"Look here, Matabel. I'll leave Iver to you for half-an-hour. Show him the cows. I'll make Bideabout take me to his sister. I want to have it out with her for not coming to the wedding. I'm not the person to let these things pass. Say a word to Iver about Polly, there is a dear. I cannot bring them together, but you may, you are so clever."
Meanwhile Iver and Jonas had been in conversation. The latter had been somewhat contemptuous about the profession of an artist, and was not a little astonished when he heard the prices realized by pictures. Iver told the Broom-Squire that he intended making some paintings of the Punch-Bowl, and that he had a mind to draw Kink's farm.
In that case, said Bideabout, a percentage of the money such a picture fetched would be due to him. He didn't see that anyone had a right to take a portrait of his house and not pay him for it. If Iver were content to draw his house, he must, on no account, include that of the Rocliffes, for there was a mortgage on that, and there might be trouble with the lawyers.
Mrs. Verstage proposed to Bideabout that she should go with him to his sister's house, and he consented.
"Look here, Matabel," said he, "there is Mister Iver thinks he can make a pictur' of the spring, if you'll get a pitcher and stand by it. I dare say if it sells, he'll not forget us."
"I wish I could take Mehetabel and her pitcher off your hands, and not merely the portrait of both," laughed Iver, to cover the confusion of the girl, who reddened with annoyance at the grasping meanness of Jonas.
When Iver was alone with her, as they were on their way to the spring, he said, "Come, this will not do at all. For the first time we are free to chat together, as in the old times when we were inseparable friends. Why are you shy now, Matabel?"
"You must be glad to be home again with the dear father and mother," she said.
"Yes, but I miss you; and I had so reckoned on finding you there."
"You will remain at the Ship now," urged she.
"I don't know that. I have my profession. I have leisure during part of the summer and fall, making studies for pictures—but I take pupils; they pay."
"You must consider the old folk."
"I do. I will visit them occasionally. But art is a mistress, and an imperious one. When one is married one is no longer independent."
"You are married?" asked Mehetabel, with a flush in her cheeks.
"Yes, to my art."
"Oh! to paints and brushes! Tell me true, Iver! Has no girl won your heart whilst you have been from home?"
"I have found many to admire, but my heart is free. I have had no time to think of girls' faces—save as studies. Art is a mistress as jealous as she is exacting."
Mehetabel drew a long breath. There went up a flash of light in her mind, for which she did not attempt to account. "You are free—that is famous, and can take Polly Colpus."
Then she laughed, and Iver laughed.
They laughed long and merrily together.
"This is too much," exclaimed Iver. "At home father is at me to exchange the mahl-stick for an ox-goad, and mother wearies me with laudation of Polly Colpus. I shall revolt and run away, as I did not expect you to lend a hand with Polly."
"You must not run away," said Mehetabel, earnestly. "Iver! I was all those years at the Ship, with mother, after you went, and I have seen how her heart has ached for you. She is growing old. Let her have consolation during the years that remain for the sorrow of those that are past."
"I cannot take to farming, nor turn publican, and I will not have Polly Colpus."
"Here is the spring," said Mehetabel.
She set the pitcher beside the water, leaned back in the hedge, musing, with her finger to her chin, her eyes on the ground, and her feet crossed.
"Stand as you are. That is perfect. Do not stir. I will make a pencil sketch."
The spring gushed from under a bank, in a clear and copious jet. It had washed away the sand, and had buried itself in a nook among ferns and moss. On the top of the bank was a rude shed, open at the side, with a cart at rest in it. Wild parsnips in full flower nodded before the water.
"I could desire nothing better," said Iver, "and that pale blue skirt of yours, the white stockings, the red kerchief round your head—in color as in arrangement everything is admirable."
"You have not your paints with you."
"I will come another day and bring them. Now I will only sketch in the outline."
Presently Iver laughed. "Matabel! If I took Polly she would be of no use to me whatever, not even as a model."
Presently the Broom-Squire returned with Mrs. Verstage, and looked over the shoulder of the artist.
"Not done much," he said.
"I shall have to come again and yet again, to put in the color," said Iver.
"Come when and as often as you like," said Bideabout. Neither of the men noticed the shrinking that affected the entire frame of Mehetabel, as Jonas said these words, but it was observed by Mrs. Verstage, and a shade of anxiety swept over her face.
A few days after this first visit, Iver was again at the Kinks' farm.
The weather was fine, and he protested that he must take advantage of it to proceed with his picture.
Mehetabel was reluctant to stand. She made excuses that were at once put aside.
"If you manage to sell pictures of our place," said Bideabout, "our Punch-Bowl may get a name, and folk come here picnicking from Godalming and Guildford and Portsmouth; and I'll put up a board with Refreshments—Moderate, over the door, and Matabel shall make tea or sell cake, and pick up a trifle towards; housekeeping."
A month was elapsed since Mehetabel's marriage, the month of honey to most—one of empty comb without sweetness to her. She had drawn no nearer to her husband than before. They had no interests, no tastes in common. They saw all objects through a different medium.
It was not a matter of concern to Mehetabel that she was left much alone by Jonas, and that her sister-in-law and the rest of the squatters treated her as an interloper.
As a child, at the Ship, without associates of her own age, after Iver's departure, she had lived much to herself, and now her soul craved for solitude. And yet, when she was alone the thoughts of her heart troubled her.
Jonas was attached, in his fashion, to his beautiful wife; he joked, and was effusive in his expressions of affection. But she did not respond to his jokes, and his demonstrations of affection repelled her. Jonas was too dull, or vain, to perceive this, and he attributed her coldness to modesty, real or affected, probably the latter.
Mehetabel shrank from looking full in the face, the thought that she must spend the rest of her life with this man. She was well aware that she could not love him, could hardly bring herself to like him, the utmost she could hope was that she might arrive at enduring him.
Whilst in this condition of unrest and discouragement, Iver appeared, and his presence lit up the desolation in which she was. The sight of him, the sound of his voice, aroused old recollections, helped to drive away the shadows that environed her, and that clouded her mind. There was no harm in this, and yet she was uneasy. Cheerful as she was when he was present, there was something feverish in this cheerfulness, and it left her more unhappy than before when he was gone, and more conscious of the impossibility of accommodating herself to her lot.
The visit on one fine day was followed by another when the rain fell heavily.
Iver entered the house, shook his wet hat and cloak, and with a laugh, exclaimed—
"Here I am—to continue the picture."
"In such weather?"
"Little woman! When I started the wind was in the right quarter. All at once it veered round and gave me a drenching. What odds? You can stand at the window, and I can proceed with the figure. It was tedious at the Ship. Between you and me and the post, I cannot get along with the fellows who come there to drink. You are the only person in Thursley with whom I can talk and be happy."
"Bideabout is not at home."
"I didn't come through the rain to see Bideabout, but you."
"Will you have anything to eat or drink?"
"Anything that you can give me. But I did not come for that. To tell the truth, I don't think I'll venture on the picture. The light is so bad. It is of no consequence. We can converse. I am sick of public-house talk. I ran away to be with you. We are old chums, are we not, dear Matabel?"
A fire of peat was on the hearth. She threw on skin-turf that flamed up.
Iver was damp. His hands were clammy. His hair ends dripped. His face was running with water. He spread his palms over the flame, and smiled.
"And so you were tired of being at home?" she said, as she put the turves together.
"Home is no home to me, now you are gone," was his answer.
Then, after a pause, during which he chafed his hands over the dancing flame, he added: "I wish you were back in the old Ship. The old Ship! It is no longer the dear old Ship of my recollections, now that you have deserted. Why did you leave? It is strange to me that my mother did not write and tell me that you were going to be married. If she had done that—"
He continued drying his hands, looking dreamily into the flame, and left the sentence incomplete.
"It is queer altogether," he pursued. "When I told her I was at Guildford, and proposed returning, she put me off, till my father was better prepared. She would break the news to him, see how—he took it, and so on. I waited, heard no more, so came unsummoned, for I was impatient at the delay. She knew I wished to hear about you, Mattee, dear old friend and playmate. I asked in my letters about you. You know you ceased to write, and mother labored at the pen herself, finally. She answered that you were well—nothing further. Why did she not tell me of your engagement? Have you any idea, Matabel?"
She bowed over the turf, to hide her fate, but the leaping flame revealed the color that mantled cheek, and throat, and brow. Her heart was beating furiously.
"That marriage seems to me to have been cobbled up precious quickly. Were you so mighty impatient to have the Broom-Squire that you could not wait till you were twenty? A girl of eighteen does not know her own mind. A pretty kettle of fish there will be if you discover, when too late, that you have made a mistake, and married the wrong man, who can never make you happy."
Mehetabel started upright, and went with heaving bosom to the window, then drew back in surprise, for she saw the face of Mrs. Rocliffe at the pane, her nose applied to and flattened against the glass, and looking like a dab of putty.
She was offended at the woman's inquisitiveness, and went to the door to inquire if she needed anything.
"Nuthin' at all," answered Sarah, with a laugh, "except to see whether my brother was home. It's early days beginning this, I call it."
"What do you mean?"
"Iver is here," said Mehetabel, controlling herself. "Will you please to come in?"
