English Literature

A Life’s Secret by Mrs. Henry Wood

A Life's Secret by Mrs. Henry Wood.jpg

CHAPTER I.WAS THE LADY MAD?

On the outskirts of Ketterford, a town of some note in the heart of England, stood, a few years ago, a white house, its green lawn, surrounded by shrubs and flowers, sloping down to the high road. It probably stands there still, looking as if not a day had passed over its head since, for houses can be renovated and made, so to say, new again, unlike men and women. A cheerful, bright, handsome house, of moderate size, the residence of Mr. Thornimett.

At the distance of a short stone’s-throw, towards the open country, were sundry workshops and sheds—a large yard intervening between them and the house. They belonged to Mr. Thornimett; and the timber and other characteristic materials lying about the yard would have proclaimed their owner’s trade without the aid of the lofty sign-board—’Richard Thornimett, Builder and Contractor.’ His business was extensive for a country town.

[Pg 12]

Entering the house by the pillared portico, and crossing the black-and-white floor-cloth of the hall to the left, you came to a room whose windows looked towards the timber-yard. It was fitted up as a sort of study, or counting-house, though the real business counting-house was at the works. Matting was on its floor; desks and stools stood about; maps and drawings, plain and coloured, were on its walls; not finished and beautiful landscapes, such as issue from the hands of modern artists, or have descended to us from the great masters, but skeleton designs of various buildings—churches, bridges, terraces—plans to be worked out in actuality, not to be admired on paper. This room was chiefly given over to Mr. Thornimett’s pupil: and you may see him in it now.

A tall, gentlemanly young fellow, active and upright; his name, Austin Clay. It is Easter Monday in those long-past years—and yet not so very long past, either—and the works and yard are silent to-day. Strictly speaking, Austin Clay can no longer be called a pupil, for he is twenty-one, and his articles are out. The house is his home; Mr. and Mrs. Thornimett, who have no children of their own, are almost as his father and mother. They have said nothing to him about leaving, and he has said nothing to them. The town, in its busy interference, gratuitously opined that ‘Old Thornimett would be taking him into partnership.’ Old Thornimett had given no indication of what he might intend to do, one way or the other.

Austin Clay was of good parentage, of gentle birth.[Pg 13] Left an orphan at the age of fourteen, with very small means, not sufficient to complete his education, Ketterford wondered what was to become of him, and whether he had not better get rid of himself by running away to sea. Mr. Thornimett stepped in and solved the difficulty. The late Mrs. Clay—Austin’s mother—and Mrs. Thornimett were distantly related, and perhaps a certain sense of duty in the matter made itself heard; that, at least, combined with the great fact that the Thornimett household was childless. The first thing they did was to take the boy home for the Christmas holidays; the next, was to tell him he should stay there for good. Not to be adopted as their son, not to leave him a fortune hereafter, Mr. Thornimett took pains to explain to him, but to make him into a man, and teach him to earn his own living.

‘Will you be apprenticed to me, Austin?’ subsequently asked Mr. Thornimett.

‘Can’t I be articled, sir?’ returned Austin, quickly.

‘Articled?’ repeated Mr. Thornimett, with a laugh. He saw what was running in the boy’s mind. He was a plain man himself; had built up his own fortunes just as he had built the new house he lived in; had risen, in fact, as many a working man does rise: but Austin’s father was a gentleman. ‘Well, yes, you can be articled, if you like it better,’ he said; ‘but I shall never call it anything but apprenticed; neither will the trade. You’ll have to work, young sir.’

‘I don’t care how hard I work, or what I do,’ cried Austin, earnestly. ‘There’s no degradation in work.’

[Pg 14]

Thus it was settled; and Austin Clay became bound pupil to Richard Thornimett.

‘Old Thornimett and his wife have done it out of charity,’ quoth Ketterford.

