The Holly-Tree Inn/The Poor Pensioner
THE POOR PENSIONER.
I met her in the corridor, walking to and fro, and muttering to herself with a down-looking aspect, and a severe economy of dress, the season considered. I wondered how she came there, and was, to say the least of it, decidedly startled when she stopped directly opposite me, and lifting a pair of blank, brown eyes to my face, said, in a stern voice:
"He was not guilty, my lord judge. God will right him yet. It will all come out some day. It can wait: yes I can wait. I am more patient than death; I am more patient than injustice."
I made a hasty and undignified retreat downstairs when she left the passage free, and, meeting the waiter, inquired who the woman was. The man touched his forehead significantly, and said that she was harmless (I was very glad to hear it); and that she lived on the broken victuals; and that his mistress always gave her a dinner on Christmas-day. While we were speaking together, she descended to where we stood, and repeated the exact formula of which she had made use before. She was a tall woman, strong-limbed, and thin to meagreness. She might be fifty, or perhaps fifty-five; her skin was withered, and tanned by exposure to all sorts of weathers, and her uncovered hair was burned to a rusty iron gray. The waiter suggested to her to go to the kitchen fire; at which she broke into a scornful laugh, and reiterated, "I am more patient than death. I am more patient than injustice," and then walked out at the open door into the snow. "I don't think she feels it, sir," said the waiter, opening my door for me to enter.
I do not think she did. I watched her from my window. She took up a handful of the newly-fallen snow and thrust it into her bosom, then hugged it close, as if it were a living thing, that could be warmed by that eager clasp; I saw also, as she turned her dark face up toward the sky, that the anger scowl left it. I should imagine that sensation in her was dead, except in one corner of her heart, to which had gathered the memory of some miserable wrong, whose acuteuess would bide with her to the day of her death.
Her name, as I learned on further inquiry, was Hester. She had been born and bred in the Yorkshire dales; her parents were of the yeoman class, and poor through improvidence rather than misfortune. As a girl, Hester was remarkable for her pride and her beauty, of which no more relics remained than are left of the summer rose-garden in drear and misty November. She received the scant education common to her condition half-a-century ago, and grew up a wild, wilful-tempered girl, impatient of all restraint, and eager for change and excitement. At sixteen she married, and very shortly afterward her husband found it expedient to leave the dales, and to enlist in a regiment which was ordered on foreign service. Hester followed him to India, and led the life of camps for several years. During this interval, her family lost sight of her completely; for, having parted in anger, no correspondence was kept up between them. This silence and separation lasted full nine years, during which time Death dealt hardly with those left at home. Of all the large family of sons and daughters whom the old people had seen grow up to man's and woman's estate, not one survived. Their hearts began to soften toward the offending child, and they made efforts to learn if the regiment to which her husband belonged had returned to England. It had not.
One bleak and wintry night, while the solitary and bereaved couple were sitting by their silent hearth—it was a very lonely and retired spot where the house stood—a heavy step came up the little garden path. Neither of them stirred. They thought it was one of the farm servants returning from the village, whither he had been sent on some errand. The curtains had not been closed over the window, and all the room, filled with the shine of a yule-tide fire, was visible to the wayfarer without. The mother sat facing the window; lifting her slow, dull gaze from the white wood-ashes on the hearth, she looked across toward it, and uttered alow, frightened cry. She saw a dark face peeping in at the glass, which wore the traits of her daughter Hester. She thought it was her wraith, and said so to the old man, who, taking a lantern, went out to see if anybody was lurking about. It was a very boisterous night: loud with wind, and black with clouds of sleety rain. At the threshold he stumbled over a dark form, which had crouched there for the slight shelter afforded by the porch. He lowered the lantern, and threw the light on the face of a woman.
"Dame! dame! It is our bairn; it is little Hester!"
The mother appeared, and, with a great gasping cry, recognized her daughter.
They led her into the house, toward the glowing heat of the fire, and set her down by the hearth; for her limbs would scarcely support her. Hester wore a thin and ragged cloak, beneath the folds of which she had hidden her child from the storm. He had fallen asleep in her bosom; but as her mother removed the dripping garment from her shoulders, he woke up with a laugh of childish surprise and pleasure. He was a fine, well-grown boy, of from six to seven years old, and showed none of those signs of want and suffering which had given premature age upon the wasted features and gaunt frame of his mother. It was some time before Hester recovered from her frozen exhaustion, and then her first and eager demand was for food for the child.
"Oh heaven pity me!" cried the old woman, who was weeping over the pair. "Hester and her lad starving, while there was to spare at home!" She supplied their wants soon, and would have taken the boy; but Hester held him to her with a close and jealous grasp, chafing his limbs, warming his little hands in her bosom, and covering his hand with passionate kisses.
