He broke off, then with an effort resumed—
"I had thought, Lucy, that you were above all bribery and corruption."
"Bribery?—Corruption?" she stammered, and in a tremor of excitement and perturbation her fan dropped from her hands to the floor. He stooped for it with the ease and grace of a far younger man, and returned it to her.
"Yes, bribery and corruption," he continued quietly. "The bribery of wealth—the corruption of position. These are the sole objects for which (if I asked you, which I have not done) you would marry me. For there is nothing else I have to offer you. I could not give you the sentiment or passion of a husband (if husbands ever have sentiment or passion nowadays), because all such feeling is dead in me. I could not be your 'friend' in marriage—because I should always remember that our matrimonial 'friendship' was merely one of cash supply and demand. You see I speak very plainly. I am not a polite person—not even a Conventional one. I am too old to tell lies. Lying is never a profitable business in youth—but in age it is pure waste of time and energy. With one foot in the grave it is as well to keep the other from slipping."
He paused. She tried to say something, but could find no suitable words with which to answer him. He looked at her steadily, half expecting her to speak, and there was both pain and sorrow in the depths of his tired eyes.
"I need not prolong this conversation," he said, after a minute's silence. "For it must be as embarrassing to you as it is to me. It is quite my own fault that I built too many hopes upon you, Lucy! I set you up on a pedestal and you have yourself stepped down from it—I have put you to the test, and you have failed. I daresay the failure is as much the concern of your parents and the way in which they have brought you up, as it is of any latent weakness in your own mind and character. But,—if, when I suggested such an absurd and unnatural proposition as marriage between myself arid you, you had at once, like a true woman, gently and firmly repudiated the idea, then——"
"Then—what?" she faltered.
"Why, then I should have made you my sole heiress," he said quietly.
Her eyes opened in blank wonderment and despair. Was it possible! Had she been so near her golden El Dorado only to see the shining shores receding, and the glittering harbour closed! Oh, it was cruel! Horrible! There was a convulsive catch in her throat which she managed to turn into the laugh hysterical.
"Really!" she ejaculated, with a poor attempt at flippancy; and, in her turn, she asked the question, "Why?"
"Because I should have known you were honest," answered Helmsley, with emphasis. "Honest to your womanly instincts, and to the simplest and purest part of your nature. I should have proved for myself the fact that you refused to sell your beautiful person for gold—that you were no slave in the world's auction-mart, but a free, proud, noble-hearted English girl who meant to be faithful to all that was highest and best in her soul. Ah, Lucy! You are not this little dream-girl of mine! You are a very realistic modern woman with whom a man's 'ideal' has nothing in common!"
She was silent, half-stifled with rage. He stepped up to her and took her hand.
"Good-night, Lucy! Good-bye!"
She wrenched her fingers from his clasp, and a sudden, uncontrollable fury possessed her.
"I hate you!" she said between her set teeth. "You are mean! Mean! I hate you!"
He stood quite still, gravely irresponsive.
"You have deceived me—cheated me!" she went on, angrily and recklessly. "You made me think you wanted to marry me."
The corners of his mouth went up under his ashen-grey moustache in a chill smile.
"Pardon me!" he interrupted. "But did I make you think? or did you think it of your own accord?"
She plucked at her fan nervously.
"Any girl—I don't care who she is—would accept you if you asked her to marry you!" she said hotly. "It would be perfectly idiotic to refuse such a rich man, even if he were Methusaleh himself. There's nothing wrong or dishonest in taking the chance of having plenty of money, if it is offered."
He looked at her, vaguely compassionating her loss of self-control.
"No, there is nothing wrong or dishonest in taking the chance of having plenty of money, if such a chance can be had without shame and dishonour," he said. "But I, personally, should consider a woman hopelessly lost to every sense of self-respect, if at the age of twenty-one she consented to marry a man of seventy for the sake of his wealth. And I should equally consider the man of seventy a disgrace to the name of manhood if he condoned the voluntary sale of such a woman by becoming her purchaser."
She lifted her head with a haughty air.
"Then, if you thought these things, you had no right to propose to me!" she said passionately.
He was faintly amused.
"I did not propose to you, Lucy," he answered, "and I never intended to do so! I merely asked what your answer would be if I did."
"It comes to the same thing!" she muttered.
"Pardon me, not quite! I told you I was putting you to a test. That you failed to stand my test is the conclusion of the whole affair. We really need say no more about it. The matter is finished."
She bit her lips vexedly, then forced a hard smile.
"It's about time it was finished, I'm sure!" she said carelessly. "I'm perfectly tired out!"
"No doubt you are—you must be—I was forgetting how late it is," and with ceremonious politeness he opened the door for her to pass. "You have had an exhausting evening! Forgive me for any pain or vexation—or—or anger I may have caused you—and, good-night, Lucy! God bless you!"
He held out his hand. He looked worn and wan, and his face showed pitiful marks of fatigue, loneliness, and sorrow, but the girl was too much incensed by her own disappointment to forgive him for the unexpected trial to which he had submitted her disposition and character.
"Good-night!" she said curtly, avoiding his glance. "I suppose everybody's gone by this time; mother will be waiting for me."
"Won't you shake hands?" he pleaded gently. "I'm sorry that I expected more of you than you could give, Lucy! but I want you to be happy, and I think and hope you will be, if you let the best part of you have its way. Still, it may happen that I shall never see you again—so let us part friends!"
She raised her eyes, hardened now in their expression by intense malignity and spite, and fixed them fully upon him.
"I don't want to be friends with you any more!" she said. "You are cruel and selfish, and you have treated me abominably! I am sure you will die miserably, without a soul to care for you! And I hope—yes, I hope I shall never hear of you, never see you any more as long as you live! You could never have really had the least bit of affection for me when I was a child."
He interrupted her by a quick, stern gesture.
"That child is dead! Do not speak of her!"
Something in his aspect awed her—something of the mute despair and solitude of a man who has lost his last hope on earth, shadowed his pallid features as with a forecast of approaching dissolution. Involuntarily she trembled, and felt cold; her head drooped;—for a moment her conscience pricked her, reminding her how she had schemed and plotted and planned to become the wife of this sad, frail old man ever since she had reached the mature age of sixteen,—for a moment she was impelled to make a clean confession of her own egotism, and to ask his pardon for having, under the tuition of her mother, made him the unconscious pivot of all her worldly ambitions,—then, with a sudden impetuous movement, she swept past him without a word, and ran downstairs.
There she found half the evening's guests gone, and the other half well on the move. Some of these glanced at her inquiringly, with "nods and becks and wreathed smiles," but she paid no heed to any of them. Her mother came eagerly up to her, anxiety purpling every vein of her mottled countenance, but no word did she utter, till, having put on their cloaks, the two waited together on the steps of the mansion, with flunkeys on either side, for the hired brougham to bowl up in as un-hired a style as was possible at the price of one guinea for the night's outing.
"Where is Mr. Helmsley?" then asked Mrs. Sorrel.
"In his own room, I believe," replied Lucy, frigidly.
"Isn't he coming to see you into the carriage and say good-night?"
"Why should he?" demanded the girl, peremptorily.
Mrs. Sorrel became visibly agitated. She glanced at the impassive flunkeys nervously.
"O my dear!" she whimpered softly, "what's the matter? Has anything happened?"
At that moment the expected vehicle lumbered up with a very creditable clatter of well-assumed importance. The flunkeys relaxed their formal attitudes and hastened to assist both mother and daughter into its somewhat stuffy recess. Another moment and they were driven off, Lucy looking out of the window at the numerous lights which twinkled from every story of the stately building they had just left, till the last bright point of luminance had vanished. Then the strain on her mind gave way—and to Mrs. Sorrel's alarm and amazement, she suddenly burst into a stormy passion of tears.
"It's all over!" she sobbed angrily, "all over! I've lost him! I've lost everything!"
Mrs. Sorrel gave a kind of weasel cry and clasped her fat hands convulsively.
"Oh, you little fool!" she burst out, "what have you done?"
Thus violently adjured, Lucy, with angry gasps of spite and disappointment, related in full the maddening, the eccentric, the altogether incomprehensible and inexcusable conduct of the famous millionaire, "old Gold-dust," towards her beautiful, outraged, and injured self. Her mother sat listening in a kind of frozen horror which might possibly have become rigid, had it not been for the occasional bumping of the hired brougham over ruts and loose stones, which bumping shook her superfluous flesh into agitated bosom-waves.
"I ought to have guessed it! I ought to have followed my own instinct!" she said, in sepulchral tones. "It came to me like a flash, when I was talking to him this evening! I said to myself, 'he is in a moral mood.' And he was. Nothing is so hopeless, so dreadful! If I had only thought he would carry on that mood with you, I would have warned you! You could have held off a little—it would perhaps have been the wiser course."
"I should think it would indeed!" cried Lucy, dabbing her eyes with her scented handkerchief; "He would have left me every penny he has in the world if I had refused him! He told me so as coolly as possible!"
Mrs. Sorrel sank back with a groan.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" she wailed feebly. "Can nothing be done?"
"Nothing!" And Lucy, now worked up to hysterical pitch, felt as if she could break the windows, beat her mother, or do anything else equally reckless and irresponsible. "I shall be left to myself now,—he will never ask me to his house again, never give me any parties or drives or opera-boxes or jewels,—he will never come to see me, and I shall have no pleasure at all! I shall sink into a dowdy, frowsy, shabby-genteel old maid for the rest of my life! It is detestable!" and she uttered a suppressed small shriek on the word, "It has been a hateful, abominable birthday! Everybody will be laughing at me up their sleeves! Think of Lady Larford!"
This suggestion was too dreadful for comment, and Mrs. Sorrel closed her eyes, visibly shuddering.
