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A Life's Secret
Mrs. Henry Wood
PART THE FIRST.
CHAPTER I. WAS THE LADY MAD?
CHAPTER II. CHANGES.
CHAPTER III. AWAY TO LONDON.
CHAPTER IV. DAFFODIL'S DELIGHT.
CHAPTER V. MISS GWINN'S VISIT.
CHAPTER VI. TRACKED HOME.
CHAPTER VII. MR. SHUCK AT HOME.
CHAPTER VIII. FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS!
CHAPTER IX. THE SEPARATION OF HUNTER AND HUNTER.
PART THE SECOND.
CHAPTER I. A MEETING OF THE WORKMEN.
CHAPTER II. CALLED TO KETTERFORD.
CHAPTER III. TWO THOUSAND POUNDS.
CHAPTER IV. AGITATION.
PART THE THIRD.
CHAPTER I. A PREMATURE AVOWAL.
CHAPTER II. MR. COX.
CHAPTER III. 'I THINK I HAVE BEEN A FOOL.'
CHAPTER IV. SOMEBODY 'PITCHED INTO.'
CHAPTER V. A GLOOMY CHAPTER.
CHAPTER VI. THE LITTLE BOY AT REST.
CHAPTER VII. MR. DUNN'S PIGS BROUGHT TO MARKET.
CHAPTER VIII. A DESCENT FOR MR. SHUCK.
CHAPTER IX. ON THE EVE OF BANKRUPTCY.
CHAPTER X. THE YEARS GONE BY.
CHAPTER XI. RELIEF.
CHAPTER XII. CONCLUSION.
On the outskirts of Ketterford, a town of some note in the heart of England, stood, a few years ago, a white house, its green lawn, surrounded by shrubs and flowers, sloping down to the high road. It probably stands there still, looking as if not a day had passed over its head since, for houses can be renovated and made, so to say, new again, unlike men and women. A cheerful, bright, handsome house, of moderate size, the residence of Mr. Thornimett.
At the distance of a short stone's-throw, towards the open country, were sundry workshops and sheds—a large yard intervening between them and the house. They belonged to Mr. Thornimett; and the timber and other characteristic materials lying about the yard would have proclaimed their owner's trade without the aid of the lofty sign-board—'Richard Thornimett, Builder and Contractor.' His business was extensive for a country town.
Entering the house by the pillared portico, and crossing the black-and-white floor-cloth of the hall to the left, you came to a room whose windows looked towards the timber-yard. It was fitted up as a sort of study, or counting-house, though the real business counting-house was at the works. Matting was on its floor; desks and stools stood about; maps and drawings, plain and coloured, were on its walls; not finished and beautiful landscapes, such as issue from the hands of modern artists, or have descended to us from the great masters, but skeleton designs of various buildings—churches, bridges, terraces—plans to be worked out in actuality, not to be admired on paper. This room was chiefly given over to Mr. Thornimett's pupil: and you may see him in it now.
A tall, gentlemanly young fellow, active and upright; his name, Austin Clay. It is Easter Monday in those long-past years—and yet not so very long past, either—and the works and yard are silent to-day. Strictly speaking, Austin Clay can no longer be called a pupil, for he is twenty-one, and his articles are out. The house is his home; Mr. and Mrs. Thornimett, who have no children of their own, are almost as his father and mother. They have said nothing to him about leaving, and he has said nothing to them. The town, in its busy interference, gratuitously opined that 'Old Thornimett would be taking him into partnership.' Old Thornimett had given no indication of what he might intend to do, one way or the other.
Austin Clay was of good parentage, of gentle birth. Left an orphan at the age of fourteen, with very small means, not sufficient to complete his education, Ketterford wondered what was to become of him, and whether he had not better get rid of himself by running away to sea. Mr. Thornimett stepped in and solved the difficulty. The late Mrs. Clay—Austin's mother—and Mrs. Thornimett were distantly related, and perhaps a certain sense of duty in the matter made itself heard; that, at least, combined with the great fact that the Thornimett household was childless. The first thing they did was to take the boy home for the Christmas holidays; the next, was to tell him he should stay there for good. Not to be adopted as their son, not to leave him a fortune hereafter, Mr. Thornimett took pains to explain to him, but to make him into a man, and teach him to earn his own living.
'Will you be apprenticed to me, Austin?' subsequently asked Mr. Thornimett.
'Can't I be articled, sir?' returned Austin, quickly.
'Articled?' repeated Mr. Thornimett, with a laugh. He saw what was running in the boy's mind. He was a plain man himself; had built up his own fortunes just as he had built the new house he lived in; had risen, in fact, as many a working man does rise: but Austin's father was a gentleman. 'Well, yes, you can be articled, if you like it better,' he said; 'but I shall never call it anything but apprenticed; neither will the trade. You'll have to work, young sir.'
'I don't care how hard I work, or what I do,' cried Austin, earnestly. 'There's no degradation in work.'
Thus it was settled; and Austin Clay became bound pupil to Richard Thornimett.
'Old Thornimett and his wife have done it out of charity,' quoth Ketterford.
No doubt they had. But as the time passed on they grew very fond of him. He was an open-hearted, sweet-tempered, generous boy, and one of them at least, Mr. Thornimett, detected in him the qualities that make a superior man. Privileges were accorded him from the first: the going on with certain of his school duties, for which masters came to him out of business hours—drawing, mathematics, and modern languages chiefly—and Austin went on himself with Latin and Greek. With the two latter Mrs. Thornimett waged perpetual war. What would be the use of them to him, she was always asking, and Austin, in his pleasant, laughing way, would rejoin that they might help to make him a gentleman. He was that already: Austin Clay, though he might not know it, was a true gentleman born.
Had they repented their bargain? He was twenty-one now, and out of his articles, or his time, as it was commonly called. No, not for an instant. Never a better servant had Richard Thornimett; never, he would have told you, one so good. With all his propensity to be a 'gentleman,' Austin Clay did not shrink from his work; but did it thoroughly. His master in his wisdom had caused him to learn his business practically; but, that accomplished, he kept him to overlooking, and to other light duties, just as he might have done by a son of his own. It had told well.
