By HAROLD BINDLOSS
STEPHEN BELL found the young dog, crag-fast with a wounded leg, one day when the fox was lost and the mists rolled about the head of Raughtondale. They hunt on foot among the rocks of Cumberland, and Stephen was breathless when he reached the narrow ledge from which the wet crag fell to a sullen tarn. He had come home for a holiday from a civil engineer's office at Leeds, and was tired after a long run across the hills; but his father kept the pack, and the dog whimpered and gave him a trustful glance.
He got the animal on his shoulder, and set his lips as he worked his way down an awkward slab. His load was cruelly heavy, and he gasped when he reached a level spot; but there was another dangerous pitch below, and he could not leave the dog in pain. Somehow he got down, although he tore his clothes and bruised his skin, and things were easier after he met the old huntsman coming up.
"Mungo's young and softish yet, but he has the makings o' a grand dog, and I'm none for leaving him in the rain aw neet," the huntsman remarked, when they reached the dale. "Aw t' same, I doot he canna walk to kennels."
"Break that rotten gate," said Stephen. "We'll carry him to Richardson's."
The huntsman pondered. "Richardson an' they father niver agree—an owd sore that's festert in Tom Richardson's hard heart."
"We'll chance it," said Stephen. "Put the dog on the gate."
It was getting dark when they came to a lonely farm standing among bare ash trees at the bottom of the dale. The old house looked dark and forbidding, but a peat fire glowed in the big, flagged kitchen, and Stephen felt draggled and untidy when Jessy Richardson let them in. He thought the girl was beautiful, and her graceful figure and delicate colour lost nothing from the fit and pattern of her plain print dress. Then her voice was low and pleasant, and it was obvious that she loved animals when she and the huntsman dressed the dog's injuries.
Stephen did not know then that Richardson's only extravagance had been sending his daughter away to a good school, but he watched her movements with keen satisfaction while he talked to her mother. Mrs. Richardson was thin and nervous, and looked subdued. Stephen thought he knew the reason for this, and remembered stories he had heard about her husband. He was glad Richardson was away at market, but he got a few words with Jessy before he left.
This was the beginning of things, because they met again when Stephen came home. Indeed, he came home as often as he could, and wrote to Jessy when he was away. After a time her letters stopped, and when he got no reply to his protests, he waited until the civil engineer obtained him a post at a new waterworks. He did not write to Jessy then, but started for Raughtondale, knowing what he meant to do. In the meantime Richardson had made some plans that clashed with Stephen's.
It was a November evening when the farmer drove home. down a stony hill at the mouth of the dale. Mist rolled about the crags that rose, black and forbidding, in the fading light. A beck brawled in the hollow of a, and the wind wailed drearily in a thin larch wood. Richardson thought this threatened a stormy night, and although his sheep were safe in the sheltered bottoms, a flood might wash out the turnips in a low-lying field. The roots ought to have been stored, but he had been unable to get them lifted at the price he offered. It was characteristic that Richardson paid the lowest wages in the neighbourhood.
He was a tall, big-boned man, with a stern, weather-beaten face. In some respects he was primitive, for the instincts of their rude Norse ancestors survive among the men of the northern dales. Richardson had utilitarian virtues, but he was swayed by two passions—hate and greed. Besides, he had taken enough liquor at market to harden his resolution. When he pulled up at the gate in the dry-stone dyke, behind which the bleak house stood among the gaunt ash trees, he frowned as a foxhound crossed the yard. Mungo had got fond of Jessy, and came back now and then. Richardson kept the dog as long as he could, not to please his daughter, but because he thought it would annoy the master of hounds, whom he bitterly disliked.
Bell had got the better of him in a dispute about their sheep-walks twenty years since, and Richardson had not forgiven the injury. He had, however, something else to think about, and as he stabled the pony he knitted his shaggy brows. His neighbours thought him prosperous, and by hard work and stern economy he made farm and sheep-walk pay; but he had overreached himself about a mortgage on a small woollen mill. Bell might have warned him, but had not. His main object in life was now to make good his loss, and Dixon, the cattle salesman, had shown him a plan; but Dixon's help was necessary, and he had stated his terms. Richardson agreed, although he expected some opposition from his wife and daughter, for Dixon was fifty, and had not much to recommend him to a romantic girl. This, however, was not important, because Richardson was master at Raughton, and seldom bothered about the feelings of his women-folk.
