'Come away, lass,' whispered Beauty, very pale; 'he's here—Tom Brice.'
And she led the way, shoving aside the leafless underwood, and we reached Tom. The slender youth, groom or poacher—he might answer for either—with his short coat and gaitered legs, was sitting on a low horizontal bough, with his shoulder against the trunk.
'Don't ye mind; sit ye still, lad,' said Meg, observing that he was preparing to rise, and had entangled his hat in the boughs. 'Sit ye still, and hark to the lady. He'll take it, Miss Maud, if he can; wi' na ye, lad?'
'E'es, I'll take it,' he replied, holding out his hand.
'Tom Brice, you won't deceive me?'
'Noa, sure,' said Tom and Meg nearly in the same breath.
'You are an honest English lad, Tom—you would not betray me?' I was speaking imploringly.
'Noa, sure,' repeated Tom.
There was something a little unsatisfactory in the countenance of this light-haired youth, with the sharpish upturned nose. Throughout our interview he said next to nothing, and smiled lazily to himself, like a man listening to a child's solemn nonsense, and leading it on, with an amused irony, from one wise sally to another.
Thus it seemed to me that this young clown, without in the least intending to be offensive, was listening to me with a profound and lazy mockery.
I could not choose, however; and, such as he was, I must employ him or none.
'Now, Tom Brice, a great deal depends on this.'
'That's true for her, Tom Brice,' said Meg, who now and then confirmed my asseverations.
'I'll give you a pound now, Tom,' and I placed the coin and the letter together in his hand. 'And you are to give this letter to Lady Knollys, at Elverston; you know Elverston, don't you?'
'He does, Miss. Don't ye, lad?'
'Well, do so, Tom, and I'll be good to you so long as I live.'
'D'ye hear, lad?'
'E'es,' said Tom; 'it's very good.'
'You'll take the letter, Tom? 'I said, in much greater trepidation as to his answer than I showed.
'E'es, I'll take the letter,' said he, rising, and turning it about in his fingers under his eye, like a curiosity.
'Tom Brice,' I said, 'If you can't be true to me, say so; but don't take the letter except to give it to Lady Knollys, at Elverston. If you won't promise that, let me have the note back. Keep the pound; but tell me that you won't mention my having asked you to carry a letter to Elverston to anyone.'
For the first time Tom looked perfectly serious. He twiddled the corner of my letter between his finger and thumb, and wore very much the countenance of a poacher about to be committed.
'I don't want to chouce ye, Miss; but I must take care o' myself, ye see. The letters goes all through Silas's fingers to the post, and he'd know damn well this worn't among 'em. They do say he opens 'em, and reads 'em before they go; an' that's his diversion. I don't know; but I do believe that's how it be; an' if this one turned up, they'd all know it went be hand, and I'd be spotted for't.'
'But you know who I am, Tom, and I'd save you,' said I, eagerly.
'Ye'd want savin' yerself, I'm thinkin', if that feel oot,' said Tom, cynically. 'I don't say, though, I'll not take it—only this—I won't run my head again a wall for no one.'
'Tom,' I said, with a sudden inspiration, 'give me back the letter, and take me out of Bartram; take me to Elverston; it will be the best thing—for you, Tom, I mean—it will indeed—that ever befell you.'
With this clown I was pleading, as for my life; my hand was on his sleeve. I was gazing imploringly in his face.
But it would not do; Tom Brice looked amused again, swung his head a little on one side, grinning sheepishly over his shoulder on the roots of the trees beside him, as if he were striving to keep himself from an uncivil fit of laughter.
'I'll do what a wise lad may, Miss; but ye don't know they lads; they bain't that easy come over; and I won't get knocked on the head, nor sent to gaol 'appen, for no good to thee nor me. There's Meg there, she knows well enough I could na' manage that; so I won't try it, Miss, by no chance; no offence, Miss; but I'd rayther not, an' I'll just try what I can make o'this; that's all I can do for ye.'
Tom Brice, with these words, stood up, and looked uneasily in the direction of the Windmill Wood.
