Not until they had left York behind them did Ned ask after his mother. He knew that if there had been anything pleasant to tell about her he would have heard it at once, and the silence of his friends warned him that the subject was not an agreeable one.
"How is my mother?" he asked at last abruptly.
"Well, Ned," Dr. Green replied, "I have been expecting your question, and I am sorry to say that I have nothing agreeable to tell you."
"That I was sure of," Ned said with a hard laugh. "As I have received no message from her from the day I was arrested I guessed pretty well that whatever doubt other people might feel, my mother was positive that I had murdered her husband."
"The fact is, Ned," Dr. Green said cautiously, "your mother is not at present quite accountable for her opinions. The shock which she has undergone has, I think, unhinged her mind. Worthless as I believe him to have been, this man had entirely gained her affections. She has not risen from her bed since he died.
"Sometimes she is absolutely silent for hours, at others she talks incessantly; and painful as it is to tell you so, her first impression that you were responsible for his death is the one which still remains fixed on her mind. She is wholly incapable of reason or of argument. At times she appears sane and sensible enough and talks of other matters coherently; but the moment she touches on this topic she becomes excited and vehement. It has been a great comfort to me, and I am sure it will be to you, that your old servant Abijah has returned and taken up the position of housekeeper.
"As soon as your mother's first excitement passed away I asked her if she would like this, and she eagerly assented. The woman was in the town, having come over on the morning after you gave yourself up, and to my great relief she at once consented to take up her former position. This is a great thing for your sister, who is, of course, entirely in her charge, as your mother is not in a condition to attend to anything. I was afraid at first that she would not remain, so indignant was she at your mother's believing your guilt; but when I assured her that the poor lady was not responsible for what she said, and that her mind was in fact unhinged altogether by the calamity, she overcame her feelings; but it is comic to see her struggling between her indignation at your mother's irresponsible talk and her consciousness that it is necessary to abstain from exciting her by contradiction."
Dr. Green had spoken as lightly as he could, but he knew how painful it must be to Ned to hear of his mother's conviction of his guilt, and how much it would add to the trials of his position.
Ned himself had listened in silence. He sighed heavily when the doctor had finished.
"Abijah will be a great comfort," he said quietly, "a wonderful comfort; but as to my poor mother, it will of course be a trial. Still, no wonder that, when she heard me say those words when I went out, she thinks that I did it. However, I suppose that it is part of my punishment."
"Have you thought anything of your future plans, Ned?" Mr. Porson asked after they had driven in silence for some distance.
"Yes, I have been thinking a good deal," Ned replied, "all the time I was shut up and had nothing else to do. I did not believe that they would find me guilty, and of course I had to settle what I should do afterward. If it was only myself I think I should go away and take another name; but in that case there would be no chance of my ever clearing myself, and for father's sake and for the sake of Charlie and Lucy I must not throw away a chance of that. It would be awfully against them all their lives if people could say of them that their brother was the fellow who murdered their stepfather. Perhaps they will always say so now; still it is evidently my duty to stay, if it were only on the chance of clearing up the mystery.
"In the next place I feel that I ought to stay for the sake of money matters. I don't think, in the present state of things, with the Luddites burning mills and threatening masters, any one would give anything like its real value for the mill now. I know that it did not pay with the old machinery, and it is not every one who would care to run the risk of working with the new. By the terms of the settlement that was made before my mother married again the mill is now hers, and she and Charlie and Lucy have nothing else to depend upon. As she is not capable of transacting business it falls upon me to take her place, and I intend to try, for a time at any rate, to run the mill myself. Of course I know nothing about it, but as the hands all know their work the foreman will be able to carry on the actual business of the mill till I master the details.
