The Coming of the Preachers (II).
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CHAPTER VI.

THE FIRST OF THE PREACHERS


THE shock that passed through Mark's strong frame as the piercing words just quoted rang in his ears seemed to shake the very foundations of his being; he felt as if the hour of doom had come, and they were all about to be dragged to judgment.  The fact that he could not see the speaker seemed to heighten the weird effect of his words, and as text thundered after text he felt that his heart was becoming water within him.

    And those about him seemed to be, if anything, more affected than himself; the majority were still watching the course of the fiery monster above their heads, and gasps and smothered wails escaped them as the comet changed its appearance, the four tails being reduced to two, and then suddenly increased to six.  Here and there a terrified female was shrieking out for mercy, whilst "Prepare to meet thy God," and "Behold, He cometh with clouds," and other such texts went ringing over their heads.

    Then by a sudden, simultaneous impulse the crowd began to scatter and run, some in one direction and some in another; and in the vacant places thus left Mark could see the forms of solitary persons kneeling on the ground, with hands held up to heaven in agonising prayer.  And at this moment he had another shock.  So intense was his preoccupation in the phenomenon and its effects that he had forgotten his companion; but all at once the light touch on his arm became a dead weight, there was a long, low moan, and he just put out his arm in time to prevent Kinty falling to the ground in a dead faint.

    Something very like a sob escaped the distressed youth.  What was he to do now?  He had no knowledge of how to restore fainting females, and he dare not ask assistance for fear of discovery.  He paused a moment, looked hard across the fair-ground, as if calculating the distance he would have to travel, and then, snatching up his burden and clasping her to his breast, he pushed boldly forward towards his mistress's home.

    He was a strong, young fellow, and Kinty was small and light, but she began to feel very heavy as he staggered along; and just as he was approaching the edge of the ground and was about to enter the street, he discovered that it was blocked on all sides by crowds of staring, terrified people, who had swarmed out of shops, houses, taverns, and alleys to gaze on the terrible portent above them.

    A cry of disappointment and fear escaped the struggling youth, for the only other way to the shop was much farther round and very dark; but without a moment's hesitation he turned and staggered along the edge of the fair-ground towards the back street.  Just as he was entering it he heard a long, quivering sigh close to his ear, and became conscious that his precious burden was recovering.  But the moment Kinty opened her eyes she caught sight again of the flaming messenger, and with another wail and a shudder she flung her arm round Mark's neck, and cried in terror:

    "Oh, save me, Mark! save me! I'm thine, Mark! thine only! save me!"

    Mark, with his heart leaping in his breast, and his ears tingling with tumultuous joy, hugged the frightened form closer to him, and staggered pantingly on, avoiding a fleeing woman here and a sprawling drunkard there, and at last reached the back door by which Kinty had entered the night before.  And here Kinty begged to be set down; but when he had released her he found that the cautious Kerry had bolted the yard-door, as it was fair night, and, however inconvenient, they would have to go round into the High Street and enter by the front.

    Carefully retracing their steps down the muddy, uneven lane, they had just reached the corner, where a little covered passage led into the street, when a low, deep roar quite close at hand startled them both, and Kinty, uttering a frightened cry, once more snatched at Mark's arm, and was barely pacified when he assured her that it was only the bull that had been brought to the Hanover Arms for tomorrow's baiting; and, before they could recover their composure, they had collided against a watchman, who, with his cocked hat far back on his head and his lantern in his left hand, was trying to cover his eyes with the cape of his great-coat to keep out the sight of the terror in the heavens.

    When they reached the open street again, they found that it was impossible to steal along under the shadow of the buildings, for the sides of the street were lined with gaping, muttering men and women, who were speaking together under their breath, and wonderingly speculating what this great sign might mean.  There was nothing for it therefore but to make a dash up the middle of the road; and even this was not very easy, for once they had to skirt round a sedan-chair, the bearers of which had set it down when they first saw the comet, and could not be induced either by the threats or entreaties of the terrified occupant to resume their labours.  And their troubles were not over even when they reached the passage to the hat-shop side-door.

    As she put her foot upon the step Kinty gave Mark's arm a nervous, confiding tug, and begged him to stay there until she saw how things were indoors, for if her uncles had not returned she felt she dare not stay in the house alone.  She rapped hurriedly on the door, but there was no answer.  She tried again, with no better result.

    Then Mark, who was standing in the entrance of the passage, came to her assistance, and when after two rattling ran-tans they received no response, he suddenly remembered that there was just a chance of being able to enter by the workshop.  He stepped outside and went down the stairs under the shop window, and to his surprise found the door a little ajar—evidently somebody had entered quite recently.  He beckoned Kinty to follow him, and they threaded their way down through the workshop towards the door that led into Kerry's domicile.  There was a light there and the sound of voices, and at that moment their tense nerves received another shock as they caught a long, plaintive wail.

    The door from the workshop opened into a narrow passage, at the right-hand side of which was another door, and as Mark glanced across he observed that this second door was partly open, and there in the kitchen, reclining on a short bench, was Kerry, evidently in a state of collapse, and standing over her, coaxing and comforting, was Jerry Duccles, one of their workmen.

    "Kerry, woman!  Lawks a massy, Kerry!" groaned Duccles, evidently not much less alarmed than the domestic, and standing over her with a helpless look of distress on his face.  But Kerry only threw up her arms and tossed back her head, and wailed again.

    "'Tis the Lord, Kerry; 'tis the Lord wi' ten thousand of His ――"

    "'Tis the devil! 'tis the devil!" wailed Kerry, shaking her tousled head and hugging her fat hands together; "'tis the devil wi' his brimstone tail!  Oh, Lordy, Lordy!" and she immediately ran off a long screaming rigmarole of quotations from the Prayer Book and the Burial Service.

    Duccles was clearly at his wits' end; he had recently been dabbling in millenarian doctrines amongst some new religionists who had come into the town, and he was not quite sure whether the event that was terrifying them all was a fulfilment of the prophecies he had listened to, or a judgment on him for deserting the dissenting meeting-house in Cobble Alley.

    "Kerry!" cried Kinty sharply, for she was too frightened herself to see the ridiculousness of the situation.  But as she brushed past Mark and suddenly appeared out of the darkness of the workshop, covered as she was in dark hood and cloak, Duccles gave a yell and made a plunge at the scullery, whilst Kerry threw up her arms once more and with a piercing shriek rolled off the bench to the floor.

    Mark rushed forward to pick her up, crying as he did so to Duccles not to be a "jackass."  He found the task he had undertaken altogether beyond him, but when Duccles at last ventured to come forth from his hiding-place and assist, they managed to get the still inanimate domestic into a chair, and after treating her to burnt feathers, asafśtida drops, and some of Mistress Kinty's Hungary water she was pleased to "come to," and at once began to protest that she wasn't one of the elect, and didn't want to be taken up with the "forty hundred and four thousand."

    It took some time to pacify the poor soul, and when that was accomplished, and Mark had led the way upstairs with a candle in his hand, the Hungary water was required for Kinty herself, and Mark was only too glad to stay with her and try to relieve her fears.  But he was no more free from the superstitions of his time than she was, and paid his attentions with a nervous and absent air.  Many a time during the last hour or so he had thought of his sister, alone in their little cottage; but even now he dared not suggest departure, lest he should offend the wilful little woman to whom he was devoted.

    Presently, however, Kinty heard footsteps in the passage, and ran to unfasten the door, whilst Mark skipped down the stairs into the kitchen, and thence through the cellar workshop into the street.  The crowds had thinned somewhat, but, in spite of the nipping air, little knots of men and women, most of them with bare heads, were still standing in the doorways discussing the phenomenon.

    Here was the parish beadle, who, with his hands in the pockets of his great-coat and his staff most unbecomingly tucked under his arm, was explaining to a company of scared-looking women and youths that the sign in the heavens was connected with another rising of the Jacobites.  Outside the Hanover Arms the parson was entertaining a mixed company, who listened, as they had never listened to his sermons, whilst he tried to make them understand some of the principles of astronomy but his explanations about nebulć and eccentric orbits, rudimentary and even self-contradictory as they were, were received by the majority of his hearers with all the apprehensive unbelief of fear.

    As Mark turned out of the High Street towards his home he had to cross the north corner of the town-hall square, where he came upon two men in the stocks, who had evidently been forgotten in the general scare, and who were giving vent to all kinds of unearthly groanings; but whether it was because they had been left alone after their sentences had expired, or because they shared the general terror about the comet, Mark was not able to decide.

    At the bottom of the next short street he came upon a company who were standing in a windless corner and listening to a tall, sour-faced man, who, by the aid of a lantern lent by the watch, who himself held it aloft on his staff, was reading to the company lurid descriptions of the horrors which were to overtake the ungodly when the saints were caught up into the air; and just as he approached his own little dwelling, Mark found a Quaker, who was trying to allay the fears of some of his neighbours by explaining that the fiery portent meant an invasion from France, the return of the Jesuits, and subjugation to Rome, because of national oppression towards Dissenters.

    By this time the young hatter was feeling confused; the whole thing was terribly real to him, and he had no doubt whatever that something strange and wonderful was impending, but the explanations he heard were all so mutually contradictory that he was bewildered.  In this frame of mind he pushed once more for home, and was surprised, and a little disappointed, to discover that his sister was absent.  Somehow he felt he could not sit down; he looked at the little fire, and was disappointed to find that it did not require stirring; he walked two or three times across the sanded floor, went to the door and looked out, came back again and stood wavering before the fire, and then, with an impatient little gesture, threw off his cocked hat, put on a hosen cap, and stepped out once more into the lane.