"But Jonas is not, is he?"
"No; he has gone to Squire Mellers about a load of stable-brooms."
"I wouldn't come in on no account," said Mrs. Rocliffe. "Two's company, three's none," and she turned and departed.
After she had shut the door Mehetabel went hastily through the kitchen into the scullery at the back. Her face was crimson, and she trembled in all her joints.
Iver called to her; she answered hastily that she was engaged, and presently, after she had put bread and cake and butter on the table, she fled to her own room upstairs, seated herself on a chair, and hid her burning face in her apron.
The voice of her husband below afforded sensible relief to her in her mortification. He was speaking with Iver; cursing the weather and his bad luck. His long tramp in the rain had been to no purpose. The Squire, to whose house he had been, was out. She washed her face, combed and smoothed her hair, and slowly descended the stairs.
On seeing her Jonas launched forth in complaints, and showed himself to be in an evil temper. He must have ale, not wish-wash tea, fit only for old women. He would not stuff himself with cake like a school child. He must have ham fried for him at once.
He was in an irritable mood, and found fault with his wife about trifles, or threw out sarcastic remarks that wounded, and made Iver boil with indignation. Jonas did not seem to bear the young artist a grudge; he was, in fact, pleased to see him, and proposed to him to stay the evening and have a game of cards.
It was distressing to Mehetabel to be rebuked in public, but she made no rejoinder. Jonas had seized on the opportunity to let his visitor see that he was not tied to his wife's apron string, but was absolute master in his own house. The blood mounted to Iver's brow, and he clenched his hands under the table.
To relieve the irksomeness of the situation Iver proceeded to undo a case of his colored sketches that he had brought with him.
These water-colors were charming in their style, a style much affected at that period; the tints were stippled in, and every detail given with minute fidelity. The revolution in favor of blottesque had not yet set in, and the period was happily far removed from that of the impressionist, who veils his incapacity under a term—an impression, and calls a daub a picture. Nature never daubs, never strains after effects. She is painstaking, delicate in her work, and reticent.
Whilst Mehetabel was engaged frying ham, Iver showed his drawings to the Broom-Squire, who treated them without perception of their beauty, and valued them solely as merchandise. But when supper was ready, and whilst Jonas was eating, he had a more interested and appreciative observer in Mehetabel, to whom the drawings afforded unfeigned pleasure. In her delight she sat close to Iver; her warm breath played over his cheek, as he held up the sketches to the light, and pointed out the details of interest.
Once when these were minute, and she had to look closely to observe them, in the poor light afforded by the candle, without thinking what he was about, Iver put his hand on her neck. She started, and he withdrew it. The action was unobserved by Bideabout, who was engrossed in his rasher.
When Jonas had finished his meal, he thrust his plate away, produced a pack of cards, and said—
"Here, Mr. Iver, are pictures worth all of yours. Will you come and try your luck or skill against me? We'll have a sup of brandy together. Matabel, bring glasses and hot-water."
Iver went to the door and looked out. The rain descended in streams; so he returned to the table, drew up his chair and took a hand.
When Mehetabel had washed the plates and dishes used at the meal, she seated herself where she could see by the candle-light, took up her needlework, and was prepared to snuff the wick as was required.
Iver found that he could not fix his attention on the game. Whenever Mehetabel raised her hand for the snuffers, he made a movement to forestall her, then sometimes their eyes met, and she lowered hers in confusion.
The artistic nature of Iver took pleasure in the beautiful; and the features, coloring, grace of the young Broom-Squiress, were such as pleased him and engaged his attention. He made no attempt to analyze his feelings towards her. He was not one to probe his own heart, nor had he the resolution to break away from temptation, even when recognized as such. Easy-going, good-natured, impulsive, with a spice of his mother's selfishness in his nature, he allowed himself to follow his inclinations without consideration whither they might lead him, and how they might affect others.
Iver's eyes, thoughts, were distracted from the game. He lost money—five shillings, and Jonas urged him to play for higher stakes.
Then Mehetabel laid her needlework in her lap, and said—
"No, Iver, do not. You have played sufficiently, and have lost enough. Go home."
Jonas swore at her.
"What is that to you? We may amuse ourselves without your meddling. What odds to you if he loses, so long as I win. I am your husband and not he."
But Iver rose, and laughingly said:—
"Better go home with a wet jacket than with all the money run out of my pocket. Good-night, Bideabout."
"Have another shot?"
"She put you up to this," with a spiteful glance at Mehetabel.
"Not a bit, Jonas. Don't you think a chap feels he's losing blood, without being told he is getting white about the gills."
The Broom-Squire sulkily began to gather up the cards.
"What sort of a night is it, Mehetabel? Go to the door and see," said he.
The girl rose and opened the door.
Without, the night was black as pitch, and in the light that issued the raindrops glittered as they fell. In the trees, in the bushes, on the grass, was the rustle of descending rain.
"By Jove, it's worse than ever," said Iver: "lend me a lantern, or I shall never reach home."
"I haven't one to spare," replied Bideabout; "the hogs and calves must be tended, and the horse, Old Clutch, littered down. Best way that you have another game with me, and you shall stay the night. We have a spare room and bed."
"I accept with readiness," said Iver.
"Go—get all ready, Matabel. Now, then! you cut, I deal."
Iver remained the night in the little farm-house. He thought nothing as he lay in bed of the additional shillings he had lost to Jonas, but of the inestimable loss he had sustained in Mehetabel.
The old childish liking he had entertained for her revived. It did more than revive, it acquired strength and heat. As a boy he had felt some pride and self-consequence because of the child whom he had introduced into the Christian Church, and to whom he had given a name. Now he was elated to think that she was the most beautiful woman he had seen, and angry with the consciousness that she was snatched from him.
Why had he not returned to Thursley a day, half a day, earlier? Why had Fate played such a cruel game with him? What a man this Jonas Kink was who had won the prize. Was he worthy of it? Did he value Mehetabel as he should? A fellow who could not perceive beauty in a landscape and see the art in his drawings was not one to know that his wife was lovely, or if he knew it did so in a stupid, unappreciative manner. Did he treat Mehetabel kindly; with ordinary civility? Iver remembered the rebukes, the slights put on her in his own presence.
Iver's bedroom was neat, everything in it clean. The bed was one of those great tented four-posters which were at the time much affected in Surrey, composed of covering and curtains of striped—or pranked—cotton, blue and white. Mehetabel, in the short while she had been in the Punch-Bowl, had put the spare room in order. She had found it used as a place for lumber, every article of furniture deep in dust, and every curtain rent. The corners of the room had been given over for twenty years as the happy hunting-ground of spiders. Although Bideabout had taken some pains to put his house in order before his marriage, repairs had been executed only on what was necessary, and in a parsimonious spirit. The spare room had been passed over, as not likely to be needed. To that as to every other portion of the house, Mehetabel had turned her attention, and it was now in as good condition to receive a guest as the bedrooms in the Ship Inn.
Presently Iver went to sleep, lulled by the patter of the rain on the roof, on the leaves, and the sobbing of the moist wind through the ill-adjusted casement.
As he slept he had a dream.
He thought that he heard Thursley Church bells ringing. He believed he had been to church to be married. He was in his holiday attire, and was holding his bride by the hand. He turned about to see who was his partner, and recognized Mehetabel. She was in white, but whiter than her dress and veil was her bloodless face, and her dark brows and hair marked it as with mourning.
There was this strange element in his dream, that he could not leave the churchyard.
He endeavored to follow the path to the gate, outside which the villagers were awaiting them with flowers and ready to cheer; but he was unable to reach it. The path winded in and out among the gravestones, and round and round the church, till at length it reached the tomb of the murdered sailor.
All the while the ringers were endeavoring to give the young bridal pair a merry peal, and failed. The ropes slid from their hands, and only the sexton succeeded in securing one, and with that he tolled. Distinctly Iver saw the familiar carving of the three murderers robbing and killing their victim. He had often laughed over the bad drawing of the figures—he laughed now, in sleep.
Then he thought that he heard Mehetabel reproach him for having returned, to be her woe. And that between each sentence she sobbed.
Thereupon he again looked at her.
She was beautiful, more beautiful than ever—a beauty sublimated, rendered almost transparent. As he looked she became paler, and the hand he held grew colder. Now ensued a strange phenomenon.
She was sinking. Her feet disappeared in the spongy turf that oozed with water after the long rain. Her large dark eyes were fixed on him entreatingly, reproachfully.
Then she was enveloped to her knees, and as she went down, the stain of the wet grass and the soil of the graveyard clay rose an inch up her pure white garment.
She held his hand tenaciously, as the only thing to which she could cling to save her from being wholly engulfed.
Then she was swallowed up to her waist, and he became aware that if he continued to clasp her hand, she would drag him under the earth. In his dream he reasoned with her. He pointed out to her that it was impossible for him to be of any service to her, and that he was jeopardizing his own self, unless he disengaged himself from her.