"As to the office business, the clerk will know all about it. There was a man who used to travel about to buy wool, I know my mother's husband had every confidence in him, and he could go on just as before. As to the sales, the books will tell the names of the firms who dealt with us, and I suppose the business with them will go on as before. At any rate I can but try for a time. Of course I have quite made up my mind that I shall have no personal interest whatever in the business. They may think that I murdered Mulready, but they shall not say that I have profited by his death. I should suppose that my mother can pay me some very small salary, just sufficient to buy my clothes. So I shall go on till Charlie gets to an age when he can manage the business as its master; then if no clue has been obtained as to the murder I shall be able to give it up and go abroad, leaving him with, I hope, a good business for himself and Lucy."
"I think that is as good a plan as any," Mr. Porson said; "but, however, there is no occasion to come to any sudden determination at present. I myself should advise a change of scene and thought before you decide anything finally. I have a brother living in London and he would, I am sure, very gladly take you in for a fortnight and show you the sights of London."
"Thank you, sir, you are very kind," Ned said quietly; "but I have got to face it out at Marsden, and I would rather begin at once."
Mr. Porson saw by the set, steady look upon Ned's face that he had thoroughly made up his mind as to the part he had to play, and that any further argument would be of no avail. It was not until the postchaise was approaching Marsden that any further allusion was made to Ned's mother. Then the doctor, after consulting Mr. Porson by various upliftings of the eyebrows, returned to the subject.
"Ned, my boy, we were speaking some little time ago of your mother. I think it is best that I should tell you frankly that I do not consider her any longer responsible for her actions. I tell you this in order that you may not be wounded by your reception.
"Since that fatal day she has not left her bed. She declares that she has lost all power in her limbs. Of course that is nonsense, but the result is the same. She keeps her bed, and, as far as I can see, is likely to keep it. This is perhaps the less to be regretted, as you will thereby avoid being thrown into contact with her; for I tell you plainly such contact, in her present state of mind, could only be unpleasant to you. Were you to meet, it would probably at the least bring on a frightful attack of hysterics, which in her present state might be a serious matter. Therefore, my boy, you must make up your mind not to see her for awhile. I have talked the matter over with your old nurse, who will remain with your mother as housekeeper, with a girl under her. You will, of course, take your place as master of the house, with your brother and sister with you, until your mother is in a position to manage--if ever she should be. But I trust at any rate that she will ere long so far recover as to be able to receive you as the good son you have ever been to her."
"Thank you," Ned said quietly. "I understand, doctor."
Ned did understand that his mother was convinced of his guilt and refused to see him; it was what he expected, and yet it was a heavy trial. Very cold and hard he looked as the postchaise drove through the streets of Marsden. People glanced at it curiously, and as they saw Ned sitting by the side of the men who were known as his champions they hurried away to spread the news that young Sankey had been acquitted.
The hard look died out of Ned's face as the door opened, and Lucy sprang out and threw her arms round his neck and cried with delight at seeing him; and Abijah, crying too, greeted him inside with a motherly welcome. A feeling of relief came across his mind as he entered the sitting room. Dr. Green, who was one of the trustees in the marriage settlement, had, in the inability of Mrs. Mulready to give any orders, taken upon himself to dispose of much of the furniture, and to replace it with some of an entirely different fashion and appearance. The parlor was snug and cosy; a bright fire blazed on the hearth; a comfortable armchair stood beside it; the room looked warm and homely. Ned's two friends had followed him in, and tears stood in both their eyes.
"Welcome back, dear boy!" Mr. Porson said, grasping his hand. "God grant that better times are in store for you, and that you may outlive this trial which has at present darkened your life. Now we will leave you to your brother and sister. I am sure you will be glad to be alone with them."
And so Ned took to the life he had marked out for himself. In two months he seemed to have aged years. The careless look of boyhood had altogether disappeared from his face. Except from his two friends he rejected all sympathy. When he walked through the streets of Marsden it was with a cold, stony face, as if he were wholly unaware of the existence of passersby. The thought that as he went along men drew aside to let him pass and whispered after he had gone, "That is the fellow who murdered his stepfather, but escaped because they could not bring it home to him," was ever in his mind. His friends in vain argued with him against his thus shutting himself off from the world. They assured him that there were very many who, like themselves, were perfectly convinced of his innocence, and who would rally round him and support him if he would give them the least encouragement, but Ned shook his head.
