Chapter X: Troubles at Home
 

It was not one of the least griefs of the young Sankeys connected with their mother's wedding that Abijah was to leave them. It was she herself who had given notice to Mrs. Sankey, saying that she would no longer be required. The first time that she had spoken of her intentions, Mrs. Sankey vehemently combated the idea, saying that neither she nor Lucy could spare her; but she did not afterward return to the subject, and seemed to consider it a settled thing that Abijah intended to leave. Mrs. Sankey had, in fact, spoken to Mr. Mulready on the subject, but instead of taking the view she had expected, he had said cheerfully:

"I am glad that she has given notice. I know that she is a valuable woman and much attached to you. At the same time these old servants always turn out a mistake under changed circumstances. She would never have been comfortable or contented. She has, my dear if I may say so, been mistress too long, and as I intend you to be mistress of my house, it is much better that she should go."

As Mrs. Sankey had certain doubts herself as to whether Abijah would be a success in the new home, the subject was dropped, and it became an understood thing that Abijah would leave after the wedding.

The newly married couple were absent for three weeks. Until two days before their return Abijah remained in the old house with the young Sankeys; then they moved into their new home, and she went off to her native village ten miles distant away on the moors. The next day there was a sale at the old house. A few, a very few, of the things had been moved. Everything else was sold, to the deep indignation of Ned, who was at once grieved and angry that all the articles of furniture which he associated with his father should be parted with. Abijah shared the boy's feelings in this respect, and at the sale all the furniture and fittings of Captain Sankey's study were bought by a friendly grocer on her behalf, and the morning after the sale a badly written letter, for Abijah's education had been neglected, was placed in Ned's hand.

"MY DEAR MASTER NED: Knowing as it cut you to the heart that everything should go away into the hands of strangers, I have made so bold as to ask Mr. Willcox for to buy all the furniter and books in maister's study. He is a-going to stow them away in a dry loft, and when so bee as you gets a home of your own there they is for you; they are sure not to fetch much, and when you gets a rich man you can pay me for them; not as that matters at all one way or the other. I have been a-saving up pretty nigh all my wages from the day as you was born, and is quite comfortable off. Write me a letter soon, dearie, to tell me as how things is going on. Your affectionate nurse, ABIJAH WOLF."

Although Ned was a lad of sixteen, he had a great cry over this letter, but it did him good, and it was with a softer heart that he prepared to receive his mother and her husband that evening. The meeting passed off better than he had anticipated. Mrs. Mulready was really affected at seeing her children again, and embraced them, Ned thought, with more fondness than she had done when they went away. Mr. Mulready spoke genially and kindly, and Ned began to hope that things would not be so bad after all.

The next morning, to his surprise, his mother appeared at breakfast, a thing which he could not remember that she had ever done before, and yet the hour was an early one, as her husband wanted to be off to the mill. During the meal Mr. Mulready spoke sharply two or three times, and it seemed to Ned that his mother was nervously anxious to please him.

"Things are not going on so well after all," he said to himself as he walked with his brother to school. "Mother has changed already; I can see that she isn't a bit like herself. There she was fussing over whether he had enough sugar with his tea, and whether the kidneys were done enough for him; then her coming down to breakfast was wonderful. I expect she has found already that somebody else's will besides her own has got to be consulted; it's pretty soon for her to have begun to learn the lesson."

It was very soon manifest that Mr. Mulready was master in his own house. He still looked pleasant and smiled, for his smile was a habitual one; but there was a sharpness in the ring of his voice, an impatience if everything was not exactly as he wished. He roughly silenced Charlie and Lucy if they spoke when he was reading his paper at breakfast, and he spoke snappishly to his wife when she asked him a question on such occasions. Ned felt his face burn, as with his eyes on his plate he continued his meal. To him Mr. Mulready seldom spoke unless it was absolutely necessary.

