Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 2
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER III. THE CROWD IN THE MOONLIGHT.
Seated in the dining-room at Verner’s Pride, comfortably asleep in an arm-chair, her face turned to the fire and her feet on a footstool, was Mrs. Verner. The dessert remained on the table, but nobody was there to partake of it. Mr. Verner had retired to his study upon the withdrawal of the cloth, according to his usual custom. Always a man of spare habits, shunning the pleasures of the table, he had scarcely taken sufficient to support nature since his health failed. Mrs. Verner would remonstrate: but his medical attendant, Dr. West, said it was better for him that it should be so. Lionel Verner (who had come in for the tail of the dinner) and John Massingbird had likewise left the room and the house, but not together. Mrs. Verner sat on alone. She liked to take her share of dessert, if the others did not, and she generally remained in the dining-room for the evening, rarely caring to move. Truth to say, Mrs. Verner was rather addicted to dropping asleep with her last glass of wine and waking up with the tea-tray. She did on this evening.
Of course, work goes on down-stairs (or is supposed to do so), whether the mistress of a house be asleep or awake. It really was going on that evening in the laundry at Verner’s Pride, whatever it may have been doing in the other various branches and departments. The laundry-maids had had heavy labour on their hands that day, and they were hard at work still, while Mrs. Verner slept.
“Here’s Mother Duff’s Dan a-coming in!” exclaimed one of the women, glancing over her ironing-board at the yard. “What do he want, I wonder?”
“Who?” cried Nancy, the under-housemaid, a tart sort of girl, whose business it was to assist in the laundry on busy days.
“Dan Duff. Just see what he wants, Nancy. He’s got a parcel.”
The gentleman familiarly called Dan Duff was an urchin of ten years old. He was the son of Mrs. Duff, linendraper-in-ordinary to Deerham—a lady popularly spoken of as “Mother Duff,” both behind her back and before her face. Nancy darted out at the laundry-door and way-laid the intruder in the yard.
“Now, Dan Duff!” cried she, “what do you want?”
“Please, here’s this,” was Dan Duff’s reply, handing over the parcel. “And, please, I want to see Rachel Frost.”
“Who’s it for? What’s inside it?” sharply asked Nancy, regarding the parcel on all sides.
“It’s things as Rachel Frost have been a-buying,” he replied. “Please, I want to see her.”
“Then want must be your master,” retorted Nancy. “Rachel Frost’s not at home.”
“Ain’t she?” returned Dan Duff, with surprised emphasis. “Why, she left our shop a long sight afore I did! Mother says, please, would she mind having some o’ the dark lavender print instead o’ the light, ’cause Susan Peckaby’s come in, and she wants the whole o’ the light lavender for a gownd, and there’s only just enough of it. And, please, I be to take word back.”
“How are you to take word back if she’s not in?” asked Nancy, whose temper never was improved by extra work. “Get along, Dan Duff! You must come again to-morrow if you want her.”
Dan Duff turned to depart, in meek obedience, and Nancy carried the parcel into the laundry and flung it down on the ironing-board.
“It’s fine to be Rachel Frost!” she sarcastically cried. “Going shopping like any lady, and having her things sent home for her! And messages about her gownds coming up—which will she have, if you please, and which won’t she have! I’ll borror one of the horses to-morrow, and go shopping myself on a side-saddle!”
“Has Rachel gone shopping to-night?” cried one of the women, pausing in her ironing. “I did not know she was out.”
“She has been out all the evening,” was Nancy’s answer. “I met her coming down the stairs, dressed. And she could tell a story over it, too, for she said she was going to see her old father.”
But Master Dan Duff is not done with yet. If that gentleman stood in awe of one earthly thing more than another, it was. of the anger of his revered mother. Mrs. Duff, in her maternal capacity, was rather free both with hands and tongue. Being sole head of her flock, for she was a widow, she deemed it best to rule with firmness, not to say severity; and her son Dan, awed by his own timid nature, tried hard to steer his course so as to avoid shoals and quicksands. He crossed the yard, after the rebuff administered by Nancy, and passed out at the gate, where he stood still to revolve affairs. His mother had imperatively ordered him to bring back the answer touching the delicate question of the light and the dark lavender prints; and Susan Peckaby—one of the greatest idlers in all Deerham—said she would wait in the shop till he came with it. He stood softly whistling, his hands in his pockets, balancing himself on his heels.
“I’ll get a basting, for sure,” soliloquised he. “Mother ’ll lose the sale of the gownd, and then she’ll say it’s my fault, and baste me for it. What’s gone of her? Why couldn’t she ha’ come home, as she said?”
He set his wits to work to divine what could have “gone of her”—alluding of course to Rachel. And a bright thought occurred to him—really not an unnatural one—that she had probably taken the other road home. It was a longer round, through the fields, and there were stiles to climb, and gates to mount: which might account for the delay. He arrived at the conclusion, though somewhat slow of drawing conclusions in general, that if he returned home that way, he should meet Rachel; and could then ask the question.
