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We lived chiefly at Dyke Manor. A fine old place, so close upon the borders of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, that many people did not know which of the two counties it was really in. The house was in Warwickshire, but some of the land was in Worcestershire. The Squire had, however, another estate, Crabb Cot, all in Worcestershire, and very many miles nearer to Worcester.
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Mrs. Henry Wood
“We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead.”
We lived chiefly at Dyke Manor. A fine old place, so close upon the borders of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, that many people did not know which of the two counties it was really in. The house was in Warwickshire, but some of the land was in Worcestershire. The Squire had, however, another estate, Crabb Cot, all in Worcestershire, and very many miles nearer to Worcester.
Squire Todhetley was rich. But he lived in the plain, good old-fashioned way that his forefathers had lived; almost a homely way, it might be called, in contrast with the show and parade that have sprung up of late years. He was respected by every one, and though hotheaded and impetuous, he was simple-minded, open-handed, and had as good a heart as any one ever had in this world. An elderly gentleman now, was he, of middle height, with a portly form and a red face; and his hair, what was left of it, consisted of a few scanty, lightish locks, standing up straight on the top of his head.
The Squire had married, but not very early in life. His wife died in a few years, leaving one child only; a son, named after his father, Joseph. Young Joe was just the pride of the Manor and of his father’s heart.
I, writing this, am Johnny Ludlow. And you will naturally want to hear what I did at Dyke Manor, and why I lived there.
About three-miles’ distance from the Manor was a place called the Court. Not a property of so much importance as the Manor, but a nice place, for all that. It belonged to my father, William Ludlow. He and Squire Todhetley were good friends. I was an only child, just as Tod was; and, like him, I had lost my mother. They had christened me John, but always called me Johnny. I can remember many incidents of my early life now, but I cannot recall my mother to my mind. She must have died—at least I fancy so—when I was two years old.
One morning, two years after that, when I was about four, the servants told me I had a new mamma. I can see her now as she looked when she came home: tall, thin, and upright, with a long face, pinched nose, a meek expression, and gentle voice. She was a Miss Marks, who used to play the organ at church, and had hardly any income at all. Hannah said she was sure she was thirty-five if she was a day—she was talking to Eliza while she dressed me—and they both agreed that she would probably turn out to be a tartar, and that the master might have chosen better. I understood quite well that they meant papa, and asked why he might have chosen better; upon which they shook me and said they had not been speaking of my papa at all, but of the old blacksmith round the corner. Hannah brushed my hair the wrong way, and Eliza went off to see to her bedrooms. Children are easily prejudiced: and they prejudiced me against my new mother. Looking at her with the eyes of maturer years, I know that though she might be poor in pocket, she was good and kindly, and every inch a lady.
Papa died that same year. At the end of another year, Mrs. Ludlow, my step-mother, married Squire Todhetley, and we went to live at Dyke Manor; she, I, and my nurse Hannah. The Court was let for a term of years to the Sterlings.
Young Joe did not like the new arrangements. He was older than I, could take up prejudices more strongly, and he took a mighty strong one against the new Mrs. Todhetley. He had been regularly indulged by his father and spoilt by all the servants; so it was only to be expected that he would not like the invasion. Mrs. Todhetley introduced order into the profuse household, hitherto governed by the servants. They and young Joe equally resented it; they refused to see that things were really more comfortable than they used to be, and at half the cost.
Two babies came to the Manor; Hugh first, Lena next. Joe and I were sent to school. He was as big as a house, compared with me, tall and strong and dark, with an imperious way and will of his own. I was fair, gentle, timid, yielding to him in all things. His was the master-spirit, swaying mine at will. At school the boys at once, the very first day we entered, shortened his name from Todhetley to Tod. I caught up the habit, and from that time I never called him anything else.
And so the years went on. Tod and I at school being drilled into learning; Hugh and Lena growing into nice little children. During the holidays, hot war raged between Tod and his step-mother. At least silent war. Mrs. Todhetley was always kind to him, and she never quarrelled; but Tod opposed her in many things, and would be generally sarcastically cool to her in manner.
We did lead the children into mischief, and she complained of that. Tod did, that is, and of course I followed where he led. “But we can’t let Hugh grow up a milksop, you know, Johnny,” he would say to me; “and he would if left to his mother.” So Hugh’s clothes in Tod’s hands came to grief, and sometimes Hugh himself. Hannah, who was the children’s nurse now, stormed and scolded over it: she and Tod had ever been at daggers drawn with each other; and Mrs. Todhetley would implore Tod with tears in her eyes to be careful with the child. Tod appeared to turn a deaf ear to them, and marched off with Hugh before their very eyes. He really loved the children, and would have saved them from injury with his life. The Squire drove and rode his fine horses. Mrs. Todhetley had set up a low basket-chaise drawn by a mild she-donkey: it was safer for the children, she said. Tod went into fits whenever he met the turn-out.
But Tod was not always to escape scot-free, or incite the children to rebellion with impunity. There came a day when he brought himself, through it, to a state of self-torture and repentance.
It occurred when we were at home for the summer holidays, just after the crop of hay was got in, and the bare fields looked as white in the blazing sun as if they had been scorched. Tod and I were in the three-cornered meadow next the fold-yard. He was making a bat-net with gauze and two sticks. Young Jacobson had shown us his the previous day, and a bat he had caught with it; and Tod thought he would catch bats too. But he did not seem to be making much hand at the net, and somehow managed to send the pointed end of the stick through a corner of it.
“I don’t think that gauze is strong enough, Tod.”
“I am afraid it is not, Johnny. Here, catch hold of it. I’ll go indoors, and see if they can’t find me some better. Hannah must have some.”
He flew off past the ricks, and leaped the little gate into the fold-yard—a tall, strong fellow, who might leap the Avon. In a few minutes I heard his voice again, and went to meet him. Tod was coming away from the house with Lena.
“Have you the gauze, Tod!”
