Chapter VIII: Ned is Sorely Tried
 

Among the many who called upon Mrs. Sankey after the death of her husband was Mr. Mulready, the owner of a mill near Marsden. He was one of the leading men in the place, although his mill was by no means a large one. He took rank in the eyes of the little town with men in a much larger way of business by means of a pushing manner and a fluent tongue. He had come to be considered an authority upon most subjects. He paid much attention to his dress, and drove the fastest horse and the best got up gig in that part of the country; but it was Mr. Mulready's manner which above all had raised him to his present position in the esteem of the good people of Marsden. He had the knack of adapting himself to the vein of those he addressed.

With the farmers who came into market he was bluff and cordial; with the people in general he was genial and good tempered. At meetings at which the county gentry were present he was quiet, businesslike, and a trifle deferential, showing that he recognized the difference between his position and theirs.

With ladies he was gay when they were gay, sympathetic when sympathy was expected. With them he was even more popular than with the men, for the latter, although they admired and somewhat envied his varied acquirements, were apt in the intimacy of private conversation to speak of him as a humbug.

There was one exception, however, to his general popularity. There was no mill owner in the neighborhood more heartily detested by his workpeople; but as these did not mingle with the genteel classes of Marsden their opinion of Mr. Mulready went for nothing. The mill owner was a man of forty-three or forty-four, although when dressed in his tightly fitting brown coat with its short waist, its brass buttons, and high collar, and with a low hat with narrow brim worn well forward and coming down almost to the bridge of his nose, he looked seven or eight years younger.

His hair was light, his trimly cut muttonchop whiskers were sandy, he had a bright, fresh complexion, a large mouth, and good teeth, which he always showed when he smiled, and in public he was always smiling; his eyes were light in color, very close together, and had a somewhat peculiar appearance. Indeed there were men who hinted that he had a slight cast, but these were, no doubt, envious of his popularity.

Mrs. Sankey had been flattered by his visit and manner; indeed it could hardly have been otherwise, for he had expressed a sympathy and deference which were very soothing to her.

"It is indeed kind of you to receive me," he had said. "I know, of course, that it is not usual for a man who has the misfortune to be unmarried to make a call upon a lady, but I could not help myself. William Mulready is not a man to allow his feelings to be sacrificed to the cold etiquette of the world. I had not the pleasure of the acquaintance of that most brave and distinguished officer your late husband. I had hoped that some day circumstances might throw me in contact with him, but it was not for me, a humble manufacturer, to force my acquaintance upon one socially my superior; but, my dear madam, when I heard of that terrible accident, of that noble self devotion, I said to myself, 'William Mulready, when a proper and decent time elapses you must call upon the relict of your late noble and distinguished townsman, and assure her of your sympathy and admiration, even if she spurns you from the door.'"

"You could not think I should do that, Mr. Mulready," Mrs. Sankey said. "It is most gratifying to me to receive this mark of sympathy in my present sad position;" and she sighed deeply.

"You are good indeed to say so," Mr. Mulready said in a tone of deep gratitude; "but I might have been sure that my motives at least would not be misunderstood by a high bred and delicate lady like yourself. I will not now trespass on your time, but hope that I may be permitted to call again. Should there be anything in which so humble an individual could be in the slightest degree useful to you pray command my services. I know the responsibility which you must feel at being left in charge of those two noble boys and your charming little daughter must be well nigh overwhelming, and if you would not think it presumption I would say that any poor advice or opinion which I, who call myself in some degree a man of the world, can give, will be always at your service."

"You are very good," Mrs. Sankey murmured. "It is indeed a responsibility. My younger boy and girl are all that I could wish, but the elder is already almost beyond me;" and by the shake of her head she testified that her troubles on that score approached martyrdom.

"Never fear, my dear madam," Mr. Mulready said heartily. "Boys will be boys, and I doubt not that he will grow up everything that you could desire. I may have heard that he was a little passionate. There was a trifling affair between him and his schoolmaster, was there not? But these things mend themselves, and doubtless all will come well in time; and now I have the honor of wishing you good morning."

"Charming manners!" Mrs. Sankey said to herself when her visitor had left. "A little old fashioned, perhaps, but so kind and deferential. He seemed to understand my feelings exactly."

That evening when they were at tea Mrs. Sankey mentioned the agreeable visitor who had called in the afternoon.