    Instinctively he looked up at the shaft of fire in the heavens, glanced absently up the lane and then down again, and the next moment he was lounging aimlessly along towards the country.  The pleading, impulsive little sentence his mistress had used as he carried her out of the fair came back to him like sweet music, and was instantly banished by superstitious apprehensions of danger.

    As he strolled on the unwonted stillness of the town on such a night impressed him, and he listened once and again for the sound of the strange preacher's voice.  Then he remembered that the sermon must be over long ago, and once more his thoughts came back to his mistress and the sweet words she had used.  "I am thine, Mark; only thine," she had said, and as he turned the words over again and again they sounded sweeter at each repetition.

    He was still moving slowly along, he cared not where; the town was behind him; he had passed the last straggling row of cottages some minutes ago; the air felt fresher, the stars shone out with a frosty clearness, and but for the presence of the flaming monster above him he could have enjoyed the solitude.

    "Ha! what was that?"

    He pulled up in the middle of the lane, and his heart gave a jump, and then began to beat rapidly as he became conscious of the near presence of some human being.  It sounded like a moan; no, like the murmur of a stream, for it was continuous.  It was on his right hand, and certainly close to him.

    In the nervous condition in which recent experiences had left him, he began to feel strangely afraid.  And now the sound had ceased.  No, there it was again!  What could it be? or, rather, who could it be? for it was certainly something human.

    Then he grew ashamed of his own fear, and with an effort stepped to the side of the lane.  An old wall separated the road from the pasture beyond, and the ground fell away from the wall inwards.  He stopped, cautiously peeped over, and almost instantly ducked again, for there in a little hollow in the field, and quite near to him, was a kneeling figure, and a man with white, anguished face turned up towards the blazing comet was evidently praying.  It was only another poor wretch scared like the rest of them by the fiery messenger.  Was it anybody he knew?  Ha! and raising his head once more to the edge of the wall he was just about to peep when he heard the voice again.

    "Oh, spare! good Lord, spare the people!  Is Thy mercy clean gone for ever? doth Thy promise fail for evermore?  Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath He in anger shut His tender mercies?  O Lord, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and of great mercy, spare us but a little while!  Let it alone this year also!  Truly our cup is full, truly we are a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters; we have forsaken the Lord, and have provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger!  But spare us, Lord, most holy!  Oh, hold Thy hand! hold Thy hand!


        Oh, take away Thy rod,
        Oh, take away Thy wrath
My gracious Saviour and my God,
        Oh, take a gentler path."


    The vehement earnestness with which this prayer was uttered was a revelation to Mark; it was something he had never seen the like of before and did not at all understand.  Whoever the suppliant was it was not fear that was moving him.  There was such a confidence, such a consciousness of power with Omnipotence, such reverent familiarity, and withal such intense sympathy with others in the prayer, that Mark felt he had never before understood what supplication was, and he was just raising his head over the edge of the wall for a last look at the wrestler when the man he was watching rose suddenly to his feet, and Mark's amazement was complete when he discovered that the suppliant was the very respectably dressed stranger whom Mr. Ebenezer had pointed out to him that very day as the Methodist preacher.


 
CHAPTER VII.

OPPOSITION


MARK did not sleep well that night; the experiences of the day had been too exciting to allow of that; and when he started from home for the shop next morning even the remembrance of his mistress's impulsive words seemed to afford him little satisfaction, and he found it easy to remember the natural captiousness and whimsical uncertainty of Kinty's disposition.  As he held her in his arms and struggled through the crowd with her the night before she seemed to be already his, but this morning he could think of nothing but the difficulties in the way, and prepared himself to find his lady-love in her most distant and standoffish mood.

    So engrossed was he in these uncomfortable thoughts that the morning greetings of a string of countrymen who were driving ponies into town laden with homespun cloth passed unheeded by him; and he was just turning down out of Wet-salter's Yard into the market-place when, hearing a voice, he raised his head, and discovered that the square contained some hundreds of people, who were standing round the market-cross listening to the man he had seen at prayer the night before.

    Mark hesitated a moment; the crowd seemed to consist chiefly of draggle-tailed women, loose, dirty-looking men connected with the fair booths, and little knots of wool-workers in their leather breeches, striped linsey-woolsey aprons, and gay neckerchiefs.

    Mark had no stomach for such company just then, and was turning away to avoid the gathering by taking the causeway, when he caught sight of the Dissenting minister, whose broad, Quaker-like hat was visible against the pillar on which the town-hall stood.  A second glance revealed several respectable tradesmen standing at noncommittal distance, but earnestly listening to the preacher; and on the outside of the crowd he observed a pudgy form, which he at once recognised as that of Mr. Ebenezer.

    Mark strode across the worn cobble-stones, and, taking his place by his master's side, respectfully gave him the morning's greetings.  Mr. Ebenezer rolled his eyes round to see who was speaking to him, but without even turning his head, and then raising his hand, he impatiently motioned to Mark to be silent and to listen, and immediately became absorbed once more in the preacher's utterances.

    Thus admonished, Mark made an attempt to attend, but as he could never remember to have been interested in a sermon in his life, he had no expectation of succeeding.  To his surprise, however, he found the discourse attractive; though, even to his uncultured car, the English of the speaker was somewhat homely, and occasionally even uncouth.

    But Mark soon lost sight of all this in his growing surprise.  Why, this man actually believed what he was saying!  He was using terms with which Mark had been more or less familiar all his life; but he used them as though they represented facts, realities, and tremendous personal interests.  He seemed to assume that religion was a practical, every-day concern for common people, and that the Bible and Prayer Book were to be taken literally.

    And then the scene in the field the night before came back to him; and his surprise was increased as he all at once noticed that the one was the natural complement of the other.  If the familiar words the preacher was now using represented actual facts instead of hazy, poetical abstractions, then his agony in prayer the night before was quite natural; but that they did represent facts was a thought so utterly novel to Mark that he revelled for the moment in the pure luxury of a new sensation, and with raised brows and wondering half-smile turned to speak to his master.  But at this moment a horn was blown, summoning the wool-workers to their employment; and the assembly began to break up, though the preacher still continued his discourse.  Uncle Ebenezer turned to go with the rest, and Mark immediately joined him.

    As they went along, Mr. Ebenezer seemed to be in a brown study; but just as they entered the High Street he pulled up, and as though Mark had been advancing some argument he could not accept, he cried in protesting tones:

    "But there's naught of Fifth Monarchy doctrine in that, nor millenarianism neither!"

    Mark, who knew the old man's peculiarities, smiled a little, and answered:

    "Why, no, sir; I trove not."

    "Then is't papistry? is't solifidi-ism? is't wet-quakerism?" and Mr. Ebenezer's tone and look indicated that he was prepared to deny that the doctrine they had just listened to represented any of the above-named religious cults.

    Now Mark had never heard of some of the beliefs named by his master, but knowing what he was expected to say, he simply shook his head, and answered:

    "Nay, nay, sir!  You'd have nosed it out if't had been."

    They went up the steepish street until they approached the hat-shop.  And just as Mark was turning into the door the old man pulled up once more; and seizing him by the arm, and puckering up his face until it became one vast wrinkle of conviction, he said:

    "Mark, Methodism is balderdash!"

    "I believe you, sir! truly," replied the journeyman, stepping forward to assist the shopman, who was taking off the great bar from the shutters.  But as he went towards the passage with one of the implements, Mr. Ebenezer took hold of his coat lapel and went on with, if possible, deeper conviction:

    "But take me, boy, if yonder bawling rantipole 'bides long i' old Helsham, ther'll be mischief —mischief, boy!"  And with that the old fellow waddled off up the passage to breakfast.

    Before Mark had been on the premises many minutes he was made aware of two facts: first, that Mistress Kinty was in her frostiest and most distant mood; and, secondly, that as both his masters had been brought home drunk the night before, he must expect an unusually hard time of it with Mr. Josephus.  The first discovery, though it did not surprise him very much, increased the depression with which he had been struggling ever since he awoke; and the second, though quite a usual thing amongst men of his masters' class, rather surprised him.  But the fact was that they, like many others of their associates, had done their utmost to allay the fears created by the appearance of the comet in excessive libations.  It was therefore a relief to him when the senior partner of the firm remained in the parlour; but had he known what was taking place there he would probably have preferred to have endured any number of snubs in the shop.

    The fact was Mr. Josephus was having an unexpectedly good time with Kinty.  She had slept less even than her lover, and got out of bed in the worst possible humour with herself.  She was overwrought and nervous with the exciting experiences of the previous night, she was angry with herself for having made that impulsive and very awkward confession to Mark, and was of course inclined to visit the consequences upon his head.  She felt resentful and sore, and it was most provoking to recollect that he would be entertaining quite ridiculous hopes, and would probably take the earliest opportunity of still further pressing his suit.

    And then there was her uncle; she could not much longer put him off, and as Mark's attentions now seemed only irritations to her, she finally determined that she would save herself trouble and get out of her little perplexities by consenting to the young maltster's proposals, as far, at any rate, as yielding to her uncle's wishes was concerned.

