"Fallen Among Thieves" is a classic of the early Victorian crime fiction and offers a splendid country-house murder plot featuring detective John Barman. This is part 1 out of 3, A Legacy Of Vengeance
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Fallen Among Thieves
Vol. 1: A Legacy Of Vengeance
Arthur William A'Beckett
Fallen Among Thieves, Vol. 1
The Prologue - A Legacy Of Vengeance
Chapter I. In And Near Stelstead Churchyard.
Chapter II. The Stranger Plays With Fire!
Chapter III. The Skeleton Peeps From The Cupboard.
Chapter IV. Raymond's Letter.
Chapter V. Lady Ruthven's Mirror.
Chapter VI. Found In The Moonlight.
Chapter VII - The Old Hall Clock.
Chapter VIII. Freddy Finds A Clue.
Chapter IX. By The Bridge.
Chapter X. Regina Versus Lawson.
Chapter XI. Freddy Weaves A Rope.
Chapter XII. The Legacy Of The Living Dead.
Chapter XIII. Alone In The World!
Book I. — The Marble Heart.
Chapter I. The Land Of Gold.
Chapter II. Stelstead Again.
Chapter III. A Colonial Ball.
Chapter IV. Haunted By The Dead.
Chapter V. Edith Makes A Discovery.
Chapter VI. 'Plot And Passion.'
Fallen Among Thieves, Vol. 1, A. W. A'Beckett
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
The afternoon of a very hot summer's day. The rays of the sun have beaten clown upon many a mile of country; they have fallen upon brown fields, affording but scanty pasture to panting, fly-bitten cattle; have trembled upon the sleepy wavelets of streams that (before the heat) were wont to be rivers; have tipped the weathercock of many a village church with molten gold; have gamboled among the wind-shaken leaves of the trees, and have fought an endless battle with the shadows under the hawthorn hedges. These same rays have been very impartial in their attack; they have invaded town and village, field and park, mansion and hovel, nursery and churchyard. Can we be surprised, then, that true to their strict sense of justice, they have flooded with brilliant light the High-street, the Church, and Churchyard of the little village of Stelstead? With your very kind permission, we will attend upon the rays of the sun, and examine the the earth they kiss so fiercely; not only the earth will we examine, but that which rests upon it.
First, then, let us enter the village Churchyard. You will say, "Well, the Stelsteadians have nothing to be proud of here. A few mounds, and two or three headstones, and an ugly, pretentious monument. Be proud of this! why the notion is preposterous." Dear reader, our villagers are not proud of their churchyard, but they reverence every inch of it. Read the tombstones, with their quaint epitaphs and their strange carving. See how family after family, having lived together in brotherly love on earth, have refused to be parted in earth. See the flowers on the new-made graves, placed there by sunburnt hands, and gazed upon by tear-dimmed eyes, belonging to sorrow-stricken faces. Oh, look at this, and let the flowers and the writing on the tombstones tell you that the poor spot is dear, very dear, to the simple people who live round about it. It contains sad memorials of a happy past, and the spire of the little church points upwards to the sky, holding out a promise of a glorious future. Yes, in sunshine and in rain, in summer storm and in winter snow, the churchyard is ever the same, — loved as the resting-place of sweet memories, revered as the land of the dead, the gateway to eternity. You have noticed "an ugly, pretentious monument" standing among the mounds, with the air of a purse-proud parvenu. You see a sepulcher full of bones, and yet it seems to scorn the graves round about it. And are we not like this monument, with our pride and love of caste, with our haughtiness and our self-conceit? Oh, we are so much better and lovelier than our neighbours; our hair is so much glossier and our eyes so much brighter, our blood so much purer; and we admire and admire until we sink into the grave, and then the cruel clay laughs at us. Eyes and hair and blood melt into thin air, and the bones show, and the skulls become fleshless and hollow. And then, dear friends, examine the lord and the peasant, and you will find little difference in their beauty and loveliness. And then we lose sight of both; the bodies are gone, but their spirits live. But we can guess what will become of them; we know that in the Great Hereafter the lord will wear his coronet, and the peasant will toil on for ever; we know that rank will carry with it weight, and that the bankbook of the wealthy will prove a sure passport to the Kingdom of Heaven! We know this, because it seems so reasonable that out of two worms, one should be feasted and the other crushed underfoot; so very sensible that Lazarus should groan while Dives laughs and is merry! You see we had a duty to perform at our birth; we came into this world equal; it was left to us to forge the chains that should bind our poor — to fashion the coronets that should crown our rich. Never openly acknowledged, these are really the sentiments of " Society '' — of the society in which some of the characters of our story will breathe and have their being.