Ned often caught himself wondering over the change which had taken place in his mother. All the ways and habits of an invalid had disappeared. She not only gave directions for the management of the house, but looked after everything herself, and was forever going upstairs and down, seeing that everything was properly done. However sharply Mr. Mulready spoke she never replied in the same tone. A little flush of color would come into her cheek, but she would pass it off lightly, and at all times she appeared nervously anxious to please him. Ned wondered much over the change.

"He is a tyrant," he said, "and she has learned it already; but I do think she loves him. Fancy my mother coming to be the slave of a man like this! I suppose," he laughed bitterly, "it's the story of 'a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the more you thrash them the better they will be.' My father spent his whole life in making hers easy, and in sparing her from every care and trouble, and I don't believe she cared half as much for him as she does for this man who is her master."

For some months Mr. Mulready was very busy at his mill. A steam engine was being erected, new machinery brought in, and he was away the greater part of his time superintending it.

One day at breakfast, a short time before all was in readiness for a start with the new plant, Mr. Mulready opened a letter directed in a sprawling and ill written hand which lay at the top of the pile by his plate. Ned happened to notice his face, and saw the color fade out from it as he glanced at the contents. The mouth remained as usual, set in a smile, but the rest of the face expressed agitation and fear. The hand which held the letter shook. Mrs. Mulready, whose eyes seldom left her husband's face when he was in the room, also noticed the change.

"Is anything the matter, William?"

"Oh! nothing," he said with an unnatural laugh, "only a little attempt to frighten me."

"An attempt which has succeeded," Ned said to himself, "whatever it is."

Mr. Mulready passed the letter over to his wife. It was a rough piece of paper; at the top was scrawled the outline of a coffin underneath which was written:

"MR. MULREADY: Sir, this is to give you warning that if you uses the new machinery you are a dead man. You have been a marked man for a long time for your tyrannical ways, but as long as you didn't get the new machinery we let you live; but we has come to the end of it now; the day as you turns on steam we burns your mill to the ground and shoots you, so now you knows it."

At the bottom of this was signed the words "Captain Lud."

"Oh! William," Mrs. Mulready cried, "you will never do it! You will never risk your life at the hands of these terrible people!"

All the thin veneer of politeness was cracked by this blow, and Mr. Mulready said sullenly:

"Nice thing indeed; after I have married to get this money, and then not to be able to use it!"

His wife gave a little cry.

"It's a shame to say so," Charlie burst out sturdily.

Mr. Mulready's passion found a vent. He leaped up and seized the boy by the collar and boxed his ears with all his force.

In an instant the fury which had been smoldering in Ned's breast for months found a vent. He leaped to his feet and struck Mr. Mulready a blow between the eyes which sent him staggering back against the wall; then he caught up the poker. The manufacturer with a snarl like that of an angry wild beast was about to rush at him, but Ned's attitude as he stood, poker in hand, checked him.

"Stand back," Ned said threateningly, "or I will strike you. You coward and bully; for months I have put up with your tyrannizing over Charlie and Lucy, but touch either of them again if you dare. You think that you are stronger than I am--so you are ever so much; but you lay a finger on them or on me, and I warn you, if I wait a month for an opportunity I will pay you for it, if you kill me afterward."

Mrs. Mulready's screams had by this time brought the servants into the room, and they stood astonished at the spectacle.

Lucy crying bitterly had run to Ned and thrown her arms round him, begging him to be quiet. Charlie, hardly recovered from the heavy blows he had received, was crying too. Mr. Mulready as pale as death was glaring at Ned, while his wife had thrown herself between them. Mr. Mulready was the first to recover himself.

"This is a nice spectacle," he said to the servants. "You see that boy has attacked me with the poker and might have murdered me. However, you can go now, and mind, no chattering about what you have seen.

"And now," he continued to Ned as the door closed behind the servants, "out of this house you go this day."

"You don't suppose I want to stay in your house," Ned said passionately. "You don't suppose that it's any pleasure to me to stop here, seeing you play the tyrant over my mother."

"Oh, Ned, Ned," Mrs. Mulready broke in, "how can you talk so!"

