Chapter IX: A Painful Time
 

When Ned was left alone he rolled himself up in the blankets, placed a pillow which Polly had brought him under his head, and lay and looked at the fire; but it was not until the flames had died down, and the last red glow had faded into blackness that he fell off to sleep.

His thoughts were bitter in the extreme. He pictured to himself the change which would take place in his home life with Mulready the manufacturer, the tyrant of the workmen, ruling over it. For himself he doubted not that he would be able to hold his own.

"He had better not try on his games with me," he muttered savagely. "Though I am only sixteen he won't find it easy to bully me; but of course Charlie and Lucy can't defend themselves. However, I will take care of them. Just let him be unkind to them, and see what comes of it! As to mother, she must take what she gets, at least she deserves to. Only to think of it! only to think of it! Oh, how bitterly she will come to repent! How could she do it!

"And with father only dead a year! But I must stand by her, too. I promised father to be kind to her, though he could never have guessed how she would need it. He meant that I would only put up, without losing my temper, with her way of always pretending to be ill, and never doing anything but lie on the sofa and read poetry. Still, of course, it meant I was to be kind anyhow, whatever happened, and I will try to be so, though it is hard when she has brought such trouble upon us all.

"As for Mulready I should like to burn his mill down, or to break his neck. I hate him: it's bad enough to be a tyrant; but to be a tyrant and a hypocrite, too, is horrible. Well, at any rate he shan't lord it over me;" and so at last Ned dropped off to sleep.

He was still soundly asleep when Bill Swinton came in to wake him. It was half past six, a dull October morning, with a dreary drizzling rain. Bill brought with him a mug of hot tea and some thick slices of bread and butter. Ned got up and shook himself.

"What o'clock is it, Bill?"

"Half past six--the chaps went off to t' mill an hour gone; oi've kept some tea hot for ee."

"Thank you, Bill, my head aches, and so do all my bones, and I feel as if I hadn't been asleep all night, although, indeed, I must have slept quite as long as usual. Can't I have a wash?"

"Yes," Bill said, "thou canst come to our place; but thou had best take thy breakfast whilst it be hot. It will waken thee up like."

Ned drank the tea and ate a slice of bread and butter, and felt refreshed thereat. Then he ran with Bill to his cottage and had a wash, and then started for the town. It was eight o'clock when he reached home. Abijah was at the door, looking down the road as he came up.

"Oh! Master Ned, how can you go on so? Not a bit of sleep have I had this blessed night, and the mistress in strong hystrikes all the evening. Where have you been?"

Ned gave a grunt at the news of his mother's hysterics--a grunt which clearly expressed "served her right," but he only answered the last part of the question.

"I have been up at Varley, and slept at the schoolhouse. Bill Swinn and Polly Powlett made me up a bed and got me tea and breakfast. I am right enough."

"But you shouldn't have gone away, Master Ned, in that style, leaving us to wait and worry ourselves out of our senses."

"Do you know what she told me, Abijah? Wasn't it enough to make any fellow mad?"

"Ay, ay," the nurse said. "I know. I have seen it coming months ago; but it wasn't no good for me to speak. Ay, lad, it's a sore trouble for you, surely a sore trouble for you, and for us all; but it ain't no manner of use for you to set yourself agin it. Least said sooner mended, Master Ned; in a case like this it ain't no good your setting yourself up agin the missis. She ain't strong in some things, but she's strong enough in her will, and you ought to know by this time that what she sets her mind on she gets. It were so allus in the captain's time, and if he couldn't change her, poor patient lamb--for if ever there were a saint on arth he was that --you may be sure that you can't. So try and take it quietly, dearie. It be main hard for ye, and it ain't for me to say as it isn't; but for the sake of peace and quiet, and for the sake of the little ones, Master Ned, it's better for you to take it quiet. If I thought as it would do any good for you to make a fuss I wouldn't be agin it: but it ain't, you know, and it will be worse for you all if you sets him agin you to begin with. Now go up and see your mother, dearie, afore you goes off to school. I have just taken her up her tea."

"I have got nothing to say to her," Ned growled.