“Not a bit of it; the old cat won’t look for any; says she hasn’t time. I’ll hinder her time a little. Come along, Lena.”
The “old cat” was Hannah. I told you she and he were often at daggers drawn. Hannah had a chronic complaint in the shape of ill-temper, and Tod called her names to her face. Upon going in to ask her for the gauze, he found her dressing Hugh and Lena to go out, and she just turned him out of the nursery, and told him not to bother her then with his gauze and his wants. Lena ran after Tod; she liked him better than all of us put together. She had on a blue silk frock, and a white straw hat with daisies round it; open-worked stockings were on her pretty little legs. By which we saw she was about to be taken out for show.
“What are you going to do with her, Tod?”
“I’m going to hide her,” answered Tod, in his decisive way. “Keep where you are, Johnny.”
Lena enjoyed the rebellion. In a minute or two Tod came back alone. He had left her between the ricks in the three-cornered field, and told her not to come out. Then he went off to the front of the house, and I stood inside the barn, talking to Mack, who was hammering away at the iron of the cart-wheel. Out came Hannah by-and-by. She had been dressing herself as well as Hugh.
No answer. Hannah called again, and then came up the fold-yard, looking about.
“Master Johnny, have you seen the child?”
“What child?” I was not going to spoil Tod’s sport by telling her.
“Miss Lena. She has got off somewhere, and my mistress is waiting for her in the basket-chaise.”
“I see her just now along of Master Joseph,” spoke up Mack, arresting his noisy hammer.
“See her where?” asked Hannah.
“Close here, a-going that way.”
He pointed to the palings and gate that divided the yard from the three-cornered field. Hannah ran there and stood looking over. The ricks were within a short stone’s throw, but Lena kept close. Hannah called out again, and threw her gaze over the empty field.
“The child’s not there. Where can she have got to, tiresome little thing?”
In the house, and about the house, and out of the house, as the old riddle says, went Hannah. It was jolly to see her. Mrs. Todhetley and Hugh were seated patiently in the basket-chaise before the hall-door, wondering what made Hannah so long. Tod, playing with the mild she-donkey’s ears, and laughing to himself, stood talking graciously to his step-mother. I went round. The Squire had gone riding into Evesham; Dwarf Giles, who made the nattiest little groom in the county, for all his five-and-thirty years, behind him.
“I can’t find Miss Lena,” cried Hannah, coming out.
“Not find Miss Lena!” echoed Mrs. Todhetley. “What do you mean, Hannah? Have you not dressed her?”
“I dressed her first, ma’am, before Master Hugh, and she went out of the nursery. I can’t think where she can have got to. I’ve searched everywhere.”
“But, Hannah, we must have her directly; I am late as it is.”
They were going over to the Court to a children’s early party at the Sterlings’. Mrs. Todhetley stepped out of the basket-chaise to help in the search.
“I had better fetch her, Tod,” I whispered.
He nodded yes. Tod never bore malice, and I suppose he thought Hannah had had enough of a hunt for that day. I ran through the fold-yard to the ricks, and called to Lena.
“You can come out now, little stupid.”
But no Lena answered. There were seven ricks in a group, and I went into all the openings between them. Lena was not there. It was rather odd, and I looked across the field and towards the lane and the coppice, shouting out sturdily.
“Mack, have you seen Miss Lena pass indoors?” I stayed to ask him, in going back.
No: Mack had not noticed her; and I went round to the front again, and whispered to Tod.
“What a muff you are, Johnny! She’s between the ricks fast enough. No danger that she’d come out when I told her to stay!”
“But she’s not there indeed, Tod. You go and look.”
Tod vaulted off, his long legs seeming to take flying leaps, like a deer’s, on his way to the ricks.
To make short of the story, Lena was gone. Lost. The house, the outdoor buildings, the gardens were searched for her, and she was not to be found. Mrs. Todhetley’s fears flew to the ponds at first; but it was impossible she could have come to grief in either of the two, as they were both in view of the barn-door where I and Mack had been. Tod avowed that he had put her amid the ricks to hide her; and it was not to be imagined she had gone away. The most feasible conjecture was, that she had run from between the ricks when Hannah called to her, and was hiding in the lane.
Tod was in a fever, loudly threatening Lena with unheard-of whippings, to cover his real concern. Hannah looked red, Mrs. Todhetley white. I was standing by him when the cook came up; a sharp woman, with red-brown eyes. We called her Molly.
“Mr. Joseph,” said she, “I have heard of gipsies stealing children.”
“Well?” returned Tod.
“There was one at the door a while agone—an insolent one, too. Perhaps Miss Lena——”
“Which way did she go?—which door was she at?” burst forth Tod.
“’Twas a man, sir. He came up to the kitchen-door, and steps inside as bold as brass, asking me to buy some wooden skewers he’d cut, and saying something about a sick child. When I told him to march, that we never encouraged tramps here, he wanted to answer me, and I just shut the door in his face. A regular gipsy, if ever I see one,” continued Molly; “his skin tawny and his wild hair jet-black. Maybe, in revenge, he have stole off the little miss.”
Tod took up the notion, and his face turned white. “Don’t say anything of this to Mrs. Todhetley,” he said to Molly. “We must just scour the country.”
But in departing from the kitchen-door, the gipsy man could not by any possibility have made his way to the rick-field without going through the fold-yard. And he had not done that. It was true that Lena might have run round and got into the gipsy’s way. Unfortunately, none of the men were about, except Mack and old Thomas. Tod sent these off in different directions; Mrs. Todhetley drove away in her pony-chaise to the lanes round, saying the child might have strayed there; Molly and the maids started elsewhere; and I and Tod went flying along a by-road that branched off in a straight line, as it were, from the kitchen-door. Nobody could keep up with Tod, he went so fast; and I was not tall and strong as he was. But I saw what Tod in his haste did not see—a dark man with some bundles of skewers and a stout stick, walking on the other side of the hedge. I whistled Tod back again.