    Over the breakfast-table, therefore, she managed to maintain some sort of conversation about the awful occurrence of the night before, and was relieved to find that her guardians knew nothing about her expedition with Mark.  As it happened, too, the shopman, knowing how welcome such exciting news would be, had brought word that one of the quack doctors at the fair had been caught stealing some of the showmen's goods and had been arrested, whereupon it had transpired that he was a notorious escaped horse-thief, who was suspected also of highwayman proclivities; and Mr. Ebenezer hastened away to be present when so interesting a character should appear before the magistrates.

    Everything favoured Mr. Josephus, and to his surprise and delight Kinty did not try to avoid him, but sat still, and allowed him to introduce the pregnant topic.  She did not surrender all at once, by any means, and at best her consent was tentative and strictly conditional; but that was much more than he had expected to get, at least without resorting to threats, and so presently he sauntered off to his usual rendezvous at the Hanover Arms in a highly satisfied frame of mind, going so far even as to stop in the shop as he went off and inform Mark that he might close at midday and take a holiday.

    On his way down, however, he met Mr. Ebenezer, who was returning with a disappointed and rather disgusted look on his face, for the romantic story told by the shopman turned out to be nothing more than a squabble between two rival quacks, one of whom was said to be "straight like" a certain notorious horse-thief who had been executed some time before, and whose bones still hung in the gibbet on Hango Hill at the town end.

    Josephus was in such great good-humour that he condescended to sympathise with his brother in his disappointment, and they adjourned together to the tavern.  Arrived there, they found the parlour nearly full of men of their own class, whose conversation was divided between the fiery visitant of the previous night and the doings of the Methodist.  The morning was cold, and the theological group held the fireplace; the two brothers, therefore, made their way to the end of the room, and soon were ensconced in chairs.

    "Sit, sit," cried the little tailor impatiently, and then, turning to the chandler who sat next to him, he proceeded: "Sink me, goodman, but 'tis true!  They are an off-cast of a dirty Rooshian sect called the Moravians, who forbid to marry, and have all things common, including wives."

    "I tell ye, neighbour," and the chandler, who was large and fat, helped himself to a huge pinch of snuff, "that Westley has sold himself to the evil one, like to that Mephibosheth as was wrote about in a book long sin' by one Marlowe.  Sir, if he do but come into a room like this, honest men begin to bark like hounds and foam at mouth, and simple women go possessed."

    "They tell," and Mr. Ebenezer, who was the speaker, dropped his voice into a tragic whisper—"they tell that he toucheth for the evil.  Is't not high treason?"

    "Treason belike!" cried the little tailor.  "Ay, an' he bringeth out of trance, an' casteth out spirits."

    "Treason!" echoed the landlord, who had just joined the company.  "A traveller by the coach told me no longer gone than yesterday that 'tis ascertained for certain in the city that he is chief of the Jesuits and is the head agent of the Papists to bring back the Pope an' the Pretender."

    "Gentlemen, be done!" cried the vicar, who so far had been strangely silent, but who now raised his voice to command attention.  "Let me tell you the pure truth.  This Wesley is a simple adventurer; he was sent about his business from Oxford University for scurvy doctrines and cullionly tricks.  He had to abscond from our American colonies for treasonable practices and meddling with women.  The Church has done his business by closing her doors against him, and so he goeth about preaching to, and living upon, greasy rake-hells and trollopy kitchen wenches," and with an all-sufficient look of conclusiveness the reverend gentleman leaned back against the fireplace and surveyed the company.

    At this moment there strode into the parlour a tall, well-built man, who wore his own hair, a broad-brimmed hat a little too high for a tradesman's, a long, dark, closely buttoned cloak, black stockings, and plain leather shoes that were fastened with laces.  He did not seem very much at home, and his presence seemed to impose a restraint upon the company; whilst the vicar drew back a little and looked anywhere save at the newcomer.

    The conversation seemed likely to get stranded, but Mr. Ebenezer, who apparently was the only person present who was not afraid of the latest arrival, set the ball rolling once more by turning round, and asking:

    "Well, sir, what think you o' this new doctrine?  I saw you was present this morning."

    "Doctrines, goodman! call you those Bedlamite ravings doctrines?"  And then glancing solemnly round the company, but avoiding the parson's eye, he went on, in deep, serious tones: "Ah, neighbours, I was not astonished upon the awful appearance last night—I expected it."

    "Expected it?" cried several voices at once.

    "No other!" and the big man, who was the leading Dissenting minister of the town, and was feared rather than respected for the austerity of his opinions, drew himself up, and, waving his left hand as if preaching, went on: "Look on the condition of the nation! the ice-cold deadness, worldliness, and wholesale simony of the Church; the debauchery, the gambling, the unclean living and wickedness in high places amongst the quality; the sordid grovelling, beastliness, and drunkenness amongst common people; the gaming, the smuggling, the dealing in uncustomed goods amongst all classes.  Why, sirs, this, this merry-andrew, hedge-and-ditch spouting is of consequence!  'Tis a sign of the times, and followeth in order.  The last outflow of national iniquity and the first sign of coming doom hath ever been the upspringing of false prophets.  And are they not now here at our very doors and upon our very streets?"

    An uncomfortable silence followed this outburst, for even those who were discussing incidental astronomy in the background had been arrested by it, and Mr. Ebenezer and his associates slowly shook their heads, whilst the parson buried a rather scornful face in an ale-can.

    As nobody replied to the minister, and as his presence did not seem very acceptable, he presently moved towards the door, but almost before he had disappeared the parson was on his feet, and shaking his fist towards the entrance, he cried:

    "The Pharisee! the whining Roundhead!  Would he have the world turned into a puritanical vinegar barrel?"

    And then the irate vicar plunged off into a long tirade against sour-faced religion, and from that he passed to a defence of the town in which they all lived, and in utter obliviousness of his own lugubrious lamentation of the previous evening, he commended the peaceableness, good neighbourliness, and respectability of the old borough.

    A word from the little tailor suddenly switched him off on another tack, and he enumerated all the religious institutions in the locality: his own parish church, with its venerable associations and its accommodation for nearly a thousand worshippers; St. Barnaby's, on the opposite side of the town—and here the audience were surprised, as much as they could be by anything their vicar might say, to hear him pronounce a modified eulogy upon a brother clergyman of the rival parish—the Dissenters' meeting-house, represented by the gloomy minister who had just left them; the Anabaptist conventicle, which was known locally as Scapegoat Chapel, though for what reason does not appear; there was also the little Quaker meeting-house in Tan-pit Lane, and a nondescript denomination whose habitat was continually changing; and if all these were not sufficient to provide for the religious needs of the population, he demanded to know what was.

    "As regards these preaching Methodists," he went on, "'tis my place to put down all heresy and schism and fanatical enthusiasm, and, by the great Lord, I will!"

    "Sir, sir, do you intend that?" and, to the astonishment of everybody present, the Dissenting minister, who had stopped in the passage on hearing the vicar's voice, and had, therefore, listened to the whole of his furious harangue, came back into the parlour and strode up to the parson in an attitude that was almost menacing.

    The parson looked dashed, but, stepping back a little, and surveying the Dissenter from head to foot with deliberate astonishment, he demanded:

    "Sir, am not I a man of my word?"

    "If you are a man of your word," replied the Dissenter, concealing his irony and contempt with difficulty, "and if you have authority to put down schism and fanatical buffoonery, you will exercise your office and purge this good town of these Methodistical abominations."

    "Ah, that will I," responded the vicar, politically ignoring the sarcastic tone of his brother minister, "and request your good offices to assist me, worthy sir."

    At which conciliatory offer the company murmured its pleasure, and, a moment or two later, the minister had reluctantly consented to take a seat, and the old Hanover tavern saw the surprising spectacle of these ancient adversaries conspiring with the rest of the company to rid the town of the offending evangelists, the vicar securing the more cordial support of his rival by stipulating that, in the interests of the Churches they represented, he and the Dissenter must of course be kept out of the business.

    Half an hour later Mark was astonished to see his masters and the vicar pass through the shop into the parlour, and his surprise was increased when Kinty summoned him into their presence.

    "Ah, the very fellow!" cried the vicar eagerly as Mark entered, and then he glanced curiously at the table, and from that to the sideboard, as if in search of something.

    "Kinty woman, bring his reverence a tankard," cried Mr. Ebenezer; and as the young mistress hastened away, the cleric surveyed Mark's stalwart proportions with increased satisfaction, and again murmured:

    "The very man."

    Kinty, returning almost immediately, set the home-brewed before their visitor, and sitting down at the edge of the table, looked inquiringly from her uncles to Mark, and then back again to the vicar.

    "Journeyman," said Mr. Josephus, clearing his throat and nipping his lips together, "hast seen these rattle-headed preachers that are come to town?"

    "Yea, master," answered Mark, glancing inquiringly from one to the other of the company.

    "Well, they are corrupting the town and frighting good people out of their wits."

    Mark nodded, and once more glanced round the company.

    "Well, thou art a stout, limbersome fellow, and hast great say, I'll warrant, wi' the apprentices, and art ready to addle an odd guinea or so an' please thy masters?"

    And again Mark nodded, but with much more deliberation.

    "Well, man," and Mr. Josephus seemed almost angry that his serving-man did not respond more eagerly, "there's horseponds in the town and claypits, and a chance for a mighty fine marlock what says ta?"

    Mark hesitated; he was about as innocent of religiousness as the gayest youth in the place, and was too intent upon his own ambitions to have much interest in anything else; but what he had seen of the preacher had certainly not prepared him to take the lead in persecution, for that was evidently what his master hinted at.