"Who would have thought it possible!" she moaned drearily, "a millionaire, with such mad ideas! I had thought him always such a sensible man! And he seemed to admire you so much! What will he do with all his money?"
The fair Lucy sighed, sobbed, and swallowed her tears into silence. And again, like the doubtful refrain of a song in a bad dream, her mother moaned and murmured—
"What will he do with all his money!"
Two or three days later, Sir Francis Vesey was sitting in his private office, a musty den encased within the heart of the city, listening, or trying to listen, to the dull clerical monotone of a clerk's dry voice detailing the wearisome items of certain legal formulae preliminary to an impending case. Sir Francis had yawned capaciously once or twice, and had played absently with a large ink-stained paperknife,—signs that his mind was wandering somewhat from the point at issue. He was a conscientious man, but he was getting old, and the disputations of obstinate or foolish clients were becoming troublesome to him. Moreover, the case concerning which his clerk was prosing along in the style of a chapel demagogue engaged in extemporary prayer, was an extremely uninteresting one, and he thought hazily of his lunch. The hour for that meal was approaching,—a fact for which he was devoutly thankful. For after lunch, he gave himself his own release from work for the rest of the day. He left it all to his subordinates, and to his partner Symonds, who was some eight or ten years his junior. He glanced at the clock, and beat a tattoo with his foot on the floor, conscious of his inward impatience with the reiterated "Whereas the said" and "Witnesseth the so-and-so," which echoed dully on the otherwise unbroken silence. It was a warm, sunshiny morning, but the brightness of the outer air was poorly reflected in the stuffy room, which though comfortably and even luxuriously furnished, conveyed the usual sense of dismal depression common to London precincts of the law. Two or three flies buzzed irritably now and then against the smoke-begrimed windowpanes, and the clerk's dreary preamble went on and on till Sir Francis closed his eyes and wondered whether a small "catnap" would be possible between the sections of the seeming interminable document. Suddenly, to his relief, there came a sharp tap at the door, and an office boy looked in.
"Mr. Helmsley's man, sir," he announced. "Wants to see you personally."
Sir Francis got up from his chair with alacrity.
"All right! Show him in."
The boy retired, and presently reappearing, ushered in a staid-looking personage in black who, saluting Sir Francis respectfully, handed him a letter marked "Confidential."
"Nice day, Benson," remarked the lawyer cheerfully, as he took the missive. "Is your master quite well?"
"Perfectly well, Sir Francis, thank you," replied Benson. "Leastways he was when I saw him off just now."
"Oh! He's gone then?"
"Yes, Sir Francis. He's gone."
Sir Francis broke the seal of the letter,—then bethinking himself of "Whereas the said" and "Witnesseth the so-and-so," turned to his worn and jaded clerk.
"That will do for the present," he said. "You can go."
With pleasing haste the clerk put together the voluminous folios of blue paper from which he had been reading, and quickly made his exit, while Sir Francis, still standing, put on his glasses and unfolded the one sheet of note-paper on which Helmsley's communication was written. Glancing it up and down, he turned it over and over—then addressed himself to the attentively waiting Benson.
"So Mr. Helmsley has started on his trip alone?"
"Yes, Sir Francis. Quite alone."
"Did he say where he was going?"
"He booked for Southhampton, sir."
"And," proceeded Benson, "he only took one portmanteau."
"Oh!" again ejaculated the lawyer. And, stroking his bearded chin, he thought awhile.
"Are you going to stay at Carlton House Terrace till he comes back?"
"I have a month's holiday, sir. Then I return to my place. The same order applies to all the servants, sir."
"I see! Well!"
And then there came a pause.
"I suppose," said Sir Francis, after some minutes' reflection, "I suppose you know that during Mr. Helmsley's absence you are to apply to me for wages and household expenses—that, in fact, your master has placed me in charge of all his affairs?"
"So I have understood, sir," replied Benson, deferentially. "Mr. Helmsley called us all into his room last night and told us so."
"Oh, he did, did he? But, of course, as a man of business, he would leave nothing incomplete. Now, supposing Mr. Helmsley is away more than a month, I will call or send to the house at stated intervals to see how things are getting on, and arrange any matters that may need arranging"—here he glanced at the letter in his hand—"as your master requests. And—if you want anything—or wish to know any news,—you can always call here and inquire."
"Thank you, Sir Francis."
"I'm sorry,"—and the lawyer's shrewd yet kindly eyes looked somewhat troubled—"I'm very sorry that my old friend hasn't taken you with him, Benson."
Benson caught the ring of sympathetic interest in his voice and at once responded to it.
"Well, sir, so am I!" he said heartily. "For Mr. Helmsley's over seventy, and he isn't as strong as he thinks himself to be by a long way. He ought to have some one with him. But he wouldn't hear of my going. He can be right down obstinate if he likes, you know, sir, though he is one of the best gentlemen to work for that ever lived. But he will have his own way, and, bad or good, he takes it."
"Quite true!" murmured Sir Francis meditatively. "Very true!"
A silence fell between them.
"You say he isn't as strong as he thinks himself to be," began Vesey again, presently. "Surely he's wonderfully alert and active for his time of life?"
"Why, yes, sir, he's active enough, but it's all effort and nerve with him now. He makes up his mind like, and determines to be strong, in spite of being weak. Only six months ago the doctor told him to be careful, as his heart wasn't quite up to the mark."
"Ah!" ejaculated Sir Francis ruefully. "And did the doctor recommend any special treatment?"
"Yes, sir. Change of air and complete rest."
The lawyer's countenance cleared.
"Then you may depend upon it that's why he has gone away by himself, Benson," he said. "He wants change of air, rest, and different surroundings. And as he won't have letters forwarded, and doesn't give any future address, I shouldn't wonder if he starts off yachting somewhere——"
"Oh, no, sir, I don't think so," interposed Benson, "The yacht's in the dry dock, and I know he hasn't given any orders to have her got ready."
"Well, well, if he wants change and rest, he's wise to put a distance between himself and his business affairs"—and Sir Francis here looked round for his hat and walking-stick. "Take me, for example! Why, I'm a different man when I leave this office and go home to lunch! I'm going now. I don't think—I really don't think there is any cause for uneasiness, Benson. Your master will let us know if there's anything wrong with him."
"Oh, yes, sir, he'll be sure to do that. He said he would telegraph for me if he wanted me."
"Good! Now, if you get any news of him before I do, or if you are anxious that I should attend to any special matter, you'll always find me here till one o'clock. You know my private address?"
"That's all right. And when I go down to my country place for the summer, you can come there whenever your business is urgent. I'll settle all expenses with you."
"Thank you, Sir Francis. Good-day!"
"Good-day! A pleasant holiday to you!"
Benson bowed his respectful thanks again, and retired.
Sir Francis Vesey, left alone, took his hat and gazed abstractedly into its silk-lined crown before putting it on his head. Then setting it aside, he drew Helmsley's letter from his pocket and read it through again. It ran as follows:—
"MY DEAR VESEY,—I had some rather bad news on the night of Miss Lucy Sorrel's birthday party. A certain speculation in which I had an interest has failed, and I have lost on the whole 'gamble.' The matter will not, however, affect my financial position. You have all your instructions in order as given to you when we last met, so I shall leave town with an easy mind. I am likely to be away for some time, and am not yet certain of my destination. Consider me, therefore, for the present as lost. Should I die suddenly, or at sickly leisure, I carry a letter on my person which will be conveyed to you, making you acquainted with the sad (?) event as soon as it occurs. And for all your kindly services in the way of both business and friendship, I owe you a vast debt of thanks, which debt shall be fully and gratefully acknowledged,—when I make my Will. I may possibly employ another lawyer than yourself for this purpose. But, for the immediate time, all my affairs are in your hands, as they have been for these twenty years or more. My business goes on as usual, of course; it is a wheel so well accustomed to regular motion that it can very well grind for a while without my personal supervision. And so far as my individual self is concerned, I feel the imperative necessity of rest and freedom. I go to find these, even if I lose myself in the endeavour. So farewell! And as old-fashioned folks used to say—'God be with you!' If there be any meaning in the phrase, it is conveyed to you in all sincerity by your old friend, "DAVID HELMSLEY."
"Cryptic, positively cryptic!" murmured Sir Francis, as he folded up the letter and put it by. "There's no clue to anything anywhere. What does he mean by a bad speculation?—a loss 'on the whole gamble'? I know—or at least I thought I knew—every number on which he had put his money. It won't affect his financial position, he says. I should think not! It would take a bigger Colossus than that of Rhodes to overshadow Helmsley in the market! But he's got some queer notion in his mind,—some scheme for finding an heir to his millions,—I'm sure he has! A fit of romance has seized him late in life,—he wants to be loved for himself alone,—which, of course, at his age, is absurd! No one loves old people, except, perhaps (in very rare cases), their children,—if the children are not hopelessly given over to self and the hour, which they generally are." He sighed, and his brows contracted. He had a spendthrift son and a "rapid" daughter, and he knew well enough how little he could depend upon them for either affection or respect.