"It is true, mother, he is a tyrant to you as well as to every one else; but I don't mean to go, I mean to stop here to protect you and the children. He daren't turn me out; if he did, I would go and work in one of the mills, and what would the people of Marsden say then? What would they think of this popular, pleasant gentleman then, who has told his wife before her children that he married her for her money? They shall all know it, never fear, if I leave this house. I would have gone to Mr. Simmonds and asked him to apply for a commission for me before now, for other fellows get it as young as I am; but I have made up my mind that it's my duty not to do so.

"I know he has been looking forward to my being out of the way, and his being able to do just what he likes with the others, but I ain't going to gratify him. It's plain to me that my duty at present is to take care of you all, and though God knows how I set my mind upon going into the army and being a soldier like my father, I will give it up if it means leaving Charlie here under him."

"And do you suppose, sir," Mr. Mulready asked with intense bitterness, "that I am going to keep you here doing nothing all your life, while you are pleased to watch me?"

"No, I don't," Ned replied. "I shall get a clerkship or something in one of the mills, and I shall have Charlie to live with me until he is old enough to leave school, and then I will go away with him to America or somewhere. As to mother, I can do nothing for her. I think my being here makes it worse for her, for I believe you tyrannize over her all the more because you think it hurts me. I know you hated me from the first just as I hated you. As for Lucy, mother must do the best she can for her. Even you daren't hit a girl."

"Oh, Ned, how can you go on so?" Mrs. Mulready wailed. "You are a wicked boy to talk so."

"All right, mother," Ned replied recklessly; "if I am, I suppose I am. I know in your eyes he can do no wrong. And I believe if he beat you, you would think that you deserved it."

So he flung himself down in his chair and continued his breakfast.

Mr. Mulready drank off his tea without sitting down, and then left the room without another word; in fact, as yet he did not know what to say.

Almost speechless with passion as he was, he restrained himself from carrying out his threat and turning Ned at once from the house. Above all things he prized his position and popularity, and he felt that, as Ned had said, he would indeed incur a heavy odium by turning his wife's son from his doors. Captain Sankey's death had thrown almost a halo over his children. Mr. Mulready knew that he was already intensely unpopular among the operative class, but he despised this so long as he stood well with the rest of the townsmen; but he dared not risk Ned's going to work as an ordinary hand in one of the factories; public opinion is always against stepfathers, and assuredly this would be no exception. Hating him as he did, he dared not get rid of this insolent boy, who had struck and defied him. He cursed himself now with his rashness in letting his temper get the best of him and telling his wife openly that he had married her for her money; for this in Ned's hands would be a serious weapon against him.

That his wife's feelings were hurt he cared not a jot, but it would be an awkward thing to have it repeated in the town. Then there was this threatening letter; what was he to do about that? Other men had had similar warnings. Some had defied Captain Lud, and fortified their mills and held them. Many had had their property burned to the ground; some had been murdered. It wouldn't be a pleasant thing to drive about in the country knowing that at any moment he might be shot dead. His mill was some little distance out of the town; the road was dark and lonely. He dared not risk it.

Mr. Mulready was, like all tyrants, a coward at heart, and his face grew white again as he thought of the letter in his pocket. In the meantime Mrs. Mulready was alternately sobbing and upbraiding Ned as he quietly finished his breakfast. The boy did not answer, but continued his meal in dogged silence, and when it was over collected his books and without a word went off to school.

Weeks went on, and no outward change took place. Ned continued to live at home. Mr. Mulready never addressed him, and beyond helping him to food entirely ignored his presence. At mealtimes when he opened his lips it was either to snap at Charlie or Lucy, or to snarl at his wife, whose patience astonished Ned, and who never answered except by a smile or murmured excuse. The lad was almost as far separated from her now as from his stepfather. She treated him as if he only were to blame for the quarrel which had arisen. They had never understood each other, and while she was never weary of making excuses for her husband, she could make none for her son. In the knowledge that the former had much to vex him she made excuses for him even in his worst moods. His new machinery was standing idle, his business was getting worse and worse, he was greatly pressed and worried, and it was monstrous, she told herself, that at such a time he should be troubled with Ned's defiant behavior.

