Chapter XX: Cleared at Last.
 

The night was a wild one. The weather had changed suddenly, and the rain beat fiercely in the faces of the hands as they made their way back from the mill up to Varley. As the night came on the storm increased. The wind as it swept across the moor swirled down into the hollow in which Varley stood, as if it would scoop the houses out of their foundations, and the drops of rain were driven against roof and wall with the force of hailstones.

Bill Swinton was sitting up again with John Stukeley, and as he bent over the sick man's bed and tenderly lifted his head while he held a cup with some cooling drink to his lips, the contrast between his broad, powerful figure, and his face, marked with the characteristics alike of good temper, kindness, and a resolute will, and the thin, emaciated invalid was very striking. Stukeley's face was without a vestige of color; his eyes were hollow and surrounded by dark circles; his cheeks were of an ashen gray pallor, which deepened almost to a lead color round his lips.

"Thou ought'st not to talk so much, John," Bill was saying. "Thou know'st the doctor said thou must not excite thyself."

"It makes no difference, Bill, no difference at all, talk or not talk. What does it matter? I am dying, and he knows it, and I know it--so do you. That bit of lead in my body has done its work. Strange, isn't it, that you should be here nursing me when I have thought of shooting you a score of times? A year ago it seemed absurd that Polly Powlett should like a boy like you better than a man like me, and yet I was sure it was because of you she would have nothing to say to me; but she was right, you will make the best husband of the two. I suppose it's because of that I sent for you. I was very fond of Polly, Bill, and when I felt that I was going, and there wasn't any use my being jealous any longer, I seemed to turn to you. I knew you would come, for you have been always ready to do a kindness to a chap who was down. You are different to the other lads here. I do believe you are fond of reading. Whenever you think I am asleep you take up your book."

"Oi am trying to improve myself," Bill said quietly. "Maister Sankey put me in the roight way. He gives me an hour, and sometimes two, every evening. He has been wonderful kind to me, he has; there ain't nothing oi wouldn't do for him."

The sick man moved uneasily.

"No more wouldn't Luke and Polly," Bill went on. "His father gived his loife, you know, for little Jenny. No, there ain't nowt we wouldn't do for him," he continued, glad to turn the subject from that of Stukeley's affection for Polly. "He be one of the best of maisters. Oi would give my life's blood if so be as oi could clear him of that business of Mulready's."

For a minute or two not a word was said. The wind roared round the building, and in the intervals of the gusts the high clock in the corner of the room ticked steadily and solemnly as if distinctly intimating that its movements were not to be hurried by the commotion without.

Stukeley had closed his eyes, and Bill began to hope that he was going to doze off, when he asked suddenly; "Bill, do you know who sent that letter that was read at the trial--I mean the one from the chap as said he done it, and was ready to give himself up if the boy was found guilty?"

Bill did not answer.

"You can tell me, if you know," Stukeley said impatiently. "You don't suppose as I am going to tell now! Maybe I shan't see any one to tell this side of the grave, for I doubt as I shall see the morning. Who wrote it?"

"I wrote it," Bill said; "but it warn't me as was coming forward, it war Luke's idee fust. He made up his moind as to own up as it was he as did it and to be hung for it to save Maister Ned, acause the captain lost his loife for little Jenny."

"But he didn't do it," Stukeley said sharply.

"No, he didn't do it," Bill replied.

There was a silence again for a long time; then Stukeley opened his eyes suddenly.

"Bill, I should like to see Polly again. Dost think as she will come and say goodby?"

"Oi am sure as she will," Bill said steadily. "Shall oi go and fetch her?"

"It's a wild night to ask a gal to come out on such an errand," Stukeley said doubtfully.

"Polly won't mind that," Bill replied confidently. "She will just wrap her shawl round her head and come over. Oi will run across and fetch her. Oi will not be gone three minutes."

In little more than that time Bill returned with Mary Powlett.

"I am awfully sorry to hear you are so bad, John," the girl said frankly.

"I am dying, Polly; I know that, or I wouldn't have sent for ye. It was a good day for you when you said no to what I asked you."

"Never mind that now, John; that's all past and gone."

