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Johnny Ludlow.Third SeriesByMrs. Henry Wood
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Mrs. Henry Wood
THE MYSTERY OF JESSY PAGE.
HELEN WHITNEY’S WEDDING.
CHARLOTTE AND CHARLOTTE.
THE LAST OF THE CAROMELS.
A DAY IN BRIAR WOOD.
THE STORY OF DOROTHY GRAPE. DISAPPEARANCE.
THE STORY OF DOROTHY GRAPE. IN AFTER YEARS.
LADY JENKINS. MINA.
LADY JENKINS. DOUBT.
LADY JENKINS. MADAME.
LADY JENKINS. LIGHT.
THE ANGELS’ MUSIC.
“God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men,
And bring them back to heaven again.”
Our old grey church at Church Dykely stood in a solitary spot. Servant maids (two of ours once, Hannah and Molly), and silly village girls went there sometimes to watch for the “shadows” on St. Mark’s Eve, and owls had a habit of darting out of the belfry at night. Within view of the church, though at some distance from it, stood the lonely, red-brick, angular dwelling-house belonging to Copse Farm. It was inhabited by Mr. Page, a plain worthy widower, getting in years; his three daughters and little son. Abigail and Susan Page, two experienced, sensible, industrious young women, with sallow faces and bunches of short dark curls, were at this period, about midway between twenty and thirty: Jessy, very much younger, was gone out to get two years’ “finishing” at a plain boarding-school; Charles, the lad, had bad health and went to school by day at Church Dykely.
Mr. Page fell ill. He would never again be able to get about much. His two daughters, so far as indoor work and management went, were hosts in themselves, Miss Abigail especially; but they could not mount a horse to superintend out-of-doors. Other arrangements were made. The second son of Mr. Drench, a neighbouring farmer and friend, came to the Copse Farm by day as overlooker. He was paid for his services, and he gained experience.
No sooner had John Drench, a silent, bashful young farmer,good-looking and fairly-well educated, been installed in his new post, than he began to show a decided admiration for Miss Susan Page—who was a few months younger than himself. The slight advances he made were favourably received; and it was tacitly looked upon that they were “as good as engaged.” Things went on pleasantly through the spring, and might have continued to go on so, but for the coming home at Midsummer of the youngest daughter, Jessy. That led to no end of complications and contrariety.
She was the sweetest flower you ever saw; a fair, delicate lily, with a mild countenance, blue eyes, and golden hair. Jessy had never been very strong; she had always been very pretty; and the consequence was that whilst her sisters had grown up to be useful, not to be idle a minute throughout the long day, Jessy had been petted and indulged, and was little except being ornamental. The two years’ schooling had not improved her taste for domestic occupation. To tell the truth, Jessy was given to being uncommonly idle.
To John Drench, who had not seen her since her early girlhood, she appeared as a vision of beauty. “It was like an angel coming in at the door,” he said of the day she first came home, when telling the tale to a stranger in after years. “My eyes were fairly dazzled.”
Like an angel! And unfortunately for John Drench, his heart was dazzled as well as his eyes. He fell desperately in love with her. It taught him that what he had felt for Miss Susan was not love at all; only esteem, and the liking that so often arises from companionship. He was well-meaning, but inexperienced. As he had never spoken to Susan, the utmost sign he had given being a look or a warmer handshake than usual, he thought there would be no difficulty in transferring his homage to the younger sister. Susan Page, who really loved him, and perhaps looked on with the keen eyes of jealousy, grew at last to see how matters were. She would have liked to put him in a corn-sack and give him a good shaking by way of cure. Thus the summer months went over in some silent discomfort, and September came in warm and fine.
Jessy Page stood at the open parlour window in her airy summer muslin, twirling a rose in her hand, blue ribbons fallingfrom her hair: for Jessy liked to set herself off in little adornments. She was laughing at John Drench outside, who had appeared covered with mud from the pond, into which he had contrived partially to slip when they were dragging for eels.
“I think your picture ought to be taken, just as you look now, Mr. John.”
He thoughthersought to be: the bright fair face, the laughing blue eyes, the parted lips and the pretty white teeth presented a picture that, to him, had never had its equal.
“Do you, Miss Jessy? That’s a fine rose,” he shyly added. He was always shy with her.
She held it out. She had not the least objection to be admired, even by John Drench in an unpresentable state. In their hearts, women have all desired men’s flattery, from Eve downwards.
“These large roses are the sweetest of any,” she went on. “I plucked it from the tree beyond the grass-plat.”
“You are fond of flowers, I’ve noticed, Miss Jessy.”
“Yes, I am. Both for themselves and for the language they symbolise.”
“What language is it?”
“Don’t you know? I learnt it at school. Each flower possesses its own meaning, Mr. John Drench. This, the rose, is true love.”
“True love, is it, Miss Jessy!”
She was lightly flirting it before his face. It was too much for him, and he took it gently from her. “Will you give it me?” he asked below his breath.
“Oh, with great pleasure.” And then she lightly added, as if to damp the eager look on his face: “There are plenty more on the same tree.”
“An emblem of true love,” he softly repeated. “It’s a pretty thought. I wonder who invented——”
“Now then, John Drench, do you know that tea’s waiting. Are you going to sit down in those muddy boots and leggings?”
The sharp words came from Susan Page. Jessy turned and saw her sister’s pale, angry face. John Drench disappeared, and Miss Susan went out again, and banged the door.
“It is high time Jessy was put to some regular employment,”cried Susan, bursting into the room where Miss Page sat making the tea. “She idles away her time in the most frivolous and wasteful manner, never doing an earthly thing. It is quite sinful.”
“So it is,” acquiesced Miss Page. “Have you a headache, Susan? You look pale.”
“Never mind my looks,” wrathfully retorted Susan. “We will portion out some share of work for her from to-day. She might make up the butter, and undertake the pies and puddings, and do the plain sewing.”
William Page, a grey-haired man, sitting with a stick by his side, looked up. “Pretty creature!” he said, for he passionately loved his youngest daughter. “I’ll not have her hard-worked, Susan.”
