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'RUMOUR FULL OF TONGUES'
It is almost impossible to learn the genesis of a rumour. It may be started by a look, a word, a gesture, and it spreads with such marvellous rapidity that by the time public curiosity is fully aroused, no one can trace the original source, so many and winding are the channels through which it has flowed. Yet there are exceptions to this general rule, especially in criminal cases, where, for the safety of the public, it is absolutely necessary to get to the bottom of the matter. Therefore, the rumour which pervaded Beorminster on Monday morning was soon traced by the police to a carter from Southberry. This man mentioned to a friend that, when crossing the Heath during the early morning, he had come across the body of a man. The rumour--weak in its genesis--stated first that a man had been hurt, later on that he had been wounded; by noon it was announced that he was dead, and finally the actual truth came out that the man had been murdered. The police authorities saw the carter and were conducted by him to the corpse, which, after examination, they brought to the dead-house in Beorminster. Then all doubt came to an end, and it was officially declared during the afternoon that Jentham, the military vagabond lately resident at The Derby Winner, had been shot through the heart. But even rumour, prolific as it is in invention, could not suggest who had murdered the man.
So unusual an event in the quiet cathedral city caused the greatest excitement, and the streets were filled with people talking over the matter. Amateur detectives, swilling beer in public-houses, gave their opinions about the crime, and the more beer they drank, the wilder and more impossible became their theories. Some suggested that the gipsies camped on Southberry Heath, who were continually fighting amongst themselves, had killed the miserable creature; others, asserting that the scamp was desperately poor, hinted at suicide induced by sheer despair; but the most generally accepted opinion was that Jentham had been killed in some drunken frolic by one or more Irish harvesters. The Beorminster reporters visited the police station and endeavoured to learn what Inspector Tinkler thought. He had seen the body, he had viewed the spot where it had been found, he had examined the carter, Giles Crake, so he was the man most likely to give satisfactory answers to the questions as to who had killed the man, and why he had been shot. But Inspector Tinkler was the most wary of officials, and pending the inquest and the verdict of twelve good men and true, he declined to commit himself to an opinion. The result of this reticence was that the reporters had to fall back on their inventive faculties, and next morning published three theories, side by side, concerning the murder, so that the Beorminster Chronicle containing these suppositions proved to be as interesting as a police novel, and quite as unreliable. But it amused its readers and sold largely, therefore proprietor and editor were quite satisfied that fiction was as good as fact to tickle the long ears of a credulous public.
As the dead man had lodged at The Derby Winner, and many people had known him there, quite a sensation was caused by the report of his untimely end. From morning till night the public-house was thronged with customers, thirsting both for news and beer. Nevertheless, although business was so brisk, Mosk was by no means in a good temper. He had returned early that morning from Southberry, and had been one of the first to hear about the matter. When he heard who had been killed, he regarded the committal of the crime quite in a personal light, for the dead man owed him money, and his death had discharged the debt in a way of which Mr Mosk did not approve. He frequently referred to his loss during the day, when congratulated by unthinking customers on the excellent trade the assassination had brought about.
'For, as I allays ses,' remarked one wiseacre, 'it's an ill wind as don't blow good to somebody.'
'Yah!' growled Mosk, in his beery voice, 'it's about as broad as it's long so far as I'm concerned. I've lost a couple of quid through Jentham goin' and gettin' shot, and it will take a good many tankards of bitter at thru'p'nce to make that up.'
'Oo d'y think shot 'im, Mr Mosk?'
'Arsk me sum'thin' easier, carn't you? I don't know nothin' about the cove, I don't; he comes 'ere two, three weeks ago, and leaves owin' me money. Where he comes from, or who he is, or what he's bin doin' to get shot I know no more nor you do. All I does know,' finished Mosk, emphatically, 'is as I've lost two bloomin' quid, an' that's a lot to a poor man like me.'
'Well, father, it's no good making a fuss over it,' cried Bell, who overheard his grumbling. 'If Jentham hadn't been shot, we wouldn't be doing so well. For my part, I'm sorry for the poor soul.'
'Poor blackguard, you mean!'
'No, I don't. I don't call any corpse a blackguard. If he was one, I daresay he's being punished enough now without our calling him names. He wasn't the kind of man I fancied, but there's no denying he was attractive in his own wicked way.'
'Ah!' said a dirty-looking man, who was more than suspected of being a welcher, 'couldn't he tell slap-up yarns about H'injins an' 'eathens as bows down to stocks and stones. Oh, no! not he--'
'He could lie like a one-year-old, if that's what y' mean,' said Mosk.
