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CHAPTER XIII.

NETTY'S DIPLOMACY.


NETTY SWIRE'S brothers were strong-minded though narrow men, with perhaps more than their share of that high pride of character so common in the upper ranks of the working classes.  They were, however, solid, unimaginative souls, and had no little of that stern severity and pharisaic intolerance of human weaknesses which so frequently accompanies a spotless personal record.  What was, therefore, a characteristic escapade to their neighbours assumed in their eyes the proportions of a crime, and deeply-wounded pride and sullied family honour made them bitter and unforgiving; and they watched their old father with jealous eyes, lest, as they expected, he should show signs of relenting.  They were, moreover, confirmed bachelors, and their sister's disposition, the reverse of their own, had strengthened their original prejudices; and so, in the proud confidence of perfect ignorance and inexperience, they decided that no woman should henceforth cross their threshold: they would do the necessary domestic work themselves.  Three or four days of actual experiment, however, shook their confidence somewhat, and they proposed that their father should stay at home and keep house.  But to this the old man offered peremptory resistance, and they could not conceal from themselves the fact that his continued estrangement from his only daughter was making him querulous and obstinate.  They had sternly forbidden him to mention Netty's name in their hearing, and though for a few days he obeyed, he soon began to make oblique and hesitant references to her, which only inflamed their anger against the culprit.  Then Johnty came home one night with the information that Netty was scandalously happy, or pretended to be, and openly gloried in what she had done.  This in his indignation he blurted out before the old father, whose long, pathetic face took on a harder look as he listened.  Later the same evening they saw him drop a novel of Netty's into the fire and force it down with the poker.  But domestic discomforts were beginning to tell upon them, and their frequent mistakes—ludicrous enough under other circumstances—made them fretful and peevish with one another.  To go home to a cold house, have to prepare their own food, and spend their precious leisure hours in "messing," woman's work, was not to their minds at all, and the old man sighed and moaned about the house until they could scarcely bear themselves for ill-temper.  Meanwhile their hitherto spotless house grew dirtier, and they began to understand that their sister, working in the mill during the day and attending to household duties at night, had had no mean task.

    They had both been kept away from the week-night service one night, and even when supper-time came and the old man had gone to bed, they had not finished their unwonted and unpleasant tasks.  Dirty, disgusted and miserable, they sat over a small fire partaking of a makeshift supper of bread and cheese.  The coffee had been made in a mill breakfast can, and they cut for themselves at both the loaf and the Cheshire.

    "I'm sick o' this: we cannot go on i' this way much longer," grumbled Johnty, and petulantly tossed a bit of cheese into his mouth.

    "What's done's done," was the surly reply, and David blew the floating grounds from the top of the coffee and took a cautious sip.

    "Huh!" he cried, and glared with unutterable disgust at his brother.

    "There's no sugar i' t' house," responded Johnty, sulkily.  "Sup, man! what's a bit of sugar?"

    David put down the can with cynical resignation, and munched moodily at his cheese and bread.

    "We mun have a charwoman, that's what we mun have," remarked Johnty at last.

    "Ay, as 'll break one half o' t' stuff and steal t'other."

    "They're not all thieves."

    "No, some on 'em 's sluts."

    Johnty glanced across the table as though he would have liked to annihilate his brother, and then he appeared to want to say something, but could find nothing crushing enough, so he held his peace.

    David, quite as wretched as the other, seemed to find malicious satisfaction in tantalizing him, and so he said presently:

    "Thou'd happen like to fetch her back."

    "I should find thee soaping up to her when I got theer if I did."

    The argument was getting perilously near to the explosive point, and so David curbed himself, looked round on the heaps of unwashed pots on the side-table, and from them to the cinder-choked fire-grate, and muttered gloomily:

    "We shall have to go i' lodgings; I can see nothin' else for it."

    "T'owd chap 'ud look well i' lodgin's, wouldn't he?"  And Johnty was losing his temper, and all the more so because his brother's biting jibes had so much palpable truth in them.  "Talk sense, man; we mun do summat."

    "Ay, there's one thing might do—that is, thou might."

    "What's that?"

    "Get married!"

    "Get married?  Me?  Thou means thyself?"

    "Me?"

    "Ay, thee; thou'rt t' oldest."

    Johnty stared fiercely at his brother for a moment, then rose haughtily to his feet, and stalked off upstairs stamping heavily with his feet as he went, to emphasize his disgust.

    Two days later David gave in, and went in search of a charwoman; but those to whom he applied had some sort of amazing, but sneakish sympathy with George Stone, and outdid each other in the decisiveness of their refusals, one of them going so far as to say she would see them fast first.  He succeeded at last in obtaining the services of old Ann Crawshaw, who was to go and "fettle up" for them on Saturday morning.

    But when the brothers approached the house on the appointed day they met the old woman hurrying breathlessly down the lane, and incoherently denouncing all Methodists as hypocrites and wastrels, and a few steps further they beheld their father standing in the doorway, shaking his head threateningly, and brandishing a ferocious-looking stick after the retreating charwoman.  Another miserable week-end passed, during which David remembered a distant relative, who was a widow, and suggested that she should be negotiated with.  But Johnty, remembering an affair of the heart with this same lady, and realising that she was still of a dangerously likely age, reluctantly explained that the thing was not to be thought of.  Meanwhile the old man was pining visibly, and they expected every day that he would either break out and insist upon a reconciliation, or, what was worse, go and interview Netty himself.

    On the Monday night the three came home from work together, and as Johnty, key in hand, approached the door, the old man lifted a weary sigh that ended in a quivering sob.  The brothers turned and fixed him with stern, forbidding looks.  The key was turned, and they passed one after the other into the house.  Johnty pulled up with an exclamation, and as the others ranged themselves alongside, they beheld a pile of newly washed clothes—clean, mangled, and folded.  Johnty gazed stupidly at them, and then turned inquiringly to his brother.  David returned the stare with interest, the old man's eyes suddenly lit up with sweet, eager light, and he started forward towards the bundle.  Then he stopped and drew back, looking with wistful shyness into the sour faces watching him, and then put out a trembling hand, and gently stroked the clothes, as though the bundle had been a pet dog, and as he did so he murmured, "It's her!  Bless her! it's her."  In their surprise they had not noticed that the fire was burning brightly, the kettle singing on the hob, and the fire-irons gleaming with their old-time polish, but when they had taken in all these things a pregnant silence fell upon them, and the sons had to hide their faces from the old man's wistful, beseeching eyes.  They sat down to tea with brooding looks, but their father seemed possessed with unaccountable restlessness.  He got up from the table and paced about the room, he went to the bundle of clothes and turned them over, one by one, with caressing fingers and dim, brimming eyes.  Then he stared out of the window, blinked his eyes rapidly, turned abruptly to the staircase, and as he toiled heavily up, they heard him muttering, "Joy in the presence of the angels!  Joy in the presence of the angels!"

    The brothers spent a long, uncomfortable night, each prepared to suspect the other of weakness, and each expecting momentarily to be accused of it himself.  They did not think it necessary to speculate as to who had come to their assistance, nor even to ask themselves how she had got into the house.  They went about their unpleasant household duties in sullen silence, and each retired to rest inwardly resenting the fact that the other had not even spoken on the topic uppermost in their minds.

    They had drifted into the habit of living upon "bought" bread, for obvious reasons, and took their meals to the mill with them, so that they only returned at night, the house being locked up all day.  But when they arrived next evening, at their now unattractive home, they found a batch of bread, newly baked, lying upon the sideboard, a tea-table with a white cloth set in the middle of the room, the kettle boiling on the hob, and a great plate of buttered toast on the fender.  Next to the toast stood another pile, containing oven-bottom cakes.  Now, these cakes were old Abe's special dainty, and the delicate compliment entirely broke him down.  He stared mistily at them and then at the table, stood for a moment shaking with inward emotion, and then, lifting a haggard face and gazing at his sons with eyes streaming with tears and blazing with desperate defiance, he cried, "Oh, bless her!  God bless my little lass!"

    The sons, knowing both Netty and her husband, more than suspected that this was one of his contrivances, but they glanced at each other and hurried away, one into the scullery and the other upstairs, to conceal their faces, and as soon as he was alone the old fellow, after a furtive look round, dropped upon his knees before the fire, bent his white head as low as he could, and reverently kissed the fragrant cakes.  And then with his face in his hands he sobbed out, "Was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found."

    Fearing what he might do if he got the opportunity, the brothers did not let the old fellow out of their sight for a single moment, but he grew more restive and querulous as the night wore on, and they were only too thankful when he went off to bed, denouncing them vaguely as hard-hearted and unforgiving children.  They were prepared to find Netty in the house when they came home next night, and when she was not, the old man spent the evening toying tenderly with a pair of scissors that had been his daughter's.  He looked so old and wistful that it made them wretched to look at him, and each wondered to himself how long this sort of thing would last.  On Friday night, as they now half expected, they found the cottage bright and speckless, as they had been wont to see it in other days; the windows even had been cleaned, and fresh curtains added.  But there was a change in their father; he seemed to be impatient for his food, and took little heed to the signs of tidiness, but ate his meal with reckless haste.  Then he went upstairs, and came back presently dressed in his Sunday best.  The brothers looked at each other with significant and resigned glances, and David hurried into the scullery, where Johnty followed him.

    "Let him go," grunted David, and immediately plunged his face into the wash-bowl to avoid argument.

    It never seemed to occur to any of these self-absorbed men that Netty, being married, could not return, and so the sons saw their father depart in the confident expectation that he would bring his daughter back with him.  But the now all-desirable reconciliation was not to be, for on his way to "Squint Hall" old Abe met a couple of villagers who would not be put off with his hasty nod, and in a quarter of an hour after his setting out he staggered back into the house reeling like a drunken man.  When he recovered from a long faint he retailed what he had heard, and next afternoon being Saturday, Johnty, with hard, set face, spent his time putting new locks on the doors and patent catches on the windows, whilst David was journeying to Lopham to fetch cousin Ann.

    And whilst the Swires were struggling with these unpleasant experiences, the schoolmistress was constructing a theory about George Stone and his mad marriage.  He had a strong brain, plenty of shrewd, Lancashire common sense, a full share of those nobler impulses which are the common heritage of youth, and certain whimsical notions of honour, which were the results of his environment, and manifested themselves with that bewildering eccentricity so common in such natures.  But underneath all these surface excellences was that deep, strong, slow-working, but unconquerable force of heredity, which was so much more powerful than all the rest, and would assert itself with increasing power as his character developed.  Yes, he might have been made as an illustration of the meaning of heredity, and these odd freaks of his, so perplexing and disappointing to those who wished him well, were simply, according to the doctrines of her scientific authorities, volcanic eruptions of the sub-conscious self, and explained perfectly the apparent inconsistencies and self-contradictions so perplexing to ordinary people.  The theory gave her much intellectual satisfaction, but unfortunately created a hopeless feeling, against which she somehow felt her better nature rebelling, which will perhaps reveal to the reader a fact she would have stoutly denied, namely, that her interest in her "subject" was no longer exclusively intellectual.