Easter Monday, and a universal holiday Mr. Thornimett had gone out on horseback, and Austin was in the pupil's room. He sat at a desk, his stool on the tilt, one hand unconsciously balancing a ruler, the other supporting his head, which was bent over a book.
The call, rather a gentle one, came from outside the door. Austin, buried in his book, did not hear it.
He heard that, and started up. The door opened in the same moment, and an old lady, dressed in delicate lavender print, came briskly in. Her cap of a round, old-fashioned shape, was white as snow, and a bunch of keys hung from her girdle. It was Mrs. Thornimett.
'So you are here!' she exclaimed, advancing to him with short, quick steps, a sort of trot. 'Sarah said she was sure Mr. Austin had not gone out. And now, what do you mean by this?' she added, bending her spectacles, which she always wore, on his open book. 'Confining yourself indoors this lovely day over that good-for-nothing Hebrew stuff!'
Austin turned his eyes upon her with a pleasant smile. Deep-set grey eyes they were, earnest and truthful, with a great amount of thought in them for a young man. His face was a pleasing, good-looking face, without being a handsome one, its complexion pale, clear, and healthy, and the hair rather dark. There was not much of beauty in the countenance, but there was plenty of firmness and good sense.
'It is not Hebrew, Mrs. Thornimett. Hebrew and I are strangers to each other. I am only indulging myself with a bit of old Homer.'
'All useless, Austin. I don't care whether it is Greek or Hebrew, or Latin or French. To pore over those rubbishing dry books whenever you get the chance, does you no good. If you did not possess a constitution of iron, you would have been laid upon a sick-bed long ago.'
Austin laughed outright. Mrs. Thornimett's prejudices against what she called 'learning,' had grown into a proverb. Never having been troubled with much herself, she, like the Dutch professor told of by George Primrose, 'saw no good in it.' She lifted her hand and closed the book.
'May I not spend my time as I like upon a holiday?' remonstrated Austin, half vexed, half in good humour.
'No,' said she, authoritatively; 'not when the day is warm and bright as this. We do not often get so fair an Easter. Don't you see that I have put off my winter clothing?'
'I saw that at breakfast.'
'Oh, you did notice that, did you? I thought you and Mr. Thornimett were both buried in that newspaper. Well, Austin, I never make the change till I think warm weather is really coming in: and so it ought to be, for Easter is late this year. Come, put that book up.'
Austin obeyed, a comical look of grievance on his face. 'I declare you order me about just as you did when I came here first, a miserable little muff of fourteen. You'll never get another like me, Mrs. Thornimett. As if I had not enough outdoor work every day in the week! And I don't know where on earth to go to. It's like turning a fellow out of house and home!'
'You are going out for me, Austin. The master left a message for the Lowland farm, and you shall take it over, and stay the day with them. They will make as much of you as they would of a king. When Mrs. Milton was here the other day, she complained that you never went over now; she said she supposed you were growing above them.'
'What nonsense!' said Austin, laughing. 'Well, I'll go there for you at once, without grumbling. I like the Miltons.'
'You can walk, or you can take the pony gig: whichever you like.'
'I will walk,' replied Austin, with alacrity, putting his book inside the large desk. 'What is the message, Mrs. Thornimett?'
Mrs. Thornimett came to a sudden pause, very much as if she had fallen into a dream. Her eyes were gazing from the window into the far distance, and Austin looked in the same direction: but there was not anything to be seen.
'There's nothing there, lad. It is but my own thoughts. Something is troubling me, Austin. Don't you think the master has seemed very poorly of late?'
'N—o,' replied Austin, slowly, and with some hesitation, for he was half doubting whether something of the sort had not struck him. Certainly the master—as Mr. Thornimett was styled indiscriminately on the premises both by servants and workpeople, so that Mrs. Thornimett often fell into the same habit—was not the brisk man he used to be. 'I have not noticed it particularly.'
'That is like the young; they never see anything,' she murmured, as if speaking to herself. 'Well, Austin, I have; and I can tell you that I do not like the master's looks, or the signs I detect in him. Especially did I not like them when he rode forth this morning.'
'All that I have observed is that of late he seems to be disinclined for business. He seems heavy, sleepy, as though it were a trouble to him to rouse himself, and he complains sometimes of headache. But, of course——'
'Of course, what?' asked Mrs. Thornimett. 'Why do you hesitate?'
'I was going to say that Mr. Thornimett is not as young as he was,' continued Austin, with some deprecation.
'He is sixty-six, and I am sixty-three. But, you must be going. Talking of it, will not mend it. And the best part of the day is passing.'
'You have not given me the message,' he said, taking up his hat which lay beside him.
'The message is this,' said Mrs. Thornimett, lowering her voice to a confidential tone, as she glanced round to see that the door was shut. 'Tell Mr. Milton that Mr. Thornimett cannot answer for that timber merchant about whom he asked. The master fears he might prove a slippery customer; he is a man whom he himself would trust as far as he could see, but no farther. Just say it into Mr. Milton's private ear, you know.'
'Certainly. I understand,' replied the young man, turning to depart.
'You see now why it might not be convenient to despatch any one but yourself. And, Austin,' added the old lady, following him across the hall, 'take care not to make yourself ill with their Easter cheesecakes. The Lowland farm is famous for them.'
'I will try not,' returned Austin.
He looked back at her, nodding and laughing as he traversed the lawn, and from thence struck into the open road. His way led him past the workshops, closed then, even to the gates, for Easter Monday in that part of the country is a universal holiday. A few minutes, and he turned into the fields; a welcome change from the dusty road. The field way might be a little longer, but it was altogether pleasanter. Easter was late that year, as Mrs. Thornimett observed, and the season was early. The sky was blue and clear, the day warm and lovely; the hedges were budding into leaf, the grass was growing, the clover, the buttercups, the daisies were springing; and an early butterfly fluttered past Austin.
'You have taken wing betimes,' he said, addressing the unconscious insect. 'I think summer must be at hand.'