"Yes, you have, Master Ned; you have got to tell her you hopes she will be happy. You can do that, you know, with a clear heart, for you do hope so. Fortunately she didn't see him yesterday; for when he called I told him she was too ill to see him, and a nice taking she was in when I told her he had been and gone; but I didn't mind that, you know, and it was better she shouldn't see him when she was so sore about the words you had said to her. It ain't no use making trouble aforehand, or setting him agin you. He knows, I reckon, as he won't be welcomed here by you. The way he has always come when you would be out showed that clear enough. But it ain't no use making matters worse. It's a pretty kettle of fish as it stands. Now, go up, dearie, like a good boy, and make things roight."

Ned lingered irresolute for a little time in the hall, and then his father's words, "Be kind to her," came strongly in his mind, and he slowly went upstairs and knocked at his mother's door.

"Oh! here you are again!" she said in querulous tones as he entered, "after being nearly the death of me with your wicked goings on! I don't know what you will come to, speaking to me as you did yesterday, and then running away and stopping out all night."

"It was wrong, mother," Ned said quietly, "and I have come to tell you I am sorry; but you see the news was very sudden, and I wasn't prepared for it. I did not know that he had been coming here, and the news took me quite by surprise. I suppose fellows never do like their mothers marrying again. It stands to reason they wouldn't; but, now I have thought it over, I am sorry I spoke as I did, and I do hope, mother, you will be happy with him."

Mrs. Sankey felt mollified. She had indeed all along dreaded Ned's hearing the news, and had felt certain it would produce a desperate outbreak on his part. Now that it was over she was relieved. The storm had been no worse than she expected, and now that Ned had so speedily come round, and was submissive, she felt a load off her mind,

"Very well, Ned," she said more graciously than usual, "I am glad that you have seen the wickedness of your conduct. I am sure that I am acting for the best, and that it will be a great advantage to you and your brother and sister having a man like Mr. Mulready to help you push your way in life. I am sure I am thinking of your interest as much as my own; and I have spoken to him over and over again about you, and he has promised dozens of times to do his best to be like a father to you all."

Ned winced perceptibly.

"All right, mother! I do hope you will be happy; but, please, don't let us talk about it again till--till it comes off; and, please, don't let him come here in the evening. I will try and get accustomed to it in time; but you see it's rather hard at first, and you know I didn't expect it."

So saying Ned left the room, and collecting his books made his way off to school, leaving his mother highly satisfied with the interview.

His absence from afternoon school had, of course, been noticed, and Smithers had told his friends how Ned had flown at him on his speaking to him about the talk of his mother and Mulready. Of course before afternoon school broke up every boy knew that Ned Sankey had cut up rough about the report; and although the great majority of the boys did not know Mr. Mulready by name there was a general feeling of sympathy with Ned, The circumstances of his father's death had, of course, exalted him greatly in the eyes of his schoolfellows, and it was the unanimous opinion, that after having had a hero for his father, a fellow would naturally object to having a stepfather put over him.

Ned's absence was naturally associated with the news, and caused much comment and even excitement. His attack upon Mr. Hathorn had become a sort of historical incident in the school, and the younger boys looked up with a sort of respectful awe upon the boy who had defied a headmaster. There were all sorts of speculations rife among them as to what Ned had done, there being a general opinion that he had probably killed Mr. Mulready, and the debate turning principally upon the manner in which this act of righteous vengeance had been performed.

There was, then, a feeling almost of disappointment when Ned walked into the playground looking much as usual, except that his face was pale and his eyes looked heavy and dull. No one asked him any questions; for although Ned was a general favorite, it was generally understood that he was not the sort of fellow to be asked questions that might put him out. When they went in school, and the first class was called up, Ned, who was always at its head, took his place at the bottom of the class, saying quietly to the master:

"I have not prepared my lesson today, sir, and I have not done the exercises."

Mr. Porson made no remark; he saw at once by Ned's face that something was wrong with him. When several questions went round, which Ned could easily have answered without preparation, the master said:

"You had better go to your desk, Sankey; I see you are not well. I will speak to you after school is over."

Ned sat down and opened a book, but he did not turn a page until school was over; then he followed his master to the study.