He endeavored to release his hand. She clung the more obstinately, her fingers were deadly cold and numbed him, yet he was resolute in self-defence, and finally freed his hand. Then she sank more rapidly, with despair in the upturned face. He tried to escape her eyes, he could not. It was a satisfaction to him when the rank grass closed over them and got between the lips that were opened in appeal for help. Then ensued a gulp. The earth had swallowed her up, and in dream, he was running for his pallet and canvas to make a study of the spot where she had sunk, in a peculiarly favorable light. He woke, shivering, and saw that the gray morning was looking in at his window between the white curtains.
His hand, that had felt so chill, was out of the bed, and the coverlet had slid off him, and was heaped on the floor.
The wind had shifted, and now pressed the clouds together, rolled them up and swept them into the lumber-house of clouds below the horizon. He dressed leisurely, shook himself, to shake off the impression produced by his dream, and laughed at himself for having been disturbed by it.
When he came downstairs he found that both Mehetabel and Jonas were already on their feet, and that the former was preparing breakfast. Her eyes were red, as if she had been crying.
"How did you sleep?" she asked, with faint smile—"and what were your dreams?"
"They say that the first dream in new quarters comes true," threw in the Broom-Squire; "but this is the idle chatter of old wives. I make no count of it."
Mehetabel observed that Iver started and seemed disconcerted at this question relative to his dream. He evaded an answer, and she saw that the topic was unpleasant, and to reply inconvenient. She said no more; and Jonas had other matters to think about more substantial than dreams. Yet Mehetabel could not fail to perceive that their guest was out of tune. Was he annoyed at having lost money, or was he in reality troubled by something that had occurred during the night? An hour later Iver prepared to leave.
"Come with me a little way," he pleaded with the hostess, "see me safe off the premises."
She did as was desired, though not without inner reluctance. And yet, at the same time she felt that with his departure a something would be gone that could not be replaced, a light out of her sky, a strain of music out of her soul.
The white fog lay like curd at the bottom of the Punch-Bowl. Here and there a tree-top stood above the vapor, but only as a bosky islet in the surface of mist, dense and chill. The smoke from the chimneys of the squatter houses rose like steaming springs, but the brick chimneys were submerged. So dense was the fog that it muffled all sound, impeded the breath, struck cold to the marrow. It smelt, for the savors of hog-pen and cow-stall were caught and not allowed to dissipate.
A step, and those ascending the side of the great basin were out of the mist, and in sunshine, but it still held their feet to the knees; another step and they were clear, and then their shadows were cast, gigantic, upon the white surface below, and about each head was a halo of light and rainbow tints.
Every bush was twinkling as hung with diamonds of the purest water. Larks were trilling, pouring forth in song the ecstasy that swelled their hearts. The sky was blue as a nemophyla, and cloudless.
As soon as Iver and Mehetabel had issued from the fog and were upon the heath, and in the sunshine, she stayed her feet.
"I will go no further," she said.
"Look," said he, "how the fog lies below at the bottom of the Punch-Bowl, as though it were snow. Above, on the downs all is sunshine."
"Yes, you go up into the light and warmth," answered she. "I must back and down into the cold vapors, cold as death."
He thought of his dream. There was despondency in her tone.
"The sun will pierce and scatter the vapors and shine over and warm you below."
She shook her head.
"Iver," she said, "you may tell me now we are alone. What was your dream?"
Again he appeared disconcerted.
"Of what, of whom did you dream?"
"Of whom else could I dream but you—when under your roof," said he with a laugh.
"Oh, Iver! and what did you dream about me?"
"Arrant nonsense. Dreams go by contraries."
"Then what about me?"
"I dreamt of your marriage."
"Then that means death."
He caught her to him, and kissed her lips.
"We are brother and sister," he said, in self-exculpation. "Where is the harm?"
She disengaged herself hastily.
She heard a cough and looked round, to see the mocking face of Sarah Rocliffe, who had followed and had just emerged from the curdling fog below.
Iver was gone.
The light that had sparkled in Mehetabel's eyes, the flush, like a carnation in her cheek, faded at once. She was uneasy that Mrs. Rocliffe had surprised her and Iver, whilst he gave her that ill-considered though innocent parting salute.
What mischief she might make of it! How she might sow suspicion of her in the heart of Jonas, and Iver would be denied the house! Iver denied the house! Then she would see him no more, have no more pleasant conversations with him. Indeed, then the cold, clammy fog into which she descended was a figure of the life hers would be, and it was one that no sun's rays could dissipate.
After she had returned to the house she sank in a dark comer like one weary after hard labor, and looked dreamily before her at the floor. Her hands and her feet were motionless.
A smile that every moment became more bitter sat on her lips. The muscles of her face became more rigid.
What if through jealousy, open discord broke out between her and Jonas? Would it make her condition more miserable, her outlook more desperate? She revolved in thought the events that were past. She ranged them in their order—the proposal of Jonas, her refusal, the humiliation to which she had been subjected by Mrs. Verstage which had driven her to accept the man she had just rejected, the precipitation with which the marriage had been hurried on, then the appearance of Iver on her wedding day.
She recalled the look that passed over his face when informed that she was a bride, the clasp of his hands, and now—now—his kiss burned on her lips, nay, had sunk in as a drop of liquid fire, and was consuming her heart with anguish and sweetness combined.
Was the kiss that of a brother to a sister? Was there in it, as Iver said, no harm, no danger to herself? She thought of the journey home from the Ship on her wedding evening, of the fifteen pounds of which she had been robbed by her husband, the money given her by "father" against the evil day. She had been deceived, defrauded by the man she had sworn to honor, love, and obey. She had not acquired love for him. Had he not by this act forfeited all claim to both love and honor?
She thought again of Iver, of his brown, agate-like eyes, but eyes in which there was none of the hardness of a stone. She contrasted him with Jonas. How mean, how despicable, how narrow in mind and in heart was the latter compared with the companion of her youth.
Mehetabel's face was bathed in perspiration. She slid to her knees to pray; she folded her hands, and found herself repeating. "Genesis, fifty chapters; Exodus, forty; Leviticus, twenty-seven; Numbers, thirty-six; Deuteronomy, thirty-four; these are the books that constitute the Pentateuch. The Book of Joshua—"
Then she checked herself. In her distress, her necessity, she was repeating the lesson last acquired in Sunday-school, which had gained her a prize. This was not prayer. It brought her no consolation, it afforded her no strength. She tried to find something to which to cling, to stay her from the despair into which she had slipped, and could only clearly figure to herself that "the country of the Gergesenes lay to the southeast of the Sea of Tiberias and that a shekel weighed ten hundred-weights and ninety-two grains, Troy weight, equal to in avoirdupois—" her brain whirled. She could not work out the sum. She could not pray. She could recall no prayer. She could look to nothing beyond the country of the Gergesenes. And yet, never in her life had she so needed prayer, strength, as now, when this new guilty passion was waking in her heart.
Shuddering at the thought of revolt against her duty, unable altogether to abandon the hope, the longing to see Iver again, filled with vague terror of what the future might bring forth, she remained as struck with paralysis, kneeling, speechless, with head bowed, hands fallen at her side, seeing, hearing, knowing nothing; and was roused with a start by the voice of Jonas who entered, and asked—,
"Wot's up now?"
She could not answer him. She sprang to her feet and eagerly flew to the execution of her domestic duties.
Iver returned from his visit to the Punch-Bowl with a mind occupied and ill at ease.
He had allowed himself, without a struggle, to give way to the impression produced on him by the beauty of Mehetabel. He enjoyed her society—found pleasure in talking of the past. Her mind was fresh; she was intelligent, and receptive of new ideas. She alone of all the people of Thursley, whom he had encountered, was endowed with artistic sense—was able to set the ideal above what was material. He did not ask himself whether he loved her. He knew that he did, but the knowledge did not trouble him. After a fashion, Mehetabel belonged to him as to none other. She was associated with his earliest and sunniest recollections.
Mehetabel could sympathize with him in his love for the beautiful in Nature. She had ever been linked with his mother in love for him. She had been the vehicle of communication between him and his mother till almost the last moment; it was through her that all tidings of home had reached him.
When his father had refused to allow Iver's name to be mentioned in his presence, for hours daily the thoughts of him had been in the hearts of his mother and this girl. With united pity and love, they had followed his struggles to make his way.
There was much obstinacy in Iver.
Resolution to have his own way had made him leave home to follow an artistic career, regardless of the heartache he would cause his mother, and the resentment he would breed in his father.
Thus, without consideration of the consequences to himself, to Mehetabel, to Jonas, he allowed his glowing affection for the young wife to gather heat, without attempt to master or extinguish it.
There is a certain careless happiness in the artistic soul that is satisfied with the present, and does not look into the future. The enjoyment of the hour, the banquet off the decked table, the crown of roses freshly blown, suffice the artist's soul. It has no prevision of the morrow—makes no provision for the winter.
That the marriage of Mehetabel with Jonas had raised barriers between them was hardly considered. That the Broom-Squire might resent having him hover round his young flower, did not enter into Iver's calculations; least of all did it concern him that he was breaking the girl's heart, and forever making it impossible for her to reconcile herself to her position.
As Iver walked home over the common, and enjoyed the warmth and brilliancy of the sun, he asked himself again, why his mother had not prepared him for the marriage of Mehetabel.