Had he turned to his left hand—standing as he did at the gate with his back to the back of the house—he would have regained the high road, whence he came. Did he turn to the right, he would plunge into fields and lanes, and covered ways; and emerge at length, by a round, in the midst of the village, almost close to his own house. It was a lonely way at night, and longer than the other, but Master Dan Duff regarded those as pleasant evils, in comparison with a “basting.” He took his hands out of his pockets, brought down his feet to a level, and turned to it, whistling still.
It was a tolerably light night. The moon was up, though not very high, and a few stars might be seen here and there in the blue canopy above. Mr. Dan Duff proceeded on his way, not very quickly. Some dim idea was penetrating his brain that the slower he walked, the better chance there might be of his meeting Rachel.
“She’s just a cat, is that Susan Peckaby!” decided he with acrimony, in the intervals of his whistling. “It was her as put mother up to the thought o’ sending me to-night: Rachel Frost said the things ’ud do in the morning. ‘Let Dan take ’em up now,’ says Dame Peckaby, ‘and ask her about the print, and then I’ll take it home along o’ me.’ And if I go in without the answer, she’ll be the first to help mother to baste me! Hi! ho! hur! hur-r-r-r!”
This concluding divertisement was caused by his catching sight of some small animal scudding along. He was at that moment traversing a narrow, winding lane; and, in the field to the right, as he looked in at the open gate, he saw the movement. It might be a cat, it might be a hare, it might be a rabbit, it might be some other animal: it was all one to Mr. Dan Duff: and he had not been boy had he resisted the propensity to pursue it. Catching up a handful of earth from the lane, he shied it in the proper direction, and tore in at the gate after it.
Nothing came of the pursuit. The trespasser had earthed itself, and Mr. Dan came slowly back again. He had nearly approached the gate, when somebody passed it, walking up the lane with a very quick step, from the direction on which he, Dan, was bound. Dan saw enough to know that it was not Rachel, for it was the figure of a man, but Dan set off to run, and emerged from the gate just in time to catch another glimpse of the person, as he disappeared beyond the windings of the lane.
“’Twarn’t Rachel, at all events,” was his comment. And he turned and pursued his way again.
It was somewhere about this time that Tynn made his appearance in the dining-room at Verner’s Pride, to put away the dessert, and set the tea. The stir woke up Mrs. Verner.
“Send Rachel to me,” said she, winking and blinking at the tea-cups.
“Yes, ma’am,” replied Tynn.
He left the room when he had placed the cups and things to his satisfaction. He called for Rachel high and low, up and down. All to no purpose. The servants did not appear to know anything of her. One of them went to the door and shouted out to the laundry to know whether Rachel was there, and the answering shout “No” came back. The footman at length remembered that he had seen her go out at the hall-door while the dinner was in. Tynn carried this item of information to Mrs. Verner. It did not please her.
“Of course!” she grumbled. “Let me want any one of you particularly, and you are sure to be away! If she did go out, she ought not to stay so long as this. Who’s this coming in?”
It was Frederick Massingbird. He entered, singing a scrap of a song: which was cut suddenly short when his eye fell on the servant.
“Tynn,” said he, “you must bring me something to eat. I have had no dinner.”
“You cannot be very hungry, or you’d have come in before,” remarked Mrs. Verner to him. “It is tea-time now.”
“I’ll take tea and dinner together,” was his answer.
“But you ought to have been in before,” she persisted; for, though an easy mistress and mother, Mrs. Verner did not like the order of meals to be displaced. “Where have you stayed, Fred? You have not been all this while taking Sibylla West to Bitterworth’s.”
“You must talk to Sibylla West about that,” answered Fred. “When young ladies keep you a good hour waiting, while they make themselves ready to start, you can’t get back precisely to your own time.”
“What did she keep you waiting for?” questioned Mrs. Verner.
“Some mystery of the toilette, I conclude. When I got there, Amilly said Sibylla was dressing, and a pretty prolonged dressing it appeared to be! Since I left her at Bitterworth’s, I have been to Poynton’s about my mare. She was as lame as ever to-day.”
“And there’s Rachel out now, just as I am wanting her!” went on Mrs. Verner, who, when she did lapse into a grumbling mood, was fond of calling up a catalogue of grievances.
“At any rate, that’s not my fault, mother,” observed Frederick. “I dare say she will soon be in. Rachel is not given to stay out, I fancy, if there’s a chance of her being wanted.”
Tynn came in with his tray, and Frederick Massingbird sat down to it. Tynn then waited for Mr. Verner’s tea, which he carried into the study. He carried a cup in every evening, but Mr. Verner scarcely ever touched it. Then Tynn returned to the room where the upper servants took their meals and otherwise congregated, and sat down to read a newspaper. He was a little man, very stout, always dressed in plain clothes.