"Ay, that's all past and gone. I only wanted to say as I wish you well, Polly, and I hope you will be happy, and I am pretty nigh sure of it. Bill here tells me that you set your heart on having young Sankey cleared of that business as was against him. Is that so?"

"That is so, John; he has been very kind to us all, to feyther and all of us. He is a good master to his men, and has kept many a mouth full this winter as would have been short of food without him; but why do you ask me?"

"Just a fancy of mine, gal, such a fancy as comes into the head of a man at the last. When you get back send Luke here. It is late and maybe he has gone to bed, but tell him I must speak to him. And now, goodby, Polly. God bless you! I don't know as I hasn't been wrong about all this business, but it didn't seem so to me afore. Just try and think that, will you, when you hear about it. I thought as I was a-acting for the good of the men."

"I will always remember that," Polly said gently.

Then she took the thin hand of the man in hers, glanced at Bill as if she would ask his approval, and reading acquiescence in his eyes she stooped over the bed and kissed Stukeley's forehead. Then without a word she left the cottage and hurried away through the darkness.

A few minutes later Luke Marner came in, and to Bill's surprise Stukeley asked him to leave the room. In five minutes Luke came out again.

"Go in to him, Bill," he said hoarsely. "Oi think he be a-sinking. For God's sake keep him up. Give him that wine and broath stuff as thou canst. Keep him going till oi coom back again; thou doan't know what depends on it."

Hurrying back to his cottage Luke threw on a thick coat, and to the astonishment of Polly announced that he was going down into Marsden.

"What! on such a night as this, feyther?"

"Ay, lass, and would if it were ten toimes wurse. Get ye into thy room, and go down on thy knees, and pray God to keep John Stukeley alive and clear headed till oi coomes back again."

It was many years since Luke Marner's legs had carried him so fast as they now did into Marsden. The driving rain and hail which beat against him seemed unheeded as he ran down the hill at the top of his speed. He stopped at the doctor's and went in. Two or three minutes after the arrival of this late visitor Dr. Green's housekeeper was astonished at hearing the bell ring violently. On answering the bell she was ordered to arouse John, who had already gone to bed, and to tell him to put the horse into the gig instantly.

"Not on such a night as this, doctor! sureley you are not a-going out on such a night as this!"

"Hold your tongue, woman, and do as you are told instantly," the doctor said with far greater spirit than usual, for his housekeeper was, as a general thing, mistress of the establishment.

With an air of greatly offended dignity she retired to carry out his orders. Three minutes later the doctor ran out of his room as he heard the man servant descending the stairs.

"John," he said, "I am going on at once to Mr. Thompson's; bring the gig round there. I shan't want you to go further with me. Hurry up, man, and don't lose a moment--it is a matter of life and death."

A quarter of an hour later Dr. Green, with Mr. Thompson by his side, drove off through the tempest toward Varley.

The next morning, as Ned was at breakfast, the doctor was announced.

"What a pestilently early hour you breakfast at, Ned! I was not in bed till three o'clock, and I scarcely seemed to have been asleep an hour when I was obliged to get up to be in time to catch you before you were off."

"That is hard on you indeed, doctor," Ned said, smiling; "but why this haste? Have you got some patient for whom you want my help? You need not have got up so early for that, you know. You could have ordered anything you wanted for him in my name. You might have been sure I should have honored the bill. But what made you so late last night? You were surely never out in such a gale!"

"I was, Ned, and strange as it seems I never went in answer to a call which gave me so much satisfaction. My dear lad, I hardly know how to tell you. I have a piece of news for you; the greatest, the best news that man could have to tell you."

Ned drew a long breath and the color left his cheeks.

"You don't mean, doctor, you can't mean"--and he paused.

"That you are cleared, my boy. Yes; that is my news. Thank God, Ned, your innocence is proved."

Ned could not speak. For a minute he sat silent and motionless. Then he bent forward and covered his face with his hands, and his lips moved as he murmured a deep thanksgiving to God for this mercy, while Lucy and Charlie, with cries of surprise and delight, leaped from the table, and when Ned rose to his feet, threw their arms round his neck with enthusiastic delight; while the doctor wrung his hand, and then, taking out his pocket handkerchief, wiped his eyes, violently declaring, as he did so, that he was an old fool.