Mehetabel had certainly not taken Jonas because she loved him. She was above sordid considerations. What, then, had induced her to take the man? She had been happy and contented at the Ship; why, then, did she leave it?
On reaching home, he put the question to his mother. "It is a puzzle to me, which I cannot unravel, why has Matabel become Bideabout's wife?"
"Why should she not?" asked his mother in return. "It was a catch for such as she—a girl without a name, and bare of a dower. She has every reason to thank me for having pushed the marriage on."
Iver looked at his mother with surprise.
"Then you had something to do with it?"
"Of course I had," answered she. "I did my duty. I am not so young as I was. I had to think for Matabel's future. She is no child of mine. She can expect nothing from your father nor from me. When a good offer came, then I told her to accept and be thankful. She is a good girl, and has been useful in the house, and some people think her handsome. But young men don't court a girl who has no name, and has had three men hanged because of her."
"Mother! what nonsense! The men were executed because they murdered her father."
"It is all one. She is marked with the gallows. Ill-luck attaches to her. There has been a blight on her from the beginning. I mind when her father chucked her down all among the fly-poison. Now she has got the Broom-Squire, she may count herself lucky, and thank me for it."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Iver. "Then this marriage is your doing?"
"Yes—I told her that, before you came here, I must have her clear out of the house."
A silence ensued. Mrs. Verstage looked at her son—into his great, brown eyes—and what she saw there alarmed her. Her lips moved to speak, but she could utter no words. She had let out her motive without consideration in the frankness that was natural to her.
"I ask, mother, why did you stop Matabel from writing, and take up the correspondence yourself at last; and then, when you did write to me at Guildford, you said not one word about Mehetabel being promised to the Broom-Squire?"
"I could not put all the news of the parish into my letter. How should I know that this concerned you?"
"We were together as children. If ever there were friends in the world, it was we."
"I am a bad writer. It takes me five minutes over one word, just about. I said what I had to say, and no more, and I were a couple o' days over that."
"Why did you ask me to postpone my coming home?—why seek to keep me away till after Mehetabel's marriage?"
"There was a lot to do in the house, preparation for the weddin'—her gownds—I couldn't have you here whilst all the rout was on. I wanted to have you come when all was quiet again, and I could think of you. What wi' preparations and schemin' my head was full."
"Was that the only reason, mother?"
She did not answer. Her eyes fell.
Iver threw his hat on the table, and went to his room. He was incensed against his mother. He guessed the reason why she had urged on the marriage, why she had kept him in ignorance of the engagement, why she had delayed his return to Thursley.
She had made her plans. She wished to marry him to Polly Colpus, and she dreaded his association with Mehetabel as likely to be prejudicial to the success of her cherished scheme, now that the girl was in the ripeness of her beauty and to Iver invested with the halo of young associations, of boy romance.
If his mother had told him! If she had not bidden him postpone his coming home! Then all would have turned out well. Mehetabel would not have been linked to an undesirable man, whom she could not love; and he would have been free to make her his own.
His heart was bitter as wormwood.
Mrs. Verstage saw but too plainly that her son was estranged from her; and she could form a rough estimate of the reason. He addressed her indeed with a semblance of love and showed her filial attention, but her maternal instinct assured her that something stood between them, something which took the reality and spontaneity out of his demonstrations of affection.
Iver occupied himself with the picture of Mehetabel at the fountain. It was his great pleasure to work thereon. If he was not engaged at his canvas in the tavern, he was wandering in the direction of the Punch-Bowl to make studies for pictures, so he said. His mother saw that there was no prospect of retaining her son at the Ship for long. What held him there was not love for her, desire to recover lost ground with his father, not a clinging to his old home, not a desire to settle and take up his father's work; it was something else—she feared to give utterance to the thought haunting her mind.
"You are a fool, old woman," said her husband to her one night. "You and I might have been easy and happy in our old age had you not meddled and made mischief. You always was a great person for lecturin' about Providence, and it's just about the one thing you won't let alone."
"What do you mean, Simon?" she asked, and her heart beat fast with presage of what he would say.
"Why, Susan, if you had not thrust Mehetabel into the Broom-Squire's arms when she didn't want to be there no more nor among brimbles, then Iver would have taken her and all would have been peace."
"What makes you say that?" she asked, in a flutter of terror.
"Oh, I'll be bound it would have been so. Iver has been asking all manner of questions about Matabel, and why she took Jonas. I sed it was agin my wishes, but that you would have it, so Matabel had to give in."
"Simon, why did you say that? You set the boy against me."
"I don't see that, Sanna. It is you who have put the fat in the fire. If you try to turn a stream to run uphill, you will souse your own field, and won't get the water to go where you drive it. It's my belief that all the while he has been away, Iver has had his mind set upon Matabel. I'm not surprised. You may go through Surrey, and won't find her match. Now he comes home and finds that you have spoiled his chance, with your meddlesomeness—and there'll be the devil to pay, yet. That's my opinion."
The old man turned on his side and was asleep, but self-reproach for what was past and doubt as to the future kept his wife awake all night.
Fever boiled in the heart of Mehetabel. A mill-race of ideas rushed through her brain.
She found no rest in her household work, for it was not possible for her to keep her mind upon it. Nor was there sufficient employment to be found in the house to engage all her time.
Do what she would, make for herself occupation, there was still space in which to muse and to torment herself with her thoughts. Whilst her hands were engaged she craved for leisure in which to think; when unemployed, the ferment within rendered idleness intolerable.
When the work of the house was accomplished, she went to the fountain where she had been drawn by Iver, and there saw again the glowing brown of his eyes fixed on her, and reheard the tones of his voice addressing her. Then she would start as though stung by a wasp and go along the track up the Punch-Bowl, recalling every detail of her walk with Iver, and feeling again his kiss upon her lips. She tried to forget him; with a resolution of which she was capable she shut against his entry every door of her heart. But she found it was impossible to exclude the thoughts of him. Had she not looked up to him from early childhood, and idolized him? She had been accustomed to think of him, to talk of him daily to his mother, after he had left the Ship. That mother who had forcibly separated her from him had herself ingrafted Iver into her inmost thoughts, made of him an integral portion of her mind. She had been taught by Mrs. Verstage to bring him into all her dreams of the future, as a factor without which that future would be void and valueless, She had, indeed, never dreamed of him as a lover, a husband; nevertheless to Mehetabel the future had always been associated in a vague, yet very real, manner with Iver. His return was to inaugurate the epoch of a new and joyous existence. It was not practicable for her to pluck out of her heart this idea, which had thrust its fibres through every layer and into every corner of her mind. Those fibres were now thrilling with vitality, asserting a vigorous life.
She asked herself the same question that had presented itself to his mind, what if Iver had returned one day, one hour, before he actually did? Then her marriage with Jonas would have been made impossible. The look into his eyes, the pressure of his hand would have bound her to him for evermore.
"Why, why, and oh why!" with a cry of pain, "had he not returned in time to save her?"
"Why, why, and oh why!" with blood from her heart, "did he return at all when too late to save her?"
Mehetabel had a clear and sound understanding. She was not one to play tricks with her conscience, and to reason herself into allowing what she was well aware was wrong. She nourished herself in no delusion that her marriage with Jonas was formal and devoid of the sanction of a spiritual bond.
She took her Prayer Book, opened the marriage service, and re-read the vows she had made.
She had been asked, "Wilt thou have this man, Jonas, to thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance . . . and forsaking all other keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?" and thereto, in the sight of God and of the congregation, she had promised. There was no escape from this.
She had said—"I, Mehetabel, take thee, Jonas, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish and obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance, and thereto I give thee my troth."
There was no proviso inserted, as a means of escape; nothing like: I will be true to thee unless Iver return; unless, thou, Bideabout, prove unworthy of my love and obedience; unless there be incompatibility of temper; unless I get tired of thee, and change my mind.
Mehetabel knew what the words meant, knew that she had been sincere in intent when she said them. She knew that she was bound, without proviso of any kind.
She knew that she could not love Iver and be guiltless. But she was aware also, now, when too late, that she had undertaken towards Jonas what was, in a measure, impossible.
Loyal to Jonas as far as outward conduct could make her, that she was confident she would remain, but her heart had slipped beyond her control, and her thoughts were winged and refused to be caged.
"I say, Matabel!"
The young wife started, and her bosom contracted. Her husband spoke. He had come on her at a moment when, lost in day-dreams, she least expected, desired, his presence.
"What do you want with me, Jonas?" she asked as she recovered her composure.
"I want you to go to the Ship. The old woman there has fallen out with the maid, and there are three gentlemen come for the shooting, and want to be attended to. The old woman asked if you would help a bit. I said 'Dun know:' but after a bit we agreed for a shilling a day."
"Never!" gasped Mehetabel.
"I tried to screw more out of her necessity, but could not. Besides, if you do well, you'll get half a crown from each of the gents, and that'll be seven and six; and say three days at the Inn, half-a-guinea all in all. I can spare you for that."
"Jonas, I do not wish to go."
"But I choose that you shall."
"I pray you allow me to remain here."
"There's Mr. Iver leaves to-day for his shop at Guildford, and I reckon the old woman is put about over that, too."