Halting for a moment to watch the flight, he strode on the quicker afterwards. Supple, active, slender, his steps—the elastic, joyous, tread of youth—scarcely seemed to touch the earth. He always walked fast when busy with thought, and his mind was buried in the hint Mrs. Thornimett had spoken, touching her fears for her husband's health. 'If he is breaking, it's through his close attention to business,' decided Austin, as he struck into the common and was nearing the end of his journey. 'I wish he would take a jolly good holiday this summer. It would set him up; and I know I could manage things without him.'
A large common; a broad piece of waste land, owned by the lord of the manor, but appropriated by anybody and everybody; where gipsies encamped and donkeys grazed, and geese and children were turned out to roam. A wide path ran across it, worn by the passage of farmer's carts and other vehicles. To the left it was bordered in the distance by a row of cottages; to the right, its extent was limited, and terminated in some dangerous gravel pits—dangerous, because they were not protected.
Austin Clay had reached the middle of the path and of the common, when he overtook a lady whom he slightly knew. A lady of very strange manners, popularly supposed to be mad, and of whom he once stood in considerable awe, not to say terror, at which he laughed now. She was a Miss Gwinn, a tall bony woman of remarkable strength, the sister of Gwinn, a lawyer of Ketterford. Gwinn the lawyer did not bear the best of characters, and Ketterford reviled him when they could do it secretly. 'A low, crafty, dishonest practitioner, whose hands couldn't have come clean had he spent his days and nights in washing them,' was amidst the complimentary terms applied to him. Miss Gwinn, however, seemed honest enough, and but for her rancorous manners Ketterford might have grown to feel a sort of respect for her as a woman of sorrow. She had come suddenly to the place many years before and taken up her abode with her brother. She looked and moved and spoke as one half-crazed with grief: what its cause was, nobody knew; but it was accepted by all, and mysteriously alluded to by herself on occasion.
'You have taken a long walk this morning, Miss Gwinn,' said Austin, courteously raising his hat as he came up with her.
She threw back her grey cloak with a quick, sharp movement, and turned upon him. 'Oh, is it you, Austin Clay? You startled me. My thoughts were far away: deep upon another. He could wear a fair outside, and accost me in a pleasant voice, like you.'
'That is rather a doubtful compliment, Miss Gwinn,' he returned, in his good-humoured way. 'I hope I am no darker inside than out. At any rate, I don't try to appear different from what I am.'
'Did I accuse you of it? Boy! You had better go and throw yourself into one of those gravel pits and die, than grow up to be deceitful,' she vehemently cried. 'Deceit has been the curse of my days. It has made me what I am; one whom the boys hoot after, and call——'
'No, no; not so bad as that,' interrupted Austin, soothingly. 'You have been cross with them sometimes, and they are insolent, mischievous little ragamuffins. I am sure every thoughtful person respects you, feeling for your sorrow.'
'Sorrow!' she wailed. 'Ay. Sorrow, beyond what falls to the ordinary lot of man. The blow fell upon me, though I was not an actor in it. When those connected with us do wrong, we suffer; we, more than they. I may be revenged yet,' she added, her expression changing to anger. 'If I can only come across him.'
'Across whom?' naturally asked Austin.
'Who are you, that you should seek to pry into my secrets?' she passionately resumed. 'I am five-and-fifty to-day—old enough to be your mother, and you presume to put the question to me! Boys are coming to something.'
'I beg your pardon; I but spoke heedlessly, Miss Gwinn, in answer to your remark. Indeed I have no wish to pry into anybody's business. And as to "secrets," I have eschewed them, since, a little chap in petticoats, I crept to my mother's room door to listen to one, and got soundly whipped for my pains.'
'It is a secret that you will never know, or anybody else; so put its thoughts from you. Austin Clay,' she added, laying her hand upon his arm, and bending forward to speak in a whisper, 'it is fifteen years, this very day, since its horrors came out to me! And I have had to carry it about since, as I best could, in silence and in pain.'
She turned round abruptly as she spoke, and continued her way along the broad path; while Austin Clay struck short off towards the gravel pits, which was his nearest road to the Lowland farm. Silent and abandoned were the pits that day; everybody connected with them was enjoying holiday with the rest of the world. 'What a strange woman she is!' he thought.
It has been said that the gravel pits were not far from the path. Austin was close upon them, when the sound of a horse's footsteps caused him to turn. A gentleman was riding fast down the common path, from the opposite side to the one he and Miss Gwinn had come, and Austin shaded his eyes with his hand to see if it was any one he knew. No; it was a stranger. A slender man, of some seven-and-thirty years, tall, so far as could be judged, with thin, prominent aquiline features, and dark eyes. A fine face; one of those that impress the beholder at first sight, as it did Austin, and, once seen, remain permanently on the memory.
'I wonder who he is?' cried Austin Clay to himself. 'He rides well.'
Possibly Miss Gwinn might be wondering the same. At any rate, she had fixed her eyes on the stranger, and they seemed to be starting from her head with the gaze. It would appear that she recognised him, and with no pleasurable emotion. She grew strangely excited. Her face turned of a ghastly whiteness, her hands closed involuntarily, and, after standing for a moment in perfect stillness, as if petrified, she darted forward in his pathway, and seized the bridle of his horse.
'So! You have turned up at last! I knew—I knew you were not dead!' she shrieked, in a voice of wild raving. 'I knew you would some time be brought face to face with me, to answer for your wickedness.'
Utterly surprised and perplexed, or seeming to be, at this summary attack, the gentleman could only stare at his assailant, and endeavour to get his bridle from her hand. But she held it with a firm grasp.
'Let go my horse,' he said. 'Are you mad?'
'You were mad,' she retorted, passionately. 'Mad in those old days; and you turned another to madness. Not three minutes ago, I said to myself that the time would come when I should find you. Man! do you remember that it is fifteen years ago this very day that the—the—crisis of the sickness came on? Do you know that never afterwards——'
'Do not betray your private affairs to me,' interrupted the gentleman. 'They are no concern of mine. I never saw you in my life. Take care! the horse will do you an injury.'