"Tell me all about it, doctor. How has it happened? What has brought it about?"

"Luke Marner came down to me at ten o'clock last night to tell me that John Stukeley was dying, which I knew very well, for when I saw him in the afternoon I saw he was sinking fast; but he told me, too, that the man was anxious to sign a declaration before a magistrate to the effect that it was he who killed your stepfather. I had my gig got out and hurried away to Thompson's. The old fellow was rather crusty at being called out on such a night, but to do him justice, I must say he went readily enough when he found what he was required for, though it must have given him a twinge of conscience, for you know he has never been one of your partisans. However, off we drove, and got there in time.

"Stukeley made a full confession. It all happened just as we thought. It had been determined by the Luddites to kill Mulready, and Stukeley determined to carry out the business himself, convinced, as he says, that the man was a tyrant and an oppressor, and that his death was not only richly deserved, but that such a blow was necessary to encourage the Luddites. He did not care, however, to run the risk of taking any of the others into his confidence, and therefore carried it out alone, and to this day, although some of the others may have their suspicions, no one knows for certain that he was the perpetrator of the act.

"He had armed himself with a pistol and went down to the mill, intending to shoot Mulready as he came out at night, but, stumbling upon the rope, thought that it was a safer and more certain means. After fastening it across the road he sat down and waited, intending to shoot your stepfather if the accident didn't turn out fatal. After the crash, finding that Mulready's neck was broken and that he was dead, he made off home. He wished it specially to be placed on his deposition that he made his confession not from any regret at having killed Mulready, but simply to oblige Mary Powlett, whose heart was bent upon your innocence being proved. He signed the deposition in the presence of Thompson, myself, and Bill Swinton."

"And you think it is true, doctor, you really think it is true? It is not like Luke's attempt to save me?"

"I am certain it is true, Ned. The man was dying, and there was no mistake about his earnestness. There is not a shadow of doubt. I sent Swinton back in the gig with Thompson and stayed with the man till half past two. He was unconscious then. He may linger a few hours, but will not live out the day, and there is little chance of his again recovering consciousness. Thompson will today send a copy of the deposition to the home secretary, with a request that it may be made public through the newspapers. It will appear in all the Yorkshire papers next Saturday, and all the world will know that you are innocent."

"What will my mother say?" Ned exclaimed, turning pale again.

"I don't know what she will say, my lad, but I know what she ought to say. I am going round to Thompson's now for a copy of the deposition, and will bring it for her to see. Thompson will read it aloud at the meeting of the court today, so by this afternoon every one will know that you are cleared."

Abijah's joy when she heard that Ned's innocence was proved was no less than that of his brother and sister. She would have rushed upstairs at once to tell the news to her mistress, but Ned persuaded her not to do so until the doctor's return.

"Then he will have to be quick," Abijah said, "for if the mistress' bell rings, and I have to go up before he comes, I shall never be able to keep it to myself. She will see it in my face that something has happened. If the bell rings, Miss Lucy, you must go up, and if she asks for me, say that I am particular busy, and will be up in a few minutes."

The bell, however, did not ring before the doctor's return. After a short consultation between him and Ned, Abijah was called in.

"Mr. Sankey agrees with me, Abijah, that you had better break the news. Your mistress is more accustomed to you than to any one else, and you understand her ways. Here is the deposition. I shall wait below here till you come down. There is no saying how she will take it. Be sure you break the news gently."

Abijah went upstairs with a hesitating step, strongly in contrast with her usual quick bustling walk. She had before felt rather aggrieved that the doctor should be the first to break the news; but she now felt the difficulty of the task, and would gladly have been spared the responsibility.

"I have been expecting you for the last quarter of an hour, Abijah," Mrs. Mulready said querulously. "You know how I hate to have the room untidy after I have dressed.

"Why, what's the matter?". she broke off sharply as she noticed Abijah's face. "Why, you have been crying!"

"Yes, ma'am, I have been crying," Abijah said unsteadily, "but I don't know as ever I shall cry again, for I have heard such good news as will last me the rest of my whole life."