After some hesitation Mehetabel yielded. The thought that Iver would not be at the Ship alone induced her to consent.
She was hurt and angry that her husband had stipulated for payment for her services. After the kindness, the generosity with which she had been treated, this seemed ungracious in the extreme. She said as much.
"I don't see it," answered Jonas. "When you wos a baby she made the parish pay her for taking you. Now she wants you, it is her turn to pay."
Bideabout did not allow his wife much time in which to make her preparations. He had business in Godalming with a lawyer, and was going to drive old Clutch thither. He would take Mehetabel with him as far as Thursley.
On reaching the tavern Mrs. Verstage met her with effusion, and Iver, hearing his mother's exclamation, ran out.
Mehetabel was surprised and confused at seeing him. He caught her by the hand, helped her to descend from the cart, and retained his hold of her fingers for a minute after it was necessary.
He had told his mother that he must return to Guildford that day; and when she had asked for Mehetabel's help she had calculated on the absence of her son, who had been packing up his canvas and paints. To him she had not breathed a word of the likelihood that Mehetabel would be coming to her aid.
"I daresay Bideabout will give you a lift, Iver," she said.
"I don't know that I can," said Jonas. "I've promised to pick up Lintott, and there ain't room in the trap for more than two."
Then the Broom-Squire drove away.
"See, Matabel," said Iver, pointing to the signboard, "I've redaubed the Old Ship, quite to my father's satisfaction. By Jove, I told mother I should return to Guildford to-day—but now, hang me, if I do not defer my departure for a day or two."
Mrs. Verstage looked reproachfully at her son.
"Mother," said he in self-exculpation. "I shall take in ideas, a model costs me from a shilling to half-acrown an hour, and here is Matabel, a princess of models, will sit for nothing."
"I shall be otherwise employed," said the girl, in confusion.
"Indeed, I shan't spare her for any of that nonsense," said Mrs. Verstage.
The hostess was much perplexed. She had reckoned on her son's departure before Mehetabel arrived. She would not have asked for her assistance if she had not been convinced that he would take himself off.
She expostulated. Iver must not neglect his business, slight his engagements. He had resolved to go, and had no right to shilly-shally, and change his mind. She required his room. He would be in the way with the guests.
To all these objections Iver had an answer. In fine, said he, with Mehetabel in the house he could not and he would not go.
What was Mehetabel to do? Jonas had locked up his house and had carried away the key with him; moreover, to return now was a confession of weakness. What was Mrs. Verstage to do? She had three visitors, real gentlemen, in the house. They must be made comfortable; and the new servant, Polly, according to her notion, was a hopeless creature, slatternly, forgetful, impudent.
There was no one on whom the landlady could fall back, except Mehetabel, who understood her ways, and was certain to give satisfaction. Mrs. Verstage was not what she had once been, old age, and more than that, an internal complaint, against which she had fought, in which she had refused to believe, had quite recently asserted itself, and she was breaking down.
There was consequently no help for it. She resolved to keep a sharp lookout on the young people, and employ Mehetabel unremittingly. But of one thing she was confident. Mehetabel was not a person to forget her duty and self-respect.
The agitation produced by finding that Iver purposed remaining in the house passed away, and Mehetabel faced the inevitable.
Wherever her eye rested, memories of a happy girlhood welled up in her soft and suffering breast. The geraniums in the window she had watered daily. The canary—she had fed it with groundsel. The brass skillets on the mantelshelf—they had been burnished by her hand. The cushion on "father's" chair was of her work. Everything spoke to her of the past, and of a happy past, without sharp sorrows, without carking cares.
Old Simon was rejoiced to see Mehetabel again in the house. He made her sit beside him. He took her hand in his, and patted it. A pleasant smile, like a sunbeam, lit up his commonplace features.
"Mother and I have had a deal to suffer since you've been gone," said Simon. "The girl Polly be that stupid and foreright (awkward) we shall be drove mad, both of us, somewhen."
"Do you see that window-pane?" he asked, pointing to a gap in the casement. "Polly put her broom handle through. There was not one pane broke all the time you was with us, and now there be three gone, and no glazier in the village to put 'em to rights. You mind the blue pranked (striped) chiney taypot? Mother set great store on that. Polly's gone and knocked the spout off. Mother's put about terrible over that taypot. As for the best sheets, Polly's burnt a hole through one, let a cinder fly out on it, when airing. Mother's in a pretty way over that sheet. I don't know what there'll be to eat, Polly left the larder open, and the dog has carried off a leg of mutton. It has been all cross and contrary ever since you went."
Simon mused a while, holding Mehetabel's hand, and said after a pause, "It never ort to a' been. You was well placed here and never ort to a' left. It was all mother's doing. She drove you into weddin' that there Broom-Squire. Women can't be easy unless they be hatchin' weddin's; just like as broody hens must be sittin' on somethin'. If that had never been brought about, then the taypot spout would not have been knocked off, nor the winder-pane broken, nor the sheet riddled wi' a cinder, nor the dog gone off wi' the leg o' mutton."
Mehetabel was unable to suppress a sigh.
"Winter be comin' on," pursued the old man, "and mother's gettin' infirm, and a bit contrary. When Polly worrits her, then I ketches it. That always wos her way. I don't look forward to winter. I don't look forward to nuthin' now—" He became sorrowful. "All be gone to sixes and sevens, now that you be gone, Matabel. What will happen I dun' know, I dun' know."
"What may happen," said Mehetabel, "is not always what we expect. But one thing is certain—lost happiness is past recovery."
During the evening Iver was hardly able to take his eyes off Mehetabel, as she passed to and fro in the kitchen.
She knew where was every article that was needed for the gentlemen. She moved noiselessly, did everything without fuss, without haste.
He thought over the words she had uttered, and he had overheard: Lost happiness is past recovery. Not only was she bereft of happiness, but so was he. His father and mother, when too late, had found that they also had parted with theirs when they had let Mehetabel leave the house.
She moved gracefully. She was slender, her every motion merited to be sketched. Iver's artistic sense was excited to admiration. What a girl she was! What a model! Oh, that he had her as his own!
Mehetabel knew that she was watched, and it disconcerted her. She was constrained to exercise great self-control; not to let slip what she carried, not to forget what tasks had to be discharged.
In her heart she glowed with pride at the thought that Iver loved her—that he, the prince, the idol of her childhood, should have retained a warm place in his heart for her. And yet, the thought, though sweet, was bitter as well, fraught with foreshadowings of danger.
Mrs. Verstage also watched Mehetabel, and her son likewise, with anxious eyes.
The old man left the house to attend to his cattle; and one of the gentlemen came to the kitchen-door to invite Iver, whose acquaintance he had made during the day, to join him and his companions over a bowl of punch.
The young man was unable to refuse, but left with reluctance manifest enough to his mother and Mehetabel.
Then, when the hostess was alone with the girl, she drew her to her side, and said, "There is now nothing to occupy you. Sit by me and tell me about yourself and how you get on with Bideabout. You have no notion how pleased I am to have you here again."
Mehetabel kissed the old woman, and a tear from her eye fell on the withering cheek of the landlady.
"I dare be bound you find it lonely in the new home," said Mrs. Verstage. "Here, in an inn, there is plenty of life; but in the farm you are out of the world. How does the Broom-Squire treat you?"
She awaited an answer with anxiety, which she was unable to disguise.
After a pause Mehetabel replied, with heightened color, "Jonas is not unkind."
"You can't expect love-making every day," said the hostess. "It's the way of men to promise the sun, moon, and planets, till you are theirs, and after that, then poor women must be content to be given a spark off a fallen star. There was Jamaica Cheel runn'd away with his Betsy because he thought the law wouldn't let him have her; she was the wife of another, you know. Then he found she never had been proper married to the other chap, and when he discovered he was fast tied to Betsy he'd a run away from her only the law wouldn't let him. Jonas ain't beautiful and young, that I allow."
"I knew what he was when I married him," answered Mehetabel. "I cannot say I find him other than what I expected."
"But is he kind to you?"
"I said he was not unkind."
Mrs. Verstage looked questioningly at her adopted child. "I don't know," she said, with quivering lips. "I suppose I was right. I acted for the best. God knows I sought your happiness. Do not tell me that you are unhappy."
"Who is happy?" asked Mehetabel, and turned her eyes on the hostess, to read alarm and distress in her face. "Do not trouble yourself about me, mother. I knew what I was doing when I took Jonas. I had no expectation of finding the Punch-Bowl to be Paradise. It takes a girl some time to get settled into fresh quarters, and to feel comfortable among strangers. That is mainly my case. I was perhaps spoiled when here, you were so kind to me. I thank you, mother, that you have not forgotten me in your great joy at getting Iver home again."
"There was Thomasine French bought two penn'orth o' shrimps, and as her husband weren't at home thought to enjoy herself prodigious. But she came out red as a biled lobster. With the best intentions things don't always turn out as expected," said Mrs. Verstage, "and the irritation was like sting nettles and—wuss." Then, after a pause, "I don't know how it is, all my life I have wished to have Iver by me. He went away because he wanted to be a painter; he has come back, after many years, and is not all I desire. Now he is goyn away. I could endure that if I were sure he loved me. But I don't think he does. He cares more for his father, who sent him packin' than he does for me, who never crossed him. I don't understand him. He is not the same as he was."