"What! William Mulready!" Ned exclaimed; "Foxey, as his hands call him. I have heard Bill speak of him often. His men hate him. They say he is a regular tyrant. What impudence his coming here!"

"Ned, I am surprised at you," his mother said angrily. "I am sure Mr. Mulready is nothing of the sort. He is a most kind and considerate gentleman, and I will not allow you to repeat these things you hear from the low companions whom your father permitted you to associate with."

"Bill is not a low companion, mother," Ned exclaimed passionately. "A better fellow never stood, and Foxey is not kind and considerate. He is a brutal tyrant, and I am sure my father, if you will quote his opinion, would not have had such a man inside his doors."

"Leave the room, Ned, this moment," his mother exclaimed, more angry than he had ever seen her before. "I am ashamed of you speaking to me in that way. You would not have dared to do it had your father been alive."

Ned dashed down his scarcely begun bread and butter and flung himself out of the room, and then out of the house, and it was some hours before he returned. Then he went straight up to his mother's room.

"I beg your pardon, mother," he said quietly. "I am very sorry I spoke as I did. I ought not to have done so."

"Very well," Mrs. Sankey said coldly; "then don't do it again, Ned."

Without another word Ned went off to his books. He was grieved and sore at heart. He had during his walk fought a hard battle with himself, and had conquered. As his temper cooled down he had felt that he had broken his promise, that he had not been kind to his mother; felt, too, that her accusation was a true one--he would not have dared to speak so to her had his father been alive.

"But it was so different then," he had said to himself as the tears chased each other down his cheeks. "Father understood me, and cared for me, and made allowances. It was worth while fighting against one's temper just to have him put his hand on my shoulder and say, 'Well done, my boy.' Now it is so different. I will go on trying for his sake; but I know it's no good. Do what I will, I can't please her. It's my fault, I dare say, but I do try my best. I do, indeed, father," he said, speaking out loud; "if you can hear me, I do, indeed, try to be kind to mother, but she won't let me. I do try to make allowances, that is, when I am not in a passion, and then I go and spoil it all, like a beast, just as I did tonight.

"Anyhow," he said to himself as he turned his face homeward again, "I will go and tell her I am sorry, and beg her pardon. I don't suppose she will be nice, but I can't help that. It's my duty anyhow, and I will try and not say anything against Foxey next time she speaks of him."

The latter part of his resolution Ned found it very hard to maintain, for Mr. Mulready became a not unfrequent visitor. He had always some excuse for calling, either to bring in a basket of fresh trout, some game, or hothouse fruit, for, as he said, he knew her appetite was delicate and needed tempting, or some book newly issued from the London press which he was sure she would appreciate.

After a short time Mrs. Sankey ceased to speak of these visits, perhaps because she saw how Ned objected to the introduction of Mr. Mulready's name, perhaps for some other reason, and a year passed without Ned's being seriously ruffled on the subject.

Ned was now nearly sixteen. He had worked hard, and was the head boy at Porson's. It had always been regarded as a fixed thing that he should go into the army. As the son of an officer who had lost his leg in the service it was thought that he would be able to obtain a commission without difficulty, and Squire Simmonds, who had been a kind friend since his father's death, had promised to ask the lord lieutenant of the county to interest himself in the matter, and had no doubt that the circumstances of Captain Sankey's death would be considered as an addition to the claim of his services in the army.

Captain Sankey had intended that Ned should have gone to a superior school to finish his education, but the diminished income of the family had put this out of the question, and the subject had never been mooted after his death. Ned, however, felt that he was making such good progress under Mr. Porson that he was well content to remain where he was.

His struggle with his temper had gone on steadily, and he hoped he had won a final victory over it. Mr. Porson had been unwearied in his kindnesses, and often took Ned for an hour in the evening in order to push him forward, and although he avoided talking about his home life the boy felt that he could, in case of need, pour out his heart to him; but, indeed, things had gone better at home. Mrs. Sankey was just as indisposed as ever to take any share whatever in the trouble of housekeeping, but as Abijah was perfectly capable of keeping the house in order without her instructions things went on smoothly and straightly in this respect.

In other matters home life was more pleasant than it had been. Mrs. Sankey was less given to querulous complaining, more inclined to see things in a cheerful light, and Ned especially noticed with satisfaction that the references to his father which had so tried him had become much less frequent of late.