“But you’d not have her sit with her hands before her from Monday morning till Saturday night, I suppose, father!” sharply returned Miss Susan. “She’ll soon be nineteen.”
“No, no; idleness brings nothing but evil in its train. I didn’t mean that, Susan. Let the child do what is suitable for her. Where’s John Drench?”
“In a fine mess—up to his middle in mud,” was Miss Susan’s tart answer. “One would think he had been trying to see how great an object he could make of himself.”
John Drench came in, somewhat improved, his coat changed and the rose in his button-hole. He took his seat at the tea-table, and was more shy and silent than ever. Jessy sat by her father, chattering gaily, her blue ribbons flickering before his loving eyes.
But the butter-making and the other light work was fated not to be inaugurated yet for Jessy. Charles Page, a tiresome, indulged lad of twelve, became ill again: he was subject to attacks of low fever and ague. Mr. Duffham, peering at the boy over his gold-headed cane, said there was nothing for it but a dose of good seaside air. Mr. Page, anxious for his boy, began to consult with his daughters as to how it might be obtained. They had some very distant connections named Allen, living at Aberystwith. To them Miss Page wrote, asking if they could take in Charles and one of his sisters to live with them for a month or so. Mrs. Allen replied that she would be glad to have them;since her husband’s death she had eked out a scanty income by letting lodgings.
It was Jessy who went with him. The house and farm could not have spared Abigail; Susan said neither should it spare her. Jessy, the idle and useless one had to go. Miss Susan thought she and John Drench were well rid of the young lady.
September was in its second week when they went; November was at its close when they returned. The improvement in Charles had been so marked and wonderful—as Mrs. Allen and Jessy both wrote to say—that Mr. Duffham had strongly urged his staying as long as the weather remained fine. It was a remarkably fine late autumn that year, and they stayed until the end of November.
Charles came home well and strong. Jessy was more beautiful than ever. But there was some change in her. The light-hearted, talking, laughing girl had grown rather silent: she was often heard singing snatches of love songs to herself in a low voice, and there was a light in her eyes as of some intense, secret happiness that might not be told. John Drench, who had begun to show signs of returning to his old allegiance (at least, Miss Susan so flattered herself), fell a willing captive again forthwith, and had certainly neither eyes nor ears for any one but Jessy. Susan Page came to the conclusion that a shaking in a sack would be far too good for him.
The way of dressing the churches for Christmas in those past days was quite different from the new style of “decoration” obtaining now. Sprays of holly with their red berries, of ivy with its brown clusters, were stuck, each alternately into the holes on the top of the pews. It was a better way than the present one, far more effective—though I, Johnny Ludlow, shall be no doubt laughed at for saying so. Your woven wreaths tied round the pulpit and reading-desk; your lettered scrolls; your artificial flowers, may be talked of as “artistic,” but for effect they all stand absolutely as nothing, in comparison with the more simple and natural way, and they are, perhaps, the least bit tawdry. If you don’t believe me, pay a visit to some rural church next Christmas morning—for the old fashion is observed in many a country district still—and judge for yourselves. Withmany another custom that has been changed by the folly and fashion of these later days of pretension, and not changed for the better, lies this one. That is my opinion, and I hold to it.
The dressing in our church was always done by the clerk, old Bumford. The sexton (called familiarly with us the grave-digger) helped him when his health permitted, but he was nearly always ill, and then Bumford himself had to be grave-digger. It was not much trouble, this manner of decoration, and it took very little time. They had only to cut off the sprays almost of the same size, trim the ends, and lodge them in the holes. In the last century when a new country church was rebuilt (though that did not happen often), the drilling of these holes in the woodwork of the pews, for the reception of the “Christmas,” was as much a matter of course as were the pews themselves. Our Christmas was supplied by Mr. Page with a liberal hand; the Copse Farm abounded with trees of holly and ivy; one of his men, Leek, would help Bumford to cut it, and to cart it in a hand-truck to the church. It took a good deal to do all the pews.
On this Christmas that I am telling you of, it fell out that Clerk Bumford and the sexton were both disabled. Bumford had rheumatic gout so badly that getting him into church for the morning service the past three Sundays had been a marvel of dexterity—while the sexton was in bed with what he called catarrh. At first it seemed that we should not get the church dressed at all: but the Miss Pages, ever ready and active in a good work, came to the rescue, and said they would do it themselves, with John Drench’s help. The Squire was not going to be behind-hand, and said we boys, for Tod and I were just home for the holidays, should help too.
And when Christmas Eve came, and Leek had wheeled up the holly, and we were all in the cold church (not I think that any of us cared whether it was cold or warm), we enjoyed the work amazingly, and decided that old Bumford should never be let do it again, gout or no gout.
Jessy Page was a picture to look at. The two elder ladies had on tight dark cloth dresses, like a riding-habit cut short, at the ankles: Jessy was in a bright blue mantle edged with swans-down, and a blue bonnet on her pretty head. She came in alittle late, and Miss Susan blew her up sharply, for putting on that “best Sunday cape” to dress a church in: but Jessy only laughed good-naturedly, and answered that she would take care not to harm it. Susan Page, trimming the branches, had seen John Drench’s eyes fixed on the girl: and her knife worked away like mad in her vexation.
“Look here,” said Jessy: “we have never had any Christmas over the pulpit; I think old Bumford was afraid to get up to do it; let us put some. It would hide that ugly nail in the wall.”
“There are no holes up in the wall,” snapped Miss Susan.
“I meant a large bunch; a bunch of holly and ivy mixed, Susan. John Drench could tie it to the nail: it would look well.”
“I’ll do it, too,” said John. “I’ve some string in my pocket. The parson won’t know himself. It will be as good as a canopy over him.”
Miss Page turned round: she and Charley had their arms full of the branches we had been cutting.
“Put a bunch there, if you like, but let us finish the pews first,” she said. “If we go from one thing to another we shall not finish while it’s daylight.”