He fell asleep in her arms at last; and then she told her brief story. She was widowed; her husband had died in India from a wound-fever, and she had been sent home to England; on her arrival there she found herself destitute, and had traversed the country on foot, subsisting by the casual charity of strangers. Thus much she said, and no more. She indulged in no details of her own exquisite suffering; perhaps they were forgotten, when she ended by saying, " Thank the Lord, the lad is saved!"
Hester lived on at the farm with her parents; and, as the old man failed more and more daily, she took the vigorous management of it upon herself, and things throve with them. By degrees, her beauty was restored, and then she had repeated offers of marriage; for, the inheritance which would be hers at her father's death was by no means despicable. But, she kept herself single, for the lad's sake. Wilfred grew strong, handsome, and high-spirited—like his mother, indeed, with whom, much as they loved each other, he had many a fierce contention. He never could bear to be thwarted or checked by her, and of ten Hester, in the bitterness of her unbridled anger, would cry, "O Wilfred! it would have been better for thee and thy mother if we had died on the door-stone in the snow, that night we came home."
Still, she had an intense pride in him; and always after their quarrels, she allowed his extravagance to have freer scope, though that was what usually led to their disputes. As might have been expected, Wilfred, under such uncertain training, became reckless, wild, and domineering, though he preserved a certain rough generosity and frankness of character which redeemed his faults, and made him a favorite with the country folks, and a sort of king among his companions, whose superior in all rustic sports he was.
His grandfather died when he was nineteen; his grandmother, eighteen months later. Then Hester was sole mistress of the little farm. Wilfred soon began to urge his mother to sell the property and leave the dales, whose uneventful quiet fretted his restless disposition. This she absolutely refused to do: and was on one occasion so deeply irritated at his persistence as to say:
"I would sell the Ings to save your life, Wilfred, but for nothing less I"
There was at this time, living on a neighboring farm, an old man of the name of Price, who had a granddaughter to keep his house. She was called Nelly; and besides being a small heiress, was a beauty and something of a coquette. Nelly had a short, plump little figure; a complexion as soft and clear as a blush-rose, and auburn hair. Wilfred fell in love. He was a tall, hardy, self-willed and proud young fellow; but in Nelly's hands he was plastic as wax, and weak as water. She encouraged him, teased him, caressed him, mocked him, set him beside himself. She played off all her little witcheries and fascinations up- on him; looked sweetly unconscious of their mischievous influence; and, when Wilfred stormed and raved, she laughed in his face. He wanted to marry her immediately; she had played with him long enough, he thought; and one evening when she had been soft and coy, rather than teasing, he put his fortune to the proof. She told him flatly she did not like him—wherein Nelly told anything but the truth, as perhaps better women have done under like circumstances.
Wilfred took her reply in earnest, and went away in a rage—mad, jealous, and burning with passionate disappointment. Hester hated Kelly, and gave her not a few hard words; for in her camp life, the mother had culled some epithets, more expressive than polite, which she used with vigorous truth when her wrath was excited. She kept her son's wound raw and sore by frequent scornful allusions to his "Nelly Graceless," and did her best to widen the breach between them with ample success.
Wilfred staid away from the Prices' for ten whole days.
This desertion did not suit the golden-headed, but tinsel-hearted little coquette. She contrived to meet him in a shady wood-walk, where they had often loitered together. He was out with his dog and gun; very ill at ease in mind, for his handsome face looked sullen and dangerous, and he would not see her as she passed by. Mortified and angry, Nelly went home and cried herself ill. Wilfred heard she had caught a fever, and must needs go to ask. She met him at the garden gate, with a smile and a blush; whereat Wilfred was so glad, that he forgot to reproach her. There was, in consequence, a complete reconciliation, ratified by kisses and promises—light coin with beauty Nell, but real heart-gold with poor infatuated Wilfred. Hester almost despised her son when she heard of it.
"She is only fooling thee, lad!" said she, indignantly. "Come a richer suitor to the door, she'll throw thee over. She is only a light, false-hearted lass, not worth a whistle of thine."
Therein Hester spake truth.
Nelly played with her lover as a cat plays with a mouse. Wilfred urged their marriage. She would one day, and the next day she would not. Then arose other difficulties. Hester did not want an interloper by her fireside, and would not give up the farm to her son; in fact, she was so jealous of his affection, that the thought of his marriage was hateful to her. Old Price said the young folks might settle with him, if they would; but Nelly liked the house at the Ings better, and thought Wilfred ought to take her there. When he explained that the property was his mother's for her life, she immediately accused him of not loving her, and assumed a decided coldness and repulsiveness of manner. Wilfred, both hurt and angry, tried to give her up, but his bonds were not so easily escaped. If he staid away from her two days, on the third he was sure to be at her side, either winning her with tender words, or reproaching her with bitter ones. Nelly must have found the game a pleasant one, for she kept it up a long time, under-going herself as many changes of hue and form as a bubble blown up into the sunshine.