'Mind ye, Miss, coom what will, ye'll not tell o' me?'
'Whar 'ill ye go now, Tom?' inquired Meg, uneasily.
'Never ye mind, lass,' answered he, breaking his way through the thicket, and soon disappearing.
'E'es that 'ill be it—he'll git into the sheepwalk behind the mound. They're all down yonder; git ye back, Miss, to the hoose—be the side-door; mind ye, don't go round the corner; and I'll jest sit awhile among the bushes, and wait a good time for a start. And good-bye, Miss; and don't ye show like as if there was aught out o' common on your mind. Hish!'
There was a distant hallooing.
'That be fayther!' she whispered, with a very blank countenance, and listened with her sunburnt hand to her ear.
'Tisn't me, only Davy he'll be callin',' she said, with a great sigh, and a joyless smile. 'Now git ye away i' God's name.'
So running lightly along the path, under cover of this thick wood, I recalled Mary Quince, and together we hastened back again to the house, and entered, as directed, by the side-door, which did not expose us to be seen from the Windmill Wood, and, like two criminals, we stole up by the backstairs, and so through the side-gallery to my room; and there sat down to collect my wits, and try to estimate the exact effect of what had just occurred.
Madame had not returned. That was well; she always visited my room first, and everything was precisely as I had left it—a certain sign that her prying eyes and busy fingers had not been at work during my absence.
When she did appear, strange to say, it was to bring me unexpected comfort. She had in her hand a letter from my dear Lady Knollys—a gleam of sunlight from the free and happy outer world entered with it. The moment Madame left me to myself, I opened it and read as follows:—
'I am so happy, my dearest Maud, in the immediate prospect of seeing you. I have had a really kind letter from poor Silas—poor I say, for I really compassionate his situation, about which he has been, I do believe, quite frank—at least Ilbury says so, and somehow he happens to know. I have had quite an affecting, changed letter. I will tell you all when I see you. He wants me ultimately to undertake that which would afford me the most unmixed happiness—I mean the care of you, my dear girl. I only fear lest my too eager acceptance of the trust should excite that vein of opposition which is in most human beings, and induce him to think over his offer less favourably again. He says I must come to Bartram, and stay a night, and promises to lodge me comfortably; about which last I honestly do not care a pin, when the chance of a comfortable evening's gossip with you is in view. Silas explains his sad situation, and must hold himself in readiness for early flight, if he would avoid the risk of losing his personal liberty. It is a sad thing that he should have so irretrievably ruined himself, that poor Austin's liberality seems to have positively precipitated his extremity. His great anxiety is that I should see you before you leave for your short stay in France. He thinks you must leave before a fortnight. I am thinking of asking you to come over here; I know you would be just as well at Elverston as in France; but perhaps, as he seems disposed to do what we all wish, it may be safer to let him set about it in his own way. The truth is, I have so set my heart upon it that I fear to risk it by crossing him even in a trifle. He says I must fix an early day next week, and talks as if he meant to urge me to make a longer visit than he defined. I shall be only too happy. I begin, my dear Maud, to think that there is no use in trying to control events, and that things often turn out best, and most exactly to our wishes, by being left quite to themselves. I think it was Talleyrand who praised the talent of waiting so much. In high spirits, and with my head brimful of plans, I remain, dearest Maud, ever your affectionate cousin,
MONICA.' Here was an inexplicable puzzle! A faint radiance of hope, however, began to overspread a landscape only a few minutes before darkened by total eclipse; but construct what theory I might, all were inconsistent with many well-established and awful incongruities, and their wrecks lay strown over the troubled waters of the gulf into which I gazed. Why was Madame here? Why was Dudley concealed about the place? Why was I a prisoner within the walls? What were those dangers which Meg Hawkes seemed to think so great and so imminent as to induce her to risk her lover's safety for my deliverance? All these menacing facts stood grouped together against the dark certainty that never were men more deeply interested