"What news, Abijah?" Mrs. Mulready asked quickly. "What are you making a mystery about, and what is that paper in your hand?"

"Well, ma'am, God has been very good to us all. I knew as he would be sooner or later, though sometimes I began to doubt whether it would be in my time, and it did break my heart to see Maister Ned going about so pale and unnatural like for a lad like him, and to know as there was people as thought that he was a murderer. And now, thank God, it is all over."

"All over! what do you mean, Abijah?" Mrs. Mulready exclaimed, rising suddenly from her invalid chair.

"What do you mean by saying that it is all over?" and she seized the old nurse's arm with an eager grasp.

"Don't excite yourself so, mistress. You have been sore tried, but it is over now, and today all the world will know as Maister Ned is proved to be innocent. This here paper is a copy of the confession of the man as did it, and who is, they say, dead by this time. It was taken all right and proper afore a magistrate."

"Innocent!" Mrs. Mulready gasped in a voice scarcely above a whisper. "Did you tell me, Abijah, that my boy, my boy Ned, is innocent?"

"I never doubted as he was innocent, ma'am; but now, thank God, all the world will know it. There, ma'am, sit yourself down. Don't look like that. I know as how you must feel, but for mercy sake don't look like that."

Mrs. Mulready did not seem to hear her, did not seem to notice, as she passively permitted herself to be seated in the chair, while Abijah poured out a glass of wine. Her face was pale and rigid, her eyes wide open, her expression one of horror rather than relief.

"Innocent! Proved innocent!" she murmured. "What must he think of me--me, his mother!"

For some time she sat looking straight before her, taking no notice of the efforts of Abijah to call her attention, and unheeding the glass of wine which she in vain pressed her to drink.

"I must go away," she said at last, rising suddenly. "I must go away at once. Has he gone yet?"

"Go away, ma'am! Why, what should you go away for, and where are you going?"

"It does not matter; it makes no difference," Mrs. Mulready said feverishly, "so that I get away. Put some of my things together, Abijah. What are you staring there for? Don't you hear what I say? I must go away directly he has started for the mill."

And with trembling fingers she began to open her drawers and pull out her clothes.

"But you can't go away like that, mistress. You can't, indeed," Abijah said, aghast.

"I must go, Abijah. There is nothing else for me to do. Do you think I could see him after treating him as I have done? I should fall dead at his feet for shame."

"But where are you going, ma'am?" Abijah said, thinking it better not to attempt to argue with her in her present state.

"I don't know, I don't know. Yes, I do. Do you know whether that cottage you were telling me about where you lived while you were away from here, is to let? That will do nicely, for there I should be away from every one. Get me a box from the lumber room, and tell Harriet to go out and get me a post chaise from the Red Lion as soon as my son has gone to the mill."

"Very well," Abijah said. "I will do as you want me, 'm, if you will sit down quiet and not excite yourself. You know you have not been out of your room for a year, and if you go a-tiring yourself like this you will never be able to stand the journey. You sit down in the chair and I will do the packing for you. You can tell me what things you will take with you. I will get the box down."

So saying, Abijah left the room, and, running hastily downstairs, told Ned and the doctor the manner in which Mrs. Mulready had received the news. Ned, would have run up at once to his mother, but Dr. Green would not hear of it.

"It would not do, Ned. In your mother's present state the shock of seeing you might have the worst effect. Run up, Abijah, and get the box down to her. I will go out and come back and knock at the door in two or three minutes, and will go up and see her, and, if necessary. I will give her a strong soothing draught. You had better tell her that from what you hear you believe Mr. Sankey is not going to the mill today. That will make her delay her preparations for moving until tomorrow, and will give us time to see what is best to be done."

"I have brought the box, mistress," Abijah said as she entered Mrs. Mulready's room; "but I don't think as you will want to pack today, for I hear as Mr. Ned ain't a-going to the mill. You see all the town will be coming to see him to shake hands with him and tell him how glad they is that he is cleared."

"And only I can't!" Mrs. Mulready wailed. "To think of it, only I, his mother, can't see him! And I must stop in the house for another day! Oh! it is too hard! But I deserve it, and everything else."