He went into the kitchen, where his wife and Jessy were sewing in the hollow of the wide hearth. There was a lamp on the black mantel, but the big room was dim, and the red reflection of the peat fire played upon old copper and dark, polished oak. A meal was laid on a table with a well-darned cloth, and Richardson indicated it when he had hung up his coat.
"Take t' things away," he said. "I had a snack at 'The Salutation.'"
Mrs. Richardson was surprised, because her husband, from economical motives, generally came home for food.
"Take them away," he resumed. "I had sandwiches and ale with Dixon. He paid."
The woman looked disturbed, but removed the plates silently, and Jessy bent over her sewing. The foxhound had come in, and lay with his head against her feet. As a rule, it was imprudent to answer Richardson's remarks when he returned from market, particularly when prices were low. Besides, Jessy had some grounds for feeling anxious.
"Dixon's bought new house by t' quarry," Richardson went on, in a meaning tone. "Him and me's gan t' do some business, an' he'll be here for dinner Tuesda'."
Jessy turned to her mother. "You'll be busy, but I promised Aunt Ellen I'd go in the morning and stop all afternoon."
"I'll want pony to drive Dixon," said Richardson.
"Then I must walk across the fell."
Richardson looked at the girl with knitted brows. "You'll stop here! Mayhappen Dixon has something to say to you."
"I have nothing to say to Dixon," Jessy answered, with a forced smile. "He talked about fat bullocks the last time he came."
"And what does young Bell talk about?" Richardson asked, in a sneering voice.
Jessy looked up calmly, though there was some colour in her face, and her mother shrank.
"Mr. Bell is a gentleman, and Dixon is not."
"Living on his father while he waits for a job! Dixon owns a row of houses besides the auction yard, and you're a farmer's daughter, not a lady. Young Stephen kens that verra weel!"
"What do you mean?" Jessy asked, putting down her sewing and lifting her head.
"Thowt I'd told thee!" Richardson rejoined. "The Bells belang to t' gentry, an' his father will see t' lad gets a rich wife."
Jessy was silent for a few moments, bracing herself, for she had courage, and saw a clash must come. Then she said quietly: "All the same, I'm going to Aunt Ellen's."
Richardson struck the table with his clenched fist. "Noo, listen to me, my lass! Peter Dixon has asked me for thee, and I've not said 'No.' He'll give thee a fine house, and leave thee weel off. I'll see t' lawyers fettle that before t' wedding. Young Stephen's thrown thee over, and you'll not get as good a chance."
"Mr. Bell did not throw me over; he did not ask me to marry him," Jessy rejoined, with sparkling eyes.
"An' he niver will!" said Richardson. "He's gan t' marry Miss Kemp o' Grassholm; it's weel kenned there's money there."
"They say she's rich," Jessy answered thoughtfully. "But riches don't stand for everything. I wouldn't live with Peter Dixon, for all his money."
"If that's the bodder, we needn't fratch. Nane o' his folk live lang, an' Peter has a weak heart."
Jessy used some self-control, for, although the man's grim humour revolted her, she came near to an hysterical laugh. She had borne much at Raughton since she came back from school, but had tried to be patient for her timid mother's sake. Now she knew she must be firm; but her father was stubborn, and she felt the strain.
"I will not marry Peter Dixon," she said, in a level voice.
Richardson got up and advanced with a savage frown.
"You'll do my bidding, or gan oot to work or beg!" he stormed, and the dog rose, growling, and stood before the girl.
"Remember, she's thy daughter, Tom," ventured Mrs. Richardson.
"I weel ken I've a fool for a wife but I thowt the lass had sense," Richardson rejoined, and fixed a threatening gaze on Jessy. "You'll be here on Tuesda', an' give Dixon the answer he expects."
"I will not," said Jessy, whose face got white.
Richardson lost his self-control. He had taken some liquor, at Dixon's expense, and saw a plan that promised much brought to nothing by the rebellious girl.
"Agree or gan!" he shouted, while the dog came forward with bristling hair. "But think weel! If you leave this house, you niver cross the door again!"
"I'll go now," said Jessy, in a steady voice, and Mrs. Richardson got up with a resolution that was new to her.
"When Jessy goes, I go, too."
"Sit thee doon! " said Richardson, laughing scornfully. "You canna have t' pony, an' you canna walk."
The feeble woman hesitated. The nearest house was some miles off, and Richardson had quarrelled with its occupants. It was a long way to her sister's, and she was worn out by hard work and broken by her husband's bitter humour. She sat down when he pushed her rudely into a chair, and, knowing that she had failed the girl, wept for her helplessness.