"Iver is a child no longer," said Mehetabel. "You must not expect of him more than he can give. What you said to me about a husband is true also of a child. Of course, he loves you, but he does not show it as fully as you desire. He has something else now to fill his heart beside a mother."
"What is that?" asked Mrs. Verstage, nervously.
"His art," answered Mehetabel.
"Oh, that!" The landlady was not wholly satisfied, she stood up and said with a sigh, "I fancy life be much like one o' them bran pies at a bazaar. Some pulls out a pair of braces as don't wear trousers, and others pull out garters as wears nuthin' but socks. 'Tis a chance if you get wot's worth havin. Well, I must go look out another sheet in place of that Polly has burnt."
"Let me do that, mother."
"No, as you may remember, I have always managed the linen myself."
A few minutes later, after she had left the room, Iver returned. He had escaped from the visitors on some excuse.
His heart was a prey to vague yearnings and doubts.
With pleasure he observed that his mother was no longer in the kitchen. He saw Mehetabel hastily dry her eyes. He knew that she had been crying, and he thought he could divine the cause.
"You are going to Guildford to-morrow morning, are you not?" she asked hastily.
"I don't know."
Iver planted himself on a stool before the fire, where he could look up into Mehetabel's face, as she sat in the settle.
"You have your profession to attend to," she said. "You do not know your own mind. You are changeful as a girl."
"How can I go—with you here?" he exclaimed, vehemently.
She turned her head away. He was looking at her with burning eyes.
"Iver," she said, "I pray you be more loving to your mother. You have made her heart ache. It is cruel not to do all you can now to make amends to her for the past. She thinks that you do not love her. She is failing in health, and you must not drip drops of fresh sorrow into her heart during her last years."
Iver made a motion of impatience.
"I love my mother. Of course I love her."
"Not as truly as you should, Iver," answered Mehetabel. "You do not consider the long ache—"
"And I, had not I a long ache when away from home?"
"You had your art to sustain you. She had but one thought—and that of you."
"She has done me a cruel wrong," said he, irritably.
"She has never done anything to you but good, and out of love," answered the girl vehemently.
"To me; that is not it."
Mehetabel raised her eyes and looked at him. He was gazing moodily at the fire.
"She has stabbed me through you," exclaimed Iver, with a sudden outburst of passion. "Why do you plead my mother's cause, when it was she—I know it was she, and none but she—who thrust you into this hateful, this accursed marriage."
"No, Iver, no!" cried Mehetabel in alarm. "Do not say this. Iver! talk of something else."
"Very well," said he, relapsing into his dissatisfied mood. "You asked me once what my dream had been, that I dreamt that first night under your roof. I will tell you this now. I thought that you and I had been married, not you and Jonas, you and I, as it should have been. And I thought that I looked at you, and your face was deadly pale, and the hand I held was clay cold."
A chill ran through Mehetabel's veins. She said, "There is some truth in it, Iver. You hold a dead girl by the hand. To you, I am, I must be, forever—dead."
"Nonsense. All will come right somehow."
"Yes, Iver," she said; "it will so. You are free and will go about, and will see and love and marry a girl worthy of you in every way. As for me, my lot is cast in the Punch-Bowl. No power on earth can separate me from Bideabout. I have made my bed and must lie on it, though it be one of thorns. There is but one thing for us both—we must part and meet no more."
"Matabel," he put forth his hand in protest.
"I have spoken plainly," she said, "because there is no good in not doing so. Do not make my part more difficult. Be a man—go."
"Matabel! It shall not be, it cannot be! My love! My only one."
He tried to grasp her.
She sprang from the settle. A mist formed before her eyes. She groped for something by which to stay herself.
He seized her by the waist. She wrenched herself free.
"Let me go!" she cried. "Let me go!"
She spoke hoarsely. Her eyes were staring as if she saw a spirit. She staggered back beyond his reach, touched the jambs of the door, grasped them with a grasp of relief. Then, actuated by a sudden thought, turned and fled from the room, from the house.
Iver stood for a minute bewildered. Her action had been so unexpected that he did not know what to think, what to do.
He went to the porch and looked up the road, then down it, and did not see her.
Mrs. Verstage, came out. "Where is Matabel?" she asked, uneasily.
"Gone!" said Iver. "Mother—gone!"
Mehetabel ran, neither along the way that led in the direction of Portsmouth, nor along that to Godalming, but to the Moor.
"The Moor," is the marsh land that lies at the roots of the sandstone heights that culminate in Hind Head, Leith Hill, and the Devil's Jumps. As already said, the great mass of Bagshot sand lies upon a substratum of clay. The sand drinks in every drop of rain that falls on the surface. This percolates through it till it reaches the clay, which refuses to absorb it, or let it sink through to other beds. Thereupon the accumulated water breaks forth in springs at the base of the hills, and forms a wide tract of morass, interspersed with lagoons that teem with fish and wild fowl. This region is locally known as "Moor," in contradistinction to the commons or downs, which are the dry sandy upland.
"The Moor" is in many places impassable, but the blown sand has fallen upon it, and has formed slight elevations, has drifted into undulations, and these strips of rising ground, kept moist by the water they absorb, have become covered with vegetation. It is, moreover, possible by their means to penetrate to the heart of, and even thread, the intricacies, and traverse the entire region of the Moor.
But it is, at best, a wild and lonesome district, to be explored with caution, a labyrinth, the way through which is known only to the natives of the sandhills that dominate the marshy plain.
About thirty years ago a benevolent and beneficent landlord, in a time of agricultural distress, gave employment to a large number of men out of work in the construction of a causeway across the Thursley "Moor."
But the work was of no real utility, and it is now overgrown with weeds, and only trodden by the sportsman in pursuit of game and the naturalist in quest of rare insects and water plants.
A considerable lake, Pudmere, or Pug—Puckmere, lies in the Thursley marsh land, surrounded with dwarf willows and scattered pines. These latter have sprung from the wind-blown seeds of the plantations on higher ground. Throughout this part of the country an autumn gale always results in the upspringing of a forest of young pines, next year, to leeward of a clump of cone-bearing trees. In the Moor such self-sown woods come to no ripeness. The pines are unhealthy and stunted, hung with gray moss, and eaten out with canker. The excessive moisture and the impenetrable subsoil, and the shallowness of the congenial sand that encouraged them to root make the young trees decay in adolescence.
An abundant and varied insect world has its home in the Moor. The large brown hawkmoth darts about like an arrow. Dragon flies of metallic blue, or striped yellow and brown, hover above the lanes of water, lost in admiration of their own gorgeous selves reflected in the still surface. The great water-beetle booms against the head of the intruder, and then drops as a stone into the pool at his feet. Effets, saffron yellow bellied, with striped backs, swim in the ponds or crawl at their bottom. The natterjack, so rare elsewhere, differing from a toad in that it has a yellow band down its back, has here a paradise. It may be seen at eve perched on a stock of willow herb, or running—it does not hop—round the sundew, clearing the glutinous stamens of the flies that have been caught by them, and calling in a tone like the warning note of the nightingale. Sleeping on the surface the carp lies, and will not be scared save by a stone thrown into the still water in which it dreams away its life.
The sandy elevations are golden with tormintilla; a richer gold is that which lies below, where the marsh glows with bog asphodel. The flowering rush spreads its pale pink blossoms; a deeper crimson is the marsh orchis showing its spires among the drooping clusters of the waxy-pink, cross-leaved heath, and the green or pale and rosy-tinted bog-mosses.
Near Pudmoor Pool stands a gray block of ironstone, a solitary portion of the superincumbent bed that has been washed away. It resembles a gigantic anvil, and it goes by the name of Thor's Stone. The slopes that dip towards it are the Thor's-lea, and give their name to the parish that includes it and them.
At one time there was a similar mass of iron at the summit of Borough Hill, that looks down upon the morasses.
To this many went who were in trouble or necessity, and knocking on the stone made known their requirements to the Pucksies, and it was asserted, and generally believed, that such applicants had not gone away unanswered, nor unrelieved.
It was told of a certain woman who one evening sought to be freed by this means from the husband who had made her life unendurable, that that same night—so ran the tale—he was returning from the tavern, drunk, and stumbling over the edge of a quarry fell and broke his neck. Thereupon certain high moralists and busybodies had the mass of stone broken up and carted away to mend the roads, with the expectation thereby of putting an end to what they were pleased to term "a degrading superstition."
To some extent the destruction of the Wishing Block did check the practice. But there continued to be persons in distress, and women plagued with drunken husbands, and men afflicted with scolding wives. And when the pilgrimage of such to Borough Hill ceased, because of the destruction of the stone on it, then was it diverted, and the current flowed instead to Thor's Stone—a stone that had long been regarded with awe, and which now became an object of resort, as it was held to have acquired the merits of the block so wantonly demolished on Borough Hill.