'No! You never saw me, and you never saw somebody else!' she panted, in a tone that would have been mockingly sarcastic, but for its wild passion. 'You did not change the current of my whole life! You did not turn another to madness! These equivocations are worthy of you.'
'If you are not insane, you must be mistaking me for some other person,' he replied, his tone none of the mildest, though perfectly calm. 'I repeat that, to my knowledge, I never set eyes upon you in my life. Woman! Have you no regard for your own safety? The horse will kill you! Don't you see that I cannot control him?'
'So much the better if he kills us both,' she shrieked, swaying up and down, to and fro, with the fierce motions of the angry horse. 'You will only meet your deserts: and, for myself, I am tired of life.'
'Let go!' cried the rider.
'Not until you have told me where you live, and where you may be found. I have searched for you in vain. I will have my revenge; I will force you to do justice. You——'
In her sad temper, her dogged obstinacy, she still held the bridle. The horse, a spirited animal, was passionate as she was, and far stronger. He reared bolt upright, he kicked, he plunged; and, finally, he shook off the obnoxious control, to dash furiously in the direction of the gravel pits. Miss Gwinn fell to the ground.
To fall into the pit would be certain destruction to both man and horse. Austin Clay had watched the encounter in amazement, though he could not hear the words of the quarrel. In the humane impulse of the moment, disregarding the danger to himself, he darted in front of the horse, arrested him on the very brink of the pit, and threw him back on his haunches.
Snorting, panting, the white foam breaking from him, the animal, as if conscious of the doom he had escaped, now stood in trembling quiet, obedient to the control of his master. That master threw himself from his back, and turned to Austin.
'Young gentleman, you have saved my life.'
There was little doubt of that. Austin accepted the fact without any fuss, feeling as thankful as the speaker, and quite unconscious at the moment of the wrench he had given his own shoulder.
'It would have been an awkward fall, sir. I am glad I happened to be here.'
'It would have been a killing fall,' replied the stranger, stepping to the brink, and looking down. 'And your being here must be owing to God's wonderful Providence.'
He lifted his hat as he spoke, and remained a minute or two silent and uncovered, his eyes closed. Austin, in the same impulse of reverence, lifted his.
'Did you see the strange manner in which that woman attacked me?' questioned the stranger.
'She must be insane.'
'She is very strange at times,' said Austin. 'She flies into desperate passions.'
'Passions! It is madness, not passion. A woman like that ought to be shut up in Bedlam. Where would be the satisfaction to my wife and family, if, through her, I had been lying at this moment at the bottom there, dead? I never saw her in my life before; never.'
'Is she hurt? She has fallen down, I perceive.'
'Hurt! Not she. She could call after me pretty fiercely when my horse shook her off. She possesses the rage and strength of a tiger. Good fellow! Good Salem! Did a mad woman frighten and anger you?' added the stranger, soothing his horse. 'And now, young sir,' turning to Austin, 'how shall I reward you?'
Austin broke into a smile at the notion.
'Not at all, thank you,' he said. 'One does not merit reward for such a thing as this. I should have deserved sending over after you, had I not interposed. To do my best was a simple matter of duty—of obligation; but nothing to be rewarded for.'
'Had he been a common man, I might have done it,' thought the stranger; 'but he is evidently a gentleman. Well, I may be able to repay it in some manner as you and I pass through life,' he said, aloud, mounting the now subdued horse. 'Some neglect the opportunities, thrown in their way, of helping their fellow-creatures; some embrace them, as you have just done. I believe that whichever we may give—neglect or help—will be returned to us in kind: like unto a corn of wheat, that must spring up what it is sown; or a thistle, that must come up a thistle.'
'As to embracing the opportunity—I should think there's no man living but would have done his best to save you, had he been standing here.'
'Ah, well; let it go,' returned the horseman. 'Will you tell me your name? And something about yourself?'
'My name is Austin Clay. I have few relatives living, and they are distant ones, and I shall, I expect, have to make my own way in the world.'
'Are you in any profession? or business?'
'I am with Mr. Thornimett, of Ketterford: the builder and contractor.'
'Why, I am a builder myself!' cried the stranger, a pleasing accent of surprise in his tone. 'Shall you ever be visiting London?'
'I daresay I shall, sir. I should like to do so.'
'Then, when you do, mind you call upon me the first thing,' he rejoined, taking a card from a case in his pocket and handing it to Austin. Come to me should you ever be in want of a berth: I might help you to one. Will you promise?'
'Yes, sir; and thank you.'
'I fancy the thanks are due from the other side, Mr. Clay. Oblige me by not letting that Bess o' Bedlam obtain sight of my card. I might have her following me.'
'No fear,' said Austin, alluding to the caution.
'She must be lying there to regain the strength exhausted by passion, carelessly remarked the stranger. 'Poor thing! It is sad to be mad, though! She is getting up now, I see: I had better be away. That town beyond, in the distance, is Ketterford, is it not?'
'Fare you well, then. I must hasten to catch the twelve o'clock train. They have horse-boxes, I presume, at the station?'
'All right,' he nodded. 'I have received a summons to town, and cannot afford the time to ride Salem home. So we must both get conveyed by train, old fellow'—patting his horse, as he spoke to it. 'By the way, though—what is the lady's name?' he halted to ask.
'Gwinn. Miss Gwinn.'
'Gwinn? Gwinn?' Never heard the name in my life. Fare you well, in all gratitude.'
He rode away. Austin Clay looked at the card. It was a private visiting card—'Mr. Henry Hunter' with an address in the corner.
'He must be one of the great London building firm, "Hunter and Hunter,"' thought Austin, depositing the card in his pocket. 'First class people. And now for Miss Gwinn.'
For his humanity would not allow him to leave her unlooked-after, as the molested and angry man had done. She had risen to her feet, though slowly, as he stepped back across the short worn grass of the common. The fall had shaken her, without doing material damage.
'I hope you are not hurt?' said Austin, kindly.
