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A STORMY NIGHT
Having given Gabriel plainly to understand the terms upon which she was prepared to continue their secret engagement, Bell kissed him once or twice to soften the rigour of her speech. Then she intimated that she would return alone to The Derby Winner, and that Gabriel could follow after a reasonable interval of time had elapsed. She also explained the meaning of these precautions.
'If the old cats of the town saw you and I walking along on Sunday night,' said she, at the door of the vestry, 'they would screech out that we were keeping company, and in any case would couple our names together. If they did, father would make it so warm for me that I should have to tell the truth, and then--well,' added Miss Mosk, with a brilliant smile, 'you know his temper and my temper.'
'You are sure it is quite safe for you to go home alone?' said Gabriel, who was infected with the upper-class prejudice that every unmarried girl should be provided with a chaperon.
'Safe!' echoed the dauntless Bell, in a tone of supreme contempt. 'My dear Gabriel, I'd be safe in the middle of Timbuctoo!'
'There are many of these rough harvest labourers about here, you know.'
'I'll slap their faces if they speak to me. I'd like to see them try it, that's all. And now, good-bye for the present, dear. I must get home as soon as possible, for there is a storm coming, and I don't want to get my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes spoilt.'
When she slipped off like a white ghost into the gathering darkness, Gabriel remained at the door and looked up to the fast clouding sky. It was now about nine o'clock, and the night was hot and thundery, and so airless that it was difficult to breathe. Overhead, masses of black cloud, heavy with storm, hung low down over the town, and the earth, panting and worn out with the heat, waited thirstily for the cool drench of the rain. Evidently a witch-tempest was brewing in the halls of heaven on no small scale, and Gabriel wished that it would break at once to relieve the strain from which nature seemed to suffer. Whether it was the fatigue of his day's labour, or the late interview with Bell which depressed him, he did not know, but he felt singularly pessimistic and his mind was filled with premonitions of ill. Like most people with highly-strung natures, Gabriel was easily affected by atmospheric influence, so no doubt the palpable electricity in the dry, hot air depressed his nerves, but whether this was the cause of his restlessness he could not say. He felt anxious and melancholy, and was worried by a sense of coming ill, though what such ill might be, or from what quarter it would come, he knew not. While thus gloomily contemplative, the great bell of the cathedral boomed out nine deep strokes, and the hollow sound breaking in on his reflections made him wake up, shake off his dismal thoughts, and sent him inside to attend to his work. Yet the memory of those forebodings occurred to him often in after days, and read by the light of after events, he was unable to decide whether the expectation of evil, so strongly forced upon him then, was due to natural or supernatural causes. At present he ascribed his anxieties to the disturbed state of the atmosphere.
In the meantime, Bell, who was a healthy young woman, with no nerves to be affected by the atmosphere, walked swiftly homeward along the airless streets. There were few people on their feet, for the night was too close for exercise, and the majority of the inhabitants sat in chairs before their doors, weary and out of temper. Nature and her creatures were waiting for the windows of the firmament to be opened, for the air to be cleansed, for life to be renewed. Bell met none of the harvesters and was not molested in any way. Had she been spoken to, or hustled, there is no doubt she would have been as good as her word and have slapped her assailant's face. Fortunately, there was no need for her to proceed to such extremes.
At the door of The Derby Winner she was rather surprised to find Miss Whichello waiting for her. The little old lady wore her poke bonnet and old-fashioned black silk cloak, and appeared anxious and nervous, and altogether unlike her usual cheery self. Bell liked Miss Whichello as much as she disliked Mrs Pansey, therefore she greeted her with unfeigned pleasure, although she could not help expressing her surprise that the visitor was in that quarter of the town so late at night. Miss Whichello produced a parcel from under her voluminous cloak and offered it as an explanation of her presence.
'This is a pot of calf's-foot jelly for your mother, Miss Mosk,' she said. 'Mr Cargrim came to luncheon at my house to-day, and he told me how ill your mother is. I was informed that she was asleep, so, not wishing to disturb her, I waited until you returned.'
'It is very kind of you to take so much trouble, Miss Whichello,' said Bell, gratefully receiving the jelly. 'I hope you have not been waiting long.'
'Only ten minutes; your servant told me that you would return soon.'
'I have been to church and stopped after service to talk to some friends, Miss Whichello. Won't you come in for a few minutes? I'll see if my mother is awake.'
'Thank you, I'll come in for a time, but do not waken your mother on my account. Sleep is always the best medicine in case of sickness. I hope Mrs Mosk is careful of her diet.'
'Well, she eats very little.'
'That is wise; very little food, but that little nourishing and frequently administered. Give her a cup of beef-tea two or three times in the night, my dear, and you'll find it will sustain the body wonderfully.'
