With the farmers who came into market he was bluff and cordial; with the people in general he was genial and good tempered. At meetings at which the county gentry were present he was quiet, businesslike, and a trifle deferential, showing that he recognized the difference between his position and theirs.
With ladies he was gay when they were gay, sympathetic when sympathy was expected. With them he was even more popular than with the men, for the latter, although they admired and somewhat envied his varied acquirements, were apt in the intimacy of private conversation to speak of him as a humbug.
There was one exception, however, to his general popularity. There was no mill owner in the neighborhood more heartily detested by his workpeople; but as these did not mingle with the genteel classes of Marsden their opinion of Mr. Mulready went for nothing. The mill owner was a man of forty-three or forty-four, although when dressed in his tightly fitting brown coat with its short waist, its brass buttons, and high collar, and with a low hat with narrow brim worn well forward and coming down almost to the bridge of his nose, he looked seven or eight years younger.
His hair was light, his trimly cut muttonchop whiskers were sandy, he had a bright, fresh complexion, a large mouth, and good teeth, which he always showed when he smiled, and in public he was always smiling; his eyes were light in color, very close together, and had a somewhat peculiar appearance. Indeed there were men who hinted that he had a slight cast, but these were, no doubt, envious of his popularity.
Mrs. Sankey had been flattered by his visit and manner; indeed it could hardly have been otherwise, for he had expressed a sympathy and deference which were very soothing to her.
"It is indeed kind of you to receive me," he had said. "I know, of course, that it is not usual for a man who has the misfortune to be unmarried to make a call upon a lady, but I could not help myself. William Mulready is not a man to allow his feelings to be sacrificed to the cold etiquette of the world. I had not the pleasure of the acquaintance of that most brave and distinguished officer your late husband. I had hoped that some day circumstances might throw me in contact with him, but it was not for me, a humble manufacturer, to force my acquaintance upon one socially my superior; but, my dear madam, when I heard of that terrible accident, of that noble self devotion, I said to myself, 'William Mulready, when a proper and decent time elapses you must call upon the relict of your late noble and distinguished townsman, and assure her of your sympathy and admiration, even if she spurns you from the door.'"
"You could not think I should do that, Mr. Mulready," Mrs. Sankey said. "It is most gratifying to me to receive this mark of sympathy in my present sad position;" and she sighed deeply.
"You are good indeed to say so," Mr. Mulready said in a tone of deep gratitude; "but I might have been sure that my motives at least would not be misunderstood by a high bred and delicate lady like yourself. I will not now trespass on your time, but hope that I may be permitted to call again. Should there be anything in which so humble an individual could be in the slightest degree useful to you pray command my services. I know the responsibility which you must feel at being left in charge of those two noble boys and your charming little daughter must be well nigh overwhelming, and if you would not think it presumption I would say that any poor advice or opinion which I, who call myself in some degree a man of the world, can give, will be always at your service."
"You are very good," Mrs. Sankey murmured. "It is indeed a responsibility. My younger boy and girl are all that I could wish, but the elder is already almost beyond me;" and by the shake of her head she testified that her troubles on that score approached martyrdom.
"Never fear, my dear madam," Mr. Mulready said heartily. "Boys will be boys, and I doubt not that he will grow up everything that you could desire. I may have heard that he was a little passionate. There was a trifling affair between him and his schoolmaster, was there not? But these things mend themselves, and doubtless all will come well in time; and now I have the honor of wishing you good morning."
"Charming manners!" Mrs. Sankey said to herself when her visitor had left. "A little old fashioned, perhaps, but so kind and deferential. He seemed to understand my feelings exactly."
That evening when they were at tea Mrs. Sankey mentioned the agreeable visitor who had called in the afternoon.
"What! William Mulready!" Ned exclaimed; "Foxey, as his hands call him. I have heard Bill speak of him often. His men hate him. They say he is a regular tyrant. What impudence his coming here!"
"Ned, I am surprised at you," his mother said angrily. "I am sure Mr. Mulready is nothing of the sort. He is a most kind and considerate gentleman, and I will not allow you to repeat these things you hear from the low companions whom your father permitted you to associate with."
"Bill is not a low companion, mother," Ned exclaimed passionately. "A better fellow never stood, and Foxey is not kind and considerate. He is a brutal tyrant, and I am sure my father, if you will quote his opinion, would not have had such a man inside his doors."
"Leave the room, Ned, this moment," his mother exclaimed, more angry than he had ever seen her before. "I am ashamed of you speaking to me in that way. You would not have dared to do it had your father been alive."
Ned dashed down his scarcely begun bread and butter and flung himself out of the room, and then out of the house, and it was some hours before he returned. Then he went straight up to his mother's room.
"I beg your pardon, mother," he said quietly. "I am very sorry I spoke as I did. I ought not to have done so."
"Very well," Mrs. Sankey said coldly; "then don't do it again, Ned."
Without another word Ned went off to his books. He was grieved and sore at heart. He had during his walk fought a hard battle with himself, and had conquered. As his temper cooled down he had felt that he had broken his promise, that he had not been kind to his mother; felt, too, that her accusation was a true one—he would not have dared to speak so to her had his father been alive.
"But it was so different then," he had said to himself as the tears chased each other down his cheeks. "Father understood me, and cared for me, and made allowances. It was worth while fighting against one's temper just to have him put his hand on my shoulder and say, 'Well done, my boy.' Now it is so different. I will go on trying for his sake; but I know it's no good. Do what I will, I can't please her. It's my fault, I dare say, but I do try my best. I do, indeed, father," he said, speaking out loud; "if you can hear me, I do, indeed, try to be kind to mother, but she won't let me. I do try to make allowances, that is, when I am not in a passion, and then I go and spoil it all, like a beast, just as I did tonight.
"Anyhow," he said to himself as he turned his face homeward again, "I will go and tell her I am sorry, and beg her pardon. I don't suppose she will be nice, but I can't help that. It's my duty anyhow, and I will try and not say anything against Foxey next time she speaks of him."
The latter part of his resolution Ned found it very hard to maintain, for Mr. Mulready became a not unfrequent visitor. He had always some excuse for calling, either to bring in a basket of fresh trout, some game, or hothouse fruit, for, as he said, he knew her appetite was delicate and needed tempting, or some book newly issued from the London press which he was sure she would appreciate.
After a short time Mrs. Sankey ceased to speak of these visits, perhaps because she saw how Ned objected to the introduction of Mr. Mulready's name, perhaps for some other reason, and a year passed without Ned's being seriously ruffled on the subject.
Ned was now nearly sixteen. He had worked hard, and was the head boy at Porson's. It had always been regarded as a fixed thing that he should go into the army. As the son of an officer who had lost his leg in the service it was thought that he would be able to obtain a commission without difficulty, and Squire Simmonds, who had been a kind friend since his father's death, had promised to ask the lord lieutenant of the county to interest himself in the matter, and had no doubt that the circumstances of Captain Sankey's death would be considered as an addition to the claim of his services in the army.
Captain Sankey had intended that Ned should have gone to a superior school to finish his education, but the diminished income of the family had put this out of the question, and the subject had never been mooted after his death. Ned, however, felt that he was making such good progress under Mr. Porson that he was well content to remain where he was.
His struggle with his temper had gone on steadily, and he hoped he had won a final victory over it. Mr. Porson had been unwearied in his kindnesses, and often took Ned for an hour in the evening in order to push him forward, and although he avoided talking about his home life the boy felt that he could, in case of need, pour out his heart to him; but, indeed, things had gone better at home. Mrs. Sankey was just as indisposed as ever to take any share whatever in the trouble of housekeeping, but as Abijah was perfectly capable of keeping the house in order without her instructions things went on smoothly and straightly in this respect.
In other matters home life was more pleasant than it had been. Mrs. Sankey was less given to querulous complaining, more inclined to see things in a cheerful light, and Ned especially noticed with satisfaction that the references to his father which had so tried him had become much less frequent of late.
One day in September, when his father had been dead just a year, one of the town boys, a lad of about Ned's age, said to him as they were walking home from school together:
"Well, Ned, I suppose I ought to congratulate you, although I don't know whether you will see it in that light."
"What do you mean?" Ned said. "I don't know that anything has happened on which I should be particularly congratulated, except on having made the top score against the town last week."
"Oh! I don't mean that," the boy said.. "I mean about Mulready."
"What do you mean?" Ned said, stopping short and turning very white.
"Why," the lad said laughing, "all the town says he is going to marry your mother."