No doubt they had. But as the time passed on they grew very fond of him. He was an open-hearted, sweet-tempered, generous boy, and one of them at least, Mr. Thornimett, detected in him the qualities that make a superior man. Privileges were accorded him from the first: the going on with certain of his school duties, for which masters came to him out of business hours—drawing, mathematics, and modern languages chiefly—and Austin went on himself with Latin and Greek. With the two latter Mrs. Thornimett waged perpetual war. What would be the use of them to him, she was always asking, and Austin, in his pleasant, laughing way, would rejoin that they might help to make him a gentleman. He was that already: Austin Clay, though he might not know it, was a true gentleman born.

Had they repented their bargain? He was twenty-one now, and out of his articles, or his time, as it was commonly called. No, not for an instant. Never a better servant had Richard Thornimett; never, he would have told you, one so good. With all his propensity to be a ‘gentleman,’ Austin Clay did not shrink from his work; but did it thoroughly. His master in his wisdom had caused him to learn his business practically; but, that accomplished, he kept him to overlooking, and to other light duties, just as he might have done by a son of his own. It had told well.

[Pg 15]

Easter Monday, and a universal holiday Mr. Thornimett had gone out on horseback, and Austin was in the pupil’s room. He sat at a desk, his stool on the tilt, one hand unconsciously balancing a ruler, the other supporting his head, which was bent over a book.

‘Austin!’

The call, rather a gentle one, came from outside the door. Austin, buried in his book, did not hear it.

‘Austin Clay!’

He heard that, and started up. The door opened in the same moment, and an old lady, dressed in delicate lavender print, came briskly in. Her cap of a round, old-fashioned shape, was white as snow, and a bunch of keys hung from her girdle. It was Mrs. Thornimett.

‘So you are here!’ she exclaimed, advancing to him with short, quick steps, a sort of trot. ‘Sarah said she was sure Mr. Austin had not gone out. And now, what do you mean by this?’ she added, bending her spectacles, which she always wore, on his open book. ‘Confining yourself indoors this lovely day over that good-for-nothing Hebrew stuff!’

Austin turned his eyes upon her with a pleasant smile. Deep-set grey eyes they were, earnest and truthful, with a great amount of thought in them for a young man. His face was a pleasing, good-looking face, without being a handsome one, its complexion pale, clear, and healthy, and the hair rather dark. There was not much of beauty in the countenance, but there was plenty of firmness and good sense.

‘It is not Hebrew, Mrs. Thornimett. Hebrew and I[Pg 16] are strangers to each other. I am only indulging myself with a bit of old Homer.’

‘All useless, Austin. I don’t care whether it is Greek or Hebrew, or Latin or French. To pore over those rubbishing dry books whenever you get the chance, does you no good. If you did not possess a constitution of iron, you would have been laid upon a sick-bed long ago.’

Austin laughed outright. Mrs. Thornimett’s prejudices against what she called ‘learning,’ had grown into a proverb. Never having been troubled with much herself, she, like the Dutch professor told of by George Primrose, ‘saw no good in it.’ She lifted her hand and closed the book.

‘May I not spend my time as I like upon a holiday?’ remonstrated Austin, half vexed, half in good humour.

‘No,’ said she, authoritatively; ‘not when the day is warm and bright as this. We do not often get so fair an Easter. Don’t you see that I have put off my winter clothing?’

‘I saw that at breakfast.’

‘Oh, you did notice that, did you? I thought you and Mr. Thornimett were both buried in that newspaper. Well, Austin, I never make the change till I think warm weather is really coming in: and so it ought to be, for Easter is late this year. Come, put that book up.’

Austin obeyed, a comical look of grievance on his face. ‘I declare you order me about just as you did when I came here first, a miserable little muff of [Pg 17]fourteen. You’ll never get another like me, Mrs. Thornimett. As if I had not enough outdoor work every day in the week! And I don’t know where on earth to go to. It’s like turning a fellow out of house and home!’

‘You are going out for me, Austin. The master left a message for the Lowland farm, and you shall take it over, and stay the day with them. They will make as much of you as they would of a king. When Mrs. Milton was here the other day, she complained that you never went over now; she said she supposed you were growing above them.’