"I dare say what you say is true," he would reply; "but I could not do it--I must go on alone. It is as much as I can bear now."
And his friends saw that it was useless to urge him further.
On the day after his return to Marsden Luke Marner and Bill Swinton came back on the coach from York, and after it was dark Ned walked up to Varley and knocked at Bill's door.
On hearing who it was Bill threw on his cap and came out to him. For a minute the lads stood with their hands clasped firmly in each other's without a word being spoken.
"Thank God, Maister Ned," Bill said at last, "we ha' got thee again!"
"Thank God too!" Ned said; "though I think I would rather that it had gone the other way."
They walked along for some time without speaking again, and then Ned said suddenly:
"Now, Bill, who is the real murderer?"
Bill stopped his walk in astonishment.
"The real murderer!" he repeated; "how ever should oi know, Maister Ned?"
"I know that you know, Bill. It was you who wrote that letter to Mr. Wakefield saying that the man who did it would be at the trial, and that if I were found guilty he would give himself up. It's no use your denying it, for I knew your handwriting at once."
Bill was silent for some time, It had never occurred to him that this letter would be brought home to him.
"Come, Bill, you must tell me," Ned said. "Do not be afraid. I promise you that I will not use it against him. Mind, if I can bring it home to him in any other way I shall do so; but I promise you that no word shall ever pass my lips about the letter. I want to know who is the man of whose crime the world believes me guilty. The secret shall, as far as he is concerned, be just as much a secret as it was before."
"But oi dunno who is the man, Maister Ned. If oi did oi would ha' gone into the court and said so, even though oi had been sure they would ha' killed me for peaching when oi came back. Oi dunno no more than a child."
"Then you only wrote that letter to throw them on to a false scent, Bill? Who put you up to that, for I am sure it would never have occurred to you?"
"No," Bill said slowly, "oi should never ha' thought of it myself; Luke told oi what to wroit, and I wroited it."
"Oh, it was Luke! was it?" Ned said sharply. "Then the man who did it must have told him."
"Oi didn't mean to let out as it waar Luke," Bill said in confusion; "and oi promised him solemn to say nowt about it."
"Well," Ned said, turning sharp round and starting on his way back to the village, "I must see Luke himself."
Bill in great perplexity followed Ned, muttering: "Oh, Lor'! what ull Luke say to oi? What a fellow oi be to talk, to be sure!"
Nothing further was said until they reached Luke's cottage. Ned knocked and entered at once, followed sheepishly by Bill.
"Maister Ned, oi be main glad to see thee," Luke said as he rose from his place by the fire; while Polly with a little cry, "Welcome!" dropped her work.
"Thanks, Luke--thanks for coming over to York to give evidence. How are you, Polly? There! don't cry--I ain't worth crying over. At any rate, it is a satisfaction to be with three people who don't regard me as a murderer. Now, Polly, I want you to go into the other room, for I have a question which I must ask Luke, and I don't want even you to hear the answer."
Polly gathered her work together and went out. Then Ned went over to Luke, who was looking at him with surprise, and laid his hand on his shoulder.
"Luke," he said, "I want you to tell me exactly how it was that you came to tell Bill to write that letter to Mr. Wakefield?"
Luke started and then looked savagely over at Bill, who stood twirling his cap in his hand.
"Oi couldn't help it, Luke," he said humbly. "Oi didn't mean vor to say it, but he got it out of me somehow. He knowed my fist on the paper, and, says he, sudden loike, 'Who war the man as murdered Foxey?' What was oi vor to say? He says at once as he knowed the idea of writing that letter would never ha' coom into my head; and so the long and short of it be, as your name slipped owt somehow, and there you be."
"Now, Luke," Ned said soothingly, "I want to know whether there was a man who was ready to take my place in the dock had I been found guilty, and if so, who he was. I shall keep the name as a secret. I give you my word of honor. After he had promised to come forward and save my life that is the least I can do, though, as I told Bill, if I could bring it home to him in any other way I should feel myself justified in doing so. It may be that he would be willing to go across the seas, and when he is safe there to write home saying that he did it."