Ned stood as if stupefied. Then he sprang upon his companion and seized him by the throat.
"It's a lie," he shouted, shaking him furiously. "It's a lie I say, Smithers, and you know it. I will kill you if you don't say it's a lie."
With a great effort Smithers extricated himself from Ned's grasp.
"Don't choke a fellow," he said. "It may be a lie if you say it is, but it is not my lie anyhow. People have been talking about it for some time. They say he's been down there nearly every day. Didn't you know it?"
"Know it?" Ned gasped. "I have not heard of his being in the house for months, but I will soon find out the truth."
And without another word he dashed off at full speed up the street. Panting and breathless he rushed into the house, and tore into the room where his mother was sitting trifling with a piece of fancy work.
"I do wish, Edward, you would not come into the room like a whirlwind. You know how any sudden noise jars upon my nerves. Why, what is the matter?" she broke off suddenly, his pale, set face catching her eye, little accustomed as she was to pay any attention to Ned's varying moods.
"Mother," he panted out, "people are saying an awful thing about you, a wicked, abominable thing. I know, of course, it is not true, but I want just to hear you say so, so that I can go out and tell people they lie. How dare they say such things!"
"Why, what do you mean, Edward?" Mrs. Sankey said, almost frightened at the boy's vehemence.
"Why, they say that you are going to marry that horrible man Mulready. It is monstrous, isn't it? I think they ought to be prosecuted and punished for such a wicked thing, and father only a year in his grave."
Mrs. Sankey was frightened at Ned's passion. Ever since the matter had first taken shape in her mind she had felt a certain uneasiness as to what Ned would say of it, and had, since it was decided, been putting off from day to day the telling of the news to him. She had, in his absence, told herself over and over again that it was no business of his, and that a boy had no right to as much as question the actions of his mother; but somehow when he was present she had always shrank from telling him. She now took refuge in her usual defense—tears.
"It is shameful," she said, sobbing, as she held her handkerchief to her eyes, "that a boy should speak in this way to his mother; it is downright wicked."
"But I am not speaking to you, mother; I am speaking of other people—the people who have invented this horrible lie—for it is a lie, mother, isn't it? It is not possible it can be true?"
"It is true," Mrs. Sankey said, gaining courage from her anger; "it is quite true. And you are a wicked and abominable boy to talk in that way to me. Why shouldn't I marry again? Other people marry again, and why shouldn't I? I am sure your poor father would never have wished me to waste my life by remaining single, with nothing to do but to look after you children. And it is shameful of you to speak in that way of Mr. Mulready."
Ned stopped to hear no more. At her first words he had given a low, gasping cry, as one who has received a terrible wound. The blood flew to his head, the room swam round, and he seemed to feel the veins in his temples swell almost to bursting. The subsequent words of his mother fell unheeded on his ears, and turning round he went slowly to the door, groping his way as one half asleep or stupefied by a blow.
Mechanically he opened the door and went out into the street; his cap was still on his head, but he neither thought of it one way or the other.
Almost without knowing it he turned from the town and walked toward the hills. Had any one met him by the way they would assuredly have thought that the boy had been drinking, so strangely and unevenly did he walk. His face was flushed almost purple, his eyes were bloodshot; he swayed to and fro as he walked, sometimes pausing altogether, sometimes hurrying along for a few steps. Passing a field where the gate stood open he turned into it, kept on his way for some twenty yards further, and then fell at full length on the grass. There he lay unconscious for some hours, and it was not until the evening dews were falling heavily that he sat up and looked round.
For some time he neither knew where he was nor what had brought him there. At last the remembrance of what had passed flashed across him, and with a cry of "Father! father!" he threw himself at full length again with his head on his arm; but this time tears came to his relief, and for a long time he cried with a bitterness of grief even greater than that which he had suffered at his father's death.
The stars were shining brightly when he rose to his feet, his clothes were soaked with dew, and he trembled with cold and weakness.
"What am I to do?" he said to himself; "what am I to do?"
He made his way back to the gate and leaned against it for some time; then, having at last made up his mind, he turned his back on the town and walked toward Varley, moving more slowly and wearily than if he was at the end of a long and fatiguing day's walk. Slowly he climbed the hill and made his way through the village till he reached the Swintons' cottage. He tapped at the door with his hand, and lifting the latch he opened the door a few inches.
"Bill, are you in?"
There was an exclamation of surprise.
"Why, surely, it's Maister Ned!" and Bill came to the door.
"Come out, Bill, I want to speak to you."
Much surprised at the low and subdued tone in which Ned spoke, Bill snatched down his cap from the peg by the door and joined him outside.
"What be't, Maister Ned? what be t' matter with thee? Has owt gone wrong?"
Ned walked on without speaking. In his yearning for sympathy, in his intense desire to impart the miserable news to some one who would feel for him, he had come to his friend Bill. He had thought first of going to Mr. Porson. But though his master would sympathize with him he would not be able to feel as he did; he would no doubt be shocked at hearing that his mother was so soon going to marry again, but he would not be able to understand the special dislike to Mr. Mulready, still less likely to encourage his passionate resentment. Bill would, he knew, do both, for it was from him he had learned how hated the mill owner was among his people.
But at present he could not speak. He gave a short wave of his hand to show that he heard, but could not answer yet, and with his head bent down made his way out through the end of the village on to the moor—Bill following him, wondering and sympathetic, unable to conjecture what had happened.
Presently, when they had left the houses far behind them, Ned stopped.
"What be't, Maister Ned?" Bill again asked, laying his strong hand upon Ned's shoulder; "tell oi what it be. Hast got in another row with t' maister? If there be owt as oi can do, thou knowest well as Bill Swinton be with thee heart and soul."
"I know, Bill—I know," Ned said in a broken voice, "but you can do nothing; I can do nothing; no one can. But it's dreadful to think of. It's worse than if I had killed twenty masters. Only think—only think, Bill, my mother's going to marry Mulready!"
"Thou doesn't say so, lad! What! thy mother marry Foxey! Oi never heer'd o' such a thing. Well, that be bad news, surely! Well, well, only to think, now! Poor lad! Well, that beats all!"
The calamity appeared so great to Bill that for some time no idea occurred to him which could, under the circumstances, be considered as consolatory. But Ned felt the sympathy conveyed in the strong grasp of his shoulder, and in the muttered "Well, well, now!" to which Bill gave vent at intervals.
"What bee'st going to do vor to stop it?" he asked at last.
"What can I do, Bill? She won't listen to me—she never does. Anything I say always makes her go the other way. She wouldn't believe anything I said against him. It would only make her stick to him all the more.
"Dost think," Bill suggested after another long pause, "that if we got up a sort of depitation—Luke Marner and four or five other steady chaps as knows him; yes, and Polly Powlett, she could do the talking—to go to her and tell her what a thundering dad un he is—dost think it would do any good?"
Even in his bitter grief Ned could hardly help smiling at the thought of such a deputation waiting upon his mother.
"No, it wouldn't do, Bill."
Bill was silent again for some time.
"Dost want un killed, Maister Ned?" he said in a low voice at last; "'cause if ye do oi would do it for ye. Oi would lay down my life for ye willing, as thou knowst; and hanging ain't much, arter all. They say 'tis soon over. Anyhow oi would chance it, and perhaps they wouldn't find me out."
Ned grasped his friend's hand.
"I could kill him myself!" he exclaimed passionately. "I have been thinking of it; but what would be the good? I know what my mother is—when once she has made up her mind there's no turning her; and if this fellow were out of the way, likely enough she would take up with another in no time."
"But it couldn't been as bad as if wur Foxey," Bill urged, "he be the very worsest lot about Marsden."
"I would do it," Ned said passionately; "I would do it over and over again, but for the disgrace it would bring on Charlie and Lucy."
"But there would be no disgrace if oi was to do it, Maister Ned."
"Yes, there would, Bill—a worse disgrace than if I did it myself. It would be a nice thing to let you get hanged for my affairs; but let him look out—let him try to ill treat Charlie and Lucy, and he will see if I don't get even with him. I am not so much afraid of that—it's the shame of the thing. Only to think that all Marsden should know my mother is going to be married again within a year of my father's death, and that after being his wife she was going to take such a man as this! It's awful, downright awful, Bill!"
"Then what art thou going to do, Maister Ned—run away and 'list for a soldier, or go to sea?"
"I wish I could," Ned exclaimed. "I would turn my back on Marsden and never come back again, were it not for the little ones. Besides," he added after a pause, "father's last words were, 'Be kind to mother;' and she will want it more than he ever dreamed of."