"Old age is regarded as a sort of crime nowadays," he continued, apostrophising the dingy walls of his office, as he took his walking-stick and prepared to leave the premises—"thanks to the donkey-journalism of the period which brays down everything that is not like itself—mere froth and scum. And unlike our great classic teachers who held that old age was honourable and deserved the highest place in the senate, the present generation affects to consider a man well on the way to dotage after forty. God bless me!—what fools there are in this twentieth century!—what blatant idiots! Imagine national affairs carried on in the country by its young men! The Empire would soon became a mere football for general kicking! However, there's one thing in this Helmsley business that I'm glad of"—and his eyes twinkled—"I believe the Sorrels have lost their game! Positively, I think Miss Lucy has broken her line, and that the fish has gone without her hook in its mouth! Old as he is, David is not too old to outwit a woman! I gave him a hint, just the slightest hint in the world,—and I think he's taken it. Anyhow, he's gone,—booked for Southampton. And from Southampton a man can 'ship himself all aboard of a ship,' like Lord Bateman in the ballad, and go anywhere. Anywhere, yes!—but in this case I wonder where he will go? Possibly to America—yet no!—I think not!" And Sir Francis, descending his office stairs, went out into the broad sunshine which flooded the city streets, continuing his inward reverie as he walked,—"I think not. From what he said the other night, I fancy not even the haunting memory of 'ole Virginny' will draw him back there. 'Consider me as lost,' he says. An odd notion! David Helmsley, one of the richest men in the whole of two continents, wishes to lose himself! Impossible! He's a marked multi-millionaire,—branded with the golden sign of unlimited wealth, and as well known as a London terminus! If he were 'lost' to-day, he'd be found to-morrow. As matters stand I daresay he'll turn up all fight in a month's time and I need not worry my head any more about him!"
With this determination Sir Francis went home to luncheon, and after luncheon duly appeared driving in the Park with Lady Vesey, like the attentive and obliging husband he ever was, despite the boredom which the "Row" and the "Ladies' Mile" invariably inflicted upon him,—yet every now and then before him there rose a mental image of his old friend "King David,"—grey, sad-eyed, and lonely—flitting past like some phantom in a dream, and wandering far away from the crowded vortex of London life, where his name was as honey to a swarm of bees, into some dim unreachable region of shadow and silence, with the brief farewell:
"Consider me as lost!"
Among the many wild and lovely tangles of foliage and flower which Nature and her subject man succeed in working out together after considerable conflict and argument, one of the most beautiful and luxuriant is a Somersetshire lane. Narrow and tortuous, fortified on either side with high banks of rough turf, topped by garlands of climbing wild-rose, bunches of corn-cockles and tufts of meadow-sweet, such a lane in midsummer is one of beauty's ways through the world,—a path, which if it lead to no more important goal than a tiny village or solitary farm, is, to the dreamer and poet, sufficiently entrancing in itself to seem a fairy road to fairyland. Here and there some grand elm or beech tree, whose roots have hugged the soil for more than a century, spreads out broad protecting branches all a-shimmer with green leaves,—between the uneven tufts of grass, the dainty "ragged robin" sprays its rose-pink blossoms contrastingly against masses of snowy star-wort and wild strawberry,—the hedges lean close together, as though accustomed to conceal the shy confidences of young lovers,—and from the fields beyond, the glad singing of countless skylarks, soaring one after the other into the clear pure air, strikes a wave of repeated melody from point to point of the visible sky. All among the delicate or deep indentures of the coast, where the ocean creeps softly inland with a caressing murmur, or scoops out caverns for itself among the rocks with perpetual roar and dash of foam, the glamour of the green extends,—the "lane runs down to meet the sea, carrying with it its garlands of blossoms, its branches of verdure, and all the odour and freshness of the woodlands and meadows, and when at last it drops to a conclusion in some little sandy bay or sparkling weir, it leaves an impression of melody on the soul like the echo of a sweet song just sweetly sung. High up the lanes run;—low down on the shoreline they come to an end,—and the wayfarer, pacing along at the summit of their devious windings, can hear the plash of the sea below him as he walks,—the little tender laughing plash if the winds are calm and the day is fair,—the angry thud and boom of the billows if a storm is rising. These bye-roads, of which there are so many along the Somersetshire coast, are often very lonely,—they are dangerous to traffic, as no two ordinary sized vehicles can pass each other conveniently within so narrow a compass,—and in summer especially they are haunted by gypsies, "pea-pickers," and ill-favoured men and women of the "tramp" species, slouching along across country from Bristol to Minehead, and so over Countisbury Hill into Devon. One such questionable-looking individual there was, who,—in a golden afternoon of July, when the sun was beginning to decline towards the west,—paused in his slow march through the dust, which even in the greenest of hill and woodland ways is bound to accumulate thickly after a fortnight's lack of rain,—and with a sigh of fatigue, sat down at the foot of a tree to rest. He was an old man, with a thin weary face which was rendered more gaunt and haggard-looking by a ragged grey moustache and ugly stubble beard of some ten days' growth, and his attire suggested that he might possibly be a labourer dismissed from farm work for the heinous crime of old age, and therefore "on the tramp" looking out for a job. He wore a soft slouched felt hat, very much out of shape and weather-stained,—and when he had been seated for a few minutes in a kind of apathy of lassitude, he lifted the hat off, passing his hand through his abundant rough white hair in a slow tired way, as though by this movement he sought to soothe some teasing pain.
"I think," he murmured, addressing himself to a tiny brown bird which had alighted on a branch of briar-rose hard by, and was looking at him with bold and lively inquisitiveness,—"I think I have managed the whole thing very well! I have left no clue anywhere. My portmanteau will tell no tales, locked up in the cloak-room at Bristol. If it is ever sold with its contents 'to defray expenses,' nothing will be found in it but some unmarked clothes. And so far as all those who know me are concerned, every trace of me ends at Southampton. Beyond Southampton there is a blank, into which David Helmsley, the millionaire, has vanished. And David Helmsley, the tramp, sits here in his place!"
The little brown bird preened its wing, and glanced at him sideways intelligently, as much as to say: "I quite understand! You have become one of us,—a wanderer, taking no thought for the morrow, but letting to-morrow take thought for the things of itself. There is a bond of sympathy between me, the bird, and you, the man—we are brothers!"
A sudden smile illumined his face. The situation was novel, and to him enjoyable. He was greatly fatigued,—he had over-exerted himself during the past three or four days, walking much further than he had ever been accustomed to, and his limbs ached sorely—nevertheless, with the sense of rest and relief from strain, came a certain exhilaration of spirit, like the vivacious delight of a boy who has run away from school, and is defiantly ready to take all the consequences of his disobedience to the rules of discipline and order. For years he had wanted a "new" experience of life. No one would give him what he sought. To him the "social" round was ever the same dreary, heartless and witless thing, as empty under the sway of one king or queen as another, and as utterly profitless to peace or happiness as it has always been. The world of finance was equally uninteresting so far as he was concerned; he had exhausted it, and found it no more than a monotonous grind of gain which ended in a loathing of the thing gained. Others might and would consume themselves in fevers of avarice, and surfeits of luxury,—but for him such temporary pleasures were past. He desired a complete change,—a change of surroundings, a change of associations—and for this, what could be more excellent or more wholesome than a taste of poverty? In his time he had met men who, worn out with the constant fight of the body's materialism against the soul's idealism, had turned their backs for ever on the world and its glittering shows, and had shut themselves up as monks of "enclosed" or "silent" orders,—others he had known, who, rushing away from what we call civilisation, had encamped in the backwoods of America, or high up among the Rocky Mountains, and had lived the lives of primeval savages in their strong craving to assert a greater manliness than the streets of cities would allow them to enjoy,—and all were moved by the same mainspring of action,—the overpowering spiritual demand within themselves which urged them to break loose from cowardly conventions and escape from Sham. He could not compete with younger men in taking up wild sport and "big game" hunting in far lands, in order to give free play to the natural savage temperament which lies untamed at the root of every man's individual being,—and he had no liking for "monastic" immurements. But he longed for liberty,—liberty to go where he liked without his movements being watched and commented upon by a degraded "personal" press,—liberty to speak as he felt and do as he wished, without being compelled to weigh his words, or to consider his actions. Hence—he had decided on his present course, though how that course was likely to shape itself in its progress he had no very distinct idea. His actual plan was to walk to Cornwall, and there find out the native home of his parents, not so much for sentiment's sake as for the necessity of having a definite object or goal in view. And the reason of his determination to go "on the road," as it were, was simply that he wished to test for himself the actual happiness or misery experienced by the very poor as contrasted with the supposed joys of the very wealthy. This scheme had been working in his brain for the past year or more,—all his business arrangements had been made in such a way as to enable him to carry it out satisfactorily to himself without taking any one else into his confidence. The only thing that might possibly have deterred him from his quixotic undertaking would have been the moral triumph of Lucy Sorrel over the temptation he had held out to her. Had she been honest to her better womanhood,—had she still possessed the "child's heart," with which his remembrance and imagination had endowed her, he would have resigned every other thought save that of so smoothing the path of life for her that she might tread it easily to the end. But now that she had disappointed him, he had, so he told himself, done with fine illusions and fair beliefs for ever. And he had started on a lonely quest,—a search for something vague and intangible, the very nature of which he himself could not tell. Some glimmering ghost of a notion lurked in his mind that perhaps, during his self-imposed solitary ramblings, he might find some new and unexplored channel wherein his vast wealth might flow to good purpose after his death, without the trammels of Committee-ism and Red-Tape-ism. But he expected and formulated nothing,—he was more or less in a state of quiescence, awaiting adventures without either hope or fear. In the meantime, here he sat in the shady Somersetshire lane, resting,—the multi-millionaire whose very name shook the money-markets of the world, but who to all present appearances seemed no more than a tramp, footing it wearily along one of the many winding "short cuts" through the country between Somerset and Devon, and as unlike the actual self of him as known to Lombard Street and the Stock Exchange as a beggar is unlike a king.
"After all, it's quite as interesting as 'big game' shooting!" he said, the smile still lingering in his eyes. "I am after 'sport,'—in a novel fashion! I am on the lookout for new specimens of men and women,—real honest ones! I may find them,—I may not,—but the search will surely prove at least as instructive and profitable as if one went out to the Arctic regions for the purpose of killing innocent polar bears! Change and excitement are what every one craves for nowadays—I'm getting as much as I want—in my own way!"