“What is it, Johnny?” he said, panting. “Have you seen her?”
“Not her. But look there. That must be the man Molly spoke of.”
Tod crashed through the hedge as if it had been so many cobwebs, and accosted the gipsy. I followed more carefully, but got my face scratched.
“Were you up at the great house, begging, a short time ago?” demanded Tod, in an awful passion.
The man turned round on Tod with a brazen face. I say brazen, because he did it so independently; but it was not an insolent face in itself; rather a sad one, and very sickly.
“What’s that you ask me, master?”
“I ask whether it was you who were at the Manor-house just now, begging?” fiercely repeated Tod.
“I was at a big house offering wares for sale, if you mean that, sir. I wasn’t begging.”
“Call it what you please,” said Tod, growing white again. “What have you done with the little girl?”
For, you see, Tod had caught up the impression that the gipsy had stolen Lena, and he spoke in accordance with it.
“I’ve seen no little girl, master.”
“You have,” and Tod gave his foot a stamp. “What have you done with her?”
The man’s only answer was to turn round and walk off, muttering to himself. Tod pursued him, calling him a thief and other names; but nothing more satisfactory could he get out of him.
“He can’t have taken her, Tod. If he had, she’d be with him now. He couldn’t eat her, you know.”
“He may have given her to a confederate.”
“What to do? What do gipsies steal children for?”
Tod stopped in a passion, lifting his hand. “If you torment me with these frivolous questions, Johnny, I’ll strike you. How do I know what’s done with stolen children? Sold, perhaps. I’d give a hundred pounds out of my pocket at this minute if I knew where those gipsies were encamped.”
We suddenly lost the fellow. Tod had been keeping him in sight in the distance. Whether he disappeared up a gum-tree, or into a rabbit-hole, Tod couldn’t tell; but gone he was.
Up this lane, down that one; over this moor, across that common; so raced Tod and I. And the afternoon wore away, and we had changed our direction a dozen times: which possibly was not wise.
The sun was getting low as we passed Ragley gates, for we had finally got into the Alcester road. Tod was going to do what we ought to have done at first: report the loss at Alcester. Someone came riding along on a stumpy pony. It proved to be Gruff Blossom, groom to the Jacobsons. They called him “Gruff” because of his temper. He did touch his hat to us, which was as much as you could say, and spurred the stumpy animal on. But Tod made a sign to him, and he was obliged to stop and listen.
“The gipsies stole off little Miss Lena!” cried old Blossom, coming out of his gruffness. “That’s a rum go! Ten to one if you find her for a year to come.”
“But, Blossom, what do they do with the children they steal?” I asked, in a sort of agony.
“They cuts their hair off and dyes their skins brown, and then takes ’em out to fairs a ballad-singing,” answered Blossom.
“But why need they do it, when they have children of their own?”
“Ah, well, that’s a question I couldn’t answer,” said old Blossom. “Maybe their’n arn’t pretty children—Miss Lena, she is pretty.”
“Have you heard of any gipsies being encamped about here?” Tod demanded of him.
“Not lately, Mr. Joseph. Five or six months ago, there was a lot ’camped on the Markis’s ground. They warn’t there long.”
“Can’t you ride about, Blossom, and see after the child?” asked Tod, putting something into his hand.
Old Blossom pocketed it, and went off with a nod. He was riding about, as we knew afterwards, for hours. Tod made straight for the police-station at Alcester, and told his tale. Not a soul was there but Jenkins, one of the men.
“I haven’t seen no suspicious characters about,” said Jenkins, who seemed to be eating something. He was a big man, with short black hair combed on his forehead, and he had a habit of turning his face upwards, as if looking after his nose—a square ornament, that stood up straight.
“She is between four and five years old; a very pretty child, with blue eyes and a good deal of curling auburn hair,” said Tod, who was growing feverish.
Jenkins wrote it down—“Name, Todhetley. What Christian name?”
“Adalena, called ‘Lena.’”
“Recollect the dress, sir?”
“Pale blue silk; straw hat with wreath of daisies round it; open-worked white stockings, and thin black shoes; white drawers,” recounted Tod, as if he had prepared the list by heart coming along.
“That’s bad, that dress is,” said Jenkins, putting down the pen.
“Why is it bad?”
“‘Cause the things is tempting. Quite half the children that gets stole is stole for what they’ve got upon their backs. Tramps and that sort will run a risk for a blue silk that they’d not run for a brown holland pinafore. Auburn curls, too,” added Jenkins, shaking his head; “that’s a temptation also. I’ve knowed children sent back home with bare heads afore now. Any ornaments, sir?”
“She was safe to have on her little gold neck-chain and cross. They are very small, Jenkins—not worth much.”
Jenkins lifted his nose—not in disdain, it was a habit he had. “Not worth much to you, sir, who could buy such any day, but an uncommon bait to professional child-stealers. Were the cross a coral, or any stone of that sort?”
“It was a small gold cross, and the chain was thin. They could only be seen when her cloak was off. Oh, I forgot the cloak; it was white: llama, I think they call it. She was going to a child’s party.”
Some more questions and answers, most of which Jenkins took down. Handbills were to be printed and posted, and a reward offered on the morrow, if she was not previously found. Then we came away; there was nothing more to do at the station.
“Wouldn’t it have been better, Tod, had Jenkins gone out seeking her and telling of the loss abroad, instead of waiting to write all that down?”
“Johnny, if we don’t find her to night, I shall go mad,” was all he answered.
He went back down Alcester Street at a rushing pace—not a run but a quick walk.
“Where are you going now?” I asked.
“I’m going up hill and down dale until I find that gipsies’ encampment. You can go on home, Johnny, if you are tired.”
I had not felt tired until we were in the police-station. Excitement keeps off fatigue. But I was not going to give in, and said I should stay with him.
“All right, Johnny.”