"She will that," Bill agreed; "leastways unless oi be mistaken. And what be'st going to do now, lad? Be'st agoing whoam?"
"No, I won't go home tonight," Ned replied. "I must think it over quietly, and it would be worse to bear there than anywhere else. No, I shall just walk about."
"Thou canst not walk abowt all night, Maister Ned," Bill said positively; "it bain't to be thowt of. If thou don't mind thou canst have moi bed and oi can sleep on t' floor."
"No, I couldn't do that," Ned said, "though I do feel awfully tired and done up; but your brothers would be asking me questions and wondering why I didn't go home. I could not stand that."
"No, Maister Ned, oi can see that wouldn't do; but if we walk about for an hour or two, or—no, I know of a better plan. We can get in at t' window of the school; it bain't never fastened, and bain't been for years, seeing as thar bain't been neither school nor schoolers since auld Mother Brown died. Oi will make a shift to light a fire there. There be shutters, so no one will see the light. Then oi will bring ee up some blankets from our house, and if there bain't enough Polly will lend me some when oi tell her who they are for. She bain't a one to blab. What dost thou say?"
Ned, who felt utterly worn out, assented gladly to the proposal, and an entrance was easily effected into the desolate cottage formerly used as a day school. Bill went off at once and soon returned with a load of firewood; the shutters were then carefully closed, and a fire quickly blazed brightly on the hearth. Bill then went away again, and in a quarter of an hour returned with Mary Powlett. He carried a bundle of rugs and blankets, while she had a kettle in one hand and a large basket in the other.
"Good evening! Master Sankey," she said as she entered. "Bill has told me all about it, and I am sorry indeed for you and for your mother. It is worse for her, poor lady, than for you. You will soon be old enough to go out into the world if you don't like things at home; but she will have to bear what trouble comes to her. And now I thought you would like a cup of tea, so I have brought the kettle and things up. I haven't had tea yet, and they don't have tea at Bill's; but I like it, though feyther grumbles sometimes, and says it's too expensive for the likes of us in sich times as these; but he knows I would rather go without meat than without tea, so he lets me have it. Bill comes in for a cup sometimes, for he likes it better than beer, and it's a deal better for him to be sitting taking a cup of tea with me than getting into the way of going down to the 'Spotted Dog,' and drinking beer there. So we will all have a cup together. No one will disturb us. Feyther is down at the 'Brown Cow,' and when I told the children I had to go out on special business they all promised to be good, and Jarge said he would see them all safely into bed. I told him I should be back in an hour."
While Polly was speaking she was bustling about the room, putting things straight; with a wisp of heather she swept up the dust which had accumulated on the floor, in a semicircle in front of the fire, and laid down the rugs and blankets to form seats. Three cups and saucers, a little jag of milk, a teapot, and basin of sugar were placed in the center, and a pile of slices of bread and butter beside them, while from a paper bag she produced a cake which she had bought at the village shop on her way up.
Ned watched her preparations listlessly.
"You are very good, Polly," he said, "and I shall be very glad of the cup of tea, but I cannot eat anything."
"Never mind," she said cheerfully. "Bill and I can do the eating, and perhaps after you have had a cup of tea you will be able to, for Bill tells me you have had nothing to eat since breakfast."
Ned felt cheered by the warm blaze of the fire and by the cheerful sound of the kettle, and after taking a cup of tea found that his appetite was coming, and was soon able to eat his share. Mary Powlett kept up a cheerful talk while the meal was going on, and no allusion was made to the circumstances which had brought Ned there. After it was done she sat and chatted for an hour. Then she said:
"I must be off now, and I think, Bill, you'd best be going soon too, and let Maister Ned have a good night of it. I will make him up his bed on the rugs; and I will warrant, after all the trouble he has gone through, he will sleep like a top."
CHAPTER IX: A PAINFUL TIME
When Ned was left alone he rolled himself up in the blankets, placed a pillow which Polly had brought him under his head, and lay and looked at the fire; but it was not until the flames had died down, and the last red glow had faded into blackness that he fell off to sleep.
His thoughts were bitter in the extreme. He pictured to himself the change which would take place in his home life with Mulready the manufacturer, the tyrant of the workmen, ruling over it. For himself he doubted not that he would be able to hold his own.
"He had better not try on his games with me," he muttered savagely. "Though I am only sixteen he won't find it easy to bully me; but of course Charlie and Lucy can't defend themselves. However, I will take care of them. Just let him be unkind to them, and see what comes of it! As to mother, she must take what she gets, at least she deserves to. Only to think of it! only to think of it! Oh, how bitterly she will come to repent! How could she do it!
"And with father only dead a year! But I must stand by her, too. I promised father to be kind to her, though he could never have guessed how she would need it. He meant that I would only put up, without losing my temper, with her way of always pretending to be ill, and never doing anything but lie on the sofa and read poetry. Still, of course, it meant I was to be kind anyhow, whatever happened, and I will try to be so, though it is hard when she has brought such trouble upon us all.
"As for Mulready I should like to burn his mill down, or to break his neck. I hate him: it's bad enough to be a tyrant; but to be a tyrant and a hypocrite, too, is horrible. Well, at any rate he shan't lord it over me;" and so at last Ned dropped off to sleep.
He was still soundly asleep when Bill Swinton came in to wake him. It was half past six, a dull October morning, with a dreary drizzling rain. Bill brought with him a mug of hot tea and some thick slices of bread and butter. Ned got up and shook himself.
"What o'clock is it, Bill?"
"Half past six—the chaps went off to t' mill an hour gone; oi've kept some tea hot for ee."
"Thank you, Bill, my head aches, and so do all my bones, and I feel as if I hadn't been asleep all night, although, indeed, I must have slept quite as long as usual. Can't I have a wash?"
"Yes," Bill said, "thou canst come to our place; but thou had best take thy breakfast whilst it be hot. It will waken thee up like."
Ned drank the tea and ate a slice of bread and butter, and felt refreshed thereat. Then he ran with Bill to his cottage and had a wash, and then started for the town. It was eight o'clock when he reached home. Abijah was at the door, looking down the road as he came up.
"Oh! Master Ned, how can you go on so? Not a bit of sleep have I had this blessed night, and the mistress in strong hystrikes all the evening. Where have you been?"
Ned gave a grunt at the news of his mother's hysterics—a grunt which clearly expressed "served her right," but he only answered the last part of the question.
"I have been up at Varley, and slept at the schoolhouse. Bill Swinn and Polly Powlett made me up a bed and got me tea and breakfast. I am right enough."
"But you shouldn't have gone away, Master Ned, in that style, leaving us to wait and worry ourselves out of our senses."
"Do you know what she told me, Abijah? Wasn't it enough to make any fellow mad?"
"Ay, ay," the nurse said. "I know. I have seen it coming months ago; but it wasn't no good for me to speak. Ay, lad, it's a sore trouble for you, surely a sore trouble for you, and for us all; but it ain't no manner of use for you to set yourself agin it. Least said sooner mended, Master Ned; in a case like this it ain't no good your setting yourself up agin the missis. She ain't strong in some things, but she's strong enough in her will, and you ought to know by this time that what she sets her mind on she gets. It were so allus in the captain's time, and if he couldn't change her, poor patient lamb—for if ever there were a saint on arth he was that—you may be sure that you can't. So try and take it quietly, dearie. It be main hard for ye, and it ain't for me to say as it isn't; but for the sake of peace and quiet, and for the sake of the little ones, Master Ned, it's better for you to take it quiet. If I thought as it would do any good for you to make a fuss I wouldn't be agin it: but it ain't, you know, and it will be worse for you all if you sets him agin you to begin with. Now go up and see your mother, dearie, afore you goes off to school. I have just taken her up her tea."
"I have got nothing to say to her," Ned growled.
"Yes, you have, Master Ned; you have got to tell her you hopes she will be happy. You can do that, you know, with a clear heart, for you do hope so. Fortunately she didn't see him yesterday; for when he called I told him she was too ill to see him, and a nice taking she was in when I told her he had been and gone; but I didn't mind that, you know, and it was better she shouldn't see him when she was so sore about the words you had said to her. It ain't no use making trouble aforehand, or setting him agin you. He knows, I reckon, as he won't be welcomed here by you. The way he has always come when you would be out showed that clear enough. But it ain't no use making matters worse. It's a pretty kettle of fish as it stands. Now, go up, dearie, like a good boy, and make things roight."