He thought over the whole situation, and reviewed with a certain sense of interest and amusement his method of action since he left London. Benson, his valet, had packed his portmanteau, according to orders, with everything that was necessary for a short sea trip, and then had seen him off at the station for Southampton,—and to Southampton he had gone. Arrived there, he had proceeded to a hotel, where, under an assumed name, he had stayed the night. The next day he had left Southampton for Salisbury by train, and there staying another night, had left again for Bath and Bristol. On the latter journey he had "tipped" the guard heavily to keep his first-class compartment reserved to himself. This had been done; and the train being an express, stopping at very few stations, he had found leisure and opportunity to unpack his portmanteau and cut away every mark on his linen and other garments which could give the slightest clue to their possessor. When he had removed all possible trace of his identity on or in this one piece of luggage, he packed it up again, and on reaching Bristol, took it to the station's cloak-room, and there deposited it with the stated intention of calling back for it at the hour of the next train to London. This done, he stepped forth untrammelled, a free man. He had with him five hundred pounds in banknotes, and for a day or so was content to remain in Bristol at one of the best hotels, under an assumed name as before, while privately making such other preparations for his intended long "tramp" as he thought necessary. In one of the poorest quarters of the town he purchased a few second-hand garments such as might be worn by an ordinary day-labourer, saying to the dealer that he wanted to "rig out" a man who had just left hospital and who was going in for "field" work. The dealer saw nothing either remarkable or suspicious in this seemingly benevolent act of a kindly-looking well-dressed old gentleman, and sent him the articles he had purchased done up in a neat package and addressed to him at his hotel, by the name he had for the time assumed. When he left the hotel for good, he did so with nothing more than this neat package, which he carried easily in one hand by a loop of string. And so he began his journey, walking steadily for two or three hours,—then pausing to rest awhile,—and after rest, going on again. Once out of Bristol he was glad, and at certain lonely places, when the shadows of night fell, he changed all his garments one by one till he stood transformed as now he was. The clothes he was compelled to discard he got rid of by leaving them in unlikely holes and corners on the road,—as for example, at one place he filled the pockets of his good broadcloth coat with stones and dropped it into the bottom of an old disused well. The curious sense of guilt he felt when he performed this innocent act surprised as well as amused him.
"It is exactly as if I had murdered somebody and had sunk a body into the well instead of a coat!" he said—"and—perhaps I have! Perhaps I am killing my Self,—getting rid of my Self,—which would be a good thing, if I could only find Some one or Some thing better than my Self in my Self's place!"
When he had finally disposed of every article that could suggest any possibility of his ever having been clothed as a gentleman, he unripped the lining of his rough "workman's" vest, and made a layer of the banknotes he had with him between it and the cloth, stitching it securely over and over with coarse needle and thread, being satisfied by this arrangement to carry all his immediate cash hidden upon his person, while for the daily needs of hunger and thirst he had a few loose shillings and coppers in his pocket. He had made up his mind not to touch a single one of the banknotes, unless suddenly overtaken by accident or illness. When his bit of silver and copper came to an end, he meant to beg alms along the road and prove for himself how far it was true that human beings were in the main kind and compassionate, and ready to assist one another in the battle of life. With these ideas and many others in his mind, he started on his "tramp"—and during the first two or three days of it suffered acutely. Many years had passed since he had been accustomed to long sustained bodily exercise, and he was therefore easily fatigued. But by the time he reached the open country between the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills, he had got somewhat into training, and had begun to feel a greater lightness and ease as well as pleasure in walking. He had found it quite easy to live on very simple food,—in fact one of the principal charms of the strange "holiday" he had planned for his own entertainment was to prove for himself beyond all dispute that no very large amount of money is required to sustain a man's life and health. New milk and brown bread had kept him going bravely every day,—fruit was cheap and so was cheese, and all these articles of diet are highly nourishing, so that he had wanted for nothing. At night, the weather keeping steadily fine and warm, he had slept in the open, choosing some quiet nook in the woodland under a tree, or else near a haystack in the fields, and he had benefited greatly by thus breathing the pure air during slumber, and getting for nothing the "cure" prescribed by certain Artful Dodgers of the medical profession who take handfuls of guineas from credulous patients for what Mother Nature willingly gives gratis. And he was beginning to understand the joys of "loafing,"—so much so indeed that he felt a certain sympathy with the lazy varlet who prefers to stroll aimlessly about the country begging his bread rather than do a stroke of honest work. The freedom of such a life is self-evident,—and freedom is the broadest and best way of breathing on earth. To "tramp the road" seems to the well-dressed, conventional human being a sorry life; but it may be questioned whether, after all, he with his social trammels and household cares, is not leading a sorrier one. Never in all his brilliant, successful career till now had David Helmsley, that king of modern finance, realised so intensely the beauty and peace of being alone with Nature,—the joy of feeling the steady pulse of the Spirit of the Universe throbbing through one's own veins and arteries,—the quiet yet exultant sense of knowing instinctively beyond all formulated theory or dogma, that one is a vital part of the immortal Entity, as indestructible as Itself. And a great calm was gradually taking possession of his soul,—a smoothing of all the waves of his emotional and nervous temperament. Under this mystic touch of unseen and uncomprehended heavenly tenderness, all sorrows, all disappointments, all disillusions sank out of sight as though they had never been. It seemed to him that he had put away his former life for ever, and that another life had just begun,—and his brain was ready and eager to rid itself of old impressions in order to prepare for new. Nothing of much moment had occurred to him as yet. A few persons had said "good-day " or "good-night" to him in passing,—a farmer had asked him to hold his horse for a quarter of an hour, which he had done, and had thereby earned threepence,—but he had met with no interesting or exciting incidents which could come under the head of "adventures." Nevertheless he was gathering fresh experiences,—experiences which all tended to show him how the best and brightest part of life is foolishly wasted and squandered by the modern world in a mad rush for gain.
"So very little money really suffices for health, contentment, and harmless pleasure!" he thought. "The secret of our growing social mischief does not lie with the natural order of created things, but solely with ourselves. We will not set any reasonable limit to our desires. If we would, we might live longer and be far happier!"
He stretched out his limbs easefully, and dropped into a reclining posture. The tree he had chosen to rest under was a mighty elm, whose broad branches, thick with leaves, formed a deep green canopy through which the sunbeams filtered in flecks and darts of gold. A constant twittering of birds resounded within this dome of foliage, and a thrush whistled melodious phrases from one of the highest boughs. At his feet was spread a carpet of long soft moss, interspersed with wild thyme and groups of delicate harebells, and the rippling of a tiny stream into a hollow cavity of stones made pleasant and soothing music. Charmed with the tranquillity and loveliness of his surroundings, he determined to stay here for a couple of hours, reading, and perhaps sleeping, before resuming his journey. He had in his pocket a shilling edition of Keats's poems which he had bought in Bristol by way of a silent companion to his thoughts, and he took it out and opened it now, reading and re-reading some of the lines most dear and familiar to him, when, as a boy, he had elected this poet, so wickedly done to death ere his prime by commonplace critics, as one of his chief favourites among the highest Singers. And his lips, half-murmuring, followed the verse which tells of that
"untrodden region of the mind, Where branched thoughts, new-grown with pleasant pain, Instead of pines, shall murmur in the wind; Far, far around shall these dark clustered trees, Fledge the wild ridged mountains steep by steep, And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds and bees, The moss-lain Dryads shall be lulled to sleep; And in the midst of this wide quietness, A rosy sanctuary will I dress With the wreathed trellis of a working brain, With buds and bells and stars without a name, With all the gardener Fancy e'er could feign, Who, breeding flowers, will never breed the same; And there shall be for thee all soft delight, That shadowy thought can win, A bright torch and a casement ope at night, To let the warm Love in!"
A slight sigh escaped him.
"How perfect is that stanza!" he said. "How I used to believe in all it suggested! And how, when I was a young man, my heart was like that 'casement ope at night, to let the warm Love in!' But Love never came,—only a spurious will-o'-the-wisp imitation of Love. I wonder if many people in this world are not equally deceived with myself in their conceptions of this divine passion? All the poets and romancists may be wrong,—and Lucy Sorrel, with her hard materialism encasing her youth like a suit of steel armour, may be right. Boys and girls 'love,' so they say,—men and women 'love' and marry—and with marriage, the wondrous light that led them on and dazzled them, seems, in nine cases out of ten, to suddenly expire! Taking myself as an example, I cannot say that actual marriage made me happy. It was a great disillusion; a keen disappointment. The birth of my sons certainly gave me some pleasure as well as latent hope, for as little children they were lovable and lovely; but as boys—as men—what bitterness they brought me! Were they the heirs of Love? Nay!—surely Love never generated such callous hearts! They were the double reflex of their mother's nature, grasping all and giving nothing. Is there no such virtue on earth as pure unselfish Love?—love that gives itself freely, unasked, without hope of advantage or reward—and without any personal motive lurking behind its offered tenderness?"
He turned over the pages of the book he held, with a vague idea that some consoling answer to his thoughts would flash out in a stray line or stanza, like a beacon lighting up the darkness of a troubled sea. But no such cheering word met his eyes. Keats is essentially the poet of the young, and for the old he has no comfort. Sensuous, passionate, and almost cloying in the excessive sweetness of his amorous muse, he offers no support to the wearied spirit,—no sense of strength or renewal to the fagged brain. He does not grapple with the hard problems of life; and his mellifluous murmurings of delicious fantasies have no place in the poignant griefs and keen regrets of those who have passed the meridian of earthly hopes, and who see the shadows of the long night closing in. And David Helmsley realised this all suddenly, with something of a pang.