A few minutes, and Nancy came in, the parcel left by Dan Duff in her hand. The housekeeper asked her what it was. She explained in her crusty way, and said something to the same effect that she had said in the laundry—that it was fine to be Rachel Frost. “She’s long enough making her way up here!” Nancy wound up with. “Dan Duff says she left their shop to come home before he did. If Luke Roy was in Deerham one would know what to think!”
“Bah!” cried the housekeeper. “Rachel Frost has nothing to say to Luke Roy.”
Tynn laid down his paper and rose:
“I’ll just tell the mistress that Rachel’s on her way home,” said he. “She’s put out like anything at her being out—wants her for something particular, she says.”
Barely had he departed on his errand, when a loud commotion was heard in the passage. Mr. Dan Duff had burst in at the back door, uttering sounds of distress—of fright—his eyes starting, his hair standing on end, his words nearly unintelligible.
“Rachel Frost is in the Willow-pool—drownded!”
The women shrieked when they gathered in the sense. It was enough to make them shriek. Dan Duff howled in concert. The passages took up the sounds and echoed them; and Mrs. Verner, Frederick Massingbird, and Tynn came hastening forth. Mr. Verner followed, feeble, and leaning on his stick. Frederick Massingbird seized upon the boy, questioning sharply.
“Rachel Frost’s a-drowned in the Willow-pool,” he reiterated. “I seed her.”
A moment of pause—of startled suspense, and then they flew off, men and women, as with one accord, Frederick Massingbird leading the van. Social obligations were forgotten in the overwhelming excitement, and Mr. and Mrs. Verner were left to keep house for themselves. Tynn, indeed, recollected himself, and turned back.
“No,” said Mr. Verner. “Go with the rest, and see what it is, and whether anything can be done.”
He might have crept thither himself in his feeble strength, but he had not stirred out of the house for two years.
The Willow-pool, so called from its being surrounded with weeping willows, was situated at the corner of a field, in a retired part of the road, about midway between Verner’s Pride and Deerham. There was a great deal of timber about that part; it was altogether as lonely as could be desired. When the runners from Verner’s Pride reached it, assistance had already arrived, and Rachel, rescued from the pool, was being laid upon the grass. All signs of life were gone.
Who had done it?—what had caused it?—was it an accident?—was it a self-committed act?—or was it a deed of violence? What brought her there at all? No young girl would be likely to take that way home (with all due deference to the opinion of Master Dan Duff) alone at night.
What was to be done? The crowd propounded these various questions in so many marvels of wonder, and hustled each other, and talked incessantly; but to be of use, to direct, nobody appeared capable. Frederick Massingbird stepped forward with authority.
“Carry her at once to Verner’s Pride—with all speed. And some of you”—turning to the servants of the house—“hasten on, and get water heated and blankets hot. Get hot bricks—get anything and everything likely to be required. How did she get in?”
He appeared to speak the words more in the light of a wailing regret, than as a question. It was a question that none present appeared able to answer. The crowd was increasing rapidly. One of them suggested that Broom the gamekeeper’s cottage was nearer than Verner’s Pride.
“But there will be neither hot water nor blankets there,” returned Frederick Massingbird. “The house is the best. Make haste! don’t let grass grow under your feet.”
“A moment,” interposed a gentleman who now came hastily up, as they were raising the body. “Lay her down again.”
They obeyed him eagerly, and fell a little back that he might have space to bend over her. It was the doctor of the neighbourhood, resident at Deerham. He was a fine man in figure, dark and florid, but a more impassive countenance could not well be seen, and he had the peculiarity of rarely looking a person in the face. If a patient’s eyes were fixed on Dr. West’s, Dr. West’s were invariably fixed upon something else. A clever man in his profession, holding an Edinburgh degree, and practising as a general practitioner. He was brother to the present Mrs. Verner: consequently, uncle to the two young Massingbirds.
“Has anybody got a match?” he asked.
One of the Verner’s Pride servants had a whole boxfull, and two or three were lighted at a time, and held so that the doctor could see the drowned face better than he could in the uncertain moonlight. It was a strange scene. The lonely, weird-like character of the place; the dark trees scattered about; the dull pool with its bending willows; the swaying, murmuring crowd collected round the doctor and what he was bending over; the bright flickering flame of the match-light; with the pale moon overhead, getting higher and higher as the night went on, and struggling her way through passing clouds.
“How did it happen?” asked Dr. West.
Before any answer could be given, a man came tearing up at the top of his speed; several men, indeed, it may be said. The first was Roy, the bailiff. Upon Roy’s leaving Verner’s Pride, after the rebuke bestowed upon him by its heir, he had gone straight down to the George and Dragon, a roadside inn, situated on the outskirts of the village, on the road from Verner’s Pride. Here he had remained, consorting with droppers-in from Deerham, and soothing his mortification with a pipe and sundry cans of ale. When the news was brought in that Rachel Frost was drowned in the Willow-pool, Roy, the landlord, and the company collectively, started off to see.