‘What nonsense!’ said Austin, laughing. ‘Well, I’ll go there for you at once, without grumbling. I like the Miltons.’

‘You can walk, or you can take the pony gig: whichever you like.’

‘I will walk,’ replied Austin, with alacrity, putting his book inside the large desk. ‘What is the message, Mrs. Thornimett?’

‘The message——’

Mrs. Thornimett came to a sudden pause, very much as if she had fallen into a dream. Her eyes were gazing from the window into the far distance, and Austin looked in the same direction: but there was not anything to be seen.

‘There’s nothing there, lad. It is but my own thoughts. Something is troubling me, Austin. Don’t you think the master has seemed very poorly of late?’

‘N—o,’ replied Austin, slowly, and with some [Pg 18]hesitation, for he was half doubting whether something of the sort had not struck him. Certainly the master—as Mr. Thornimett was styled indiscriminately on the premises both by servants and workpeople, so that Mrs. Thornimett often fell into the same habit—was not the brisk man he used to be. ‘I have not noticed it particularly.’

‘That is like the young; they never see anything,’ she murmured, as if speaking to herself. ‘Well, Austin, I have; and I can tell you that I do not like the master’s looks, or the signs I detect in him. Especially did I not like them when he rode forth this morning.’

‘All that I have observed is that of late he seems to be disinclined for business. He seems heavy, sleepy, as though it were a trouble to him to rouse himself, and he complains sometimes of headache. But, of course——’

‘Of course, what?’ asked Mrs. Thornimett. ‘Why do you hesitate?’

‘I was going to say that Mr. Thornimett is not as young as he was,’ continued Austin, with some deprecation.

‘He is sixty-six, and I am sixty-three. But, you must be going. Talking of it, will not mend it. And the best part of the day is passing.’

‘You have not given me the message,’ he said, taking up his hat which lay beside him.

‘The message is this,’ said Mrs. Thornimett, lowering her voice to a confidential tone, as she glanced round[Pg 19] to see that the door was shut. ‘Tell Mr. Milton that Mr. Thornimett cannot answer for that timber merchant about whom he asked. The master fears he might prove a slippery customer; he is a man whom he himself would trust as far as he could see, but no farther. Just say it into Mr. Milton’s private ear, you know.’

‘Certainly. I understand,’ replied the young man, turning to depart.

‘You see now why it might not be convenient to despatch any one but yourself. And, Austin,’ added the old lady, following him across the hall, ‘take care not to make yourself ill with their Easter cheesecakes. The Lowland farm is famous for them.’

‘I will try not,’ returned Austin.

He looked back at her, nodding and laughing as he traversed the lawn, and from thence struck into the open road. His way led him past the workshops, closed then, even to the gates, for Easter Monday in that part of the country is a universal holiday. A few minutes, and he turned into the fields; a welcome change from the dusty road. The field way might be a little longer, but it was altogether pleasanter. Easter was late that year, as Mrs. Thornimett observed, and the season was early. The sky was blue and clear, the day warm and lovely; the hedges were budding into leaf, the grass was growing, the clover, the buttercups, the daisies were springing; and an early butterfly fluttered past Austin.

‘You have taken wing betimes,’ he said, addressing the unconscious insect. ‘I think summer must be at hand.’

Halting for a moment to watch the flight, he strode[Pg 20] on the quicker afterwards. Supple, active, slender, his steps—the elastic, joyous, tread of youth—scarcely seemed to touch the earth. He always walked fast when busy with thought, and his mind was buried in the hint Mrs. Thornimett had spoken, touching her fears for her husband’s health. ‘If he is breaking, it’s through his close attention to business,’ decided Austin, as he struck into the common and was nearing the end of his journey. ‘I wish he would take a jolly good holiday this summer. It would set him up; and I know I could manage things without him.’

