Chapter XII: Murdered!
 

In spite of Ned's resolutions that he would do nothing to mar the tranquillity of the last few weeks of his being at home, he had difficulty in restraining his temper the following day at tea. Never had he seen his stepfather in so bad a humor. Had he known that things had gone wrong at the mill that day, that the new machine had broken one of its working parts and had brought everything to a standstill till it could be repaired, he would have been able to make allowances for Mr. Mulready's ill humor.

Not knowing this he grew pale with the efforts which he made to restrain himself as his stepfather snarled at his wife, snapped at Lucy and Charlie, and grumbled and growled at everything throughout the meal. Everything that was said was wrong, and at last, having silenced his wife and her children, the meal was completed in gloomy silence.

The two boys went into the little room off the hall which they used of an evening to prepare their lessons for next day. Charlie, who came in last, did not abut the door behind him.

"That is a nice man, our stepfather," Ned said in a cold fury. "His ways get more and more pleasant every day; such an amiable, popular man, so smiling and pleasant!"

"Oh! it's no use saying anything," Charlie said in an imploring voice, "it only makes things worse."

"Worse!" Ned exclaimed indignantly; "how could they be worse? Well may they call him Foxey, for foxey he is, a double faced snarling brute."

As the last word issued from Ned's lips he reeled under a tremendous box on the ear from behind. Mr. Mulready was passing through the hall--for his gig was waiting at the door to take him back to the mill, where some fitters would be at work till late, repairing the damages to the machine--when he had caught Ned's words, which were spoken at the top of his voice.

The smoldering anger of months burst at once into a flame heightened by the ill humor which the day's events had caused, and he burst into the room and almost felled Ned to the ground with his swinging blow. Recovering himself, Ned flew at him, but the boy was no match for the man, and Mr. Mulready's passion was as fierce as his own; seizing his throat with his left hand and forcing him back into a corner of the room, his stepfather struck him again and again with all his force with his right.

Charlie had run at once from the room to fetch his mother, and it was scarcely a minute after the commencement of the outbreak that she rushed into the room, and with a scream threw her arms round her husband.

"The young scoundrel!" Mr. Mulready exclaimed, panting, as he released his hold of Ned; "he has been wanting a lesson for a long time, and I have given him one at last. He called me Foxey, the young villain, and said I was a double faced snarling brute; let him say so again and I will knock his head off."

But Ned just at present was not in a condition to repeat his words; breathless and half stunned he leaned in the corner, his breath came in gasps, his face was as pale as death, his cheek was cut, there were red marks on the forehead which would speedily become black, and the blood was flowing from a cut on his lip, his eyes had a dazed and half stupid look.

"Oh! William!" Mrs. Mulready said as she looked at her son, "how could you hurt him so!"

"Hurt him, the young reptile!" Mr. Mulready said savagely. "I meant to hurt him. I will hurt him more next time."

Mrs. Mulready paid no attention to his words, but went up to Ned.

"Ned, my boy," she said tenderly, "what is it? Don't look like that, Ned; speak to me."

His mother's voice seemed to rouse Ned into consciousness. He drew a long breath, then slowly passed his hand across his eyes, and lips, and mouth. He looked at his mother and seemed about to speak, but no sound came from his lips. Then his eye fell on his stepfather, who, rather alarmed at the boy's appearance, was standing near the door. The expression of Ned's face changed, his mouth became set and rigid, his eyes dilated, and Mr. Mulready, believing that he was about to spring upon him, drew back hastily half a step and threw up his hands to defend himself. Mrs. Mulready threw herself in Ned's way; the boy made no effort to put her aside, but kept his eyes fixed over her shoulder at his stepfather.

"Take care!" he said hoarsely, "it will be my turn next time, and when it comes I will kill you, you brute."

"Oh, go away, William!" Mrs. Mulready cried; "oh! do go away, or there will be more mischief. Oh! Ned, do sit down, and don't look so dreadful; he is going now."

Mr. Mulready turned and went with a laugh which he intended to he scornful, but in which there was a strong tinge of uneasiness. He had always in his heart been afraid of this boy with his wild and reckless temper, and felt that in his present mood Ned was capable of anything. Still as Mr. Mulready took his seat in his gig his predominant feeling was satisfaction.