“Why, it is her!” uttered Roy, taking a hasty view of poor Rachel. “I said it wasn’t possible. I saw her and talked to her up at the house but two or three hours ago. How did she get in?”
The same question always; from all alike: how did she get in? Dr. West rose.
“You can move her,” he said.
“Is she dead, sir?”
Frederick Massingbird—who had been the one to hold the matches—caught the doctor’s arm.
“Not dead!” he uttered. “Not dead beyond hope of restoration?”
“She will never be restored in this world,” was the reply of Dr. West. “She is quite dead.”
“Measures should be tried, at any rate,” said Frederick Massingbird warmly.
“By all means,” acquiesced Dr. West. “It will afford satisfaction, though it does nothing else.”
They raised her once more, her clothes dripping, and turned with quiet, measured steps towards Verner’s Pride. Of course the whole assemblage attended. They were eagerly curious, boiling over with excitement; but, to allow them their due, they were earnestly anxious to give any aid in their power, and contended who should take turn at bearing that wet burthen. Not one but felt sorely grieved for Rachel. Even Nancy was subdued to meekness, as she sped on to be one of the busiest in preparing remedies; and old Roy, though somewhat inclined to regard it in the light of a judgment upon proud Rachel for slighting his son, felt some twinges of pitying regret.
“I have knowed cases where people, dead from drownding, have been restored to life,” said Roy, as they walked along.
“That you never have,” replied Dr. West. “The apparently dead have been restored: the dead, never.”
Panting, breathless, there came up one as they reached Verner’s Pride. He parted the crowd, and threw himself almost upon Rachel with a wild cry. He caught up her cold, wet face, and passing his hands over it, bent down his warm cheek upon it.
“Who has done it?” he sobbed. “What has done it? She couldn’t have fell in alone.”
It was Robin Frost. Frederick Massingbird drew him away by the arm.
“Don’t hinder, Robin. Every minute may be worth a life.”
And Robin, struck with the argument, obeyed docilely like a little child.
Mr. Verner, leaning on his stick, trembling with weakness and emotion, stood just without the door of the laundry, which had been hastily prepared, as the bearers tramped in.
“It is an awful tragedy!” he murmured. “Is it true”—addressing Dr. West—“that you think there is no hope?”
“I am sure there is none,” was the answer. “But every means shall be tried.”
The laundry was cleared of the crowd and their work began. One of the next to come up was old Matthew Frost. Mr. Verner took his hand.
“Come into my own room, Matthew,” he said. “I feel for you as deeply as I could for myself.”
“Nay, sir; I must look upon her.”
Mr. Verner pointed with his stick in the direction of the laundry.
“They are shut in there; the doctor and as many as he wants round him,” he said. “Let them be undisturbed: it is the only chance.”
All things likely to be wanted had been conveyed to the laundry: and they were shut in there, as Mr. Verner expressed it, with their fires and their heat. On dragged the time. Anxious watchers were in the house, in the yard, gathered round the back gate. The news had spread, and gentlepeople, friends of the Verners, came hasting from their homes, and pressed into Verner’s Pride, and asked question upon question of Mr. and Mrs. Verner, of everybody likely to afford an answer. Old Matthew Frost stood outwardly calm and collected, full of inward trust, as a good man should be. He had learnt where to look for support in the darkest trial. Mr. Verner, in that night of sorrow, seemed to treat him like a brother.
One hour! Two hours! and still they plied their remedies, under the able direction of Dr. West. All was of no avail, as the experienced physician had told them. Life was extinct. Poor Rachel Frost was really dead.
CHAPTER IV. THE TALL GENTLEMAN IN THE LANE.
Apart from the horror of the affair, it was altogether attended with so much mystery that that of itself would have kept the excitement alive. What could have taken Rachel Frost near the pool at all? Allowing that she had chosen that lonely road for her way home—which appeared unlikely in the extreme—she must still have gone out of it to approach the pool, must have walked partly across a field to gain it. Had her path led close by it, it would have been a different matter: it might have been supposed (unlikely still, though) that she had missed her footing and fallen in. But unpleasant rumours were beginning to circulate in the crowd. It was whispered that sounds of a contest, the voices being those of a man and a woman, had been heard in that direction at the time of the accident, or about the time: and these rumours reached the ear of Mr. Verner.
For the family to think of bed, in the present state of affairs, or the crowd to think of dispersing, would have been in the highest degree improbable. Mr. Verner set himself to endeavour to get some sort of solution first. One told one tale; one, another: one asserted something else; another, the precise opposite. Mr. Verner—and in saying Mr. Verner, we must include all—was fairly puzzled. A notion had sprung up that Dinah Roy, the bailiff’s wife, could tell something about it if she would. Certain it was, that she had stood amid the crowd, cowering and trembling, shrinking from observation as much as possible, and recoiling visibly if addressed.