A large common; a broad piece of waste land, owned by the lord of the manor, but appropriated by anybody and everybody; where gipsies encamped and donkeys grazed, and geese and children were turned out to roam. A wide path ran across it, worn by the passage of farmer’s carts and other vehicles. To the left it was bordered in the distance by a row of cottages; to the right, its extent was limited, and terminated in some dangerous gravel pits—dangerous, because they were not protected.

Austin Clay had reached the middle of the path and of the common, when he overtook a lady whom he slightly knew. A lady of very strange manners, popularly supposed to be mad, and of whom he once stood in considerable awe, not to say terror, at which he laughed now. She was a Miss Gwinn, a tall bony woman of remarkable strength, the sister of Gwinn, a lawyer of Ketterford. Gwinn the lawyer did not bear the best of characters, and Ketterford reviled him when they could[Pg 21] do it secretly. ‘A low, crafty, dishonest practitioner, whose hands couldn’t have come clean had he spent his days and nights in washing them,’ was amidst the complimentary terms applied to him. Miss Gwinn, however, seemed honest enough, and but for her rancorous manners Ketterford might have grown to feel a sort of respect for her as a woman of sorrow. She had come suddenly to the place many years before and taken up her abode with her brother. She looked and moved and spoke as one half-crazed with grief: what its cause was, nobody knew; but it was accepted by all, and mysteriously alluded to by herself on occasion.

‘You have taken a long walk this morning, Miss Gwinn,’ said Austin, courteously raising his hat as he came up with her.

She threw back her grey cloak with a quick, sharp movement, and turned upon him. ‘Oh, is it you, Austin Clay? You startled me. My thoughts were far away: deep upon another. He could wear a fair outside, and accost me in a pleasant voice, like you.’

‘That is rather a doubtful compliment, Miss Gwinn,’ he returned, in his good-humoured way. ‘I hope I am no darker inside than out. At any rate, I don’t try to appear different from what I am.’

‘Did I accuse you of it? Boy! you had better go and throw yourself into one of those gravel pits and die, than grow up to be deceitful,’ she vehemently cried. ‘Deceit has been the curse of my days. It has made me what I am; one whom the boys hoot after, and call——’

[Pg 22]

‘No, no; not so bad as that,’ interrupted Austin, soothingly. ‘You have been cross with them sometimes, and they are insolent, mischievous little ragamuffins. I am sure every thoughtful person respects you, feeling for your sorrow.’

‘Sorrow!’ she wailed. ‘Ay. Sorrow, beyond what falls to the ordinary lot of man. The blow fell upon me, though I was not an actor in it. When those connected with us do wrong, we suffer; we, more than they. I may be revenged yet,’ she added, her expression changing to anger. ‘If I can only come across him.’

‘Across whom?’ naturally asked Austin.

‘Who are you, that you should seek to pry into my secrets?’ she passionately resumed. ‘I am five-and-fifty to-day—old enough to be your mother, and you presume to put the question to me! Boys are coming to something.’

‘I beg your pardon; I but spoke heedlessly, Miss Gwinn, in answer to your remark. Indeed I have no wish to pry into anybody’s business. And as to “secrets,” I have eschewed them, since, a little chap in petticoats, I crept to my mother’s room door to listen to one, and got soundly whipped for my pains.’

‘It is a secret that you will never know, or anybody else; so put its thoughts from you. Austin Clay,’ she added, laying her hand upon his arm, and bending forward to speak in a whisper, ‘it is fifteen years, this very day, since its horrors came out to me! And I have had to carry it about since, as I best could, in silence and in pain.’

[Pg 23]

She turned round abruptly as she spoke, and continued her way along the broad path; while Austin Clay struck short off towards the gravel pits, which was his nearest road to the Lowland farm. Silent and abandoned were the pits that day; everybody connected with them was enjoying holiday with the rest of the world. ‘What a strange woman she is!’ he thought.