Ned lingered irresolute for a little time in the hall, and then his father's words, "Be kind to her," came strongly in his mind, and he slowly went upstairs and knocked at his mother's door.
"Oh! here you are again!" she said in querulous tones as he entered, "after being nearly the death of me with your wicked goings on! I don't know what you will come to, speaking to me as you did yesterday, and then running away and stopping out all night."
"It was wrong, mother," Ned said quietly, "and I have come to tell you I am sorry; but you see the news was very sudden, and I wasn't prepared for it. I did not know that he had been coming here, and the news took me quite by surprise. I suppose fellows never do like their mothers marrying again. It stands to reason they wouldn't; but, now I have thought it over, I am sorry I spoke as I did, and I do hope, mother, you will be happy with him."
Mrs. Sankey felt mollified. She had indeed all along dreaded Ned's hearing the news, and had felt certain it would produce a desperate outbreak on his part. Now that it was over she was relieved. The storm had been no worse than she expected, and now that Ned had so speedily come round, and was submissive, she felt a load off her mind.
"Very well, Ned," she said more graciously than usual, "I am glad that you have seen the wickedness of your conduct. I am sure that I am acting for the best, and that it will be a great advantage to you and your brother and sister having a man like Mr. Mulready to help you push your way in life. I am sure I am thinking of your interest as much as my own; and I have spoken to him over and over again about you, and he has promised dozens of times to do his best to be like a father to you all."
Ned winced perceptibly.
"All right, mother! I do hope you will be happy; but, please, don't let us talk about it again till—till it comes off; and, please, don't let him come here in the evening. I will try and get accustomed to it in time; but you see it's rather hard at first, and you know I didn't expect it."
So saying Ned left the room, and collecting his books made his way off to school, leaving his mother highly satisfied with the interview.
His absence from afternoon school had, of course, been noticed, and Smithers had told his friends how Ned had flown at him on his speaking to him about the talk of his mother and Mulready. Of course before afternoon school broke up every boy knew that Ned Sankey had cut up rough about the report; and although the great majority of the boys did not know Mr. Mulready by name there was a general feeling of sympathy with Ned, The circumstances of his father's death had, of course, exalted him greatly in the eyes of his schoolfellows, and it was the unanimous opinion, that after having had a hero for his father, a fellow would naturally object to having a stepfather put over him.
Ned's absence was naturally associated with the news, and caused much comment and even excitement. His attack upon Mr. Hathorn had become a sort of historical incident in the school, and the younger boys looked up with a sort of respectful awe upon the boy who had defied a headmaster. There were all sorts of speculations rife among them as to what Ned had done, there being a general opinion that he had probably killed Mr. Mulready, and the debate turning principally upon the manner in which this act of righteous vengeance had been performed.
There was, then, a feeling almost of disappointment when Ned walked into the playground looking much as usual, except that his face was pale and his eyes looked heavy and dull. No one asked him any questions; for although Ned was a general favorite, it was generally understood that he was not the sort of fellow to be asked questions that might put him out. When they went in school, and the first class was called up, Ned, who was always at its head, took his place at the bottom of the class, saying quietly to the master:
"I have not prepared my lesson today, sir, and I have not done the exercises."
Mr. Porson made no remark; he saw at once by Ned's face that something was wrong with him. When several questions went round, which Ned could easily have answered without preparation, the master said:
"You had better go to your desk, Sankey; I see you are not well. I will speak to you after school is over."
Ned sat down and opened a book, but he did not turn a page until school was over; then he followed his master to the study.
"Well, my boy," he asked kindly, "what is it?"
"My mother is going to marry Mr. Mulready," Ned said shortly. The words seemed to come with difficulty from his lips.
"Ah! it is true, then. I heard the report some weeks ago, but hoped that it was not true. I am sorry for you, Ned. I know it must be a sore trial for you; it is always so when any one steps into the place of one we have loved and lost."
"I shouldn't care so much if it wasn't him," Ned said in a dull voice.
"But there's nothing against the man, is there?" Mr. Porson asked. "I own I do not like him myself; but I believe he stands well in the town."
"Only with those who don't know him," Ned replied; "his workpeople say he is the worst master and the biggest tyrant in the district."
"We must hope it's not so bad as that, Ned; still, I am sorry—very sorry, at what you tell me; but, my boy, you must not take it to heart. You see you will be going out into the world before long. Your brother will be following you in a few years. It is surely better that your mother should marry again and have some one to take care of her."
"Nice care of her he is likely to take!" Ned laughed bitterly. "You might as well put a fox to take care of a goose."
"You are severe on both parties," Mr. Porson said with a slight smile; "but I can hardly blame you, my boy, for feeling somewhat bitter at first; but I hope that, for your own sake and your mother's, you will try and conquer this feeling and will make the best of the circumstances. It is worse than useless to kick against the pricks. Any show of hostility on your part will only cause unhappiness, perhaps between your mother' and him—almost certainly between you and her. In this world, my boy, we have all our trials. Some are very heavy ones. This is yours. Happily, so far as you are concerned, you need only look forward to its lasting eighteen months or so. In that time you may hope to get your commission; and as the marriage can hardly take place for some little time to come, you will have but a year or so to bear it."
"I don't know, sir," Ned said gloomily; "everything seems upset now. I don't seem to know what I had best do."
"I am sure at present, Ned," Mr. Porson said kindly—for he saw that the boy was just now in no mood for argument—"the best is to try and think as little of it as possible. Make every allowance for your mother; as you know, my boy, I would not speak disrespectfully to you of her on any account; but she is not strong minded. She has always been accustomed to lean upon some one, and the need of some one to lean on is imperative with her. Had you been a few years older, and had you been staying at home, it is probable that you might have taken your place as her support and strength. As it is, it was almost inevitable that something of this sort would happen.
"But you know, Ned, where to look for strength and support. You have fought one hard battle, my boy, and have well nigh conquered; now you have another before you. Seek for strength, my boy, where you will assuredly find it, and remember that this discipline is doubtless sent you for your good, and that it will be a preparation for you for the struggle in after life. I don't want you to be a thoughtless, careless young officer, but a man earnest in doing his duty, and you cannot but see that these two trials must have a great effect in forming your character. Remember, Ned, that if the effect be not for good, it will certainly be for evil."
"I will try, sir," Ned said; "but I know it is easy to make good resolutions, and how it will be when he is in the house as master I can't trust myself even to think."
"Well, let us hope the best, Ned," Mr. Porson said kindly; "things may turn out better than you fear."
Then seeing that further talking would be useless now, he shook Ned's hand and let him go.
The next three or four months passed slowly and heavily. Ned went about his work again quietly and doggedly; but his high spirits seemed gone. His mother's engagement with Mr. Mulready had been openly announced, directly after he had first heard of it. Charlie had, to Ned's secret indignation, taken it quietly. He knew little of Mr. Mulready, who had, whenever he saw him, spoken kindly to him, and who now made him frequent presents of books and other things dear to schoolboys. Little Lucy's liking he had, however, failed to gain, although in his frequent visits he had spared no pains to do so, seldom coming without bringing with him cakes or papers of sweets. Lucy accepted the presents, but did not love the donor, and confided to Abijah that his teeth were exactly like those of the wolf who ate Little Red Riding Hood.
Ned found much more comfort in her society during those dull days than in Charlie's. He had the good sense, however, never to encourage her in her expressions of dislike to Mr. Mulready, and even did his best to combat her impression, knowing how essential it was for her to get on well with him. Ned himself did not often see Mr. Mulready during that time. The first time that they met, Ned had, on his return from school, gone straight up into the drawing room, not knowing that Mr. Mulready was there. On opening the door and seeing him he paused suddenly for a moment and then advanced. For a moment neither of them spoke, then Mr. Mulready said in his frankest manner:
"Ned, you have heard I am going to marry your mother. I don't suppose you quite like it; it wouldn't be natural if you did; I know I shouldn't if I were in your place. Still you know your disliking it won't alter it, and I hope we shall get on well together. Give me your hand, my lad, you won't find me a bad sort of fellow."
"I hope not," Ned said quietly, taking Mr. Mulready's hand and continuing to hold it while he went on: "I don't pretend I like it, and I know it makes no difference whether I do or not; the principal point is, that my mother should be happy, and if you make her happy I have no doubt we shall, as you say, get on well together; if you don't, we shan't."
There was no mistaking the threat conveyed in Ned's steady tones, and Mr. Mulready, as Ned dropped his hand, felt that he should have more trouble with the boy than he had expected. He gave a forced laugh.