'I'll remember to do so,' replied Bell, gravely, although she had no intention of remaining awake all night to heat beef-tea and dose her mother with it, especially as the invalid was not ill enough for such extreme measures. But she was so touched by Miss Whichello's kindness that she would not have offended her, by scouting her prescription, for the world.
By this time Miss Whichello was seated in a little private parlour off the bar, illuminated by an oil-lamp. This Bell turned up, and then she noticed that her visitor looked anxious and ill at ease. Once or twice she attempted to speak, but closed her mouth again. Bell wondered if Mrs Pansey had been at work coupling her name with that of Gabriel's, and whether Miss Whichello had come down to relieve her conscience by warning her against seeing too much of the curate. But, as she knew very well, Miss Whichello was too nervous and too much of a lady to give her opinion on questions unasked, and therefore, banishing the defiant look which had begun to harden her face, she waited to hear if it was any other reason than bestowing the jelly which had brought the little old spinster to so disreputable a quarter of the town at so untoward an hour. Finally Miss Whichello's real reason for calling came out by degrees, and in true feminine fashion she approached the main point by side issues.
'Is your father in, Miss Mosk?' she asked, clasping and unclasping her hands feverishly on her lap.
'No, Miss Whichello. He rode over this afternoon to Southberry on business, and we do not expect him back till to-morrow morning. Poor father!' sighed Bell, 'he went away in anything but good spirits, for he is terribly worried over money matters.'
'The payment of his rent is troubling him, perhaps!'
'Yes, Miss Whichello. This is an expensive hotel, and the rent is high. We find it so difficult to make the place pay that we are behindhand with the rent. Sir Harry Brace, our landlord, has been very kind in waiting, but we can't expect him to stand out of his money much longer. I'm afraid in the end we'll have to give up The Derby Winner. But it is no good my worrying you about our troubles,' concluded Bell, in a more vivacious tone; 'what do you wish to see father about, Miss Whichello? Anything that I can do?'
'Well, my dear, it's this way,' said the old lady, nervously. 'You know that I have a much larger income than I need, and that I am always ready to help the deserving.' 'I know, Miss Whichello! You give help where Mrs Pansey only gives advice. I know who is most thought of; that I do!'
'Mrs Pansey has her own methods of dispensing charity, Miss Mosk.'
'Tracts and interference,' muttered Bell, under her breath; 'meddlesome old tabby that she is.'
'Mr Cargrim was at my house to-day, as I told you,' pursued Miss Whichello, not having heard this remark, 'and he mentioned a man called Jentham as a poor creature in need of help.'
'He's a poor creature, I daresay,' said Miss Mosk, tossing her head, 'for he owes father more money than he can pay, although he does say that he'll settle his bill next week. But he's a bad lot.'
'A bad lot, Miss Mosk?'
'As bad as they make 'em, Miss Whichello. Don't you give him a penny, for he'll only waste it on drink.'
'Does he drink to excess?'
'I should think so; he finishes a bottle of brandy every day.'
'Oh, Miss Mosk, how very dreadful!' cried Miss Whichello, quite in the style of Daisy Norsham. 'Why is he staying in Beorminster?'
'I don't know, but it's for no good, you may be sure. If he isn't here he's hob-nobbing with those gipsy wretches who have a camp on Southberry Common. Mother Jael and he are always together.'
'Can you describe him?' asked Miss Whichello, with some hesitation.
'He is tall and thin, with a dark, wicked-looking face, and he has a nasty scar on the right cheek, slanting across it to the mouth. But the funny thing is, that with all his rags and drunkenness there is something of the gentleman about him. I don't like him, yet I can't dislike him. He's attractive in his own way from his very wickedness. But I'm sure,' finished Bell, with a vigorous nod, 'that he's a black-hearted Nero. He has done a deal of damage in his time both to men and women; I'm as sure of that as I sit here, though I can give no reason for saying so.'
Miss Whichello listened to this graphic description in silence. She was very pale, and held her handkerchief to her mouth with one trembling hand; the other beat nervously on her lap, and it was only by a strong effort of will that she managed to conquer her emotion.
'I daresay you are right,' she observed, in a tremulous voice. 'Indeed, I might have expected as much, for last night he frightened my niece and her maid on the high road. I thought it would be best to give him money and send him away, so that so evil a man should not remain here to be a source of danger to the town.'
'Give him money!' cried Miss Mosk. 'I'd give him the cat-o-nine tails if I had my way. Don't you trouble about him, Miss Whichello; he's no good.'
'But if I could see him I might soften his heart,' pleaded the old lady, very much in earnest.