It was good sense: she rarely spoke anything else. Once let darkness overtake us, and the dressing would be done for. The church knew nothing about evening service, and had never felt the want of means to light itself up.
“I shall pick out the best sprays in readiness,” whispered Jessy to me, as we sat together on the bench by the big christening bowl, she choosing branches, I trimming them. “Look at this one! you could not count the berries on it.”
“Did you enjoy your visit to Aberystwith, Jessy?”
I wondered what there was in my simple question to move her. The branch of holly went anywhere; her hands met in a silent clasp; the expression of her face changed to one of curious happiness. In answering, her voice fell to a whisper.
“Yes, I enjoyed it.”
“What a long time you stayed away! An age, Mrs. Todhetley says.”
“It was nearly eleven weeks.”
“Eleven weeks! How tedious!”
Her face was glowing, her eyes had a soft light in them. She caught up some holly, and began scattering its berries.
“What did you do with yourself, Jessy?”
“I used to sit by the sea—and to walk about. It was very fine. They don’t often have it like that in November, Mrs. Allen said.”
“Did Mrs. Allen sit and walk with you?”
“No. She had enough to do with the house and her lodgers. We only saw her at meal times.”
“The Miss Allens, perhaps?”
“There are no Miss Allens. Only one little boy.”
“Why, then, you had no one but Charley!”
“Charley? Oh, he used to be always about with little Tom Allen—in a boat, or something of that sort. Mrs. Allen thought the sea breezes must be so good for him.”
“Well, you must have been very dull!”
Jessy looked rather foolish. She was a simple-minded girl at the best. The two elder sisters had all the strong sense of the family, she the simplicity. Some people called Jessy Page “soft”: perhaps, contrasted with her sisters, she was so: and she was very inexperienced.
The dusk was gathering, and Charley had gone out tired, when John Drench got into the pulpit to tie the bunch of holly to the wall above it. Tod was with him. Drench had his hands stretched out, and we stood watching them in a group in the aisle below, when the porch-door was burst open, and in leaped Charles.
“Jessy! I say! Where’s Jessy?”
“I am here,” said Jessy, looking round. “What do you want?”
“Here’s Mr. Marcus Allen.”
Who Mr. Marcus Allen might be, Charles did not say. Jessy knew: there was no doubt of that. Her face, just then close to mine, had flushed as red as a June rose.
A tall, dark, imposing man came looming out of the dusk. His handsome, furred great-coat was open, his waistcoat was of crimson velvet; he wore two chains, three rings, and an eye-glass. And I’ll leave you to judge of the effect this vision of grandeur made, dropping down on us plain church-dressers in our every-day clothes. John Drench leaned over the pulpitcushion, string in hand; the two Miss Pages stood staring; Jessy turned white and red with the unexpected amazement. It was to her he approached, and spoke.
“How do you do, Miss Jessy?”
She put her hand out in answer to his; but seemed to have been struck as dumb as the old stone image on the monument against the wall.
“These are your sisters, I presume, Miss Jessy? Will you do me the honour of introducing me to them?”
“Mr. Marcus Allen,” murmured Jessy. “My sister Abigail; my sister Susan.”
Mr. Marcus Allen, bowing over his hat, said something about the pleasure it gave him to make their acquaintance personally, after hearing so much of them from Miss Jessy at Aberystwith, and begged to be allowed to shake their hands. Miss Page, when the hand-shaking was over, said in her straightforward way that she did not know who he was, her young sister never having mentioned him. Jessy, standing like a little simpleton, her eyes bent down on the aisle bricks, murmured in confusion that she “forgot it.” John Drench had his face over the cushion all that time, and Tod’s arms began to ache, holding up the bunch of green.
Mr. Marcus Allen, it turned out, was related in some way to the Allens of Aberystwith: he happened to go to the town soon after Jessy Page and her brother went there, and he stayed until they left it. Not at the Allens’ house: he had lodgings elsewhere. Mrs. Allen spoke of him to Jessy as a “grand gentleman, quite above them.” An idea came over me, as we all now stood together, that he had been Jessy’s companion in the walking and the sitting by the sea.
“I told Miss Jessy that I should be running down some day to renew my acquaintanceship with her and make that of her family,” said Mr. Marcus Allen to Miss Page. “Having no particular engagement on my hands this Christmas time, I came.”
He spoke in the most easy manner conceivable: his accent and manner were certainly those of a gentleman. As to the fashionable attire and the rings and chains, rather startling though they looked to us in the dark church on that dark andbusy evening, they were all the rage for dandies in the great world then.
Noticing the intimation that he had come purposely to see them, Miss Page supposed that she ought, in hospitably good manners, to invite him to stay a day or two at the farm, but doubted whether so imposing a gentleman would condescend to do so. She said nothing about it then, and we all went out of the church together; except John Drench, who stayed behind with Leek to help clear up the litter for the man to carry away. It was light outside, and I took a good look at the stranger: a handsome man of seven-or-eight-and-twenty, with hard eyes, and black whiskers curled to perfection.
“In what way is he related to the Allens of Aberystwith, Jessy?” questioned Miss Page, drawing her sister away, as we went through the coppice.
“I don’t quite know, Abigail. He is some distant cousin.”
“How came you never to speak of him?”
“I—I did not remember to do so.”
“Very careless of you, child. Especially if he gave you cause to suppose he might come here. I don’t like to be taken by surprise by strangers; it is not always convenient.”
Jessy walked along in silence, meek as a lamb.
“What is he?—in any profession, or trade?”
“Trade? Oh, I don’t think he does anything of that kind, Abigail. That branch of the family would be above it, Mrs. Allen said. He has a large income, she says; plenty of money.”
“I take it, then, that he is aboveus,” reasoned Miss Page.
“Oh dear, yes: in station. Ever so much.”
“Then I’m sure I don’t care to entertain him.”
Miss Page went straight into the best kitchen on arriving at home. Her father sat in the large hearth corner, smoking his pipe. She told him about the stranger, and said she supposed they must ask him to stay over the morrow—Christmas-Day.