'A ban light upon the horse!' she fiercely cried. 'At my age, it does not do to be thrown on the ground violently. I thought my bones were broken; I could not rise. And he has escaped! Boy! What did he say to you of me—of my affairs?'
'Not anything. I do not believe he knows you in the least. He says he does not.'
The crimson passion had faded from Miss Gwinn's face, leaving it wan and white. 'How dare you say you believe it?'
'Because I do believe it,' replied Austin. 'He declared that he never saw you in his life; and I think he spoke the truth. I can judge when a man tells truth, and when he tells a lie. Mr. Thornimett often says he wishes he could read faces—and people—as I can read them.'
Miss Gwinn gazed at him; contempt and pity blended in her countenance. 'Have you yet to learn that a bad man can assume the semblance of goodness?'
'Yes, I know that; and assume it so as to take in a saint,' hastily spoke Austin. 'You may be deceived in a bad man; but I do not think you can in a good one. Where a man possesses innate truth and honour, it shines out in his countenance, his voice, his manner; and there can be no mistake. When you are puzzled over a bad man, you say to yourself, "He may be telling the truth, he may be genuine;" but with a good man you know it to be so: that is, if you possess the gift of reading countenances. Miss Gwinn, I am sure there was truth in that stranger.'
'Listen, Austin Clay. That man, truthful as you deem him, is the very incarnation of deceit. I know as much of him as one human being can well know of another. It was he who wrought the terrible wrong upon my house; it was he who broke up my happy home. I'll find him now. Others said he must be dead; but I said, "No, he lives yet." And, you see he does live. I'll find him.'
Without another word she turned away, and went striding back in the direction of Ketterford—the same road which the stranger's horse had taken. Austin stood and looked after her, pondering over the strange events of the hour. Then he proceeded to the Lowland farm.
A pleasant day amidst pleasant friends spent he; rich Easter cheesecakes being the least of the seductions he did not withstand; and Ketterford clocks were striking half-past ten as he approached Mrs. Thornimett's. The moonlight walk was delightful; there was no foreboding of ill upon his spirit, and he turned in at the gate utterly unconscious of the news that was in store for him.
Conscious of the late hour—for they were early people—he was passing across the lawn with a hasty step, when the door was drawn silently open, as if some one stood there watching, and he saw Sarah, one of the two old maid-servants, come forth to meet him. Both had lived in the family for years; had scolded and ordered Austin about when a boy, to their heart's content, and for his own good.
'Why, Sarah, is it you?' was his gay greeting. 'Going to take a moonlight ramble?'
'Where have you stayed?' whispered the woman in evident excitement. 'To think you should be away this night of all others, Mr. Austin! Have you heard what has happened to the master?'
'No. What?' exclaimed Austin, his fears taking alarm.
'He fell down in a fit, over at the village where he went; and they brought him home, a-frightening us two and the missis almost into fits ourselves. Oh, Master Austin!' she concluded, bursting into tears, 'the doctors don't think he'll live till morning. Poor dear old master!'
Austin, half paralysed at the news, stood for a moment against the wall inside the hall. 'Can I go and see him?' he presently asked.
'Oh, you may go,' was the answer; 'the mistress has been asking for you, and nothing rouses him. It's a heavy blow; but it has its side of brightness. God never sends a blow but he sends mercy with it.'
'What is the mercy—the brightness?' Austin waited to ask, thinking she must allude to some symptom of hope. Sarah put her shrivelled old arm on his in solemnity, as she answered it.
'He was fit to be taken. He had lived for the next world while he was living in this. And those that do, Master Austin, never need shrink from sudden death.'
To reflect upon the change death makes, even in the petty every-day affairs of life, must always impart a certain awe to the thoughtful mind. On the Easter Monday, spoken of in the last chapter, Richard Thornimett, his men, his contracts, and his business in progress, were all part of the life, the work, the bustle of the town of Ketterford. In a few weeks from that time, Richard Thornimett—who had not lived to see the morning light after his attack—was mouldering in the churchyard; and the business, the workshops, the artisans, all save the dwelling-house, which Mrs. Thornimett retained for herself, had passed into other hands. The name, Richard Thornimett, as one of the citizens of Ketterford, had ceased to be: all things were changed.
Mrs. Thornimett's friends and acquaintances had assembled to tender counsel, after the fashion of busybodies of the world. Some recommended her to continue the business; some, to give it up; some, to take in a gentleman as partner; some, to pay a handsome salary to an efficient manager. Mrs. Thornimett listened politely to all, without the least intention of acting upon anybody's opinion but her own. Her mind had been made up from the first. Mr. Thornimett had died fairly well off, and everything was left to her—half of the money to be hers for life, and then to go to different relatives; the other half was bequeathed to her absolutely, and was at her own disposal. Rumours were rife in the town, that, when things came to be realized, she would have about twelve thousand pounds in money, besides other property.
But before making known her decision abroad, she spoke to Austin Clay. They were sitting together one evening when she entered upon the subject, breaking the silence that reigned with some abruptness.
'Austin, I shall dispose of the business; everything as it stands. And the goodwill.'
'Shall you?' he exclaimed, taken by surprise, and his voice betraying a curious disappointment.
Mrs. Thornimett nodded in answer.
'I would have done my best to carry it on for you, Mrs. Thornimett. The foreman is a man of experience; one we may trust.'
'I do not doubt you, Austin; and I do not doubt him. You have got your head on your shoulders the right way, and you would be faithful and true. So well do I think of your abilities, that, were you in a position to pay down only half the purchase-money, I would give you the refusal of the business, and I am certain success would attend you. But you are not; so that is out of the question.'
'Quite out of the question,' assented Austin. 'If ever I get a business of my own, it must be by working for it. Have you quite resolved upon giving it up?'
'So far resolved, that the negotiations are already half concluded,' replied Mrs. Thornimett. 'What should I, a lone woman, do with an extensive business? When poor widows are left badly off, they are obliged to work; but I possess more money than I shall know how to spend. Why should I worry out my hours and days trying to amass more? It would not be seemly. Rolt and Ransom wish to purchase it.'
