With which very just conclusion the speaker went on into the canteen, and John Broom ran to the hospital.
Stripped of his picturesque trappings, and with no plumes to shadow the hollows in his temples, M'Alister looked gaunt and feeble enough, as he lay in the little hospital bed, which barely held his long limbs. Such a wreck of giant powers of body, and noble qualities of mind as the drink-shops are preparing for the hospitals every day!
Since the quickly-reached medical decision that he was in a rapid decline, and that nothing could be done for him, M'Alister had been left a good deal alone. His intellect (and it was no fool's intellect,) was quite clear, and if the long hours by himself, in which he reckoned with his own soul, had hastened the death-damps on his brow, they had also written there an expression which was new to John Broom. It was not the old sour look, it was a kind of noble gravity.
His light-blue eyes brightened as the boy came in, and he held out his hand, and John Broom took it with both his, saying.
"I never heard till this minute, M'Alister. Eh, I do hope you'll be better soon."
"The Lord being merciful to me," said the Highlander. "But this warld's nearly past, laddie, and I was fain to see ye again. Dinna greet, man, for I've important business wi' ye, and I should wish your attention. Firstly, I'm aboot to hand ower to ye the key of your box. Tak it, and put it in a pocket that's no got a hole in it, if you're worth one. Secondly, there's a bit bag I made mysel', and it's got a trifle o' money in it that I'm giving and bequeathing to ye, under certain conditions, namely, that ye shall spend the contents of the box according to my last wishes and instructions, with the ultimate end of your ain benefit, ye'll understand."
A fit of coughing here broke M'Alister's discourse; but, after drinking from a cup beside him, he put aside John Broom's remonstrances with a dignified movement of his hand, and continued,—
"When a body comes of decent folks, he won't just care, maybe, to have their names brought up in a barrack-room. Ye never heard me say ought of my father or my mither?"
"I'd a good hame," said the Highlander, with a decent pride in his tone. "It was a strict hame—I've no cause now, to deceive mysel', and I'm thinking it was a wee bit ower strict—but it was a good hame. I left it, man—I ran away."
The glittering blue eyes turned sharply on the lad, and he went on:—
"A body doesna care to turn his byeganes oot for every fool to pick at. Did I ever speer about your past life, and whar ye came from?"
"But that's no to say that, if I knew manners, I didna obsairve. And there's been things now and again, John Broom, that's gar'd me think that ye've had what I had, and done as I did. Did ye rin awa', laddie?"
John Broom nodded his black head, but tears choked his voice.
"Man!" said the Highlander, "ane word's as gude's a thousand. Gang back! Gang hame! There's the bit siller here that's to tak ye, and the love yonder that's waiting ye. Listen to a dying man, laddie, and gang hame!"
"I doubt if they'd have me," sobbed John Broom, "I gave 'em a deal of trouble, M'Alister."
"And d'ye think, lad, that that thought has na' cursed me, and keepit me from them that loved me? Aye, lad, and till this week I never overcame it."
"Weel may I want to save ye, bairn," added the Highlander tenderly, "for it was the thocht of a' ye riskit for the like of me at the three roads that made me consider wi' mysel' that I've aiblins been turning my back a' my wilfu' life on love that's bigger than a man's deservings. It's near done now, and it'll never lie in my poor power so much as rightly to thank ye. It's strange that a man should set store by a good name that he doesna deserve; but if any blessings of mine could bring ye good, they're yours, that saved an old soldier's honour, and let him die respectit in his regiment."
"Oh, M'Alister, let me fetch one of the chaplains to write a letter to fetch your father," cried John Broom.
"The minister's been here this morning," said the Highlander, "and I've tell't him mair than I've tell't you. And he's jest directed me to put my sinful trust in the Father of us a'. I've sinned heaviest against Him, laddie, but His love is stronger than the lave."
John Broom remained by his friend, whose painful fits of coughing, and of gasping for breath, were varied by intervals of seeming stupor. When a candle had been brought in and placed near the bed, the Highlander roused himself and asked,—
"Is there a Bible on yon table? Could ye read a bit to me, laddie?"
There is little need to dwell on the bitterness of heart with which John Broom confessed,—
"I can't read big words, M'Alister."
"Did ye never go to school?" said the Scotchman.
"I didn't learn," said the poor boy; "I played."
"Aye, aye. Weel, ye'll learn, when ye gang hame," said the Highlander, in gentle tones.
"I'll never get home," said John Broom, passionately. "I'll never forgive myself. I'll never get over it, that I couldn't read to ye when ye wanted me, M'Alister."
"Gently, gently," said the Scotchman. "Dinna daunt yoursel' owermuch wi' the past, laddie. And for me—I'm not that presoomtious to think I can square up a misspent life as a man might compound wi's creditors. 'Gin HE forgi'es me, He'll forgi'e; but it's not a prayer up or a chapter doun that'll stan' between me and the Almighty. So dinna fret yoursel', but let me think while I may."
And so, far into the night, the Highlander lay silent, and John Broom watched by him.
It was just midnight when he partly raised himself, and cried,—
"Whisht, laddie! do ye hear the pipes?"
The dying ears must have been quick, for John Broom heard nothing; but in a few moments he heard the bagpipes from the officers' mess, where they were keeping Hogmenay. They were playing the old year out with "Auld lang syne," and the Highlander beat the tune out with his hand, and his eyes gleamed out of his rugged face in the dim light, as cairngorms glitter in dark tartan.
There was a pause after the first verse, and he restless, and turning doubtfully to where John Broom sat, as if his sight were failing, he said, "Ye'll mind your promise, ye'll gang hame?" And after awhile he repeated the last word.
But as he spoke there settled over his face a smile so tender and so full of happiness, that John Broom held his breath as he watched him. As the light of sunrise creeps over the face of some rugged rock, it crept from chin to brow, and the pale blue eyes shone tranquil, like water that reflects heaven.
And when it had passed it left them still open, but gems that had lost their ray.
LUCK GOES.—AND COMES AGAIN.
The spirit does not always falter in its faith because the flesh is weary with hope deferred. When week after week, month after month, and year after year, went by and John Broom was not found, the disappointment seemed to "age" the little ladies, as Thomasina phrased it. But yet they said to the parson, "We do not regret it."
"God forbid that you should regret it," said he.
And even the lawyer (whose heart was kinder than his tongue) abstained from taunting them with his prophecies, and said, "The force of habits of early education is a power as well as that of inherent tendencies. It is only for your sake that I regret a too romantic benevolence." And Miss Betty and Miss Kitty tried to put the matter quite away. But John Broom was very closely bound up with the life of many years past. Thomasina mourned him as if he had been her son, and Thomasina being an old and valuable servant, it is needless to say that when she was miserable no one in the house was permitted to be quite at ease.
As to Pretty Cocky, he lived, but Miss Kitty fancied that he grew less pretty and drooped upon his polished perch.
There were times when the parson felt almost conscience-stricken because he had encouraged the adoption of John Broom. Disappointments fall heavily upon elderly people. They may submit better than the young, but they do not so easily revive. The little old ladies looked greyer and more nervous, and the little old house looked greyer and gloomier than of old.
Indeed there were other causes of anxiety. Times were changing, prices were rising, and the farm did not thrive. The lawyer said that the farm-bailiff neglected his duties, and that the cowherd did nothing but drink; but Miss Betty trembled, and said they could not part with old servants.
The farm-bailiff had his own trouble, but he kept it to himself. No one knew how severely he had beaten John Broom the day before he ran away, but he remembered it himself with painful clearness. Harsh men are apt to have consciences, and his was far from easy about the lad who had been entrusted to his care. He could not help thinking of it when the day's work was over, and he had to keep filling up his evening whiskey-glass again and again to drown disagreeable thoughts.
The whiskey answered this purpose, but it made him late in the morning: it complicated business on market days, not to the benefit of the farm, and it put him at a disadvantage in dealing with the drunken cowherd.
The cowherd was completely upset by John Broom's mysterious disappearance, and he comforted himself as the farm-bailiff did, but to a larger extent. And Thomasina winked at many irregularities in consideration of the groans of sympathy with which he responded to her tears as they sat round the hearth where John Broom no longer lay.
At the time that he vanished from Lingborough the gossips of the country side said, This comes of making pets of tramps' brats, when honest folk's sons may toil and moil without notice. But when it was proved that the tramp-boy had stolen nothing, when all search for him was vain, and when prosperity faded from the place season by season and year by year, there were old folk who whispered that the gaudily-clothed child Miss Betty had found under the broom-bush had something more than common in him, and that whoever and whatever had offended the eerie creature, he had taken the luck of Lingborough with him when he went away.
It was early summer. The broom was shining in the hedges with uncommon wealth of golden blossoms. "The lanes looked for all the world as they did the year that poor child was found," said Thomasina, wiping her eyes. Annie the lass sobbed hysterically, and the cowherd found himself so low in spirits that after gazing dismally at the cowstalls, which had not been cleaned for days past, he betook himself to the ale-house to refresh his energies for this and other arrears of work.
On returning to the farm, however, he found his hands still feeble, and he took a drop or two more to steady them, after which it occurred to him that certain new potatoes which he had had orders to dig were yet in the ground. The wood was not chopped for the next day's use, and he wondered what had become of a fork he had had in the morning and had laid down somewhere.
So he seated himself on some straw in the corner to think about it all, and whilst he was thinking he fell fast asleep.
By his own account many remarkable things had befallen him in the course of his life, including that meeting with a Black Something to which allusion has been made, but nothing so strange as what happened to him that night.
When he awoke in the morning and sat up on the straw, and looked around him, the stable was freshly cleaned, the litter in the stalls was shaken and turned, and near the door was an old barrel of newly dug potatoes, and the fork stood by it. And when he ran to the wood house there lay the wood neatly chopped and piled to take away.
He kept his own counsel that day and took credit for the work, but when on the morrow the farm-bailiff was at a loss to know who had thinned the turnips that were left to do in the upper field, and Annie the lass found the kitchen cloths she had left overnight to soak, rubbed through and rinsed, and laid to dry, the cowherd told his tale to Thomasina, and begged for a bowl of porridge and cream to set in the barn, as one might set a mouse-trap baited with cheese.