“Why shouldn’t we?” asked Mr. Page.
“Well, father, he seems very grand and great.”
“Does he? Give him the best bedroom.”
“And our ways are plain and simple, you know,” she added.
“He must take us as he finds us, Abigail. Any friend of Mrs. Allen’s is welcome: she was downright kind to the children.”
We had a jolly tea. Tod and I had been asked to it beforehand. Pork-pies, Miss Susan’s making, hot buttered batch-cakes, and lemon cake and jams. Mr. Marcus Allen was charmed with everything: he was a pleasant man to talk to. When we left, he and Mr. Page had gone to the best kitchen again, to smoke together in the wide chimney corner.
You Londoners, who go in for your artistic scrolls and crosses, should have seen the church on Christmas morning. It greeted our sight, as we entered from the porch, like a capacious grove of green, on which the sun streamed through the south windows. Old Bumford’s dressing had never been as full and handsome as this of ours, for we had rejected all niggardly sprays. The Squire even allowed that much. Shaking hands with Miss Page in the porch after service, he told her that it cut Clerk Bumford out and out. Mr. Marcus Allen, in fashionable coat, with the furred over-coat flung back, light gloves, and big white wristbands, was in the Pages’ pew, sitting between old Page and Jessy. He found all the places for her in her Prayer-book (a shabby red one, some of the leaves loose); bowing slightly every time he handed her the book, as if she had been a princess of the blood royal. Such gallantry was new in our parts: and the congregation were rather taken off their devotions watching it. As to Jessy, she kept flushing like a rose.
Mr. Marcus Allen remained more than a week, staying over New-Year’s Day. He made himself popular with them all, and enjoyed what Miss Abigail called their plain ways, just as though he had been reared to them. He smoked his pipe in the kitchen with the farmer; he drove Miss Susan to Alcester in the tax-cart; he presented Miss Abigail with a handsome work-box; and gave Charley a bright half-sovereign for bullseyes. As to Jessy, he paid her no more attention than he did her sisters; hardly as much: so that if Miss Susan had been entertaining any faint hope that his object in coming to the Copse was Jessy, and that in consequence John Drench might escape from bewitching wiles, she found the hope fallacious. Mr. Marcus Allen had apparently no more thought of Jessy than he had of Sally, the red-armed serving-girl. “But what in the world brought the man here at all?” questioned Miss Susan ofher sister. “He wanted a bit of country holiday,” answered Miss Page with her common sense.
One day during the week the Squire met them abroad, and gave an impromptu invitation to the Manor for the evening. Only the three Miss Pages came. Mr. Marcus Allen sent his compliments, and begged to be excused on the score of headache.
One evening at dusk we met him and Jessy. She had been out on some errand, and he overtook her in the little coppice path between the church and the farm. Tod, dashing through it to get home for dinner, I after him, nearly dashed right upon them. Mr. Marcus Allen had his face inside her bonnet, as if he were speaking in the ear of a deaf old lady of seventy. Tod burst out laughing when we got on.
“That fellow was stealing a sly kiss in the dark, Johnny.”
“Like his impudence.”
“Rubbish,” retorted Tod. “It’s Christmas-tide, and all fair. Didn’t you see the bit of mistletoe he was holding up?” And Tod ran on, whistling a line of a song that the Squire used to sing in his young days:
“We all love a pretty girl, under the rose.”
Mr. Marcus Allen left the Copse Farm with hearty thanks for its hospitality. He promised to come again in the summer, when the fields should be sweet with hay and the golden corn was ripening.
No sooner had he gone than John Drench asked Jessy to promise to be his wife. Whether he had felt any secret jealousy of Mr. Marcus Allen and his attractions, and deemed it well to secure Jessy as soon as the coast was clear, he spoke out. Jessy did not receive the honour kindly. She tossed her pretty head in a violent rage: the idea, she said, of her marryinghim. Jessy had never flirted with John Drench since the Aberystwith journey, or encouraged him in any way—that was certain. Unpleasantness ensued at the farm. Mr. Page decidedly approved of the suitor: he alone had perceived nothing of Susan’s hopes: and, perhaps for the first time in his life, he spoke sharply to Jessy. John Drench was not to be despised, he told her; his father was a wealthy man, and John would have a substantial portion; more than double enough to put him into the largestand best farm in the county: Mr. Drench was only waiting for a good one to fall in, to take it for him. No: Jessy would not listen. And as the days went on and John Drench,as she said, strove to further his suit on every opportunity, she conceived, or professed, a downright aversion to him. Sadly miserable indeed she seemed, crying often; and saying she would rather go out as lady’s-maid to some well-born lady than stay at home to be persecuted. Miss Susan was in as high a state of rapture as the iniquity of false John Drench permitted; and said it served the man right for making an oaf of himself.
“Let be,” cried old Page of Jessy. “She’ll come to her senses in time.” But Miss Abigail, regarding Jessy in silence with her critical eyes, took up the notion that the girl had some secret source of discomfort, with which John Drench had nothing to do.
It was close upon this, scarcely beyond the middle of January, when one Monday evening Duffham trudged over from Church Dykely for a game at chess with the Squire. Hard weather had set in; ice and snow lay on the ground. Mrs. Todhetley nursed her face by the fire, for she had toothache as usual; Tod watched the chess; I was reading. In the midst of a silence, the door opened, and old Thomas ushered in John Drench, a huge red comforter round his neck, his hat in his hand.
“Good-evening, Squire; good-evening, ma’am,” said he in his shy way, nodding separately to the rest of us, as he unwound the comforter. “I’ve come for Miss Jessy, please.”
“Come for Miss Jessy!” was the Squire’s surprised echo. “Miss Jessy’s not here. Take a seat, Mr. John.”
“Not here?” cried Drench, opening his eyes in something like fear, and disregarding the invitation to sit down. “Not here! Why where can she have got to? Surely she has not fallen down in the snow and ice, and disabled herself?”