    As a set-off to this disappointment, however, she was enjoying a complete triumph over her old adversary, Mr. Lot Crumblehulme.  The tripe-dresser had been very eager to inform her of George's inclusion in the list of converts at the recent Methodist revival, and had boastfully prophesied that as, according to a generally accepted opinion amongst Methodist experts, converted wastrels always made exceptionally devoted Christians, she would soon see George one of the pillars of the Church.  But the doctrine of conversion was one of the "superstitions" from which she had been emancipated, and nothing delighted her more than to be able to demonstrate its inadequacy by actual example.  George's case, therefore, seemed made for the purpose.  The Methodist doctrine of conversion supposed a total change of character and conduct, but it seemed to her that natural disposition, environment, and other such circumstances explained the differences in people far more naturally and perfectly than any theory of supernatural revolution.  George Stone had been converted one week, and had rushed into the most ridiculous of marriages the very next week; and therefore there could have been no such total change of character as conversion was supposed to produce.

    Poor Lot was at his wits' end, the wedding had knocked all his foundations away, and the clever little lady in the parlour had him at her mercy.

    "But Mr. Crumblehulme, what is conversion?" she asked for the twelfth time during a long evening's wrangle.

    "Conversion! Conversion's being born again."

    "And what is being born again?"

    "Regeneration."

    "Yes, but what is regeneration?"

    "Regeneration is a—a—you think you've flabbergasted me, but you haven't—regeneration is con—con—conversion!"  And the baffled old man, conscious of his failure, broke helplessly down.

    "Exactly! which brings us back to our starting-point.  But don't you see you are only making things worse?  This wedding is bad enough in George the sinner, but in George the saint it is an incongruous absurdity."

    Lot gaped at her in helpless dismay; but pity for a beaten foe, and a feeling of delicacy in dwelling upon what she knew was one of his cherished doctrines, prompted her to change the conversation, and so she broke the awkward silence by asking in a changed voice—

    "Mr. Crumblehulme, what is the first thing you remember about George?"

    "T'fost?"  And Lot, glad enough to escape the dilemma into which she had forced him, and hopeful of something turning up in conversation which might give him an opportunity of revenge, puckered his brows for a moment and then went on.  "T'fost time I iver seed the young scamp to my knowledge, he was standin' outside t' school door, and old Abe Swire was coaxing him to come in with a red-cheeked apple."

    "And did he succeed?"

    "He did that—and rued it, I can tell you!"

    "How?"

    "He fought two lads in t' school and two more out, because they laughed at his old woman's shoes 'at were twice too big for him."

    The mistress smiled.

    "And did he stick to the school?"

    "He's never been as much as late since, and, mistress"—Lot's confidence was returning as he spied a new argument—"it's been t' Sunday-school again' his blood and bringing up ever since, and thank the Lord t' school's won!"

    "Won?"

    "Ay, won!  Isn't he converted?  Where's your logic, where's your skeptikism now?"  And for a moment Lot looked almost triumphant.

    "And the first sign of his conversion is this marriage?"

    The defiant look on the old man's face slowly faded, his brows drew together, and his eyes wandered furtively over the opposite wall.  It was no use; no argument that was even plausible would come, and so, with a sudden spring and a flirt of his coat tails, he flung to the kitchen door, crying, as he vanished with a dramatic gesture of repudiation, "It is better to dwell in the corner of a house top than with a brawling woman in a wide house!"

    And the schoolmistress smiled indulgently as he vanished, for she knew that only the direst sense of defeat would have betrayed him into such unintentional rudeness.


 
CHAPTER XIV.

GEORGE'S DISCOVERY.


GEORGE STONE lounged into Mollins Station in his usual easy, careless manner.  He was on his way by the early train to Manchester on business for the firm.  He had a cigarette between his lips, and his hands were deep in the pockets of a light, country-made overcoat, whilst a smile, half pleasure, half surprise, played about his strong mouth.  As the train came up he opened a carriage door and threw himself indolently into a corner seat.  He had the compartment to himself, and tilting his hat over his eyes, was soon lost in thought.

    "Well, this is a topper," he murmured to himself presently.  "You can just do what you like with women if you soap 'em.  Just fancy, little flipperty-flopperty Netty trying to be a decent wife!  It's a scortcher!"  He mused a moment or two, and then went on: "I shouldn't be surprised if she were to be converted.  My stars! if it weren't for t'other, I should fall in love with her."

    Pursuing this train of thought for a time, he presently broke out "The grace of God can do anything, and—blow heredity!"

    Then his face grew serious: his thoughts were dwelling on something else, evidently.  "A bonny man I am, to be married to one woman and loving another!"  And then he added, with a deprecatory laugh, "Wouldn't she turn her proud little nose up if she only knew!"

    This new turn in his thoughts occupied him for several minutes, during which the slow train had stopped at a station.  As it began to move again he muttered, "I wish she'd get married and done with.  Jerusalem!  I could make anything of Netty—and myself.  Anything!"

    His head sank deeper into his chest, his hat began to slide over his left ear; but just as it was falling, he sprang up and caught it, crying as he did so, "Scandalous!  George, thou's made thy bed, and thou must lie on it.  What's the use spending thy days crying for the moon?"

    But at this moment the train pulled up at the junction, and a shabby-genteel young fellow started for George's compartment; but when he perceived who its occupant was he would have gone further, only George raised his head at that moment, so he stepped sheepishly in with a monosyllabic salutation.  The new-comer took the seat that was farthest away from George, and threw his feet on the opposite cushion, whilst a half-timid, half-insolent sneer gathered round his lips.

    He had lost his place some time before as warehouse clerk at the Mollins mill, and knew that George had benefited by his misfortune.

    "Well, t' old shop isn't busted up yet!" he said in a piping but truculent tone; but George merely settled himself in his comer again in a manner which announced unmistakably that he did not desire conversation.

    The man at the other end of the carriage eyed him with sour envy for a moment or two, and then, with a mocking leer, said, "By gum! but it will do afore long."

    George did not yet appear to hear.

    "Nobbut let t' old chap shuffle off this mortal coil, and the blooming consarn won't last a twelvemonth."

    Still George held his peace.

    "Yond' fly Mr. Tom's running a bonny rig as it is."

    From under the brim of the tilted hat came a gruff, "Thee let him alone."

    "I'll the Hanover as like!  I know what I know.  He bets and races, and he's head over ears in debt this minute."

    It seemed as though George was not going to reply he might have been asleep for any sign he gave—but suddenly he pushed his hat back, leaned forward, and fastened his eyes relentlessly on the man on the opposite seat, freed his great hands with a terribly significant little movement, and then said quietly:

    "Mathy, if thou mentions that name again I'll send thy soft head through those boards!"

    Matthew moved uneasily and shrank back into the corner, wriggling every way to escape those terrible eyes.

    "Well, I nobbut—"

    "Hush, Mathy; Mr. Tom and me used to be pals.  If ever I hear of thee as much as turning his name over, thou'll rue it! mind that."

    It was rough enough talk, but George evidently knew his man.  The two settled into their corners again in sullen silence, and it looked as though the episode had ended.  But Matthew, conscious of possessing a piece of information which would excite his companion, could not restrain himself; and so, after several preliminary wriggles, he said:

    "I were nobbut talking.  Some folk 'ud give a lot for what I know."

    A threatening glance was the only reply, and the secret-burdened man had another fit of restlessness.  Unable, however, to entirely repress himself, he ventured presently:

    "He's lost hundreds at St. Leger; and I know summit worse than that a fine sight!"

    "What dost know?"

    "Oh, ah, I dare say!"

    "What dost know?"

    "Never mind! I know."

    With the easiest possible sang-froid, George rose to his feet, deliberately buttoned his overcoat, and let down the window sash.  Then, with a quick movement, he turned upon his man, seized him by the front of his vest and the knee of his trousers, and lifting him up until his head was half through the window, he commanded sternly:

    "Out with it!"

    Limp, panting and terrified, Matthew begged to be released, and then, with George standing over him, he told his sordid tale.  He was now employed by a firm of accountants and money lenders in Manchester, and had seen young Mr. Bradshaw in the office, and by prying and searching had discovered that a deed belonging to some property of Miss Bradshaw's had been left with the firm, presumably as security for a loan.  Before they parted George had bound Matthew over by threats, as rough and terrible as the ones he had already used, to keep the secret he had divulged; and when he left him he went out of the station staring hard before him and colliding every minute or two with some person on the pavement.  By the time he reached the warehouse he had seen as deep into the mystery as he was ever likely to do, and spent every spare moment of that day in painful, anxious broodings over it.

    The fact that Mr. Tom had gone to such a firm spoke clearly enough of the secrecy of the transaction.  It was most evidently some dire necessity, and just as clearly something that must be kept from the old master.  The deeds he supposed could not be pledged without some note of hand from Miss Jessie, and that she should need it for her own use and not be able to obtain it from her father was absurd on the face of it.  Miss Jessie was helping her brother out of a difficulty, and if Miss Bradshaw had kept her own deeds the transaction might pass without discovery.  But that he knew was highly improbable, and if, as he felt certain, the document was kept where the old man kept the family deeds as distinct from his business ones—in the old safe at home—then any day the absence of this one might be discovered, and Miss Jessie involved in the disgrace of her brother with the head of the house.

    And yet Miss Jessie must have known all this when she consented to the use of the documents in this way.  Did she know the risk she was running? and would she have incurred it if the case had not been a desperate one?  Deeds of property, especially when they belonged to rich people like the Bradshaws, were often left undisturbed for years; had Miss Jessie and Tom calculated upon this?  That nothing but very real difficulty would have prompted them to this it was easy to see; but he knew, as few others in Mollins knew, that if the transaction became known to the old master there would in all probability be a rupture, the relations between father and son being already sufficiently strained.

    He was devoutly thankful to have the information supplied by Matthew Drabbs, only the difficulty was to decide what use to make of it now he did know.  He might easily do more harm than good by meddling, and there might after all be a natural and easy explanation of the affair which would show him up as a prying busybody if he interfered.  No; it was nothing to him, and any Mollins man would have told him so if he had been consulted, but somehow George felt dreadfully miserable and was conscious of a strange, wild longing to have possession of that deed.  It was characteristic of him that he thought of all sorts of wild, desperate plans to get the thing into his hands, or, better still, safe back in the Highfield safe; for this strange fellow had one strong, unquenchable passion in his heart.  His juvenile acquaintance with Tom had brought him under the notice of the family, and his smartness in his work had made him a favourite with the master, and the little favours thus bestowed had created within him a dog-like devotion of which they were wholly unconscious.

    When he returned to the mill that day, one of his first discoveries was that the young master was doubling his original holiday, and would not return for some five or six weeks longer, and this increased his uneasiness as it increased the chances of discovery.  Then he thought of writing to the absent one himself, and was only deterred by the reflection that in his present mood Mr. Tom would be likely to tell him to mind his own business.  He sighed as he wondered what could have turned the heart of his young master against him.

    As he drew up to the tea-table at "Squint Hall" that night, Netty without a word put a letter into his hand, and, glancing at it, he noted that it bore a foreign postmark and was directed in the scrawling hand of Tom Bradshaw, which, of course, Netty knew as well as he did.  He slipped it carelessly into his pocket as though it was something he had expected, and a mere business affair which could be attended to in business hours, and immediately began to chaff both his wife and old Lyd.  The women were both waiting upon him, and he flattered them so mendaciously that they laughed and buzzed about him in pure delight, and though Netty was consumed with curiosity, his easy manner and the fact that when he had finished his meal he drew up to the fire and lazily lighted a pipe, led her to conclude that it was some mere business message which would keep very well until he went to the office next day.  Had she been less happy she might have noticed that her big husband's pipe went out now and again, and his answers to her questions were somewhat absent and irrelevant; but to have him for her very own and to see him so contented and merry, was happiness enough just then to her.  Her love to her husband and its strange realisation were fast transforming her, and she was becoming a grateful, devoted, sweet-minded little woman, under the spell of a wonderful affection.