Frequently during his lengthy visits at the Glebe Farm, Wilfred had encountered a man, Joseph Rigby by name, a dales-yeoman, and one of considerable wealth, but no education. This man was one of the last in the world to excite jealousy; but presently Wilfred was compelled to see that Nelly gave the coarse-mannered, middle-aged Rigby, more of her attentions than consorted with her position as his promised wife. He charged her with the fact. At first she denied it with blushes, and tears, and loud protestations; but at last confessed that Rigby had proposed to her—she did not dare to add that she had half-accepted him. They parted in mutual displeasure: and old Price said, as they agreed so badly, they had better break oft" the match, and Nelly should marry Joseph Rigby, who was well-to-do, and would know how to keep his wife in order. Wilfred went near her no more.
Presently it was rumored in the country-side that Nelly Price and Mr. Rigby were to be married after the October fairs. Hester sneered, prophesied that the rich yeoman would repent his bargain before St. Mark's, and rejoiced greatly at her son's escape. Meanwhile Wilfred went about the farm and the house, silent, moody, and spiritless. He was quite changed, and, as his mother thought, for the letter. Instead of associating with his former companions, he staid much at home, and again renewed his entreaties that his mother would sell the Ings, and leave the dales together. He wanted to emigrate. He did not care where they went, so that they got away from that hateful place. Hester was as reluctant as ever to comply; but she modified her refusal—they would try a year longer: if he were still in the same mind at the end of that period—well, perhaps she would yield to his urgent wishes.
On the morning of the Leeford Fair he left home early, and returned toward dusk—so it was said by Hester. No other person saw him until noon next day. Joseph Rigby was found murdered, and thrown into a gully by the Leeford road that night. There were traces of a violent struggle upon the road, and the body had been dragged some distance. It had been rifled of money and watch, but a broad engraved ring which Rigby wore on the fourth finger of his left hand, was not removed. He was known to have left the market-hall at Leeford with a considerable sum in gold upon his person, for his brother-in-law had remonstrated with him about carrying so much; but the doomed man made light of his warnings. The whole country-side was up, for the murder was a barbarous one. Suspicion fell at once on Hester's son. His behavior at Leeford had attracted observation. He had been seen to use angry gestures to Rigby, who had laughed at him, and had offered the young man his hand, as if wishing to be friends; the other had rejected it, and turned away shaking his clenched fist. He had also been seen to mount his horse at the inn-door, and ride off in the afternoon. Rigby started about an hour later, and alone. He was seen no more until his body was found in the ditch by some men going to their work in the morning.
When Wilfred was taken, he and his mother were sitting by the fireside together: she sewing, he reading. It was toward twilight, and he had not been over the threshold all day. He was very downcast and gloomy; irritable when spoken to, and short in his answers. His mother said to him that he was very strange, and added that she wished he would give over hankering after Nelly Graceless. He laughed painfully, and did not lift his eyes from his book. There was a loud knock at the door. Hester rose and opened it. Three men pushed their way into the house, the foremost asking if her son was at home. "Yes; he is there by the fire. What do you want with him?"
"You must come with us, Mr. Wilfred—nay, it's no use showing fight," cried a burly, muscular fellow, laying his hand heavily on his shoulder; for Wilfred had turned deadly pale, and had attempted to shake off the man's grasp.
"What is it for?" asked Hester, with her eyes on her son.
"God knows—I don't," said he, quietly.
"Mr. Rigby was robbed and murdered last night, as he came home from Leeford Fair, and suspicion points at your lad, mistress," said the man, who still held his hand on Wilfred's shoulder.
Hester gave utterance to no frantic denials; she laughed even.
"Why he was at home by this hour, yesterday, in this very room, at his tea. Wasn't he, Jessy?" said she, turning to the maid-servant; who, with a countenance of alarm, stood by the door.
The girl said "Yes"; then hesitated, and said she didn't see young master when she brought in tea.
"I was upstairs," said Wilfred.
"You had better keep that for another time and place ; you must go with us now," observed the man.
Wilfred made no resistance. His mother brought him his coat and helped him to put it on.
"Say thou didn't do it, Willy—only say so I " whispered she, fiercely.
"I didn't, mother: so help me God!" was his fervent reply.