Before we were clear of Alcester, Budd the land-agent came up. He was turning out of the public-house at the corner. It was dusk then. Tod laid hold of him.
“Budd, you are always about, in all kinds of nooks and by-lanes: can you tell me of any encampment of gipsies between here and the Manor-house?”
The agent’s business took him abroad a great deal, you know, into the rural districts around.
“Gipsies’ encampment?” repeated Budd, giving both of us a stare. “There’s none that I know of. In the spring, a lot of them had the impudence to squat down on the Marquis’s——”
“Oh, I know all that,” interrupted Tod. “Is there nothing of the sort about now?”
“I saw a miserable little tent to-day up Cookhill way,” said Budd. “It might have been a gipsy’s or a travelling tinker’s. ’Twasn’t of much account, whichever it was.”
Tod gave a spring. “Whereabouts?” was all he asked. And Budd explained where. Tod went off like a shot, and I after him.
If you are familiar with Alcester, or have visited at Ragley or anything of that sort, you must know the long green lane leading to Cookhill; it is dark with overhanging trees, and uphill all the way. We took that road—Tod first, and I next; and we came to the top, and turned in the direction Budd had described the tent to be in.
It was not to be called dark; the nights never are at midsummer; and rays from the bright light in the west glimmered through the trees. On the outskirts of the coppice, in a bit of low ground, we saw the tent, a little mite of a thing, looking no better than a funnel turned upside down. Sounds were heard within it, and Tod put his finger on his lip while he listened. But we were too far off, and he took his boots off, and crept up close.
Sounds of wailing—of someone in pain. But that Tod had been three parts out of his senses all the afternoon, he might have known at once that they did not come from Lena, or from any one so young. Words mingled with them in a woman’s voice; uncouth in its accents, nearly unintelligible, an awful sadness in its tones.
“A bit longer! A bit longer, Corry, and he’d ha’ been back. You needn’t ha’ grudged it to us. Oh——h! if ye had but waited a bit longer!”
I don’t write it exactly as she spoke; I shouldn’t know how to spell it: we made a guess at half the words. Tod, who had grown white again, put on his boots, and lifted up the opening of the tent.
I had never seen any scene like it; I don’t suppose I shall ever see another. About a foot from the ground was a raised surface of some sort, thickly covered with dark green rushes, just the size and shape of a gravestone. A little child, about as old as Lena, lay on it, a white cloth thrown over her, and just touching the white, still face. A torch, blazing and smoking away, was thrust into the ground and lighted up the scene. Whiter the face looked now, because it had been tawny in life. I would rather see one of our faces in death than a gipsy’s. The contrast between the white face and dress of the child, and the green bed of rushes it lay on was something remarkable. A young woman, dark too, and handsome enough to create a commotion at the fair, knelt down, her brown hands uplifted; a gaudy ring on one of the fingers, worth sixpence perhaps when new, sparkled in the torchlight. Tod strode up to the dead face and looked at it for full five minutes. I do believe he thought at first that it was Lena.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It is my dead child!” the woman answered. “She did not wait that her father might see her die!”
But Tod had his head full of Lena, and looked round. “Is there no other child here?”
As if to answer him, a bundle of rags came out of a corner and set up a howl. It was a boy of about seven, and our going in had wakened him up. The woman sat down on the ground and looked at us.
“We have lost a child—a little girl,” explained Tod. “I thought she might have been brought here—or have strayed here.”
“I’ve lost my girl,” said the woman. “Death has come for her!” And, when speaking to us, she spoke more intelligibly than when alone.
“Yes; but this child has been lost—lost out of doors! Have you seen or heard anything of one?”
“I’ve not been in the way o’ seeing or hearing, master; I’ve been in the tent alone. If folks had come to my aid, Corry might not have died. I’ve had nothing but water to put to her lips all day?”
“What was the matter with her?” Tod asked, convinced at length that Lena was not there.
“She have been ailing long—worse since the moon come in. The sickness took her with the summer, and the strength began to go out. Jake have been down, too. He couldn’t get out to bring us help, and we have had none.”
Jake was the husband, we supposed. The help meant food, or funds to get it with.
“He sat all yesterday cutting skewers, his hands a’most too weak to fashion ’em. Maybe he’d sell ’em for a few ha’pence, he said; and he went out this morning to try, and bring home a morsel of food.”
“Tod,” I whispered, “I wish that hard-hearted Molly had——”
“Hold your tongue, Johnny,” he interrupted sharply. “Is Jake your husband?” he asked of the woman.
“He is my husband, and the children’s father.”
“Jake would not be likely to steal a child, would he?” asked Tod, in a hesitating manner, for him.
She looked up, as if not understanding. “Steal a child, master! What for?”
“I don’t know,” said Tod. “I thought perhaps he had done it, and had brought the child here.”
Another comical stare from the woman. “We couldn’t feed these of ours; what should we do with another?”
“Well: Jake called at our house to sell his skewers; and, directly afterwards, we missed my little sister. I have been hunting for her ever since.”
“Was the house far from here!”
“A few miles.”
“Then he have sunk down of weakness on his way, and can’t get back.”
Putting her head on her knees, she began to sob and moan. The child—the living one—began to bawl; one couldn’t call it anything else; and pulled at the green rushes.
“He knew Corry was sick and faint when he went out. He’d have got back afore now if his strength hadn’t failed him; though, maybe, he didn’t think of death. Whist, then, whist, then, Dor,” she added, to the boy.
“Don’t cry,” said Tod to the little chap, who had the largest, brightest eyes I ever saw. “That will do no good, you know.”
“I want Corry,” said he. “Where’s Corry gone?”
“She’s gone up to God,” answered Tod, speaking very gently. “She’s gone to be a bright angel with Him in heaven.”
“Will she fly down to me?” asked Dor, his great eyes shining through their tears at Tod.
