eeddy himself, to have felt his daughter's arms about his neck again. Little incidents of Julia's past life were fresh and vivid in his memory. He had forgotten many of them, years ago, but they sprang up in his mind now, like things of yesterday.
He had wandered back to the front of the house, and sat upon the rustic bench beside the porch, with his elbows propped upon his knees, and his eyes hidden in his shaking hands, when a voice fell on his ear.
He raised his head. Abel Reddy stood before him.
With something of the old instinct of hatred he had believed to be unconquerable he rose and straightened himself before the hereditary enemy.
'Neighbour,' said Reddy again. The word was pacific, but Mountain's blurred eyes, dim with pain and dazzled by the sunlight, could not see the pity in his old enemy's face, and he waited doggedly. 'It's come to my ears as you're i' sore trouble. So am I. Your trouble's mine, though not so great for me as it is for you, I was wi' Dick when he heard o' your daughter's danger, an' what I'd suspected a long time I know now to be the truth. I did my best to keep 'em apart—it was that as Dick was going to London for. It seemed to behove me to come to you and offer you my hand i' your affliction. I take shame to myself that I didn't mek an effort to end our quarrel long ago. We're gettin' on in life, Mr. Mountain, and we've got th' excuse o' hot blood no longer.'
Therewith he held out his hand, and Samson, with hanging head, took it with a growl, which might have been anathema or blessing. And as the life-long enemies stood so linked, a window was suddenly opened above, and Mrs. Mountain's voice screamed to her husband,
'Samson! Her's alive! Her's awake! 'Both men looked up, and beheld an unexpected picture framed by the open window, Dick violently embraced by Mrs. Mountain, and submitting to the furious assault with obvious goodwill.
'When the liquor's out, why clink the cannikin?' The story of Julia and her Romeo, like all other stories, had found its end, and merged a little later into the history of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Reddy. The family feud was buried, and Samson and Abel made very passable grandfathers and dwelt in peace one with another. Dick never told a living soul, not even Julia herself, of the stratagem by which Mrs. Jenny had succeeded in uniting them, and Mrs. Jenny, by complete reticence on the subject, disproved the time-worn calumny which declares woman's inability to keep a secret.