Believing firmly the creed of the world, Sir Ralph Ruthven had built the "ugly, pretentious monument" that seemingly has given you so much offence. Although the family (of which in early life he had been the cadet) had lived in the Park hard by for centuries, it was only this generation that had embraced the faith of Christianity according to the Church of England. The old Roman Catholic Ruthvens lay buried in the mausoleum in the Park, and Sir Ralph, as a convert, naturally preferred to lie among the "faithful" in the village churchyard rather than to mingle his dust with the foolhardy soldiers and wily statesmen who had so scandalized him (by their creed) in the moss-grown monument at the end of the Long Walk. The Park and the baronetcy had come very unexpectedly to Sir Ralph. When he was studying at Cambridge, and was at one and the same time completing his conversion and preparing to take Holy Orders, with a view to filling the fat family living, so kindly placed at his service by a wealthy aunt, there had been four good lives between him and the title and property. Perhaps as a reward for his exertions in the cause of true religion, these little obstacles in the way of his succession soon disappeared, and "Mr. Ralph Ruthven, of Trin. Coll. Camb." became " Sir Ralph Ruthven, Bart., of Stelstead Park, near Brain tree, Essex." As a matter of course the "fat family living" was declined with thanks, and was offered to another. As it happened, the creed of Christianity according to the Church of England did not lose very much by Sir Ralph's secession from the priesthood, as the worthy gentleman (to be quite frank) was scarcely fitted to the office. He was a little wild, fond of wine and beauty, and although (of course) devotedly attached to the study of theology, a very good hand at billiards and whist. However, the convert was thoroughly sincere, and remained a Protestant in spite of not requiring any preferment at the hands of Mother Church, — a fact very much, I think, to his credit. So when Sir Ralph came to Stelstead for the second time (he had stayed there on the previous occasion just before entering at Cambridge), he was warmly welcomed by the vicar and gentry. After a while, he married a lady of no great personal attraction, but with a considerable balance at her bankers; and in due course his wife presented him with a son and heir. Alas! Death (who is at best a disagreeable fellow) insisted upon calling upon the little child, and, as usual, treated him rather too roughly. So a fashionable undertaker came down from London, and there was a very grand cortege and a good deal of pomp and very much ceremony, and the tiny coffin was lowered into the ground. After a while, workmen began to build over the grave, and slowly the "ugly, pretentious monument" rose as you see it. When the sepulcher was quite finished, when the coat of arms had been carved, and the name of the little child resting beneath all this pomp of masonry had been duly enrolled on the slab of granite, Sir Ralph thought he had done his duty to his fellow-man, and to that fellow-man's Creator. As a truthful historian, I must inform you 'that sometimes the baronet sighed when he remembered the little one, for Lady Ruthven had no other children, and a childless man is often sad.
I must also tell you that close to the grand monument and when the sun shone, well under its shadow, rose a little mound of earth, telling of a hidden coffin. Not very much was known about the contents of this coffin, but it was said that a miserable girl had been found dying at the doors of the Union one day, who, after her spirit had passed away (granting that the poor creature had a spirit), had been buried there. It was said that this poor girl had insisted upon seeing Sir Ralph, and that baronet on hearing her name had at once consented to her wish. It was said that he had paid for her burial, and that when he visited the "ugly, pretentious monument," he carefully avoided treading over the grave hard by. People had talked over this (for there were very few subjects open to conversation in rural Stelstead), and some of them had said one thing, and some another, but most of them agreed that it was very easily explained: "in his youth, Sir Ralph had been rather wild."