"I am too old for Keats," he said in a half-whisper to the leafy branches that bowed their weight of soft green shelteringly over him. "Too old! Too old for a poet in whose imaginative work I vised to take such deep delight. There is something strange in this, for I cherished a belief that fine poetry would fit every time and every age, and that no matter how heavy the burden of years might be, I should always be able to forget myself and my sorrows in a poet's immortal creations. But I have left Keats behind me. He was with me in the sunshine,—he does not follow me into the shade."
A cloud of melancholy darkened his worn features, and he slowly closed the book. He felt that it was from henceforth a sealed letter. For him the half-sad, half-scornful musings of Omar Khayyam were more fitting, such as the lines that run thus:—
"Fair wheel of heaven, silvered with many a star, Whose sickly arrows strike us from afar, Never a purpose to my soul was dear, But heaven crashed down my little dream to mar.
Never a bird within my sad heart sings But heaven a flaming stone of thunder flings; O valiant wheel! O most courageous heaven, To leave me lonely with the broken wings!"
tinging pain, as of tears that rose but would not fall, troubled his eyes. He passed his hand across them, and leaned back against the sturdy trunk of the elm which served him for the moment as a protecting haven of rest. The gentle murmur of the bees among the clover, the soft subdued twittering of the birds, and the laughing ripple of the little stream hard by, all combined to make one sweet monotone of sound which lulled his senses to a drowsiness that gradually deepened into slumber. He made a pathetic figure enough, lying fast asleep there among the wilderness of green,—a frail and apparently very poor old man, adrift and homeless, without a friend in the world. The sun sank, and a crimson after-glow spread across the horizon from west to east, the rich colours flung up from the centre of the golden orb merging by slow degrees into that pure pearl-grey which marks the long and lovely summer twilight of English skies. The air was very still, not so much as the rumble of a distant cart wheel disturbing the silence. Presently, however, the slow shuffle of hesitating footsteps sounded through the muffling thickness of the dust, and a man made his appearance on the top of the little rising where the lane climbed up into a curve of wild-rose hedge and honeysuckle which almost hid the actual road from view. He was not a prepossessing object in the landscape; short and squat, unkempt and dirty, and clad in rough garments which were almost past hanging together, he looked about as uncouth and ugly a customer as one might expect to meet anywhere on a lonely road at nightfall. He carried a large basket on his back, seemingly full of weeds,—the rope which supported it was tied across his chest, and he clasped this rope with both hands crossed in the middle, after the fashion of a praying monk. Smoking a short black pipe, he trudged along, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground with steady and almost surly persistence, till arriving at the tree where Helmsley lay, he paused, and lifting his head stared long and curiously at the sleeping man. Then, unclasping his hands, he lowered his basket to the ground and set it down. Stealthily creeping close up to Helmsley's side, he examined the prone figure from head to foot with quick and eager scrutiny. Spying the little volume of Keats on the grass where it had dropped from the slumberer's relaxed hand, he took it up gingerly, turning over its pages with grimy thumb and finger.
"Portry!" he ejaculated. "Glory be good to me! 'E's a reg'ler noddy none-such! An' measly old enuff to know better!"
He threw the book on the grass again with a sniff of contempt. At that moment Helmsley stirred, and opening his eyes fixed them full and inquiringly on the lowering face above him.
"'Ullo, gaffer! Woke up, 'ave yer?" said the man gruffly. "Off yer lay?"
Helmsley raised himself on one elbow, looking a trifle dazed.
"Off my what?" he murmured. "I didn't quite hear you——?"
"Oh come, stow that!" said the man. "You dunno what I'm talkin' about; that's plain as a pike. You aint used to the road! Where d'ye come from?"
"I've walked from Bristol," he answered—"And you're quite right,—I'm not used to the road."
The man looked at him and his hard face softened. Pushing back his tattered cap from his brows he showed his features more openly, and a smile, half shrewd, half kindly, made them suddenly pleasant.
"Av coorse you're not!" he declared. "Glory be good to me! I've tramped this bit o' road for years, an' never come across such a poor old chuckle-headed gammer as you sleepin' under a tree afore! Readin' portry an' droppin' to by-by over it! The larst man as iver I saw a' readin' portry was what they called a 'Serious Sunday' man, an' 'e's doin' time now in Portland."
Helmsley smiled. He was amused;—his "adventures," he thought, were beginning. To be called "a poor old chuckle-headed gammer" was a new and almost delightful experience.
"Portland's an oncommon friendly place," went on his uninvited companion. "Once they gits ye, they likes ye to stop. 'Taint like the fash'nable quality what says to their friends: 'Do-ee come an' stay wi' me, loveys!' wishin' all the while as they wouldn't. Portland takes ye willin', whether ye likes it or not, an' keeps ye so fond that ye can't git away nohow. Oncommon 'ospitable Portland be!"
And he broke into a harsh laugh. Then he glanced at Helmsley again with a more confiding and favourable eye.
"Ye seems a 'spectable sort," he said. "What's wrong wi' ye? Out o' work?"
"Turned off, eh? Too old?"
"That's about it!" he answered.
"Well, ye do look a bit of a shivery-shake,—a kind o' not-long-for-this-world," said the man. "Howsomiver, we'se be all 'elpless an' 'omeless soon, for the Lord hisself don't stop a man growin' old, an' under the new ways o' the world, it's a reg'lar crime to run past forty. I'm sixty, an' I gits my livin' my own way, axin' nobody for the kind permission. That's my fortin!"
And he pointed to the basket of weedy stuff which he had just set down. Helmsley looked at it with some curiosity.
"What's in it?" he asked.
"What's in it? What's not in it!" And the man gave a gesture of mingled pride and defiance. "There's all what the doctors makes their guineas out of with their purr-escriptions, for they can't purr-escribe no more than is in that there basket without they goes to minerals. An' minerals is rank poison to ivery 'uman body. But so far as 'erbs an' seeds, an' precious stalks an' flowers is savin' grace for man an' beast, Matthew Peke's got 'em all in there. An' Matthew Peke wouldn't be the man he is, if he didn't know where to find 'em better'n any livin' soul iver born! Ah!—an' there aint a toad in a hole hoppin' out between Quantocks an' Cornwall as hasn't seen Matthew Peke gatherin' the blessin' an' health o' the fields at rise o' sun an' set o' moon, spring, summer, autumn, ay, an' even winter, all the year through!"
Helmsley became interested.
"And you are the man!" he said questioningly—"You are Matthew Peke?"
"I am! An' proud so ter be! An' you—'ave yer got a name for the arskin'?"
"Why, certainly!" And Helmsley's pale face flushed. "My name is David."
"Chrisen name? Surname?"
Matthew Peke shook his head.
"'Twon't fadge!" he declared. "It don't sound right. It's like th' owld Bible an' the Book o' Kings where there's nowt but Jews; an' Jews is the devil to pay wheriver you finds 'em!"
"I'm not a Jew," said Helmsley, smiling.
"Mebbe not—mebbe not—but yer name's awsome like it. An' if ye put it short, like D. David, that's just Damn David an' nothin' plainer. Aint it?"
"Exactly!" he said—"You're right! Damn David suits me down to the ground!"
Peke looked at him dubiously, as one who is not quite sure of his man.
"You're a rum old sort!" he said; "an' I tell ye what it is—you're as tired as a dog limpin' on three legs as has nipped his fourth in a weasel-trap. Wheer are ye goin' on to?"
"I don't know," answered Helmsley—"I'm a stranger to this part of the country. But I mean to tramp it to the nearest village. I slept out in the open yesterday,—I think I'd like a shelter over me to-night."
"Got any o' the King's pictures about ye?" asked Peke.
Helmsley looked, as he felt, bewildered.
"The King's pictures?" he echoed—"You mean——?"
"This!" and Peke drew out of his tattered trouser pocket a dim and blackened sixpence—"'Ere 'e is, as large as life, a bit bald about the top o' 'is blessed old 'ead, Glory be good to 'im, but as useful as if all 'is 'air was still a blowin' an' a growin'! Aint that the King's picture, D. David? Don't it say 'Edwardus VII. D. G. Britt.,' which means Edward the Seventh, thanks be to God Britain? Don't it?"
"It do!" replied Helmsley emphatically, taking a fantastic pleasure in the bad grammar of his reply. "I've got a few more pictures of the same kind," and he took out two or three loose shillings and pennies—"Can we get a night's lodging about here for that?"
"Av coorse we can! I'll take ye to a place where ye'll be as welcome as the flowers in May with Matt Peke interroducin' of ye. Two o' them thank-God Britts in silver will set ye up wi' a plate o' wholesome food an' a clean bed at the 'Trusty Man.' It's a pub, but Miss Tranter what keeps it is an old maid, an' she's that proud o' the only 'Trusty Man' she ever 'ad that she calls it an 'Otel!"
He grinned good-humouredly at what he considered his own witticism concerning the little weakness of Miss Tranter, and proceeded to shoulder his basket.
"You aint proud, are ye?" he said, as he turned his ferret-brown eyes on Helmsley inquisitively.
Helmsley, who had, quite unconsciously to himself, drawn up his spare figure in his old habitual way of standing very erect, with that composed air of dignity and resolution which those who knew him personally in business were well accustomed to, started at the question.
"Proud!" he exclaimed—"I? What have I to be proud of? I'm the most miserable old fellow in the world, my friend! You may take my word for that! There's not a soul that cares a button whether I live or die! I'm seventy years of age—out of work, and utterly wretched and friendless! Why the devil should I be proud?"
"Well, if ye never was proud in yer life, ye can be now," said Peke condescendingly, "for I tell ye plain an' true that if Matt Peke walks with a tramp on this road, every one round the Quantocks knows as how that tramp aint altogether a raskill! I've took ye up on trust as 'twere, likin' yer face for all that it's thin an' mopish,—an' steppin' in wi' me to the 'Trusty Man' will mebbe give ye a character. Anyways, I'll do my best for ye!"