"I am glad I have given him a lesson," he muttered to himself, "and have paid him off for months of insolence. He won't try it on again, and as for his threats, pooh! he'll be gone in a few weeks, and there will be an end of it."

After he had gone Mrs. Mulready tried to soothe Ned, but the boy would not listen to her, and in fact did not seem to hear her.

"Don't you mind, mother," he said in a strange, quiet voice, "I will pay him off;" and muttering these words over and over again he went out into the hall, took down his cap in a quiet, mechanical sort of way, put it on, opened the door, and went out.

"Oh! Charlie," Mrs. Mulready said to her second son, who, sobbing bitterly, had thrown himself down in a chair by the table, and was sitting with his head on his hands, "there will be something terrible come of this! Ned's temper is so dreadful, and my husband was wrong, too. He should never have beaten him so, though Ned did say such things to him. What shall I do? these quarrels will be the death of me. I suppose Ned will be wandering about all night again. Do put on your cap, Charlie, and go out and see if you can find him, and persuade him to come home and go to bed; perhaps he will listen to you."

Charlie was absent an hour, and returned saying that he could not find his brother.

"Perhaps he's gone up to Varley as he did last time," Mrs. Mulready said. "I am sure I hope he has, else he will be wandering about all night, and he had such a strange lock in his face that there's no saying where he might go to, or what he might do."

Charlie was almost heartbroken, and sat up till long past his usual time, waiting for his brother's return. At last his eyes would no longer keep open, and he stumbled upstairs to bed, where he fell asleep almost as his head touched the pillow, in spite of his resolution to be awake until Ned returned.

Downstairs Mrs. Mulready kept watch. She did not expect Ned to return, but she was listening for the wheels of her husband's gig. It was uncertain at what time he would return; for when he rose from the tea table she had asked him what time he expected to be back, and he had replied that he could not say; he should stop until the repairs were finished, and she was to go to bed and not bother.

So at eleven o'clock she went upstairs, for once before when he had been out late and she had sat up he had been much annoyed; but after she got in bed she lay for hours listening for the sound of the wheels. At last she fell asleep and dreamed that Ned and her husband were standing at the end of a precipice grappling fiercely together in a life and death struggle. She was awaked at last by a knocking at the door; she glanced at her watch, which hung above her head; it was but half past six.

"What is it, Mary?"

"Please, mum, there's a constable below, and he wants to speak to you immediate."

Mrs. Mulready sprang from the bed and began to dress herself hurriedly. All sorts of mischief that might have come to Ned passed rapidly through her mind; her husband had not returned, but no doubt he had stopped at the mill all night watching the men at work. His absence scarcely occasioned her a moment's thought. In a very few minutes she was downstairs in the kitchen, where the constable was standing waiting for her. She knew him by sight, for Marsden possessed but four constables, and they were all well known characters.

"What is it?" she asked; "has anything happened to my son?"

"No, mum," the constable said in a tone of surprise, "I didn't know as he wasn't in bed and asleep, but I have some bad news for you, mum; it's a bad job altogether."

"What is it?" she asked again; "is it my husband?"

"Well, mum, I am sorry to say as it be. A chap came in early this morning and told me as summat had happened, so I goes out, and half a mile from the town I finds it just as he says."

"But what is it?" Mrs. Mulready gasped.

"Well, mum, I am sorry to have to tell you, but there was the gig all smashed to atoms, and there was the little black mare lying all in a heap with her neck broke, and there was--" and he stopped.

"My husband!" Mrs. Mulready gasped.

"Yes, marm, I be main sorry to say it were. There, yards in front of them, were Mr. Mulready just stiff and cold. He'd been flung right out over the hoss' head. I expect he had fallen on his head and must have been killed roight out; and the worst of it be, marm, as it warn't an accident, for there, tight across the road, about eighteen inches above the ground, was a rope stretched tight atween a gate on either side. It was plain enough to see what had happened. The mare had come tearing along as usual at twelve mile an hour in the dark, and she had caught the rope, and in course there had been a regular smash."

The pretty color had all gone from Mrs. Mulready's face as he began his story, but a ghastly pallor spread over her face, and a look of deadly horror came into her eyes as he continued.

"Oh, Ned, Ned," she wailed, "how could you!" and then she fell senseless to the ground.