“Yes,” affirmed Tod, who had a theory of his own on the point, and used to think, when a little boy, that his mother was always near him, one of God’s angels keeping him from harm. “And after a while, you know, if you are good, you’ll go to Corry, and be an angel, too.”
“God bless you, master!” interposed the woman. “He’ll think of that always.”
“Tod,” I said, as we went out of the tent, “I don’t think they are people to steal children.”
“Who’s to know what the man would do?” retorted Tod.
“A man with a dying child at home wouldn’t be likely to harm another.”
Tod did not answer. He stood still a moment, deliberating which way to go. Back to Alcester?—where a conveyance might be found to take us home, for the fatigue was telling on both of us, now that disappointment was prolonged, and I, at least, could hardly put one foot before another. Or down to the high-road, and run the chance of some vehicle overtaking us? Or keep on amidst these fields and hedgerows, which would lead us home by a rather nearer way, but without chance of a lift? Tod made up his mind, and struck down the lane the way we had come up. He was on first, and I saw him suddenly halt, and turn to me.
“Look here, Johnny!”
I looked as well as I could for the night and the trees, and saw something on the ground. A man had sunk down there, apparently from exhaustion. His face was a tawny white, just like the dead child’s. A stout stick and the bundles of skewers lay beside him.
“Do you see the fellow, Johnny? It is the gipsy.”
“Has he fainted?”
“Fainted, or shamming it. I wonder if there’s any water about?”
But the man opened his eyes; perhaps the sound of voices revived him. After looking at us a minute or two, he raised himself slowly on his elbow. Tod—the one thought uppermost in his mind—said something about Lena.
“The child’s found, master!”
Tod seemed to give a leap. I know his heart did. “Found!”
“Been safe at home this long while.”
“Who found her?”
“’Twas me, master.”
“Where was she?” asked Tod, his tone softening. “Let us hear about it.”
“I was making back for the town” (we supposed he meant Alcester), “and missed the way; land about here’s strange to me. A-going through a bit of a groove, which didn’t seem as if it was leading to nowhere, I heard a child crying. There was the little thing tied to a tree, stripped, and——”
“Stripped!” roared Tod.
“Stripped to the skin, sir, save for a dirty old skirt that was tied round her. A woman carried her off to that spot, she told me, robbed her of her clothes, and left her there. Knowing where she must ha’ been stole from—through you’re accusing me of it, master—I untied her to lead her home, but her feet warn’t used to the rough ground, and I made shift to carry her. A matter of two miles it were, and I be not good for much. I left her at home safe, and set off back. That’s all, master.”
“What were you doing here?” asked Tod, as considerately as if he had been speaking to a lord. “Resting?”
“I suppose I fell, master. I don’t remember nothing, since I was tramping up the lane, till your voices came. I’ve had naught inside my lips to-day but a drink o’ water.”
“Did they give you nothing to eat at the house when you took the child home?”
He shook his head. “I saw the woman again, nobody else. She heard what I had to say about the child, and she never said ‘Thank ye.’”
The man had been getting on his feet, and took up the skewers, that were all tied together with string, and the stick. But he reeled as he stood, and would have fallen again but for Tod. Tod gave him his arm.
“We are in for it, Johnny,” said he aside to me. “Pity but I could be put in a picture—the Samaritan helping the destitute!”
“I’d not accept of ye, sir, but that I have a child sick at home, and want to get to her. There’s a piece of bread in my pocket that was give me at a cottage to-day.”
“Is your child sure to get well?” asked Tod, after a pause; wondering whether he could say anything of what had occurred, so as to break the news.
The man gazed right away into the distance, as if searching for an answer in the far-off star shining there.
“There’s been a death-look in her face this day and night past, master. But the Lord’s good to us all.”
“And sometimes, when He takes children, it is done in mercy,” said Tod. “Heaven is a better place than this.”
“Ay,” rejoined the man, who was leaning heavily on Tod, and could never have got home without him, unless he had crawled on hands and knees. “I’ve been sickly on and off for this year past; worse lately; and I’ve thought at times that if my own turn was coming, I’d be glad to see my children gone afore me.”
“Oh, Tod!” I whispered, in a burst of repentance, “how could we have been so hard with this poor fellow, and roughly accused him of stealing Lena?” But Tod only gave me a knock with his elbow.
“I fancy it must be pleasant to think of a little child being an angel in heaven—a child that we have loved,” said Tod.
“Ay, ay,” said the man.
Tod had no courage to say more. He was not a parson. Presently he asked the man what tribe he belonged to—being a gipsy.
“I’m not a gipsy, master. Never was one yet. I and my wife are dark-complexioned by nature; living in the open air has made us darker; but I’m English born; Christian, too. My wife’s Irish; but they do say she comes of a gipsy tribe. We used to have a cart, and went about the country with crockery; but a year ago, when I got ill and lay in a lodging, the things were seized for rent and debt. Since then it’s been hard lines with us. Yonder’s my bit of a tent, master, and now I can get on alone. Thanking ye kindly.”
“I am sorry I spoke harshly to you to-day,” said Tod. “Take this: it is all I have with me.”
“I’ll take it, sir, for my child’s sake; it may help to put the strength into her. Otherwise I’d not. We’re honest; we’ve never begged. Thank ye both, masters, once again.”
It was only a shilling or two. Tod spent, and never had much in his pockets. “I wish it had been sovereigns,” said he to me; “but we will do something better for them to-morrow, Johnny. I am sure the Pater will.”
“Tod,” said I, as we ran on, “had we seen the man close before, and spoken with him, I should never have suspected him. He has a face to be trusted.”
Tod burst into a laugh. “There you are Johnny, at your faces again!”
I was always reading people’s faces, and taking likes and dislikes accordingly. They called me a muff for it at home (and for many other things), Tod especially; but it seemed to me that I could read people as easily as a book. Duffham, our surgeon at Church Dykely, bade me trust to it as a good gift from God. One day, pushing my straw hat up to draw his fingers across the top of my brow, he quaintly told the Squire that when he wanted people’s characters read, to come to me to read them. The Squire only laughed in answer.