    About eight o'clock, however, George took up the evening paper, tucked it under his arm, and strolled off to the little church-shaped summer-house.  Netty watched him wistfully as he went, evidently hoping to be invited to accompany him; but he did not notice her looks, and went away, candle in hand, to his retreat.  The air was somewhat damp, the summer-house smelt musty, but George noticed neither the one nor the other, but setting the candlestick on the little deal table and dropping upon a rustic bench, he drew out the letter and hastily broke it open.


"―― Hotel, Vienna.


"Dear George,
    "You will be surprised to get a letter from me, but the fact is, I am in a hole—not the first one, you will say.  I paid some accounts before I left, which I did not expect to have to meet, and it left me very bare.  It is dreadfully expensive out here, and I am about hard up.  I cannot ask the old man, and I cannot leave this place until I have something to pay my shot with.  You helped me out of scrapes many a time in the good old days when we were lads together, and you were always a 'cute hand with the bawbies.  Could you let me have a hundred pounds, or even fifty, at once?  I will return them with jolly good interest when I get home.  Don't fail me—you never have—for old sake's sake.
                                                       "Yours as ever,
                                                                               "T
OM B.
"P.S.—Address, Poste Restante, Vienna."


    George read the letter over every line, and over again, dwelt on every line, grudged greedily its brevity, and turned it over and over again in search for something which he felt he missed.  Then he explored the recesses of the envelope, and finally laid the two down on the table side by side, and fell to musing dreamily.  The significance of the letter was unmistakable, and its bearing on the question of the abstracted deed clear.  Tom was in extreme financial difficulty, and after what had occurred between them recently must have had a bitter struggle before he brought himself himself to write that note.  That he remembered how Tom had treated him, that his young master would be as distant as ever when he returned, he was prepared to admit, and yet as he sat there his strong face softened strangely, and he rapidly blinked his eyes.  Pleasure and pain were chasing each other in his mind, his mouth hardened, and then relaxed again, his face grew stolid and even solemn, and presently great, unmanly tears began to roll down his cheeks.  He did not move, he seemed even to enjoy the presence of these signs of weakness, and allowed them to remain and dry on his face.  For some time he sat, sunk in deep, anxious thought.  The tear-marks had almost dried, his eyes began to blink rapidly, there was a slow, convulsive movement in his great body, and staring hard before him he cried, through a fresh gush of tears, "Bless him God—God—bless him!"

    Another moody, dubious fit—harder thoughts were uppermost evidently; he gave them place with a vacant, staring face, and then sweeping his hand over his face, he cried, with a quivering pathetic repetition, as of one listening to old-time music: "For old sake's sake!  For old sake's sake!"  It was a weak, womanish way of acting; George was still a simple rustic, but the thoughts behind that struggling face were not the thoughts of a weakling, as we shall see.

    But at that moment he caught the click of the garden gate, and a patter of light feet on the gravel path, and snatching at the candle he held it to his mouth, and then, just as the door opened, he gave it a puff, sprang hastily forward in the smoky darkness, caught the struggling Netty in his arms, and starting down the path pressed his face to hers, and trumpeting an old Lancashire love-song on her glowing cheeks as he went, carried her laughingly back to the house.


 
CHAPTER XV.

UNEXPECTED PROMOTION.


A SLEEPLESS night, during which he debated schemes too extraordinary and violent for anybody but himself, brought George no relief.  His plan for getting back Miss Jessie's deeds was sufficiently quixotic, but Mr. Tom's letter brought complications that strained his ingenuity to the utmost.  Upon the house he had recently bought he might raise perhaps two hundred pounds, or even sell it for what he had given, but that would entirely exhaust his resources—and where was the loan for his young master to come from?  That must be sent off at once—that day if possible—but if he did that, what was to become of his other scheme?  It was not so pressing, perhaps, but he knew he would never be able to rest until it was disposed of.  His pre-occupation did not, however, prevent him anticipating criticism as to his over-night's sleeplessness, for as soon as he appeared downstairs he commenced a wonderful, highly diverting, but strictly imaginary description of a marvellous dream he had had, the moral of which was that he was very much in love with his wife, though he elaborated and prolonged the story so lengthily that this last fact did not appear until he was already at the door and out of reach of playful assault.

    As he went down to the mill he began to ask himself what had taken place within him; he was conscious of a curious sense of responsibility and importance; the task he had undertaken, though at present apparently insoluble, seemed to have awakened something within him, some dormant faculty that made him curiously conscious of a larger equipment.  The total effect was bracing, strangely enough, and he looked more self-possessed even than usual as he entered the mill gates.  As foreman warehouseman, his time was now spent partly at the mill and partly in Manchester, and he was liable to have to pass from one place to the other at almost any moment.  He worked at his desk for a while with feverish energy, vainly endeavouring to keep pace with his many rushing thoughts.  Just as the dim outlines of his actual plans began to shape themselves before his mind, he was interrupted by a most disturbing diversion.  He was summoned to speak with his master.  Hot and perspiring, with rolled-up sleeves that exposed strong, sinewy arms, he strode to the office with an air of impatience.

    "Well, sir?" and he held the office door in his hand as a sign that he was in a hurry.  The mill-owner turned round in his revolving chair, ran his eyes deliberately over him, much as a horsey squire might inspect a favourite charger, and then turned, with a quizzical twinkle in his eye and an eyebrow slightly raised, to a well-dressed, gentlemanly man who was standing in the room.  This was Appleyard, the firm's chief Manchester man, and as his eye fell upon George a look of impatient annoyance and disgust passed rapidly over his face, giving way gradually to one of impenetrable blankness.

    "Well, sir?" demanded George again.  The curtness that comes of excessive zeal for business was never resented at Mollins Mill, especially by the owner.  Mr. Bradshaw was evidently in exceedingly good humour, amused and tickled about something, and so he glanced from Appleyard to George, and from George back to the salesman, and chuckled consumedly to himself.  A reluctant grin appeared on Appleyard's face, but George was frowning darkly.  Their employer watched them narrowly, with increasing enjoyment; evidently he was having the joke all to himself.  At last he motioned to George to come in and shut the door.  With the air of one taking a part in a performance he disliked, George did as he was told, whilst the salesman turned away with a disgusted, protesting shrug of the shoulders.  He was clearly of opinion that there was something wrong with the old master this morning.

    "Has thou ever had a top hat on?" asked the employer of George, with a decorous face, but wicked, mirthful eyes.  George glared with indignation, and Appleyard stifled a groan.  George's "No!" was almost rude, but Bradshaw was so absorbed in a careful inspection of George's person that he did not heed the tone.

    Appleyard was still staring out of the window and endeavouring to conceal his disgust, when the mill-owner, studying him relishfully for a moment, suddenly got up, stepped into an inner room, returned with his own silk hat, and placed it upon George's head.  It was some sizes too small, and covered about as much of his head as a lancer's cap does of his.  Stepping back, head on one side and brow knit, the old man surveyed the effect with elaborate mock gravity, and then, as much to cover rising laughter as to continue the experiment, he cried: "Why, it's too little, Appleyard!  Ay, and by shot, my shoes 'ud be too little for that rapscallion—eh?  Oh, ay! lend us yours."

    The dignified salesman's hat, thus summarily confiscated, fitted better, and, to complete the effect, the old master took off his frock coat and bade George put it on, the salesman grumbling audibly the while and protestingly, shaking his head.  The master was in high feather; he walked round his victim again and again, offering appreciative remarks, and grinning and winking at Appleyard every moment.  But George, standing stiff as a wax figure, and gradually growing red in the face, could stand it no longer, and so he cried—

    "When you've finished with this tomfoolery there's some cloth wants getting off."

    The mill-owner chuckled slyly at Appleyard, chuckled again all to himself, and then, taking the hat and coat from George, he commanded—

    "Be off with thee, get thy cloth out; but don't leave the place till I send for thee."

    When the warehouseman had gone, Bradshaw dropped into a chair, helped himself to a cigar, signalled to his salesman to do the same, and then, as he held the light ready for his weed, he said—

    "He'll be the handsomest fellow on that Exchange, bar none!"

    "But, Mr. Bradshaw, you don't—you don't really mean it?"  And behind the deferential remonstrance even the master could detect chagrin and rebellion.

    "Don't I, by Jove? but I do!  Why, man, properly rigged out—as he shall be—he'd fetch orders like winking."

    "But a country bumpkin!  It is an insult to the Exchange!"  And Appleyard would dearly have liked to add, "and to me."

    "Insult!  Ay, it is an insult!  Why, man, before he's been on those flags a month there'll be some of you won't have a chance!"

    "Oh, patience!  What are we coming to!"  And Appleyard, losing at last all self-control, flung the band of his Havana into the fire, and began to pace irritably about the room.

    Bradshaw blinked his eyes contentedly, and smoked coolly on.

    "You might have a bit of consideration for me; it's a humiliation!  I—I shall be the laughing-stock of the trade."

    "Don't be an ass, Appleyard!  He'll sell more stuff than you, and get better prices too;" and then, as he glanced at his companion, he cried in angry surprise, "Great Scot, man! you are not jealous?"

    The salesman did not answer for the moment, perhaps he couldn't trust himself; but presently, with a grieved, remonstrant look, he murmured, "I don't want to leave the old— "

    The master ripped out an oath.

    "Shut up, simpleton!  You've been here twenty years, but no man alive shall hint at resigning to me."  And then, after a slight pause, he went on conciliatorily: "You can take another hundred a year if you like, but have him I will! "

    The advance of stipend thus offered considerably mollified the salesman, though his face was still troubled when he resumed his seat opposite his employer.

    "You don't know him, Appleyard; if ever business was in a man's blood it is in his.  Why, man, he'd sell wooden nutmegs; he can't help it!"

    For a quarter of an hour longer they talked, one as certain as ever that the suggestion was a mad one, and the other unmoved in his determination to have it tried.

    "It is the best idea I've had for many a day," said the principal, to finish the discussion; and then he added, with a half coaxing kick at Appleyard's foot, "Let's have the wastrel up, and get a bit of fun out of him!"

    As he rose to ring the bell the salesman made a wry face, but Bradshaw settled himself in his chair with the air of one preparing himself for enjoyment.

    George, hat in hand now for his journey to the town, opened the door, looking more impatient than ever, and the master eyed him with tantalising insolence.

    "Put that hat down and shut that door."

    "It's train time, master."

    "Hang the train; do as you are told."

    With a grunt of protest and a demonstrative glance at his watch, George obeyed and came up to the side of the table, Appleyard scrutinising him as he did so with growing discontent, and old Bradshaw eyeing him sideways with ever-increasing mirth.  For a few moments the young man stood waiting to be questioned, and presently the master, taking the cigar out of his mouth with extreme deliberation, surveyed him with mock seriousness, and then said—

    "I'll tell thee what, that moustache of thine's coming on rarely!"