The constable raised her and placed her in a chair.

"Are you sure the master's dead?" the servant asked, wiping her eyes.

"Sure enough," the constable said. "I have sent the doctor off already, but it's no good, he's been dead hours and hours. But," he continued, his professional instincts coming to the surface, "what did she mean by saying, 'Oh, Ned, how could you!' She asked me, too, first about him; ain't he at home?"

"No, he ain't," the servant said, "and ain't been at home all night; there were a row between him and maister last even; they had a fight. Maister Charlie he ran into the parlor as I was a clearing away the' tea things, hallowing out as maister was a-killing Ned. Missis she ran in and I heard a scream, then maister he drove off, and a minute or two later Maister Ned he went out, and he ain't come back again. When I went in with the candles I could see missis had been a crying. That's all I know about it."

"And enough too," the constable said grimly. "This here be a pretty business. Well, you had best get your missis round and see about getting the place ready for the corpse. They have gone up with a stretcher to bring him back. They will be here afore long. I must go to Justice Thompson's and tell him all about it. This be a pretty kittle of fish, surely. I be main sorry, but I have got my duty to do."

An hour later Williams the constable with a companion started out in search of Ned Sankey, having a warrant in his pocket for his arrest on the charge of willful murder.

The excitement in Marsden when it became known that Mr. Mulready had been killed was intense, and it was immensely heightened when it was rumored that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of his stepson on the charge of murder. Quite a little crowd hung all day round the house with closed blinds, within which their so lately active and bustling townsman was lying.

All sorts of conjectures were rife, and there were many who said that they had all along expected harm would come of the marriage which had followed so soon after the death of Captain Sankey. The majority were loud in expression of their sympathy with the dead mill owner, recalling his cheery talk and general good temper. Others were disposed to think that Ned had been driven to the act; but among very few was there any doubt as to his guilt. It was recalled against him that he had before been in the dock for his assault upon Mr. Hathorn, and that it had been proved that he had threatened to kill his master. His sullen and moody demeanor at the marriage of his mother told terribly against him, and the rumors of the previous quarrel when Ned had assaulted his stepfather, and which, related with many exaggerations, had at the time furnished a subject of gossip in the town, also told heavily to his disadvantage.

Williams having learned from the servant that Ned was in the habit of going up to Varley had first made his inquiries there; but neither Bill nor Luke Marner, who were, the constable speedily learned, his principal friends there, had seen him. Varley was greatly excited over the news of the murder. Many of the men worked at Mulready's mill, and had brought back the news at an early hour, as all work was of course suspended.

There was no grief expressed in Varley at Mr. Mulready's death, indeed the news was received with jubilant exultation.

"A good job too," was the general verdict; and the constable felt that were Ned in the village he would be screened by the whole population. He was convinced, however, that both Bill Swinton and Luke Marner were ignorant of his whereabouts, so genuine had been their astonishment at his questions, and so deep their indignation when they learned his errand.

"Thou duss'n't believe it, Luke?" Bill Swinton said as he entered the latter's cottage.

"No, lad, oi duss'n't," Luke said; "no more does Polly here, but it looks main awkward," he said slowly stroking his chin, "if as how what the constable said is right, and there was a fight atween them that evening."

"Maister Ned were a hot 'un," Bill said; "he allus said as how he had a dreadful temper, though oi never seed nowt of it in him, and he hated Foxey like poison; that oi allows; but unless he tells me hisself as he killed him nowt will make me believe it. He might ha' picked up summat handy when Foxey hit him and smashed him, but oi don't believe it of Maister Ned as he would ha done it arterward."

"He war a downright bad 'un war Foxey," Luke said, "vor sure. No worse in the district, and there's many a one as would rejoice as he's gone to his account, and oi believe as whoever's done it has saved Captain Lud from a job; but there, it's no use a talking of that now. Now, look here, Bill, what thou hast got to do be this. Thou hast got to find the boy; oi expect he be hiding somewheres up on t' moors. Thou knowst better nor oi wheere he be likely vor to be. Voind him out, lad, and tell him as they be arter him. Here be ten punds as oi ha had laying by me for years ready in case of illness; do thou give it to him and tell him he be heartily welcome to it, and can pay me back agin when it suits him. Tell him as he'd best make straight for Liverpool and git aboard a ship there for 'Merikee--never moind whether he did the job or whether he didn't. Things looks agin him now, and he best be on his way."