One day in September, when his father had been dead just a year, one of the town boys, a lad of about Ned's age, said to him as they were walking home from school together:

"Well, Ned, I suppose I ought to congratulate you, although I don't know whether you will see it in that light."

"What do you mean?" Ned said. "I don't know that anything has happened on which I should be particularly congratulated, except on having made the top score against the town last week."

"Oh! I don't mean that," the boy said.. "I mean about Mulready."

"What do you mean?" Ned said, stopping short and turning very white.

"Why," the lad said laughing, "all the town says he is going to marry your mother."

Ned stood as if stupefied. Then he sprang upon his companion and seized him by the throat.

"It's a lie," he shouted, shaking him furiously. "It's a lie I say, Smithers, and you know it. I will kill you if you don't say it's a lie."

With a great effort Smithers extricated himself from Ned's grasp.

"Don't choke a fellow," he said. "It may be a lie if you say it is, but it is not my lie anyhow. People have been talking about it for some time. They say he's been down there nearly every day. Didn't you know it?"

"Know it?" Ned gasped. "I have not heard of his being in the house for months, but I will soon find out the truth."

And without another word he dashed off at full speed up the street. Panting and breathless he rushed into the house, and tore into the room where his mother was sitting trifling with a piece of fancy work.

"I do wish, Edward, you would not come into the room like a whirlwind. You know how any sudden noise jars upon my nerves. Why, what is the matter?" she broke off suddenly, his pale, set face catching her eye, little accustomed as she was to pay any attention to Ned's varying moods.

"Mother," he panted out, "people are saying an awful thing about you, a wicked, abominable thing. I know, of course, it is not true, but I want just to hear you say so, so that I can go out and tell people they lie. How dare they say such things!"

"Why, what do you mean, Edward?" Mrs. Sankey said, almost frightened at the boy's vehemence.

"Why, they say that you are going to marry that horrible man Mulready. It is monstrous, isn't it? I think they ought to be prosecuted and punished for such a wicked thing, and father only a year in his grave."

Mrs. Sankey was frightened at Ned's passion. Ever since the matter had first taken shape in her mind she had felt a certain uneasiness as to what Ned would say of it, and had, since it was decided, been putting off from day to day the telling of the news to him. She had, in his absence, told herself over and over again that it was no business of his, and that a boy had no right to as much as question the actions of his mother; but somehow when he was present she had always shrank from telling him. She now took refuge in her usual defense--tears.

"It is shameful," she said, sobbing, as she held her handkerchief to her eyes, "that a boy should speak in this way to his mother; it is downright wicked."

"But I am not speaking to you, mother; I am speaking of other people --the people who have invented this horrible lie--for it is a lie, mother, isn't it? It is not possible it can be true?"

"It is true," Mrs. Sankey said, gaining courage from her anger; "it is quite true. And you are a wicked and abominable boy to talk in that way to me. Why shouldn't I marry again? Other people marry again, and why shouldn't I? I am sure your poor father would never have wished me to waste my life by remaining single, with nothing to do but to look after you children. And it is shameful of you to speak in that way of Mr. Mulready."

Ned stopped to hear no more. At her first words he had given a low, gasping cry, as one who has received a terrible wound. The blood flew to his head, the room swam round, and he seemed to feel the veins in his temples swell almost to bursting. The subsequent words of his mother fell unheeded on his ears, and turning round he went slowly to the door, groping his way as one half asleep or stupefied by a blow.

Mechanically he opened the door and went out into the street; his cap was still on his head, but he neither thought of it one way or the other.

Almost without knowing it he turned from the town and walked toward the hills. Had any one met him by the way they would assuredly have thought that the boy had been drinking, so strangely and unevenly did he walk. His face was flushed almost purple, his eyes were bloodshot; he swayed to and fro as he walked, sometimes pausing altogether, sometimes hurrying along for a few steps. Passing a field where the gate stood open he turned into it, kept on his way for some twenty yards further, and then fell at full length on the grass. There he lay unconscious for some hours, and it was not until the evening dews were falling heavily that he sat up and looked round.

For some time he neither knew where he was nor what had brought him there. At last the remembrance of what had passed flashed across him, and with a cry of "Father! father!" he threw himself at full length again with his head on his arm; but this time tears came to his relief, and for a long time he cried with a bitterness of grief even greater than that which he had suffered at his father's death.