As I have already said, the rays of the sun beat and burnt fiercely upon the village churchyard, fiercest of all upon the monument of the Ruthvens. Strange, you will say, of the rays, — more than strange, irreverent; for while the rays treated the armorial bearings of the patrician's tomb so cavalierly, they dealt mercifully with the poor girl's grave and left it unscathed; In revenge, the Ruthven mausoleum, unable to spite the rays, turned its wrath upon its humble neighbour, and cast a cold, black shadow upon the little mound of earth, — a shadow that grew colder and blacker as the day wore on, until the sun sank down in the heavens, and left the earth to the stars, which shone impartially over both. But this had not happened yet; and as you take your parting look at Stelstead churchyard, before you attend me on my way down the little High-street, you will see the Ruthven monument standing out proudly in the brilliant sunlight and casting its black shadow o'er the grave of a nameless girl. Not much harm, for the monument is of carved stone, and the mound is of parched turf. Not much harm, again, for he was of blue blood, you know, and she — but never mind about her; let the grave keep its secret!
There, we have had enough of the skull and cross-bones, and now let us stroll down the High-street on our way to the stage where the opening scene of our story will be laid, to the shop of Jas Samson, the village shoemaker. We have not far to go; we have but to pass the establishment of the grocer, where so much may be bought by his customers; where hats of ancient shape and cheap coffees, adulterated with expensive chicory, are always on hand; where toys and soap, dressing-gowns and butter, corduroys and French plums, and a thousand other articles, can be had for the asking, or rather the paying. Let us pass by the chemist, who sells such bad cigars, and the butcher, who supplies one with such indifferent note-paper. Let us leave the curate's cottage, with its modest garden, on our right, and the wealthy London merchant's red brick house, with its vulgar paling, on our left, and then let us pass by the old curiosity shop, and the Bell Inn, and the yard of the Ruthven Arms, and the villa of the local surgeon, and we shall come to the Green. Pass over the Green, without frightening the geese, and the shop and house of Jas Samson is before us.
It is a funny-looking place: first, we have the ordinary cottage of the country, with the little lattice windows and the thatched roof, with the whitewashed walls and leafy creeper. But Jas has not been satisfied with this, and has added a wing to his residence of peculiar shape and ambitious pretensions. Although adjoining the main body of the house, it is quite out of keeping with its general style and appearance. This wonderful wing has slates upon its roof and a weathercock over the slates, — a projection supported by a clumsy-looking column, and plate glass in all the windows; and under this gorgeous story Jas has made his shop. As we approach the house we find the old fellow hard at work.
Jas Samson is not unlike his house. A plain English rustic by nature, he resembled the body of his house in his youth, while the wonderful wing (the acquired part of his house and character) came with fast advancing years and Jas's increasing store of book knowledge. Our friend is looked upon in the village as a kind, good-natured fellow in practice, but a very terrible republican in theory. If you listened to his talk, you would thank your stars that the English nation was aristocratic to the backbone, and not easily influenced by blood-seeking democrats. You would hear Jas denouncing lords and ladies, and calling fiercely for their coronets and estates. You would hear him praising Robespierre, lauding Marat to the skies, and yet this savage leveler would be the last man in the world to hurt a fly or to refuse a beggar a crust of bread. More than this, he was always on the side of the authorities, and did no little, by his influence, to prevent poaching and excessive drinking. He treated with the greatest respect Sir Ralph and his lady, and was a prime favorite with the nieces of the baronet, Edith and Florence Ruthven, who (as everybody in the village knew) had been adopted by their illustrious relative, and were one day to share his wealth, — the wealth that had been secured by "limited liability" companies and lucky nights at the Hamilton Whist Club. He was greatly reverenced by his own class, and respected by those who belonged to a higher grade of society. But Jas was very independent, and was better pleased to make his own favorites than to find patrons. He had a great many likings, and two noted aversions: first (although a " broad church" man), he was very fond of the Roman Catholic priest who said mass at the little chapel on the hill (the chapel that had been built by the Ruthven family in years gone by), and wonderful controversies used these two to have, on quiet summer's evenings, under the trees at the back of Jas's cottage. "Mr. Dutton," he would say, "is very wrong about some things. He's clever, but a deal too bigoted about bits o' doctrine. He's not of my thinking about dignitaries, and