“Why did you think she was here?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, after a pause, during which he seemed to be lost. “Miss Jessy was not at home at tea: later, when I was leaving for the night, Miss Abigail asked me if I would come over here first and fetch Jessy. I asked no questions, but came off at once.”
“She has not been here,” said Mrs. Todhetley. “I have notseen Jessy Page since yesterday afternoon, when I spoke to her coming out of church.”
John Drench looked mystified. That there must have been some misapprehension on Miss Page’s part; or else on his, and he had come to the wrong house; or that poor Jessy had come to grief in the snow on her way to us, seemed certain. He drank a glass of ale, and went away.
They were over again at breakfast time in the morning, John Drench and Miss Abigail herself, bringing strange news. The latter’s face turned white as she told it. Jessy Page had not been found. John Drench and two of the men had been out all night in the fields and lanes, searching for her. Miss Abigail gave us her reasons for thinking Jessy had come to Dyke Manor.
On the Sunday afternoon, when the Miss Pages went home from church, Jessy, instead of turning indoors with them, continued her way onwards to the cottage of a poor old woman named Matt, saying Mrs. Todhetley had told her the old granny was very ill. At six o’clock, when they had tea—tea was always late on Sunday evenings, as Sally had leave to stay out gossiping for a good hour after service—it was discovered that Jessy had not come in. Charley was sent out after her, and met her at the gate. She had a scolding from her sister for staying out after dark had fallen; but all she said in excuse was, that the old granny was so very ill. That passed. On the Monday, soon after dinner, she came downstairs with her things on, saying she was going over to Dyke Manor, having promised Mrs. Todhetley to let her know the real state of Granny Matt. “Don’t thee get slipping in the snow, Jessy,” said Mr. Page to her, half jokingly. “No danger, father,” she replied: and went up and kissed him. As she did not return by tea-time, Miss Page took it for granted she was spending the evening with us. Since that, she had not been seen.
It seemed very odd. Mrs. Todhetley said that in talking with Jessy in the porch, she had incidentally mentioned the sickness of Granny Matt. Jessy immediately said she would go there and see her; and if she found her very ill would send word to Dyke Manor. Talk as they would, there was no more to be made of it than that: Jessy had left home to come to us, and was lost by the way.
Lost to her friends, at any rate, if not to herself. John Drench and Miss Page departed; and all day long the search after Jessy and the speculation as to what had become of her continued. At first, no one had glanced at anything except some untoward accident as the sole cause, but gradually opinions veered round to a different fear. They began to think she might have run away!
Run away to escape Mr. John Drench’s persevering attentions; and to seek the post of lady’s-maid—which she had been expressing a wish for. John stated, however, that he hadnotpersecuted her; that he had resolved to let a little time go by in silence, and then try his luck again. Granny Matt was questioned, and declared most positively that the young lady had not stayed ten minutes with her; that it was only “duskish” when she went away. “Duskish” at that season, in the broad open country, with the white snow on the ground, would mean about five o’clock. What had Jessy done with herself during the other hour—for it was past six when she reached home,—and why should she have excused her tardiness by implying that Granny Matt’s illness had kept her?
No one could fathom it. No one ever knew. Before that first day of trouble was over, John Drench suggested worse. Deeply mortified at its being said that she might have run away from him, he breathed a hasty retort—that it was more likely she had been run away with by Mr. Marcus Allen. Had William Page been strong enough he had certainly knocked him down for the aspersion. Susan heard it with a scared face: practical Miss Abigail sternly demanded upon what grounds he spoke. Upon no grounds in particular, Drench honestly answered: it was a thought that came into his mind and he spoke it on the spur of the moment. Any way, it was most unjust to say he had sent her.
The post-mistress at the general shop, Mrs. Smail, came forward with some testimony. Miss Jessy had been no less than twice to the shop during the past fortnight, nay, three times, she thought, to inquire after letters addressed J. P. The last time she received one. Had she been negotiating privately for the lady’s-maid’s situation, wondered Abigail: had she been corresponding with Mr. Marcus Allen, retorted Susan, in herill-nature; for she did not just now hold Jessy in any favour. Mrs. Smail was asked whether she had observed, amongst the letters dropped into the box, any directed to Mr. Marcus Allen. But this had to be left an open question: there might have been plenty directed to him, or there might not have been a single one, was the unsatisfactory answer: she had “no ‘call’ to examine the directions, and as often did up the bag without her spectacles as with ’em.”
All this, put together, certainly did not tend to show that Mr. Marcus Allen had anything to do with the disappearance. Jessy had now and then received letters from her former schoolfellows addressed to the post-office—for her sisters, who considered her but a child, had an inconvenient habit of looking over her shoulder while she read them. The whole family, John Drench included, were up to their ears in agony: they did not know in what direction to look for her; were just in that state of mind when straws are caught at. Tod, knowing it could do no harm, told Miss Abigail about the kiss in the coppice. Miss Abigail quite laughed at it: kisses under the mistletoe were as common as blackberries with us, and just as innocent. She wrote to Aberystwith, asking questions about Marcus Allen, especially as to where he might be found. In answer, Mrs. Allen said she had not heard from him since he left Aberystwith, early in December, but had no doubt he was in London at his own home: she did not know exactly where that was, except that it was “somewhere at the West End.”
This letter was not more satisfactory than anything else. Everything seemed vague and doubtful. Miss Page read it to her father when he was in bed: Susan had just brought up his breakfast, and he sat up with the tray before him, his face nearly as white as the pillow behind him. They could not help seeing how ill and how shrunken he looked: Jessy’s loss had told upon him.
“I think, father, I had better go to London, and see if anything’s to be learnt there,” said Miss Page. “We cannot live on, in this suspense.”
“Ay; best go,” answered he, “Ican’t live in it, either. I’ve had another sleepless night: and I wish that I was strong to travel. I should have been away long ago searching for the child——.”
“You see, father, we don’t know where to seek her; we’ve no clue,” interrupted Abigail.
“I’d have gone from place to place till I found her. But now, I’ll tell ye, Abigail, where you must go first—the thought has been in my mind all night. And that is to Madame Caron’s.”