    "It's more than you can say of my day's work," was the surly reply, and, as his hands went to his watch chain again, he added, "Is that all you want with me?"

    This was, however, the sort of impatience that went right to the commercial soul of the mill-owner, and so, still staring hard at the warehouseman's upper lip, and speaking with an exasperating drawl, he went on—

    "It's fair curly at t'end; thou'll have to have it waxed."

    George, inwardly fuming and counting the minutes, looked unspeakable anathemas on all moustaches and all frivolous employers, but dared not trust himself to speak.  Watching him slyly with twinkling eyes, and evidently greatly enjoying himself, the old master dropped into a jeering tone and asked—

    "What's the price of spot cotton, George?"

    George's face flushed, but he did not reply.

    Bradshaw, inwardly hugging himself with pleasure, now turned towards the salesman, who was trying to catch George's eye to assure him that even he was sorry for him.

    "This is a bonny man to get wed, isn't he?" asked the master, giving his head an indicatory fling towards the fuming warehouseman, and then he added, entirely ignoring Appleyard's deprecatory frown, "They say he's married the wildest little besom in Mollins."

    Appleyard expected an explosion, the old master was evidently playing for it; but George was staring hard through the window and apparently did not hear.

    The master turned his back upon his young employee, stared at the fire-grate for a moment, and then, with a mischievous glance at his Manchester man, he jeered—

    "They've turned him out of the Sunday-school now, and he's going ding-dong to the devil, they say."

    Appleyard began to despise George—he had no spirit at all.  It was a great mistake not to stand up to the chief.

    "It caps me that the hands don't turn out again' him, and strike to have him sacked.  He's a disgrace to the village, they say."

    Still the victim did not reply, and the puzzled salesman thought he caught a little smirk of fun in the corner of the badgered young fellow's mouth.  Did he, too, see some hidden joke in this sort of thing?

    But at this moment there was a knock at the door, and some one opened it to say that George was wanted in the warehouse.  Happy to escape, George turned to depart, but the master snapped out curtly—

    "Stop where thou art; Dick, go and tell Flint I want him."

    George moved a little to relieve increasing impatience, whilst his employer put on a terrible frown and glared hard at the salesman.  Flint having presented himself, he was gruffly ordered to return to the warehouse and take George's position as foreman, and when, after an effusive but unheeded burst of gratitude, and a sly glance at the man he was supplanting, he vanished, a dead silence prevailed in the office, and Appleyard, nervous and bewildered, began to hum a Sankey's hymn.  Two or three times the old man looked round at the younger man, but nobody spoke, and the culprit had just assumed something of his old manner, for he just seen the train steam out of the station.

    "Well, what art standing gaping there for?"  And the employer looked the picture of sternness.

    "I'm waiting for orders."

    "Orders?  Thy place is shopped; isn't that orders enough?"

    No answer.

    "Well, art na going?"

    "I'm no' going neither for you nor anybody else.  I'm where I'm stopping."

    Bradshaw glared fiercely at his defiant subordinate, and then turned upon Appleyard a face glowing with triumph.  It reminded the salesman of nothing so much as the foolish pride of an over-indulgent parent, when a child has said an amazingly impudent but precocious thing.

    Then the master's manner changed.  He rose from his chair, strode across the room to the safe, took out a cash-box, selected three bank notes, and handing them carelessly to George he commanded—

    "Thou goes to town by the next train and gets a swell rig-out from old Stamp—silk hat and all."  And then, after scowling at him for a moment, he went on: "Thou gets a second-class contract to town, thy hair cut, thy brains washed and thy moustache curled, and gets ready to go 'on 'Change,' by next Tuesday."

    "Me!  The Exchange!  What for?"  And George was fairly knocked over for once.



Manchester Royal Exchange


    "What for? to sell calico; what do folks go there for—to play dominoes?"

    "But me—on the Exchange!" and George was a picture of distress.

    "Ay, thee; thou's been grumbling at the stocks long enough.  Thou mun go and sell 'em now."

    "But, master!  Me?  It's ridiculous!"  And whilst his face expressed most genuine dismay, there were curious twitching movements about his mouth, which the old master was watching keenly.

    Appleyard was mollified; George was displaying a most proper sense of the importance of the work he was required to do, and the salesman was just opening his mouth to speak when the master broke in—

    "Come, be off with thee; thou starts at five pound a week, and we'll reacon about the commission after.  And mind thee!  No more street corner and bar-parlour work.  Good morning, Mr. Stone!"

    But the young employee was not quite so easily disposed of.  Utterly unexpected though the promotion was, he had the same curious sense of something awakening within him which he had had before that day, only this time it was more distinct and unmistakable.  At the same time the height to which he was thus suddenly raised was so bewildering and the responsibility involved so serious that he was deeply concerned, and entered another earnest protest.  But the master would have none of it, and though the wrangle was long, and to Appleyard very instructive, the old chief would have his way, and George finally left the office in a much limper condition than if he had been actually discharged.

    "Appleyard," remarked the mill-owner by way of summing up the situation after George's departure; "there are some fellows who seem to be made for success and get it, but they cannot carry corn; and there are some others that are broad-bottomed, so to speak, and get steadier the more you put on 'em.  Yond' chap is of that sort; give him nowt to do and he'll do nowt and ruin himself at the bargain, but the more you weight him the faster he'll grow and the steadier he'll get."

    George's face was preternaturally solemn when he returned to the warehouse, and he was mopping his face as he entered to remove the dank moisture that had gathered.  All eyes were turned upon him in mournful sympathy and every voice suddenly hushed.  For half-an-hour the workmen watched him as he imparted to Flint the information necessary for a proper discharge of his new duties, glancing the while at each other and signalling the changing phases of their own feelings.  It was too palpable to be unnoticed, and George, in spite of his preoccupation, became gradually conscious that there was something forward, and immediately exaggerated his own mournfulness.  "Well, chaps," he said, glancing round comprehensively as he turned to leave, and flipping half-a-crown upon the packing-table, "here's for good luck!  Keep your peckers up; the best of friends must part."

    With an unsteady sort of cheer the men sprang forward to shake him by the hand.  "Ta-ta, old lad, ta-ta!" they cried, and the separation seemed to threaten to become pathetic, but just as he was leaving, George, with the door in his hand, put on a look of owlish gravity, drew down the lid of his left eye just far enough to puzzle and not pronounced enough to illuminate, and then vanished, leaving them to speculate for the rest of the day whether this parting salutation was mere bravado or a sign of undeveloped hope.


 
CHAPTER XVI.

THE SCHOOL HOUSE FIRE.


THE next two days were the busiest George Stone ever spent.  Late in the afternoon of the day of his promotion he obtained a secret interview with Jessie Bradshaw, terrified her by revealing what he knew about the deed, and then obtained her consent and assistance in the plan he had formed for its recovery.  Jessie could give him little help in the way of money, but her gratitude touched his soul, and he went away from Highfield envying the happy man who should succeed in capturing the affections of so sensible and true-hearted a young lady.  Then he managed somehow to sell "Squint Hall" for sixty pounds, and posted fifty immediately to his young master, with a letter full of apologies and regrets that he could not send more.  The larger sum was, of course, more difficult to negotiate, but having Miss Jessie's note of hand about the deed he felt confident of success, and at last, though he had to trump up a specious story of haste in order to get ready money, he sold his new house again and was thus prepared for his next move.  He was not ignorant of the danger he ran, but his was not the nature to over-estimate things of that kind, and so he presented himself at the accountants' in Manchester with a note, written on the lithographed memorandum form of the firm, requesting in curt, business-like terms that the deeds recently deposited with them should be handed to the bearer, who would pay the mortgage and all other charges and give a receipt.

    George's sudden appearance at the office scared Matthew Drabbs, but it also facilitated the business in hand, for Matthew identified him as representing the Bradshaws, and thus lulled suspicion.  That same night, dressed in his new clothes and by special order from the old master, George presented himself at Highfield, where the mill-owner abruptly introduced him into the drawing-room and enjoyed the perplexity, surprise, and amusement of his daughters when they discovered who their father's visitor really was.  This led to the first official announcement of George's promotion, and when, after staying an hour, he finally departed, escorted unfortunately to the gate by the old man himself, he missed the opportunity he had hoped to obtain of handing the deed, which had given them both so much anxiety, to Miss Jessie.  And whilst these two were parting at the gate, Lena Bradshaw was amusing her sister by declaring, with characteristic impetuosity, that their departed visitor was simply the handsomest man she had ever seen, and that it would not be her fault if Mollins was not scandalised ere long by the elopement of a mill-owner's daughter with a married man.

    Meanwhile, the subject of their terrible prophecies was making his way home, regretting only that the precious deed was still in his pocket.  He arrived at "Squint Hall" in such high spirits that he kept Netty and old Lyd in screams of laughter, as he burlesqued the way in which he had genuflected and otherwise played the gentleman in the Highfield drawing-room.  When his womenfolk retired for the night he set the cottage door open for coolness, and sat down for a final pipe.  The night was calm and sultry, and for the time of the year somewhat unusually dark.  The soft stillness was favourable to meditation, and George gave himself up to pleasant cogitations upon his recent great advance in position; his joy, however, being mingled with a certain regretfulness, which he seemed to regard as exceedingly reprehensible, for he tried almost angrily to suppress it.  Presently, however, it struck him that his success was too perfect, and he began to cast about in his mind for that inevitable "stone in the other pocket," which he expected would soon enough present itself.  He was busy painting day-dreams of the future, not too rosy it would appear by his looks, when he raised his head and began to sniff the air.  The sensation passed, however, and his thoughts were slowly returning to the old topic, when he heard a woman scream, and there at the top of the stairs stood Netty, crying earnestly, "George, there's a fire somewhere!" and before he could reply, his ears were assailed by a deafening b—u—z—z!

    With an alarmed exclamation he sprang back, made a hasty search for his boots, snatched the first coat that came to hand, and hurried into the lane.  The buzzing sound, though seldom heard, was well known enough; it was the mill fire-buzzer, and the works were on fire!

    In a moment he was rushing down the slope to the cross roads, and there looking over the wall he glanced round, before, behind, and above him, but there was no sign of smoke.  Then he heard hurried feet and shouting, but as there were still cries of fire, he darted back up the hill, and taking the turn at the end of the road was soon at the mill gates.  All was quiet; nobody seemed to be coming his way, and so he flung himself heavily against the stout doors, but they did not move, and there was no response.  Suddenly there was a flash of light, a flickering shadow danced for a moment on the wall above his head, and wheeling round he discovered there, on the shoulder of the hill, silhouetted against the dark sky, was the Methodist School-house enveloped in thick clouds of smoke, weirdly rimmed with flickers of light.  He was half a mile away, and out of breath, but with a fresh cry of alarm he dashed up the hill, and was soon threading his way along the bye-streets to the scene of destruction.  Now the shouts became clearer, and both men and women were in the road.  The buzzer had stopped; pattering feet and clamouring cries were heard on every hand, and he reached the top of the lane and sprang towards the old school.  Then there was a roar, a flash of light, and houses, walls, and faces suddenly shone with a lurid illumination. 