A word of this suspicion got whispered in her husband’s ear. It angered him. He was accustomed to hold his wife in due submission. She was a little body, with a pinched face and a sharp red nose, rather given to weeping upon every possible occasion, and as indulgently fond of her son Luke as she was afraid of her husband. Since Luke’s departure she had passed the better part of her time in tears.
“Now,” said Roy, going up to her with authority, and drawing her apart, “what’s this as is up with you?”
She looked round her, and shuddered.
“Oh, law!” cried she, with a moan. “Don’t you begin to ask, Giles, or I shall be fit to die.”
“Do you know anything about this matter, or don’t you?” cried he, savagely. “Did you see anything?”
“What should I be likely to see of it?” quaked Mrs. Roy.
“Did you see Rachel fall into the pool? Or a-nigh the pool?”
“No, I didn’t,” moaned Mrs. Roy. “I never set eyes on Rachel this blessed night at all. I’d take a text o’ Scripture to it.”
“Then what is the matter with you?” he demanded, giving her a slight shake.
“Hush, Giles!” responded she, in a tone of unmistakeable terror. “I saw a ghost!”
“Saw a—what?” thundered Giles Roy.
“A ghost!” she repeated. “And it have made me shiver ever since.”
Giles Roy knew that his wife was rather prone to flights of fancy. He was in the habit of administering one sovereign remedy, which he believed to be an infallible panacea for wives’ ailments whenever it was applied—a hearty good shaking. He gave her a slight instalment as he turned away.
“Wait till I get ye home,” said he, significantly. “I’ll drive the ghosts out of ye!”
Mr. Verner had seated himself in his study, with a view to investigating systematically the circumstances attending the affair, so far as they were known. At present all seemed involved in a Babel of confusion, even the open details.
“Those able to tell anything of it shall come before me, one by one,” he observed; “we may get at something then.”
The only stranger present was Mr. Bitterworth, an old and intimate friend of Mr. Verner’s. He was a man of good property, and resided a little beyond Verner’s Pride. Others—plenty of them—had been eager to assist in what they called the investigation, but Mr. Verner had declined. The public investigation would come soon enough, he observed, and that must satisfy them. Mrs. Verner saw no reason why she should be absent, and she took her seat. Her sons were there. The news had reached John out-of-doors, and he had hastened home full of consternation. Dr. West also remained, by request, and the Frosts, father and son, had pressed in. Mr. Verner could not deny
“To begin at the beginning,” observed Mr. Verner; “it appears that Rachel left this house between six and seven. Did she mention to anybody where she was going?”
“I believe she did to Nancy, sir,” replied Mrs. Tynn, who had been allowed to remain.
“Then call Nancy in,” said Mr. Verner.
Nancy came, but she could not say much: only that in going up the front stairs to carry some linen into Mrs. Verner’s room, she had met Rachel, dressed to go out. Rachel had said, in passing her, that she was about to visit her father.
“And she came?” observed Mr. Verner, turning to Matthew Frost, as Nancy was dismissed.
“She came, sir,” replied the old man, who was having an incessant battle with himself for calmness; for it was not there, in the presence of others, that he would willingly indulge his grief. “I saw that she had been fretting. Her eyes were as red as ferrets’; and I taxed her with it. She was for turning it off at first, but I pressed for the cause, and she then said that she had been scolded by her mistress.”
“By me!” exclaimed Mrs. Verner, lifting her head in surprise. “I had not scolded her.”
Then catching the eye of her son John, who had also lifted his head, she remembered the little scene of the afternoon.
“I recollect now,” she resumed. “I spoke a word of reproof to Rachel, and she burst into a violent flood of tears, and ran away from me. It surprised me much. What I said was not sufficient to call forth one tear, let alone a passionate burst of them.”
“What was it about?” asked Mr. Verner.
“I expect John can give a better explanation of it than I,” replied Mrs. Verner, after a pause. “I went out of the room for a minute or two, and when I returned Rachel was talking angrily at John, as it seemed. I could not make out distinctly at what. John had begun to tease her about Luke Roy, I believe, and she did not like it.”
Mr. John Massingbird’s conscience called up the little episode of the coveted kiss. But it might not be altogether prudent to confess to it in full conclave.
“It is true that I did joke Rachel about Luke,” he said. “It seemed to anger her very much, and she paid me out with some hard words. My mother returned at the same moment. She asked what was the matter: I said I had joked Rachel about Luke, and that Rachel did not like it.”
“Yes, that was it,” acquiesced Mrs. Verner. “I then told Rachel that in my opinion she would have done well to encourage Luke, who was a steady young man, and would no doubt have a little money. Upon which she began weeping. I felt rather vexed: not a word have I been able to say to her lately, but tears have been the answer; and I asked what had come to her, that she should cry for every trifle as if she were heartbroken. With that, she fell into a burst of sobs, terrifying to see, and ran from the room. I was thunderstruck. I asked John what could be the matter with her, and he said he could only think she was going crazed.”