“To Madame Caron’s!” echoed both the sisters at once. “Madame Caron’s!”
“Don’t either of you remember how your mother used to talk of her? She was Ann Dicker. She knows a sight of great folks now—and it may be that Jessy’s gone to her. Bond Street, or somewhere near to it, is where she lives.”
In truth they had almost forgotten the person mentioned. Madame Caron had once been plain Ann Dicker, of Church Dykely, intimate with William Page and his wife. She went to London when a young woman to learn the millinery and dress-making; married a Frenchman, and rose by degrees to be a fashionable court-milliner. It struck Mr. Page, during the past night-watch, that Jessy might have applied to Madame Caron to help her in getting a place as lady’s-maid.
“It’s the likeliest thing she’d do,” he urged, “if her mind was bent that way. How was she to find such a place of herself?—and I wish we had all been smothered before we’d made her home here unhappy, and put her on to think of such a thing.”
“Father, I don’t think her home was made unhappy,” said Miss Page.
To resolve and to do were one with prompt Abigail Page. Not a moment lost she, now that some sort of clue was given to act upon. That same morning she was on her way to London, attended by John Drench.
A large handsome double show-room. Brass hooks on the walls and slender bonnet-stands on the tables, garnished with gowns and mantles and head-gear and fal-lals; wide pier-glasses; sofas and chairs covered with chintz. Except for these articles, the room was empty. In a small apartment opening from it, called “the trying-on room,” sat Madame Caron herself, taking a comfortable cup of tea and a toasted muffin, after the labours of the day were over. Not that the labours were great at thatseason: people who require court millinery being for the most part out of town.
“You are wanted, if you please, madame, in the show-room,” said a page in buttons, coming in to disturb the tea.
“Wanted!—at this hour!” cried Madame Caron, as she glanced at the clock, and saw it was on the stroke of six. “Who is it?”
“It’s a lady and gentleman, madame. They look like travellers.”
“Go in and light the gas,” said madame.
“Passing through London and requiring things in a hurry,” thought she, mentally running through a list of some of her most fashionable customers.
She went in with a swimming curtsy—quite that of a Frenchwoman—and the parties, visitors and visited, gazed at each other in the gaslight.Theysaw a very stylish lady in rich black satin that stood on end, and lappets of point lace:shesaw two homely country people, the one in a red comforter, muffled about his ears, the other in an antiquated fur tippet that must originally have come out of Noah’s ark.
“Is it—Madame Caron?” questioned Miss Abigail, in hesitation. For, you see, she doubted whether it might not be one of Madame Caron’s duchesses.
“I have the honour to be Madame Caron,” replied the lady with her grandest air.
Thus put at ease in regard to identity, Miss Page introduced herself—and John Drench, son of Mr. Drench of the Upland Farm. Madame Caron—who had a good heart, and retained amidst her grandeur a vivid remembrance of home and early friends—came down from her stilts on the instant, took off with her own hands the objectionable tippet, on the plea of heat, conducted them into the little room, and rang for a fresh supply of tea and muffins.
“I remember you so well when you were a little thing, Abigail,” she said, her heart warming to the old days. “We always said you would grow up like your mother, and so you have. Ah, dear! That’s something like a quarter-of-a-century ago. As to you, Mr. John, your father and I were boy and girl sweethearts.”
Over the refreshing tea and the muffins, Abigail Page told her tale. The whole of it. Her father had warned her not to hint a word against Jessy; but there was something in the face before her that spoke of truth and trust; and, besides, she did not see her way clearnotto speak of Marcus Allen. To leave him out altogether would have been like bargaining for a spring calf in the dark, as she said later to John Drench.
“I have never had a line from Jessy in all my life: I have neither seen her nor heard of her,” said madame. “As to Mr. Marcus Allen, I don’t know him personally myself, but Miss Connaway, my head dressmaker, does: for I have heard her speak of him. I can soon find out for you where he lives.”
Miss Page thought she should like to see the head dressmaker, and a message was sent up for her. A neat little middle-aged woman came down, and was invited to the tea-table. Madame turned the conversation on Mr. Marcus Allen; telling Miss Connaway that these country friends of hers knew him slightly, and would be glad to get his address to call upon him; but she did not say a syllable about Jessy.
Mr. Marcus Allen had about two hundred a year of his own, and was an artist in water-colours. The certain income made him idle; and he played just as much as he worked. The few pictures he completed were good, and sold well. He shared a large painting-room somewhere with a brother artist, but lived in chambers. All this Miss Connaway told readily; she had known him since he was a child.
Late though it was, Miss Abigail and her cavalier proceeded to Marcus Allen’s lodgings; or “chambers,” as they were ostentatiously called, and found him seated at dinner. He rose in the utmost astonishment at seeing them; an astonishment that looked thoroughly genuine.
Jessy missing! Jessy left her home! He could but reiterate the words in wondering disbelief. Abigail Page felt reassured from that moment; even jealous John Drench in his heart acquitted him. He had not written to Jessy, he said; he had nothing to write to her about, therefore it could not have been his letter she went to receive at the post-office; and most certainly she had not written to him. Miss Abigail—willing perhaps to offer some excuse for coming to him—said they hadthought it possible Jessy might have consulted him about getting a lady’s-maid’s place. She never had consulted him, he answered, but had once told him that she intended to go out as one. He should imagine, he added, it was what she had done.
Mr. Marcus Allen pressed them to sit down and partake of his dinner, such as it was; he poured out glasses of wine; he was altogether hospitable. But they declined all. He then asked how he could assist them; he was most anxious they should find her, and would help in any way that lay in his power.
“He knows no more about her than we know,” said John Drench as they turned out into the lighted streets, on their way back to the inn they had put up at, which had been recommended to them by Mr. Page. “I’m sorry I misjudged him.”
“I am sorry too, John Drench,” was Miss Abigail’s sorrowful answer. “But for listening to the words you said, we should never have had such a wicked thought about her, poor child, and been spared many a bitter moment. Where in the wide world are we to look for her now?”