    That it was already too late to save the dear old building was clear to George the moment he took in the situation; the glass in the little window panes was crackling and flying in all directions, and the hungry flames had already made a great hole in the roof, through which smoke and flames were pouring.  The mill fire-engine was already on its way, and the men were making preparations for its reception, and lamenting in loud tones that the factory hose-pipe would never reach from the dams to the school.  Little bands of school officials were making futile efforts with buckets, and women were standing in groups further back wringing their hands and excitedly egging on the workers.  The old place was very dear to some who looked on, and their distress was pitiable to see.  Half-dressed men rushed about, getting into each other's way, and yelling contradictory orders one to another; for the most part doing nothing after the noisiest and most frantic fashion. 

    George was conscious of twenty different impulses urging him to as many different actions, and as he stepped back for a moment he heard a loud thumping at the front door of the burning building: men were evidently trying to break it open.  Then a shrill, peremptory, woman's voice was heard from the rear of the bystanders, and the thuds stopped.  In a moment he was in the middle of the crowd, and beheld the intrepid little schoolmistress, arrayed in a dressing-gown, standing near the front of the building, commanding the excited men back.  Realising her meaning at once, George sprang to the front.

    "Back, chaps, back!" he cried; "she's right! if you open the door it will let the air in.  Back with you!"

    In a moment he had taken command, and the men turned away and seized the little fire-engine, which had just arrived.

    "Save the school!  Save the school!" the women were screaming.  "The houses! the houses!" cried another party, but as the crowd in the lane was now pushed forward to make room for the apparatus, George glanced round for a moment, darted behind a knot of screaming women, flung his arm round the schoolmistress, who was much too near the building for his liking, and presently set her down near the engine, saying breathlessly as he did so—

    "There; superintend that!"

    Crash! went the flag-tiles on the school-house roof, and a fresh burst of lamentations broke out over the crowd.  The fire had commenced evidently in the second story, the lower one so far remained dark, but now a dull glow began to show there also—the upper floor was on fire.

    The schoolmistress began to protest to the pumpers, but just then some one shouted "Gas!" and George, picking up a stone, dashed round to the back premises, where a loud banging soon told that he was knocking up the pipe on the outside of the meter.  It was rough, hurried work, but when he came back the upper room was all ablaze, and shone like a mansion of gold.  There was still much shouting and excitement in the direction of the fire-engine, but no pumping, and the bucket men were standing staring aghast at the terribly beautiful spectacle.  George was looking about for the teacher again, but she was nowhere to be seen, and on the spot where he had left her stood a figure which attracted his attention.  It was an old man, who had evidently only just arrived.  Stiff and still, with white, appalled face, fright-dropped chin, and glazed eyes, he was gazing spell-bound at the devouring flames, whose flickering light played on his face and made it ghastly.  He saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing, but that the roaring, shining temple of flame before him was the dearest spot on earth.  Old Abe Swire—for he it was—was beholding the destruction of that which was more than life itself to him.  George stared at the touching figure until his eyes went wet, for there was that in him which gauged the feelings of the old man more accurately than any other soul there.  Another roar of flame, and the crashing of a chimney down upon the roof and through the burning floor to the very basement attracted George's attention for a moment, but as he looked a flash of thought caused him to turn round and stare stupidly at the old superintendent.  Then he glanced at the burning building, looked calculatingly back once more at old Abe, and then all at once flung off his coat, sprang lightly forward, leaped up and caught the sill of a window in the lower story, and began to pull himself up.

    "Stand back! stand back!" cried a score of male voices, and then pitiful, wailing, woman's tones, crying, "George, George!" and coming clearly from Netty, were heard; but he was already on the sill, and was breaking the glass to get at the window latch. A rattle of glass, a puff of smoke that blinded and nearly choked him, and he pushed up the window, and amid shouts that were almost shrieks, sprang down into the vestry and vanished.  Netty uttered a quick succession of ringing screams, the women standing on the bank of the lane re-echoed them, and in a moment every other interest was forgotten, and the crowd swarmed forward in the direction of the window through which young Stone had disappeared.  A perfect chorus of hoarse expostulations were shouted, and cries of "Madman! lunatic!" were heard on every side.  "Pray, men, pray!" wailed out old Abe, awaking to consciousness at last.  Three tense, terrible minutes passed, horror sat on every face, a score pairs of scared, fascinated eyes were fixed on that now tragic lower window.  A creak, a sharp tearing crack, and part of the roof came crashing down into the interior, whilst a howl of terror went up from the agonised watchers.  Suddenly the spectators checked their cries, and held their breath; there was something moving at the window.  The smoke was still pouring out of it, but something thicker appeared—a man's head, a great bulky body came out of the thickness, and drew itself up for a leap.  He had difficulty in balancing himself.  Ah! what was that in his arms?  What could he have taken that reckless, perfectly insane plunge into smoke and fire for?  Simply the old school-desk Bible, precious for its eighty years of service and the signature of a Wesleyan President of the Conference on the flyleaf!  That under one arm, and the framed portrait of old Abe Swire, the senior superintendent, under the other

    As he jumped safely down, and, black as a negro, strode back towards the crowd, the half-formed cheer died away on men's lips, incredulous surprise stood on several faces, whilst not a few gave vent to exclamations half amazement, half disgust.  Netty, her light hair streaming down her back, sprang at the framed portrait as though in her frenzy to smash it.  George, with both arms occupied, stepped aside to avoid her onslaught, and walked away shyly, hanging down his head, and with a foolish grin on his sooty face.  The crowd parted to let him pass, and he walked up to the spot where old Abe still stood spell-bound.  "Thou reckless fool!" cried two or three of the men as he passed.  "Thou champion man!" shouted an elderly woman, with glowing eyes and wet cheeks.  "It's going! it's going!" cried several, as the going water from the engine at last began to spout out upon the hissing building, and a rush was made again for the scene.

    Only a little group was left about George, and he, sheepishly enough, held out the rescued treasures to old Abe.  The patriarch did not seem to see him, but stared fixedly at the burning school.  There was a pause, the women standing round held their breath, the old man moved his glassy eyes, fixed them solemnly upon his son-in-law, held out his arms in mute request for the picture; but suddenly changing his mind, he flung his arms round the blackened George, and then dropping his head, and resting it on the Bible now hugged to his heart, he cried, "Thou'rt a better man nor me, George Stone, a fine sight better!"

    Carrie Hambridge, who stood looking over the shoulder of another woman, drew a long breath and sighed, whilst her great, eyes, which had watched the whole scene with puzzled, impatient, half-contemptuous look, suddenly shone with wondrous light; and as she turned away to hide her emotion she murmured, "Quixotic? fantastic?  The nature that understood to do that is—is sublime!"

                   *                        *                        *                        *                        *

    The arrangements for the supply of water were, after all, not very successful, and constant interruptions occurred, so that by the time the first glint of daylight began to touch the top of the opposite hill, the old school-house roof had fallen in, and nothing remained but three grotesque, jagged-looking pieces of wall.  The crowd began to disperse, and except for stray groups which stood here and there lamenting that the dear old building had not been insured, very few remained to watch the concluding scenes of this most distressing accident.  A few, however, still remained to watch the smouldering ruins; and as they alternately doused a dangerous revival of flame, or discussed the various incidents of the night, nobody observed a stealthy figure moving here and there about the premises—now creeping about on hands and feet, and now making little plunges into the apartments in the rear.

    Netty Stone had been seized with a shivering fit, and her husband had carried her home.  But before he had been in "Squint Hall" many minutes, he remembered something that took him back to the scene of the fire in a fever of trepidation; and for the last half-hour he had been searching in the pocket of the coat he had thrown off earlier in the night, and then over the broken ground upon which he had thrown it; and at last, after nearly tearing the garment to pieces in a frenzy of impatience, he had taken to the singular and secret exploration of the scene in an agony of excitement: for the ill-fated deed, which was in his pocket when he threw off his coat to make his reckless plunge into the building, was gone.  He dared not inquire, he dared not even seem to be seeking; and the growing daylight, welcome enough as an assistant, was almost cursed as a revealing enemy.

    To have lost the deed was infinitely worse than to have left it in the hands of the money-lenders.  It would be found, of course, and taken to Highfield, or even to the mill; and in either case would come into the hands of old Bradshaw, and thus spoil everything.  And so, instead of helping his whilom friend, he would be hated as a bungling busybody.  He was compelled now to hide amongst the ruins of the back vestries.  One moment he was choosing a fresh place and narrowly scanning the locality, and the next he was spying round the corners, suspiciously watching the men left in charge of the building.  Now he felt an impulse to drive them all away, even if he had to do it with his fists; and then he was raging inwardly at the departure of any of the watchers, whom he immediately suspected of being in possession of the lost document.

    For so cool a person his agitation was pitiable; and when, upon the company being reduced to four, he ventured out and joined the remainder, his manner was so strange that they could not answer his clumsy questions for astonishment at his embarrassment.  By dint of sternest self-command, however, he contrived gradually to ascertain that nobody there knew anything about the lost article.  Then, dropping into his old, careless, bantering manner, he began to make roughly witty comments on what he saw around him and the incidents of the fire, moving off and commencing to wander again amongst the ruins, and keeping ever a sharp look-out for the thing he was so anxiously seeking.  He could have sat down and cried over the charred, blackened remains of the old buildings, but every other emotion was choked back in the presence of one overmastering desire; and he searched until the "buzzer" called the hands to work.

    Six o'clock passed, and he had the building almost to himself, until the newly-awakened children began to swarm upon the scene.  Dirty, weary, sick at heart, he strode home, where neither Netty's increasing feverishness nor Lyd's voluminous reminiscences of the old school could rouse him from his despairing stupor.  He could not eat, he could not sit, he could not even answer a question coherently.  Netty, though very unwell, had to call downstairs to remind him that he must be at the office at nine; and though he washed and dressed, and gulped down a cup of tea, he forgot his wife's request that she might see him before she went to sleep; forgot even his precise instructions to call at the doctor's, and stalked along towards the factory, walking like one in a dream hearing, heeding nothing.

    That was the day upon which he was to make his first appearance on the Manchester Exchange as representative of the firm, and was to travel to town with his master; but as he entered the yard the thought of it all made him sick, and the curt, hard tones of his master's voice, which he heard a moment later in the lobby, sent a shiver through his mighty frame.


 
CHAPTER XVII.

THE FALL OF GEORGE STONE.


AS he stood at the high desk in the outer office blindly making entries in his new pocket book, George was calling himself hard names, and reminding himself that at any rate his fears were premature.  But at that instant the bell rang and he was summoned to see his master.  With a supreme effort, the blood leaving his tightly-pressed lips as he moved, he laid down his pen, raised his big shoulders apprehensively, and then dropping them with a stern effort, pulled himself together and strode down the passage.  As he entered the room he realised that his worst fears were justified, and that the supreme moment had come.

    "Shut the door!"  But the voice was so harsh and grating that George would not have recognised it, and as it was he could neither move nor speak, for his eyes seemed glued to a document lying on the table—it was the fateful deed!  The old master, when at last George raised his eyes, looked thinner and older all at once, and his face was drawn and tight, whilst his grey eyes glittered with steely light.  Stern-faced, eye to eye, the two stood for one terrible moment; but George had his back to the wall, and the old man was the first to quail.  He looked down at his boots, from them to George's, allowed his eye to travel slowly up the other's person, glanced at the document on the table, and then striding across the floor he closed the door with a bang and locked it, and then, pointing a grim finger at the deed, cried hoarsely, "I want the truth about that; the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!"