John Massingbird nodded his head, as if in confirmation. Old Matthew Frost spoke up, his voice trembling with the emotion that he was striving to keep under:
“Did she say what it was that had come to her, ma’am?”
“She did not make any reply at all,” rejoined Mrs. Verner. “But it is quite nonsense to suppose she could have fallen into that wild burst of grief, simply at being joked about Luke. I could not make her out.”
“And she has fallen into fretting, you say, ma’am, lately?” pursued Matthew Frost, leaning his venerable white head forward.
“Often and often,” replied Mrs. Verner. “She has seemed quite an altered girl in the last few weeks!”
“My son’s wife has said the same,” cried old Matthew. “She has said that Rachel was changed. But I took it to mean in her looks—that she had got thinner. You mind the wife saying it, Robin?”
“Yes, I mind it,” shortly replied Robin, who had propped himself against the wall, his arms folded and his head bent. “I’m a minding all.”
“She wouldn’t take a bit o’ supper,” went on old Matthew. “But that was nothing,” he added: “she used to say she had plenty of food here, without eating ours. She sat apart by the fire with one o’ the little uns in her lap. She didn’t stay over long; she said the missis might be wanting her, and she left; and when she was kissing my poor old face, she began sobbing. Robin offered to see her home—”
“And she wouldn’t have it,” interrupted Robin, looking up for the first time with a wild expression of despair. “She said she had things to get at Mother Duff’s, and should stop a bit there, a gossiping. It’ll be on my mind by day and by night, that if I’d went with her, harm couldn’t have come.”
“And that was how she left you,” pursued Mr. Verner. “You did not see her after that? You know nothing further of her movements?”
“Nothing further,” assented Robin. “I watched her down the lane as far as the turning, and that was the last.”
“Did she go to Mrs. Duff’s, I wonder?” said Mr. Verner.
Oh, yes; several of those present could answer that. There was the parcel brought up by Dan Duff, as testimony: and, if more had been needed, Mrs. Duff herself had afforded it, for she made one of the crowd outside.
“We must have Mrs. Duff in,” said Mr. Verner.
Accordingly, Mrs. Duff was had in. A voluble lady with red hair. Mr. Verner politely asked her to be seated, but she replied that she’d prefer to stand, if ’twas all the same. She was used to standing in her shop, and she couldn’t never sit for a minute together when she was upset.
“Did Rachel Frost purchase things of you this evening, Mrs. Duff?”
“Well, she did, and she didn’t,” responded Mrs. Duff. “I never calls it purchasing of things, sir, when a customer comes in and says, ‘Just cut me off so and so, and send it up.’ They be sold, of course, if you look at it in that light: but I’m best pleased when buyers examine the goods, and chat a bit over their merits. Susan Peckaby, now, she—”
“What did Rachel Frost buy?” interrupted Mr. Verner, who knew what Mrs. Duff’s tongue was, when it was once set going.
“She looked in at the shop, sir,—while I was a serving little Green with some bone buttons, that her mother had sent her for,—‘I want some Irish for aprons, Mrs. Duff,’ says she. ‘Cut off the proper quantity for a couple, and send it me up sometime to-morrow. I’d not give the trouble,’ says she, ‘but I can’t wait to take it now, for I’m in a hurry to get home, and I shall be wanting the aprons.’ ‘What quality—pretty good?’ said I. ‘Oh, you know,’ says she: ‘about the same that I bought last time. And put in the tape for strings, and a reel of white cotton, No. 30. And I don’t mind if you put in a piece of that German ribbon, middling width,’ she went on. ‘It’s nicer than tape for nightcaps, and them sort o’ things.’ And with that, sir, she was turning out again, when her eyes was caught by some lavender prints, as was a hanging just in the doorway. Two shades of it, there was, dark and light. ‘That’s pretty,’ says she. ‘It’s beautiful,’ said I: ‘they be the sweetest things I have had in, this many a day: and they be the wide width. Won’t you take some of it?’ ‘No,’ says she, ‘I’m set up for cotton gownds.’ ‘Why not buy a bit of it for a apron or two?’ I said. ‘Nothing’s cleaner than them lavender prints for morning aprons, and they saves the white.’ So she looked at it for a minute, and then she said I might cut her off a couple o’ yards of the light, and send it up with the other things. Well, sir, Sally Green went away with her buttons, and I took down the light print, thinking I’d cut off the two yards at once. Just then, Susan Peckaby comes in for some grey worsted, and she falls right in love with the print. ‘I’ll have a gownd of that,’ says she, ‘and I’ll take it now.’ In course, sir, I was only too glad to sell it to her, for, like Rachel, she’s good pay; but when I come to measure it, there was barely nine yards left, which is what Susan Peckaby takes for a gownd, being as tall as a maypole. So I was in a mess: for I couldn’t take and sell it all, over Rachel’s head, having offered it to her. ‘Perhaps she wouldn’t mind having her aprons off the dark,’ says Susan Peckaby: ‘it don’t matter what colour aprons is of; they’re not like gownds.’ And then we agreed that I should send Dan up here at once to ask her, and Susan Peckaby—who seemed mighty eager to have the print—said she’d wait till he come back. And I cut off the white Irish, and wrapped it up with the tape and things, and sent him.”