is always wanting to submit to them in authority. But Mr. Dutton is a gentleman, a thorough gentleman — I will say more, Mr. Dutton is a man" and the old fellow would puff away at his pipe, with his eyes absolutely sparkling with satisfaction. Another of Jas's favorites was Miss Florence Ruthven, the young lady who lived at the Hall hard by. The shoemaker, like the rest of the little world, could be twisted round this charming maiden's finger with perfect ease. "Miss Florence is as nice a young lady as you would wish to see," Jas would say. "She's a beauty; but, mark my words, when she gets into the world, the world will spoil her. I like to listen to her merry laugh, but that same laugh wants a deal of ballast before it will be quite right. The third and greatest of Jas's favorites was Leopold Lawson, the son of Sir Ralph's agent. Jas really loved the young fellow, and was never tired of singing his praises. He took the liveliest interest in his success, and had carefully trained his mind in early years to hate tyrants and denounce aristocrats. When Sir Ralph sent this young fellow to Oxford, " as a mark of respect to, and as a small return for many services received from his agent, John Lawson," (although it was well known that the baronet and his confidential man were always quarrelling), Jas rejoiced exceedingly, and took the lord of the village (once his aversion) into his favour, and defended him on all possible occasions. "Leopold, my boy," said Jas, when young Lawson came to bid him adieu, "don't you forget what I taught you before you went to school. Mind, my boy, you defend Cromwell; and if they offer you a coronet at this here university (and they are a hartful set) to turn traitor, why, don't you take it! "
Leopold promised that he would refuse the bribe, and they parted with much show of affection.
Having told you of the favorites of Jas, it is only fair that you should hear of his aversions. First, he disliked Lady Ruthven. Her Ladyship had somehow or other given him mortal offence, and nothing she could do had the power to please him. The wife of Sir Ralph was not very popular among the villagers; she was not exactly haughty, but she certainly was not gracious; and she had no feeling (unlike her niece Edith, who was all kindness to the poor and suffering) for those who asked for charity or good words. More than this, she loved admiration with an all-absorbing passion, and was ready to flirt with any one who would bow down before her and flatter her. She dressed "younger" than her two nieces, and had been engaged (for the last fifteen years) in a battle with Time. She met his attacks upon her face with rouge and paint, and filled up the breaches he made in her once glossy locks with false hair and "Lilywater of Circassia." Bravely she fought, but with less and less chance of success. She grew weaker and weaker, but still refused to surrender. The more wrinkles Time cut into her face, the more blanc de perle was plastered on her forehead; the balder his scythe left her poor head, the more luxurious became her flowing wigs. It was a painful sight to see the wretched creature contending with so much exertion for so little. It was even more painful to watch her in the drawing-room, with her mincing gait and girlish giggle, striving to convince her guests that she was still young — that Time had forgotten her.
Jas, who hated everything unreal and unmanly, hated this affectation; and perhaps in this trait in her character lay the secret of his dislike for Lady Ruthven. His second and greatest aversion — strange to say — was Leopold's father, — John Lawson, Sir Ralph's agent and confidential adviser; and this man Jas loathed as he hated the very enemy of mankind himself. Nothing he could say was too bad for him, and it was the one point on which he and his favorite Leopold had any difference.
And here let me tell you something that may strike you as remarkable. "When Lawson first took up his residence at Stelstead some twenty years before the commencement of our story, he attempted to make friends with the village cobbler. But no, Jas would not hear of it, and met all advances with sneers and taunts, and even open insult. Lawson was a very violent man, and resented this treatment — but only once. On the occasion to which I have alluded, Jas said something so disagreeable in reply, that it made Lawson tremble and turn as pale as a sheet. What that something was may ooze out in the course of our story, but here it is only necessary to describe its effect. From that moment, Lawson — rough to every one else — became as polite as a courtier to the man of awls and shoe leather — so polite, that people wondered, frowned, and whispered. As for Jas, he was no more civil to his neighbour than before their altercation; and so the pair lived on, Lawson cringing like a beaten cur, Jas roaring like an indignant lion. And now, having told you something about Jas's likes and dislikes, I will introduce you to him personally. See, there he sits, with his shaggy white hair, and clear blue eyes, and smiling lips; there he sits, and health rests upon his ruddy cheeks, and good-nature sounds in every tone of his cheery voice. Listen to him.