"One would think, Ned, that you thought it likely I was going to be unkind to your mother."
"No," Ned said quietly, "I don't want to think about it one way or the other, only I promised my father I would be kind to my mother; that means that I would look after her, and I mean to.
"Well, mother," he said in his usual tone, turning to Mrs. Sankey, "and how are you this morning?"
"I was feeling better, Ned," she said sharply; "but your unpleasant way of talking, and your nonsense about taking care of me, have made me feel quite ill again. Somehow you always seem to shake my nerves. You never seem to me like other boys. One would think I was a child instead of being your mother. I thought after what you said to me that you were going to behave nicely."
"I am trying to behave nicely," Ned said. "I am sure I meant quite nicely, just as Mr. Mulready does; I think he understands me."
"I don't understand that boy," Mrs. Sankey said plaintively when Ned had left the room, "and I never have understood him. He was dreadfully spoiled when he was in India, as I have often told you; for in my weak state of health I was not equal to looking after him, and his poor father was sadly overindulgent. But he has certainly been much better as to his temper lately, and I do hope, William, that he is not going to cause trouble."
"Oh, no!" Mr. Mulready said lightly, "he will not cause trouble; I have no doubt we shall get on well together. Boys will be boys, you know; I have been one myself, and of course they look upon stepfathers as natural enemies; but in this case, you see, we shall not have to put up with each other long, as he will be getting his commission in a year or so. Don't trouble yourself about it, love; in your state of health you ought really not to worry yourself, and worry, you know, spoils the eyes and the complexion, and I cannot allow that, for you will soon be my property now."
The wedding was fixed for March. It was to be perfectly quiet, as Mrs. Sankey would, up to the day, be still in mourning. A month before the time Ned noticed that his mother was more uncertain in her temper than usual, and Abijah confided to him in secret that she thought things were not going on smoothly between the engaged couple.
Nor were they. Mr. Mulready had discovered, to his surprise, that, indolent and silly as Mrs. Sankey was in many respects, she was not altogether a fool, and was keen enough where her own interests were concerned. He had suggested something about settlements, hoping that she would at once say that these were wholly unnecessary; but to his surprise she replied in a manner which showed that she had already thought the matter over, and had very fixed ideas on the subject.
"Of course," she said, "that will be necessary. I know nothing about business, but it was done before, and my poor husband insisted that my little fortune should be settled so as to be entirely at my own disposal."
But this by no means suited Mr. Mulready's views. Hitherto want of capital had prevented his introducing the new machinery into his mills, and the competition with the firms which had already adopted it was injuring him seriously, and he had reckoned confidently upon the use of Mrs. Sankey's four thousand pounds. Although he kept his temper admirably under the circumstances, he gave her distinctly to understand, in the pleasantest way, that an arrangement which was most admirably suitable in every respect in the case of a lady marrying an officer in the army, to whom her capital could be of no possible advantage, was altogether unsuitable in the case of a manufacturer.
"You see, my love," he argued, "that it is for your benefit as well as mine that the business should grow and flourish by the addition of the new machinery which this little fortune of yours could purchase. The profits could be doubled and trebled, and we could look forward ere long to holding our heads as high as the richest manufacturers at Leeds and Bradford—while the mere interest in this money invested in consols as at present would be absolutely useless to us."
Mrs. Sankey acknowledged the force of his argument, but was firm in her determination to retain her hold of her money, and so they parted, not in anger, for Mr. Mulready altogether disclaimed the possibility of his being vexed, but with the sense that something like a barrier had sprung up between them.
This went on for a few days, and although the subject was not mooted, Mrs. Sankey felt that unless some concession on her part was made it was likely that the match would fall through. This she had not the slightest idea of permitting, and rather than it should happen she would have married without any settlement at all, for she really loved, in her weak way, the man who had been so attentive and deferential to her.
So one day the subject was renewed, and at last an understanding was arrived at. Mrs. Sankey's money was to be put into the business in her own name. Should she not survive her husband, he was to have the option of paying the money to her children or of allowing them the sum of eighty pounds a year each from the business. Should he not survive her the mill was to be settled upon any children she might have after her marriage; should there be no children it was to be hers absolutely.
All this was only arrived at after several long discussions, in all of which Mrs. Sankey protested that she knew nothing of business, that it was most painful to her to be thus discussing money matters, and that it would be far better to leave it in the hands of a solicitor to arrange in a friendly manner with him. She nevertheless stuck to her views, and drove a bargain as keenly and shrewdly as any solicitor could have done for her, to the surprise and exasperation of Mr. Mulready. Had he known that she really loved him, and would, if she had been driven to it, have sacrificed everything rather than lose him, he could have obtained very different terms; but having no heart to speak of, himself, he was ignorant of the power he possessed over her.
Bankruptcy stared him in the face unless he could obtain this increase of capital, and he dared not, by pressing the point, risk its loss. The terms, he told himself, were not altogether unsatisfactory; it was not likely that she would survive him. They were of about the same age; he had never known what it was to be ill, and she, although not such an invalid as she fancied herself, was still not strong. If she did not survive him he would have the whole business, subject only to the paltry annuity of two hundred and forty pounds a year to the three children. If, the most unlikely thing in the world, she did survive him—well, it mattered not a jot in that case who the mill went to.
So the terms were settled, the necessary deeds were drawn up by a solicitor, and signed by both parties. Mrs. Sankey recovered her spirits, and the preparations for the wedding went on.
Ned had intended to absent himself from the ceremony, but Mr. Porson, guessing that such might be his intention, had talked the matter gravely over with him. He had pointed out to Ned that his absence would in the first place be an act of great disrespect to his mother; that in the second place it would cause general comment, and would add to the unfavorable impression which his mother's early remarriage had undoubtedly created; and that, lastly, it would justify Mr. Mulready in regarding him as hostile to the marriage, and, should trouble subsequently arise, he would be able to point to it in self justification, and as a proof that Ned had from the first determined to treat him as an enemy.
So Ned was present at his mother's marriage. Quiet as the wedding was, for only two or three acquaintances were asked to be present, the greater part of Marsden were assembled in the church.
The marriage had created considerable comment. The death of Captain Sankey in saving a child's life had rendered his widow an object of general sympathy, and people felt that not only was this marriage within eighteen months of Captain Sankey's death almost indecent, but that it was somehow a personal wrong to them, and that they had been defrauded in their sympathy.
Therefore the numerous spectators of the marriage were critical rather than approving. They could find nothing to find fault with, however, in the bride's appearance. She was dressed in a dove colored silk, and with her fair hair and pale complexion looked quite young, and, as every one admitted, pretty. Mr. Mulready, as usual, was smiling, and seemed to convey by the looks which he cast round that he regarded the assemblage as a personal compliment to himself.
Lucy and Charlie betrayed no emotion either way; they were not pleased, but the excitement of the affair amused and interested them, and they might be said to be passive spectators. Ned, however, although he had brought himself to be present, could not bring himself to look as if the ceremony had his approval or sanction. He just glared, as Abijah, who was present, afterward confided to some of her friends, as if he could have killed the man as he stood. His look of undisguised hostility was indeed noticed by all who were in church, and counted heavily against him in the days which were to come.
CHAPTER X: TROUBLES AT HOME
It was not one of the least griefs of the young Sankeys connected with their mother's wedding that Abijah was to leave them. It was she herself who had given notice to Mrs. Sankey, saying that she would no longer be required. The first time that she had spoken of her intentions, Mrs. Sankey vehemently combated the idea, saying that neither she nor Lucy could spare her; but she did not afterward return to the subject, and seemed to consider it a settled thing that Abijah intended to leave. Mrs. Sankey had, in fact, spoken to Mr. Mulready on the subject, but instead of taking the view she had expected, he had said cheerfully:
"I am glad that she has given notice. I know that she is a valuable woman and much attached to you. At the same time these old servants always turn out a mistake under changed circumstances. She would never have been comfortable or contented. She has, my dear if I may say so, been mistress too long, and as I intend you to be mistress of my house, it is much better that she should go."
As Mrs. Sankey had certain doubts herself as to whether Abijah would be a success in the new home, the subject was dropped, and it became an understood thing that Abijah would leave after the wedding.
The newly married couple were absent for three weeks. Until two days before their return Abijah remained in the old house with the young Sankeys; then they moved into their new home, and she went off to her native village ten miles distant away on the moors. The next day there was a sale at the old house. A few, a very few, of the things had been moved. Everything else was sold, to the deep indignation of Ned, who was at once grieved and angry that all the articles of furniture which he associated with his father should be parted with. Abijah shared the boy's feelings in this respect, and at the sale all the furniture and fittings of Captain Sankey's study were bought by a friendly grocer on her behalf, and the morning after the sale a badly written letter, for Abijah's education had been neglected, was placed in Ned's hand.