"Oi'll do't," Bill said, "and oi'll bid thee goodby, Luke, and thee too, Polly, for ye won't see me back agin. Of course I shall go wi' him. He haven't got man's strength yet, and oi can work for us both. I bain't a-going to let him go by hisself, not loikely."

"Thou art roight, lad," Luke said heartily. "Dang it all, lad, thou speak'st loike a man. Oi be sorry thou art going, Bill, for oi loike thee; but thou be right to go wi' this poor lad. Goodby, lad, and luck be wi' ye;" and Luke wrung Bill's hand heartily.

"I shan't say goodby, Bill," Mary Powlett said quietly. "I don't think Ned Sankey can have done this thing, and if he hasn't you will find that he will not run away, but will stay here and face it out."

"Then he will be a fool," Luke Marner said. "I tell ee the evidence be main strong agin him, and whether he be innocent or not he will find it hard to clear hisself. Oi don't think much the worst of him myself if he done it, and most in Varley will be o' my way o' thinking. Foxey war a tyrant if ever there war one, and the man what was so hard a maister to his hands would be loike to be hard to his wife's children."

"Don't speak like that, feyther," Polly said; "murder is murder, you know."

"Ay, lass, and human natur be human natur, and it be no use your going agin it. If he ha been and ill treated the boy, and I don't doubt as he has, thou may'st argue all noight, but thou won't get me to say as oi blames him much if he has done it. Oi don't suppose as he meant to kill him--not vor a moment. I should think hard of him if oi thowt as how he did. He meant, oi reckon, vor to throw his horse down and cut his knees, knowing, as every one did, as Mulready were moighty proud of his horse, and he may have reckoned as Foxey would git a good shake, and some bruises as well, as a scare, but oi doan't believe, not vor a moment, as he meant vor to kill him. That's how oi reads it, lass."

"Well, it may be so," Mary assented. "It is possible he may have done it, meaning really only to give him a fright and a shake; but I hope he didn't. Still if that was how it happened I will shake hands, Bill, and wish you goodby and good luck, for it would be best for him to get away, for I am afraid that the excuse that he only meant to frighten and not to kill him will not save him. I am sorry you are going, Bill, very sorry; but if you were my own brother I would not say a word to stop you. Didn't his feyther give up his life to save little Janey? and I would give mine to save his. But I do think it will be good for you, Bill; times are bad, and it has been very hard for you lately in Varley. I know all about it, and you will do better across the seas. You will write, won't you, sometimes?"

"Never fear," Bill said huskily, "oi will wroite, Polly; goodby, and God bless you all; but it mayn't be goodby, for oi mayn't foind him;" and, wringing the hands of Luke and Polly, Bill returned to his cottage, hastily packed up a few things in a kit, slung it over his shoulder on a stick, and started out in search of Ned.

Late that evening there came a knock at the door of Luke's cottage. On opening it he found Bill standing there.

"Back again, Bill!--then thou hasn't found him?"

"No," Bill replied in a dejected voice. "Oi ha' hoonted high and low vor him; oi ha' been to every place on the moor wheer we ha' been together, and wheer oi thowt as he might be a-waiting knowing as oi should set out to look for him as soon as oi heard the news. Oi don't think he be nowhere on the moor. Oi have been a-tramping ever sin' oi started this mourning. Twice oi ha' been down Maarsten to see if so be as they've took him, but nowt ain't been seen of him. Oi had just coom from there now. Thou'st heerd, oi suppose, as the crowner's jury ha found as Foxey wer murdered by him; but it bain't true, you know, Luke--be it?"

Bill made the assertions stoutly, but there was a tremulous eagerness in the question which followed it; He was fagged and exhausted. His faith in Ned was strong, but he had found the opinion in the town so unanimous against him that he longed for an assurance that some one beside himself believed in Ned's innocence.