As luck had it, a gentleman we knew was passing in his dog-cart when we got to the foot of the hill. It was old Pitchley. He drove us home: and I could hardly get down, I was so stiff.
Lena was in bed, safe and sound. No damage, except fright and the loss of her clothes. From what we could learn, the woman who took her off must have been concealed amidst the ricks, when Tod put her there. Lena said the woman laid hold of her very soon, caught her up, and put her hand over her mouth, to prevent her crying out; she could only give one scream. I ought to have heard it, only Mack was making such an awful row, hammering that iron. How far along fields and by-ways the woman carried her, Lena could not be supposed to tell: “Miles!” she said. Then the thief plunged amidst a few trees, took the child’s things off, put on an old rag of a petticoat, and tied her loosely to a tree. Lena thought she could have got loose herself, but was too frightened to try; and just then the man, Jake, came up.
“I liked him,” said Lena. “He carried me all the way home, that my feet should not be hurt; but he had to sit down sometimes. He said he had a poor little girl who was nearly as badly off for clothes as that, but she did not want them now, she was too sick. He said he hoped my papa would find the woman, and put her in prison.”
It is what the Squire intended to do, chance helping him. But he did not reach home till after us, when all was quiet again: which was fortunate.
“I suppose you blame me for that?” cried Tod, to his step-mother.
“No, I don’t, Joseph,” said Mrs. Todhetley. She called him Joseph nearly always, not liking to shorten his name, as some of us did. “It is so very common a thing for the children to be playing in the three-cornered field amidst the ricks; and no suspicion that danger could arise from it having ever been glanced at, I do not think any blame attaches to you.”
“I am very sorry now for having done it,” said Tod. “I shall never forget the fright to the last hour of my life.”
He went straight to Molly, from Mrs. Todhetley, a look on his face that, when seen there, which was rare, the servants did not like. Deference was rendered to Tod in the household. When anything should take off the good old Pater, Tod would be master. What he said to Molly no one heard; but the woman was banging at her brass things in a tantrum for three days afterwards.
And when we went to see after poor Jake and his people, it was too late. The man, the tent, the living people, and the dead child—all were gone.
Worcester Assizes were being held, and Squire Todhetley was on the grand jury. You see, although Dyke Manor was just within the borders of Warwickshire, the greater portion of the Squire’s property lay in Worcestershire. This caused him to be summoned to serve. We were often at his house there, Crabb Cot. I forget who was foreman of the jury that time: either Sir John Pakington, or the Honourable Mr. Coventry.
The week was jolly. We put up at the Star-and-Garter when we went to Worcester, which was two or three times a-year; generally at the assizes, or the races, or the quarter-sessions; one or other of the busy times.
The Pater would grumble at the bills—and say we boys had no business to be there; but he would take us, if we were at home, for all that. The assizes came on this time the week before our summer holidays were up; the Squire wished they had not come on until the week after. Anyway, there we were, in clover; the Squire about to be stewed up in the county courts all day; I and Tod flying about the town, and doing what we liked.
The judges came in from Oxford on the usual day, Saturday. And, to make clear what I am going to tell about, we must go back to that morning and to Dyke Manor. It was broiling hot weather, and Mrs. Todhetley, Hugh, and Lena, with old Thomas and Hannah, all came on the lawn after breakfast to see us start. The open carriage was at the door, with the fine dark horses. When the Squire did come out, he liked to do things well; and Dwarf Giles, the groom, had gone on to Worcester the day before with the two saddle-horses, the Pater’s and Tod’s. They might have ridden them in this morning, but the Squire chose to have his horses sleek and fresh when attending the high sheriff.
“Shall I drive, sir?” asked Tod.
“No,” said the Pater. “These two have queer tempers, and must be handled carefully.” He meant the horses, Bob and Blister. Tod looked at me; he thought he could have managed them quite as well as the Pater.
“Papa,” cried Lena, as we were driving off, running up in her white pinafore, with her pretty hair flying, “if you can catch that naughty kidnapper at Worcester, you put her in prison.”
The Squire nodded emphatically, as much as to say, “Trust me for that.” Lena alluded to the woman who had taken her off and stolen her clothes two or three weeks before. Tod said, afterwards, there must have been some prevision on the child’s mind when she said this.
We reached Worcester at twelve. It is a long drive, you know. Lots of country-people had arrived, and the Squire went off with some of them. Tod and I thought we’d order luncheon at the Star—a jolly good one; stewed lampreys, kidneys, and cherry-tart; and let it go into the Squire’s bill.
I’m afraid I envied Tod. The old days of travelling post were past, when the sheriff’s procession would go out to Whittington to meet the judges’ carriage. They came now by rail from Oxford, and the sheriff and his attendants received them at the railway station. It was the first time Tod had been allowed to make one of the gentlemen-attendants. The Squire said now he was too young; but he looked big, and tall, and strong. To see him mount his horse and go cantering off with the rest sent me into a state of envy. Tod saw it.
“Don’t drop your mouth, Johnny,” said he. “You’ll make one of us in another year or two.”
I stood about for half-an-hour, and the procession came back, passing the Star on its way to the county courts. The bells were ringing, the advanced heralds blew their trumpets, and the javelin-guard rode at a foot-pace, their lances in rest, preceding the high sheriff’s grand carriage, with its four prancing horses and their silvered harness. Both the judges had come in, so we knew that business was over at Oxford; they sat opposite to the sheriff and his chaplain. I used to wonder whether they travelled all the way in their wigs and gowns, or robed outside Worcester. Squire Todhetley rode in the line next the carriage, with some more old ones of consequence; Tod on his fine bay was nearly at the tail, and he gave me a nod in passing. The judges were going to open the commission, and Foregate Street was crowded.