Nevertheless, the object of the high moralists and busybodies was partially attained, inasmuch as the difficulties and dangers attending a visit to Thor's Stone reduced the number of those seeking superhuman assistance in their difficulties. Courage was requisite in one who ventured to the Moor at night, and made a way to the iron-stone block, over tracts of spongy morass, among lines of stagnant ooze, through coppices of water-loving willows and straggling brier. This, which was difficult by day, was dangerous in a threefold degree at night. Moreover, the Moor was reputed to be haunted by spirits, shadows that ran and leaped, and peered and jabbered; and Puck wi' the lantern flickered over the surface of the festering bog.
If, then, the visits to Thor's Stone were not so many as to the stone on Borough Hill, this was due less to the waning of superstition than to the difficulties attending an expedition to the former. Without considering what she was doing, moved by a blind impulse, Mehetabel ran in the direction of Puck's Moor.
And yet the impulse was explicable. She had often thought over the tales told of visits to the habitation of the "Good Folk" on Borough Hill, and the transfer of the pilgrimage to Thor's Stone. She had, of late, repeatedly asked herself whether, by a visit thither, she might not gain what lay at her heart—an innocent desire—none other than that Iver should depart.
Now that he had made open show of his passion, that all concealment was over between them, every veil and disguise plucked away—now she felt that her strength was failing her, and it would fail completely if subjected to further trial.
One idea, like a spark of fire shooting through her brain, alone possessed her at this moment. Her safety depended on one thing—the removal of Iver. Let him go! Let him go! then she could bear her lot. Let her see him no more! then she would be able to bring her truant heart under discipline. Otherwise her life would be unendurable, her tortured brain would give way, her overtaxed heart would break.
She found no stay for her soul in the knowledge where was situated the country of the Gergesenes, no succor in being well drilled in the number of chapters in Genesis. She turned desperately, in her necessity, to Thor's Stone, to the spirits—what they were she knew not—who aided those in need, and answered petitions addressed to them.
The night had already set in, but a full golden moon hung in the sky, and the night was in no way dark and dreadful.
When she reached the Moor, Mehetabel ran among sheets of gold, leaped ribbons of shining metal, danced among golden filagree—the reflection of the orb in the patches, channels, frets of water. She sprang from one dark tuft of rushes to another; she ran along the ridges of the sand. She skipped where the surface was treacherous. What mattered it to her if she missed her footing, sank, and the ooze closed over her? As well end so a life that could never be other than long drawn agony.
Before leaving the heath, she had stooped and picked up a stone. It was a piece of hematite iron, such as frequently occurs in the sand, liver-shaped, and of the color of liver.
She required a hammer, wherewith to knock on Thor's anvil, and make her necessities known, and this piece of iron would serve her purpose.
Frogs were croaking, a thousand natterjacks were whirring like the nightjar. Strange birds screamed and rushed out of the trees as she sped along. White moths, ghostlike, wavered about her, mosquitoes piped. Water-rats plunged into the pools.
As a child she had been familiar with Pudmoor, and instinctively she walked, ran, only where her foot could rest securely.
A special Providence, it is thought, watches over children and drunkards. It watches also over such as are drunk with trouble, it holds them up when unable to think for themselves, it holds them back when they court destruction.
To this morass, Mehetabel had come frequently with Iver, in days long gone by, to hunt the natterjack and the dragon-fly, to look for the eggs of water fowl, and to pick marsh flowers.
As she pushed on, a thin mist spread over portions of the "Moor." It did not lie everywhere, it spared the sand, it lay above the water, but in so delicate a film as to be all but imperceptible. It served to diffuse the moonlight, to make a halo of silver about the face of the orb, when looked up to by one within the haze, otherwise it was scarcely noticeable.
Mehetabel ran with heart bounding and with fevered brain, and yet with her mind holding tenaciously to one idea.
After a while, and after deviations from the direct course, rendered necessary by the nature of the country she traversed, Mehetabel reached Thor's Stone, that gleamed white in the moonbeam beside a sheet of water, the Mere of the Pucksies. This mere had the mist lying on it more dense than elsewhere. The vapor rested on the surface as a fine gossamer veil, not raised above a couple of feet, hardly ruffled by a passing sigh of air. A large bird floated over it on expanded wings, it looked white as a swan in the moonlight, but cast a shadow black as pitch on the vaporous sheet that covered the face of the pool.
It was as though, like Dinorah, this bird were dancing to its own shadow. But unlike Dinorah, it was silent. It uttered no song, there was even no sound of the rush of air from its broad wings. When Mehetabel reached the stone she stood for a moment palpitating, gasping for breath, and her breath passing from her lips in white puffs of steam.
The haze from the mere seemed to rise and fling its long streamers about her head and blindfold her eyes, so that she could see neither the lake nor the trees, not even the anvil-stone. Only was there about her a general silvery glitter, and a sense of oppression lay upon her.
Mehetabel had escaped from the inn, as she was, with bare arms, her skirt looped up.
She stood thus, with the lump of ironstone resting on the block, the full flood of moonlight upon her, blinding her eyes, but revealing her against a background of foliage, like a statue of alabaster. Startled by a rustle in the bulrushes and willow growth behind her, Mehetabel turned and looked, but her eyes were not clear enough for her to discern anything, and as the sound ceased, she recovered from her momentary alarm.
She had heard that a deer was in Pudmoor that was supposed to have escaped from the park at Peperharow. Possibly the creature was there. It was harmless. There were no noxious beasts there. It was too damp for vipers, nothing in Pudmoor was hurtful save the gnats that there abounded. Then, with her face turned to the north, away from the dazzling glory of the moon, Mehetabel swung the lump of kidney iron she had taken as hammer, once from east to west, and once from west to east. With a third sweep she brought it down upon Thor's Stone and cried:
"Take him away! Take him away!"
She paused, drew a long breath.
Again she swung the hammer-stone. And now she turned round, and passed the piece of iron into her left hand. She raised it and struck on the anvil, and cried: "Save me from him. Take him away." A rush, all the leaves of the trees behind seemed to be stirring, and all the foliage falling about her.
A hand was laid on her shoulder roughly, and the stone dropped from her fingers on the anvil. Mehetabel shrank, froze, as struck with a sudden icy blast, and cried out with fear.
Then said a voice: "So! you seek the Devil's aid to rid you of me."
At once she knew that she was in the presence of her husband, but so dazzled was she that she could not discern him.
His fingers closed on her arm, as though each were an iron screw.
"So!" said he, in a low tone, his voice quivering with rage, "like Karon Wyeth, you ask the Devil to break my neck."
"No," gasped Mehetabel.
"Yes, Matabel. I heard you. 'Save me from him. Take him away.'"
She could not speak more in her alarm and confusion.
"Take him away. Snap his spine—send a bullet through his skull; cast him into Pug's mere and drown him; do what you will, only rid me of Bideabout Kink, whom I swore to love, honor, and to obey."
He spoke with bitterness and wrath, sprinkled over, nay, permeated, with fear; for, with all his professed rationalism, Jonas entertained some ancestral superstitions—and belief in the efficacy of the spirits that haunted Thor's Stone was one.
"No, Jonas, no. I did not ask it."
"I heard you."
"What," sneered he; "are not these ears mine?"
"I mean—I did not ask to have you taken away."
She was silent. She trembled. She could not answer his question.
If her husband had been at all other than he was, Mehetabel would have taken him into her confidence. But there are certain persons to whom to commit a confidence is to expose yourself to insult and outrage. Mehetabel knew this. Such a confidence as she would have given would be turned by him into a means of torture and humiliation.
"Now listen to me," said Jonas, in quivering tones of a voice that was suppressed. "I know all now. I did not. I trusted you. I was perhaps a fool. I believed in you. But Sarah has told me all—how he—that painting ape—has been at my house, meeting you, befooling you, pouring his love-tales into your ears, and watching till my back was turned to kiss you."
She was unable to speak. Her knees smote together.
"You cannot answer," he continued. "You are unable to deny that it was so. Sarah has kept an eye on you both. She should have spoken before. I am sorry she did not. But better late than never. You encouraged him to come to you. You drew him to the house."
"No, Jonas, no. It was you who invited him."
"Ah! for me he would not come. Little he cared for my society. The picture-making was but an excuse, and you all have been in a league against me."
"Who? Why, Sanna Verstage and all. Did not she ask to have you at the Ship, and say that the painting fellow was going or gone? And is he not there still? She said it to get you and him together there, away from me, out of the reach of Sarah's eyes."
"It is false, Jonas!" exclaimed Mehetabel with indignation, that for a while overcame her fear.
"False!" cried Bideabout. "Who is false but you? What is false but every word you speak? False in heart, false in word, and false in act." He had laid hold of the bit of ironstone, and he struck the anvil with it at every charge of falsehood.
"Jonas," said Mehetabel, recovering self-control under the resentment she felt at being misunderstood, and her action misinterpreted. "Jonas, I have done you no injury. I was weak. God in heaven knows my integrity. I have never wronged you; but I was weak, and in deadly fear."
"In fear of whom?"
"Of myself—my own weakness."
"You weak!" he sneered. "You—strong as any woman."