"Well, my boy," he asked kindly, "what is it?"

"My mother is going to marry Mr. Mulready," Ned said shortly. The words seemed to come with difficulty from his lips.

"Ah! it is true, then. I heard the report some weeks ago, but hoped that it was not true. I am sorry for you, Ned. I know it must be a sore trial for you; it is always so when any one steps into the place of one we have loved and lost."

"I shouldn't care so much if it wasn't him," Ned said in a dull voice.

"But there's nothing against the man, is there?" Mr. Porson asked. "I own I do not like him myself; but I believe he stands well in the town."

"Only with those who don't know him," Ned replied; "his workpeople say he is the worst master and the biggest tyrant in the district."

"We must hope it's not so bad as that, Ned; still, I am sorry-- very sorry, at what you tell me; but, my boy, you must not take it to heart. You see you will be going out into the world before long. Your brother will be following you in a few years. It is surely better that your mother should marry again and have some one to take care of her."

"Nice care of her he is likely to take!" Ned laughed bitterly. "You might as well put a fox to take care of a goose."

"You are severe on both parties," Mr. Porson said with a slight smile; "but I can hardly blame you, my boy, for feeling somewhat bitter at first; but I hope that, for your own sake and your mother's, you will try and conquer this feeling and will make the best of the circumstances. It is worse than useless to kick against the pricks. Any show of hostility on your part will only cause unhappiness, perhaps between your mother' and him--almost certainly between you and her. In this world, my boy, we have all our trials. Some are very heavy ones. This is yours. Happily, so far as you are concerned, you need only look forward to its lasting eighteen months or so. In that time you may hope to get your commission; and as the marriage can hardly take place for some little time to come, you will have but a year or so to bear it."

"I don't know, sir," Ned said gloomily; "everything seems upset now. I don't seem to know what I had best do."

"I am sure at present, Ned," Mr. Porson said kindly--for he saw that the boy was just now in no mood for argument--"the best is to try and think as little of it as possible. Make every allowance for your mother; as you know, my boy, I would not speak disrespectfully to you of her on any account; but she is not strong minded. She has always been accustomed to lean upon some one, and the need of some one to lean on is imperative with her. Had you been a few years older, and had you been staying at home, it is probable that you might have taken your place as her support and strength. As it is, it was almost inevitable that something of this sort would happen.

"But you know, Ned, where to look for strength and support. You have fought one hard battle, my boy, and have well nigh conquered; now you have another before you. Seek for strength, my boy, where you will assuredly find it, and remember that this discipline is doubtless sent you for your good, and that it will be a preparation for you for the struggle in after life. I don't want you to be a thoughtless, careless young officer, but a man earnest in doing his duty, and you cannot but see that these two trials must have a great effect in forming your character. Remember, Ned, that if the effect be not for good, it will certainly be for evil."

"I will try, sir," Ned said; "but I know it is easy to make good resolutions, and how it will be when he is in the house as master I can't trust myself even to think."

"Well, let us hope the best, Ned," Mr. Porson said kindly; "things may turn out better than you fear."

Then seeing that further talking would be useless now, he shook Ned's hand and let him go.

The next three or four months passed slowly and heavily. Ned went about his work again quietly and doggedly; but his high spirits seemed gone. His mother's engagement with Mr. Mulready had been openly announced, directly after he had first heard of it. Charlie had, to Ned's secret indignation, taken it quietly. He knew little of Mr. Mulready, who had, whenever he saw him, spoken kindly to him, and who now made him frequent presents of books and other things dear to schoolboys. Little Lucy's liking he had, however, failed to gain, although in his frequent visits he had spared no pains to do so, seldom coming without bringing with him cakes or papers of sweets. Lucy accepted the presents, but did not love the donor, and confided to Abijah that his teeth were exactly like those of the wolf who ate Little Red Riding Hood.