Then Jessy came up and kissed her. "Don't fret; there's no need," she said. "I am young and strong, and would sooner starve than marry old Dixon."
As she moved to the door, Richardson advanced a step or two, until the foxhound turned and stood in front of him with the fur on its neck erect. This was the first time the farmer had been baulked at home, and there was a primitive vein in him. Besides, he was savage with disappointed greed.
"Bell's dog!" he exclaimed, and, picking up a chair, swung it round his head. He struck, and the dog, half stunned, fell back with bleeding mouth in the middle of its leap. Before it could recover, Richardson kicked it brutally with his thick iron-studded boots. It gave back, growling, and, driving it into a dairy that opened on the kitchen, he threw down the chair. When he turned and, breathing hard, looked about, the door was open and Jessy had vanished. He walked to the stone porch, but the night was dark. Rain was falling, and the wind wailed among the bare ash trees. He heard nothing else, and went back into the room.
"She's gone," he said. "Varra weel, that's done with! I'll hire a girl when I'm next at market."
He sat down and began to read a local newspaper, while Mrs. Richardson cried helplessly. She knew her husband, and Jessy was sometimes hard to move. There would be no reconciliation. The matter was done with; but after a time she began to feel disturbed, because the road to her sister's was rough and dark. There was a shorter way across the rocky fell, but one needed some nerve to take that path, and the shepherds only used it in daylight. Still, she durst not speak, and Richardson grimly read his newspaper. The peat-ash sank through the open grate, and the fire got low, but neither of them moved. All was very quiet, except for the wind in the chimney and the harsh ticking of the clock.
At length there was a sharp knock, and Stephen Bell came in, with the rain glistening on his mackintosh. Mrs. Richardson started, but her husband looked up sourly.
"You're ower-late, my lad. Jessy's not here."
"Where has she gone, and when did she start?"
"To her aunt's at Langrigg, I reckon, but dunnot ken. She went half an hour since, and she'll not come back."
"Ah," said Bell, "I suppose that means you turned her out?"
"No; the lass had her choice."
"She wouldn't heed when he wanted her to take Peter Dixon," Mrs. Richardson interposed, with a trembling glance at her husband.
"Thank you; I begin to understand," said Bell. But his eyes were stern and his face was set as he turned to Richardson. "It looks as if you had played an old trick and kept back my letters. How many did you stop?"
"Three," said the other. "They might have turned the foolish lass's head. You're cliver with the pen."
"You're a cunning brute," Bell rejoined, colouring angrily. "But that's no matter now. We've got to find the girl. Bring your pike-stick and a lantern."
"Why d'you want to find her?"
"For one thing, it's a wild, dark night, and the green road is easy to lose. Then I mean to ask her to marry me."
Richardson pondered for a moment or two. His plot had failed, and he could not bully Stephen Bell. Jessy was of age, and, while he despised his gentle wife, the girl had inherited something of his stubbornness. Indeed, he had been rather proud of her until she defied him; but he was very hard, and she had brought his plans to nothing. He could not stop Bell seeking her, but he would not help.
"I'm not coming," he said.
In the meantime Stephen had thought. If Jessy had gone by the green road to Langrigg, he might overtake her; but she might have gone across the fell. The rough track forked, and the shorter branch was dangerous in the dark. Then a noise he had been too engrossed to notice forced itself on his attention—a dog was scratching at the dairy door. As he flung the door open, the foxhound ran out and leaped upon him, trying to lick his hand, while blood dripped from its wounded mouth. Then it ran to the kitchen door and looked back.
"I don't need your help now," Stephen said to Richardson, and called to the dog. "Steady, Mungo! We're going to find her."
They went out, and Stephen saw nothing until he struck the gate with his arm; but there was a bark from the other side, and he knew the dog had jumped the wall. He went through, and braced his muscles as he met the wind and driving rain. Mungo would find Jessy, but he doubted if he could follow. Floundering across a belt of gravel, he fell into a beck, and, splashing across, picked his way up the bank. Then he threw down the broken gate of a stubble field and began to run. He missed the steps in the opposite wall, and scrambled over, while the stones he dislodged rattled down. His heart beat, he got breathless, and thought he had lost the dog, until a bark came out of the gloom ahead. It was obvious that Jessy had not gone by the green road.