"I do not speak of my arms, Jonas—my heart—my spirit—"
"Weak!" he scoffed. "A woman with a weak and timorous soul would not come to Thor's Stone at night. No—strong you are—in evil, in wickedness, from which no tears will withhold you. And—that fellow—that daub-paint—"
Mehetabel did not speak. She was trembling.
"I ask—what of him? Was not he in your thoughts when you asked the Devil to rid you of me—your husband?"
"I did not ask that, Jonas."
"What of him? He has not gone away. He has been with you. You knew he was not going. You wanted to be with him. Where is he—this dauber of canvas—now?"
Then, through the fine gauze of condensing haze, came a call from a distance—"Matabel! Where are you?"
"Oh, ho!" exclaimed the Broom-Squire. "Here he comes. By appointment you meet him here, where you least expected that I would be."
"It is false, Jonas. I came here to escape."
"And pray for my death?"
"No, Jonas, to be rid of him."
Bideabout chuckled, with a sarcastic sneer in the side of his face.
"Come now," said he; "I should dearly like to witness this meeting. If true to me, as you pretend, then obey me, summon him here, and let me be present, unobserved, when you meet. If your wish be, as you say, to be rid of him, I will help you to its fulfilment."
"I will it. So alone can you convince me."
She hesitated. She had not the power to gather her thoughts together, to judge what she should do, what under the circumstances would be best to be done.
"Come now," repeated Jonas. "If you are true and honest, as you say, call him."
She put her trembling hand to her head, wiped the drops from her brow, the tears from her eyes, the dew from her quivering lips.
Her brain was reeling, her power of will was paralyzed.
"Come, now," said Jonas once more, "answer him—here am I."
Then Mehetabel cried, "Iver, here am I!"
"Where are you, Mehetabel?" came the question through the silvery haze and the twinkling willow-shoots.
"Answer him, by Thor's Stone," said Jonas.
Again she hesitated and passed her hand over her face.
"Answer him," whispered Jonas. "If you are true, do as I say. If false, be silent."
"By Thor's Stone," called Mehetabel.
Then all the sound heard was that of the young man brushing his way through the rushes and willow boughs.
In the terror, the agony overmastering her, she had lost all independent power of will. She was as a piece of mechanism in the hands of Jonas. His strong, masterful mind dominated her, beat down for a time all opposition. She knew that to summon Iver was to call him to a fearful struggle, perhaps to his death, and yet the faculty of resistance was momentarily gone from her. She tried to collect her thoughts. She could not. She strove to think what she ought to do, she was unable to frame a thought in her mind that whirled and reeled.
Bideabout stooped and picked up a gun he had been carrying, and had dropped on the turf when he laid hold of his wife.
Now he placed the barrel across the anvil stone, with the muzzle directed whence came the sound of the advance of Iver.
Jonas went behind the stone and bent one knee to the ground.
Mehetabel heard the click as he spanned the trigger.
"Stand on one side," said Jonas, in a low tone, in which were mingled rage and exultation. "Call him again."
She was silent. Lest she should speak she pressed both her hands to her mouth.
"Call him again," said Jonas. "I will receive him with a dab of lead in his heart."
She would not call.
"On your obedience and truth, of which you vaunt," persisted Jonas.
Should she utter a cry of warning? Would he comprehend? Would that arrest him, make him retrace his steps, escape what menaced?
Whether she cried or not he would come on. He knew Thor's Stone as well as she. They had often visited it together as children.
"If false, keep silence," said Jonas, looking up at her from where he knelt. "If true, bid him come—to his death, that I may carry out your wish, and rid you of him. If the spirits won't help you, I will."
Then she shrilly cried, "Iver, come!"
After Bideabout had done his business in Godalming he had returned to the Punch-Bowl.
The news had reached his ears that a deer had been seen on the Moor, and he knew that on the following day many guns would be out, as every man in Thursley was a sportsman. With characteristic cunning he resolved to forestall his fellows, go forth at night, which he might well do when the moon was full, and secure the deer for himself.
As he left the house, he encountered his sister.
"Where are you going off to?" she inquired. "And got a gun too."
He informed her of his intention.
"Ah! you'll give us some of the venison," said she.
"I'm not so sure of that," answered the Broom-Squire, churlishly.
"So you are going stag-hunting? That's purely," laughed she.
"I should have thought you'd best a' gone after your own wife, and brought her home."
"She is all right—at the Ship."
"I know she is at the Ship—just where she ought not to be; just where you should not let her be."
"She'll earn a little money."
"Oh, money!" scoffed Sarah Rocliffe. "What fools men be, and set themselves up as wiser than all the world of women. You've had Iver Verstage here; you've invited him over to paint your Matabel; and here he has been, admiring her, saying soft things to her, and turnin' her head. Sometimes you've been present. Most times you've been away. And now you've sent her to the Ship, and you are off stag huntin'." Then with strident voice, the woman sang, and looked maliciously at her brother.
"Oh, it blew a pleasant gale, As a frite under sail, Came a-bearing to the south along the strand. With her swelling canvas spread. But without an ounce of lead, And a signalling, alack t she was ill-manned."
With a laugh, and a snap of her fingers in Bideabout's face, she repeated tauntingly:—
"And a-signalling, alack I she was ill-manned."
Then she burst forth again:—
"She was named the Virgin Dove, With a lading, all of love. And she signalled, that for Venus (Venice) she was bound. But a pilot who could steer. She required, for sore her fear, Lest without one she should chance to run aground."
"Be silent, you croaking raven," shouted the Broom-Squire. "If you think to mock me, you are wrong. I know well enough what I am about. As for that painting chap, he is gone—gone to Guildford."
"How do you know that?"
"Because the landlady said as much."
"Yes, to me."
Mrs. Rocliffe laughed mockingly.
"Oh, Bideabout," she said, "did not that open your eyes? What did Sanna Verstage mean when she asked you to allow your wife to go to the inn! What did she mean but this?" she mimicked the mistress, "'Please, Master Bideabout, may Matabel come to me for a day or two—that naughty boy of mine is away now. So don't be frightened. I know very well that if he were at the Ship you might hesitate to send Matabel there.'" Then in her own tones Sarah Rocliffe said. "That is the meaning of it. But I don't believe that he is gone."
"Sanna Verstage don't tell lies."
"If he were gone, Matabel would not be so keen to go there."
"Matabel was not keen. She did not wish to go."
"She did wish it; but she made a pretence before you that she did not."
"Hold your slanderous tongue," shouted Jonas. "I'll not hear another word."
"Then you must shut your ears to what all the parish is saying."
Thereupon she told him what she had seen, with amplifications of her own. She was glad to have the opportunity of angering or wounding her brother; of sowing discord between him and his wife.
When he parted from her, she cast after him the remark—"I believe he is still at the Ship."
In a mood the reverse of cheerful, angry with Mehetabel, raging against Iver, cursing himself, and overflowing with spite against his sister Jonas went to the Moor in quest of the strayed deer. He knew very well that his sister bore Mehetabel a grudge; he was sufficiently acquainted with her rancorous humor and unscrupulous tongue to know that what she said was not to be relied on, yet discount as he might what she had told him, he was assured that a substratum of truth lay at the bottom.
Before entering the morass Jonas halted, and leaning on his gun, considered whether he should not go to the tavern, reclaim his wife and reconduct her home, instead of going after game. But he thought that such a proceeding might be animadverted upon; he relied upon Mrs. Verstage's words, that Iver was departing to his professional work, and he was eager to secure the game for himself.
Accordingly he directed his course to the Moor, and stole along softly, listening for the least sound of the deer, and keeping his eye on the alert to observe her.
He had been crouching in a bush near the pool when he was startled by the apparition of Mehetabel.
At first he had supposed that the sound of steps proceeded from the advancing deer, for which he was on the watch, and he lay close, with his barrel loaded, and his finger on the trigger. But in place of the deer his own wife approached, indistinctly seen in the moonlight, so that he did not recognize her. And his heart stood still, numbed by panic, for he thought he saw a spirit. But as the form drew near he knew Mehetabel.
Perplexed, he remained still, to observe her further movements. Then he saw her approach the stone of Thor, strike on it with an extemporized hammer, and cry, "Save me from him! Take him away!"
Perhaps it was not unreasonable that he at once concluded that she referred to himself.
He knew that she did not love him. Instead of each day of married life drawing more closely the bonds that bound them together, it really seemed to relax such as did exist. She became colder, withdrew more into herself, shrank from his clumsy amiabilities, and kept the door of her heart resolutely shut against all intrusion. She went through her household duties perfunctorily, as might a slave for a hated master.
If she did not love him, if her married life was becoming intolerable, then it was obvious that she sought relief from it, and the only means of relief open to her lay through his death.
But there was something more that urged her on to desire this. She not merely disliked him, but loved another, and over his coffin she would leap into that other man's arms. As Karon Wyeth had aimed at and secured the death of her husband, so did Mehetabel seek deliverance from him.
Bideabout sprang from his lurking-place to check her in the midst of her invocation, and to avert the danger that menaced himself. And now he saw the very man draw nigh who had withdrawn the heart of his wife from him, and had made his home miserable; the man on behalf of whom Mehetabel had summoned supernatural aid to rid her of himself.