'Bloomin' fine lyin', any'ow,' retorted the critic. 'I'd git orf the turf if I cud spit 'em out that style; mek m' fortin', I would, on th' paipers.'
'Y've bin chucked orf the turf often enough as it is,' replied the landlord, sourly, whereat, to give the conversation a less personal application, the dirty welcher remarked that he would drain another bitter.
'I suppose you'll be as drunk as a pig by night,' said Bell, taking the order. 'Jentham was bad, but he wasn't a swine like you.'
'Garn! 'e got drunk, didn't he? Oh, no! You bet he didn't.'
'He got drunk like a gentleman, at all events. None of your sauce, Black, or I'll have you chucked. You know me by this time, I hope.'
In fact, as several of the customers remarked, Miss Bell was in a fine temper that morning, and her tongue raged round like a prairie fire. This bad humour was ascribed by the public to the extra work entailed on her by the sensation caused by the murder, but the true cause lay with Gabriel. He had promised faithfully, on the previous night, to come round and see Mrs Mosk, but, to Bell's anger, had failed to put in an appearance--the first time he had done such a thing. As Miss Mosk's object was always to have an ostensible reason for seeing Gabriel in order to protect her character, she was not at all pleased that he had not turned her excuse for calling on him into an actual fact. It is true that Gabriel presented himself late in the afternoon and requested to see the invalid, but instead of taking him up to the sickroom, Bell whirled the curate into a small back parlour and closed the door, in order, as she remarked, 'to have it out with him.'
'Now, then,' said she, planting her back against the door, 'what do you mean by treating me like a bit of dirt?'
'You mean that I did not come round last night, Bell?'
'Yes, I do. I told mother you would visit her. I said to Jacob Jarper as I'd come to ask you to see mother, and you go and make me out a liar by not turning up. What do you mean?'
'I was ill and couldn't keep my promise,' said Gabriel, shortly.
'Ill!' said Bell, looking him up and down; 'well, you do look ill. You've been washed and wrung out till you're limp as a rag. White in the face, black under the eyes! What have you been doing with yourself, I'd like to know. You were all right when I left you last night.'
'The weather affected my nerves,' explained Gabriel, with a weary sigh, passing his thin hand across his anxious face. 'I felt that it was impossible for me to sit in a close room and talk to a sick woman, so I went round to the stables where I keep my horse, and took him out in order to get a breath of fresh air.'
'What! You rode out at that late hour, in all that storm?'
'The storm came on later. I went out almost immediately after you left, and got back at half-past ten. It wasn't so very late.'
'Well, of all mad things!' said Bell, grimly. 'It's easy seen, Mr Gabriel Pendle, how badly you want a wife at your elbow. Where did you go?'
'I rode out on to Southberry Heath,' replied Gabriel, with some hesitation.
'Lord ha' mercy! Where Jentham's corpse was found?'
The curate shuddered. 'I didn't see any corpse,' he said, painfully and slowly. 'Instead of keeping to the high road, I struck out cross-country. It was only this morning that I heard of the unfortunate man's untimely end.'
'You didn't meet anyone likely to have laid him out?'
'No! I met no one. I felt too ill to notice passers-by, but the ride did me good, and I feel much better this morning.'
'You don't look better,' said Bell, with another searching glance. 'One would think you had killed the man yourself!'
'Bell!' protested Gabriel, almost in an hysterical tone, for his nerves were not yet under control, and the crude speeches of the girl made him wince.
'Well! well! I'm only joking. I know you wouldn't hurt a fly. But you do look ill, that's a fact. Let me get you some brandy.'
'No, thank you, brandy would only make me worse. Let me go up and see your mother.'
'I sha'n't! You're not fit to see anyone. Go home and lie down till your nerves get right. You can see me after five if you like, for I'm going to the dead-house to have a look at Jentham's body.'
'What! to see the corpse of that unhappy man,' cried Gabriel, shrinking away.
'Why not?' answered Bell, coolly, for she had that peculiar love of looking on dead bodies characteristic of the lower classes. 'I want to see how they killed him.'
'How who killed him?'
'The person as did it, silly. Though I don't know who could have shot him unless it was that old cat of a Mrs Pansey. Well, I can't stay here talking all day, and father will be wondering what I'm up to. You go home and lie down, Gabriel.'
'Not just now. I must walk up to the palace.'
'Hum! The bishop will be in a fine way about this murder. It's years since anyone got killed here. I hope they'll catch the wretch as shot Jentham, though I can't say I liked him myself.'