Running across a boggy pasture, he came to another wall, and afterwards felt stones and heather under his feet. The dog's bark got faint, but Mungo was going up the dale, and he must not lose the animal until they reached the spot where the track forked. One branch went along the scree-foot and round by the tarn; the other straight across the top, along Rough-edge. He hoped Jessy had taken the former: but he knew the rocks, and was, perhaps, too disturbed by the quarrel to be cautious.
He knew when he reached the scree-foot, by the rattle of the stones he plunged across, and presently stopped, with straining chest, to listen. He felt his heart beat, and heard the wind roar and the rain beat upon the scree, but for a moment or two there was nothing else. Then a bark fell through the tossing mist, and he knew the dog was making for Rough-edge.
He found a sheep-path, and went up into mist that thickened as he climbed; but Mungo would now be unable to leave him far behind, because when it comes to crag work an agile man is better than a dog. The sheep-path presently turned off along the precipitous scree, where stones the wind shook loose rolled down with a tinkling noise; and Stephen went up a gully, sometimes clutching a wet stone, but, for the most part, trusting his feet. No woman, and very few men, from the cities could have reached Rough-edge in the dark; but Jessy was a daleswoman, and sometimes used the dangerous path.
When he came to a rocky pinnacle, shattered by frost and storm, Stephen stopped to get his breath. For a few yards he could see Rough-edge—a thin, dark line that faded into the mist. On one side a scree ran down much steeper than a roof; on the other a crag fell, nearly straight, for a hundred feet. The wind buffeted him, the rain whipped his face, and for some distance the edge was scarcely a yard wide. He began to feel a numbing fear, for Jessy was somewhere in front of him on the treacherous path; but he pulled himself up. If he dwelt upon the risk she ran, he would lose his nerve. There was another disturbing thing—Mungo was young, and Jessy had, perhaps, taken him to Langrigg along the edge. The dog would be puzzled to hunt by scent in the heavy rain and wind. Still, something must be left to luck, and Stephen went on.
At the end of the edge, where one must climb the steep shoulder of the fell, he found the dog at fault, searching here and there among the rocks. He saw its slender white form for a moment, and then it vanished; but it came back, and presently set off to the right with an eager bark. Stephen hesitated, because the path went straight up the fell, but be followed the dog, and soon an excited barking came out of the mist. He blundered forward, and stopped when he saw the white dog fawning upon a shadowy figure in a hollow behind a rock.
"Jessy!" he cried, and the girl got up.
"Oh," she said, "what do you want, Stephen Bell?"
"I came to find you. Mungo brought me."
"One can trust a dog—they are kind and true."
Stephen, remembering an admission of Richardson's, saw he must be cautious, and was glad that they could talk. The spot was sheltered, and the projecting rock kept off the rain.
"How did you get here?" he asked.
"I lost the path, and couldn't face the wind without a rest. But I thought you were in Leeds."
"I left this morning, and went to Raughton instead of going home."
"Then you have seen father," Jessy said, after a moment's hesitation.
"I have, and found out something that had puzzled me. I know why you didn't answer my letters—he kept them back."
"Ah," said Jessy, "I thought——" She stopped, and then resumed: "Well, perhaps it's not important."
"Anything you thought is important. But I begin to see. Your father didn't stop at burning my letters, but we'll let that go. I came home to ask if you would marry me."
He fixed his eyes upon the girl, and, although he could not see her well, she seemed to be standing very straight, and somehow her look was proud.
"Did you ask me when you wrote?"
"No," he said quietly, for her manner held him back. "Still, your silence hurt."
"If it hurt you, why did you wait? You could have got to Raughton in a few hours."
"The distance wasn't the obstacle. I meant to claim you when I came, but couldn't do so then. My pay was small, and the chance to make my mark hadn't come. When I got it, I came straight to Raughton, and Mungo brought me here."
The mist eddied about them, and Jessy's figure was indistinct, but Stephen imagined her strained pose relaxed.
"Then you didn't think that I was a farmer's daughter, and you might have got——"
Stephen stopped her with a joyful laugh. "You're ridiculous, Jessy! I'm a poor engineer, with a post at a new waterworks that may lead to a better job. In fact, I've so little to offer that I feel I'm a selfish brute; but you have pluck, and somehow I hope you won't be daunted by the risk."
"I shall not be afraid with you, Stephen," she said gently.
He took her in his arms, and, when he let her go, she called the dog and kissed its wet head. Then she gave her hand to Stephen, and they went on through the rain to Langrigg, while Mungo leaped about them.