The high sheriff that year was a friend of ours, and the Pater had an invitation to the banquet he gave that evening. Tod thought he ought to have been invited too.
“It’s sinfully stingy of him, Johnny. When I am pricked for sheriff—and I suppose my turn will come sometime, either for Warwickshire or Worcestershire—I’ll have more young fellows to my dinner than old ones.”
The Squire, knowing nothing of our midday luncheon, was surprised that we chose supper at eight instead of dinner at six; but he told the waiter to give us a good one. We went out while it was getting ready, and walked arm-in-arm through the crowded streets. Worcester is always full on a Saturday evening; it is market-day there, as every one knows; but on Assize Saturday the streets are almost impassable. Tod, tall and strong, held on his way, and asked leave of none.
“Now, then, you two gents, can’t you go on proper, and not elbow respectable folks like that?”
“Holloa!” cried Tod, turning at the voice. “Is it you, old Jones?”
Old Jones, the constable of our parish, touched his hat when he saw it was us, and begged pardon. We asked what he was doing at Worcester; but he had only come on his own account. “On the spree,” Tod suggested to him.
“Young Mr. Todhetley,” cried he—the way he chiefly addressed Tod—“I’d not be sure but that woman’s took—her that served out little Miss Lena.”
“That woman!” said Tod. “Why do you think it?”
Old Jones explained. A woman had been apprehended near Worcester the previous day, on a charge of stripping two little boys of their clothes in Perry Wood. The description given of her answered exactly, old Jones thought, to that given by Lena.
“She stripped ’em to the skin,” groaned Jones, drawing a long face as he recited the mishap, “two poor little chaps of three years, they was, living in them cottages under the Wood—not as much as their boots did she leave on ’em. When they got home their folks didn’t know ’em; quite naked they was, and bleating with terror, like a brace of shorn sheep.”
Tod put on his determined look. “And she is taken, you say, Jones?”
“She was took yesterday, sir. They had her before the justices this morning, and the little fellows knowed her at once. As the ’sizes was on, leastways as good as on, their worships committed her for trial there and then. Policeman Cripp told me all about it; it was him that took her. She’s in the county gaol.”
We carried the tale to the Pater that night, and he despatched a messenger to Mrs. Todhetley, to say that Lena must be at Worcester on the Monday morning. But there’s something to tell about the Sunday yet.
If you have been in Worcester on Assize Sunday, you know how the cathedral is on that morning crowded. Enough strangers are in the town to fill it: the inhabitants who go to the churches at other times attended it then; and King Mob flocks in to see the show.
Squire Todhetley was put in the stalls; Tod and I scrambled for places on a bench. The alterations in the cathedral (going on for years before that, and going on for years since, and going on still) caused space to be limited, and it was no end of a cram. While people fought for standing-places, the procession was played in to the crash of the organ. The judges came, glorious in their wigs and gowns; the mayor and aldermen were grand as scarlet and gold chains could make them; and there was a large attendance of the clergy in their white robes. The Bishop had come in from Hartlebury, and was on his throne, and the service began. The Rev. Mr. Wheeler chanted; the Dean read the lessons. Of course the music was all right; they put up fine services on Assize Sundays now; and the sheriff’s chaplain went up in his black gown to preach the sermon. Three-quarters of an hour, if you’ll believe me, before that sermon came to an end!
Ere the organ had well played its Amen to the Bishop’s blessing, the crowd began to push out. We pushed with the rest and took up our places in the long cathedral nave to see the procession pass back again. It came winding down between the line of javelin-men. Just as the judges were passing, Tod motioned me to look opposite. There stood a young boy in dreadful clothes, patched all over, but otherwise clean; with great dark wondering eyes riveted on the judges, as if they had been stilted peacocks; on their wigs, their solemn countenances, their held-up scarlet trains.
Where had I seen those eyes, and their brightness? Recollection flashed over me before Tod’s whisper: “Jake’s boy; the youngster we saw in the tent.”
To get across the line was impossible: manners would not permit it, let alone the javelin-guard. And when the procession had passed, leaving nothing but a crowd of shuffling feet and the dust on the white cathedral floor, the boy was gone.
“I say, Johnny, it is rather odd we should come on those tent-people, just as the woman has turned up,” exclaimed Tod, as we got clear of the cathedral.
“But you don’t think they can be connected, Tod?”
“Well, no; I suppose not. It’s a queer coincidence, though.”
This we also carried to the Squire, as we had the other news. He was standing in the Star gateway.
“Look here, you boys,” said he, after a pause given to thought; “keep your eyes open; you may come upon the lad again, or some of his folk. I should like to do something for that poor man; I’ve wished it ever since he brought home Lena, and that confounded Molly drove him out by way of recompense.”
“And if they should be confederates, sir?” suggested Tod.
“Who confederates? What do you mean, Joe?”
“These people and the female-stripper. It seems strange they should both turn up again in the same spot.”
The notion took away the Pater’s breath. “If I thought that; if I find it is so,” he broke forth, “I’ll—I’ll—transport the lot.”
Mrs. Todhetley arrived with Lena on Sunday afternoon. Early on Monday, the Squire and Tod took her to the governor’s house at the county prison, where she was to see the woman, as if accidentally, nothing being said to Lena.
The woman was brought in: a bold jade with a red face: and Lena nearly went into convulsions at the sight of her. There could be no mistake the woman was the same: and the Pater became redhot with anger; especially to think he could not punish her in Worcester.
As the fly went racing up Salt Lane after the interview, on its way to leave the Squire at the county courts, a lad ran past. It was Jake’s boy; the same we had seen in the cathedral. Tod leaped up and called to the driver to stop, but the Pater roared out an order to go on. His appearance at the court could not be delayed, and Tod had to stay with Lena. So the clue was lost again. Tod brought Lena to the Star, and then he and I went to the criminal court, and bribed a fellow for places. Tod said it would be a sin not to hear the kidnapper tried.