A short time before the school Christmas holidays Ned knocked at the door of Mr. Porson's study. Since the conversation which they had had when first Ned heard of his mother's engagement Mr. Porson had seen in the lad's altered manner, his gloomy looks, and a hardness of expression which became more and more marked every week, that things were going on badly. Ned no longer evinced the same interest in his work, and frequently neglected it altogether; the master, however, had kept silence, preferring to wait until Ned should himself broach the subject.

"Well, Sankey, what is it?" he asked kindly as the boy entered.

"I don't think it's any use my going on any longer, Mr. Porson."

"Well, Sankey, you have not been doing yourself much good this half, certainly. I have not said much to you about it, for it is entirely your own business: you know more than nineteen out of twenty of the young fellows who get commissions, so that if you choose to give up work it is your own affair."

"I have made up my mind not to go into the army," Ned said quietly.

Mr. Porson was silent a minute.

"I hope, my dear lad," he said, "you will do nothing hastily about this. Here is a profession open to you which is your own choice and that of your father, and it should need some very strong and good reason for you to abandon it. Come let us talk the matter over together, my boy, not as a master and his pupil, but as two friends.

"You know, my boy, how thoroughly I have your interest at heart. If you had other friends whom you could consult I would rather have given you no advice, for there is no more serious matter than to say anything which might influence the career of a young fellow just starting in life. Terrible harm often results from well intentioned advice or opinions carelessly expressed to young men by their elders; it is a matter which few men are sufficiently careful about; but as I know that you have no friends to consult, Ned, and as I regard you with more than interest, I may say with affection, I think it would be well for you to tell me all that there is in your mind before you take a step which may wreck your whole life.

"I have been waiting for some months in hopes that you would open your mind to me, for I have seen that you were unhappy; but it was not for me to force your confidence."

"I don't know that there's much to tell," Ned said wearily. "Everything has happened just as it was certain it would do. Mulready is a brute; he ill treats my mother, he ill treats Charlie and Lucy, and he would ill treat me if he dared."

"All this is bad, Ned," Mr. Porson said gravely; "but of course much depends upon the amount of his ill treatment. I assume that he does not actively ill treat your mother."

"No," Ned said with an angry look in his face; "and he'd better not."

"Yes, Ned, he had better not, no doubt," Mr. Porson said soothingly; "but what I want to know, what it is essential I should know if I am to give you any advice worth having, is what you mean by ill treatment--is he rough and violent in his way with her? does he threaten her with violence? is he coarse and brutal?"

"No," Ned said somewhat reluctantly; "he is not that, sir; he is always snapping and snarling and finding fault."

"That is bad, Ned, but it does not amount to ill treatment. When a man is put out in business and things go wrong with him it is unhappily too often his custom to vent his ill temper upon innocent persons; and I fancy from what I hear--you know in a little place like this every one's business is more or less known--Mr. Mulready has a good deal to put him out. He has erected new machinery and dare not put it to work, owing as I hear--for he has lain the documents before the magistrates--for his having received threatening letters warning him against doing so. This is very trying to the man. Then, Ned, you will excuse my saying that perhaps he is somewhat tried at home. It is no pleasant thing for a man to have a young fellow like yourself in the house taking up an attitude of constant hostility. I do not say that his conduct may or may not justify it; but you will not deny that from the first you were prepared to receive him as an enemy rather than as a friend. I heard a story some weeks ago in the town, which emanated no doubt from the servants, that you had actually struck him."

"He hit Charlie, sir," Ned exclaimed.

"That may be," Mr. Porson went on gravely; "and I have no doubt, Ned, that you considered then, and that you consider now, that you were acting rightly in interfering on behalf of your brother. But I should question much whether in such a matter you are the best judge. You unfortunately began with a very strong prejudice against this man; you took up the strongest attitude of hostility to him; you were prepared to find fault with everything he said and did; you put yourself in the position of the champion of your mother, brother, and sister against him. Under such circumstances it was hardly possible that things could go on well. Now I suppose, Ned, that the idea which you have in your mind in deciding to give up the profession you have chosen, is that you may remain as their champion and protector here."