    "We'll take account of the watch an' the constables," said Mr. Ebenezer encouragingly.

    "Tut, tut! the chicken-heart is feared," sneered Mr. Josephus.

    It was perplexity rather than fear that was restraining Mark, but the thought behind Mr. Ebenezer's well-meant encouragement and Mr. Josephus jibe touched, his tenderest point, and as at that moment he caught Kinty's eyes eagerly fixed upon him, whilst her lip was already beginning to curl in contempt of his cowardice, he realised that this refusal just here might seriously affect his cherished projects, and so with a plunge and a stammering disavowal of hesitation he consented to carry out his masters' wishes.


 
CHAPTER VIII.

A MISS-HIT


AFTER his interview with his masters and the vicar, Mark returned to the shop in a somewhat uneasy state of mind.  He knew little about these Methodist preachers, and really cared less, but he had no more objection to a rough-and-tumble frolic, with them as the victims, than any other lusty and godless young fellow in the town.  But he had developed the habit of late of regarding himself as something more than an ordinary apprentice, and it appeared to him that if his masters had shared that idea, and had any serious thoughts of encouraging the great dream of his life, they would not have selected him for this particular task.

    Moreover, they had associated "Big Barny" with him in the arrangements, and he was one of the most disreputable roughs in the town, which made it all the clearer that his employers regarded the business as suitable for persons with no scruples of respectability, and classed him amongst the common ruck of men-servants.  This was gall and bitterness to him, and he  had a momentary feeling of anger against the evangelist.

    Thinking of him, however, brought up before his mind the scene he had witnessed in the Tan-pit Lane meadows the night before, and as that haggard face rose once more before him, his resentment gave way to something not unlike sympathy.  He could not forget, either, the sermon he had heard in the market-place, and putting these two things together he began to realise that, to say the least of it, the enterprise he had undertaken would be carried out, as far as he was concerned, in a reluctant and half-hearted fashion.

    Then he thought of Mistress Kinty; half-measures would certainly not satisfy her, and he knew perfectly well that though she might care very little about a thing herself, when she had once taken it up she would resent any laggardliness on the part of those who served her, and would in fact make the thing a personal one.

    And after all, he could not stand on trifles as he was situated; the great thing was to gratify his mistress, and any "fan-dangling" scruples of his own must be relentlessly crushed.  He could drown every preaching pilgrim in the kingdom, he felt, if it would help him to attain the great object upon which he had set his heart.  It would strengthen and stimulate him if he could have an interview with Kinty before he went off to his task; and his masters would be certain to go to the bull-baiting, which always took place on the second day of the fair.

    It commenced usually at two o'clock, and, if he could find means to occupy his time so as to be left in the shop when it was closed for the half-holiday, he would get his wish, and know better what to do.

    Just then he discovered from Kerry that the vicar was staying to dinner, and, as this would mean that he could not dine in the parlour, he felt that he must stay behind after the workmen had gone to be sure how he stood with his tantalising and captious mistress.  He assisted the shopman to close at the appointed time, sent the workmen off for their holiday, and then stole down to the cellar kitchen to beg a little dinner from Kerry.  He had scarcely commenced his meal when he heard light footsteps upon the staircase, and a moment later the young mistress came into the room.

    To his great gratification she was in her most gay and genial mood, and rallied him upon his new distinction as captain of the heresy-hunters; and had he not suspected that her tone was that of the gratified mistress, rather than the interested sweetheart, he would have been, at any rate as long as she stayed, completely happy.  She left them all too soon, however, and Mark hastened back to his books in the shop.  It was necessary he should find something very important in these to provide a sufficient excuse for working on a holiday, and so he tried to interest himself as much as possible in the accounts.

    Once he made a little excuse to go into the parlour, only to discover that Mr. Ebenezer had fallen asleep in his elbow-chair, and gave no signs of awaking.  There was a mischievous smile on Kinty's face as Mark forgot what he was supposed to have come about, and beat a hasty retreat; but whilst he was brooding at the desk, over what that particular flicker of amusement might mean, he heard a low tap on the little glass pane in the door, and, turning round, beheld the laughing face of his mistress peeping gaily and encouragingly down upon him.

    It was getting time for him to be off and make his preparations for the baiting of the preacher, which, it had been suggested, should take place that very night, if the good man ventured to resume his unpopular ministrations.

    But Uncle Ebenezer still slumbered placidly on, and Kinty either would not or could not wake him.  Mark began to fume, for his nerves had been tried somewhat by recent events, and he was becoming very anxious.  Would Mr. Ebenezer never wake up?  Might he not make the great bull-baiting an excuse for arousing him?  Mistress Kinty came twice to the slight "quarrel" of glass, but her signal was always one of caution.  Presently, however, there was a slight stir in the parlour, Mark heard voices in conversation, and a moment later Mr. Ebenezer opened the little door and stepped down into the shop, which was, of course, now almost dark, as the shutters had been put up.  Mark had lighted a candle, and stood leaning against the desk in the little screened office.  Mr. Ebenezer waddled yawning to the office with his wig all awry, as usual.

    "Ho, ho, Master Mark!" he chuckled, "we are great; we are a very pretty fellow now!  Champion of the Church, i' gad!  A proper George o' the Dragon!  Defender o' the Faith, no less.  Ho, ho, ho!"

    Mark turned half round towards his master with a protesting smile, but Mr. Ebenezer only chuckled the more, and went on:

    "Down with 'em, boy!  Down wi' the sects an' the schisms.  Down wi' the 'hisms' an' the 'ations'!  Down wi' the balderdashers!"

    "But what harm o' the Methodists, sir?" asked Mark, with a pucker of perplexity on his brow, but a smile about his lips.

    "Harm, boy, harm!" and, pursing out his lips and pulling down his brows in sudden appearance of sternness, he went on: "What a plague, man!  They are the pests o' the nation; honest folk are madded with them.  They'll bring a Bedlam on us!"  And then, stepping back and shaking his fat fist, he went on: "But I've judged 'em, trust me.  I smell 'em all out.  I snuff, an' I sniff, an' I nose em out.  Boy, many talk o' Robin Hood that never shot wi' his bow'; but 'yea cannot catch old birds wi' chaff.'  I've sounded 'em, sir, sounded 'em all—Anabaps, an' Presbies, an' Blue Lights, an' old Muggletonians, an' all—an' I tell thee they be fanaticals, ale-froth, balderdash!"

    Mark felt a sudden prompting to tell his master about the preacher he had seen at prayer, but a most unusual feeling of reverence seemed to restrain him, and he turned to the desk again with an odd little sigh.

    Mr. Ebenezer caught the sigh, and opened his round eyes wonderingly.  For a moment he stood contemplating the young journeyman with meditative eye, helping himself the while to huge pinches of snuff.  Then he began to blink rapidly to assist thought, shut up the snuff-box with a loud snap, and stepping up to Mark, smote him heavily on the back, and cried in a thick whisper:

    "Take heart, boy, thou'rt i' luck.  'Give a man luck an' throw him into sea,' 'Faint heart never won fair lady.'  This will do thy business.  ''Tis an ill wind that blows nobody good.'  Take heart, boy, take heart!"

    "Ah, sir!" sighed Mark, affecting a deeper dejection than he would have admitted, in order to draw the old man out, "have not I heard you oft say, 'Look not too high, lest a chip fall in your eye?'"

    "Tut, tut, man! 'kissing goes by favour.'  Am not I for thee?  Is not the little baggage indoors for thee?  Is not the parson?—the parson!  Why, man, he had a thought to buy thee a great book—Mister,"—and here he scratched his wig vigorously to stimulate his memory,—"Mister Foe's great book for 'prentices, no other.  What is't? what is't?  Plague o' my addled head!  The Compleat Tradesman.  Busk out the Methodists, an' thou win'st the rubber."

    Now all this was milk and honey to Mark.  The old man had never spoken with such unequivocal plainness before, and so to lead him on still further he shook his head, and sighed:

    "Ah, sir! but one man had better steal a horse than another look over the hedge."'

    "C-h-u-t!  What's downed thee so?  Take heart, man; 'a man's a man if he have but a hose on his head.'  To her man, to ――  Great God, what's that?"

    This abrupt outburst was caused by some commotion in the street.  There was a long, bellowing roar, followed by a series of terrified shrieks and the trampling of many feet.  Without pausing to listen, Mr. Ebenezer rushed to the shop door and flung it open.  Quick as lightning, however, he sprang back with a cry and a curse, and banging the door to, flung his broad back against it, and set his heels to the floor, evidently resolved to hold the fort against all comers.

    "'Tis the bull, boy; the bull's loose, and he's after the Methodist."

    Puffing and panting with his unusual exertions, his mouth all a-work, and his round eyes almost starting out of his head, the old fellow looked so comical, that when he mentioned that the bull was after the Methodist, the situation struck Mark as exceedingly comical, and he had difficulty in restraining his laughter.

    Stepping to the door, however, he induced Mr. Ebenezer to release his hold, and gently opened it.  He could see nothing but a stream of scared and shouting men and women going past, and so, venturing a little farther, he presently got upon the shop step, and glancing down the street, he saw the Hanover Arms' bull, all covered with gaudy ribbons, tearing away up the hill, and bellowing and foaming at the mouth, whilst a few yards behind it was the Methodist preacher with his coat torn from his back, and a great wound in his temple, from which the blood was flowing and covering his face.