"MY DEAR MASTER NED: Knowing as it cut you to the heart that everything should go away into the hands of strangers, I have made so bold as to ask Mr. Willcox for to buy all the furniter and books in maister's study. He is a-going to stow them away in a dry loft, and when so bee as you gets a home of your own there they is for you; they are sure not to fetch much, and when you gets a rich man you can pay me for them; not as that matters at all one way or the other. I have been a-saving up pretty nigh all my wages from the day as you was born, and is quite comfortable off. Write me a letter soon, dearie, to tell me as how things is going on. Your affectionate nurse, ABIJAH WOLF."
Although Ned was a lad of sixteen, he had a great cry over this letter, but it did him good, and it was with a softer heart that he prepared to receive his mother and her husband that evening. The meeting passed off better than he had anticipated. Mrs. Mulready was really affected at seeing her children again, and embraced them, Ned thought, with more fondness than she had done when they went away. Mr. Mulready spoke genially and kindly, and Ned began to hope that things would not be so bad after all.
The next morning, to his surprise, his mother appeared at breakfast, a thing which he could not remember that she had ever done before, and yet the hour was an early one, as her husband wanted to be off to the mill. During the meal Mr. Mulready spoke sharply two or three times, and it seemed to Ned that his mother was nervously anxious to please him.
"Things are not going on so well after all," he said to himself as he walked with his brother to school. "Mother has changed already; I can see that she isn't a bit like herself. There she was fussing over whether he had enough sugar with his tea, and whether the kidneys were done enough for him; then her coming down to breakfast was wonderful. I expect she has found already that somebody else's will besides her own has got to be consulted; it's pretty soon for her to have begun to learn the lesson."
It was very soon manifest that Mr. Mulready was master in his own house. He still looked pleasant and smiled, for his smile was a habitual one; but there was a sharpness in the ring of his voice, an impatience if everything was not exactly as he wished. He roughly silenced Charlie and Lucy if they spoke when he was reading his paper at breakfast, and he spoke snappishly to his wife when she asked him a question on such occasions. Ned felt his face burn, as with his eyes on his plate he continued his meal. To him Mr. Mulready seldom spoke unless it was absolutely necessary.
Ned often caught himself wondering over the change which had taken place in his mother. All the ways and habits of an invalid had disappeared. She not only gave directions for the management of the house, but looked after everything herself, and was forever going upstairs and down, seeing that everything was properly done. However sharply Mr. Mulready spoke she never replied in the same tone. A little flush of color would come into her cheek, but she would pass it off lightly, and at all times she appeared nervously anxious to please him. Ned wondered much over the change.
"He is a tyrant," he said, "and she has learned it already; but I do think she loves him. Fancy my mother coming to be the slave of a man like this! I suppose," he laughed bitterly, "it's the story of 'a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the more you thrash them the better they will be.' My father spent his whole life in making hers easy, and in sparing her from every care and trouble, and I don't believe she cared half as much for him as she does for this man who is her master."
For some months Mr. Mulready was very busy at his mill. A steam engine was being erected, new machinery brought in, and he was away the greater part of his time superintending it.
One day at breakfast, a short time before all was in readiness for a start with the new plant, Mr. Mulready opened a letter directed in a sprawling and ill written hand which lay at the top of the pile by his plate. Ned happened to notice his face, and saw the color fade out from it as he glanced at the contents. The mouth remained as usual, set in a smile, but the rest of the face expressed agitation and fear. The hand which held the letter shook. Mrs. Mulready, whose eyes seldom left her husband's face when he was in the room, also noticed the change.
"Is anything the matter, William?"
"Oh! nothing," he said with an unnatural laugh, "only a little attempt to frighten me."
"An attempt which has succeeded," Ned said to himself, "whatever it is."
Mr. Mulready passed the letter over to his wife. It was a rough piece of paper; at the top was scrawled the outline of a coffin underneath which was written:
"MR. MULREADY: Sir, this is to give you warning that if you uses the new machinery you are a dead man. You have been a marked man for a long time for your tyrannical ways, but as long as you didn't get the new machinery we let you live; but we has come to the end of it now; the day as you turns on steam we burns your mill to the ground and shoots you, so now you knows it."
At the bottom of this was signed the words "Captain Lud."
"Oh! William," Mrs. Mulready cried, "you will never do it! You will never risk your life at the hands of these terrible people!"
All the thin veneer of politeness was cracked by this blow, and Mr. Mulready said sullenly:
"Nice thing indeed; after I have married to get this money, and then not to be able to use it!"
His wife gave a little cry.
"It's a shame to say so," Charlie burst out sturdily.
Mr. Mulready's passion found a vent. He leaped up and seized the boy by the collar and boxed his ears with all his force.
In an instant the fury which had been smoldering in Ned's breast for months found a vent. He leaped to his feet and struck Mr. Mulready a blow between the eyes which sent him staggering back against the wall; then he caught up the poker. The manufacturer with a snarl like that of an angry wild beast was about to rush at him, but Ned's attitude as he stood, poker in hand, checked him.
"Stand back," Ned said threateningly, "or I will strike you. You coward and bully; for months I have put up with your tyrannizing over Charlie and Lucy, but touch either of them again if you dare. You think that you are stronger than I am—so you are ever so much; but you lay a finger on them or on me, and I warn you, if I wait a month for an opportunity I will pay you for it, if you kill me afterward."
Mrs. Mulready's screams had by this time brought the servants into the room, and they stood astonished at the spectacle.
Lucy crying bitterly had run to Ned and thrown her arms round him, begging him to be quiet. Charlie, hardly recovered from the heavy blows he had received, was crying too. Mr. Mulready as pale as death was glaring at Ned, while his wife had thrown herself between them. Mr. Mulready was the first to recover himself.
"This is a nice spectacle," he said to the servants. "You see that boy has attacked me with the poker and might have murdered me. However, you can go now, and mind, no chattering about what you have seen.
"And now," he continued to Ned as the door closed behind the servants, "out of this house you go this day."
"You don't suppose I want to stay in your house," Ned said passionately. "You don't suppose that it's any pleasure to me to stop here, seeing you play the tyrant over my mother."
"Oh, Ned, Ned," Mrs. Mulready broke in, "how can you talk so!"
"It is true, mother, he is a tyrant to you as well as to every one else; but I don't mean to go, I mean to stop here to protect you and the children. He daren't turn me out; if he did, I would go and work in one of the mills, and what would the people of Marsden say then? What would they think of this popular, pleasant gentleman then, who has told his wife before her children that he married her for her money? They shall all know it, never fear, if I leave this house. I would have gone to Mr. Simmonds and asked him to apply for a commission for me before now, for other fellows get it as young as I am; but I have made up my mind that it's my duty not to do so.
"I know he has been looking forward to my being out of the way, and his being able to do just what he likes with the others, but I ain't going to gratify him. It's plain to me that my duty at present is to take care of you all, and though God knows how I set my mind upon going into the army and being a soldier like my father, I will give it up if it means leaving Charlie here under him."
"And do you suppose, sir," Mr. Mulready asked with intense bitterness, "that I am going to keep you here doing nothing all your life, while you are pleased to watch me?"
"No, I don't," Ned replied. "I shall get a clerkship or something in one of the mills, and I shall have Charlie to live with me until he is old enough to leave school, and then I will go away with him to America or somewhere. As to mother, I can do nothing for her. I think my being here makes it worse for her, for I believe you tyrannize over her all the more because you think it hurts me. I know you hated me from the first just as I hated you. As for Lucy, mother must do the best she can for her. Even you daren't hit a girl."
"Oh, Ned, how can you go on so?" Mrs. Mulready wailed. "You are a wicked boy to talk so."
"All right, mother," Ned replied recklessly; "if I am, I suppose I am. I know in your eyes he can do no wrong. And I believe if he beat you, you would think that you deserved it."
So he flung himself down in his chair and continued his breakfast.
Mr. Mulready drank off his tea without sitting down, and then left the room without another word; in fact, as yet he did not know what to say.