"For," said he, "the luck of Lingborough's come back, missis. It's Lob Lie-by-the-fire"
"It's Lob Lie-by-the-fire!"
So Thomasina whispered exultingly, and Annie the lass timidly. Thomasina cautioned the cowherd to hold his tongue, and she said nothing to the little ladies on the subject. She felt certain that they would tell the parson, and he might not approve. The farm-bailiff knew of a farm on the Scotch side of the Border where a brownie had been driven away by the minister preaching his last Sunday's sermon over again at him, and as Thomasina said, "There'd been little enough luck at Lingborough lately, that they should wish to scare it away when it came."
And yet the news leaked out gently, and was soon known all through the neighborhood—as a secret.
"The luck of Lingborough's come back. Lob's lying by the fire!"
He could be heard at his work any night, and several people had seen him, though this vexed Thomasina, who knew well that the good people do not like to be watched at their labours.
The cowherd had not been able to resist peeping down through chinks in the floor of the loft above the barn, where he slept, and one night he had seen Lob fetching straw for the cowhouse. "A great rough, black fellow," said he, and he certainly grew bigger and rougher and blacker every time the cowherd told the tale.
The Lubber-fiend appeared next to a boy who was loitering at a late hour somewhere near the little ladies' kitchen-garden, and whom he pursued and pelted with mud till the lad nearly lost his wits with terror. (It was the same boy who was put in the lock-up in the autumn for stealing Farmer Mangel's Siberian crabs.)
For this trick, however, the rough elf atoned by leaving three pecks of newly-gathered fruit in the kitchen the following morning. Never had there been such a preserving season at Lingborough within the memory of Thomasina.
The truth is, hobgoblins, from Puck to Will-o'-the-wisp, are apt to play practical jokes and knock people about whom they meet after sunset. A dozen tales of such were rife, and folks were more amused than amazed by Lob Lie-by-the-fire's next prank.
There was an aged pauper who lived on the charity of the little ladies, and whom it was Miss Betty's practice to employ to do light weeding in the fields for heavy wages. This venerable person was toddling to his home in the gloaming with a barrow load of Miss Betty's new potatoes, dexterously hidden by an upper sprinkling of groundsel and hemlock, when the Lubber-fiend sprang out from behind an elder-bush, ran at the old man with his black head, and knocked him, heels uppermost, into the ditch. The wheelbarrow was afterwards found in Miss Betty's farmyard, quite empty.
And when the cowherd (who had his own opinion of the aged pauper, and it was a very poor one) went that evening to drink Lob Lie-by-the-fire's health from a bottle he kept in the harness room window, he was nearly choked with the contents, which had turned into salt and water, as fairy jewels turn to withered leaves.
But luck had come to Lingborough. There had not been such crops for twice seven years past.
The lay-away hens' eggs were brought regularly to the kitchen.
The ducklings were not eaten by rats.
No fowls were stolen.
The tub of pig-meal lasted three times as long as usual.
The cart-wheels and gate-hinges were oiled by unseen fingers.
The mushrooms in the croft gathered themselves and down on a dish in the larder.
It is by small savings that a farm thrives, and Miss Betty's farm throve.
Everybody worked with more alacrity. Annie the lass said the butter came in a way that made it a pleasure to churn.
The neighbours knew even more than those on the spot. They said—That since Lob came back to Lingborough the hens laid eggs as large as turkeys' eggs, and the turkeys' eggs were—oh, you wouldn't believe the size!
That the cows gave nothing but cream, and that Thomasina skimmed butter off it as less lucky folk skim cream from milk.
That her cheeses were as rich as butter.
That she sold all she made, for Lob took the fairy butter from the old trees in the avenue, and made it up into pats for Miss Betty's table.
That if you bought Lingborough turnips, you might feed your cows on them all the winter and the milk would be as sweet as new-mown hay.
That horses foddered on Lingborough hay would have thrice the strength of others, and that sheep who cropped Lingborough pastures would grow three times as fat.
That for as good a watchdog as it was, the sheep dog never barked at Lob, a plain proof that he was more than human.
That for all its good luck it was not safe to loiter near the place after dark, if you wished to keep your senses. And if you took so much as a fallen apple belonging to Miss Betty, you might look out for palsy or St. Vitus' dance, or be carried off bodily to the underground folk.
Finally, that it was well all the cows gave double, for that Lob Lie-by-the-fire drank two gallons of the best cream every day, with curds, porridge, and other dainties to match. But what did that matter, when he had been overheard to swear that luck should not leave Lingborough till Miss Betty owned half the country side?
MISS BETTY IS SURPRISED.
Miss Betty and Miss Kitty having accepted a polite invitation from Mrs. General Dunmaw, went down to tea with that lady one fine evening in this eventful summer.
Death had made a gap or two in the familiar circle during the last fourteen years, but otherwise it was quite the same, except that the lawyer was married and not quite so sarcastic, and that Mrs. Brown Jasey had brought a young niece with her dressed in the latest fashion, which looked quite as odd as new fashions are wont to do, and with a coiffure "enough to frighten the French away," as her aunt told her.
It was while this young lady was getting more noise out of Mrs. Dunmaw's red silk and rosewood piano than had been shaken out of it during the last thirty years, that the lawyer brought his cup of coffee to Miss Betty's side, and said, suavely, "I here wonderful accounts of Lingborough, dear Miss Betty."
"I am thankful to say, sir, that the farm is doing well this year. I am very thankful, for the past few years have been unfavourable, and we had begun to face the fact that it might be necessary to sell the old place. And I will not deny, sir, that it would have gone far to break my heart, to say nothing of my sister Kitty's."
"Oh, we shouldn't have let it come to that," said the lawyer, "I could have raised a loan—"
"Sir," said Miss Betty with dignity, "if we have our own pride, I hope it's an honest one. Lingborough will have passed out of our family when it's kept up on borrowed money."
"I could live in lodgings," added Miss Betty, firmly, "little as I've been accustomed to it, but not in debt."
"Well, well, my dear madam, we needn't talk about it now. But I'm dying of curiosity as to the mainstay of all this good luck."
"The turnips—" began Miss Betty.
"Bless my soul, Miss Betty!" cried the lawyer, "I'm not talking of turnips. I'm talking of Lob Lie-by-the-fire, as all the country side is for that matter."
"The country people have plenty of tales of him," said Miss Betty, with some pride in the family goblin. "He used to haunt the old barns, they say, in my great-grandfather's time."
"And now you've got him back again," said the lawyer.
"Not that I know of," said Miss Betty.
On which the lawyer poured into her astonished ear all the latest news on the subject, and if it had lost nothing before reaching his house in the town, it rather gained in marvels as he repeated it to Miss Betty.
No wonder that the little lady was anxious to get home to question Thomasina, and that somewhat before the usual hour she said,—
"Sister Kitty, if it's not too soon for the servant—"
And the parson, threading his way to where Mrs. Dunmaw's china crape shawl (dyed crimson) shone in the bow window, said, "The clergy should keep respectable hours, madam; especially when they are as old as I am. Will you allow me to thank you for a very pleasant evening, and to say good night?"
THE PARSON AND THE LUBBER-FIEND.
"Do you think there'd be any harm in leaving it alone, sister Betty?" said Miss Kitty, tremulously.
They had reached Lingborough, and the parson had come in with them, by Miss Betty's request, and Thomasina had been duly examined.
"Eh, Miss Betty, why should ye chase away good luck with the minister?" cried she.
"Sister Kitty! Thomasina!" said Miss Betty. "I would not accept good luck from a doubtful quarter to save Lingborough. But if It can face this excellent clergyman, the Being who haunted my great-grandfather's farm is still welcome to the old barns, and you, Thomasina, need not grudge It cream or curds."
"You're quite right, sister Betty," said Miss Kitty. "You always are; but oh dear, oh dear!"—
"Thomasina tells me," said Miss Betty, turning to the parson, "that on chilly evenings It sometimes comes and lies by the kitchen fire after they have gone to bed, and I can distinctly remember my grandmother mentioning the same thing. Thomasina has of late left the kitchen door on the latch for Its convenience, and as they had to sit up late for us, she and Annie have taken their work into the still-room to leave the kitchen free for Lob Lie-by-the-fire. They have not looked into the kitchen this evening, as such beings do not like to be watched. But they fancy that they heard It come in. I trust, sir, that neither in myself nor my sister Kitty does timidity exceed a proper feminine sensibility, where duty is concerned. If you will be good enough to precede us, we will go to meet the old friend of my great-grandfather's fortunes, and we leave it entirely to your valuable discretion to pursue what course you think proper on the occasion."
"Is this the door?" said the parson, cheerfully, after knocking his head against black beams and just saving his legs down shallow and unexpected steps on his way to the kitchen—beams so unfelt and steps so familiar to the women that it had never struck them that the long passage was not the most straightforward walk a man could take—"I think you said It generally lies on the hearth?"
The happy thought struck Thomasina that the parson might be frightened out of his unlucky interference.
"Aye, aye, sir," said she from behind. "We've heard him rolling by the fire, and growling like thunder to himself. They say he's an awful size, too, with the strength of four men, and a long tail, and eyes like coals of fire."
But Thomasina spoke in vain, for the parson opened the door, and as they pressed in, the moonlight streaming through the latticed window showed Lob lying by the fire.
"There's his tail! Ay—k!" screeched Annie the lass, and away she went, without drawing breath to the top garret, where she locked and bolted herself in, and sat her bandbox flat, and screamed for help.
But it was the plumy tail of the sheep dog, who was lying there with the Lubber-fiend. And Lob was asleep, with his arms around the sheep dog's neck, and the sheep dog's head lay on his breast, and his own head touched the dog's.
And it was a smaller head than the parson had been led to expect, and it had thick black hair.
As the parson bent over the hearth, Thomasina took Miss Kitty round the waist, and Miss Betty clutched her black velvet bag till the steel beads ran into her hands, and they were quite prepared for an explosion, and sulphur, and blue lights, and thunder.
And then the parson's deep round voice broke the silence, saying,—
"Is that you, lad? GOD bless you, John Broom. You're welcome home!"
Some things—such as gossip—gain in the telling, but there are others before which words fail, though each heart knows its own power of sympathy. And such was the joy of the little ladies and of Thomasina at John Broom's return.