"Yes, oi was afraid that soom sich thawt might be in your moind, Maister Ned, but it can't be done that way. But oi doan't know," he said thoughtfully, "perhaps it moight, arter all. Perhaps the chap as was a-coomin' forward moight take it into his head to go to Ameriky. Oi shouldn't wonder if he did, In fact, now oi thinks on't, oi am pretty sure as he will. Yes. Oi can say for sartin as that's what he intends. A loife vor a loife you know, Maister Nod, that be only fair, bean't it?"
"And you think he will really go?" Ned asked eagerly.
"Ay, he will go," Luke said firmly, "it's as good as done; but," he added slowly, "I dunno as he's got money vor to pay his passage wi'. There's some kids as have to go wi' him. He would want no more nor just the fare. But oi doan't see how he can go till he has laid that by, and in these hard toimes it ull take him some time to do that."
"I will provide the money," Ned said eagerly. "Abijah would lend me some of her savings, and I can pay her back some day."
"Very well, Maister Ned. Oi expect as how he will take it as a loan. Moind, he will pay it hack if he lives, honest. Oi doan't think as how he bain't honest, that chap, though he did kill Foxey. Very well," Luke went on slowly, "then the matter be as good as settled. Oi will send Bill down tomorrow, and he will see if thou canst let un have the money. A loife vor a loife, that's what oi says, Maister Ned. That be roight, bain't it?"
"That's right enough, Luke," Ned replied, "though I don't quite see what that has to do with it, except that the man who has taken this life should give his life to make amends."
"Yes, that be it, in course," Luke replied. "Yes; just as you says, he ought vor to give his loife to make amends."
That night Ned arranged with Abijah, who was delighted to hand over her savings for the furtherance of any plan that would tend to clear Ned from the suspicion which hung over him. Bill came down next morning, and was told that a hundred pounds would be forthcoming in two days.
Upon the following evening the servant came in and told Ned that a young woman wished to speak to him. He went down into the study, and, to his surprise, Mary Powlett was shown in. Her eyes were swollen with crying.
"Master Ned," she said, "I have come to say goodby."
"Good-by, Polly! Why, where are you going?"
"We are all going away, sir, tomorrow across the seas, to Ameriky I believe. It's all come so sudden it seems like a dream, Feyther never spoke of such a thing afore, and now all at once we have got to start. I have run all the way down from Varley to say goodby. Feyther told me that I wasn't on no account to come down to you. Not on no account, he said. But how could I go away and know that you had thought us so strange and ungrateful as to go away without saying goodby after your dear feyther giving his life for little Jenny. I couldn't do it, sir. So when he started off to spend the evening for the last time at the 'Cow' I put on my bonnet and ran down here. I don't care if he beats me--not that he ever did beat sir, but he might now--for he was terrible stern in telling me as I wasn't to come and see you."
Ned heard her without an interruption. The truth flashed across his mind. It was Luke Marner himself who was going to America, and was going to write home to clear him. Yet surely Luke could never have done it--Luke, so different from the majority of the croppers --Luke, who had steadily refused to have anything to say to General Lud and his schemes against the masters. Mary's last words gave him a clue to the mystery--"Your dear feyther gave his life for little Jenny." He coupled it with Luke's enigmatical words, "A loife for a loife."
For a minute or two he sat absolutely silent. Mary was hurt at the seeming indifference with which he received the news. She drew herself up a little, and said, in an altered voice,
"I will say goodby, sir. I hope you won't think I was taking a liberty in thinking you would be sorry if we were all to go without your knowing it."
Ned roused himself at her words.
"It is not that, Polly. It is far from being that. But I want to ask you a question. You remember the night of Mr. Mulready's murder? Do you remember whether your father was at home all that evening?"