'Soften a brick-bat,' rejoined Bell; 'you'd have just as much success with one as with the other. Besides, you can't see him, Miss Whichello--at all events, not to-night--for he's on the common with his nasty gipsies, and--won't be back till the morning. I wish he'd stay away altogether, I do.'
'In that case I shall not trouble about him,' said the old lady, rising; 'on some future occasion I may see him. But you need not say I was asking for him, Miss Mosk.'
'I won't say a word; he'd only come worrying round your house if he thought you wanted to give him money.'
'Oh, he mustn't do that; he mustn't come there!' cried Miss Whichello, alarmed.
'He won't, for I'll hold my tongue. You can rest easy on that score, Miss Whichello. But my advice is, don't pick him up out of the mire; he'll only fall back into it again.'
'You have a bad opinion of him, Miss Mosk.'
'The very worst,' replied Bell, conducting her guest to the door; 'he's a gaol-bird and a scallywag, and all that's bad. Well, good-night, Miss Whichello, and thank you for the jelly.'
'There is no need for thanks, Miss Mosk. Good-night!' and the old lady tripped up the street, keeping in the middle of it, lest any robber should spring out on her from the shadow of the houses.
The storm was coming nearer, and soon would break directly over the town, for flashes of lightning were weaving fiery patterns against the black clouds, and every now and then a hoarse growl of thunder went grinding across the sky. Anxious to escape the coming downfall, Miss Whichello climbed up the street towards the cathedral as quickly and steadily as her old legs could carry her. Just as she emerged into the close, a shadow blacker than the blackness of the night glided past her. A zig-zag of lightning cut the sky at the moment and revealed the face of Mr Cargrim, who in his turn recognised the old lady in the bluish glare.
'Miss Whichello!' he exclaimed; 'what a surprise!'
'You may well say that, Mr Cargrim,' replied the old lady, with a nervous movement, for the sound of his voice and the sudden view of his face startled her not a little. 'It is not often I am out at this hour, but I have been taking some jelly to Mrs Mosk.'
'You are a good Samaritan, Miss Whichello. I hope she is better?'
'I think so, but I did not see her, as she is asleep. I spoke with her daughter, however.'
'I trust you were not molested by that ruffian Jentham, who stays at The Derby Winner,' said Cargrim, with hypocritical anxiety.
'Oh, no! he is away on Southberry Heath with his gipsy friends, I believe--at least, Miss Mosk told me so. Good-night, Mr Cargrim,' she added, evidently not anxious to prolong the conversation. 'I wish to get under shelter before the storm breaks.'
'Let me see you to your door at least.'
Miss Whichello rejected this officious offer by dryly remarking that she had accomplished the worst part of her journey, and bidding the chaplain 'Good-night,' tripped across the square to her own Jenny Wren nest. Cargrim looked after her with a doubtful look as she vanished into the darkness, then, turning on his heel, walked swiftly down the street towards Eastgate. He had as much aversion to getting wet as a cat, and put his best foot foremost so as to reach the palace before the rain came on. Besides, it was ten o'clock--a late hour for a respectable parson to be abroad.
'She's been trying to see Jentham,' thought Mr Cargrim, recalling Miss Whichello's nervous hesitation. 'I wonder what she knows about him. The man is a mystery, and is in Beorminster for no good purpose. Miss Whichello and the bishop both know that purpose, I'm certain. Well! well! two secrets are better than one, and if I gain a knowledge of them both, I may inhabit Heathcroft Rectory sooner than I expect.'
Cargrim's meditations were here cut short by the falling of heavy drops of rain, and he put all his mind into his muscles to travel the faster. Indeed, he almost ran through the new town, and was soon out on the country road which conducted to the palace. But, in spite of all his speed, the rain caught him, for with an incessant play of lightning and a constant roll of thunder came a regular tropical downpour. The rain descended in one solid mass, flooding the ground and beating flat the crops. Cargrim was drenched to the skin, and by the time he slipped through the small iron gate near the big ones, into the episcopalian park, he looked like a lean water-rat. Being in a bad temper from his shower bath, he was almost as venomous as that animal, and raced up the avenue in his sodden clothing, shivering and dripping. Suddenly he heard the quick trot of a horse, and guessing that the bishop was returning, he stood aside in the shadow of the trees to let his superior pass by. Like the chaplain, Dr Pendle was streaming with water, and his horse's hoofs plashed up the sodden ground as though he were crossing a marsh. By the livid glare of the lightnings which shot streaks of blue fire through the descending deluge, Cargrim caught a glimpse of the bishop's face. It was deathly pale, and bore a look of mingled horror and terror. Another moment and he had passed into the blackness of the drenching rain, leaving Cargrim marvelling at the torture of the mind which could produce so terrible an expression.
'It is the face of Cain,' whispered Cargrim to himself. 'What can his secret be?'
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