"There is Dr. Green's knock," Abijah said.

"I can't see him, Abijah. I can't see him."

"I think you had better see him, ma'am. You always do see him, you know, and it will look so strange if you don't. There, I will pop these things into the drawers again and hide the box."

Abijah bustled about actively, and before Mrs. Mulready had time to take any decided step Dr. Green knocked at the door and came in.

"How are you today, Mrs. Mulready?" he asked cheerfully. "This is a joyful day indeed for us all. The whole place is wild with the news, and I expect we shall be having a deputation presently to congratulate Ned."

"I am not feeling very well," Mrs. Mulready said faintly. "The shock has been too much for me."

"Very natural, very natural, indeed," Dr. Green said cheerily. "We could hardly hope it would be otherwise; but after this good news I expect we shall soon make a woman of you again. Your son will be the most popular man in the place. People will not know how to make enough of him. Porson and I, who have been cheering him all along, will have to snub him now or his head will be turned. Now let me feel your pulse. Dear! dear! this will not do at all; it's going like a mill engine. This will never do. If you do not calm yourself we shall be having you in bed again for a long bout. I will send you a bottle of soothing medicine. You must take it every two hours, and keep yourself perfectly quiet. There, I will not talk to you now about this good news, for I see that you are not fit to stand it. You must lie down on the sofa at once, and not get off again today. I will look in this evening and see how you are."

Frightened at the threat that if she were not quiet she might be confined to her bed for weeks; Mrs. Mulready obeyed orders, took her medicine when it arrived, and lay quiet on the sofa. For a long time the sedative failed to have any effect. Every five minutes throughout the day there were knocks at the door. Every one who knew Ned, and many who did not, called to congratulate him. Some, like Mr. Thompson, made a half apology for having so long doubted him. A few, like Mr. Simmonds, were able heartily to assure him that they had never in their hearts believed it.

Ned was too full of gratitude and happiness to cherish the slightest animosity, and he received warmly and thankfully the congratulations which were showered upon him.

"He looks another man," was the universal comment of his visitors; and, indeed, it was so. The cloud which had so long overshadowed him had passed away, and the look of cold reserve had vanished with it, and he was prepared again to receive the world as a friend.

He was most moved when, early in the day, Mr. Porson and the whole of the boys arrived. As soon as he had left Mrs. Mulready, Dr. Green had hurried down to the schoolhouse with the news, and Mr. Porson, as soon as he heard it, had announced it from his desk, adding that after such news as that he could not expect them to continue their lessons, and that the rest of the day must therefore be regarded as a holiday. He yielded a ready assent when the boys entreated that they might go in a body to congratulate Ned.

Ned was speechless for some time as his old friend wrung his hand, and his former schoolfellows clustered round him with a very Babel of congratulations and good wishes. Only the knowledge that his mother was ill above prevented them from breaking into uproarious cheering.

In the afternoon, hearing that his mother was still awake, Ned, accompanied by Mr. Porson, went out for a stroll, telling Harriet that she was to remain at the open door while he was away, so as to prevent any one from knocking. It was something of a trial to Ned to walk through the street which he had passed along so many times in the last year oblivious of all within it. Every man and woman he met insisted on shaking hands with him. Tradesmen left their shops and ran out to greet him, and there was no mistaking the general enthusiasm which was felt on the occasion, and the desire of every one to atone as far as possible for the unmerited suffering which had been inflicted on him.

When he returned at six o'clock he found Harriet still on the watch, and she said in low tones that Abijah had just come downstairs with the news that her mistress had fallen asleep.

"I should not think any one more will come, Harriet, but I will get you to stop here for a little longer. Then we must fasten up the knocker and take off the bell. The doctor says that it is all important that my mother should get a long and undisturbed sleep."

Dr. Green came in again in the evening, and had a long chat with Ned. It was nearly midnight before Mrs. Mulready awoke. On opening her eyes she saw Ned sitting at a short distance from the sofa. She gave a sudden start, and then a look of terror came into her face.

Ned rose to his feet and held out his arms with the one word "Mother!"