The wide world did not give any answer. London, with its teeming millions, was an enormous arena—and there was no especial cause for supposing Jessy Page had come to it.
“I am afraid it will be of no use to stay here any longer,” said Miss Abigail to John Drench, after another unsatisfactory day had gone by, during which Marcus Allen called upon them at the inn and said he had spoken to the police. It was John Drench’s own opinion.
“Why, you see, Miss Abigail, that to look for her here, not knowing where or how, is like looking for a needle in a bottle of hay,” said John.
They reached home none too soon. Two unexpected events were there to greet them. The one was Mr. Page who was lying low in an attack of paralysis; the other was a letter from Jessy.
It gave no clue to where she was. All she said in it was that she had found a situation, and hoped to suit and be happy in it; and she sent her love to all.
And the weeks and the months went on.
Snow was falling. At one of the windows of the parlour at Copse Farm, stood Susan Page, her bunch of short dark curls fastened back with a comb on both sides of her thin face, her trim figure neat in a fine crimson merino gown. Her own portion of household-work was already done, though it was not yet mid-day, and she was about to sit down, dressed for the day, to some sewing that lay on the work-table.
“I was hoping the snow was over: the morning looked so clear and bright,” she said to herself, watching the large flakes. “Leek will have a job to get the truck to the church.”
It was a long, narrow room. At the other end, by the fire, sat Mr. Page in his arm-chair. He had dropped asleep, his cheek leaning on his hand. As Miss Susan sat down and took up her work, a large pair of scissors fell to the ground with a crash. She glanced round at her father, but he did not wake. That stroke of a year ago had dulled his faculties.
“I should uncommonly like to know who did this—whether Sally or the woman,” she exclaimed, examining the work she had to do. One of Mr. Page’s new shirts had been torn in the washing, and she was about to mend the rent. “That woman has a heavy hand: and Sally a careless one. It ought not to have been ironed.”
The door opened, and John Drench came in. When he saw that Mr. Page was asleep, he walked up the room towards Miss Susan. In the past twelvemonth—for that amount of time had rolled on since the trouble about Jessy and her mysterious disappearance—John Drench had had time to return to his first allegiance (or, as Miss Susan mentally put it, get over his folly); and he had decidedly done it.
“Did you want anything?” asked Susan in a cold tone. For she made a point of being short with him—for his own benefit.
“I wanted to ask the master whether he’d have that ditch made, that he was talking about,” was the answer. “There’s no hurry about it: not much to be done anywhere while this weather lasts.”
She made no reply. John Drench stood, waiting for Mr.Page to wake, looking alternately at the snow and at Miss Susan’s steel thimble and nimble fingers. Very deftly was she doing the work, holding the linen gingerly, that the well-ironed bosom and wristbands might not get creased and unfit the shirt for wear. He was thinking what a good wife she would make: for there was nothing, in the shape of usefulness, that Susan Page could not put her hand to, and put it well.
“Miss Susan, I was going to ask you a question,” he began, standing uncomfortably on one leg. “I’ve been wanting to do it for a good bit now, but—”
“Pick up my cotton,” said Miss Susan tartly, dropping a reel purposely.
“But I believe I have wanted courage,” resumed he after doing as he was bid. “Itisa puzzling task to know how to do it for the best, and what to say. If you—”
Open flew the door, and in came Miss Page, in her white kitchen apron. Her sleeves were rolled above her elbows, her floured hands were lightly wiped. John Drench, interrupted, thought he should never have pluck to speak again.
“Susan, do you know where that old red receipt-book is?” she asked, in a low tone, glancing at her sleeping father. “I am not certain about the proportions for the lemon cake.”
“The red receipt-book?” repeated Susan. “I have not seen it for ever so long.”
“Nor I. I don’t think I have had occasion to use it since last Christmas-Eve. I know I had to look at it then for the lemon-cake. Sally says she’s sure it is somewhere in this room.”
“Then you had better send Sally to find it, Abigail.”
Instead of that, Miss Page began searching herself. On the book-shelves; on the side-board; in all the nooks and corners. It was found in the drawer of an unused table that stood against the wall.
“Well, I declare!” she exclaimed, as she drew it out. “I wonder who put it in here?”
In turning over the leaves to look for what she wanted, a piece of paper, loosely folded, fell to the ground. John Drench picked it up.
“Why!” he said, “it is a note from Jessy.”
It was the letter written to them by Jessy, saying she hadfound a situation and hoped to suit and be happy in it. Theoneletter: for no other had ever come. Abigail, missing the letter months ago, supposed it had got burnt.
“Yes,” she said with a sigh, as she glanced over the few lines now, standing by Susan’s work-table, “it is Jessy’s letter. She might have written again. Every morning of my life for weeks and weeks, I kept looking for the letter-man to bring another. But the hope died out at last, for it never came.”
“She is a heartless baggage!” cried Miss Susan. “In her grand lady’s-maid’s place, amongst her high people, she is content to forget and abandon us. I’d never have believed it of her.”
A pause ensued. The subject was a painful one. Mortifying too: for no one likes to be set at nought and forgotten by one that they have loved and cherished and brought up from a little child. Abigail Page had tears in her eyes.
“It’s just a year ago to-day that she came into the church to help us to dress it,” said John Drench, his tender tone of regret grating on Miss Susan’s ear. “In her blue mantle she looked sweeter and brighter than a fairy.”
“Did you ever see a fairy, pray?” asked Miss Susan, sharply taking him up. “She acted like a fairy, didn’t she?”
“Best to forget her,” interposed Abigail, suppressing a sigh. “As Susan says, she is heartless. Almost wicked: for what is worse than ingratitude? Never to write: never to let us know where her situation is and with what people: never to ask or care whether her poor father, who had nothing but love for her, is living or dead? It’s best to forget her.”
She went out of the room with the note and receipt-book as she spoke, softly closing the door behind her, as one does who is feeling trouble. Miss Susan worked on with rapid and angry stitches; John Drench looked out on the low-lying snow. The storm had passed: the sky was blue again.