    Mark felt his heart go suddenly sick; he was not squeamish, he felt no more the brutality of the rough horse-play so common in his day than did any other young fellow of the times; but at this sight he felt his whole nature stirred, and hot indignation began to surge up within him.  He drew a laboured breath, and was just making way for Kinty upon the doorstep when he heard another shout, and turning round saw Big Barny run up behind the preacher, lift a flail into the air, and bring the swinging end of it down on the poor fugitive's head, felling him to the ground.

    With a fierce curse and a howl of outraged indignation, Mark sprang into the street, rushed through the crowd, and with a well-planted blow behind the ear, sent Barny staggering to the earth, and then stooped down and, putting his arm under the fallen preacher, raised his head, and facing angrily round used language we cannot print, and defied the howling mob to come a step nearer.  For a full minute he faced the angry multitude, and then a groan and a movement from the man upon his arm drew his attention once more in that direction.  He found that the preacher was not quite unconscious and wanted to get up.  Gently raising him, and glancing round for a resting-place, he led the sufferer to a little side street, at the end of which was a low grassy hillock.

    Slowly, and with much pain, the stricken man, leaning heavily on his conductor's arm, was conducted to the selected spot, and Mark, having laid him down and bidden a small boy fetch a pot of water, took off his own neck-cloth, and began to stanch the wound in the man's temple.  The crowd, abashed and somewhat intimidated, stole slowly up towards the two; but Mark's manner was so threatening that they were fain to keep their distance.

    "Bless the Lord, bless the Lord," murmured the sufferer as Mark gently examined his wound.

    "Yea, 'tis lucky you are alive, good man," said Mark soothingly.

    The preacher opened his eyes, looked hard at Mark, and gently shook his head; then, as Mark saw that he wanted to say more, he paused, and watched a tear as it escaped from the preacher's eye.

    Suddenly a smile of touching gratitude suffused the stained face, and in low, thankful tones he murmured:

    "Counted worthy—counted worthy."

    "Nay, nay," cried Mark, with a lump in his throat; "thou hast done naught worthy o' this, good man."

    The sufferer groaned and shook his head; and then, lifting his eyes up to Mark's, with a look that brought back to him the scene in the meadow, he sobbed:

    "Worthy to suffer shame for His name."

    Mark's emotion, when he understood the reference, was strange and deep, and brushing away a tear, he bound up the preacher's head; and then raising him gently to his feet, handed him over to a tinker of the town, who now came forward and announced himself as one of the sufferer's friends.  Mark was surprised to hear the man's claim, for he had been known in the town, as long as he could remember, as a violent and worthless character.  But as he was now beginning to recollect himself, and realise what this strange act of his involved, he was glad to be thus released, and presently strode through the shrinking crowd back to the shop.

    Mr. Ebenezer had disappeared, and Mistress Kinty was standing against the railings leading down from the street into the workshop, and he was free therefore to pass through.  His mind was in a perfect whirl.  He saw at once that what he had done would seriously affect his cherished plans; he could not face Kinty until he had recovered command of himself, and so, after a moment's thought, he slipped down the back stairs into the workshop below, that he might be alone.

    Sitting down with his back against the dye-vat, and flinging his feet upon a heap of hat-blocks, he gave himself up to very harassing cogitations.  His soul melted again as he thought of the cruelty to which the preacher had been subjected, and in his heart of hearts he could not blame himself for what he had done.  And yet it had been an expensive and foolish effort.  He could not, in common consistency, any longer pretend to lead the attack upon this preaching; and if he did not, he realised that his refusal would appear worse in the eyes of his friends than if he had never undertaken the task.

    The one way that seemed to have presented itself of ingratiating himself with Mr. Josephus was now closed, and he felt perfectly certain that Kinty would despise him, and haughtily pit her own claims upon him against any considerations either of humanity or anything else.

    Once more, therefore, he bitterly blamed himself for hot-headed impulsiveness, and almost wished that he had never interfered in the matter.  What was the preacher or his peculiar doctrines to him?  But it always had been so; again and again he had spoilt his chances by his impetuousness and lack of self-control, and it seemed that the older he got, and the more need there was for restraining himself, the less he was able to do so.  Why had he interfered in what was, after all, a mere ――

    "Marky, come hither."

    It was the voice of his mistress calling from the head of the stairs, and in a mood of surly self-disgust he obeyed the summons, and stepped up into the parlour.

    There was anger and scorn in Kinty's pretty face as, with hang-dog look, he appeared before her; but had he been able to lift his head, he might have observed that her expression changed as she watched him, and a gravity that was almost anxiety began to manifest itself.

    "What is this, thou'st done?" she asked presently in cold, restrained tones.  There was no encouragement in that voice, and Mark, with dull desperation, lifted his head, and commenced his story.  But as he talked, his own interest in the scene of which he had been so prominent an actor returned, and in spite of himself he grew animated, and could not help thinking that Kinty was affected too.

    She shuddered once or twice at the most harrowing details, and covered her face with her hands; but, dropping them again as he told of the preacher's martyr-like joy, he perceived that her eyes glistened, and there was something very like a tear in them.  He talked, therefore, longer than he needed; but when he had finished she froze him again by the chilling question:

    "And what will Uncle Josephus think upon this?"

    Mark had nothing to reply; that aspect of the case maddened him, and he shook his head, and set his fine teeth together grimly.  And then this perplexing and utterly unfathomable little beauty began to speak.

    She had a difficult part to play, but she performed it with the consummate tact of which she was mistress.  She ignored altogether the scene with the preacher, and confined herself to admonitions on self-control.  Her object evidently was to encourage him, but to encourage him without in any way committing herself.  And she succeeded to perfection.

    He saw, as he had never been allowed to see before, that she cared for him, at least, in some way.  He perceived, also, that she was very anxious that he should conciliate by every means in his power her Uncle Josephus; and why that, if she did not wish him to realise his great dream?  It was not often that she was serious like this, and though she committed herself to nothing, she managed to infuse fresh hope into her lover, and finally send him away more in love with her than ever, and more determined than ever to move heaven and earth to obtain her.

    Before he left the premises, however, Mark ascertained from Kerry, the maid, the reason for the appearance of the bull in the street.  It appeared that, just about the time for the baiting to commence, the preacher had begun a service in the market-place, and many of the people on their way to the sport, still impressed by the recent terrifying appearance of the comet, had stopped to listen.

    The popular entertainment was for once, therefore, neglected, and the landlord in his chagrin had bidden his men take the bull out and let it go at the preacher.  The infuriated animal rushed eagerly enough out of the ring and the yard, and nearly dragged the ostler who held the rope off his feet; but when it was suddenly called to face the crowd in the market-place, neither yellings nor beatings could induce it to charge them, until, goaded by an unusually savage assault upon its flanks, it had dashed into the crowd and upset the speaker, scattering the people in all directions.  Then it had broken loose from the conductors, and, turning again upon the poor evangelist, had chased him up the High Street, and it was just at this point that Mark had appeared on the scene.


 
CHAPTER IX.

DISGRACE


IT was past five o'clock, and the sun was setting, when Mark left the hat-shop, and he had scarcely got into the street when he was made aware that his recent defence of the preacher had been keenly resented by his fellow townsmen, or, at least, by the lower class of them.  As he passed along, jibes and threats were flung at him by half-drunken men in holiday attire, and when he got opposite the Hanover Arms, which he would have been willing to pass unobserved, he was challenged by a big hairy man who held two bulldogs in leash, animals which had been cheated of their rights by the disappearance of the bull.  Before Mark could reply they were joined by the landlord, and the young hatter was treated to abuse too coarse to be set down here.  Mark, who was in mortal fear lest his masters, who were in the parlour, should come out, had to swallow his pride, let the men abuse him, and get away as quickly as he could.

    The fair was in full swing when he reached the market-place, and so he dodged to one side, strode hastily along under the shadow of the buildings, and was just emerging into the by-lane, when, as he was passing the entrance of a square of miserable cottages called Weaver's Croft, he heard his name called, and before he could look round found himself confronted by the bulky form of Big Barny, who was evidently three-parts drunk.

    "Ho, ho, Master Knob-knuckles!" cried the brawny giant fiercely, as he spread out his legs and set his arms akimbo, so that Mark could not possibly pass; "thou com'st precisely.  Knuckles, is't?  So, then, knuckles be't," and then, waving one arm towards the entry of the croft, he raised his voice and shouted: "The game, lads, the game!  High!  Tester, high!  Smaw-toes, hither, hither!"

    A moment later Mark found himself surrounded with a scowling, cursing ring of loafers, in tight-fitting hosen nightcaps, greasy leather breeches, and heavy clogs, who laughed and gloated over their victim with unholy delight.

    "Souse 'un!  Duck 'un!" shouted one or two.

    "Nay, nay, good fellows," cried Barny, "'tis knuckles he liketh, an' knuckles he shall have!" and then, turning jeeringly to Mark, he went on: "To it, 'Prentice, to it then!" and began to square up to his opponent.

    Now Mark was in a quandary; he knew that he had but to give the proper signal, and a score of sturdy lads of his own class would have been at his side in a few moments.  But he was only too well aware that to embroil himself in a disreputable street-fight was the surest way he could possibly take to forfeit what little claim to respectability he possessed, whereas he needed every bit he could command if he was to accomplish his end.  It was fair-time too, and a small affair on these occasions, as he knew, often developed into a serious riot.  He hated the thought of it, but he must get away from this at whatever sacrifice of present dignity, and so he cried:

    "A barley, a barley!"