"Thank you," said Helmsley simply.
Again Peke looked at him, and again seemed troubled. Then, stuffing his pipe full of tobacco, he lit it and stuck it sideways between his teeth.
"Now come along!" he said. "You're main old, but ye must put yer best foot foremost all the same. We've more'n an hour's trampin' up hill an' down dale, an' the dew's beginnin' to fall. Keep goin' slow an' steady—I'll give ye a hand."
For a moment Helmsley hesitated. This shaggy, rough, uncouth herb-gatherer evidently regarded him as very feeble and helpless, and, out of a latent kindliness of nature, wished to protect him and see him to some safe shelter for the night. Nevertheless, he hated the position. Old as he knew himself to be, he resented being pitied for his age, while his mind was yet so vigorous and his heart felt still so warm and young. Yet the commonplace fact remained that he was very tired,—very worn out, and conscious that only a good rest would enable him to continue his journey with comfort. Moreover, his experiences at the "Trusty Man" might prove interesting. It was best to take what came in his way, even though some episodes should possibly turn out less pleasing than instructive. So putting aside all scruples, he started to walk beside his ragged comrade of the road, finding, with some secret satisfaction, that after a few paces his own step was light and easy compared to the heavy shuffling movement with which Peke steadily trudged along. Sweet and pungent odours of the field and woodland floated from the basket of herbs as it swung slightly to and fro on its bearer's shoulders, and amid the slowly darkening shadows of evening, a star of sudden silver brilliance sparkled out in the sky.
"Yon's the first twinkler," said Peke, seeing it at once, though his gaze was apparently fixed on the ground. "The love-star's allus up early o' nights to give the men an' maids a chance!"
"Yes,—Venus is the evening star just now," rejoined Helmsley, half-absently.
"Stow Venus! That's a reg'lar fool's name," said Peke surlily. "Where did ye git it from? That aint no Venus,—that's just the love-star, an' it'll be nowt else in these parts till the world-without-end-amen!"
Helmsley made no answer. He walked on patiently, his limbs trembling a little with fatigue and nervous exhaustion. But Peke's words had started the old dream of his life again into being,—the latent hope within him, which though often half-killed, was not yet dead, flamed up like newly kindled vital fire in his mind,—and he moved as in a dream, his eyes fixed on the darkening heavens and the brightening star.
They plodded on together side by side for some time in unbroken silence. At last, after a short but stiff climb up a rough piece of road which terminated in an eminence commanding a wide and uninterrupted view of the surrounding country, they paused. The sea lay far below them, dimly covered by the gathering darkness, and the long swish and roll of the tide could be heard sweeping to and from the shore like the grave and graduated rhythm of organ music.
"We'd best 'ave a bit of a jabber to keep us goin'," said Peke, then—"Jabberin' do pass time, as the wimin can prove t' ye; an' arter such a jumblegut lane as this, it'll seem less lonesome. We're off the main road to towns an' sich like—this is a bye, an' 'ere it stops. We'll 'ave to git over yon stile an' cross the fields—'taint an easy nor clean way, but it's the best goin'. We'll see the lights o' the 'Trusty Man' just over the brow o' the next hill."
Helmsley drew a long breath, and sat down on a stone by the roadside. Peke surveyed him critically.
"Poor old gaffer! Knocked all to pieces, aint ye! Not used to the road? Glory be good to me! I should think ye wornt! Short in yer wind an' weak on yer pins! I'd as soon see my old grandad trampin' it as you. Look 'ere! Will ye take a dram out o' this 'ere bottle?"
He held up the bottle he spoke of,—it was black, and untemptingly dirty. Yet there was such a good-natured expression in the man's eyes, and so much honest solicitude written on his rough bearded face, that Helmsley felt it would be almost like insulting him to refuse his invitation.
"Tell me what's in it first!" he said, smiling.
"'Taint whisky," said Peke. "And 'taint brandy neither. Nor rum. Nor gin. Nor none o' them vile stuffs which brewers makes as arterwards goes to Parl'ment on the profits of 'avin' poisoned their constitooants. 'Tis nowt but just yerb wine."
"Yerb wine? Wine made of herbs?"
"That's it! 'Erbs or yerbs—I aint pertikler which—I sez both. This,"—and he shook the bottle he held vigorously—"is genuine yerb wine—an' made as I makes it, what do the Wise One say of it? 'E sez:—'It doth strengthen the heart of a man mightily, and refresheth the brain; drunk fasting, it braceth up the sinews and maketh the old feel young; it is of rare virtue to expel all evil humours, and if princes should drink of it oft it would be but an ill service to the world, as they might never die!'"
Peke recited these words slowly and laboriously; it was evident that he had learned them by heart, and that the effort of remembering them correctly was more or less painful to him.
Helmsley laughed, and stretched out his hand.
"Give it over here!" he said. "It's evidently just the stuff for me. How much shall I take at one go?"
Peke uncorked the precious fluid with care, smelt it, and nodded appreciatively.
"Swill it all if ye like," he remarked graciously. "'Twont hurt ye, an' there's more where that came from. It's cheap enuff, too—nature don't keep it back from no man. On'y there aint a many got sense enuff to thank the Lord when it's offered."
As he thus talked, Helmsley took the bottle from him and tasted its contents. The "yerb wine" was delicious. More grateful to his palate than Chambertin or Clos Vougeot, it warmed and invigorated him, and he took a long draught, Matthew Peke watching him drink it with great satisfaction.
"Let the yerbs run through yer veins for two or three minits, an' ye'll step across yon fields as light as a bird 'oppin' to its nest," he declared. "Talk o' tonics,—there's more tonic in a handful o' green stuff growin' as the Lord makes it to grow, than all the purr-escriptions what's sent out o' them big 'ouses in 'Arley Street, London, where the doctors sits from ten to two like spiders waitin' for flies, an' gatherin' in the guineas for lookin' at fools' tongues. Glory be good to me! If all the world were as sick as it's silly, there'd be nowt wantin' to 't but a grave an' a shovel!"
Helmsley smiled, and taking another pull at the black bottle, declared himself much better and ready to go on. He was certainly refreshed, and the weary aching of his limbs which had made every step of the road painful and difficult to him, was gradually passing off.
"You are very good to me," he said, as he returned the remainder of the "yerb wine" to its owner. "I wonder why?"
Peke took a draught of his mixture before replying. Then corking the bottle, he thrust it in his pocket.
"Ye wonders why?" And he uttered a sound between a grunt and a chuckle—"Ye may do that! I wonders myself!"
And, giving his basket a hitch, he resumed his slow trudging movement onward.
"You see," pursued Helmsley, keeping up the pace beside him, and beginning to take pleasure in the conversation—"I may be anything or anybody——"
"Ye may that," agreed Peke, his eyes fixed as usual on the ground. "Ye may be a jail-bird or a missioner,—they'se much of a muchity, an' goes on the road lookin' quite simple like, an' the simpler they seems the deeper they is. White 'airs an' feeble legs 'elps 'em along considerable,—nowt's better stock-in-trade than tremblin' shins. Or ye might be a War-office neglect,—ye looks a bit set that way."
"What's a War-office neglect?" asked Helmsley, laughing.
"One o' them totterin' old chaps as was in the Light Brigade," answered Peke. "There's no end to 'em. They'se all over every road in the country. All of 'em fought wi' Lord Cardigan, an' all o' 'em's driven to starve by an ungrateful Gov'ment. They won't be all dead an' gone till a hundred years 'as rolled away, an' even then I shouldn't wonder if one or two was still left on the tramp a-pipin' his little 'arf-a-league onard tale o' woe to the first softy as forgits the date o' the battle." Here he gave an inquisitive side-glance at his companion. "But you aint quite o' the Balaclava make an' colour. Yer shoulders is millingterry, but yer 'ead is business. Ye might be a gentleman if 'twornt for yer clothes."
Helmsley heard this definition of himself without flinching.
"I might be a thief," he said—"or an escaped convict. You've been kind to me without knowing whether I am one or the other, or both. And I want to know why?"
Peke stopped in his walk. They had come to the stile over which the way lay across the fields, and he rested himself and his basket for a moment against it.
"Why?" he repeated,—then suddenly raising one hand, he whispered, "Listen! Listen to the sea!"
The evening had now almost closed in, and all around them the country lay dark and solitary, broken here and there by tall groups of trees which at night looked like sable plumes, standing stiff and motionless in the stirless summer air. Thousands of stars flashed out across this blackness, throbbing in their orbits with a quick pulsation as of uneasy hearts beating with nameless and ungratified longing. And through the tense silence came floating a long, sweet, passionate cry,—a shivering moan of pain that touched the edge of joy,—a song without words, of pleading and of prayer, as of a lover, who, debarred from the possession of the beloved, murmurs his mingled despair and hope to the unsubstantial dream of his own tortured soul. The sea was calling to the earth,—calling to her in phrases of eloquent and urgent music,—caressing her pebbly shores with winding arms of foam, and showering kisses of wild spray against her rocky bosom. "If I could come to thee! If thou couldst come to me!" was the burden of the waves,—the ceaseless craving of the finite for the infinite, which is, and ever shall be, the great chorale of life. The shuddering sorrow of that low rhythmic boom of the waters rising and falling fathoms deep under cliffs which the darkness veiled from view, awoke echoes from the higher hills around, and David Helmsley, lifting his eyes to the countless planet-worlds sprinkled thick as flowers in the patch of sky immediately above him, suddenly realised with a pang how near he was to death,—how very near to that final drop into the unknown where the soul of man is destined to find All or Nothing! He trembled,—not with fear,—but with a kind of anger at himself for having wasted so much of his life. What had he done, with all his toil and pains? He had gathered a multitude of riches. Well, and then? Then,—why then, and now, he had found riches but vain getting. Life and Death were still, as they have always been, the two supreme Facts of the universe. Life, as ever, asserted itself with an insistence demanding something far more enduring than the mere possession of gold, and the power which gold brings. And Death presented its unwelcome aspect in the same perpetual way as the Last Recorder who, at the end of the day, closes up accounts with a sum-total paid exactly in proportion to the work done. No more, and no less. And with Helmsley these accounts were reaching a figure against which his whole nature fiercely rebelled,—the figure of Nought, showing no value in his life's efforts or its results. And the sound of the sea to-night in his ears was more full of reproach than peace.