Yes. Christmas-Eve had come round, making it just a year since Jessy in her pretty blue mantle had chosen the sprays of holly in the church. They had never had from her but that one first unsatisfactory letter: they knew no more how she went, or why she went, or where she was, than they had known then. Within a week or two of the unsatisfactory journey to Londonof Miss Abigail and John Drench, a letter came to the farm from Mr. Marcus Allen, inquiring after Jessy, expressing hopes that she had been found and was at home again. It was not answered: Miss Page, busy with her father’s illness, neglected it at first, and then thought it did not matter.
Mr. Page had recovered from his stroke: but he would never be good for anything again. He was very much changed; would sit for hours and never speak: at times his daughters thought him a little silly, as if his intellect were failing. Miss Page, with John Drench’s help, managed the farm: though she always made it a point of duty to consult her father and ask for his orders. In the month of June they heard again from Mr. Marcus Allen. He wrote to say that he was sorry not to fulfil his promise (made in the winter’s visit) of coming to stay with them during the time of hay-making, but he was busy finishing a painting and could not leave it: he hoped to come at some other time. And this was now December.
Susan Page worked on: John Drench looked out of the window. The young lady was determined not to break the silence.
“The Dunn Farm is to let,” said he suddenly.
“Is it?” slightingly returned Miss Susan.
“My father has some thoughts of taking it for me. It’s good land.”
“No better than other land about here.”
“It’s very good, Susan. And just the place I should like. There’s an excellent house too, on it.”
Susan Page began rummaging in the deep drawer of the work-table for her box of buttons. She had a great mind to hum a tune.
“But I couldn’t take it, or let father take it for me, unless you’d promise to go to it with me, Susan.”
“Promise to go to it with you, John Drench!”
“I’d make you as good a husband as I know how. Perhaps you’ll think of it.”
No answer. She was doubling her thread to sew on the button.
“Willyou think of it, Miss Susan?”
“Well—yes, I will,” she said in a softer tone, “And if Idecide to bring my mind to have you, John Drench, I’ll hope to make you a good and faithful wife.”
He held out his hand to shake hers upon the bargain. Their eyes met in kindliness: and John Drench knew that the Dunn Farm would have its mistress.
We were going to dress the church this year as we did the last. Clerk Bumford’s cough was bad, and the old sexton was laid by as usual. Tod and I got to the church early in the afternoon, and saw the Miss Pages wading their way through the coppice, over their ankles in snow: the one lady having finished her cake-making and the other her shirt-mending.
“Is Leek not here yet?” cried they in surprise. “We need not have made so much haste.”
Leek with his large truck of holly was somewhere on the road. He had started, as Miss Page said, while they were at dinner. And he was not to be seen!
“It is all through his obstinacy,” cried Susan. “I told him he had better take the highway, though it was a little further round; but he said he knew he could well get through the little valley. That’s where he has stuck, truck and all.”
John Drench came up as she was speaking. He had been on some errand to Church Dykely; and gave a bad account of the snow on the roads. This was the third day of it. The skies just now were blue as in spring; the sun, drawing towards the west, was without a cloud. After waiting a few minutes, John Drench started to meet Leek and help him on; and we cooled our heels in the church-porch, unable to get inside. As it was supposed Leek would be there sooner than any one else, the key of the church had been given to him that he might get the holly in. There we waited in the cold. At last, out of patience, Tod went off in John Drench’s wake, and I after him.
It was as Miss Susan surmised. Leek and his truck had stuck fast in the valley: a low, narrow neck of land connecting a byeway to the farm with the lane. The snow was above the wheels: Leek could neither get on nor turn back. He and John Drench were hard at work, pulling and pushing; and the obstinate truck refusing to move an inch. With the help of our strength—if mine was not worth much, Tod’swas—we got it on.But all this caused ever so much delay: and the dressing was begun when it ought to have been nearly finished. I could not help thinking of the other Christmas-Eve; and of pretty Jessy who had helped—and of Miss Susan scolding her for coming in her best blue mantle—and of the sudden looming upon us of the stranger, Marcus Allen. Perhaps the rest were thinking about it as I was. One thing was certain—that there was no liveliness in this year’s dressing; we were all as silent as mutes and as dull as ditch-water. Charley Page, who had made enough noise last year, was away this. He went to school at Worcester now, and had gone to spend the Christmas with some people in Gloucestershire, instead of coming home.
The work was in progress, when who should look in upon us but Duffham. He was passing by to visit some one ill in the cottages. “Rather late, shan’t you be?” cried he, seeing that there was hardly any green up yet. And we told him about the truck sticking in the snow.
“What possessed Leek to take it through the valley?” returned Duffham.
“Because he is fonder of having his own way than a mule,” called out Miss Susan from the aisle.
Duffham laughed. “Don’t forget the gala bunch over the parson’s head; it looked well last year,” said he, turning to go out. And we told him there was no danger of forgetting it: it was one of our improvements on old Bumford’s dressing.
Darkness overtook us before half the work was done. There was nothing for it but to get candles from the Copse Farm to finish by. No one volunteered to fetch them: a walk through the snow did not look lively in prospective to any one of us, and Leek had gone off somewhere. “I suppose it must be me,” said John Drench, coming out from the holly to start: when Miss Page suddenly bethought herself of what the rest of us were forgetting—that there might be candles in the church. On a winter’s afternoon, when it grew dark early and the parson could not see through his spectacles to finish his sermon, Clerk Bumford would go stumping into the place under the belfry, and re-appear with a lighted candle and hand it up to the pulpit. He ought to have a stock of candles in store.
John Drench struck some matches, and we went to exploreBumford’s den—a place dimly lighted by the open slits in the belfry above. The first thing seen was his black gown hanging up, next a horn lantern on the floor and the grave-digging tools, then an iron candlestick with a candle end in it, then a stick half-a-mile long that he menaced the boys with if they laughed in church; and next a round tin candlebox on a nail in the wall. It was a prize.
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