“Rachel Frost had left your shop then?”
“She left it, sir, when she told me she’d have some of the lavender print. She didn’t stay another minute.”
Robin Frost lifted his head again.
“She said she was going to stop at your place for a bit of a gossip, Mother Duff.”
“Then she didn’t stop,” responded that lady. “She never spoke a single word o’ gossip, or looked inclined to it. She just spoke out short, as if she was in a hurry, and she turned clean out o’ the shop afore the words about the lavender print had well left her. Ask Sally Green, if you don’t believe me.”
“You did not see which way she took?” observed Mr. Verner.
“No, sir, I didn’t; I was behind my counter. But, for the matter o’ that, there was two or three as saw her go out of my shop and take the turning by the pound—which is a good proof she meant to come home here by the field way, for that turning, as you know, sir, leads to nowhere else.”
Mr. Verner did know it. He also knew—for witnesses had been speaking of it outside—that Rachel had been seen to take that turning after she left Mrs. Duff’s shop, and that she was walking with a quick step.
The next person called in was Master Dan Duff—in a state of extreme consternation at being called in at all. He was planted down in front of Mr. Verner, his legs restless. An idea crossed his brain that he might be going to be accused of putting Rachel into the pond, and he began to cry. With a good deal of trouble on Mr. Verner’s part, owing to the young gentleman’s timidity, and some circumlocution on his own, the facts, so far as he was cognisant of them, were drawn forth. It appeared that after he had emerged from the field, when he made that slight diversion in pursuit of the running animal, he continued his road, and had gained the lonely part near where the pond was situated, when young Broom, the son of Mr. Verner’s gamekeeper, ran up and asked him what was the matter, and whether anybody was in the pond. Broom did not wait for an answer, but went on to the pond, and Dan Duff followed him. Sure enough, Rachel Frost was in it. They knew her by her clothes, as she rose to the surface. Dan Duff, in his terror, went back shrieking to Verner’s Pride, and young Broom, more sensibly, ran for help to get her out.
“How did young Broom know, or suspect, there was anybody in the pool?” questioned Mr. Verner.
“I dun know, please, sir,” sobbed Dan Duff. “That was what he said as he runned off to it. He asked me if I had seen any folks about, and I said I’d only seen that ’un in the lane.”
“Who did you see in the lane?”
“I dun know who it was, please sir,” returned Dan, sniffing greatly. “I wasn’t a-nigh him.”
“But you must have been nigh him, if you met him in the lane.”
“Please, sir, I wasn’t in the lane then. I had runned into the field after a cat.”
“After a cat!”
“Please, sir, ’twere a cat, I think. But it got away, and I didn’t find it. I saw somebody a-passing of the gate up the lane, but I warn’t quick enough to see who.”
“Going which way?”
“Please, sir, up towards here. If I hadn’t turned into the field, I should ha’ met him face to face. I dun know who it was.”
“Did you hear any noise near the pool, or see any movement in its direction, before you were accosted by Broom?”
“Please, sir, no.”
It appeared to be of little use to detain Mr. Duff. In his stead young Broom was called in. A fine-grown young fellow of nineteen, whose temperament may be indicated by two words—cool and lazy. He was desired to give his own explanation.
“I was going home for the night, sir,” he began in answer, “when I heard the sound of voices in dispute. They seemed to come from the direction of the grove of trees near the Willow-pond, and I stayed to listen. I thought perhaps some of the Dawsons and Roy had come to an encounter out there; but I soon found that one of the voices was that of a woman. Quite a young voice it sounded, and it was broke by sobs and tears. The other voice was a man’s.”
“Only two! Did you recognise them?”
“No, sir, I did not recognise them; I was too far off, maybe. I only made out that it was two—a man’s and a woman’s. I stopped a few minutes, listening, and they seemed to quiet down, and then, as I was going on again, I came up to Mrs. Roy. She was kneeling down, and——”
“Kneeling down?” interrupted Mr. Verner.