It has been said that the gravel pits were not far from the path. Austin was close upon them, when the sound of a horse’s footsteps caused him to turn. A gentleman was riding fast down the common path, from the opposite side to the one he and Miss Gwinn had come, and Austin shaded his eyes with his hand to see if it was any one he knew. No; it was a stranger. A slender man, of some seven-and-thirty years, tall, so far as could be judged, with thin, prominent aquiline features, and dark eyes. A fine face; one of those that impress the beholder at first sight, as it did Austin, and, once seen, remain permanently on the memory.

‘I wonder who he is?’ cried Austin Clay to himself. ‘He rides well.’

Possibly Miss Gwinn might be wondering the same. At any rate, she had fixed her eyes on the stranger, and they seemed to be starting from her head with the gaze. It would appear that she recognised him, and with no pleasurable emotion. She grew strangely excited. Her face turned of a ghastly whiteness, her hands closed involuntarily, and, after standing for a moment in perfect stillness, as if petrified, she darted forward in his pathway, and seized the bridle of his horse.

[Pg 24]

‘So! you have turned up at last! I knew—I knew you were not dead!’ she shrieked, in a voice of wild raving. ‘I knew you would some time be brought face to face with me, to answer for your wickedness.’

Utterly surprised and perplexed, or seeming to be, at this summary attack, the gentleman could only stare at his assailant, and endeavour to get his bridle from her hand. But she held it with a firm grasp.

‘Let go my horse,’ he said. ‘Are you mad?’

You were mad,’ she retorted, passionately. ‘Mad in those old days; and you turned another to madness. Not three minutes ago, I said to myself that the time would come when I should find you. Man! do you remember that it is fifteen years ago this very day that the—the—crisis of the sickness came on? Do you know that never afterwards——’

‘Do not betray your private affairs to me,’ interrupted the gentleman. ‘They are no concern of mine. I never saw you in my life. Take care! the horse will do you an injury.’

‘No! you never saw me, and you never saw somebody else!’ she panted, in a tone that would have been mockingly sarcastic, but for its wild passion. ‘You did not change the current of my whole life! you did not turn another to madness! These equivocations are worthy of you.’

‘If you are not insane, you must be mistaking me for some other person,’ he replied, his tone none of the mildest, though perfectly calm. ‘I repeat that, to my knowledge, I never set eyes upon you in my life.[Pg 25] Woman! have you no regard for your own safety? The horse will kill you! Don’t you see that I cannot control him?’

‘So much the better if he kills us both,’ she shrieked, swaying up and down, to and fro, with the fierce motions of the angry horse. ‘You will only meet your deserts: and, for myself, I am tired of life.’

‘Let go!’ cried the rider.

‘Not until you have told me where you live, and where you may be found. I have searched for you in vain. I will have my revenge; I will force you to do justice. You——’

In her sad temper, her dogged obstinacy, she still held the bridle. The horse, a spirited animal, was passionate as she was, and far stronger. He reared bolt upright, he kicked, he plunged; and, finally, he shook off the obnoxious control, to dash furiously in the direction of the gravel pits. Miss Gwinn fell to the ground.

To fall into the pit would be certain destruction to both man and horse. Austin Clay had watched the encounter in amazement, though he could not hear the words of the quarrel. In the humane impulse of the moment, disregarding the danger to himself, he darted in front of the horse, arrested him on the very brink of the pit, and threw him back on his haunches.

Snorting, panting, the white foam breaking from him, the animal, as if conscious of the doom he had escaped, now stood in trembling quiet, obedient to the control of his master. That master threw himself from his back, and turned to Austin.

[Pg 26]

‘Young gentleman, you have saved my life.’

There was little doubt of that. Austin accepted the fact without any fuss, feeling as thankful as the speaker, and quite unconscious at the moment of the wrench he had given his own shoulder.

‘It would have been an awkward fall, sir. I am glad I happened to be here.’

‘It would have been a killing fall,’ replied the stranger, stepping to the brink, and looking down. ‘And your being here must be owing to God’s wonderful Providence.’