The sheep dog had had his satisfaction out long ago, and had kept it to himself, but how Pretty Cocky crowed, and chuckled, and danced, and bowed his crest, and covered his face with his amber wings, and kicked his seed-pot over, and spilled his water-pot on to the Derbyshire marble chess-table, and screamed till the room rang again, and went on screaming, with Miss Kitty's pocket-handkerchief over his head to keep him quiet, my poor pen can but imperfectly describe.
The desire to atone for the past which had led John Broom to act the part of one of those Good-Fellows who have, we must fear, finally deserted us, will be easily understood. And to a nature of his type, the earning of some self-respect, and of a character before others, was perhaps a necessary prelude to future well-doing.
He did do well. He became a good scholar, as farmers were then. He spent as much of his passionate energies on the farm as the farm would absorb, and he restrained the rest. It is not cockatoos only who have sometimes to live and be happy in this unfinished life with one wing clipped.
In fine weather, when the perch was put into the garden, Miss Betty was sometimes startled by stumbling on John Broom in the dusk, sitting on his heels, the unfastened chain in his hand, with his black head lovingly laid against Cock's white and yellow poll, talking in a low voice, and apparently with the sympathy of his companion; and as Miss Betty justly feared, of that "other side of the world," which they both knew, and which both at times had cravings to revisit.
Even after the sobering influences of middle age had touched him, and a wife and children bound him with the quiet ties of home, he had (at long intervals) his "restless times," when his good "misses" would bring out a little store laid by in one of the children's socks, and would bid him. "Be off, and get a breath of the sea-air," but on condition that the sock went with him as his purse. John Broom always looked ashamed to go, but he came back the better, and his wife was quite easy in his absence with that confidence in her knowledge of the "master," which is so mysterious to the unmarried, and which Miss Betty looked upon as "want of feeling" to the end. She always dreaded that he would not return, and a little ruse which she adopted of giving him money to make bargains for foreign articles of vertu with sailors, is responsible for many of the choicest ornaments in the Lingborough parlour.
"The sock'll bring him home," said Mrs. Broom, and home he came, and never could say what he had been doing. Nor was the account given by Thomasina's cousin, who was a tide-waiter down yonder, particularly satisfying to the women's curiosity. He said that John Broom was always about; that he went aboard of all the craft in the bay, and asked whence they came and whither they were bound. That being once taunted to do it, he went up the rigging of a big vessel like a cat, and came down it looking like a fool. That as a rule, he gossipped and shared his tobacco with sailors and fishermen, and brought out the sock much oftener than was prudent for the benefit of the ragged boys who haunt the quay.
He had two other weaknesses, which a faithful biographer must chronicle.
A regiment on the march would draw him from the plough-tail itself, and "With daddy to see the pretty soldiers" was held to excuse any of Mrs. Broom's children from household duties.
The other shall be described in the graphic language of that acute observer the farm-bailiff.
"If there cam' an Irish beggar, wi' a stripy cloot him and a bellows under 's arm, and ca'd himsel' a Hielander, the lad wad gi'e him his silly head off his shoulders."
As to the farm-bailiff, perhaps no one felt more or said less than he did on John Broom's return. But the tones of his voice had tender associations for the boy's ears as he took off his speckled hat, and after contemplating the inside for some moments, put it on again, and said,—
"Aweel, lad, sae ye've cam' hame?"
But he listened with quivering face when John Broom told the story of M'Alister, and when it was ended he rose and went out, and "took the pledge" against drink, and—kept it.
Moved by similar enthusiasm, the cowherd took the pledge also, and if he didn't keep it, he certainly drank less, chiefly owing to the vigilant oversight of the farm-bailiff, who now exercised his natural severity almost exclusively in the denunciation of all liquors whatsoever, from the cowherd's whiskey to Thomasina's elder-flower wine.
The plain cousin left his money to the little old ladies, and Lingborough continued to flourish.
Partly perhaps because of this, it is doubtful if John Broom was ever looked upon by the rustics as quite "like other folk."
The favourite version of his history is that he was Lob under the guise of a child; that he was driven away by new clothes; that he returned from unwillingness to see an old family go to ruin "which he had served for hundreds of years;" that the parson preached his last Sunday's sermon at him; and that, having stood that test, he took his place among Christian people.
Whether a name invented off-hand, however plain and sensible, does not stick to a man as his father's does, is a question. But John Broom was not often called by his.
With Scotch caution, the farm-bailiff seldom exceeded the safe title of "Man!" and the parson was apt to address him as "My dear boy" when he had certainly outgrown the designation.
Miss Betty called him John Broom, but the people called him by the name he had earned.
And long after his black hair lay white and thick on his head, like snow on the old barn roof, and when his dark eyes were dim in an honoured old age, the village children would point him out to each other, crying, "There goes Lob Lie-by-the-fire, the Luck of Lingborough!"
A series of accidents had overtaken the Newbury mail from the hour that it started in the fine dewy morning, till the sun went down; and as the twilight deepened over the landscape it was still many miles from its destination.
The troubles began early in the day. One of the leaders cast a shoe, and had to be shod at the first village through which they passed. Farther on something went wrong with the harness, and later still a much more serious impediment to their progress arose—some accident happened to a wheel, so that the coach must needs go half-pace, in spite of the oaths of old Joe, the driver, whose boast it was that he had never reached Wancote later than midnight.
But this evening old Joe's boasts were doomed to fall to the ground, for the coach could only crawl along, and the night was closing in fast.
The guard was engaged in a somewhat mysterious occupation, an occupation which, though only partially visible from the interior of the coach, caused a faint shriek to issue therefrom.
"What is he doing? What is it?" cried a woman's voice.
"Nothing, madam; be easy, I entreat," was the answer from within. "There is nothing to alarm, but rather to reassure, in his actions—he prepares his pistols and looks to their priming. Zounds! one must be ready for all contingencies with ten miles of unfrequented road ahead of us."
The mail continued on its way, becoming slower and slower, as an ominous creaking of the injured wheel gave token that the pace must be reduced to a walk.
The curtain before the window was held back, and a gentleman from within addressed the guard.
"Will the wheel hold out, think you?" he said.
"It is impossible to assure your reverence that it will, and the night will be dark."
The gentleman drew in his head with a little "Tut-tut" of consternation.
There were four occupants of the coach—two ladies and two gentlemen. Of the ladies one was young, perhaps nineteen, and one close upon forty. The younger was the parson's daughter Elizabeth, otherwise Betty Ives. Her father, Mr. Ives, was bringing her home from Newbury, where she had spent the last six months with her aunt, Mrs. Primrose, seeing something of the gay world in the county town.
The father and daughter, who sat opposite to each other, bore a strong resemblance to each other. In the girl's face the dark brows were more arched, the large blue eyes more tender, the firm mouth more sweet, and all tinted with the lilies and roses of a fresh country life, so beautifully blended on the peach-like cheeks that, even without her rare perfection of feature, the colouring alone would have made Betty beautiful.
Parson Ives had been very handsome in his youth, and though worn by years (he was forty years older than his child), and by the grief of bereavement, he was yet famous for his good looks.
Betty wore a short dark green riding-habit and a broad felt hat. She was as much at home on horseback as on foot, and seldom in the mornings wore a less business-like costume.
The other two occupants of the coach were to ordinary eyes less interesting. Mistress Mary Jones was a faded woman, who had once been pretty, a spinster, a great friend of Betty's, and one of her father's parishioners. She was an excellent woman in her way, albeit somewhat given to terrors both real and fanciful.
Her opposite neighbor was a man past the prime of life, owner and breeder of large herds of cattle near Wancote, a man who, after attending the Newbury markets, often returned home by this very coach, and was believed to carry large sums of money in the flap-pockets of his many-caped riding-coat.
Mr. Barnes had a fixed mask-like countenance, his bushy eyebrows almost met in a wrinkle that told of thought and deep calculation. He was clean-shaven, and his chin was swathed in a huge neckcloth of white muslin; he wore his hat low on his brow.
"I like not to be out so late on the high road," said he very suddenly, so that both Mr. Ives and Mistress Mary Jones started, and Betty, whom nothing ever startled, turned her great blue eyes inquiringly on him.
"Why, sir?" she asked.
"Why, my good young lady, because the Newbury sales are just over, and it is well known that the stock reared on Belford home farm has sold well"
"Are the roads not safe then, sir?" asked Mr. Ives rather anxiously.
"I do not quite say that, for it is many a long day since the coach was attacked between Newbury and Wancote; but rumour has been busy."
"Ha!" cried Betty, sitting upright eagerly.
"It is said that Wild Jack Barnstaple has been heard of in the neighbourhood."
"Heaven help us!" shrieked Mary Jones.
"Be calm, I entreat you, my dear madam, and have pity on my unfortunate toes! Zounds! it is torture enough to be subject to periodical gout, without such an infliction as the stamp of a lady's fashionable heel on the tender place."
"But you say Wild Jack is in the neighbourhood! Oh Heaven! what will become of us!"
Betty's blooming cheek had turned just a faint shade paler, but the rosy colour came rushing back, her eyes flashed.
Suddenly stooping forward she said in a low voice:
"Mr. Barnes, you may confide in me. Do you carry much money?"
He answered in a tone of assumed ease, "Paper to the value of nearly a thousand pounds."
"Then look you, Mr. Barnes," said Betty in her natural voice, "I have a proposal to make to you. Give the valuables you have to us—to Miss Mary Jones and to myself. Wild Jack, all say, is a gentleman—should he, by any unfortunate chance, be on the road to-night, he will not rob women. Your money will be safe."
"No, no, no, no!" cried Mary. "Betty, how can you propose anything so impossible, so unfeminine! Are not men our natural protectors?" and she threw a languishing glance at the cattle-breeder. "Shall we usurp their rights?"
"It is quite true; it is impossible," said Barnes.
"You are foolish to throw away the chance," said Betty calmly.
"I cannot see why you should not accept her offer," said the parson restlessly; he was accustomed to yield to his daughter's judgment in everything. "Betty is a bold girl, and she is generally in the right."
"Come, yield the point, Mr. Barnes," said Betty, with a light laugh, holding out her hand for the pocket-book.