Almost speechless with passion as he was, he restrained himself from carrying out his threat and turning Ned at once from the house. Above all things he prized his position and popularity, and he felt that, as Ned had said, he would indeed incur a heavy odium by turning his wife's son from his doors. Captain Sankey's death had thrown almost a halo over his children. Mr. Mulready knew that he was already intensely unpopular among the operative class, but he despised this so long as he stood well with the rest of the townsmen; but he dared not risk Ned's going to work as an ordinary hand in one of the factories; public opinion is always against stepfathers, and assuredly this would be no exception. Hating him as he did, he dared not get rid of this insolent boy, who had struck and defied him. He cursed himself now with his rashness in letting his temper get the best of him and telling his wife openly that he had married her for her money; for this in Ned's hands would be a serious weapon against him.
That his wife's feelings were hurt he cared not a jot, but it would be an awkward thing to have it repeated in the town. Then there was this threatening letter; what was he to do about that? Other men had had similar warnings. Some had defied Captain Lud, and fortified their mills and held them. Many had had their property burned to the ground; some had been murdered. It wouldn't be a pleasant thing to drive about in the country knowing that at any moment he might be shot dead. His mill was some little distance out of the town; the road was dark and lonely. He dared not risk it.
Mr. Mulready was, like all tyrants, a coward at heart, and his face grew white again as he thought of the letter in his pocket. In the meantime Mrs. Mulready was alternately sobbing and upbraiding Ned as he quietly finished his breakfast. The boy did not answer, but continued his meal in dogged silence, and when it was over collected his books and without a word went off to school.
Weeks went on, and no outward change took place. Ned continued to live at home. Mr. Mulready never addressed him, and beyond helping him to food entirely ignored his presence. At mealtimes when he opened his lips it was either to snap at Charlie or Lucy, or to snarl at his wife, whose patience astonished Ned, and who never answered except by a smile or murmured excuse. The lad was almost as far separated from her now as from his stepfather. She treated him as if he only were to blame for the quarrel which had arisen. They had never understood each other, and while she was never weary of making excuses for her husband, she could make none for her son. In the knowledge that the former had much to vex him she made excuses for him even in his worst moods. His new machinery was standing idle, his business was getting worse and worse, he was greatly pressed and worried, and it was monstrous, she told herself, that at such a time he should be troubled with Ned's defiant behavior.
A short time before the school Christmas holidays Ned knocked at the door of Mr. Porson's study. Since the conversation which they had had when first Ned heard of his mother's engagement Mr. Porson had seen in the lad's altered manner, his gloomy looks, and a hardness of expression which became more and more marked every week, that things were going on badly. Ned no longer evinced the same interest in his work, and frequently neglected it altogether; the master, however, had kept silence, preferring to wait until Ned should himself broach the subject.
"Well, Sankey, what is it?" he asked kindly as the boy entered.
"I don't think it's any use my going on any longer, Mr. Porson."
"Well, Sankey, you have not been doing yourself much good this half, certainly. I have not said much to you about it, for it is entirely your own business: you know more than nineteen out of twenty of the young fellows who get commissions, so that if you choose to give up work it is your own affair."
"I have made up my mind not to go into the army," Ned said quietly.
Mr. Porson was silent a minute.
"I hope, my dear lad," he said, "you will do nothing hastily about this. Here is a profession open to you which is your own choice and that of your father, and it should need some very strong and good reason for you to abandon it. Come let us talk the matter over together, my boy, not as a master and his pupil, but as two friends.
"You know, my boy, how thoroughly I have your interest at heart. If you had other friends whom you could consult I would rather have given you no advice, for there is no more serious matter than to say anything which might influence the career of a young fellow just starting in life. Terrible harm often results from well intentioned advice or opinions carelessly expressed to young men by their elders; it is a matter which few men are sufficiently careful about; but as I know that you have no friends to consult, Ned, and as I regard you with more than interest, I may say with affection, I think it would be well for you to tell me all that there is in your mind before you take a step which may wreck your whole life.
"I have been waiting for some months in hopes that you would open your mind to me, for I have seen that you were unhappy; but it was not for me to force your confidence."
"I don't know that there's much to tell," Ned said wearily. "Everything has happened just as it was certain it would do. Mulready is a brute; he ill treats my mother, he ill treats Charlie and Lucy, and he would ill treat me if he dared."
"All this is bad, Ned," Mr. Porson said gravely; "but of course much depends upon the amount of his ill treatment. I assume that he does not actively ill treat your mother."
"No," Ned said with an angry look in his face; "and he'd better not."
"Yes, Ned, he had better not, no doubt," Mr. Porson said soothingly; "but what I want to know, what it is essential I should know if I am to give you any advice worth having, is what you mean by ill treatment—is he rough and violent in his way with her? does he threaten her with violence? is he coarse and brutal?"
"No," Ned said somewhat reluctantly; "he is not that, sir; he is always snapping and snarling and finding fault."
"That is bad, Ned, but it does not amount to ill treatment. When a man is put out in business and things go wrong with him it is unhappily too often his custom to vent his ill temper upon innocent persons; and I fancy from what I hear—you know in a little place like this every one's business is more or less known—Mr. Mulready has a good deal to put him out. He has erected new machinery and dare not put it to work, owing as I hear—for he has lain the documents before the magistrates—for his having received threatening letters warning him against doing so. This is very trying to the man. Then, Ned, you will excuse my saying that perhaps he is somewhat tried at home. It is no pleasant thing for a man to have a young fellow like yourself in the house taking up an attitude of constant hostility. I do not say that his conduct may or may not justify it; but you will not deny that from the first you were prepared to receive him as an enemy rather than as a friend. I heard a story some weeks ago in the town, which emanated no doubt from the servants, that you had actually struck him."
"He hit Charlie, sir," Ned exclaimed.
"That may be," Mr. Porson went on gravely; "and I have no doubt, Ned, that you considered then, and that you consider now, that you were acting rightly in interfering on behalf of your brother. But I should question much whether in such a matter you are the best judge. You unfortunately began with a very strong prejudice against this man; you took up the strongest attitude of hostility to him; you were prepared to find fault with everything he said and did; you put yourself in the position of the champion of your mother, brother, and sister against him. Under such circumstances it was hardly possible that things could go on well. Now I suppose, Ned, that the idea which you have in your mind in deciding to give up the profession you have chosen, is that you may remain as their champion and protector here."
"Yes, sir," Ned said. "Father told me to be kind to mother, whatever happened."
"Quite so, my boy; but the question is, Are you being kind?"
Ned looked surprised.
"That you intend to be so, Ned, I am sure. The question is, Are you going the right way to work? Is this championship that you have taken upon yourself increasing her happiness, or is it not?"
Ned was silent.
"I do not think that it is, Ned. Your mother must be really fond of this man or she would not have married him. Do you think that it conduces to the comfort of her home to see the constant antagonism which prevails between you and him? Is it not the fact that this ill temper under which she suffers is the result of the irritation caused to him by your attitude? Do you not add to her burden rather than relieve it?"
Ned was still silent. He had so thoroughly persuaded himself that he was protecting his mother, his brother, and sister from Mr. Mulready that he had never considered the matter in this light.
"Does your mother take his part or yours in these quarrels, Ned?"
"She takes his part, sir," said Ned indignantly.
"Very well, Ned; that shows in itself that she does not wish for your championship, that in her eyes the trouble in the house is in fact caused by you. You must remember that when a woman loves a man she makes excuses for his faults of temper; his irritable moods, sharp expressions, and what you call snapping and snarling do not seem half so bad to her as they do to a third person, especially when that third person is her partisan. Instead of your adding to her happiness by renouncing your idea of going into the army, and of deciding to remain here in some position or other to take care of her, as, I suppose, is your intention, the result will be just the contrary. As to your sister, I think the same thing would happen.
"Your mother is certainly greatly attached to her and owing to her changed habits—for I understand that she is now a far more active, and I may say, Ned, a more sensible woman than before her marriage—I see no reason why Lucy should not be happy with her, especially if the element of discord—I mean yourself—were out of the way. As to Charlie, at the worst I don't think that he would suffer from your absence. His stepfather's temper will be less irritable; and as Charlie is away at school all day, and has to prepare his lessons in the evening, there is really but slight opportunity for his stepfather treating him with any active unkindness, even should he be disposed to do so.
"Did I think, my boy, that your presence here would be likely to benefit your family I should be the last person to advise you to avoid making a sacrifice of your private wishes to what you consider your duty; but upon the contrary I am convinced that the line which you have, with the best intention, taken up has been altogether a mistake, that your stay at home does vastly more harm than good, and that things would go on very much better in your absence."