It was nearly the first case called on. Some of the lighter cases were taken first, while the grand jury deliberated on their bills for the graver ones. Her name, as given in, was Nancy Cole, and she tried to excite the sympathies of the judge and jury by reciting a whining account of a deserting husband and other ills. The evidence was quite clear. The two children (little shavers in petticoats) set up a roar in court at sight of the woman, just as Lena had done in the governor’s house; and a dealer in marine stores produced their clothes, which he had bought of her. Tod whispered to me that he should go about Worcester after this in daily dread of seeing Lena’s blue-silk frock and open-worked stockings hanging in a shop window. Something was said during the trial about the raid the prisoner had also recently made on the little daughter of Mr. Todhetley, of Dyke Manor, Warwickshire, and of Crabb Cot, Worcestershire, “one of the gentlemen of the grand jury at present sitting in deliberation in an adjoining chamber of the court.” But, as the judge said, that could not be received in evidence.
Mrs. Cole brazened it out: testimony was too strong for her to attempt denial. “And if she had took a few bits o’ things, ’cause she was famishing, she didn’t hurt the childern. She’d never hurt a child in her life; couldn’t do it. Just contrairy to that; she gave ’em sugar plums—and candy—and a piece of a wig, she did. What was she to do? Starve? Since her wicked husband, that she hadn’t seen for this five year, deserted of her, and her two boys, fine grown lads both of ’em, had been accused of theft and got put away from her, one into prison, t’other into a ’formitory, she hadn’t no soul to care for her nor help her to a bit o’ bread. Life was hard, and times was bad; and—there it was. No good o’ saying more.”
“Guilty,” said the foreman of the jury, without turning round. “We find the prisoner guilty, my lord.”
The judge sentenced her to six months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Mrs. Cole brazened it out still.
“Thank you,” said she to his lordship, dropping a curtsey as they were taking her from the dock; “and I hope you’ll sit there, old gentleman, till I come out again.”
When the Squire was told of the sentence that evening, he said it was too mild by half, and talked of bringing her also to book at Warwick. But Mrs. Todhetley said, “No; forgive her.” After all, it was only the loss of the clothes.
Nothing whatever had come out during the trial to connect Jake with the woman. She appeared to be a waif without friends. “And I watched and listened closely for it, mind you, Johnny,” remarked Tod.
It was a day or two after this—I think, on the Wednesday evening. The Squire’s grand-jury duties were over, but he stayed on, intending to make a week of it; Mrs. Todhetley and Lena had left for home. We had dined late, and Tod and I went for a stroll afterwards; leaving the Pater, and an old clergyman, who had dined with us, to their wine. In passing the cooked-meat shop in High-street, we saw a little chap looking in, his face flattened against the panes. Tod laid hold of his shoulder, and the boy turned his brilliant eyes and their hungry expression upon us.
“Do you remember me, Dor?” You see, Tod had not forgotten his name.
Dor evidently did remember. And whether it was that he felt frightened at being accosted, or whether the sight of us brought back to him the image of the dead sister lying on the rushes, was best known to himself; but he burst out crying.
“There’s nothing to cry for,” said Tod; “you need not be afraid. Could you eat some of that meat?”
Something like a shiver of surprise broke over the boy’s face at the question; just as though he had had no food for weeks. Tod gave him a shilling, and told him to go in and buy some. But the boy looked at the money doubtingly.
“A whole shilling! They’d think I stole it.”
Tod took back the money, and went in himself. He was as proud a fellow as you’d find in the two counties, and yet he would do all sorts of things that many another glanced askance at.
“I want half-a-pound of beef,” said he to the man who was carving, “and some bread, if you sell it. And I’ll take one of those small pork-pies.”
“Shall I put the meat in paper, sir?” asked the man: as if doubting whether Tod might prefer to eat it there.
“Yes,” said Tod. And the customers, working-men and a woman in a drab shawl, turned and stared at him.
Tod paid; took it all in his hands, and we left the shop. He did not mind being seen carrying the parcels; but he would have minded letting them know that he was feeding a poor boy.
“Here, Dor, you can take the things now,” said he, when we had gone a few yards. “Where do you live?”
Dor explained after a fashion. We knew Worcester well, but failed to understand. “Not far from the big church,” he said; and at first we thought he meant the cathedral.
“Never mind,” said Tod; “go on, and show us.”
He went skimming along, Tod keeping him within arm’s-length, lest he should try to escape. Why Tod should have suspected he might, I don’t know; nothing, as it turned out, could have been farther from Dor’s thoughts. The church he spoke of proved to be All Saints’; the boy turned up an entry near to it, and we found ourselves in a regular rookery of dirty, miserable, tumble-down houses. Loose men stood about, pipes in their mouths, women, in tatters, their hair hanging down.
Dor dived into a dark den that seemed to be reached through a hole you had to stoop under. My patience! What a close place it was, with a smell that nearly knocked you backwards. There was not an earthly thing in the room that we could see, except some straw in a corner, and on that Jake was lying. The boy appeared with a piece of lighted candle, which he had been upstairs to borrow.
Jake was thin enough before; he was a skeleton now. His eyes were sunk, the bones of his face stood out, the skin glistened on his shapely nose, his voice was weak and hollow. He knew us, and smiled.
“What’s the matter?” asked Tod, speaking gently. “You look very ill.”
“I be very ill, master; I’ve been getting worse ever since.”
His history was this. The same night that we had seen the tent at Cookhill, some travelling people of Jake’s fraternity happened to encamp close to it for the night. By their help, the dead child was removed as far as Evesham, and there buried. Jake, his wife, and son, went on to Worcester, and there the man was taken worse; they had been in this room since; the wife had found a place to go to twice a week washing, earning her food and a shilling each time. It was all they had to depend upon, these two shillings weekly; and the few bits o’ things they had, to use Jake’s words, had been taken by the landlord for rent. But to see Jake’s resignation was something curious.
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