"Remember I have no part or parcel in it," cried Mary, shrinking farther and farther away. "I would not for the whole world! Why, Betty," she whimpered, "they might even search you."
"Wild Jack is a gentleman," answered the girl; then with a sudden flash of scorn, "but even had I not such faith in his honourable dealing, I should know how to take care of myself. Give me the papers, Mr. Barnes."
Very unwillingly, as if he despised himself for so doing, Barnes gave them into her hands. The notes were smoothed and laid flat, they occupied the smallest space possible.
Betty Ives placed the papers within the bosom of her tight-fitting riding-habit, and leant back as if she had done with the subject.
Mr. Ives looked with anxious eyes through the window.
The mail was passing along a wide fair unsheltered road, on each side spread away treeless tracts of country, flat and wide, over which the fresh cold wind blew listlessly. To the left the horizon was bounded by the wide expanse of the grassy Berkshire downs. They rose and fell, a vast undulating plain, covered with short fine herbage.
It was growing very dark; the parson drew in his head, and thanked Heaven that the country was so fine and open, that he could even in the gathering gloom see far behind and before, and could perceive no suspicious object.
"We are all right here," said Mr. Barnes, his voice becoming more and more dismal. "But a mile farther on, and we come to a small wood—the road dips down there suddenly, it is a first-rate place for an ambush."
"Mercy! mercy!" cried Mary Jones in a voice half-strangled by the anguish of her terror.
"We have yet a mile of safety," said Betty kindly "—a whole mile, Mary; and going at this pace, we need not prepare our terrors for another hour."
"Heaven grant that the moon may be up," cried Barnes.
"Sir," said Betty slowly, "I imagine that you carry arms?"
"I am not unarmed," he answered hastily, "I have pistols and a sword."
"I should have them in readiness, as I myself intend to do," said Betty, and she drew out a tiny silver-mounted pistol. "See, it is prepared for use. My father is a clergyman and must eschew firearms; Mary Jones is a woman—"
"Aye, a true woman, a frail woman," whined the poor lady.
"But," continued Betty, "the guard is armed, so are we; we have still a mile to go. Ha!" her voice ended abruptly. There was a crashing sound, a shot, a shout, a confused sense as if the whole coach were falling to the ground. The door was torn open. Before Betty could even raise the deadly little weapon she carried, it was seized from her hand—the whole party were dragged out of the carriage—they found themselves surrounded by armed men. There was a violent struggle, fighting and disorder, loud oaths from the coachman, appalling shrieks from Mary Jones. Some one opened a lantern and allowed its red glare to fall on the scared prisoners and on the black masks of their captors.
The man who was evidently the leader of the party was holding Betty's two hands in one of his in a grasp which she imagined to be gentle until she attempted to release them, when she discovered that she might as easily have broken bands of steel.
"Here, give me a rope, we must bind our prisoners," said this man suddenly. "This fair lady had all but fired one shot too many for Wild Jack to-night!"
There was a laugh, and with dexterity, evidently gained from experience, the prisoners were rapidly bound.
"I am grieved to incommode you thus, madam," said the leader, bowing low to Betty. "Our business is with that gentleman," with a slight motion of his hand towards the hapless Mr. Barnes. Betty bowed slightly. The light fell full on her tall figure, on her noble head slightly raised and thrown back, the nostrils dilated, the colour glowing richly in the soft cheek. Wild Jack, looking at her, felt a glow of enthusiasm which betrayed itself in his voice.
"You have nothing to fear, madam," he said.
"I? I fear nothing," said the girl calmly—"Wild Jack is a gentleman."
The highwayman made a rapid sign to his comrades, who proceeded to throw themselves on to Samuel Barnes, and begin to search him from head to foot.
A sudden fear flashed into Betty's mind. How if Wild Jack were unable to restrain his companions, infuriated as they would be by their failure in discovering the expected treasure on the person of their victim?
Her cheeks paled, for one moment she turned her eyes full on the masked face of her captor. Masked as he was, her look thrilled him through and through.
"You are safe," he repeated hurriedly.
Something in his voice seemed to give her confidence, for she stooped forward and said in a low voice, "Mr. Barnstaple, I trust to your honour,—the money is here."
And with a grand movement she laid her bound hands on her breast.
Wild Jack bowed low, but he said nothing, and in spite of the bold front she bore, Betty's heart beat fast.
The noise increased. Samuel Barnes, maddened with fright, struggled against his assailants furiously, but he was overmatched, a violent blow with the butt end of a pistol stunned him completely, and all resistance was over. Undaunted by their want of success the coach was then rifled, the mails ruthlessly thrown out into the road.
One or two of the men, of whom there appeared to be five at least, now proposed to search the women.
There was a moment's pause, during which Wild Jack tightened his grasp on Betty's arm. Had she shown one symptom of fear, it is possible that his fierce profession would have triumphed over the infatuation of her beauty, but the look she turned upon him was so full of confidence, such absolute trust in his honour, that it prevailed.
He swore that he made no war upon women, and ordered back his disappointed followers, allowing them to divide the trumpery booty they had secured, of watches, trinkets, and the parson's purse, which was not empty.
They stood back. Wild Jack spoke to them in a low tone, looking, as he did so, several times up at the sky as if to see how the time went; then advancing he opened the door of the coach, and unbinding the hands of the two ladies, offered to hand them in.
Betty demurred. "We have duties here first," she said, pointing to the inanimate form of poor Samuel Barnes.
"It is well then," said Wild Jack, just touching the prostrate man with the toe of his boot. "We will leave you now, with many apologies, madam, for our intrusion."
The others were already in the saddle and almost out of sight.
Wild Jack, who was about to mount, withdrew his foot from the stirrup and approached Betty once more.
"Go, go!" she said. "This poor man bleeds; ah, why do you not go?"
"I am gone," he answered. "But first, fair lady, in consideration of the booty I have resigned I demand a reward."
"What can I give you?"
He pointed to her hand, on one finger of which was a small gold ring in the form of a serpent with tiny ruby eyes.
"Give me that," he said somewhat imperiously.
"You are welcome," she said haughtily, and she drew the ring from her finger. "I would give a trinket of more value," she cried, stamping her little foot, "to be freed from your company now!"
The words stung him.
"You will remember those words, madam," he said, "some day—when this ring returns to your keeping."
He shut the lantern, which during all this time had thrown its yellow light on the strange scene, mounted his horse and disappeared. The horse was snow white, and it passed by like a white gleam in the darkness.
It was pitch dark now, and the horror of their situation was increased by the moans which Mr. Barnes began to utter as consciousness slowly returned.
It was a relief to all when the familiar sound of flint and steel smote the ear, and the coachman awkwardly, with his bound hands, attempted to light the lamps of the coach. Betty's first business was to unfasten the ropes which bound the men hand and foot, and by degrees they were able to take in their exact position.
One of the leaders had been shot dead, the traces had been cut, but the frightened horses had not strayed out of reach.
Mary Jones was in a dead faint, and, in the absence of all restoratives, seemed likely to remain so.
Mr. Barnes, his head carefully bound up by Betty and her father, was at last able to rise to his feet and take his place in the carriage.
The dawn was already breaking, and a white light stealing over the murky sky, before the mail could once more get under weigh and move heavily forwards.
Far and wide the downs stretched, silent and deserted; a bitter wind swept over them and stirred the mane of the dead horse, who lay a ghastly spectacle, his head thrown back, in a pool of his own blood. From afar, from whence nor eye nor tongue could tell, came a foul raven croaking.
The village of Hendred, of which Mr. Ives was the parson, lay about two miles beyond Wancote, in a low valley nestling under a great wave of the downs. Behind the village a chalk cliff rose white and dazzling, and the warm red brick of the houses, the gleaming chalk, the bright tender green of the herbage, formed one of those sunny pictures of which Berkshire is full.
In the centre of the village rose the little church, with its square grey tower, over which grew a magnificent creeper with crimson leaves glowing with a wondrous richness of colour.
A stone's throw back from the road, in a high-walled garden, stood the parsonage. The garden was rich with orchard trees and wall fruit, and boasted in particular one golden plum that was the parson's boast and pride. He had imported rich soil from the valleys, and in each corner of the garden gathered little hills of leaf-mould. Mr. Ives was a notable gardener.
Those who would see Betty Ives at her best should see her at home—at least, so said young Mr. Robins, the rich yeoman's son, who sighed in vain for her good graces. He was a domestic man, much given to superintending himself, duties which were looked upon as women's gear—"A womanish man," said the women.
On the other hand young Thornton, eldest son of Squire Thornton of Thornton Beeches, in the neighbourhood of Wancote, gave out that to see Mistress Betty at her best, was to see her in the hunting-field, for she rode like a bird, and was bright and ready as a pike-staff! There was a confusion of metaphor, but words always failed the young fellow when he spoke of the lady who had already three times refused to be his wife.
Then Dr. Glebe, the good doctor of Wancote, in a grey bag-wig and hunting-boots, would take a whole handful of snuff, while he swore that Mistress Betty was only at her best by a sick-bed.
The parson laughed, and exclaimed with a tear in his eye that such a woman as his daughter was always at her best in whatever she put her hand to do; and the old groom Isaac assented with a chuckle, vowing that his young lady was good all round.
The autumn was beginning, and the crimson creepers on church and wall were at the height of their glow. Betty Ives was strolling in the parsonage garden gathering plums from the wall.
The garden-door was on the latch, it needed but to raise it, and Mistress Mary Jones walked in. Betty went eagerly forward to meet her with out-stretched hands. No welcome could be more cordial than that which Betty Ives gave to her friends.
"I am so glad to see you, Mary? and are you well? Have you lost your headache?"
Miss Mary sank into a garden-seat and sighed, still retaining the hand of her friend.
"I am better, sweet Bet," she said; "but my nerves will not recover the shock for years! No, no! do not shake your head and smile; if you had the crawlings up the back that I experience, and the creepings down the spine, and the shaking of knees, the twittering of the lips, and quivering of the eyelids—"
"Enough, enough!" cried Betty. "Thank Heaven, I am not tormented thus! My dear Mary, how can you survive such a multitude of ailments?"
"I have survived worse!" she answered, shuddering. "I survived the shock itself."
"Were you very much frightened?" asked Betty in a tone of interest.