    Before the words were out of his mouth, however, he received a swinging blow on the forehead, which made him see stars, and sent him staggering against the side wall.  With a gasp and a yell he set his back to the wall, put his fingers to his lips, sent forth a shrill double whistle, and then, springing forward, charged his cursing enemy.

    "'Prentices, a rescue, a rescue!" shouted voices here and there, and whilst Mark was struggling with his enemy, some half-score of sturdy youths had flung themselves upon the loafers, and with fists and cudgels and plentiful execrations were dealing vengeance to all and sundry.  The loafers backed down the passage towards their own dominions, and the eager assailants followed them, whilst women began to shriek, children fled in terror indoors, and windows and heads were being indifferently broken.

    Then there was a cry of "Constable."  The Crofters as quickly as they were able vanished indoors, having more to fear from the representative of the law than their opponents, whilst Mark, struggling and rolling over with his enemy on the ground, was taken possession of by the legal officer, and a few moments later found himself, still panting and breathless, in the town lock-up.

    The room into which he was thrust was a filthy hole, three or four steps below the level of the road.  Sewage from the shambles had recently percolated through the wall and stained it halfway from the floor with great slimy patches, whilst pools of loathsome matter lay along the wallside, and the whole apartment was filled with a sickening stench.  But had it been more abominable than it was it is doubtful whether the young hatter would have felt it, for he was undergoing almost indescribable sufferings in his mind.  At any time a squabble with such characters as those with whom he had just been in conflict would have been nauseous to him, but just now it was the refinement of torture, and marked the very nadir of all his ambitions.

    Each aspect of the case as he turned to it seemed more tormenting than the others, and there appeared to be no spark of hope anywhere.  The long, sleepless night he passed in that sinkhole of a place seemed almost short to him, so utterly absorbed was he in his own painful reflections; and when, without even having been asked to wash or eat, he was ordered to appear before the mayor, he shuddered at the contemplation of an ignominy he had scarcely as yet thought of.

    Now the day after the fair was usually a very busy one for the magistrates, but the comet had appeared again the night before, and though it did not produce such terrors as upon its first advent, it so effectually intimidated the people that there was very little employment for their worships.  Twenty minutes, therefore, after the court opened, Mark and his burly companion were ushered into the justices' room, which was often used for such purposes on unimportant occasions.  Mark's heart went sick with shame as he followed Barny, and he flushed and bit his lip as he perceived that Mr. Josephus sat by his worship's side.

    "What! cullion! thou here again?" shouted the mayor, assuming angry indignation he did not quite feel, as he caught sight of Barny.  "What did I tell thee when thou wert here Wednesday se'nnight?  'Tis the gallows thou art after, no less.  What's the charge, constable?"

    "'Suit an' buttery, y'ur wash'p, an' breaking King's peace.  Be done, thou Jack-pudding" (this to Barny, who was muttering).

    Barny was a sort of privileged rough.  To begin with, he was a native of the town, and a good-tempered, jolly, somewhat convenient sort of ruffian.  He was also an occasional and unofficial constable's henchman, having a very neat and expeditious way of dealing with obstreperous offenders.  He was, moreover, a most reliable authority on game, and tasty dishes could be procured by his assistance when otherwise they were unobtainable.  He was a constant visitor at the back doors of the local magnates, and spirits of undeniable quality, tobacco, and even lace for the ladies, passed from his possession to theirs at ridiculous and highly suspicious prices.

    The excise officer had made him a special study, but without any satisfactory result, and he was known to have privately expressed the opinion that the "beaks" of Helsham were all swindling smugglers, and this though Helsham was at least sixty miles from the sea.  Appearances, however, must be kept up; and so his worship put on his very sternest look, glared fiercely at the bigger of the prisoners, and demanded what he had to say for himself.  Barny had nothing to say, but rubbed his face with a great dirty hand, and looked sheepishly at his worship.

    The mayor continued to glare at him sternly, and at last he said:

    "Thou great hulking vagabond, I'll send thee to Bridewell!"

    Then he leaned over the table in front of him, and held a whispered but not very serious consultation with the clerk, shaking his wig, and appearing as resolute and inflexible as though he were dealing with a notorious highwayman.  Then he turned round, and pretended to consult Mr. Josephus—who was not a magistrate—and, finally, leaning back in his high-backed chair, he once more resumed his withering stare at the prisoner; and presently, shouting it out as if he had been condemning the whole town to summary execution, he cried:

    "Take him away to the stocks."

    Barny bobbed a clumsy bow, and made haste to depart with the constable's assistant; but Mark went white with horror.  The stocks! was he going to have the last ignominy of worthlessness placed upon him?  He would die for very shame!

    There was silence in the court for some time after Barny's departure, broken only by the scratching of official quills; and then the mayor, lifting his head and putting down his pen, demanded, as savagely as before:

    "So, then, young hot-blood! what cock-an'-bull tale hast thou fetched wi' thee?"

    Mark, with parched throat and cracking lips, stammered out an apologetic explanation; but the magistrate broke ruthlessly in upon him:

    "Sink me, rapscallion! dost think to come the London Mohocks here?  I'll ha' the peace kept, I assure thee, or I'll have every scurvy 'prentice o ye pressed!"

    Mark ventured to continue his plea, and this time the mayor listened, taking prodigious pinches of snuff, and muttering and shaking his wig as he did so.

    There was a long silence when Mark concluded his defence; the mayor was still watching him, and evidently meditating.  Presently, speaking with chilling deliberation, he said:

    "I've a thought, young rantipole, I've a thought to send thee to the post" [whipping-post].

    Mark was about to say something to mitigate the severity of the sentence, but the man in authority stopped him with a wave of the hand and the constable pulled him by the sleeve and cried:

    "Silence!"

    And then his worship took up his quill and proceeded to read Mark a characteristic lecture, made up partly of extravagant threats and partly of well-meant, if somewhat coarsely expressed, counsels; finishing his deliverance with the information that because of the respect he bore Mark's "worthy master," and the good character that townsman had given him, he would be set at liberty.  But he must be very careful not to come there again.

    But this unexpectedly merciful treatment had a totally different effect on Mark to the one produced upon the more experienced Barny.  Every overwrought nerve in his body suddenly seemed to collapse, he had to struggle with an hysterical desire to shriek, and finally his pent-up and struggling emotions found vent in a loud sob.  Before he could speak his thanks, however, the mayor had risen, and Mark was hustled downstairs, and a few moments later found himself in the arms of his sister, who had been waiting for him outside.

    There was nothing very unusual in a "pretty fellow" of an apprentice embroiling himself in a street row, for such things were of almost daily occurrence, and, under ordinary circumstances, Mark would have made the best of matters.  But he was wounded—self-wounded—in a very tender point.  It was not merely that his pride had received a stab, though that was bad enough to bear; he had brought down his grand castle of hope with his own hand, and by reducing himself to the level of an ordinary, roistering apprentice had effectually frustrated his most darling ambition.

    His sister understood the true inwardness of all this, and whilst by every little affectionate attention she could think of she tried to soothe him, she kept silence on the main subject until such times as she could speak with effect.  Hungry and dirty, nauseated with the vile stink of the jail, that seemed somehow still to cling to him, and sick at heart with his own humiliating reflections, he flung himself down on the settle near the fire and gave himself up to his own bitter thoughts.  Like a wise woman his sister fed him, and induced him to change his clothes, and then she conveyed to him the most comforting and interesting bit of information she could think of; namely, that the Methodist preacher had left the town; adding in her anxiety to comfort him an apocryphal little embellishment to the effect that the departure was "for good and all."

    These things revived him a little as he sat up to review his situation in the light of the fact just stated.  But he was not in a condition to be encouraged; the disappearance of the preacher, which the day before would have been welcomed by him, now appeared as a fresh misfortune, as it robbed him of a chance of rehabilitating himself in the eyes of his masters and their niece.  At this moment his sister reminded him that he would be missed at the shop; but the thought of how he would be received there made his heart sink again, and he was just about to make a peevish reply, when a broad shadow fell across the window, the door opened, and in stepped Uncle Ebenezer.

    The old fellow entered the house with every appearance of hurry upon him, but, catching sight of Mark's woebegone face, he suddenly burst into a great laugh, affected to treat the affair as an excellent joke, quoted some remarks of his brother's intended to convey the idea that he looked at the matter in an even less serious light, and then, assuming a sudden look of earnestness and haste, he explained that the agent from Bewdley had arrived with some wonderful samples of caps, and that nothing could be done in the absence of the indispensable Mark.

    Mark was touched by the old man's clever contrivance to get him back to business, and started off with him in better spirits than he had had for some time.  But, on the way to the shop, he discovered that the Methodists were not quite done with, for though the preacher had indeed departed, he had made some eight or nine converts, and they had taken a disused loft belonging to a carpenter in Pie Lane, and were intending to hold meetings there; so that, hinted Mr. Ebenezer, as he panted after the now eager journeyman, there would be plenty of fun yet, and plenty of scope for the resources of Mark in his character of champion.

    Mark's reception at the shop was as cordial as it could well be; in fact, when, an hour afterwards, he had got back to his old place behind the screen he soon convinced himself that it was far too cordial.  It was just the kind of treatment they might be expected to extend to a roistering but indispensable assistant, but not at all the sort of thing they would offer to one whom they regarded as a probable future member of the family.

    However, the position was, after all, somewhat relieved.  His feelings towards the new sect were those of keen resentment, as the cause of all the trouble through which he had recently passed, and though he still retained some sympathy for the man he had defended, he had none for the people he had left behind, and would feel no scruple in disturbing their devotions.