The stars were shining brightly when he rose to his feet, his clothes were soaked with dew, and he trembled with cold and weakness.

"What am I to do?" he said to himself; "what am I to do?"

He made his way back to the gate and leaned against it for some time; then, having at last made up his mind, he turned his back on the town and walked toward Varley, moving more slowly and wearily than if he was at the end of a long and fatiguing day's walk. Slowly he climbed the hill and made his way through the village till he reached the Swintons' cottage. He tapped at the door with his hand, and lifting the latch he opened the door a few inches.

"Bill, are you in?"

There was an exclamation of surprise.

"Why, surely, it's Maister Ned!" and Bill came to the door.

"Come out, Bill, I want to speak to you."

Much surprised at the low and subdued tone in which Ned spoke, Bill snatched down his cap from the peg by the door and joined him outside.

"What be't, Maister Ned? what be t' matter with thee? Has owt gone wrong?"

Ned walked on without speaking. In his yearning for sympathy, in his intense desire to impart the miserable news to some one who would feel for him, he had come to his friend Bill. He had thought first of going to Mr. Porson. But though his master would sympathize with him he would not be able to feel as he did; he would no doubt be shocked at hearing that his mother was so soon going to marry again, but he would not be able to understand the special dislike to Mr. Mulready, still less likely to encourage his passionate resentment. Bill would, he knew, do both, for it was from him he had learned how hated the mill owner was among his people.

But at present he could not speak. He gave a short wave of his hand to show that he heard, but could not answer yet, and with his head bent down made his way out through the end of the village on to the moor--Bill following him, wondering and sympathetic, unable to conjecture what had happened.

Presently, when they had left the houses far behind them, Ned stopped.

"What be't, Maister Ned?" Bill again asked, laying his strong hand upon Ned's shoulder; "tell oi what it be. Hast got in another row with t' maister? If there be owt as oi can do, thou knowest well as Bill Swinton be with thee heart and soul."

"I know, Bill--I know," Ned said in a broken voice, "but you can do nothing; I can do nothing; no one can. But it's dreadful to think of. It's worse than if I had killed twenty masters. Only think-- only think, Bill, my mother's going to marry Mulready!"

"Thou doesn't say so, lad! What! thy mother marry Foxey! Oi never heer'd o' such a thing. Well, that be bad news, surely! Well, well, only to think, now! Poor lad! Well, that beats all!"

The calamity appeared so great to Bill that for some time no idea occurred to him which could, under the circumstances, be considered as consolatory. But Ned felt the sympathy conveyed in the strong grasp of his shoulder, and in the muttered "Well, well, now!" to which Bill gave vent at intervals.

"What bee'st going to do vor to stop it?" he asked at last.

"What can I do, Bill? She won't listen to me--she never does. Anything I say always makes her go the other way. She wouldn't believe anything I said against him. It would only make her stick to him all the more.

"Dost think," Bill suggested after another long pause, "that if we got up a sort of depitation--Luke Marner and four or five other steady chaps as knows him; yes, and Polly Powlett, she could do the talking--to go to her and tell her what a thundering dad un he is--dost think it would do any good?"

Even in his bitter grief Ned could hardly help smiling at the thought of such a deputation waiting upon his mother.

"No, it wouldn't do, Bill."

Bill was silent again for some time.

"Dost want un killed, Maister Ned?" he said in a low voice at last; "'cause if ye do oi would do it for ye. Oi would lay down my life for ye willing, as thou knowst; and hanging ain't much, arter all. They say 'tis soon over. Anyhow oi would chance it, and perhaps they wouldn't find me out."

Ned grasped his friend's hand.

"I could kill him myself!" he exclaimed passionately. "I have been thinking of it; but what would be the good? I know what my mother is--when once she has made up her mind there's no turning her; and if this fellow were out of the way, likely enough she would take up with another in no time."

"But it couldn't been as bad as if wur Foxey," Bill urged, "he be the very worsest lot about Marsden."

"I would do it," Ned said passionately; "I would do it over and over again, but for the disgrace it would bring on Charlie and Lucy."

"But there would be no disgrace if oi was to do it, Maister Ned."