"When the water moans like that," said Peke softly, under his breath, "it seems to me as if all the tongues of drowned sailors 'ad got into it an' was beggin' of us not to forget 'em lyin' cold among the shells an' weed. An' not only the tongues o' them seems a-speakin' an' a-cryin', but all the stray bones o' them seems to rattle in the rattle o' the foam. It goes through ye sharp, like a knife cuttin' a sour apple; an' it's made me wonder many a time why we was all put 'ere to git drowned or smashed or choked off or beat down somehows just when we don't expect it. Howsomiver, the Wise One sez it's all right!"
"And who is the Wise One?" asked Helmsley, trying to rouse himself from the heavy thoughts engendered in his mind by the wail of the sea.
"The Wise One was a man what wrote a book a 'underd years ago about 'erbs," said Peke. "'The Way o' Long Life,' it's called, an' my father an' grandfather and great-grandfather afore 'em 'ad the book, an' I've got it still, though I shows it to nobody, for nobody but me wouldn't unnerstand it. My father taught me my letters from it, an' I could spell it out when I was a kid—I've growed up on it, an' it's all I ever reads. It's 'ere"—and he touched his ragged vest. "I trusts it to keep me goin' 'ale an' 'arty till I'm ninety,—an' that's drawin' it mild, for my father lived till a 'underd, an' then on'y went through slippin' on a wet stone an' breakin' a bone in 'is back; an' my grandfather saw 'is larst Christmas at a 'underd an' ten, an' was up to kissin' a wench under the mistletoe, 'e was sich a chirpin' old gamecock. 'E didn't look no older'n you do now, an' you're a chicken compared to 'im. You've wore badly like, not knowin' the use o' yerbs."
"That's it!" said Helmsley, now following his companion over the stile and into the dark dewy fields beyond—"I need the advice of the Wise One! Has he any remedy for old age, I wonder?"
"Ay, now there ye treads on my fav'rite corn!" and Peke shook his head with a curious air of petulance. "That's what I'm a-lookin' for day an' night, for the Wise One 'as got a bit in 'is book which 'e's cropped out o' another Wise One's savin's,—a chap called Para-Cel-Sus"—and Peke pronounced this name in three distinct and well-divided syllables. "An this is what it is: 'Take the leaves of the Daura, which prevent those who use it from dying for a hundred and twenty years. In the same way the flower of the secta croa brings a hundred years to those who use it, whether they be of lesser or of longer age.' I've been on the 'unt for the 'Daura' iver since I was twenty, an' I've arskt ivery 'yerber I've ivir met for the 'Secta Croa,' an' all I've 'ad sed to me is 'Go 'long wi' ye for a loony jackass! There aint no sich thing.' But jackass or no, I'm of a mind to think there is such things as both the 'Daura' an' the 'Secta Croa,' if I on'y knew the English of 'em. An' s'posin' I ivir found 'em——"
"You would become that most envied creature of the present age,—a millionaire," said Helmsley; "you could command your own terms for the wonderful leaves,—you would cease to tramp the road or to gather herbs, and you would live in luxury like a king!"
"Not I!"—and Peke gave a grunt of contempt. "Kings aint my notion of 'appiness nor 'onesty neither. They does things often for which some o' the poor 'ud be put in quod, an' no mercy showed 'em, an' yet 'cos they're kings they gits off. An' I aint great on millionaires neither. They'se mis'able ricketty coves, all gone to pot in their in'ards through grubbin' money an' eatin' of it like, till ivery other kind o' food chokes 'em. There's a chymist in London what pays me five shillings an ounce for a little green yerb I knows on, cos' it's the on'y med'cine as keeps a millionaire customer of 'is a-goin'. I finds the yerb, an' the chymist gits the credit. I gits five shillin', an' the chymist gits a guinea. That's all right! I don't mind! I on'y gathers,—the chymist, 'e's got to infuse the yerb, distil an' bottle it. I'm paid my price, an 'e's paid 'is. All's fair in love an' war!"
He trudged on, his footsteps now rendered almost noiseless by the thick grass on which he trod. The heavy dew sparkled on every blade, and here and there the pale green twinkle of a glow-worm shone like a jewel dropped from a lady's gown. Helmsley walked beside his companion at an even pace,—the "yerb wine" had undoubtedly put strength in him and he was almost unconscious of his former excessive fatigue. He was interested in Peke's "jabber," and wondered, somewhat enviously, why such a man as this, rough, ragged, and uneducated, should seem to possess a contentment such as he had never known.
"Millionaires is gin'rally fools," continued Peke; "they buys all they wants, an' then they aint got nothin' more to live for. They gits into motor-cars an' scours the country, but they never sees it. They never 'ears the birds singin', an' they misses all the flowers. They never smells the vi'lets nor the mayblossom—they on'y gits their own petrol stench wi' the flavour o' the dust mixed in. Larst May I was a-walkin' in the lanes o' Devon, an' down the 'ill comes a motor-car tearin' an' scorchin' for all it was worth, an' bang went somethin' at the bottom o' the thing, an' it stops suddint. Out jumps a French chauffy, parlyvooin' to hisself, an' out jumps the man what owns it an' takes off his goggles. 'This is Devonshire, my man?' sez 'e to me. 'It is,' I sez to 'im. An' then the cuckoo started callin' away over the trees. 'What's that?' sez 'e lookin' startled like. 'That's the cuckoo,' sez I. An' he takes off 'is 'at an' rubs 'is 'ead, which was a' fast goin' bald. 'Dear, dear me!' sez 'e—'I 'aven't 'eard the cuckoo since I was a boy!' An' he rubs 'is 'ead again, an' laughs to hisself—'Not since I was a boy!' 'e sez. 'An' that's the cuckoo, is it? Dear, dear me!' 'You 'aven't bin much in the country p'r'aps?' sez I. 'I'm always in the country,' 'e sez—'I motor everywhere, but I've missed the cuckoo somehow!' An' then the chauffy puts the machine right, an' he jumps in an' gives me a shillin'. 'Thank-ye, my man!' sez 'e—'I'm glad you told me 'twas a real cuckoo!' Hor—er—hor—er—hor—er!" And Peke gave vent to a laugh peculiarly his own. "Mebbe 'e thought I'd got a Swiss clock with a sham cuckoo workin' it in my basket! 'I'm glad,' sez 'e, 'you told me 'twas a real cuckoo!' Hor—er—hor—er—hor—er!"
The odd chuckling sounds of merriment which were slowly jerked forth as it were from Peke's husky windpipe, were droll enough in themselves to be somewhat infectious, and Helmsley laughed as he had not done for many days.
"Ay, there's a mighty sight of tringum-trangums an' nonsense i' the world," went on Peke, still occasionally giving vent to a suppressed "Hor—er—hor"—"an' any amount o' Tom Conys what don't know a real cuckoo from a sham un'. Glory be good to me! Think o' the numskulls as goes in for pendlecitis! There's a fine name for ye! Pendlecitis! Hor—er—hor! All the fash'nables 'as got it, an' all the doctors 'as their knives sharpened an' ready to cut off the remains o' the tail we 'ad when we was all 'appy apes together! Hor—er—hor! An' the bit o' tail 's curled up in our in'ards now where it ain't got no business to be. Which shows as 'ow Natur' don't know 'ow to do it, seein' as if we 'adn't wanted a tail, she'd a' took it sheer off an' not left any behind. But the doctors thinks they knows a darn sight better'n Natur', an' they'll soon be givin' lessons in the makin' o' man to the Lord A'mighty hisself! Hor—er—hor! Pendlecitis! That's a precious monkey's tail, that there! In my grandfather's day we didn't 'ear 'bout no monkey's tails,—'twas just a chill an' inflammation o' the in'ards, an' a few yerbs made into a tea an' drunk 'ot fastin', cured it in twenty-four hours. But they've so many new-fangled notions nowadays, they've forgot all the old 'uns. There's the cancer illness,—people goes off all over the country now from cancer as never used to in my father's day, an' why? 'Cos they'se gittin' too wise for Nature's own cure. Nobody thinks o' tryin' agrimony,—water agrimony—some calls it water hemp an' bastard agrimony—'tis a thing that flowers in this month an' the next,—a brown-yellow blossom on a purple stalk, an' ye find it in cold places, in ponds an' ditches an' by runnin' waters. Make a drink of it, an' it'll mend any cancer, if 'taint too far gone. An' a cancer that's outside an' not in, 'ull clean away beautiful wi' the 'elp o' red clover. Even the juice o' nettles, which is common enough, drunk three times a day will kill any germ o' cancer, while it'll set up the blood as fresh an' bright as iver. But who's a-goin' to try common stuff like nettles an' clover an' water hemp, when there's doctors sittin' waitin' wi' knives an' wantin' money for cuttin' up their patients an' 'urryin' 'em into kingdom-come afore their time! Glory be good to me! What wi' doctors an' 'omes an' nusses, an' all the fuss as a sick man makes about hisself in these days, I'd rather be as I am, Matt Peke, a-wanderin' by hill an' dale, an' lyin' down peaceful to die under a tree when my times comes, than take any part wi' the pulin' cowards as is afraid o' cold an' fever an' wet feet an' the like, just as if they was poor little shiverin' mice instead o' men. Take 'em all round, the wimin's the bravest at bearin' pain,—they'll smile while they'se burnin' so as it sha'n't ill-convenience anybody. Wonderful sufferers, is wimin!"