    Pie Lane was situated in the low-lying part of the town to the left of the market-place, and not far from Goody Wagstaffe's cottage.  When, therefore, the business of the day was over, Mark made his way in that direction with the idea of reconnoitring the position with a view to future operations; for the more he thought of it, the more clearly he saw that it might provide him with the means of restoring himself to favour and assisting his great project.

    The loft proved somewhat difficult to find but presently he noticed a woman with a lantern going down a passage into what seemed to be a stable-yard.  Keeping carefully out of sight, he followed her, and presently came to a two-storeyed building, in the upper room of which there were lights.  The woman climbed the wooden outside stairs; and as she opened the door Mark caught the sound of a voice, raised as if in supplication, which assured him that he was on the right track at last.  He paused a moment to decide what was best to do.  Then he determined to have a look at the gathering if possible, and was just gliding round to the side in search of some means of getting a peep through the window, when a hand was suddenly laid upon his shoulder, and, turning round with a start, he found himself face to face with Goody Wagstaffe.

    "Zounds, woman! but you frighted me!" he cried, and was superstitious enough to step back to avoid the wise-woman's eye.

    Goody never moved; she stood there in the darkness, and Mark could see and almost feel the flash of her piercing eyes.

    "Boy," she said sternly, "what is't thou art upon?  Playing the fox?"

    "Ay, Goody!  Foxing the Methodist geese," laughed Mark a little nervously.

    Goody stood for a moment irresolute.  Then, taking a step towards him as he shrank into the shadow of the loft, she said in low, solemn tones:

    "Then let the fox beware o' the farmer.  ''Tis a fearful thing, laddie, to fall into the hands of the living God.'"

    Mark shuddered involuntarily, and then his gorge began to rise.  He was not to be intimidated by witch-like ways and terrifying quotations of Scripture, and he was just about to make a sneering reply, when the old woman turned suddenly from him, saying as she did so:

    "Come away, come away.  I have a thought to tell thee something."  And she started down the yard.

    The people in the loft overhead had just commenced to sing, and Mark suspected that the old woman was simply trying to draw him from the spot, and so he hesitated; but Goody, knowing human nature better than he did, stalked on towards the passage, and Mark, wondering why he did so, followed her.

    When they reached the lane he hesitated, and if only the strange woman had turned round to speak to him he could have left her there, but as he peered through the gloom he saw her crossing the marshy ground towards her cottage, and in a dazed, aimless sort of way he plodded after her.  She did not turn round even when she reached the door, but raising the latch strode inside and silently pointed to a seat.  But Mark resented this assumption of control, and remained standing, as a protest and an assertion of his independence.  Goody stirred up the smouldering fire until the room was filled with its light.  Then she took off her long cloak and Welsh hat, moved her spinning-wheel farther away from the hearthstone, and, facing abruptly round upon Mark, said:

    "Thou art to captain the persecutors, 'tis said."

    "And what of it?" demanded Mark sullenly.  The wise-woman's manner suddenly changed.  She came close up to her unwilling visitor, looked steadily into his face for a moment, and then, in a voice so tender and pleading that he found it difficult to believe it was hers, she said:

    "Boy Rawson, if poor lone old Goody were lost in the black darkness upon Mowley Moor, wi' the storms beating round her, an' she found a little lantern to help her, wouldst dash the light from her hands?"

    "Goody!" began Mark in indignant repudiation; but the wise-woman stopped him by a touch on the arm, and went on in even softer tones:

    "An' if a poor lost soul in the bottomless pit had crawled to the mouth, and was just climbing out, wouldst pick her back into the flames and the torments again?"

    "Goody!" exclaimed Mark again; but she checked him once more, and coming close up to him, put her hand gently on his breast, and asked:

    "Hast got a heart, Rawson?  A true human heart, that feels and lives and hopes?"

    "Ay, mistress," replied he, in tones that were husky.

    "An' hast got friends that love thee and help thee and speak sweetly to thee?"

    "Ay, Goody, ay; but why all this?"

    The wise-woman looked steadily at him without speaking for quite an embarrassing space of time; and then, dropping her head, she faltered sadly:

    "Poor Goody has had nor heart, nor hope, nor friend for sixty weary years."

    Mark felt a lump in his throat and dimness in his eyes, and was just about to offer a sympathetic word when the old creature lifted her head again, and, with eyes that shone with a strange light and gleamed with soft, beautiful tears, she went on:

    "But, Rawson, the heartless woman has found a heart, and the friendless one has found a Friend, and the hopeless woman has got a sweet hope.  An' she got all these wi' the Methodists.  Oh, let 'em a-be, Rawson; for poor Goody's sake, let 'em a-be!"

    Mark made no attempt to conceal his emotion at this touching appeal; he dropped into a seat, hastily brushing away a tear, and presently commenced to argue the question with her.  But Goody's heart was in her argument, and he soon found he was overmatched.  She told him stories of the doings of the Methodists that made the tears come again, she posted him thoroughly in all the details of Mr. Wesley's history and work, and then had sense enough not to press him for a promise.

    It was late when he left the cottage, but his mind was in such a state that, instead of striking for home, he returned to the lane and followed it across the moor until it brought him out at the top of the High Street.  He turned down the street to get home through the town, and presently found himself passing the hat-shop.  For a moment he paused to look at it and remind himself of all the proud hopes it contained for him, and as he stood gazing up at the dim shadow of the swinging sign-board, the house door opened, Mistress Kinty's silvery voice reached him, and there, in the lighted doorway, stood the maltster's son in elaborate tie-wig, bright blue coat, and laced hat, and it was evident he had been spending the evening with the Kirkes.


 
CHAPTER X.

WOMEN'S WILES


NOW it must be remembered that Mark knew nothing of the proposal for Kinty's hand which had been made by the maltster mayor on behalf of his son.  But he was perfectly well aware that she might have any one of a score of the "sparks" of the town, and it had been one of the tantalising uncertainties of his position that, though she mixed with them freely enough upon occasion, he could not discover that she had shown particular favour to any.  The scene he had just witnessed came upon him, therefore, with all the stunning effect of a great and unwelcome discovery.

    The young maltster was about the most dangerous competitor he could possibly have had.  In the fine-drawn social classifications which obtain nowhere so completely as in an old-fashioned country town like Helsham, this young man was just sufficiently above Kinty and her uncles in position to make the match a most desirable one in their eyes, and the young fellow himself was so sober and steady-going as to preclude any hope that he was merely carrying on a flirtation.

    Neither was it possible to regard this as an ordinary social call, for the elaborate way in which the visitor was got up and Kinty's own appearance precluded any such supposition.  She was dressed in her very best—a low-cut, full-hooped damask gown, with short sleeves and bodice laced down the front, whilst her head was adorned with a cap which was turned up over the forehead, giving something of the same effect as the all-fashionable "commode"; and Mark, standing in the darkness, whilst she was surrounded with light, could not be sure that her face had not upon it several of those eccentric patches which ladies of any pretence to fashion so much effected at that period.  Evidently, therefore, this was a visit of ceremony, and about the most complicating circumstance which could have presented itself at this juncture of Mark's affairs.

    As a linkman, who had been standing in a passage near Mark, now appeared to conduct the visitor home, the young hatter beheld an amount of bowing and curtseying which roused the devil of jealousy in him, and he backed into the entry out of which the man with the torch had come, and, setting his back against the wall, poured out a stream of hearty execrations upon the ways and wiles of women.

    Then he fell to pitying himself and cursing the fate that had caused him to be born poor, but breaking off suddenly from this fruitless exercise, he rushed into the street again, shook his fist fiercely first at the closed shop and then up at Kinty's lighted bedroom window, and wildly vowed that in spite of pride and prejudice, and scurvy money-loving, and the deceitfulness of women, he would have his way, or know the reason why.  But his fierce resolution passed away in its own expression; and breaking down in a bitter, despairing sob, he turned and stalked savagely off home.

    Nancy, his sister, received him with all the old affectionateness; but when she saw his face and heard his story of the day's experiences she looked disappointed and even impatient; and when at last he had finished, she turned her head away, and, stooping down, lifted her spinning-wheel away from the fire.

    "Ah! 'tis a bitter business," sighed Mark, more to invite her sympathy, which he felt he needed, than with any thought that she could help him.  But to his surprise she did not reply.

    "'Tis naught but ill-luck, an' scurvy fortune, an' ill-natured enemies for poor bodies like ourselves, to be sure," he complained querulously.

    "Ay, truly thou hast a great enemy," she sighed, absently unroving the weft from her bobbin.

    Mark looked up with curiosity; but she had apparently nothing more to say.  After a moment's pause, however, she went on:

    "One that would undo thee, though the fairies themselves wrought for thee."

    Mark, who had dropped upon the settle, now raised himself on his elbow, and looked keenly at her, evidently expecting her to proceed; and she, wetting her fingers upon her lips, and applying them again to her yarn, slowly proceeded:

    "Naught can be done till he is overed with."

    "He?  Who?  Get on, wench!  Who?"

    "Thyself."

    "Self!  S-e-l-f!  As how?" and Mark sprang to his feet, and glared at her in indignant amazement.

    "Thy own silly baby's heart, an' what thou fondly [foolishly] calls thy feelings."'

    "Oh, Nance! thou art madding me!  Speak out, wench!"