"Frightened! I was terrified. I have not nerve like yours. The dark, the shot! the dark faces, the loud voices, the ... ah!"
Seeing Mary's chest beginning to heave, Betty thought it high time to change the subject. "We will not recall it," she said hastily. "Let us think on more agreeable topics. My father rode into Wancote this morning, to stroll about the marketplace and hear the news."
"And why did you not go?"
"Because," answered Betty, "I have been making preserves the livelong day. Up at six this morning, for Dame Martha told me that, owing to my putting it off so long, the fruit was beginning to rot, so there was no time to lose."
"I leave preserving to my woman," said Mary. "The hanging over the fire is ruin to the finest skin."
"Yes, my face is scorched and heated," answered Betty, turning a cheek like a peach to her friend. "But after all, to so weather-beaten a maid as myself, up and out in all seasons, a scorched cheek, more or less, signifies not; and Dame Martha works hard."
"And had your father any news from Wancote?"
"Yes, news indeed—Belton has been taken!"
"Hired or purchased by a gentleman of the name of Johnstone, whose arrival is expected hourly."
"This is news indeed! None but a rich man could have paid the price asked."
"His horses have arrived," went on Betty. "Only four of them as yet, but each one of the four of surpassing beauty. One of them, Mr. Barnes told my father, looked worth a king's ransom."
"May the owner be worthy of his cattle," said Mary Jones. "And were there no coach-horses, no carriages? No symptoms of a lady to dispense the hospitalities of Belton?"
"Mr. Johnstone is said to be unmarried," answered Betty gravely. "I am sorry for it, a new neighbour would have been an agreeable addition to our society."
There was a click of the garden-gate, then a smart rap, as if by the knob of a hunting-whip.
"Someone is at the gate," said Miss Mary with curiosity.
"Yes," answered Betty, "and I must needs answer it myself, for the bell is broken, as doubtless our visitor has discovered, and he may knock till doomsday ere the sound reach the ears of Dame Martha or Isaac, both of whom are engaged in quarrelling in the kitchen. So so! how impatient it is!"
For another succession of knocks fell on the panel.
"I entreat you, do not open the door yourself, Betty," cried Mary in a tone of alarm. "Who knows who may be there?"
"Certainly not Wild Jack," answered Betty smiling, and disengaging herself from her friend's arm she went forward and opened the gate.
"Does Mr. Ives live here?" asked a loud, clear voice, which, however, suddenly changed in tone when the opening door disclosed the radiant vision of the parson's lovely daughter.
A feathered hat was doffed, a gentleman sprang from his horse and, bowing low, asked if he had the honour of addressing one of the family of Mr. Ives.
"His only daughter, sir," answered Betty courteously. "If you wish to see my father, I will beg you to come in and wait, as he will be in shortly," Mary Jones advanced, her eyes took in at a glance the whole distinguished appearance of the visitor, from the fine cut of his suit of claret-coloured cloth, to the well-shaped boot with shining spurs, and she gave a little sign of approval.
Betty summoned old Isaac and bade him take charge of the horse, and then led the way into the garden.
"We are primitive folk here," she said. "But I find most people prefer our garden-seats to entering the house."
Mary was somewhat scandalised, she thought these easy out-door seats a breach of etiquette in themselves, but she could make no remonstrance beyond a little tweak at her friend's sleeve.
Betty sat down and, inviting her visitor to do likewise, she said:
"In my character as mistress of the house, I would wish to introduce you, sir, to my friend Mistress Mary Jones, of Elm Cottage close by, but have not the honour of being acquainted actually with your name, albeit I have conjectured."
"My name is John Johnstone, madam," he replied. "I have but now become the possessor of Belton, near Wancote."
"Our new neighbour," cried Mary.
"Yes, I claim that honour," continued Mr. Johnstone.
"We are vastly pleased to make your acquaintance," said Mary, thinking with some pride that she could boast to her friends of already knowing the newcomer.
Mr. Johnstone acknowledged the compliment courteously, but he never took his eyes off his young hostess, who appeared in them a miracle of grace and beauty.
With the skill of a man of the world, he drew her into animated conversation, gathering from her information respecting the country round, the different meets of the hounds, the neighbours, the tradespeople, the horses. Time slipped away almost unperceived, and neither lady knew how it had sped, when Mr. Ives, mounted on his handsome bay cob, rode up to the door.
Mr. Ives beheld with some surprise his daughter and her friend in full converse with a stranger.
The scene was worthy of a Watteau's brush—the sun just sinking behind the orchard trees gilding the edge of each leaf, shone on the dark red of John Johnstone's dress, warmed the sombre hue of fair Betty's lincoln green, and played on the blue and primrose of Mistress Mary's flower-like costume. It was a fair picture, and no eye could rest on a goodlier couple than the tall lithe young man, and the noble maiden.
"It was courteous of him to pay us one of the first, nay, the first of his neighbourly visits," said the good parson, exchanging his tie-wig for a comfortable flannel night-cap, when he was once more alone with his daughter.
"Next time he comes I will reward him with some of our golden plums," said Betty gaily as she fixed her white teeth in the tender skin of one that was lusciously ripe.
Mistress Mary to her maid described the newcomer thus:
"He is tall, Deborah, very tall; slight, but with shoulders of great breadth, and a square neck—one would say that his strength was herculean. His eyes are dark blue, his nose a trifle arched, brows thick and square, a sweet mouth—a very sweet mouth—but wondrous stern all the same. But his manners, Deborah, and his curling dark hair, just slightly dashed with powder—his manners are perfect! his hair is divine! Heigh-ho, Deborah!"
Up from the plains a steep road rose on the downs, a road so steep, so dazzling white that it looked like a white thread hanging on a green surface.
Betty Ives rode slowly up the hill, leaning slightly forward to ease her horse as she did so. Though November had set in, the sun was still powerful, and both horse and rider were a little oppressed by its heat.
Some very close observer might have seen a change in the girl's face—a very slight change, something that deepened the expression of the lovely eyes, something that played softly like the shadow of a great happiness on the mobile lips. She was thinking, thinking deeply as she rode.
Folks said that Betty Ives was very hard to win. Ruth Thornton, the squire's buxom daughter, would have given years of her life for one of the passionate appeals young Robins had made so often to Betty in vain. Lady Rachel Tremame had almost broken her heart when Betty, at the Newbury ball, had so attracted Sir Harry Clare that he had no eyes for other than her. Yet amid her many adorers, fair Betty, with the carelessness of inexperience, passed unpitying and fancy free.
But now times were changed: fair Betty's heart was given away.
Yet John Johnstone had not found his courtship easy, it was long before he made any way. He wooed proudly, and she took his subjection as due to herself, and was not grateful for that which she deemed her right. But the young man loved her the better for this, for he was one of those who value most that which is hardest to gain.
Betty with her rein on her horse's neck was thinking, wondering how it was that John Johnstone was always present to her mind, that her eyes sought him in the hunting-field, that those evenings were dull and lonely on which he did not come in for a chat with her father before supper-time, and all the world fell flat, stale and unprofitable, during various short absences of his, when he would disappear for three days together and none knew whither he went.
Betty's horse had mounted the white hill at last, and now scoured swiftly away over the springy turf on the wide downs.
For miles she passed no human habitation, then Betty reached her destination.
Low in a hollow dip of the green grass sea nestled a small cottage. No tree or bush within miles, the unbroken winds tore round it, the snow often banked up against it; but the owner, one of Mr. Ives' pensioners, appeared to care little for wind or weather.
As Betty rode up, she sent her clear ringing voice before her:
"Rachel! Rachel Ray!"
Then paused suddenly, for fastened by the bridle to a low post close to the cottage door, she perceived a fine bay horse that she knew well. She drew rein, swiftly debating within herself whether she should go on, or draw back, then shaking back her proud little head she rode forward.
Betty feared nothing on earth; should she be scared by the odd feeling in her heart that made it beat so fast and loud? A thousand times no.
Before she had reached the cottage, the door opened, and a small troop of ragged children tumbled out to meet her, children with black elfin locks, and eyes gleaming like live coals, showing wild gipsy blood.
Betty leapt from her horse, and called the eldest boy to her side.
"Here, Reuben," she said, "I will give you a silver penny if you hold Conrad steadily, and like a good boy, while I visit your grandmother." She opened the door with a slight knock and went in. An odd sight met her eyes.
By the table stood the vigorous figure of old Rachel Ray, handsome yet, with the dark gipsy characteristics of her grandchildren—before her the tall fine figure of John Johnstone in full hunting scarlet, just stooping in the act of giving her a kiss.
The old woman started, and pushed him aside when she saw Betty come in. She advanced to meet her visitor, who stood during the space of a minute without advancing, so great was her astonishment.
"You are surprised to see an old woman kiss her nursling," cried old Rachel. "But it would be odd if he did not, bless his brave heart!"
"Not surprised at his kissing you, Dame Rachel," said Betty, a little less steadily than usual. "But I did not know that you were acquainted, I thought Mr. Johnstone was a stranger to this part of the world."
The old woman turned her eyes on the young man, eyes brimming with burning tears, and with a look of entreaty in them.
John Johnstone gave a little impatient stamp of the foot.
It seemed to Betty watching them, that thus he gave a mute answer to some mute question or entreaty made.
"Sit down, sit down, my pretty lady," said Rachel drawing forward and dusting a chair. "You are welcome as flowers in May, or as the first swallow that heralds the spring. Are you well, my bonnie dear? and the good gentleman your father?"
"We are all well, dame. I am ashamed not to have been to see you for so long, but I am glad that you have had other visitors," and she glanced at Mr. Johnstone.
"We are old friends," he said with a smile of rare sweetness. "One of my most faithful servants and friends was my foster-brother Harry Ray, Rachel's eldest son."
"Aye, aye, was!" cried the woman, her voice rising to a kind of wail." We speak of Hal Ray in the past now."
Johnstone bit his lip, and a bitter frown contracted his brow.
"Alas, is he dead, dame?" asked Betty tenderly.
"Aye, dear heart, dead, and his bones have no grave, and happen his spirit no rest."
"This is terrible," said Betty with a shiver.
Mr. Johnstone moved restlessly to the window, and busied himself with his sword-knot.