Austin lifted his head with a quick movement. He did not like Rolt and Ransom.
'The only difference we have in the matter, is this: that I wish them to take you on, Austin, and they think they shall find no room for you. Were you a common workman, it would be another thing, they say.'
'Do not allow that to be a difference any longer, Mrs. Thornimett,' he cried, somewhat eagerly. 'I should not care to be under Rolt and Ransom. If they offered me a place to-morrow, and carte blanche as to pay, I do not think I could bring myself to take it.'
'Why?' asked Mrs. Thornimett, in surprise.
'Well, they are no favourites of mine. I know nothing against them, except that they are hard men—grinders; but somehow I have always felt a prejudice against that firm. We do have our likes and dislikes, you are well aware. Young Rolt is prominent in the business, too, and I am sure there's no love lost between him and me; we should be at daggers drawn. No, I should not serve Rolt and Ransom. If they succeed to your business, I think I shall go to London and try my fortune there.'
Mrs. Thornimett pushed back her widow's cap, to which her head had never yet been able to get reconciled—something like Austin with regard to Rolt and Ransom. 'London would not be a good place for you, Austin. It is full of pitfalls for young men.'
'So are other places,' said Austin, laughingly, 'if young men choose to step into them. I shall make my way, Mrs. Thornimett, never fear. I am thorough master of my business in all its branches, higher and lower as you know, and I am not afraid of putting my own shoulder to the wheel, if there's necessity for it. As to pitfalls—if I do stumble in the dark into any, I'll manage to scramble out again; but I will try and take care not to step into them wilfully. Had you continued the business, of course I would have remained with you; otherwise, I should like to go to London.'
'You can be better trusted, both as to capabilities and steadiness, than some could at your age,' deliberated Mrs. Thornimett. 'But they are wrong notions that you young men pick up with regard to London. I believe there's not one of you but thinks its streets are sprinkled with diamonds.'
'I don't,' said Austin. 'And while God gives me hands and brains to work with, I would rather earn my diamonds, than stoop to pick them up in idleness.'
Mrs. Thornimett paused. She settled her spectacles more firmly on her eyes, turned them full on Austin, and spoke sharply.
'Were you disappointed when you heard the poor master's will read?'
Austin, in return, turned his eyes upon her, and opened them to their utmost width in his surprise. 'Disappointed! No. Why should I be?'
'Did it never occur to you to think, or to expect, that he might leave you something?'
'Never,' earnestly replied Austin. 'The thought never so much as crossed my mind. Mr. Thornimett had near relatives of his own—and so have you. Who am I, that I should think to step in before them?'
'I wish people would mind their own business!' exclaimed the old lady, in a vexed tone. 'I was gravely assured, Austin, that young Clay felt grievously ill-used at not being mentioned in the will.'
'Did you believe it?' he rejoined.
'No, I did not.'
'It is utterly untrue, Mrs. Thornimett, whoever said it. I never expected Mr. Thornimett to leave me anything; therefore, I could not have been disappointed at the will.'
'The poor master knew I should not forget you, Austin; that is if you continue to be deserving. Some time or other, when my old bones are laid beside him, you may be the better for a trifle from me. Only a trifle, mind; we must be just before we are generous.'
'Indeed, you are very kind,' was Austin Clay's reply; 'but I should not wish you to enrich me at the expense of others who have greater claims.' And he fully meant what he said. 'I have not the least fear of making my own way up the world's ladder. Do you happen to know anything of the London firm, Hunter and Hunter?'
'Only by reputation,' said Mrs. Thornimett.
'I shall apply to them, if I go to London. They would interest themselves for me, perhaps.'
'You'd be sure to do well if you could get in there. But why should they help you more than any other firm would?'
'There's nothing like trying,' replied Austin, too conscious of the evasive character of his reply. He was candour itself; but he feared to speak of the circumstances under which he had met Mr. Henry Hunter, lest Miss Gwinn should find out it was to him he had gone, and so track Mr. Henry Hunter home. Austin deemed that it was no business of his to help her to find Mr. Hunter, whether he was or not the bête noire of whom she had spoken. He might have told of the encounter at the time, but for the home calamity that supervened upon it; that drove away other topics. Neither had he mentioned it at the Lowland farm. For all Miss Gwinn's violence, he felt pity for her, and could not expose the woman.
'A first-rate firm, that of Hunter and Hunter,' remarked Mrs. Thornimett. 'Your credentials will be good also, Austin.'
'Yes; I hope so.'
It was nearly all that passed upon the subject. Rolt and Ransom took possession of the business, and Austin Clay prepared to depart for London. Mrs. Thornimett felt sure he would get on well—always provided that he kept out of 'pit-falls.' She charged him not to be above his business, but to work his way upwards: as Austin meant to do.
A day or two before quitting Ketterford, it chanced that he and Mrs. Thornimett, who were out together, encountered Miss Gwinn. There was a speaking acquaintance between the two ladies, and Miss Gwinn stopped to say a kind word or two of sympathy for the widow and her recent loss. She could be a lady on occasion, and a gentle one. As the conversation went on, Mrs. Thornimett incidentally mentioned that Mr. Clay was going to leave and try his fortune in London.
'Oh, indeed,' said Miss Gwinn, turning to him, as he stood quietly by Mrs. Thornimett's side. 'What does he think of doing there?'
'To get a situation, of course. He means first of all to try at Hunter and Hunter's.'
The words had left Mrs. Thornimett's lips before Austin could interpose—which he would have given the world to do. But there was no answering emotion on Miss Gwinn's face.
'Hunter and Hunter?' she carelessly repeated. 'Who are they?'
'"Hunter Brothers," they are sometimes called,' observed Mrs. Thornimett. 'It is a building firm of eminence.'
'Oh,' apathetically returned Miss Gwinn. 'I wish you well,' she added, to Austin.
He thanked her as they parted. The subject, the name, evidently bore for her no interest whatever. Therefore Austin judged, that although she might have knowledge of Mr. Henry Hunter's person, she could not of his name.