Mrs. Mulready slid from the sofa and threw herself on her knees with her hands clasped.

"Oh! my boy, my boy!" she cried, "can you forgive me?"

Then, as he raised her in his arms, she fainted.

It was a happy party, indeed, that assembled round the breakfast table next morning. Mrs. Mulready was at the head of the table making tea, looking pale and weak, but with a look of quiet happiness and contentment on her face such as her children had never seen there before, but which was henceforth to be its habitual expression.

Ned did not carry out his original intention of entering the army. Mr. Simmonds warmly offered to make the application for a commission for him, but Ned declined. He had made up his mind, he said, to stick to the mill; there was plenty of work to be done there, and he foresaw that with a continued improvement of machinery there was a great future for the manufacturing interests of England.

The Luddite movement gradually died out. The high rewards offered for the discovery of the murderers of Mr. Horsfall and of the assailants of Cartwright's mill had their effect. Three croppers, Mellor, Thorpe and Smith, were denounced and brought to trial. All three had been concerned in the murder, together with Walker, who turned king's evidence for the reward--Mellor and Thorpe having fired the fatal shots. The same men had been the leaders in the attack on Cartwright's mill.

They were tried at the assizes at York on the 2d of January, 1813, with sixty-four of their comrades, before Baron Thomas and Judge Le Blanc, and were found guilty, although they were defended by Henry (afterward Lord) Brougham. Mellor, Thorpe, and Smith were executed three days afterward. Fourteen of the others were hung, as were five Luddites who were tried before another tribunal.

After this wholesale act of severity the Luddite disturbances soon came to an end. The non-success which had attended their efforts, and the execution of all their leaders, thoroughly cowed the rioters, and their ranks were speedily thinned by the number of hands who found employment in the rapidly increasing mills in the district. Anyhow from that time the Luddite conspiracy ceased to be formidable.

The Sankeys' mill at Marsden flourished greatly under Ned's management. Every year saw additions to the buildings and machinery until it became one of the largest concerns in Yorkshire. He was not assisted, as he had at one time hoped he should be, by his brother in the management; but he was well contented when Charlie, on leaving school, declared his wish to go to Cambridge, and then to enter the church, a life for which he was far better suited by temperament than for the active life of a man of business.

The trial through which Ned Sankey had passed had a lasting effect upon his character. Whatever afterward occurred to vex him in business he was never known to utter a hasty word, or to form a hasty judgment. He was ever busy in devising schemes for the benefit of his workpeople, and to be in Sankey's mill was considered as the greatest piece of good fortune which could befall a hand.

Four years after the confession of John Stukeley Ned married the daughter of his friend George Cartwright, and settled down in a handsome house which he had built for himself a short distance out of Marsden. Lucy was soon afterward settled in a house of her own, having married a young landowner with ample estates. Mrs. Mulready, in spite of the urgent persuasions of her son and his young wife, refused to take up her residence with them, but established herself in a pretty little house close at hand, spending, however, a considerable portion of each day with him at his home.

The trials through which she had gone had done even more for her than for Ned. All her querulous listlessness had disappeared. She was bright, cheerful, and even tempered. Ned used to tell her that she grew younger looking every day. Her pride and happiness in her son were unbounded, and these culminated when, ten years after his accession to the management of the mill, Ned acceded to the request of a large number of manufacturers in the district, to stand for Parliament as the representative of the mill owning interest, and was triumphantly returned at the head of the poll.

Of the other characters of this story little need be said. Dr. Green and Mr. and Mrs. Porson remained Ned's closest friends to the end of their lives.

Mary Powlett did not compel Bill Swinton to wait until the situation of foreman of the mill became vacant, but married him two years after the death of John Stukeley. Bill became in time not only foreman but the confidential manager of the mill, and he and his wife were all their lives on the footing of dear friends with Mr. and Mrs. Sankey.

Luke Marner remained foreman of his room until too old for further work, when he retired on a comfortable pension, and was succeeded in his post by his son George. Ned and Amy Sankey had a large family, who used to listen with awe and admiration to the tale of the terrible trial which had once befallen their father, and of the way in which he had indeed been "tried in the fire."

THE END