"I have often told you, good mother," he said, and his voice had in it an odd mixture of grief and irritation, "that the less we dwell on these things the better. Mistress Betty," he went on hurriedly, "Harry Ray when he left my service, joined his fortunes with Wild Jack Barnstaple. He had ill-luck, poor lad, he was taken and ... and hanged."
His mother uttered a shuddering cry.
"And by the road he must hang," she cried, "till the earth and the wild winds have done their worst, and never a one to scare the wild birds from the flesh of my boy!"
"Dear dame," said Betty earnestly, "the soul recks little of its earthly tenement."
"God rest his soul, he was a good fellow and brave," said Johnstone earnestly.
"I also have seen Wild Jack," said Betty, willing to turn the poor woman from her troubles.
"Seen him! seen Wild Jack?" cried she.
"Aye, seen him and been his prisoner; and say who will to the contrary, I have reason to maintain that he is a true gentleman."
"Is it so?" said Mr. Johnstone, smiling. "A cut-throat, a robber, a highwayman, a true gentleman?"
Betty gave him an indignant glance. "I speak of him as I found him," she said. "And we of the country have always known how to distinguish between common malefactors and the gentlemen of the road."
"So, so!" answered Johnstone, still smiling. "And yet both end too often on Tyburn Hill."
Betty turned pale and shivered. It seemed as if she gasped for breath; she turned her large eyes on her lover and said, "Ah, these matters are far too serious for so grim a jest."
But her eyes were caught and arrested by the look which met them; so long, so burning with passionate admiration and love, with a strange expression of exaltation, almost gratitude. Betty's heart beat fast. He had forced her to love him, and such maidens as Betty Ives when they give love at last, give life itself. Dame Rachel glanced from one to another, then she rose quickly, and from a dark corner of the room produced a pack of cards. "Come, fair lady and noble gentleman," she said, with a touch of the professional whine in her voice. "Will you hear your fortunes? Cross the old gipsy's hand with silver, my pretty dears, and you shall hear all the good things past, present, and future, that may fall to your lot."
"Will you try?" said John Johnstone, bending forward.
The rosy colour rushed into Betty's cheek, the light shone in her eyes.
"I will try," she said, half laughing.
"Then all that is good we will believe, and all that is bad will cast to the winds as false and untrue."
"Nothing can be bad in the future of faces like yours, dear hearts," said Rachel, rapidly shuffling the cards.
Some minutes passed, the gipsy busily and with growing discomfiture turning the cards, trying them in every way—the two were silent.
Betty leant her head on her hand, shading her eyes from view, full of shyness for the first time in her bold young life. John Johnstone gazed on her with his soul in his eyes, and yet with a strange impatient interest in the business that was going on.
Presently Rachel flung all the cards down with violence.
"I am losing the trick of the trade," she said, in a harsh, frightened voice. "I am getting afraid of the cards, and when you are afraid of them, they master you."
"Tut, tut!" said John kindly. "Do not blame yourself, good mother, if they show not all the gilded coaches and six, and the lovely bride and gay bridegroom you would fain have promised us."
"The combinations turn to evil—all evil. Pah! it is the old story. I was afraid of the cards, and they have mastered me."
"Was there no warning conveyed in these strange combinations, Dame?" asked Johnstone eagerly.
"I deal not in warnings," said Rachel hastily.
"Did I deal in warnings, the reading of the cards might prove useful to you both."
"Come, come!" he said, "you speak in riddles. The warning. Is it the same for this gentle lady as for my rough self?"
"Aye, aye, for both—both." She bent down, and laid a dark hand on the shoulder of each, and peering into one face after another, she muttered:
"Beware of Wild Jack Barnstaple!"
Both started. John Johnstone flushed angrily: he rose to his feet.
"We have had enough of this fooling," he said. "The day is advancing, madam," turning to Betty. "Will you vouchsafe me the extreme pleasure of being your escort home?"
As Betty was about to answer, she was arrested by the sound of singing outside, in a voice so wild, loud, and sweet, it seemed the very embodiment of the music of Nature.
"Who is singing like that?" asked Betty. "How beautiful! and how marvellously sad."
"It is Nora Ray, only our Nora, dear heart. Her voice is sweet as the lark, and she sings old songs she gathers in the villages round."
"Hush, hush, listen!" cried Betty, and she stood with upraised hand listening.
The air was in the minor key, the voice of the singer thrilled to the very nerves, every word came distinctly to their ears.
"Aye, Margaret loved the fair gentleman, Aye, well and well-a-day, And the winter clouds gather wild and fast; He loved, and he galloped away.
Aye, call him! call him over the lea, Thou sad forsaken lass, Never more he'll come back to thee Over the wild green grass.
The swallows return from over the sea, Aye, well and well-a-day; But lover will never come back to thee Who loves and gallops away.
Aye, call him! call him over the sea, The winter is coming fast; He waved his hat, he bowed full low And smiled as he galloped past.
Aye, call him! call him over the lea, Aye, well and well-a-day; Lover will never come back to thee Who loves and gallops away."
A strange shiver came over Betty Ives, a thrill such as she had never experienced before. She glanced at Dame Rachel. The old woman was nervously fingering the cards, and muttering to herself. Then her frightened eyes turned to her lover; he read some appeal in them.
He held out his hand, and caught hers and pressed it for one short second to his lips.
The door burst open, and the girl who had been singing came in; her black hair was all blown back, the great black eyes staring out of the small dark face. She drew her scanty cloak round her and laughed a shrill laugh.
"Will you have your fortunes told, my good gentleman? my pretty lady?" she cried. "Cross little Nora's palm with a silver sixpence then."
"No, no, we have had enough of that. Come, dear madam, we must be going," said Johnstone, and he conducted Betty to the place where Reuben, faithful to his trust, held the rein of her horse.
"Do not be so long without coming to see me again, dear heart," cried Rachel Ray, standing outside her door.
"No, no, I will come soon," answered Betty. Johnstone placed her in the saddle.
"A good gallop over the downs will bring back the colour to your cheek," he said softly. "You are so white and cold."
"There is something ill-omened in all here," said Betty with a slight shiver.
"Here, Nora," cried Johnstone, flinging her a piece of gold. "This is to make up for the loss of that silver sixpence."
The girl laughed loud and shrilly. "Ah! ah!" she cried after them. "The good gentleman! the brave fellow! For this I would follow you! aye! follow you, my lad, from Belton to Tyburn Hill!"
"It is then true, my Betty? And I am to wish you joy?" cried Mary Jones, with both hands outstretched.
"It is true," answered Betty, her lips parted in a smile of sunshiny happiness. "Congratulate me, Mary; yes, wish me joy, for there is no happier woman to-day between the Northern and Southern seas."
"I am glad to see you so happy, dear child!" cried Mary affectionately, but there was something pinched and starved in her voice. Ah, pity for those who possess the capacity for love and yet must go hungry to their dying day!
This odd want is none the less bitter that it meets with scant sympathy in this hard world. In the breast of many an unsought woman lies a wealth of wasted treasure, treasure which no one has cared to seek, and yet what a treasure it might have been!
Mary Jones's heart had grown somewhat starved, but it was the heart of a loving woman still, and when the bright sunshine of her young friend's happiness shed its light on her soul, it awakened an echo of old dead days, and swelled it with sympathy.
"Sit down, sweet one," she said, drawing Betty down on the sofa beside her. "Tell me all about it. When did he ask you to be his wife?"
"This morning, Mary, only this morning; but it seems as if years had passed since then."
"And what says Mr. Ives? Does he welcome the stranger who takes from him his only child?"
"Not far, Mary—but two miles away—and my father is always to live with me, if he so will it, so says Mr. Johnstone."
"But is he pleased?" asked Mary, with a little persistence.
"Yes, he is well pleased; he already loves him as a son. Mary, perhaps the thing that most readily won my heart was his reverence and tender courtesy to my father."
"I can believe it, Betty. His manners are perfect. I was only making that same remark to Deborah this morning. Yes, I knew only one other whose manners could compare with your John Johnstone's, Betty—only one."
Mary Jones sighed deeply and looked down. Betty gently pressed her hand.
Hitherto she had always laughed at her friend's tender recollections; now, it seemed to her that her eyes were opened to her former cruelty.
But Mistress Mary was too much interested to waste too much time even on such reflections.
"You must tell me all, dear," she said. "What is his family? Has he parents living, brothers and sisters? Is his fortune assured?"
"Ah, there is some little difficulty there," answered Betty, her face falling a little. "He has no parents, no friends, no kindred; he is all alone in the wide world. And as for his fortune, that is assured, but it is somehow mysteriously bound up in trusts—I know not what—he has no papers to show my father, he asks for perfect confidence."
Mistress Mary was a prudent woman. She pursed up her lips and uttered a little sound expressive of discontent.
"Dear Betty," she said, "it is doubtless a very good thing to be in love with a stranger romantically, but still—"
"He is no stranger," said Betty quickly.
"No, no, not to be called a stranger," cried Mary, laughing—"an old and valued friend of two months' standing."
"The time is short," said Betty thoughtfully. "But a whole lifetime seems to have passed in that space! My father," she cried, as Mr. Ives entered the room, "here is Mistress Mary Jones."
"Come to offer my warmest good wishes," said the lady, "and also all the assistance in my power when the important day approaches."
"I shall indeed be glad and grateful for your help," said Betty affectionately.
Mr. Ives persuaded Mary to remain for supper. The candles were brought in, and the room looked bright and cheery.
"Stay with me and cheer my loneliness," said the parson cheerily. "The young folk will stroll in the garden till supper be ready. I am too old for dewy twilight walks, egad."
Was it a new idea that flashed into Mary's mind that caused her to start? She glanced at Mr. Ives' comely person, at his glossy cassock, his smartly-buckled shoes, at the neat tie-wig which surmounted a face which she hastily pronounced as handsome as it ever had been.
With a sweep of her fan Mistress Mary renounced her waning youth.
"Stay with you!" she cried, "that will I! and you and I from the window will superintend our dear young ones. Alas!" she said, with a languishing look, "how lonely the house will seem when you are bereft of your daughter."
Mr. Ives sighed deeply.
Outside in the gloaming, Betty Ives and her young lover walked slowly backwards and forwards under the orchard trees.