    George's face set hard, and he tried to catch the eye that would not meet him.

    "Out with it! every—bit of it!"

    Still no answer.

    The master was evidently struggling to be calm, but resentment, bitter grief, and galling humiliation were too strong for him; and so, snatching at a heavy ruler, he sprang towards his man, and shouted: "If thou doesn't speak, I'll break thy big head with this!"

    Grave, grieved, but perfectly quiet, George stood still and tried hard to catch the eye he was anxious to arrest, but that would not face him.

    "Speak! speak!"—but the blow had fallen.  Over George's left brow was an ugly gash, and a gush of blood was dyeing his hair and dripping down his cheek.  Still, and with a sickly, apologetic smile, as though he had been the assailant, the younger man put his handkerchief to his head, and made one more effort to catch his enraged master's eye.  Inflamed rather than softened by the sight of his work, the master brandished the ruler once more and hissed, "Don't think thou art doing something.  Thick-headed fool! dost think I cannot see?  Out with it, I tell thee!"

    The same sickly smile, and the same silent mopping of the bleeding brow.

    "I'll beggar him!  I'll cut him off with a shilling!  I'll bring him to the gutter, and you with him!"

    George wavered a moment, opened his lips as though to speak, looked wistfully at his master from under the corner of the handkerchief he was holding to his wound, but not a word could he get out.

    The mill-owner watched him keenly amid a tense silence, and at last he dropped the ruler, turned himself round, and leaning his elbow on the mantelpiece, stared with changing eyes and relaxing face at a date rack.  Several moments passed, the tick of the office clock being the only sound, and then, moving uneasily, the softened but still desperate old man remonstrated, "Thou fool! it's worth a cool thousand to tell the truth.  What's he ever done for thee?  He hates thee, man! he hates thee!"

    George's head had dropped a little, and he shook it sadly; but that was his only response.  With face that changed with every word, and hands and legs that would not be still, the old fellow peered from under scowling brows at his subordinate, and then, still leaning heavily on the mantelpiece, and staring at the wall-paper, he said complainingly—

    "I thought thou would have done owt for me."

    A heavy, shuddering groan, and George had to grip the table to hold himself up.

    "George, owd lad," and the master, leaning forward, put out his hand beseechingly, "I know thou likes me!  Out with it, for the sake of thy old master!"

    It was an unheard-of position—this gruff, brusque, proud, and hard-headed old man, pleading to him like a child; and George felt that he had never known difficulty until that moment.  He stepped back, looked at Bradshaw with mournful, misty eyes, and heaved a long-drawn sigh.  For one struggling moment he wavered, and then realising that the slightest word would be enough, he moved back, set his face hard, and looked the refusal he did not dare to speak.

    The employer sprang back as though he had been struck in the face.

    "Wastrel!  Scoundrel!" he yelled.  "If thou defies me, I'll make a jail bird of thee!  Speak, or I'll send for the police this minute!"

    As he spoke, the baffled, goaded old man snatched at the bell-rope, and stood waiting for the answer.

    "I'd sooner be there nor here, master."

    It came slowly, and with weary pain, but it somehow changed the situation, short though the sentence was.

    The master's hand fell away from the bell, his passion had flamed out, calm, terrible inward rage took its place, and speaking in slow, menacing accents, he said, as he pointed to the clock: "I give thee two minutes to decide.  If thou speaks I'll make a man of thee; if thou doesn't, by God! I'll transport thee."

    Dropping heavily into a chair, he turned his back upon his companion, folded his arms over his chest, and ostentatiously fixed his eyes on the timepiece.  But he could not be still; he got up and began to pace about the room, excitedly denouncing first his son and then George, and then himself, for encouraging such stubborn ingratitude, and glanced again and again at the clock as though impatient for the moment to arrive.  Those, however, were the longest minutes either of them ever spent, but when at last the finger pointed to the expected instant, the older man turned round, grim and white-lipped, and demanded—"Well?"

    An involuntary quiver ran through his frame as he stood waiting for the answer.  George was struggling with emotion, his mournful face quivering with feeling, and his lips were trembling as he stammered out—

    "Send me to jail!"

    The master stared hard at him for a moment, then, cold with a terrible anger, he strode to the door, unlocked it, and threw it open—"Go!"

    George looked at him, dropped his head on his chest and sighed, flattened his handkerchief upon his wound, carefully covered it with his new silk hat, cast a long, lingering look round the office, and moved away, meekly closing the door after him.

                    *                       *                       *                       *                       *

    George Stone's last visit in his new garments to the mill-owner's house had left in the mind of one of its inmates, a feeling of warm though shy gratification, and Jessie Bradshaw, keeping her face in the shade, listened to her sister's characteristically extravagant encomiums with much secret delight.  She had been right; and others were at last seeing what she had so long been convinced of.  It was very flattering to her penetration, and she had a perfect right to feel proud and glad, and if her gratification did seem excessive, well, she was naturally warm-hearted, and there was really no reason why she should keep on exploring her heart for deeper causes.  Besides, George was married, and so she was at liberty to take pleasure in his advancement without suspecting herself of any stronger motives.  But the recollection of that strange misalliance of his brought a cloud to her face and a heaviness upon her spirit, and all the perplexities and complications she had been fighting with for many days came back.

    The rapidity of George's advance, now she came to think of it, was suspicious.  Tom, she knew, disliked him, and was jealous of his father's interest in him; was he in some way or other in George's power?  And was he trying against his own will to pay his debts by promoting the other's interests?  Or were these things signs that her father's resentment at Tom's misconduct was leading him to make a favourite of George?  She knew that the firm was the old man's god, and that he looked at everything from the standpoint of its interests—but here she checked herself.  Why, she was beginning to dislike her own brother, and even to hate the frivolous but fortunate Netty Stone.

    These thoughts were with her when she retired to rest, and with her when she awoke next morning, and in the meantime, in spite of her natural amiability, feelings had stirred within her which alarmed and even shocked her.  The frivolous, vulgar little Netty was fast becoming a hated rival in her mind, and contemptuous pity was developing into envious jealousy.  Her modest devotions were unusually prolonged that morning, for her feelings frightened her; and when she descended to the breakfast room there was a subdued and apologetic air about her.  At breakfast she heard of the fire at the school, and recalled certain sounds of which she had been dimly conscious during the night.  She heard also all about George's fantastic heroism.  Neither she nor her sister sounded its secret depths as the little schoolmistress had done, but Jessie at least guessed that there was in it the manifestation of finer instincts than were usually credited to young Stone.  "Father" was in unusually good spirits, and joked about George's appearance on 'Change that day; and when he had gone, Jessie took herself to task, and was just resolving on doing penance by compelling herself to visit Netty, when there was a ring at the door bell, and the maid came to say that George Stone wanted to speak with her.

    Lena had gone out to see the ruins made by the fire, and she had the house to herself.  She flushed slightly, and said, in a low voice, which annoyed her when she perceived it, "Show him in here."

    Jessie was one of those women who look best in loose, light, morning gowns, and though she was even more wholesome and dainty-looking than usual this morning, and her visitor was only a mill-hand and married, she rose to the mirror, and had so much to do there that she was standing when George was ushered in.

    It was now some twenty odd minutes since his interview with the old master, and he had already recovered his old, easy manner.  In the meantime, however, he had hit upon an idea, and having seen Mr. Bradshaw go towards the station, he had come over to make sure of Miss Jessie's assistance in his scheme.

    "Good morning, George!  What a hero you are!  Oh—er, what is the matter with your head?"

    Unconsciously almost, George's hand went up to his brow.

    "Nothing, nothing!  I bumped it a bit at the fire that—"

    But all the mother instincts in Jessie were awake in an instant; she stepped up to him, put a hand that trembled a little on his shoulder, stood on tip-toes, and after a careful scrutiny, punctuated with exclamations, which George did not like a bit, she cried—

    "But this has not been done many minutes, and your hair is wet; it has just been washed!"

    "Yes, yes, miss; I was going from here to the doctor."

    "Oh, George Stone, for shame!  You're fibbing!  You had to pass the doctor's to get here!"

    "I'd an errand that wouldn't keep; I've plenty of time to look after this bit of thing now."

    "No more stories, sir!  Sit down in that chair!"

    With the inconsistency of embarrassment, George protested that he was in a tremendous hurry, but he might just as well have talked to the furniture; she forced him down into a seat, bade him sit perfectly still, and then, instead of ringing for assistance as she usually would have done, hastened away herself, brought back scissors, plaster, hot water, and other necessaries, and in a few moments, her colour coming and going oddly, and her fingers shaking provokingly, she had his wound bound up as neatly as a surgeon could have done it; remarking, as she gently pulled the hair over the plaster, that it would not spoil his good looks.

    She had talked hurriedly whilst discharging her surgical duties, but now, as she moved the instruments away and turned to hear his errand, there was a nervousness about her which George did not perceive, and which he would not have understood if he had noticed.  The fact was, he was unusually uncomfortable, and the respite her ministrations had given him, though welcome enough for one reason, added to his uneasiness and increased his sense of remorse as he thought of the communication he had come to make.

    "Miss Bradshaw," he began.

    "I used to be Miss Jessie!" she interrupted, returning to her natural manner, but with vague, unaccountable misgivings that she had to hear something unpleasant.

    George paused a moment, and then blurted out, with sudden hoarseness—

    "I wish that knock had gone deeper and killed me!"

    "George!  How shocking!  It is wicked!"  And she paused with hasty heart-sickness.  He was going to show the skeleton in his matrimonial cupboard, and, perhaps, even—but he was speaking.

    "You know, Miss Jessie, what old pals Mr. Tom and I are?"

    "Used to be," she corrected, before she had time to think.

    George stole a sidelong look at her, licked his upper lip nervously, and then went on—

    "I know more about his affairs than anybody else, and he tells me—"

    "Used to tell you."  She could not help it; some unaccountable impulse prompted her which she could not understand or control.

    George blinked his eyes fast, stared hard at the golden cupids on the clock, drew up his shoulders in a curious sort of effort, and then said quietly—

    "You know about that bit of business I've been doing for him: well, I've spoilt it!"

    Jessie could not have explained it: some stern, exacting spirit was prompting questions she would never have asking under other circumstances, and so she thought of as asked remorselessly—

    "At his request?"

    George actually scowled.  What had got into this kind creature's head?  He studied her askance for a moment, wetted his upper lip again, and then answered doggedly—

    "I've had letters from him."

    Jessie was surprised and for the instant nonplussed, but without hesitating she asked, wondering immediately why she did it—

    "On the subject you have come about?"

    George rose hastily to his feet.

    "Miss Jessie," he cried protestingly, "I've been looking after that marriage deed, and it's all gone wrong; I've got him into a fearful hole."

    There was a pause.  George slowly raised his head, and their eyes met.

    A long, steady, scrutinising look they took at each other, each wondering how much the other knew.

    "I got it and was bringing it to you, but I've lost it!"

    "Lost it?" she cried faintly, and though she realised all the question meant, she was not able to hold it back.  "Did he ask you to get it and bring it to me?"

    But George was not to be drawn away again.  Closing his lips, eyes and tightening his lips, he replied stubbornly—

    "I lost it last night at the fire, and somebody found it and took it to the master."