"Yes, there would, Bill--a worse disgrace than if I did it myself. It would be a nice thing to let you get hanged for my affairs; but let him look out--let him try to ill treat Charlie and Lucy, and he will see if I don't get even with him. I am not so much afraid of that--it's the shame of the thing. Only to think that all Marsden should know my mother is going to be married again within a year of my father's death, and that after being his wife she was going to take such a man as this! It's awful, downright awful, Bill!"

"Then what art thou going to do, Maister Ned--run away and 'list for a soldier, or go to sea?"

"I wish I could," Ned exclaimed. "I would turn my back on Marsden and never come back again, were it not for the little ones. Besides," he added after a pause, "father's last words were, 'Be kind to mother;' and she will want it more than he ever dreamed of."

"She will that," Bill agreed; "leastways unless oi be mistaken. And what be'st going to do now, lad? Be'st agoing whoam?"

"No, I won't go home tonight," Ned replied. "I must think it over quietly, and it would be worse to bear there than anywhere else. No, I shall just walk about."

"Thou canst not walk abowt all night, Maister Ned," Bill said positively; "it bain't to be thowt of. If thou don't mind thou canst have moi bed and oi can sleep on t' floor."

"No, I couldn't do that," Ned said, "though I do feel awfully tired and done up; but your brothers would be asking me questions and wondering why I didn't go home. I could not stand that."

"No, Maister Ned, oi can see that wouldn't do; but if we walk about for an hour or two, or--no, I know of a better plan. We can get in at t' window of the school; it bain't never fastened, and bain't been for years, seeing as thar bain't been neither school nor schoolers since auld Mother Brown died. Oi will make a shift to light a fire there. There be shutters, so no one will see the light. Then oi will bring ee up some blankets from our house, and if there bain't enough Polly will lend me some when oi tell her who they are for. She bain't a one to blab. What dost thou say?"

Ned, who felt utterly worn out, assented gladly to the proposal, and an entrance was easily effected into the desolate cottage formerly used as a day school. Bill went off at once and soon returned with a load of firewood; the shutters were then carefully closed, and a fire quickly blazed brightly on the hearth. Bill then went away again, and in a quarter of an hour returned with Mary Powlett. He carried a bundle of rugs and blankets, while she had a kettle in one hand and a large basket in the other.

"Good evening! Master Sankey," she said as she entered. "Bill has told me all about it, and I am sorry indeed for you and for your mother. It is worse for her, poor lady, than for you. You will soon be old enough to go out into the world if you don't like things at home; but she will have to bear what trouble comes to her. And now I thought you would like a cup of tea, so I have brought the kettle and things up. I haven't had tea yet, and they don't have tea at Bill's; but I like it, though feyther grumbles sometimes, and says it's too expensive for the likes of us in sich times as these; but he knows I would rather go without meat than without tea, so he lets me have it. Bill comes in for a cup sometimes, for he likes it better than beer, and it's a deal better for him to be sitting taking a cup of tea with me than getting into the way of going down to the 'Spotted Dog,' and drinking beer there. So we will all have a cup together. No one will disturb us. Feyther is down at the 'Brown Cow,' and when I told the children I had to go out on special business they all promised to be good, and Jarge said he would see them all safely into bed. I told him I should be back in an hour."

While Polly was speaking she was bustling about the room, putting things straight; with a wisp of heather she swept up the dust which had accumulated on the floor, in a semicircle in front of the fire, and laid down the rugs and blankets to form seats. Three cups and saucers, a little jag of milk, a teapot, and basin of sugar were placed in the center, and a pile of slices of bread and butter beside them, while from a paper bag she produced a cake which she had bought at the village shop on her way up.

Ned watched her preparations listlessly.

"You are very good, Polly," he said, "and I shall be very glad of the cup of tea, but I cannot eat anything."

"Never mind," she said cheerfully. "Bill and I can do the eating, and perhaps after you have had a cup of tea you will be able to, for Bill tells me you have had nothing to eat since breakfast."

Ned felt cheered by the warm blaze of the fire and by the cheerful sound of the kettle, and after taking a cup of tea found that his appetite was coming, and was soon able to eat his share. Mary Powlett kept up a cheerful talk while the meal was going on, and no allusion was made to the circumstances which had brought Ned there. After it was done she sat and chatted for an hour. Then she said:

"I must be off now, and I think, Bill, you'd best be going soon too, and let Maister Ned have a good night of it. I will make him up his bed on the rugs; and I will warrant, after all the trouble he has gone through, he will sleep like a top."