    And Nancy flung her bobbin from her, and, turning to him, cried indignantly:

    "What hast thou to do wi' pale-faced preachers and their whinings?  What hast thou to do wi' witch-wives, whimsy-whamsies, an' crocodile's tears?  Thou hast to climb, man; thou haste to rise!  Get thy mastership an' thy well-to-do wife, and then have thy fill of feelings, an' it content thee."

    Through all that was left of that night Nancy urged upon her brother these considerations of worldly prudence, and though she was not herself satisfied with the result of her effort, Mark went to bed trying to convince himself that she was right, and that the only thing for him to do was to smother down his own susceptibilities, at any rate, until such times as he could indulge them without damage to his worldly interests.

    In his own little chamber under the thatched roof, another idea took shape in his mind.  Whilst he was under these feelings, and before anything could occur to change them again, he would take the final plunge, as far as Kinty was concerned.  The suspense in which he had lived of late, aggravated as it was by the incidents that had recently transpired, had become unbearable, and therefore, for better or worse, he must know his fate.

    He scarcely slept that night, and when he arose next morning he found himself in a fretful and nervous state of mind, and the task he had set himself seemed much more difficult than it had appeared the previous evening, whilst his better nature began to assert itself most embarrassingly and to plead for the wise-woman and her Methodists.

    And on this part of the question he found great comfort in the reflection that the preacher had gone, and would, he hoped, never appear in Helsham again; so that his "feelings," as his sister had sneeringly called them, would not be appealed to again, and thus one source of danger was removed.

    Realising this, he began to wonder whether it was necessary to carry out the other resolution he had formed, that, namely, which bound him to come to an issue with his lady-love, and though he came to no definite decision on that point, he felt that at any rate the demand for instant action was not so pressing.

    Before he had been long at the shop, however, he forgot all about his troubles, for his masters took one of their periodical fits of interest in business, and had the account books brought into the parlour, where, arrayed in long nightdresses (dressing-gowns), with hosen caps on their heads, and an open snuff-box before them, they endeavoured to get some idea of the state of their affairs.

    Mr. Ebenezer soon tired, and in the middle of the forenoon toddled off to the tavern, but Mr. Josephus stuck to the business until he had ascertained how things stood.  Just as they were concluding and Mark was receiving some final instructions about future stocks, Mr. Ebenezer came back with the thrilling intelligence that the French were preparing to invade the country in the interests of the Pretender.  This very effectually extinguished all Mr. Josephus's interest in business, and he and his brother made off to the tavern to discuss the news.

    So far, Mark had seen very little of Kinty; she seemed, in fact, to be as busy in her way as her uncles had been in theirs, and the balancing of the books had had to be done to the accompaniment of the buzz of the spinning-wheel.

    Some time, however, before the departure of the brothers she had laid aside her work and served them with a little "nooning" repast, and poor Mark felt himself ridiculously uplifted when she gave him a portion out of the same jug as his masters, which was a quite unusual favour.

    When they were left alone he felt himself strangely embarrassed, and did his very utmost to try to finish the work that was left him to do upon the accounts.  But the more he tried to concentrate his mind the less successful he was, for Kinty somehow hovered most tantalisingly about him, and seemed to be in an unusually gracious mood.  Then he took to watching her furtively, and dropped his eyes hastily upon his books when they met hers.

    His work was about finished, but he dallied with it and lingered on, hoping he knew not what.  He was engaged in a most careful and quite unnecessary repair of his quill when, without the least warning, Kinty, who was at that moment somewhere behind him, put her small hand on one of his shoulders, and leaning over until her hair brushed his cheek, covered the open page before him with her other hand, and said with playful impatience:

    "Plague upon your silly writings!  Shut up, and talk with me"; and suiting the action to the word, she leaned over still farther and closed the ledger.

    With a nervous laugh he pushed back his chair and turned to look at her, and she, retreating until she stood with her back to the fire, put her hands behind her, and looking curiously down upon him, said:

    "Marky, what wouldst give for a mighty great secret?"

    Mark felt his heart stop, and then set off again at a great rate.  Had she never thought more seriously of him than to be willing to tell him about her grand sweetheart, as though he had no concern in the matter at all?

    "Nay, mistress, I am no guesser," he stammered confusedly.

    "Toots! but thou shalt guess, Master Sober-sides."

    The reproof conveyed in the name she gave him admonished Mark that she was more in earnest than he thought and than her manner seemed to indicate, and so he made shift to do her bidding; but just as he was about to speak a sudden impulse came into his mind, and without waiting he blurted out:

    "'Tis that you have got an admirer."

    The answer was entirely unexpected, he could see, and it was by no means clear that it was welcome; but he was committed now, and must brave it through; and so he fixed his eyes upon her steadily, and she, wincing somewhat under his gaze, drew a long breath, and, more soberly than she had hitherto spoken, demanded:

    "And have I but one admirer, Mr. journeyman?"

    Mark's heart was getting hot within him.  What right had she thus recklessly to drag him against his will into this most dangerous of all topics?  She knew she was torturing him, and seemed to enjoy it; and so, unable to keep the words back, he said bitterly:

    "Ah, but the rest are toys to be sported with and cast away."

    When he had spoken he would have given worlds to have the words back.  Kinty flushed, drew herself up, looked him deliberately over, and then answered:

    "Shifty shy-cocks and pluckless would-if-I-dares deserve no other."

    Lashed by her cutting taunt, and maddened by the tantalising uncertainty in his own mind, he sprang to his feet and, snatching at her hand, cried:

    "Dare, mistress, dare!  I will dare all hell at a word from you!  A word! ay, a nod, a look!  I will dare aught to reach you!"

    Kinty drew her hand away, stepped back from him, and then, raising a face in which the colour was coming and going in a manner Mark had never seen the like of, she looked him full in the eyes and said quietly, repeating his last words:

    "Anything on earth—but the Methodists."

    "Methodists!" shouted he in amazed indignation.  Curse the Methodists!  I'm bewitched of the Methodists!  Oh, mistress, speak the word, give me but one little hope, and I'll sweep every Methodist in the kingdom away."

    As he uttered this reckless speech he was conscious that Kinty was studying him in a curious, searching sort of way.  He thought she seemed pleased for a moment; then he was as sure she was disappointed, and in the end she laughed at his extravagant wholesale offer to exterminate a whole sect, and availed herself of the opportunity it seemed to present of returning to safer subjects.

    "Bless me, man, thou art a fire-eater!" she cried; and then, dropping into one of the stiff-backed chairs, she said lightly, "But this lover o' mine is a mighty pretty fellow, I will assure thee."

    And do what he might, he could not bring her back to the all-important topic.  She began to tell him who this lover of hers was, and went on to repeat all the good things she had ever heard of him.  She enlarged on his position and probable income, and indulged in very free comments on his appearance.  Then she gave him particulars of two or three previous "affairs" her suitor had had, and concluded by hoping that he would not be a ravaging Methodist-baiter.

    Mark listened to her with listless self-disgust.  Once more she had baffled him and beaten him.  Him?  Why, she could twist him round her finger, the bewitching, maddening little baggage!  He had made his grand effort and was no nearer, and as he listened with decent politeness to her rambling, irresponsible talk, he wondered whether he ever would get anything out of her.

    But just then the shopman, with a red face, came in to ask his help with a customer who wanted unduly to "cheapen" a hat, and he rose to attend to business.  As he left his chair, however, Kinty rose from hers, and as he was opening the little door into the shop, she put her hand on his arm, and with a curious little movement which was more nearly like a caress than he had ever received from her, she said seriously:

    "Is thy heart upon this Methodist-hunting, Mark? thy own heart?"

    And Mark, surprised and perplexed, turned round and caught in her eyes the same studious, inquiring look that had puzzled him before.  But the question suggested such a sweet thought to him that he answered eagerly:

    "Ay, mistress, ay; my heart's to pleasure you."

    And to his dismay she turned quickly away and hid her face, and he went into the shop wondering in what new way he had managed to offend her.

    When he had disposed of the grasping customer he returned to the parlour, but Kinty was gone, and he was compelled to give himself to his work in the office once more.  But it was only a pretence; he was too excited by what had taken place to be able calmly to resume his occupation, and there were so many new questions to be discussed that his quill got dry again and again without ever having been put to paper.

    Somehow he felt relieved in spite of himself, but when he asked himself why, he could give no satisfactory answer.  It was evident that she was not greatly smitten with her lover of the night before, or she would not have discussed him so freely.

    And why was she so concerned about his attitude towards the Methodists, if she had made up her mind to accept the other man?  And then he recalled her curious look at the crucial moment when she was making him vow to persecute the despised sect.  She could not be supposed to be anything but anxious that he should try to please her and her uncles; but if she were pleased, she showed it in a way that was most unusual to her.

    But there!  What was unusual to her?  The only thing that was certain about her was that you never could be certain of her; at least, that had been his unhappy experience.  And yet that look exercised his mind a great deal; it might mean nothing, but at any rate it made him uneasy, though in a strangely hopeful sort of way.

    Well, he could but wait and hope, and if he had been in the habit of praying at all, he would perhaps have concluded that at this juncture of his experiences the first thing to make supplication for was that the Methodist preachers might never come to Helsham again.  Just when he had reached this point, and was still musingly toying with his quill, he heard a man crying something in the street, and strolling leisurely to the door he opened it, and heard:

    "Mr. Charles Wesley will, God willing, preach the Gospel at the market-cross to-morrow morning at eleven o' the clock."



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