    "To father?"  And the question was almost a scream.

    "To your father!  Oh, what a blundering idiot I am!"

    Jessie uttered a low cry, and snatched at the table for support, the blood leaving her face until her very lips were white.  There was a long, painful silence, and George, gnawing fiercely at his moustache, watched her sideways with a look of poignant distress.

    "God help me!" he groaned at last; "I'm born to give trouble."

    Jessie slowly raised her eye, but evidently neither saw nor heard, and so he went on savagely—

    "Curse me!  I could shoot myself when I think of it!"

    Jessie still stared at him with wide-opened but apparently uncomprehending eyes, and at last she asked in hollow, husky tones—

    "And why have you come to me?"  But then, as the question sounded harsh to her, she hastened to add, "How can I help you, poor fellow?"

    George gasped; her tone touched him deeply, but with a tremendous effort he recovered himself, and said earnestly—

    "You can help me by calling me."

    "Calling you?"

    "Ay, running me down; telling your father all the bad you know or have ever heard about me, and egging him on to hate me."

    "George!"

    "You must, miss! there's no other way;" and then, putting on a look of sudden craftiness, he added, "You see, miss, I'm nobody: I always was a bad 'un.  I'm always bringing trouble upon people.  It doesn't matter a little pin about me.  I deserve it, but what has Mr. Tom done?"

    A sudden flood of light rose for a moment into Jessie's eyes, but she screened it instantly with her lashes, and then, speaking in a carefully levelled voice, she said—

    "Drop the farce, George; I know more than you think; but what can we do?"

    "Now you're talking, miss."

    "Go on!"

    "Well, we must a-save him."

    "But how?  What do you want me to do?"

    "Well, you can blame Mr. Tom to the old gentleman for trusting me too much."

    "Well?"

    "And you can tell him how fond Mr. Tom is of me."

    "Well?"

    "Well, if you could—kind of—hint, you know, that I've been trucking in property lately—which I have, you know."

    "Well?"

    "Well, we must make him believe that Mr. Tom has been helping me and all that, you know."

    "And what then?"

    George didn't like either her look or her manner, and paused to scrutinise her, but presently he went on, though not so confidently, "Well, it 'ull be all right then, don't you see?"

    She stood there looking at him; her eyes glistened and her bosom heaved, and then, stepping up to him with a passion of glowing admiration in her eyes, she cried hoarsely, "George Stone, would you be surprised if—if I kissed you?"

    "Me?  Oh, Miss Jessie—"

    "Why, man!  I could kiss your very boots.  May the good God bless you for ever!"

    Standing there and watching the scared, almost guilty look on his face, Carrie Hambridge's stories about his curious pessimistic self-depreciation came into her mind, and then she became slowly conscious that he was studying her with suspicious apprehensiveness, as though he feared that his ill-tidings had unsettled her reason.

    "Miss Jessie, you'll spoil everything if you talk like that.  We've to think about Mr. Tom, you know, and how to put him right with the master."

    "And you really expect me to try and save Tom by blackening your character?"

    "You must!  My character?  Blacken away! you've plenty to talk about!  It will be believed at once, and what does it matter about me?  I'm nobbut Nowty George!"

    Jessie studied him with distressful incredulity; he was said to be resourceful and dangerously ingenious, and he was suggesting a plan which was ridiculously inadequate.  If he was sincere, and this was the best he could think of, the case must be desperate indeed.  She did not know then, of course, that for years the plan of taking the blame on himself had been his favourite expedient in all the scrapes he and Tom had got into, and that therefore he had acquired facility in the practice of it, and an overweening confidence in its efficacy.

    "Can't you think of any other plan?"

    "I've thought till my brain jumps—it's the only way."

    "And do you suppose I would do it, George?  Oh, I couldn't!"

    "It's nobbut me, I tell you!  What do I matter?"  And he was petulant almost to anger at her debatings.

    "But you are asking me to tell my father a lie—and a useless one too."

    "A lie?  Ay, a lie!  Why, I'd tell fifty; I'd rob a bank to save t' poor lad.  He's your own brother, isn't he?"  And George's expostulation was so indignantly impatient that she shrank back, half expecting an oath.

    "It is no use, George, I cannot do that—and it would not be any use if I did.  You know that."

    It was plain that he did know it, but the reminder only seemed to exasperate him the more; it was painfully evident that he would stick at nothing.

    "Can you suggest nothing better?"

    He looked at the moment as though he would have struck her; but the mood passed, he stared into the mirror near her elbow, frowned and glowered at her sternly, and then, dropping his voice, he said huskily—

    "Then there's nobbut one thing left; we must both pray all day like good'uns!"

    Was there ever such an absurd creature?  From lying to prayer at a breath!  But he was evidently in most deadly earnest, for when the thin flicker of amusement she could not restrain appeared about her lips he seemed scandalised, and cried in querulous protestation—

    "Well, there's nowt else for it, is there?"

    For quite half an hour longer the two argued, George persistently returning to his original plan, and she as steadily resisting it.

    When he rose to go she walked with him to the door; not that she had anything more to say, but a curious sense of comradeship drew her to him.  When he had left her, and was half-way down the gravelled drive, she called him back—

    "So you will now fall back upon the other plan?" she asked, with shy wistfulness.

    "I shall do nothing else all day," he cried; but a gesture of a transparent despair indicated that he would still rather act than pray.

    It was an unending day; the dragging hours were all too slowly passing away; and when at last her father returned from town there was that in his looks which made her heart melt, and between a yearning to comfort and an equally strong desire to plead with him, she held her peace, and was as silent and self-absorbed as he.  He went off to the billiard room after tea, and she heard him lock the door.  That was her chance, and so, putting her sister off with an evasive answer to inquiries about their father's depressed looks, she stole away with quivering pulse and white lips to the dread interview.  She knocked at the door, but there was no answer; knocked again, but still no response.  Might she?  Dare she?  She would! and so with a supreme effort, she put her hand on the door-knob, and turned it.  The door did not yield, however, and the voice she waited for did not respond.

    "Father!" she said softly.

    No reply.

    "Father!"

    Still no answer.

    Then with sudden alarm she seized the door-handle, and shook it with all her strength.  Not a sound came back in reply.  Again and again she tried, and the servants came running to see what was the matter.

    Heedless of everything but the fear that was upon her, she shook and lunged at the door, crying pitifully, "Father! Father!" but there was no response.

    By this time Lena was by her side, and scarcely less excited; the maids were scurrying about with frightened faces, whilst Collier, the man about the house, had gone round and was trying to get in at the billiard room window, the snap of which turned out to be loose.  Lena, in a passion of fear and apprehension, sprang once more at the obdurate door, when it gave way suddenly before her, and they beheld Collier, with his eyes starting out of his head, pointing with terror on his face to the arm-chair in which sat, in easy, natural attitude, the form of James Bradshaw—stone dead!


 
CHAPTER XVIII.

THE GATHERING OF THE STORM.


"HE hath violently taken away her tabernacle—ah —hum—he hath destroyed his places of assembly."  Rolling out the phrases with sonorous melancholy, and secretly revelling in the completeness of a disaster so thorough as to leave no possible opening for the frivolous optimist at the tea-table, Lot Crumblehulme lounged into the parlour of Providence Cottage with a long pipe held to his lips by his left hand, and a look of tragic despair on his face.

    "Well, for my part, I'm downright glad of it."

    The light of battle leaped into Lot's eyes.  The school-mistress knew that nothing less violent would have satisfied him at that moment, and as her real feelings coincided with her contradictory words, her tone was defiance itself.  Sternly checking the dawn of a gratified smile, Lot drew himself up, rigid with rising pugnacity, and staring stiffly before him, he declaimed oracularly—

    "Julius Cæsar fiddled when Rome was burning."

    "Nero, you mean; well, he had excellent reason for it.  The fire swept away the slums and rookeries, destroyed the breeding grounds of fever, and gave the city fine open spaces."

    Disdaining the historical correction as altogether too trivial for a serious debate, Lot transfixed the long-cased clock with a stony eye, and grimly informed it that—

    "A perverse female will whitewash the devil."

    "Perversity!  Nothing of the kind; it is common sense.  I'm glad the dirty, stuffy, ill-ventilated old place has gone; we shall get a new one now, built on sanitary principles."

    "Sanitary principles!"  And Lot's magnificent scorn was a sight to see.  Waving her arguments away with the hand that held the pipe, and turning half round to the old oak dresser, he went on: "Ivery brick i' that buildin' was a monyment; ivery plank was a piece of a poem.  Logic!  Argyment!  Nineteenth century improvements!  Poor folkses' feelings is nothin'!  Sanitary principles is the thing, by shot!"

    "Feelings, sir!  Sentiments!"  And even Lot was astonished at her tone—for the aggravating thing in all their disputes was that she was always so cool.  But now he must accidentally have touched some secret spring in her, for she was on her feet in an instant, and her eyes were flashing with sudden fire.  "Sentiment!  Why, it is the sentiment of the thing that delights me!  I got a glimpse of a man at that fire; I saw down into a real human heart!  Your sentiments, all our sentiments, are only bundles of prejudices, but I saw the face of a soul in that fire, and I would burn down another school to see the like again!"

    Lot was completely mystified; what was she driving at?  He stared stupidly at the rug under his feet, scowled at the oak dresser, scowled at the clock, glanced slily at the schoolmistress as she sank back into her chair, glared all round in search of some hint of her drift; but not a glimmer of light could he find anywhere.  And so he fell back on his only resource, and bending forward and beating time with his pipe-stem, he asseverated doggedly—

    "I want logic!  I want common sense!  Where are we to get six hundred pound?"

    "Six hundred—rubbish!  You'll want twelve at least, to rebuild."

    But Lot was still cudgelling his brains with her previous speech, and wondering what she could have meant; whilst she was watching him under her long lashes, and realising with keen disappointment that he had not seen anything at all remarkable in George Stone's venture into the burning building.  There was a full minute's pause, and at last Lot gave the thing up, and returned to his one solid bit of standing ground.  "And where must we get twelve hundred pound?—What, woman? What does to say?"  This last sentence was addressed to Mrs. Chorlton, who had just entered.  Solemn, even for her, she was saying something which neither of them properly caught, but when Lot demanded a repetition, she closed her eyes, lifted a long, sad sigh, retreated towards the door, and announced, as she drew it after her—

    "James Bradshaw's dead!"

    It was eight o'clock, and dark and damp outside, but in ten minutes the little mistress, cloaked and hooded, and struggling with rising sobs of sorrow and sympathy, was scudding along the dim lanes towards Highfield.  She had greatly respected, almost loved, the brusque but sound-hearted man who was gone, and his daughters were her closest friends.  She took the shortest cut, and so came out upon the Butteridge road a little above Highfield.  As she approached, she observed a tall figure walking up and down before the gate, and gesticulating wildly, like a person in deep distress.

    At that moment the man, whoever he was, uttered a sharp, sudden cry, like one struggling with a shot of pain; then he wheeled round, and, catching sight of her, dashed forward.  As he approached she recognised her favourite, and burst out, "George, O George, isn't this dreadful!"

    But he did not seem to hear her; with a cry and a look such as Carrie had never seen on his face before, he snatched fiercely at her caped arm, and, gripping it tightly, demanded in hoarse, choking tones, "Does God answer prayer?"