"Oi doan't know, Bill," Luke Marner said, stroking his chin as he always did when he was thinking; "oi doan't know, Bill--oi hoape he didn't do it, wi' all my heart. But oi doan't know aboot it. He war sorely tried--that be sartain. But if he did it, he did it; it makes no difference to me. It doan't matter to me one snap ov the finger whether the lad killed Foxey or whether he didn't-- that bain't my business or yours. What consarns me is, as the son of the man as saved my child's loife at t' cost of his own be hunted by the constables and be in risk of his loife. That's t' question as comes home to me--oi've had nowt else ringing in my ears all day. Oi ha' been oot to a searching high and low. Oi ain't a found him, but oi ha made oop moi moind whaat I be agoing to do."

They had moved a little away from the cottage now, but Luke lowered his voice:

"Oi be agoing down to t' town in the morning to give moiself oop vor the murder of Foxey."

Bill gave an exclamation of astonishment:

"But thou didn'st do it, Luke?"

"I moight ha' done it for owt thou know'st, Bill. He wer the worst of maisters, and, as thou know'st, Bill, oi hated him joost as all the countryside did. He's been warned by King Lud and ha' been obliged to get the sojers at his factory. Well, thou knowest it was nateral as he would drive down last noight to see how t' chaps at t' engine was a-getting on, and it coomed across my moind as it wer a good opportunity vor to finish un; so ther thou hast it."

Bill gazed in astonishment through the darkness at his companion.

"But it bain't true, Luke? Thou wast talking to me arter thou coom'd out of the Coo at noine o'clock, an thou saidst as thou was off to bed."

"Nowt of the koind," Luke replied. "Oi told ye, thou know'st, as I wer a-going down to t' toon and oi had got a job in hand. Oi spoke mysterous loike, and you noticed as how oi had got a long rope coiled up in moi hand."

Bill gave a gasp of astonishment.

"That's what thou hast got to say," Luke said doggedly; "only astead o' its being at noine o'clock it war at ten. Oi were just a-slipping owt of the cottage, t' others were all asleep and knew nowt aboot moi having goone out."

Bill was silent now.

"Oi wish oi had a-thowt of it," he said at last; "oi would ha' doon it moiself."

"Oi wouldn't ha' let thee, Bill," Luke said quietly. "He be a friend of thine, and oi know thou lovest him loike a brother, and a soight mor'n most brothers; but it be moi roight. The captain gave his loife vor moi child's, and oi bee a going vor to give mine for his. That will make us quits. Besides, thou art young; oi be a-getting on. Jarge, he will be a-arning money soon; and Polly, she can get a place in sarvice, and 'ul help t' young uns. They will manage. Oi ha' been thinking it over in all loites, and ha' settled it all in moi moind."

Bill was silent for a time and then said:

"Ther be one thing agin' it, Luke, and it be this: As we can't hear nowt of Maister Ned, oi be a thinking as he ha' made straight vor Liverpool or Bristol or London, wi' a view to going straight across the seas or of 'listing, or doing somewhat to keep out of t' way. He be sure to look in t' papers, to see how things be a-going on here; and as sure as he sees as how you've gived yourself up and owed up as you ha' done it, he will coom straight back again and say as how it were him."

"Maister Ned might ha' killed Foxey in a passion, but not loike this. He didn't mean to kill him, but only vor to give him a shaake and frighten him. But oi be sartin sure as he wouldn't let another be hoonged in his place. So ye see thou'd do more harm nor good."

"Oi didn't think of that," Luke said, rubbing his chin. "That be so, surely. He'd be bound to coom back agin. Well, lad, oi will think it over agin avore moorning, and do thou do t' same. Thou know'st moi wishes now. We ha' got atween us to get Maister Ned off--that be the thing as be settled. It doan't matter how it's done, but it's got to be done soomhow; and oi rely on thee to maake moi story good, whatever it be.

"There can't be nowt wrong about it--a loife vor a loife be fair, any way. There be more nor eno' in Yorkshire in these toimes, and one more or less be of no account to any one."

"Oi be thy man, Luke," Bill said earnestly. "Whatever as thou sayest oi will sweer to; but I would reyther change places."

"That caan't be, Bill, so it bain't no use thinking aboot it. Oi know thou wilt do thy best vor Polly and t' young uns. It 'ull be rough on her, but it bain't to be helped; and as she will be going away from Varley and settling elsewhere, it wouldn't be brought up again her as she had an uncle as were a Luddite and got hoong for killing a bad maister. Goodnoight, lad! oi will see thee i' t' morning."