A heavy train, drawn by two engines, was dashing towards London. Whitsuntide had come, and the public took advantage of the holiday, and the trains were crammed. Austin Clay took advantage of it also; it was a saving to his pocket, the fares having been lowered; and he rather liked a cram. What he did not like, though, was the being stuffed into a first-class carriage with its warm mats and cushions. The crowd was so great that people sat indiscriminately in any carriage that came first. The day was intensely hot, and he would have preferred one open on all sides. They were filled, however, before he came. He had left Ketterford, and was on his road to London to seek his fortune—as old stories used to say.
Seated in the same compartment as himself was a lady with a little girl. The former appeared to be in very delicate health; she remarked more than once, that she would not have travelled on so crowded a day, had she given it proper thought. The little girl was chiefly remarkable for making herself troublesome to Austin; at least, her mamma perpetually reproached her with doing so. She was a lovely child, with delicately carved features, slightly aquiline, but inexpressibly sweet and charming. A bright colour illumined her cheeks, her eyes were large and dark and soft, and her brown curls were flowing. He judged her to be perhaps eleven years old; but she was one of those natural, unsophisticated children, who appear much younger than they are. The race has pretty nearly gone out of the world now: I hope it will come back again.
'Florence, how can you be so tiresome? Pushing yourself before the gentleman against that dangerous door! It may fly open at any moment. I am sure he must be tired of holding you.'
Florence turned her bright eye—sensible, honest eyes, bright though they were—and her pretty hot cheeks upon the gentleman.
'Are you tired, sir?'
Austin smiled. 'It would take rather more than this to tire me,' he said. 'Pray allow her to look out,' he added, to the lady, opposite to whom he sat; 'I will take every care of her.'
'Have you any little girls of your own?' questioned the young damsel.
Austin laughed outright. 'No.'
'Nor any sisters?'
'Nor any sisters. I have scarcely any relatives in the world. I am not so fortunate as you.'
'I have a great many relatives, but no brothers or sisters. I had a little sister once, and she died when she was three years old. Was it not three, mamma?'
'And how old are you?' inquired Austin.
'Oh, pray do not ask,' interposed the lady. 'She is so thoroughly childish, I am ashamed that anybody should know her age. And yet she does not want sense.'
'I was twelve last birthday,' cried the young lady, in defiance of all conventionalism. 'My cousin Mary is only eleven, but she is a great deal bigger than I.'
'Yes,' observed the lady, in a tone of positive resentment. 'Mary is quite a woman already in ideas and manners: you are a child, and a very backward one.'
'Let her be a child, ma'am, while she may,' impulsively spoke Austin; 'childhood does not last too long, and it never comes again. Little girls are women nowadays: I think it is perfectly delightful to meet with one like this.'
Before they reached London other passengers had disappeared from the carriage, and they were alone. As they neared the terminus, the young lady was peremptorily ordered to 'keep her head in,' or perhaps she might lose it.
'Oh dear! If I must, I must,' returned the child. 'But I wanted to look out for papa; he is sure to be waiting for us.'
The train glided into its destination. And the bright quick eyes were roving amidst the crowd standing on the platform. They rested upon a gentleman.
'There's Uncle Henry! there's Uncle Henry! But I don't see papa. Where's papa?' she called out, as the gentleman saw them and approached.
'Papa's not come; he has sent me instead, Miss Florence.' And to Austin Clay's inexpressible surprise, he recognised Mr. Henry Hunter.
'There is nothing the matter? James is not ill?' exclaimed the lady, bending forward.
'No, no; nothing of that. Being a leisure day with us, we thought we would quietly go over some estimates together. James had not finished the calculations, and did not care to be disturbed at them. Your carriage is here.'
Mr. Henry Hunter was assisting her to alight as he spoke, having already lifted down Florence. A maid with a couple of carpet-bags appeared presently, amidst the bustle, and Austin saw them approach a private carriage. He had not pushed himself forward. He did not intend to do so then, deeming it not the most fitting moment to challenge the notice of Mr. Henry Hunter; but that gentleman's eye happened to fall upon him.
Not at first for recognition. Mr. Hunter felt sure it was a face he had seen recently; was one he ought to know; but his memory was puzzled. Florence followed his gaze.
'That gentleman came up in the same carriage with us, Uncle Henry. He got in at a place they called Ketterford. I like him so much.'
Austin came forward as he saw the intent look; and recollection flashed over the mind of Mr. Henry Hunter. He took both the young man's hands in his and grasped them.
'You like him, do you, Miss Florence?' cried he, in a half-joking, half-fervent tone. 'I can tell you what, young lady; but for this gentleman, you would no longer have possessed an Uncle Henry to plague; he would have been dead and forgotten.'
A word or two of explanation from Austin, touching what brought him to London, and his intention to ask advice of Mr. Henry Hunter. That gentleman replied that he would give it willingly, and at once, for he had leisure on his hands that day, and he could not answer for it that he would have on another. He gave Austin the address of his office.
'When shall I come, sir?' asked Austin.
'Now, if you can. A cab will bring you. I shall not be there later in the day.'
So Austin, leaving his portmanteau, all the luggage he had at present brought with him, in charge at the station, proceeded in a cab to the address named, Mr. Henry Hunter having driven off in the carriage.
The offices, yards, buildings, sheds, and other places pertaining to the business of Hunter and Hunter, were situated in what may be considered a desirable part of the metropolis. They encroached neither upon the excessive bustle of the City, nor upon the aristocratic exclusiveness of the gay West end, but occupied a situation midway between the two. Sufficiently open was the district in their immediate neighbourhood, healthy, handsome, and near some fine squares; but a very, very little way removed, you came upon swarming courts, and close dwellings, and squalor, and misery, and all the bad features of what we are pleased to call Arab life. There are many such districts in London, where wealth and ease contrast with starvation and improvidence, all but within view of each other; the one gratifying the eye, the other causing it pain.