"No father, no mother, no sisters!" she said, looking up into his face. "No one to love, no one to love you!"
"I do not know whether I am to be pitied," he answered with a light laugh. "My life has been one of strange vicissitudes. No, no, sweet Bet; I have often thanked God that no one shared my life."
"But you will never do so again," she said earnestly.
"Sweetheart!" he answered. "Until you have once drunk of the cup of happiness you know not what it is; but once tasted, you can ill spare it thenceforth."
"Ah, some day you will tell me about this life of yours—will you not?"
"Some day, my heart, when you and I are alone together in the fair woods of Belton—when you are my precious wife, and when days have passed on, and our full trust and confidence each in the other is proved and strengthened by time. But not now, beloved, not now."
"Have you known griefs, sorrows?"
"Yes, and triumphs often."
Betty bent down her head thoughtfully; fain would she have swept away the veil of mystery which surrounded her betrothed, but she would take no step to do so—no confidence was precious save that which was given unasked.
The twilight gathered softly. Presently Betty turned round, and placed her two clasped hands on his arm, her noble head proudly raised, her large eyes seeking his.
"Look you," she said, "there is something I would wish to say to you. You and I are to be man and wife—and I have accepted you—I know nothing of you, John—I know not whence you come, or from among what kinsfolk; I have taken all on trust. I love you, John, so I fear not. They say that perfect love casteth out fear. There can be no dark secret in your life, no deed or deeds that you shame to disclose to me. I take you with infinite faith. So tell me what you will, dear, or as much as you will. My heart will give you gratitude for the confidence you give to me, and, John, my love shall cover your silence."
With a sudden impulse John Johnstone was down on his knees, he pressed her hands to his lips with a passion akin to worship.
"My life, my love!" he cried—"my whole life shall be devoted to rewarding your trust in me. Oh, would to God I were more worthy of you!"
Within the house Mistress Mary and Mr. Ives were very comfortable: they played a game of patience together (in which the former was a great proficient), they chatted, they waxed confidential, and not till Dame Martha summoned them to sup, did they perceive the lapse of time. Mr. Ives called from the window, and the betrothed pair came in, their eyes shining and dazzled by the bright light.
Matters went on happily thus for many days—it seemed that the course of true love was to run very smooth—when one evening a little incident occurred that startled all.
The little party of four were dining together, as they generally did.
Mr. Ives was in a merry mood: he poured out a glass of good red wine, wine that was not often brought forth from the depth of his cellar; he bade John Johnstone fill up his glass, and as each gentleman raised it brimming to his lips, pledged "His sacred Majesty, good King George."
With a sharp rattle John Johnstone's glass crashed untasted on the table, and the red wine splashed like blood on the white napery.
The parson looked at him, and the colour forsook his cheek.
Mistress Mary glanced tremulously from one to another, and half rose in consternation.
The colour flushed high in Betty Ives' cheek. "Was this then the mystery?"
The absent king held all her sympathies.
Mr. Ives moved back his chair from the table, and said somewhat unsteadily:
"Good sir, I am a man of peace. I love order and a strong government. Can I hazard my daughter by—"
Now, strangely enough, Mary Jones came to the rescue.
"Sirs," she said, "allow me to make a proposition; it is this, that not one of us breathe a word elsewhere of what has happened tonight. For heaven's sake say nothing, keep all dark, and on this understanding," she stooped forward and daintily raised her own glass, "I also pledge his Majesty over the sea."
But Mr. Ives did not recover his spirits that night: presentiments of evil haunted him, misgivings that he had not done wisely by his darling. When the small hours of the morning struck he still lay awake, tossing restlessly to and fro.
The days passed on, and now all the world lay under a pall of white snow. Under their dazzling mantle gleamed the dark prickly leaves of the holly-trees with abundance of scarlet berries. Here and there a little robin-redbreast hopped to and fro, chiefly gathering round the latticed windows of the parsonage, where morning and evening Betty fed hundreds of feathered pensioners.
Sportsmen cursed the hard weather, the idle horses restlessly moved in their stalls, and the hounds dreamed dreams to pass away the long hours.
Betty was never idle. She made it her pride that when she left home as a bride all should be found in order in her father's home. Mistress Mary took much interest in it herself, and joined her in mending and marking and sorting fine household linen that had need of much care.
Betty's own clothes were in course of manufacture, not many but rich, as should become the Lady of Belton; above all, her wedding-gown of dove-coloured and silver brocade, all trimmed with strings and strings of orient pearls which John Johnstone had brought her one day.
He gave her many jewels but she loved the pearls best, for they were his first gift, and destined, he said, for that day of days that was to make her his own forever.
Almost every day as the time passed on, he brought her a new gift. Once it was a pretty little dog, another day a ring of large rubies.
"My Betty herself is a ruby," he said, when he placed this on her hand. "A brave stone rich in colour, strong, unchanging, and the most precious of gems."
Then there was nothing for it, but that she and her father should come to Belton to look over Betty's future home, suggest improvements, and choose among Mr. Johnstone's many fine horses one to be trained for his bride's special use. She was a bold fearless rider, looking beautiful on horseback, and she had scorned his proposal to buy her a gentle lady's horse, expressing her wish to be allowed to ride his hunters. With one or two exceptions John offered her the choice.
It was a brilliant frosty day on which the invitation was accepted. Mr. Ives laughingly included Mary Jones in the little party, asserting that two and two would be a fairer division of company.
Mary bridled and blushed and threw a tender glance at him from behind her fan, and the parson thought to himself that after all he was not old yet.
In every life there is perhaps one day that stands out from the others as the happiest day—one day in which the cup of joy seems full to the brim; it is not generally a day of powerful emotions, but of unbroken peace, sunshine, love, sweetness and the glory of life.
Such a day had dawned for fair Betty Ives. It was not so unbroken for her betrothed: now and then a look of care overcast his brow, and now and then his hands clenched themselves with a slight nervous movement. All through the day he paid her a courtship so tender, so deferential, so loving, it might have been a votary addressing his saint, a courtier waiting on his queen; and as the hour advanced, and the time of departure drew near, his attentions became yet more tender, more wistful.
They visited the horses and the dogs, gave bread to the shy young gazelle that John was endeavouring to tame, to offer to his bride. Then he suddenly drew her aside, and while Mr. Ives and Mary Jones strolled onwards to the garden, he took a key from his pocket, and unlocked the door of a loose box which he had passed by hitherto.
"Here lives my best treasure, sweetheart," he said. "You must travel far, and look wide, ere you meet with his match."
Betty looked in, and her eyes fell on a magnificent white horse. It would have needed an experienced eye fully to appreciate the strength and symmetry of its proportions; to Betty he looked beautiful, and words failed to describe her admiration.
"Strange that I have never chanced to see you ride him," she said. "I recognised at once the brown mare and the two chestnuts, and the bay with a white star, but this one I have never seen."
"No, I never hunt Seagull," he answered thoughtfully. "I owe him my life not once, but over and over again."
"Seagull!" exclaimed Betty. "Is not that the name of Wild Jack's famous white horse?"
"Yes, he was named after him. I bethought myself that my Seagull was as noble an animal as Wild Jack's."
"I am sure that he has not his equal in the wide world!" cried Betty.
John Johnstone turned suddenly to her and said: "Do you still keep up your interest in that poor sinner Wild Jack, sweet Bet? or has it died away in your gentle breast?"
"I shall never forget our first, and (heaven grant) our last interview," she answered with a smile. "How he justified my trust in him!"
"Poor Jack," said John Johnstone thoughtfully. "I knew Jack well once; you were right to have faith in him. He has done good service to the Cause. Look you, dear, he never took purse or papers on the king's highway, but in the king's name who is over the seas; he never injured woman or shot an unnecessary shot—keep your sympathy with Jack. And now," he said, throwing back his head with an odd look of defiance and pride—"now there is a reward of five hundred pounds offered for Wild Jack's body living or dead. They place a high price on the head of one, whom, to his honour, they dub traitor as well as highwayman!"
"Five hundred pounds," said Betty. "Alas! the reward is tempting."
"He has escaped so often from their very midst, has more than once been prisoner, has often baffled his swiftest pursuers. Next time Wild Jack is taken, his shrift will be short, I warrant."
The tears rose to Betty's eyes.
"God grant him a safe escape to France," she said earnestly.
"It is a good and a charitable wish, sweetheart," said John somewhat gloomily. "But men who have lived as Wild Jack has lived, dread, exile as much as death."
"Surely," said Betty, "that depends upon whether he is utterly friendless, or has any who love him."
"Wild Jack is not utterly friendless," he answered with a grave sweet smile.
"And this also is one of the mysteries," said Betty gaily. "Do not forget your promise, that some day you will tell me all the past history of your life, and also, above all, the story of your acquaintance with the most famous gentleman of the road."
"Aye, some day," he said, closing the door of Seagull's home, and placing the key in his pocket.
As they turned away he said suddenly: "Say nothing about my treasure in there, dear Bet, I beg of you, neither to your father nor to Mistress Mary."
Betty looked up at him somewhat surprised.
"Oh, it is for a trifling reason," he said—"a mere wager."
So the matter faded from her mind.
The elders of the little party now summoned them—the evening was closing, it was time to be going home.
They were all to ride, Mary on a pillion behind Mr. Ives.
While the horses were being saddled, Mr. Johnstone prayed them to come in, and they entered once more the large drawing-room, and gathered round a cheerfully blazing fire.
It was a stately room, with handsome furniture, all arranged with stiff propriety, needing the trifling signs of a woman's presence to give grace and life to its appearance.
"How different it will look when my lady reigns here," said John Johnstone softly. He led her away to one of the windows, and pointed out to her the beauties of the fair English landscape, and there unseen he held her hand in both his, and once pressed it to his lips. Tea came in, in cups of delicate old china, and home-made cakes and fresh butter.
"We must have a dairy fit for your superintendence, sweet Bet," said John Johnstone. "See how pale is this butter, how thin this cream compared to what you offer me at the parsonage."
The horses came round at last, Mr. Johnstone's bay mare with them; he would certainly accompany them home.
Indeed it seemed as if this evening he could not tear himself away, he lingered on and on, and it grew quite dark, and the moon rose over the snow, and the stars shone out one by one.