Ned found much more comfort in her society during those dull days than in Charlie's. He had the good sense, however, never to encourage her in her expressions of dislike to Mr. Mulready, and even did his best to combat her impression, knowing how essential it was for her to get on well with him. Ned himself did not often see Mr. Mulready during that time. The first time that they met, Ned had, on his return from school, gone straight up into the drawing room, not knowing that Mr. Mulready was there. On opening the door and seeing him he paused suddenly for a moment and then advanced. For a moment neither of them spoke, then Mr. Mulready said in his frankest manner:

"Ned, you have heard I am going to marry your mother. I don't suppose you quite like it; it wouldn't be natural if you did; I know I shouldn't if I were in your place. Still you know your disliking it won't alter it, and I hope we shall get on well together. Give me your hand, my lad, you won't find me a bad sort of fellow."

"I hope not," Ned said quietly, taking Mr. Mulready's hand and continuing to hold it while he went on: "I don't pretend I like it, and I know it makes no difference whether I do or not; the principal point is, that my mother should be happy, and if you make her happy I have no doubt we shall, as you say, get on well together; if you don't, we shan't."

There was no mistaking the threat conveyed in Ned's steady tones, and Mr. Mulready, as Ned dropped his hand, felt that he should have more trouble with the boy than he had expected. He gave a forced laugh.

"One would think, Ned, that you thought it likely I was going to be unkind to your mother."

"No," Ned said quietly, "I don't want to think about it one way or the other, only I promised my father I would be kind to my mother; that means that I would look after her, and I mean to.

"Well, mother," he said in his usual tone, turning to Mrs. Sankey, "and how are you this morning?"

"I was feeling better, Ned," she said sharply; "but your unpleasant way of talking, and your nonsense about taking care of me, have made me feel quite ill again. Somehow you always seem to shake my nerves. You never seem to me like other boys. One would think I was a child instead of being your mother. I thought after what you said to me that you were going to behave nicely."

"I am trying to behave nicely," Ned said. "I am sure I meant quite nicely, just as Mr. Mulready does; I think he understands me."

"I don't understand that boy," Mrs. Sankey said plaintively when Ned had left the room, "and I never have understood him. He was dreadfully spoiled when he was in India, as I have often told you; for in my weak state of health I was not equal to looking after him, and his poor father was sadly overindulgent. But he has certainly been much better as to his temper lately, and I do hope, William, that he is not going to cause trouble."

"Oh, no!" Mr. Mulready said lightly, "he will not cause trouble; I have no doubt we shall get on well together. Boys will be boys, you know; I have been one myself, and of course they look upon stepfathers as natural enemies; but in this case, you see, we shall not have to put up with each other long, as he will be getting his commission in a year or so. Don't trouble yourself about it, love; in your state of health you ought really not to worry yourself, and worry, you know, spoils the eyes and the complexion, and I cannot allow that, for you will soon be my property now."

The wedding was fixed for March. It was to be perfectly quiet, as Mrs. Sankey would, up to the day, be still in mourning. A month before the time Ned noticed that his mother was more uncertain in her temper than usual, and Abijah confided to him in secret that she thought things were not going on smoothly between the engaged couple.

Nor were they. Mr. Mulready had discovered, to his surprise, that, indolent and silly as Mrs. Sankey was in many respects, she was not altogether a fool, and was keen enough where her own interests were concerned. He had suggested something about settlements, hoping that she would at once say that these were wholly unnecessary; but to his surprise she replied in a manner which showed that she had already thought the matter over, and had very fixed ideas on the subject.

"Of course," she said, "that will be necessary. I know nothing about business, but it was done before, and my poor husband insisted that my little fortune should be settled so as to be entirely at my own disposal."

But this by no means suited Mr. Mulready's views. Hitherto want of capital had prevented his introducing the new machinery into his mills, and the competition with the firms which had already adopted it was injuring him seriously, and he had reckoned confidently upon the use of Mrs. Sankey's four thousand pounds. Although he kept his temper admirably under the circumstances, he gave her distinctly to understand, in the pleasantest way, that an arrangement which was most admirably suitable in every respect in the case of a lady marrying an officer in the army, to whom her capital could be of no possible advantage, was altogether unsuitable in the case of a manufacturer.

"You see, my love," he argued, "that it is for your benefit as well as mine that the business should grow and flourish by the addition of the new machinery which this little fortune of yours could purchase. The profits could be doubled and trebled, and we could look forward ere long to holding our heads as high as the richest manufacturers at Leeds and Bradford--while the mere interest in this money invested in consols as at present would be absolutely useless to us."