The yard and premises were of great extent. Austin had thought Mr. Thornimett's pretty fair for size; but he could laugh at them, now that he saw the Messrs. Hunters'. They were enclosed by a wall, and by light iron gates. Within the gates on the left-hand side were the offices, where the in-door business was transacted. A wealthy, important, and highly considered firm was that of the Messrs. Hunter. Their father had made the business what it was, and had bequeathed it to them jointly at his death. James, whose wife and only child you have seen arriving by the train, after a week's visit to the country, was the elder brother, and was usually styled Mr. Hunter; the younger was known as Mr. Henry Hunter, and he had a large family. Each occupied a handsome house in a contiguous square.
Mr. Henry Hunter came up almost as Austin did, and they entered the offices. In a private room, warmly carpeted, stood two gentlemen. The one, had he not been so stout, would have borne a great likeness to Mr. Henry Hunter. It was Mr. Hunter. In early life the likeness between the brothers had been remarkable; the same dark hair and eyes; the well-formed acquiline features, the same active, tall, light figure; but, of late years, James had grown fat, and the resemblance was in part lost. The other gentleman was Dr. Bevary, a spare man of middle height, the brother of Mrs. James Hunter. Mr. Henry Hunter introduced Austin Clay, speaking of the service rendered him, and broadly saying as he had done to Florence, that but for him he should not now have been alive.
'There you go, Henry,' cried Dr. Bevary. 'That's one of your exaggerations, that is: you were always given to the marvellous, you know. Not alive!'
Mr. Henry Hunter turned to Austin. 'Tell the truth, Mr. Clay. Should I, or not?' And Austin smiled, and said he believed not.
'I cannot understand it,' exclaimed Dr. Bevary, after some explanation had been given by Mr. Henry Hunter. 'It is incredible to suppose a strange woman would attack you in that manner, unless she was mad.'
'Mad, or not mad, she did it,' returned Mr. Henry Hunter. 'I was riding Salem—you know I took him with me, in that week's excursion I made at Easter—and the woman set upon me like a tigress, clutching hold of Salem, who won't stand such jokes. In his fury, he got loose from her, dashing he neither knew nor cared whither, and this fine fellow saved us on the very brink of the yawning pit—risking the chance of getting killed himself. Had the horse not been arrested, I don't see how he could have helped being knocked over with us.'
Mr. Hunter turned a warm grateful look on Austin. 'How was it you never spoke of this, Henry?' he inquired of his brother.
'There's another curious phase of the affair,' laughed Mr. Henry Hunter. 'I have had a dislike to speak of it, even to think of it. I cannot tell you why; certainly not on account of the escaped danger. And it was over: so, what signified talking of it?'
'Why did she attack you?' pursued Dr. Bevary.
'She evidently, if there was reason in her at all, mistook me for somebody else. All sorts of diabolical things she was beginning to accuse me of; that of having evaded her for some great number of years, amongst the rest. I stopped her; telling her I had no mind to be the depository of other people's secrets.'
'She solemnly protested to me, after you rode away, sir, that you were the man who had done her family some wrong,' interposed Austin. 'I told her I felt certain she was mistaken; and so drew down her anger upon me.'
'Of what nature was the wrong?' asked Dr. Bevary.
'I cannot tell,' said Austin. 'I seemed to gather from her words that the wrong was upon her family, or upon some portion of her family, rather than upon her. I remember she made use of the expression, that it had broken up her happy home.'
'And you did not know her?' exclaimed the doctor, looking at Mr. Henry Hunter.
'Know her?' he returned, 'I never set eyes on her in all my life until that day. I never was in the place before, or in its neighbourhood. If I ever did work her wrong, or ill, I must have done it in my sleep; and with miles of distance intervening. Who is she? What is her name? You told it me, Mr. Clay, but I forget what it was.'
'Her name is Gwinn,' replied Austin. 'The brother is a lawyer and has scraped together a business. One morning, many years ago, a lady arrived at his house, without warning, and took up her abode with him. She turned out to be his sister, and the people at Ketterford think she is mad. It is said they come from Wales. The little boys call after her, "the mad Welsh woman." Sometimes Miss Gwinn.'
'What did you say the name was?' interrupted Dr. Bevary, with startling emphasis. 'Gwinn?—and from Wales?'
Dr. Bevary paused, as if in deep thought. 'What is her Christian name?' he presently inquired.
'It is a somewhat uncommon one,' replied Austin. 'Agatha.'
The doctor nodded his head, as if expecting the answer. 'A tall, spare, angular woman, of great strength,' he remarked.
'Why, what do you know of her?' exclaimed Mr. Henry Hunter to the doctor, in a surprised tone.
'Not a great deal. We medical men come across all sorts of persons occasionally,' was the physician's reply. And it was given in a concise, laconic manner, as if he did not care to be questioned further. Mr. Henry Hunter pursued the subject.
'If you know her, Bevary, perhaps you can tell whether she is mad or sane.'
'She is sane, I believe: I have no reason to think her otherwise. But she is one who can allow angry passion to master her at moments: I have seen it do so. Do you say her brother is a lawyer?' he continued, to Austin Clay.
'Yes, he is. And not one of the first water, as to reputation; a grasping, pettifogging practitioner, who will take up any dirty case that may be brought to him. And in that, I fancy, he is a contrast to his sister; for, with all her strange ways, I should not judge her to be dishonourable. It is said he speculates, and that he is not over particular whose money he gets to do it with.'
'I wonder that she never told me about this brother,' dreamily exclaimed the doctor, in an inward tone, as if forgetting that he spoke aloud.
'Where did you meet with her? When did you know her?' interposed Mr. Henry Hunter.
'Are you sure that you know nothing about her?' was the doctor's rejoinder, turning a searching glance upon Mr. Henry Hunter.
'Come, Bevary, what have you got in your head? I do not know her. I never met with her until she saw and accosted me. Are you acquainted with her history?'
'With a dark page in it.'
'What is the page?'
Dr. Bevary shook his head. 'In the course of a physician's practice he becomes cognisant of many odds and ends of romance, dark or fair; things that he must hold sacred, and may not give utterance to.'
Mr. Henry Hunter looked vexed. 'Perhaps you can understand the reason of her attacking me?'