Polly opened her eyes in surprise at a question which seemed to her so irrelevant to the matter in hand;
"Yes, sir," she replied, still coldly. "I remember that night. We are not likely any of us to forget it. Feyther had not gone to the 'Cow.' He sat smoking at home. Bill had dropped in, and they sat talking of the doings of the Luddites till it was later than usual. Feyther was sorry afterward, because he said if he had been down at the 'Cow' he might have noticed by the talk if any one had an idea that anything was going to take place."
"Then he didn't go out at all that night, Polly?"
"No, sir, not at all that night; and now, sir, I will say goodby."
"No, Polly, you won't, for I shall go back with you, and I don't think that you will go to America."
"I don't understand," the girl faltered.
"No, Polly, I don't suppose you do; and I have not understood till now. You will see when you get back."
"If you please," Mary said hesitatingly, "I would rather that you would not be there when feyther comes back. Of course I shall tell him that I have been down to see you, and I know he will be very angry."
"I think I shall be able to put that straight. I can't let your father go. God knows I have few enough true friends, and I cannot spare him and you; and as for Bill Swinton, he would break his heart if you went."
"Bill's only a boy; he will get over it," Polly said in a careless tone, but with a bright flush upon her cheek.
"He is nearly as old as you are, Polly, and he is one of the best fellows in the world. I know he's not your equal in education, but a steadier, better fellow, never was."
Mary made no reply, and in another minute the two set out together for Varley. In spite of Ned's confident assurance that he would appease Luke's anger, Mary was frightened when, as they entered the cottage, she saw Luke standing moodily in front of the fire.
"Oi expected this," he said in a tone of deep bitterness. "Oi were a fool vor to think as you war different to other gals, and that you would give up your own wishes to your feyther's."
"Oh, feyther!" Polly cried, "don't speak so to me. Beat me if you like, I deserve to be beaten, but don't speak to me like that. I am ready to go anywhere you like, and to be a good daughter to you; forgive me for this once disobeying you."
"Luke, old friend," Ned said earnestly, putting his hand on the cropper's shoulder, "don't be angry with Polly, she has done me a great service. I have learned the truth, and know what you meant now by a life for a life. You were going to sacrifice yourself for me. You were going to take upon yourself a crime which you never committed to clear me. You went to York to declare yourself the murderer of Mulready, in case I had been found guilty. You were going to emigrate to America to send home a written confession."
"Who says as how oi didn't kill Foxey?" Luke said doggedly. "If oi choose to give myself oop now who is to gainsay me?"
"Mary and Bill can both gainsay you," Ned said. "They can prove that you did not stir out of the house that night. Come, Luke, it's of no use. I feel with all my heart grateful to you for the sacrifice you were willing to make for me. I thank you as deeply and as heartily as if you had made it. It was a grand act of self sacrifice, and you must not be vexed with Polly that she has prevented you carrying it out. It would have made me very unhappy had she not done so. When I found that you were gone I should certainly have got out from Bill the truth of the matter, and when your confession came home I should have been in a position to prove that you had only made it to screen me. Besides, I cannot spare you. I have few friends, and I should be badly off indeed if the one who has proved himself the truest and best were to leave me. I am going to carry on the mill, and I must have your help. I have relied upon you to stand by me, and you must be the foreman of your department. Come, Luke, you must say you forgive Polly for opening my eyes just a little sooner than they would otherwise have been to the sacrifice you wanted to make for me."
Luke, who was sorely shaken by Mary's pitiful sobs, could resist no longer, but opened his arms, and the girl ran into them.
"There, there," he said, "don't ee go on a crying, girl; thou hasn't done no wrong, vor indeed it must have seemed to thee flying in the face of natur to go away wi' out saying goodby to Maister Ned. Well, sir, oi be main sorry as it has turned out so. Oi should ha' loiked to ha' cleared thee; but if thou won't have it oi caan't help it. Oi think thou beest wrong, but thou know'st best."
"Never mind, Luke, I shall be cleared in time, I trust," Ned said. "I am going down to the mill tomorrow for the first time, and shall see you there. You have done me good, Luke. It is well, indeed, for a man to know that he has such a friend as you have proved yourself to be."
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