in making away with one human being, than were Uncle Silas and Dudley in removing me. Sometimes to these dreadful evidences I abandoned my soul. Sometimes, reading Cousin Monica's sunny letter, the sky would clear, and my terrors melt away like nightmares in the morning. I never repented, however, that I had sent my letter by Tom Brice. Escape from Bartram-Haugh was my hourly longing. That evening Madame invited herself to tea with me. I did not object. It was better just then to be on friendly relations with everybody, if possible, even on their own terms. She was in one of her boisterous and hilarious moods, and there was a perfume of brandy. She narrated some compliments paid her that morning in Feltram by that 'good crayature' Mrs. Litheways, the silk-mercer, and what ansom faylow' was her new foreman—(she intended plainly that I should 'queez' her)—and how 'he follow' her with his eyes wherever she went. I thought, perhaps, he fancied she might pocket some of his lace or gloves. And all the time her great wicked eyes were rolling and glancing according to her ideas of fascination, and her bony face grinning and flaming with the 'strong drink' in which she delighted. She sang twaddling chansons, and being, as was her wont under such exhilarating influences, in a vapouring mood, she vowed that I should have my carriage and horses immediately. 'I weel try what I can do weeth your Uncle Silas. We are very good old friends, Mr. Ruthyn and I,' she said with a leer which I did not understand, and which yet frightened me. I never could quite understand why these Jezebels like to insinuate the dreadful truth against themselves; but they do. Is it the spirit of feminine triumph overcoming feminine shame, and making them vaunt their fall as an evidence of bygone fascination and existing power? Need we wonder? Have not women preferred hatred to indifference, and the reputation of witchcraft, with all its penalties, to absolute insignificance? Thus, as they enjoyed the fear inspired among simple neighbours by their imagined traffic with the father of ill, did Madame, I think, relish with a cynical vainglory the suspicion of her satanic superiority. Next morning Uncle Silas sent for me. He was seated at his table, and spoke his little French greeting, smiling as usual, pointing to a chair opposite. 'How far, I forget,' he said, carelessly laying his newspaper on the table, 'did you yesterday guess Dudley to be?' 'Eleven hundred miles I thought it was.' 'Oh yes, so it was;' and then there was an abstracted pause. 'I have been writing to Lord Ilbury, your trustee,' he resumed. I ventured to say, my dear Maud—(for having thoughts of a different arrangement for you, more suitable under my distressing circumstances, I do not wish to vacate without some expression of your estimate of my treatment of you while under my roof)—I ventured to say that you thought me kind, considerate, indulgent,—may I say so?' I assented. What could I say? 'I said you had enjoyed our poor way of living here—our rough ways and liberty. Was I right?' Again I assented. 'And, in fact, that you had nothing to object against your poor old uncle, except indeed his poverty, which you forgave. I think I said truth. Did I, dear Maud?' Again I acquiesced. All this time he was fumbling among the papers in his coatpocket. 'That is satisfactory. So I expected you to say,' he murmured. 'I expected no less.' On a sudden a frightful change spread across his face. He rose like a spectre with a white scowl. 'Then how do you account for that?' he shrieked in a voice of thunder, and smiting my open letter to Lady Knollys, face upward, upon the table. I stared at my uncle, unable to speak, until I seemed to lose sight of him; but his voice, like a bell, still yelled in my ears. 'There! young hypocrite and liar! explain that farrago of slander which you bribed my servant to place in the hands of my kinswoman, Lady Knollys.' And so on and on it went, I gazing into darkness, until the voice itself became indistinct, grew into a buzz, and hummed away into silence. I think I must have had a fit. When I came to myself I was drenched with water, my hair, face, neck, and dress. I did not in the least know where I was. I thought my father was ill, and spoke to him. Uncle Silas was standing near the window, looking unspeakably grim. Madame was seated beside me, and an open bottle of ether, one of Uncle Silas's restoratives, on the table before me. 'Who's that—who's ill—is anyone dead?' I cried. At last I was relieved by long paroxysms of weeping. When I was sufficiently recovered, I was conveyed into my own room.