“She was kneeling down, sir, with her hands clasped round a trunk of a tree, like one in mortal fright. She laid hold of me then, and I asked what was the matter with her, and she answered that she had been a’most frightened to death. I asked whether it was at the quarrel, but she only said, ‘Hush! listen!’ and at last she set on to cry. Just then we heard an awful shriek, and a plunge into the water. ‘There goes something into the Willow-pool,’ said I, and I was turning to run to it, when Mrs. Roy shrieked out louder than the other shriek had been, and fell flat down on the earth. I never hardly see such a face afore, for ghastliness. The moon was shining out full then, and it daunted me to look at her. I thought she was dead—that the fright had killed her. There wasn’t a bit o’ breath in her body, and I raised her head up, not knowing what to do with her. Presently she heaved a sort of sigh, and opened her eyes; and with that she seemed to recollect herself, and asked what was in the pond. I left her and went off to it, meeting Dan Duff—and we found it was Rachel Frost. Dan, he set on to howl, and wouldn’t stay, and I went for the nearest help, and got her out. That’s all, sir.”
“Was she already dead?”
“Well, sir, when you first get a person out o’ the water it’s hard to say whether they be dead or not. She seemed dead. But, perhaps, if there had been means right at hand, she might have been brought-to again.”
A moan of pain from old Matthew. Mr. Verner continued as it died out:
“Rachel Frost’s voice must have been one of those you heard in dispute?”
“Not a doubt of that, sir,” replied young Broom. “Any more than that there must have been foul play at work to get her into the pond, or that the other disputing voice must have belonged to the man who did it.”
“Softly, softly,” said Mr. Verner. “Did you see any man about?”
“I saw nobody at all, sir, saving Dan Duff and Mrs. Roy; and Rachel’s quarrel could not have been with either of them. Whoever the other was, he had made himself scarce.”
Robin Frost took a step forward, respectfully.
“Did you mind, sir, that Mother Duff’s Dan spoke to seeing some person in the lane?”
“I do,” replied Mr. Verner. “I should like to ask the boy another question or two upon that point. Call him in, one of you.”
John Massingbird went out and brought back the boy.
“Mind you have your wits sharp about you this time, Mr. Duff,” he remarked—which piece of advice had the effect of scaring Mr. Duff’s wits more completely away than they had been scared before. “You tell us that you saw a man pass up the lane when you were in the field after the cat,” began Mr. Verner; “was the man walking fast?”
“Please, sir, yes. Afore I could get out o’ the gate he was near out o’ sight. He went a’most as fast as the cat did.”
“How long was it, after you saw him, before you met young Broom, and heard that somebody was in the pond?”
“Please, sir, ’twas a’most directly. I was running then, I was.”
As the boy’s answer fell upon the room a conviction stole over most of those collected in it, that this man must have been the one who had been heard in dispute with Rachel Frost.
“Were there no signs about him by which you could recognise him?” pursued Mr. Verner. “What did he look like? Was he tall or short?”
“Please, sir, he were very tall.”
“Could you see his dress? Was it like a gentleman’s or a labourer’s?”
“Please, sir, I think it looked like a gentleman’s—like one o’ the gentlemen’s at Verner’s Pride.”
“Whose? Like which of the gentlemen’s?” rung out Mr. Verner’s voice, sharply and sternly, after a moment’s pause of surprise, for he evidently had not expected the answer.
“Please, sir, I dun know which. The clothes looked dark, and the man were as tall as the gentlemen, or as Calves.”
“Calves?” echoed Mr. Verner, puzzled.
John Massingbird broke into an involuntary smile. He knew that their tall footman, Bennet, was universally styled “Calves” in the village. Dan Duff probably believed it to be his registered name.
But Frederick Massingbird was looking dark and threatening. The suspicion hinted at—if you can call it a suspicion—angered him. The villagers were wont to say that Mr. Frederick had ten times more pride than Mr. John. They were not far wrong—Mr. John had none at all.
“Boy!” Frederick sternly said, “what grounds have you for saying it was like one of the gentlemen?”
Dan Duff began to sob.
“I dun know who it were,” he said; “indeed I don’t. But he were tall, and his clothes looked dark. Please, sir, if you basted me, I couldn’t tell no more.”
It was believed that he could not. Mr. Verner dismissed him, and John Massingbird, according to order, went to bring in Mrs. Roy.
He was some little time before he found her. She was discovered at last in a corner of the steward’s room, seated on a low stool, her head bent down on her knees.
“Now, ma’am,” said John, with unwonted politeness, “you are being waited for.”
She looked up, startled. She rose from her low seat, and began to tremble, her lips moving, her teeth chattering, but no sound came forth.
“You are not going to your hanging, Dinah Roy,” said John Massingbird, by way of consolation. “Mr. Verner is gathering the evidence about this unfortunate business, and it is your turn to go in and state what you know, or saw.”
She staggered back a step or two, and fell against the wall, her face changing to one of livid terror.
“I—I—saw nothing!” she gasped.
“Oh, yes, you did! Come along!”
She put up her hands in a supplicating attitude, she was on the point of sinking on her knees in her abject fear. At that moment the stern face of her husband was pushed in at the door. She sprung up as if electrified, and meekly followed John Massingbird.