Mrs. Sankey acknowledged the force of his argument, but was firm in her determination to retain her hold of her money, and so they parted, not in anger, for Mr. Mulready altogether disclaimed the possibility of his being vexed, but with the sense that something like a barrier had sprung up between them.

This went on for a few days, and although the subject was not mooted, Mrs. Sankey felt that unless some concession on her part was made it was likely that the match would fall through. This she had not the slightest idea of permitting, and rather than it should happen she would have married without any settlement at all, for she really loved, in her weak way, the man who had been so attentive and deferential to her.

So one day the subject was renewed, and at last an understanding was arrived at. Mrs. Sankey's money was to be put into the business in her own name. Should she not survive her husband, he was to have the option of paying the money to her children or of allowing them the sum of eighty pounds a year each from the business. Should he not survive her the mill was to be settled upon any children she might have after her marriage; should there be no children it was to be hers absolutely.

All this was only arrived at after several long discussions, in all of which Mrs. Sankey protested that she knew nothing of business, that it was most painful to her to be thus discussing money matters, and that it would be far better to leave it in the hands of a solicitor to arrange in a friendly manner with him. She nevertheless stuck to her views, and drove a bargain as keenly and shrewdly as any solicitor could have done for her, to the surprise and exasperation of Mr. Mulready. Had he known that she really loved him, and would, if she had been driven to it, have sacrificed everything rather than lose him, he could have obtained very different terms; but having no heart to speak of, himself, he was ignorant of the power he possessed over her.

Bankruptcy stared him in the face unless he could obtain this increase of capital, and he dared not, by pressing the point, risk its loss. The terms, he told himself, were not altogether unsatisfactory; it was not likely that she would survive him. They were of about the same age; he had never known what it was to be ill, and she, although not such an invalid as she fancied herself, was still not strong. If she did not survive him he would have the whole business, subject only to the paltry annuity of two hundred and forty pounds a year to the three children. If, the most unlikely thing in the world, she did survive him--well, it mattered not a jot in that case who the mill went to.

So the terms were settled, the necessary deeds were drawn up by a solicitor, and signed by both parties. Mrs. Sankey recovered her spirits, and the preparations for the wedding went on.

Ned had intended to absent himself from the ceremony, but Mr. Porson, guessing that such might be his intention, had talked the matter gravely over with him. He had pointed out to Ned that his absence would in the first place be an act of great disrespect to his mother; that in the second place it would cause general comment, and would add to the unfavorable impression which his mother's early remarriage had undoubtedly created; and that, lastly, it would justify Mr. Mulready in regarding him as hostile to the marriage, and, should trouble subsequently arise, he would be able to point to it in self justification, and as a proof that Ned had from the first determined to treat him as an enemy.

So Ned was present at his mother's marriage. Quiet as the wedding was, for only two or three acquaintances were asked to be present, the greater part of Marsden were assembled in the church.

The marriage had created considerable comment. The death of Captain Sankey in saving a child's life had rendered his widow an object of general sympathy, and people felt that not only was this marriage within eighteen months of Captain Sankey's death almost indecent, but that it was somehow a personal wrong to them, and that they had been defrauded in their sympathy.

Therefore the numerous spectators of the marriage were critical rather than approving. They could find nothing to find fault with, however, in the bride's appearance. She was dressed in a dove colored silk, and with her fair hair and pale complexion looked quite young, and, as every one admitted, pretty. Mr. Mulready, as usual, was smiling, and seemed to convey by the looks which he cast round that he regarded the assemblage as a personal compliment to himself.

Lucy and Charlie betrayed no emotion either way; they were not pleased, but the excitement of the affair amused and interested them, and they might be said to be passive spectators. Ned, however, although he had brought himself to be present, could not bring himself to look as if the ceremony had his approval or sanction. He just glared, as Abijah, who was present, afterward confided to some of her friends, as if he could have killed the man as he stood. His look of undisguised hostility was indeed noticed by all who were in church, and counted heavily against him in the days which were to come.