"Another pair o' boots to be mended for my Lady," he is saying to a very tall flunkey, who is lounging by the doorpost, "well, this sole is easier mended than another I know of."
"You means my Leddy's own soul, Jas," replies the footman laughing; "yes, that 'ere soul is rayther fishy."
"I means nothing of the sort, Mr. Calves-and-hair-powder," we hear Jas say rather angrily, for the old man hates to have his jokes improved upon; "and Mr. Calves-and-hair-powder, I will thank you, if you have not the manners to support them as gives you food and drink, and supplies you with hair-powder and calves, to have the manners not to call me out of my name. Put that in your pipe, Mr. Hair-powder-and-calves, and, if you're partial to a cigar, be good enough to smoke it."
"No offence meant, Mr. Samson," replies the tall footman.
"Then no offence is taken, John Dixon," says Jas heartily. "Here, my lad, just give me your hand."
John hesitates, as he looks at his own coarse but clean paw, and compares it with the grimy palm of the village cobbler, upon which Jas exclaims, " Don't be afraid, my lad, all men are ekals; your calves ain't your fault, they're only your misfortune; why, I might have been hanged or worn hair-powder myself, if my parents had neglected my edication. Never be ashamed of your calling, my lad, if so be it's honest."
With not a very good grace, John stretches out his hand, which is duly wrung, and, of course, in the operation, plentifully marked with beeswax.
"Well, John, and how are things going at the Hall? " asks the cobbler, after the ceremony of reconciliation has been completed.
"'Ow can I tell you, Mr. Samson, when you abuses me for everythink I says about them as guvs me 'air-powder? No one guv me calves but natur," observes John in an injured tone.
"Now, my lad, don't attempt to argey with me, because I gives you warning it won't do," says Jas, who is burning with curiosity to hear a little news. "Of course, don't abuse your employers, but you can tell me something about 'em."
"I can tell you nothing about Sir Ralph and my Leddy without abusing on 'em both."
"Then do it," says Jas; "we are all of us ekals."
"Well, then, them two is always a quarrelling. Sir Ralph, he is as jealous as a — as a peacock, and my Leddy, she gets more ridicklus every day. And what with their bad tempers, and squabbling, and words, we poor servants 'ave a werry 'ard time of it. Every morning I takes in the letter-bag to Sir Ralph, I've a good 'alf mind to carry in 'is dismissal with it. I would if it weren't for the perkisites."
"And the young ladies'?"
"Oh, Miss Edith, she's as quiet and 'aughty as ever, a always attending to everything, a 'elping 'er aunt and a wishing the sick and the poor. I wonder she can let 'erself down to sich a thing! She, with sich proud notions, too! "
"She's a good girl, my lad," says Jas; "she's a little high and mighty, but she's a good girl; and how's Miss Florence? I haven't seen her for many a day."
"Just the same, Mr. Samson," replies John, "the life and soul of the 'ouse, but as flighty as a kitten. She never sees a young gentleman without making eyes at him."
"Yes, John, she is a little nighty."
"Flighty, Mr. Samson, why, if she'd been Eve, I do believe she would 'ave made love to Adam while she was in a state of rib! I do, indeed, that I do!"
At this moment the hoofs of a horse, which have been heard in the distance for some little time, resound on the stones of the High-street, and a gentleman pulls up at the cobbler's door. He is dressed slangily, and carries a heavy riding-whip. He is about the middle age, has iron-grey hair, and a long moustache, deep-set eyes, and sharp features. "Here, my man, can you tell me the way to Mr. Lawson's?" says this gentleman, giving his horse, who is a little restive, a savage lash with his whip.
"Thought so," murmurs Jas; "knew he was a friend of Lawson's. Bad face — nice pair!"
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