"Yet they are selfish enough sometimes," said Helmsley, quickly.
"Selfish? Wheer was ye born, D. David?" queried Peke—"An' what wimin 'ave ye know'd? Town or country?"
Helmsley was silent.
"Arsk no questions an' ye'll be told no lies!" commented Peke, with a chuckle. "I sees! Ye've bin a gay old chunk in yer time, mebbe! An' it's the wimin as goes in for gay old chunks as ye've made all yer larnin of. But they ain't wimin—not as the country knows 'em. Country wimin works all day an' as often as not dandles a babby all night,—they've not got a minnit but what they aint a-troublin' an' a-worryin' 'bout 'usband or childer, an' their faces is all writ over wi' the curse o' the garden of Eden. Selfish? They aint got the time! Up at cock-crow, scrubbin' the floors, washin' the babies, feedin' the fowls or the pigs, peelin' the taters, makin' the pot boil, an' tryin' to make out 'ow twelve shillin's an' sixpence a week can be made to buy a pound's worth o' food, trapsin' to market, an' wonderin' whether the larst born in the cradle aint somehow got into the fire while mother's away,—'opin' an' prayin' for the Lord's sake as 'usband don't come 'ome blind drunk,—where's the room for any selfishness in sich a life as that?—the life lived by 'undreds o' wimin all over this 'ere blessed free country? Get 'long wi' ye, D. David! Old as y' are, ye 'ad a mother in yer time,—an' I'll take my Gospel oath there was a bit o' good in 'er!"
Helmsley stopped abruptly in his walk.
"You are right, man!" he said, "And I am wrong! You know women better than I do, and—you give me a lesson! One is never too old to learn,"—and he smiled a rather pained smile. "But—I have had a bad experience!"
"Well, if y'ave 'ad it ivir so bad, yer 'xperience aint every one's," retorted Peke. "If one fly gits into the soup, that don't argify that the hull pot 's full of 'em. An' there's more good wimin than bad—takin' 'em all round an' includin' 'op pickers, gypsies an' the like. Even Miss Tranter aint wantin' in feelin', though she's a bit sour like, owin' to 'avin missed a 'usband an' all the savin' worrity wear-an-tear a 'usband brings, but she aint arf bad. Yon's the lamp of 'er 'Trusty Man' now."
A gleam of light, not much larger than the glitter of one of the glow-worms in the grass, was just then visible at the end of the long field they were traversing.
"That's an old cart-road down there wheer it stands," continued Peke. "As bad a road as ivir was made, but it runs straight into Devonshire, an' it's a good place for a pub. For many a year 'twornt used, bein' so rough an' ready, but now there's such a crowd o' motors tearin, over Countisbury 'Ill, the carts takes it, keepin' more to theirselves like, an' savin' smashin'. Miss Tranter she knew what she was a-doin' of when she got a licence an' opened 'er bizniss. 'Twas a ramshackle old farm-'ouse, goin' all to pieces when she bought it an' put up 'er sign o' the 'Trusty Man,' an' silly wenches round 'ere do say as 'ow it's 'aunted, owin' to the man as 'ad it afore Miss Tranter, bein' found dead in 'is bed with 'is 'ands a-clutchin' a pack o' cards. An' the ace o' spades—that's death—was turned uppermost. So they goes chatterin' an' chitterin' as 'ow the old chap 'ad been playin' cards wi' the devil, an' got a bad end. But Miss Tranter, she don't listen to maids' gabble,—she's doin' well, devil or no devil—an' if any one was to talk to 'er 'bout ghosteses an' sich-like, she'd wallop 'em out of 'er bar with a broom! Ay, that she would! She's a powerful strong woman Miss Tranter, an' many's the larker what's felt 'er 'and on 'is collar a-chuckin' 'im out o' the 'Trusty Man' neck an' crop for sayin' somethin' what aint ezackly agreeable to 'er feelin's. She don't stand no nonsense, an' though she's lib'ral with 'er pennorths an' pints she don't wait till a man's full boozed 'fore lockin' up the tap-room. 'Git to bed, yer hulkin' fools!' sez she, 'or ye may change my 'Otel for the Sheriff's.' An' they all knuckles down afore 'er as if they was childer gettin' spanked by their mother. Ah, she'd 'a made a grand wife for a man! 'E wouldn't 'ave 'ad no chance to make a pig of hisself if she'd been anywheres round!"
"Perhaps she won't take me in!" suggested Helmsley.
"She will, an' that sartinly!" said Peke. "She'll not refuse bed an' board to any friend o' mine."
"Friend!" Helmsley echoed the word wonderingly.
"Ay, friend! Any one's a friend what trusts to ye on the road, aint 'e? Leastways that's 'ow I take it."
"As I said before, you are very kind to me," murmured Helmsley; "and I have already asked you—Why?"
"There aint no rhyme nor reason in it," answered Peke. "You 'elps a man along if ye sees 'e wants 'elpin', sure-ly,—that's nat'ral. 'Tis on'y them as is born bad as don't 'elp nothin' nor nobody. Ye're old an' fagged out, an' yer face speaks a bit o' trouble—that's enuff for me. Hi' y' are!—hi' y' are, old 'Trusty Man!'"
And striding across a dry ditch which formed a kind of entrenchment between the field and the road, Peke guided his companion round a dark corner and brought him in front of a long low building, heavily timbered, with queer little lop-sided gable windows set in the slanting, red-tiled roof. A sign-board swung over the door and a small lamp fixed beneath it showed that it bore the crudely painted portrait of a gentleman in an apron, spreading out both hands palms upwards as one who has nothing to conceal,—the ideal likeness of the "Trusty Man" himself. The door itself stood open, and the sound of male voices evinced the presence of customers within. Peke entered without ceremony, beckoning Helmsley to follow him, and made straight for the bar, where a tall woman with remarkably square shoulders stood severely upright, knitting.
"'Evenin', Miss Tranter!" said Peke, pulling off his tattered cap. "Any room for poor lodgers?"
Miss Tranter glanced at him, and then at his companion.
"That depends on the lodgers," she answered curtly.
"That's right! That's quite right, Miss!" said Peke with propitiatory deference. "You 'se allus right whatsoever ye does an' sez! But yer knows me,—yer knows Matt Peke, don't yer?"
Miss Tranter smiled sourly, and her knitting needles glittered like crossed knives as she finished a particular row of stitches on which she was engaged before condescending to reply. Then she said:—
"Yes, I know you right enough, but I don't know your company. I'm not taking up strangers."
"Lord love ye! This aint a stranger!" exclaimed Peke. "This 'ere's old David, a friend o' mine as is out o' work through gittin' more years on 'is back than the British Gov'ment allows, an' 'e's trampin' it to see 'is relations afore 'e gits put to bed wi' a shovel. 'E's as 'armless as they makes 'em, an' I've told 'im as 'ow ye' don't take in nowt but 'spectable folk. Doant 'ee turn out an old gaffer like 'e be, fagged an' footsore, to sleep in open—doant 'ee now, there's a good soul!"
Miss Tranter went on knitting rapidly. Presently she turned her piercing gimlet grey eyes on Helmsley.
"Where do you come from, man?" she demanded.
Helmsley lifted his hat with the gentle courtesy habitual to him.
"From Bristol, ma'am."
"Where are you going?"
"That's a long way and a hard road," commented Miss Tranter; "You'll never get there!"
Helmsley gave a slight deprecatory gesture, but said nothing.
Miss Tranter eyed him more keenly.
"Are you hungry?"
"That means you're half-starved without knowing it," she said decisively. "Go in yonder," and she pointed with one of her knitting needles to the room beyond the bar whence the hum of male voices proceeded. "I'll send you some hot soup with plenty of stewed meat and bread in it. An old man like you wants more than the road food. Take him in, Peke!"
"Didn't I tell ye!" ejaculated Peke, triumphantly looking round at Helmsley. "She's one that's got 'er 'art in the right place! I say, Miss Tranter, beggin' yer parding, my friend aint a sponger, ye know! 'E can pay ye a shillin' or two for yer trouble!"
Miss Tranter nodded her head carelessly.
"The food's threepence and the bed fourpence," she said. "Breakfast in the morning, threepence,—and twopence for the washing towel. That makes a shilling all told. Ale and liquors extra."
With that she turned her back on them, and Peke, pulling Helmsley by the arm, took him into the common room of the inn, where there were several men seated round a long oak table with "gate-legs" which must have been turned by the handicraftsmen of the time of Henry the Seventh. Here Peke set down his basket of herbs in a corner, and addressed the company generally.
"'Evenin', mates! All well an' 'arty?"
Three or four of the party gave gruff response. The others sat smoking silently. One end of the table was unoccupied, and to this Peke drew a couple of rush-bottomed chairs with sturdy oak backs, and bade Helmsley sit down beside him.
"It be powerful warm to-night!" he said, taking off his cap, and showing a disordered head of rough dark hair, sprinkled with grey. "Powerful warm it be trampin' the road, from sunrise to sunset, when the dust lies thick and 'eavy, an' all the country's dry for a drop o' rain."
"Wal, you aint got no cause to grumble at it," said a fat-faced man in very dirty corduroys. "It's your chice, an' your livin'! You likes the road, an' you makes your grub on it! 'Taint no use you findin' fault with the gettin' o' your victuals!"