"You hear him!" cried Hester, turning to the men; "you hear him! He never lied in his days. He might have killed Rigby in a fair fight, or in hot blood; but he is not the lad to lie in wait at night, to murder his enemy and rob him! He is not a thief, this son of mine!"
The officers urged their departure. Wilfred was placed in the vehicle which had been brought for the purpose, and driven off. "I'll follow thee, Willy!" cried his mother. "Keep up thy heart; they can't touch thee! Good-bye, my poor lad!" They were out of hearing, and Hester turned back into the house, cursing Nelly Graceless in her heart.
Wilfred was committed to take his trial at the winter jail-delivery on a charge of wilful murder. The evidence against him was overwhelming. Hester sold Ings and collected all the money she could, that, if gold would buy his redemption, it might be done; for herself, she had perfect faith in his innocence, and was confident of his acquittal, but few persons, if any shared in her feelings. The best legal advice had been retained for the accused, and the trial came on shortly before Christmas. Hester was the only witness for her son. The woman Jessy's evidence damaged his cause considerably. She contradicted herself over and over again, and at last, flurried and confused, she burst into tears, and crying out that she would say anything to get her young master off. There was nobody to speak with certainty as to the prisoner's having been at home by a certain hour but his mother; he had put his horse into the stable himself, the groom being absent at the fair, and Jessy could not swear that he was in to tea; she believed not; only one cup was used.
Two witnesses, laborers on a farm near the Ings, swore to having seen and spoken to the prisoner after the hour stated; they said he was riding fast, and seemed agitated, but it was too dark to see his face. Nelly Price also had her word against him; it was drawn from her reluctantly, in the midst of shame-faced tears and noisy sobs, but it quite overthrew the attempt to prove an alibi. She stated that she had watched until dark, in the garden, for Wilfred's return from Leeford, and had not seen him go by. The prisoner never looked toward her, but murmured that he had gone home by the bridle-road and Low Lane to avoid passing the Glebe Farm. The former witnesses, on being recalled, said that it was on the highway, nearly a mile from the place where the lower road branched off, and nearer to the Ings, that they encountered the accused. These two decent men, being strictly cross-examined, never swerved from their first story an iota, and agreed in every particular. They were individuals of decent character; both had worked on the prisoner's farm, and acknowledged him to be a liberal and kind master. Their evidence was not to be shaken. As a final and damning proof of guilt, the watch of which the nmrdered man had been robbed was produced; it had been found concealed under the thatch of an out-house at the Ings. At this point of the evidence, the prisoner was observed to draw himself up and look round defiantly,—despair gave him a fictitious strength, perhaps, or, was it conscious innocence!
Wilfred spoke in his own defence, briefly, but strongly. His life, he said, was sworn away, but he was as guiltless of the crime laid to his charge as any of those gentlemen who sat in judgment upon him. His mother, who had remahied in court all the time and had never spoken except when called upon for her evidence, had preserved a stoical calmness throughout. When he ceased to speak, however, she cried out in a quivering voice.
"My lad, thy mother believes thee!"
Some friend would have led her out, but she refused to go. The jury gave their verdict of guilty without any recommendation to mercy, and the sentence of death was pronounced. Then it was that Hester rose on her feet and faltered that formula of words with which she had startled me in the corridor:
"He is not guilty, my lord judge. God will right him yet. It will all come out some day. I can wait; yes, I can wait. I am more patient than death. I am more patient than injustice."
Wilfred died stubborn and unconfessing; on the scaffold, with his last breath, he persisted in asserting his innocence. His mother bade him farewell, and was carried to this inn, where she had stayed, raving in a frenzy-fit. For many months she was subject to restraint, but, recovering in some measure, she was at length set at liberty. Her mind was still distraught, however; she wandered back to the dales and to her old home, but the new owner had taken possession, and after enduring her intrusions for some time, he was compelled to apply for her removal.
After this, her money being lost or exhausted, she strayed about the country in a purposeless way; begging or doing day's work in the field, until she strayed here again, and became the Pensioner of the Holly Tree. The poor demented creature is always treated kindly, but her son's sentence has not yet been reversed in men's judgment. Every morning during the time the judges are in the neighboring Assize town she waits in one of the streets through which they must pass to reach the court; and as the gilded coach, the noisy trumpets, and the decrepit halberdiers, go by, she scowls at them from beneath her shaggy brows, and mutters her formula of defiance. She will die saying it; comforting her poor, worn, wounded heart with its smarting balm.
Will she find, when she comes before the Tribunal of Eternal decrees, that she has leaned thus upon a broken reed, or will she find her son there, free from the guilt of blood?
The Great Judge only knows.