This was a bitter mortification for Ned, who had hitherto nursed the idea that he was performing rather a heroic part, and was sacrificing himself for the sake of his mother.
"You don't know the fellow as I do," he said sullenly at last.
"I do not, Ned; but I know human nature, and I know that any man would show himself at his worst under such circumstances as those in which you hare placed him. It is painful to have to say, but I am sure that you have done harm rather than good, and that things will get on much better in your absence."
"I believe he is quite capable of killing her," Ned said passionately, "if he wanted her out of the way."
"That is a hard thing to say, Ned; but even were it so, we have no reason for supposing that he does want her out of the way. Come, Sankey, I am sure you have plenty of good sense. Hitherto you have been acting rather blindly in this matter. You have viewed it from one side only, and with the very best intentions in the world have done harm rather than good.
"I am convinced that when you come to think it over you will see that, in following out your own and your father's intentions and wishes as to your future career, you will really best fulfil his last injunctions and will show the truest kindness to your mother. Don't give me your answer now, but take time to think it over. Try and see the case from every point of view, and I think you will come to the conclusion that what I have been saying, although it may seem rather hard to you at first, is true, and that you had best go into the army, as you had intended. I am sure in any case you will know that what I have said, even if it seems unkind, has been for your good."
"Thank you, Mr. Porson," Ned replied; "I am quite sure of that. Perhaps you are right, and I have been making a fool of myself all along. But anyhow I will think it over."
CHAPTER XI: THE NEW MACHINERY
It is rather hard for a lad who thinks that he has been behaving somewhat as a hero to come to the conclusion that he has been making a fool of himself; but this was the result of Ned Sankey's cogitation over what Mr. Porson had said to him. Perhaps he arrived more easily at that conclusion because he was not altogether unwilling to do so. It was very mortifying to allow that he had been altogether wrong; but, on the other hand, there was a feeling of deep pleasure at the thought that he could, in Mr. Porson's deliberate opinion, go into the army and carry out all his original hopes and plans. His heart had been set upon this as long as he could remember, and it had been a bitter disappointment to him when he had arrived at the conclusion that it was his duty to abandon the idea. He did not now come to the conclusion hastily that Mr. Porson's view of the case was the correct one; but after a fortnight's consideration he went down on New Year's Day to the school, and told his master that he had made up his mind.
"I see, sir," he said, "now that I have thought it all over, that you are quite right, and that I have been behaving like an ass, so I shall set to work again and try and make up the lost time. I have only six months longer, for Easter is the time when Mr. Simmonds said that I should be old enough, and he will write to the lord lieutenant, and I suppose that in three months after that I should get my commission."
"That is right, Ned. I am exceedingly glad you have been able to take my view of the matter. I was afraid you were bent upon spoiling your life, and I am heartily glad that you have been able to see the matter in a different light."
A day or two afterward Ned took an opportunity of telling his mother that he intended at Easter to remind Mr. Simmonds of his promise to apply for a commission for him; and had he before had any lingering doubt that the decision was a wise one it would have been dissipated by the evident satisfaction and relief with which the news was received; nevertheless, he could not help a feeling of mortification at seeing in his mother's face the gladness which the prospect of his leaving occasioned her.
It was some time since Ned had seen his friend Bill Swinton, for Bill was now regularly at work in Mr. Mulready's factory and was only to be found at home in the evening, and Ned had been in no humor for going out. He now, however, felt inclined for a friendly talk again, and the next Sunday afternoon he started for Varley.
"Well, Maister Ned," Bill said as he hurried to the door in answer to his knock, "it be a long time surely sin oi saw thee last—well nigh six months, I should say."
"It is a long time, Bill, but I haven't been up to anything, even to coming up here. Put on your cap and we will go for a walk across the moors together."
In a few seconds Bill joined him, and they soon left the village behind.
"Oi thought as how thou didn't feel oop to talking loike, Moister Ned. Oi heared tell as how thou did'st not get on well wi' Foxey; he be a roight down bad un, he be; it were the talk of the place as how you gived him a clout atween t' eyes, and oi laughed rarely to myself when oi seed him come through t' mill wi' black and blue all round 'em. There warn't a hand there but would have given a week's pay to have seen it done."
"I am afraid I was wrong, Bill," Ned said, feeling ashamed rather then triumphant at the thought. "I oughtn't to have done it, but my beastly temper got the best of it."
"Doan't say that Maister Ned; he deserves ten toimes worse nor ye gived him, and he will get it some time if he doan't mind. Oi tell ee there be lots of talk of him, and Captain Lud's gang be a getting stronger and stronger. Oi tell ye, t' maisters be agoing to have a bad time on it afore long, and Foxey be sure to be one of the first served out."
"Well, don't you have anything to do with it, Bill. You know I have told you over and over again that no good can come of such bad doings, and that the men will only make matters much worse for themselves. My father used to say that no good ever came of mob violence. They may do some harm for a time, but it is sure to recoil on their own heads."
"Oi doan't ha' nowt to do wi' it," Bill replied, "cause oi told yer oi wouldn't; but oi've some trouble to keep oot o't. Ye see oi am nointeen now, and most o' t' chaps of moi age they be in 't; they meet at the 'Dog' nigh every noight, and they drills regular out on t' moor here, and it doan't seem natural for oi not to be in it, especial as moi brothers be in it. They makes it rough for me in t' village, and says as how I ain't got no spirit, and even t' girls laughs at me."
"Not Polly Powlett, I am sure, Bill."
"No, not Polly," Bill replied. "She be a different sort. A' together it be a bit hard, and it be well for me as oi 'm main strong and tough, for oi ha' to fight pretty nigh every Saturday. However, oi ha thrashed pretty nigh every young chap in Varley, and they be beginning now to leave oi alone."
"That's right, Bill; I am sure I have no right to preach to you when I am always doing wrong myself; still I am quite sure you will be glad in the long run that you had nothing to do with King Lud. I know the times are very hard, but burning mills and murdering masters are not the way to make them better; you take my word for that. And now how are things going on in Varley?"
"No great change here," Bill replied. "Polly Powlett bain't made up her moind yet atween t' chaps as is arter her. They say as she sent John Stukeley, the smith, to the roight about last Sunday; he ha' been arter her vor the last year. Some thowt she would have him, some didn't. He ha' larning, you see, can read and wroite foine, and ha' got a smooth tongue, and knows how to talk to gals, so some thought she would take him; oi knew well enough she wouldn't do nowt of the koind, for oi ha' heard her say he were a mischievous chap, and a cuss to Varley. Thou know'st, Maister Ned, they do say, but in course oi knows nowt about it, as he be the head of the Luddites in this part of Yorkshire.
"Luke Marner he be dead against King Lud, he be, and so be many of the older men here; it's most the young uns as takes to them ways; and nateral, Polly she thinks as Luke does, or perhaps," and Bill laughed, "it's Polly as thowt that way first, and Luke as thinks as she does. However it be, she be dead set agin them, and she's said to me jest the same thing as thou'st been a-saying; anyhow, it be sartain as Polly ha' said no to John Stukeley, not as she said nowt about it, and no one would ha' known aboot it ef he hadn't gone cussing and swearing down at the 'Dog.'
"I thinks. Maister Ned, as we shall ha' trouble afore long. The men ha been drilling four or five years now, and oi know as they ha' been saying, What be the good of it when nowt is done and the wages gets lower and lower? They have preachments now out on t' moor on Sunday, and the men comes from miles round, and they tells me as Stukeley and others, but him chiefly, goes on awful agin t' maisters, and says, There's Scripture vor it as they owt to smite 'em, and as how tyrants owt vor to be hewed in pieces."
"The hewing would not be all on one side, Bill, you will see, if they begin it. You know how easily the soldiers have put down riots in other places."
"That be true," Bill said; "but they doan't seem vor to see it. Oi don't say nowt one way or t' other, and oi have had more nor half a mind to quit and go away till it's over. What wi' my brothers and all t' other young chaps here being in it, it makes it moighty hard vor oi to stand off; only as oi doan't know what else vor to do, oi would go. Oi ha' been a-thinking that when thou get'st to be an officer oi'll list in the same regiment and go to the wars wi' thee. Oi am sick of this loife here."
"Well, Bill, there will be no difficulty about that if you really make up your mind to it when the time comes. Of course I should like to have you very much. I have heard my father say that each officer has a soldier as his special servant; and if you would like that, you see, when we were alone together we should be able to talk about Varley and everything here just as we do now. Then I suppose I could help you on and get you made first corporal and then a sergeant."