'I hope they will catch him,' replied Gabriel, mechanically. 'Good-day, Miss Mosk! I shall call and see your mother to-morrow.'
'Good-day, Mr Pendle, and thank you, oh, so much!'
This particular form of farewell was intended for the ears of Mr Mosk and the general public, but it failed in its object so far as the especial person it was intended to impress was concerned. When the black-clothed form of Gabriel vanished, Mr Mosk handed over the business of the bar to an active pot-boy, and conducted his daughter back to the little parlour. Bell saw from his lowering brow that her father was suspicious of her lengthened interview with the curate, and was bent upon causing trouble. However, she was not the kind of girl to be daunted by black looks, and, moreover, was conscious that her father would be rather pleased than otherwise to hear that she was honourably engaged to the son of Bishop Pendle, so she sat down calmly enough at his gruff command, and awaited the coming storm. If driven into a corner, she intended to tell the truth, therefore she faced her father with the greatest coolness.
'What d'y mean by it?' cried Mosk, bursting into angry words as soon as the door was closed; 'what d'y mean, you hussy?'
'Now, look here, father,' said Bell, quickly, 'you keep a civil tongue in your head or I won't use mine. I'm not a hussy, and you have no right to call me one.'
'No right! Ain't I your lawfully begotten father?'
'Yes, you are, worse luck! I'd have had a duke for my father if I'd been asked what I wanted.'
'Wouldn't a bishop content you?' sneered Mosk, with a scowl on his pimply face.
'You're talking of Mr Pendle, are you?' said Bell wilfully misunderstanding the insinuation.
'Yes, I am, you jade! and I won't have it. I tell you I won't!'
'Won't have what, father? Give it a name.'
'Why, this carrying on with that parson chap. Not as I've a word to say against Mr Pendle, because he's worth a dozen of the Cargrim lot, but he's gentry and you're not!'
'What's that got to do with it?' demanded Bell, with supreme contempt.
'This much,' raved Mosk, clenching his fist, 'that I won't have you running after him. D'y hear?'
'I hear; there is no need for you to rage the house down, father. I'm not running after Mr Pendle; he's running after me.'
'That's just as bad. You'll lose your character.'
Bell fired up, and bounced to her feet. 'Who dares to say a word against my character?' she asked, panting and red.
'Old Jarper, for one. He said you went to see Mr Pendle last night.'
'So I did.'
'Oh, you did, did you? and here you've bin talking alone with him this morning for the last hour. What d'y mean by disgracing me?'
'Disgracing you!' scoffed Bell. 'Your character needs a lot of disgracing, doesn't it? Now, be sensible, father,' she added, advancing towards him, 'and I'll tell you the truth. I didn't intend to, but as you are so unreasonable I may as well set your mind at rest.'
'What are you driving at?' growled Mosk, struck by her placid manner.
'Well, to put the thing into a nutshell, Mr Pendle is going to marry me.'
'Marry you! Get along!'
'I don't see why you should doubt my word,' cried Bell, with an angry flush. 'I'm engaged to him as honourably as any young lady could be. He has written me lots of letters promising to make me his wife, he has given me a ring, and we're only waiting till he's appointed to be rector of Heathcroft to marry.'
'Well, I'm d----d,' observed Mr Mosk, slowly. 'Is this true?'
'I'll show you the ring and letters if you like,' said Bell, tartly, 'but I don't see why you should be so surprised. I'm good enough for him, I hope?'
'You're good-lookin', I dessay, Bell, but he's gentry.'
'I'm going to be gentry too, and I'll hold my own with the best of them. As Bishop Pendle's daughter-in-law, I'll scratch the eyes out of any of 'em as doesn't give me my place.'
Mosk drew a long breath. 'Bishop Pendle's daughter-in-law,' he repeated, looking at his daughter with admiration. 'My stars! you are a clever girl, Bell.'
'I'm clever enough to get what I want, father, so long as you don't put your foot into it. Hold your tongue until I tell you when to speak. If the bishop knew of this now, he'd cut Gabriel off with a shilling.'
'Oh, he would, would he?' said Mosk, in so strange a tone that Bell looked at him with some wonder.
'Of course he would,' said she, quietly; 'but when Gabriel is rector of Heathcroft it won't matter. We'll then have money enough to do without his consent.'
'Give me a kiss, my girl,' cried Mosk, clasping her to his breast, 'You're a credit to me, that you are. Oh, curse it! Bell, think of old Mother Pansey!'
Father and daughter looked at one another and burst out laughing.
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