He lifted his hat as he spoke, and remained a minute or two silent and uncovered, his eyes closed. Austin, in the same impulse of reverence, lifted his.

‘Did you see the strange manner in which that woman attacked me?’ questioned the stranger.

‘Yes.’

‘She must be insane.’

‘She is very strange at times,’ said Austin. ‘She flies into desperate passions.’

‘Passions! It is madness, not passion. A woman like that ought to be shut up in Bedlam. Where would be the satisfaction to my wife and family, if, through her, I had been lying at this moment at the bottom there, dead? I never saw her in my life before; never.’

‘Is she hurt? She has fallen down, I perceive.’

‘Hurt! not she. She could call after me pretty fiercely when my horse shook her off. She possesses the rage and strength of a tiger. Good fellow! good Salem! did a mad woman frighten and anger you?’ added the[Pg 27] stranger, soothing his horse. ‘And now, young sir,’ turning to Austin, ‘how shall I reward you?’

Austin broke into a smile at the notion.

‘Not at all, thank you,’ he said. ‘One does not merit reward for such a thing as this. I should have deserved sending over after you, had I not interposed. To do my best was a simple matter of duty—of obligation; but nothing to be rewarded for.’

‘Had he been a common man, I might have done it,’ thought the stranger; ‘but he is evidently a gentleman. Well, I may be able to repay it in some manner as you and I pass through life,’ he said, aloud, mounting the now subdued horse. ‘Some neglect the opportunities, thrown in their way, of helping their fellow-creatures; some embrace them, as you have just done. I believe that whichever we may give—neglect or help—will be returned to us in kind: like unto a corn of wheat, that must spring up what it is sown; or a thistle, that must come up a thistle.’

‘As to embracing the opportunity—I should think there’s no man living but would have done his best to save you, had he been standing here.’

‘Ah, well; let it go,’ returned the horseman. ‘Will you tell me your name? and something about yourself?’

‘My name is Austin Clay. I have few relatives living, and they are distant ones, and I shall, I expect, have to make my own way in the world.’

‘Are you in any profession? or business?’

‘I am with Mr. Thornimett, of Ketterford: the builder and contractor.’

[Pg 28]

‘Why, I am a builder myself!’ cried the stranger, a pleasing accent of surprise in his tone. ‘Shall you ever be visiting London?’

‘I daresay I shall, sir. I should like to do so.’

‘Then, when you do, mind you call upon me the first thing,’ he rejoined, taking a card from a case in his pocket and handing it to Austin. Come to me should you ever be in want of a berth: I might help you to one. Will you promise?’

‘Yes, sir; and thank you.’

‘I fancy the thanks are due from the other side, Mr. Clay. Oblige me by not letting that Bess o’ Bedlam obtain sight of my card. I might have her following me.’

‘No fear,’ said Austin, alluding to the caution.

‘She must be lying there to regain the strength exhausted by passion, carelessly remarked the stranger. ‘Poor thing! it is sad to be mad, though! She is getting up now, I see: I had better be away. That town beyond, in the distance, is Ketterford, is it not?’

‘It is.’

‘Fare you well, then. I must hasten to catch the twelve o’clock train. They have horse-boxes, I presume, at the station?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘All right,’ he nodded. ‘I have received a summons to town, and cannot afford the time to ride Salem home. So we must both get conveyed by train, old fellow’—patting his horse, as he spoke to it. ‘By the[Pg 29] way, though—what is the lady’s name?’ he halted to ask.

‘Gwinn. Miss Gwinn.’

‘Gwinn? Gwinn?’ Never heard the name in my life. Fare you well, in all gratitude.’

He rode away. Austin Clay looked at the card. It was a private visiting card—’Mr. Henry Hunter’ with an address in the corner.

‘He must be one of the great London building firm, “Hunter and Hunter,”‘ thought Austin, depositing the card in his pocket. ‘First class people. And now for Miss Gwinn.’