"Yes, sir," Ned said. "Father told me to be kind to mother, whatever happened."

"Quite so, my boy; but the question is, Are you being kind?"

Ned looked surprised.

"That you intend to be so, Ned, I am sure. The question is, Are you going the right way to work? Is this championship that you have taken upon yourself increasing her happiness, or is it not?"

Ned was silent.

"I do not think that it is, Ned. Your mother must be really fond of this man or she would not have married him. Do you think that it conduces to the comfort of her home to see the constant antagonism which prevails between you and him? Is it not the fact that this ill temper under which she suffers is the result of the irritation caused to him by your attitude? Do you not add to her burden rather than relieve it?"

Ned was still silent. He had so thoroughly persuaded himself that he was protecting his mother, his brother, and sister from Mr. Mulready that he had never considered the matter in this light.

"Does your mother take his part or yours in these quarrels, Ned?"

"She takes his part, sir," said Ned indignantly.

"Very well, Ned; that shows in itself that she does not wish for your championship, that in her eyes the trouble in the house is in fact caused by you. You must remember that when a woman loves a man she makes excuses for his faults of temper; his irritable moods, sharp expressions, and what you call snapping and snarling do not seem half so bad to her as they do to a third person, especially when that third person is her partisan. Instead of your adding to her happiness by renouncing your idea of going into the army, and of deciding to remain here in some position or other to take care of her, as, I suppose, is your intention, the result will be just the contrary. As to your sister, I think the same thing would happen.

"Your mother is certainly greatly attached to her and owing to her changed habits--for I understand that she is now a far more active, and I may say, Ned, a more sensible woman than before her marriage--I see no reason why Lucy should not be happy with her, especially if the element of discord--I mean yourself--were out of the way. As to Charlie, at the worst I don't think that he would suffer from your absence. His stepfather's temper will be less irritable; and as Charlie is away at school all day, and has to prepare his lessons in the evening, there is really but slight opportunity for his stepfather treating him with any active unkindness, even should he be disposed to do so.

"Did I think, my boy, that your presence here would be likely to benefit your family I should be the last person to advise you to avoid making a sacrifice of your private wishes to what you consider your duty; but upon the contrary I am convinced that the line which you have, with the best intention, taken up has been altogether a mistake, that your stay at home does vastly more harm than good, and that things would go on very much better in your absence."

This was a bitter mortification for Ned, who had hitherto nursed the idea that he was performing rather a heroic part, and was sacrificing himself for the sake of his mother.

"You don't know the fellow as I do," he said sullenly at last.

"I do not, Ned; but I know human nature, and I know that any man would show himself at his worst under such circumstances as those in which you hare placed him. It is painful to have to say, but I am sure that you have done harm rather than good, and that things will get on much better in your absence."

"I believe he is quite capable of killing her," Ned said passionately, "if he wanted her out of the way."

"That is a hard thing to say, Ned; but even were it so, we have no reason for supposing that he does want her out of the way. Come, Sankey, I am sure you have plenty of good sense. Hitherto you have been acting rather blindly in this matter. You have viewed it from one side only, and with the very best intentions in the world have done harm rather than good.

"I am convinced that when you come to think it over you will see that, in following out your own and your father's intentions and wishes as to your future career, you will really best fulfil his last injunctions and will show the truest kindness to your mother. Don't give me your answer now, but take time to think it over. Try and see the case from every point of view, and I think you will come to the conclusion that what I have been saying, although it may seem rather hard to you at first, is true, and that you had best go into the army, as you had intended. I am sure in any case you will know that what I have said, even if it seems unkind, has been for your good."

"Thank you, Mr. Porson," Ned replied; "I am quite sure of that. Perhaps you are right, and I have been making a fool of myself all along. But anyhow I will think it over."