    Misunderstanding his question, and scared by his strange manner, Carrie tried to draw away, crying reassuringly as she did so, in defiance of her own "emancipated" principles—"Yes, yes, of course!"

    He positively quivered; her answer seemed to shake him from head to foot: his face became ghastly, and the one man she thought incapable of fear seemed now in the power of some maddening terror.  "Always?" he demanded fiercely, and, if she had not known him, she would have screamed with fright.  Blindly thinking to pacify him by indulging his superstitions, she cried, "Yes, yes, always!—but what is the matter?"

    "Mine? does He answer the like of me?"

    "George, what is the mat—"

    "Mine? does He answer mine?"

    "Of course! everybody's if sincere; but why—"

    But the look on his face was so frightful it stopped her.  For one dreadful minute he stared into her face; then he flung the cape he was holding away, uttered a cry she could never forget, dashed headlong down the lane, and as he went there rang out upon the damp night air the heart-breaking wail—"I've prayed him dead!  I've prayed the master dead!"

    How long she stood there staring dumb and bewildered after the vanished man Carrie never knew, but when at last self-consciousness returned, resentment at his rudeness, fear for his welfare, and all other emotions were swallowed up in a great perplexity as to the meaning of his wild words.  It took her some little time to recover herself and remember her errand, and even then she had to take two or three turns up and down the gravel path before she could steady her nerves for the painful task awaiting her.  Indoors, however, where every eye was red and tearful, and every word a moan, her own embarrassment was unperceived, and, disposing of her outer garments, she hastened unannounced to the little sitting-room upstairs, where in a few moments she sat, a sobbing woman on each side of her, holding limp hands, and pressing a downy cheek to the tearful faces of her suffering friends.  For a full hour she sat thus, expressing by ways best known to her sex a sympathy that words would have weakened.  The interruptions, however, became increasingly frequent, red-eyed maids coming every few minutes to ask for directions; and at last Lena hastily bathed her face in eau-de-cologne and went away to superintend the needful arrangements, whilst Carrie and Jessie were left alone.  Neither spoke for a while, but presently Carrie ventured—

    "Many are feeling this as keenly as you, dear."

    Jessie closed her eyes and sighed, but did not reply.

    "I had a—yes, a fright as I came in."

    Still no response, except a slow, sympathetic tightening of the soft hand she held.

    "George Stone was walking about at the gate, positively raving."

    That was effective enough.  Jessie sat up with sudden interest, and looked at her with swimming but inquiring eyes.

    "He was simply frenzied, and all at once he dashed away from me, and uttered a cry I hope I shall never hear again.

    "What did he say?"  And Jessie sat up, rigid and almost eager, to hear.

    Carrie was alarmed; was she acting wisely?  She shrank away a little, and would gladly have taken back her words, but there was no escaping those fixed eyes.

    "He said something about praying—but you are ill, dear."

    "Speak! speak!"

    "He went away crying that he had prayed your father dead."

    But Jessie was on her feet, her soft, comfortable form rigid as a statue, her eyes staring in speechless horror; and then, as though some icy fountain had suddenly melted within her, swerved a little as she stood.  Blushes and tears appeared together on her face, and, breaking down, she fell into her friend's arms crying, with a new passion of weeping, "Oh, George! poor, poor George!"

    But at this point Lena came back with a pathetic little request that Carrie would stay with them all night, and, when word had been sent to Providence Cottage, other matters required attention, and so it was not until they sat before a comfortable little fire in Jessie's room, about midnight, that the interrupted conversation could be resumed.  Carrie now found that, for the first time, her open-minded friend was reticent, and told her story with curious and obvious breaks.  That she shared in some degree George's superstitious feelings about some prayer was clear, but what this had to do with the present grievous calamity she could not discover, and, of course, she could not inquire too pointedly.

    One thing, however, was plain to her, namely, that if George of the mad marriage had only waited and worked his way up, he might have had Jessie Bradshaw for the asking, and the discovery gave her feelings which surprised and alarmed her.

    Tom Bradshaw arrived home about an hour before the funeral, and though his first greeting to his sisters was affectionate and sympathetic enough, he was very soon absorbed in affairs, so that they saw very little of him.  Having been accustomed for years now to command, he wore his new mastership with easy dignity, and as, in spite of his rakish habits, he had always been a glutton for work when it was necessary, he had soon overcome the chaos caused by his father's death, and reduced affairs both at the mill and the house to their usual easy smoothness.  Neither of his sisters expected much outward manifestation of sympathy, he was too truly a North countryman for that; but whilst each rebuked the other for noticing his preoccupation, each in her own heart was conscious of dull resentment, which was fast growing into uneasy foreboding.  The only person who seemed to interest him outside his business was the schoolmistress; but as her visits were always timed so as to avoid him, they never met, and he began to manifest a petulant inclination to blame his sisters for her absence, and greeted every mention of her name with snorts and cynical sneers.  These things, small in themselves, were increasingly painful to hearts longing for sympathy, and greatly intensified their sense of what they had lost in their father's death; and when nine days had passed, and the last of their relatives had left them, they began to ask each other how it was that nothing had been said about their father's will, which had not so much as been mentioned.  One day, however, Tom came home with a couple of exquisite mourning rings; and a certain new warmth in his manner, even more than the gifts themselves, released emotions which had long been painfully restrained, and put them once more on the old familiar footing.  He seemed inclined to talk, lingered over the meal, and even asked permission to smoke in the dining room.  After a while, however, the conversation began to flag, and there were long pauses, during which the two girls were twirling their new rings nervously on their fingers.

    Tom stared at the fire absorbedly; once or twice he half turned as though to speak, and at last, with an effort at easiness so palpable as to make it more than abrupt, he said—

    "I'm awfully obliged to you girls.  I met the schoolmistress on the road, and she was quite gushing."

    Jessie thought the topic worldly, almost frivolous; but Lena, in better spirits, rejoined—

    "Beware, sir!  A woman and a Chinaman are never so untrustworthy as when they are 'gushing.'"

    "But I thought this paragon of yours was above women's wiles."

    "She's a woman, and must defend herself in woman's ways."

    "She's a dear, good soul, and good enough for a duke;" and Jessie, though annoyed at the hardness of her own tones, sat up and looked at her brother with a sort of sad defiance.

    Tom glanced at her curiously, and a half sneer formed about his lips.

    "No," he drawled sarcastically, "she wouldn't stoop to marry into a family like ours, I dare say."

    "It would be stooping to marry a man who hadn't pluck to ask her!"  And Jessie, vexed almost to tears at her own rash heat, bent her head over her ring again, and hid her face.

    Tom, seeing his advantage, had the air of one taking his triumph meekly, and so, looking at Lena, he asked—

    "What do you think of my chances, girlie?"

    "Go on!  I wouldn't tell you if I knew;" and her playful, almost encouraging tone, contrasting as it did with her sister's, made Jessie drop her head still further, and bite her lip.

    "Then you don't know? the fact is, she's too clever for the pair of you."

    "Oh, that's nothing; our brother is that, you know, and she's too clever for him."

    Lena was younger than Tom and could take liberties.  He laughed, though not quite so comfortably, and then, assuming a half peevish tone, he said—

    "But when a fellow's own mind isn't made up?"

    "What, yet?"

    Jessie had raised her head with a surprise not wholly free from scorn, and Lena checked herself, as she noted the look.

    Tom waited a moment, threw his cigar into the fire, clasped his hands behind his head, and leaning further back in his chair, he drawled with level deliberateness—

    "It's made up now, Lena; I'll have her now to spite her!"

    "Tom!  Good gracious, you'll spoil every—"

    But Jessie had risen, and Lena stopped.  As both their eyes were turned upon the tall, indignant figure before them, Jessie cried—

    "And whilst you continue in that spirit, Tom Bradshaw, you shall never have her!"

    It was only a flash, however; she was in tears before she had got through her sentence, and covering her face with her hands, she burst into a passion of sobs and fled away to her room.

    An hour later, Jessie, with humbled, penitent face, was knocking timidly at her brother's door.

    "Tom," she began, when he saw who answered his curt, "Come in," and stood up in some surprise to receive her; "I'm very sorry! forgive me, and let us be friends."  These were parts they had often played to each other before, for the only son is usually the domestic tyrant, and so with a short, "All right!" and a patronising wave of the hand, he motioned to her to take a seat.

    "No, no!  I cannot stay; but I couldn't bear to think you were angry with me—you are all we have now, Tom."

    "Tut! tut! don't be silly.  Sit down, I've something to say to you."

    With reluctant hesitation she took the edge of the nearest seat, sat up nervously as though preparing for a blow, and waited.

    He was cruelly deliberate.  He twisted the cigar round in his teeth, took it out of his mouth, and carefully rearranged the loose outer leaf, drew with a long meditative pull at it, and then said—

    "Jess, do you still believe in George Stone?"

    She sat quietly, blinked her eyes rapidly, and then answered with almost startling emphasis—

    "Yes, more than ever; and so ought you!"

    Her last sentence was evidently unexpected; he shot a sharp glance at her, mused a moment, and then returned to his tale.

    "And you imagine that father did too?"

    "Certainly!"  His cool manner alarmed her, but she went on bravely—

    "Didn't he give him a great promotion just before he died?"

    Tom took a couple of pulls at his weed, stared calmly at the bookcase, and then went on—

    "Would you be surprised to hear that his very last act was to kick him out of the concern?"

    But the force of the blow undid it; with an almost impalpable movement of the shoulders she braced herself, and instead of the confusion he expected, there came, in a manner as cool as his own—

    "He was very much more likely to have made him a partner.  If he had known what—"

    But Tom was on his feet and white with rage.

    "Partner—him!  Why, you silly fool, George Stone is a scoundrel, a designing, scheming rogue!"

    He had discovered Jessie's feelings toward Stone, and was taking his revenge by outraging them and playing with them.  But she had drawn herself to her full height; there was defiance, scorn, almost loathing, in her eyes.  This was a new, transformed woman, and as she fixed him with her blazing eyes, his rage died away, and he shrank, cowed and sulky, back.

    "And you say that!" she cried—"You!"

    "Yes, I!"  And he looked up at her with furtive alarm; wondering what she might mean.  "I can prove it!  I could have him arrested, transported, and would do but for his wife's illness!"

    Oddly enough, Jessie fastened on the last and least important of his utterances, and asked with new shyness—

    "His wife's illness?"

    "Yes, got pneumonia or something: desperate case."  And then, with sudden energy, he craftily returned to the point—

    "Do you know, you lovesick simpleton, that he tried to ruin me with my father?"

    And that was all that was needed.  In a moment she was his master; tall and well-made, she towered above him in her magnificent scorn until he quailed as her wrathful eyes smote his very soul.

    "You mean cad!" she almost hissed; "the man who bore your punishments as a boy, and took the blame of all your follies!  The man who risked his situation and all his prospects in life to screen you!  The man who married a worthless woman to save your name and credit with father!  The man who would have lain down his life for you!  You dirty, soulless, crawling hound!  Huh!"  And with a gesture of infinite loathing she turned away and swept majestically out of the room.

    For fully five minutes Tom Bradshaw never moved.  White, cowed, and amazed, he seemed utterly overpowered, but at last, drawing a long, struggling breath, he gasped out, "Why, the mad thing is in love with him!  In love with a workman and a married man!"

 



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