For his humanity would not allow him to leave her unlooked-after, as the molested and angry man had done. She had risen to her feet, though slowly, as he stepped back across the short worn grass of the common. The fall had shaken her, without doing material damage.

‘I hope you are not hurt?’ said Austin, kindly.

‘A ban light upon the horse!’ she fiercely cried. ‘At my age, it does not do to be thrown on the ground violently. I thought my bones were broken; I could not rise. And he has escaped! Boy! what did he say to you of me—of my affairs?’

‘Not anything. I do not believe he knows you in the least. He says he does not.’

The crimson passion had faded from Miss Gwinn’s face, leaving it wan and white. ‘How dare you say you believe it?’

‘Because I do believe it,’ replied Austin. ‘He declared that he never saw you in his life; and I think[Pg 30] he spoke the truth. I can judge when a man tells truth, and when he tells a lie. Mr. Thornimett often says he wishes he could read faces—and people—as I can read them.’

Miss Gwinn gazed at him; contempt and pity blended in her countenance. ‘Have you yet to learn that a bad man can assume the semblance of goodness?’

‘Yes, I know that; and assume it so as to take in a saint,’ hastily spoke Austin. ‘You may be deceived in a bad man; but I do not think you can in a good one. Where a man possesses innate truth and honour, it shines out in his countenance, his voice, his manner; and there can be no mistake. When you are puzzled over a bad man, you say to yourself, “He may be telling the truth, he may be genuine;” but with a good man you know it to be so: that is, if you possess the gift of reading countenances. Miss Gwinn, I am sure there was truth in that stranger.’

‘Listen, Austin Clay. That man, truthful as you deem him, is the very incarnation of deceit. I know as much of him as one human being can well know of another. It was he who wrought the terrible wrong upon my house; it was he who broke up my happy home. I’ll find him now. Others said he must be dead; but I said, “No, he lives yet.” And, you see he does live. I’ll find him.’

Without another word she turned away, and went striding back in the direction of Ketterford—the same road which the stranger’s horse had taken. Austin[Pg 31] stood and looked after her, pondering over the strange events of the hour. Then he proceeded to the Lowland farm.

A pleasant day amidst pleasant friends spent he; rich Easter cheesecakes being the least of the seductions he did not withstand; and Ketterford clocks were striking half-past ten as he approached Mrs. Thornimett’s. The moonlight walk was delightful; there was no foreboding of ill upon his spirit, and he turned in at the gate utterly unconscious of the news that was in store for him.

Conscious of the late hour—for they were early people—he was passing across the lawn with a hasty step, when the door was drawn silently open, as if some one stood there watching, and he saw Sarah, one of the two old maid-servants, come forth to meet him. Both had lived in the family for years; had scolded and ordered Austin about when a boy, to their heart’s content, and for his own good.

‘Why, Sarah, is it you?’ was his gay greeting. ‘Going to take a moonlight ramble?’

‘Where have you stayed?’ whispered the woman in evident excitement. ‘To think you should be away this night of all others, Mr. Austin! Have you heard what has happened to the master?’

‘No. What?’ exclaimed Austin, his fears taking alarm.

‘He fell down in a fit, over at the village where he went; and they brought him home, a-frightening us two and the missis almost into fits ourselves. Oh,[Pg 32] Master Austin!’ she concluded, bursting into tears, ‘the doctors don’t think he’ll live till morning. Poor dear old master!’

Austin, half paralysed at the news, stood for a moment against the wall inside the hall. ‘Can I go and see him?’ he presently asked.

‘Oh, you may go,’ was the answer; ‘the mistress has been asking for you, and nothing rouses him. It’s a heavy blow; but it has its side of brightness. God never sends a blow but he sends mercy with it.’

‘What is the mercy—the brightness?’ Austin waited to ask, thinking she must allude to some symptom of hope. Sarah put her shrivelled old arm on his in solemnity, as she answered it.

‘He was fit to be taken. He had lived for the next world while he was living in this. And those that do, Master Austin, never need shrink from sudden death.’

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