Supper was over, Mistress Mary long since gone home. It was nine o'clock—Mr. Johnstone must go. Mr. Ives sat quiet in his deep chair, the warmth and the comfort entered into his soul, and he slept.
"Come with me to the door, sweet Bet," said John lingeringly.
"Yes, even farther than that," she said, and she caught up her fur cloak, threw it round her, and followed him out to the garden gate. The crisp snow crackled pleasantly under foot.
Old Isaac, who held the bay mare, left them when he had given the bridle into her master's hand.
"They will be wishing to kiss, mayhap," he muttered to himself, "and I'll not stand in their way, God bless them!"
John Johnstone mounted. He looked up to the sky and said, "It is later than I thought. I have a long ride before me to-night, sweetheart. I have business near Newbury. I had meant to go home and change the bay mare for my faithful Seagull, but it is too late."
"When shall you be back?" asked Betty, who was used now to his sudden departures.
"To-morrow—to-morrow at latest, and my first halt shall be here."
"Are you armed?"
He gave a laugh, and pointed to his saddle, well garnished with pistols.
"They are loaded," he said. "For it might fall out that I should meet with Wild Jack."
"Heaven forbid!" said Betty with a shiver.
"You are cold, sweetheart, you must go in. We must part. Oh! it is bitter to say farewell."
"Only till to-morrow, John! Only till to-morrow!"
"Only till to-morrow!" he echoed.
Then he bent down, put his hand under her chin and raised her sweet face—the moon shone on it, on the large eyes lovingly turned to his, on the wondering tender look, in which joy and pain seemed strangely mingled.
Their lips met, one long wild kiss—for the first time she heard his passionate words, "My own, my beloved!" Then he drew up his reins. John gave one glance at the moon, and noted how she mounted heaven's arch—then he looked back no more, but set spurs to the bay mare's flanks, and galloped away.
Betty went home; she lay down to rest with a smile on her beautiful face. The happiest day must end when night falls.
When evening fell the next day, Betty lingered long at the gate.
"He could not get his business done in time," she said to herself. "He will not come to-day."
But the next day passed also, and the next, and still John Johnstone had not come home.
On the fourth day Mr. Ives rode into Wancote to hear the news, and promised his daughter that he would go over to Belton, and find out from the servants whether they had had any news of their master, and when they expected him to return.
Mary Jones came over to the parsonage—it was an important day, for Betty was to try on her wedding-gown, finished the night before.
She looked very beautiful in it, the soft colour flushing on her cheek, her sweet eyes shining. When the little ceremony was over, Betty put her arm round the waist of her friend, and led her away out of earshot of busy Dame Martha, and the smart dressmakers.
"Dear Mary!" she said, "my great wish now is to see you don just such a dress as this wedding-gown of mine."
"Oh la! Betty, bethink you of my age," cried Mary, but tears of genuine emotion rose to her eyes.
"Yet would I fain see you my father's wife," said Betty. She put her hands on her shoulders, and looked down from her greater height into her face.
"Say yes, Mary, say yes," she said.
"I must wait till the right person asks me that question," answered Mary, half sobbing, half laughing; but Betty persisted:
"Say yes, Mary dear!"
"Well then yes, if so it must be," answered Mary. "You are a good girl, Betty," and she kissed her warmly, and hurried away to the glass to rearrange her elaborate curls of hair.
Mr. Ives came home full of excitement: he had heard great news in Wancote, the whole town was ringing with it.
"What do you think has happened?" he cried as he came into the room.
"Has John come home?" asked Betty eagerly.
"No, child, and the servants say that they never expect him until he appears, he is often away like this for a few days. The news is quite otherwise—Wild Jack has been taken."
"Ah!" cried the women in a breath, and Betty turned white as a sheet.
"What will they do with him!" asked Mary.
"He was taken on the king's highway, some twenty miles from here on the Newbury Road, on the cross roads where the steep way comes down from the downs. It seems that an important paper had fallen into the possession of some individual here, convicting many well-known gentlemen about Wancote of loyalty to him that is over the sea, and Sir Harry Clare was to carry the paper to Newbury to-night. I warrant some not very distant friends of ours were shaking in their shoes."
"They rode four together and all well-armed; but Wild Jack was too much for them—he and two others attacked the party; he seized the paper himself, after a short encounter with young Clare, whose horse he shot dead. That accomplished, all made off. The paper was lost. Some say Wild Jack burnt it as he rode, some that he swallowed it, some that he tore and scattered it to the four winds of heaven. Then, when in full flight, his horse stumbled and fell, and the four gentlemen came up with him. Entangled as he was by the fallen horse, he fought and kept all at bay with his marvellous fencing powers till his men were far out of sight. Then he broke his sword across his knee, saying that never should his trusty weapon fall into the hands of the king's enemies. He was badly wounded."
"Well?" cried Mary breathlessly. Betty sat down, she felt cold and faint.
"Well, they took him that night to the nearest village, bound hand and foot. At first they hardly knew the value of their captive, for he was not riding his famous horse Seagull; had he been mounted as usual, small chance would they have had of capturing Wild Jack. There was a hasty assembly of magistrates, such as could be induced to come. I warrant some would have died sooner than join in what followed. They caused a gallows to be erected forty feet high on the king's high road, and there they hanged Wild Jack."
"God rest his soul," said Betty. "John will be sorry indeed, as sorry as I am."
"Yes, John always has a certain sympathy with the gentlemen of the road," said Mr. Ives. "But after all, order must be kept, the roads must be made safe. I know the government will be sorely displeased that the list of suspected gentlemen has been saved, I mean lost."
It was too late, and all were too much excited by what had passed for Betty to broach the subject of marriage to her father that night, but she promised herself to do so early on the following morning.
It was very cold, and Betty could not sleep; in vain she turned from side to side, in vain she drank water and paced her room, and tried all the devices known to the sleepless—all was fruitless; her pillow seemed to her on fire, and incessantly in her imagination she heard the galloping of horses so vividly, that she rose several times and went to the window; but the night was clear, and the moon bright, and all over the country lay one sheet of untrodden snow.
She lay down once more, and about three o'clock was roused suddenly by a light tap, as of something which hit her window.
She went to it hastily, and as she did so, another light pebble hit the panes. She opened the casement and looked out. Below in the garden in the moonlight, which was almost as light as day, she saw standing a slight woman's figure.
The figure held up a warning hand to be silent and come down.
Betty was bold and fearless, she put on her clothes hastily, and went down. She went into the garden at once, and looked cautiously round. There was no one to be seen at first.
She waited in some amazement, when suddenly she felt a light touch on her shoulder, and looking round, saw standing beside her Nora Ray, the young gipsy girl, looking more wild and elf-like than usual.
"Hist!" said the strange child. "I have brought you a token from one whom you know so well. His day is over," she cried with a wild grin, showing all her white teeth. "The ravens are feasting on Wild Jack's tender flesh to-night. See here is the token; he gave it to me at the foot of the gallows with his own hand."
With a sob Betty took it from the girl's brown hand—her own little serpent-ring that he had taken from her that night that seemed so long ago.
"It shall never again leave my finger," she said. "God rest his soul."
"You will cross the poor gipsy's hand with silver, pretty lady," cried Nora. "He never failed to do so to poor Nora Ray, not he!"
Betty quickly went into the house, gave her money, and let her out of the gate—the wild creature had come in over the wall—then she went slowly up to her room.
She leant out of the open window, her brow burning in spite of the cold.
Suddenly came on her ear the wild sound of Nora's singing, with its strange pathos like the sighing of the wind, or the cry of storm-tossed sea-birds.
Betty clasped her hands, and sank on her knees, the sound made her shudder from head to foot. She stopped her ears with trembling fingers, but yet every word fell on them distinctly and would not be shut out.
"Aye, call him, call him over the lea, Aye, well and well-a-day; Lover will never come back to thee Who loves and gallops away."
"How pale you are this morning, my child," said Mr. Ives to his daughter.
"It is nothing. I have had a feverish night; the story of the fate of my poor friend haunted me," she answered. She could not eat, the cold had chilled her blood, and now and then she shivered painfully.
Betty sought her opportunity in spite of her bodily discomforts, and fondly caressing her father's hands she knelt down by his chair.
"Father," she said. "Dear father, you know that very soon I am going to leave you, to be married to my own true love. Our wedding-day is fixed, but I dare say he will not be back much before then. Do you think he will? Oh no, probably not."
"Why, child, to be sure he will! He will be back in a few days at the outside. Why, silly child, you will make a poor wife if you fret always when your husband is from home."
"But I do not fret. I am perfectly satisfied. Listen, dear father: when I am married and gone away with my dear love, you will look round you and see only my empty place, no hand to hold yours, no voice to welcome you, no music to cheer you, no child to love you."
"Betty," cried Mr. Ives with a sob, "why do you show me so dismal a picture? It is bad enough already."
"I have a good reason, dear father," she said. "You see I am going so soon. I should leave you with so much lighter a heart were Mary here to take my place. She is kind and good, and true, and would love you dearly."
Mr. Ives laughed a little.
"Mistress Mary is somewhat old to replace my daughter," he said.
"Then the more suited to be your wife."
Mr. Ives rose to his feet, and paced up and down the room. Suddenly he stopped, and catching his daughter's hands, looked her full in the face.
"Would she have me, my Bet?" he said. "I may not be too old to wed, but I am vastly too old to woo."
"She will have you, father," answered Betty. "And you will be quite happy when I am gone."
So all was settled, and the elderly pair pledged to each other. The banns were asked in church that their marriage might take place at once when John Johnstone should take his bride away.
Days passed on, days lengthened into weeks, the wedding-day drew near, and the bridegroom came not.
All Betty's high courage came back, the frost melted away, and the country was open again, and once more she rode to hounds. Her colour was high, her lips feverishly scarlet, her eyes large and brilliant. She rode with the best, and came home with the brush at her pommel.
"Why do they look at me so strangely, father?" she asked. "Old Squire Thornton, when he welcomed my return to the hunt, held my hand a whole minute in his, and it was as if he were about to speak, for he swallowed once or twice and then turned away. And Doctor Glebe would not speak to me at all, and his face was set as a mask, though I saw that he was watching me strangely all the time. Have I changed? Am I not the same Betty I used to be?"