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THE SEARCH BEGUN.
The street which Mat had chosen for his place of residence in London, was situated in a densely populous, and by no means respectable neighborhood. In Kirk Street the men of the fustian-jacket and seal-skin cap clustered tumultuous round the lintels of the gin-shop doors. Here ballad-bellowing, and organ grinding, and voices of costermongers, singing of poor men's luxuries, never ceased all through the hum of day, and penetrated far into the frowzy repose of latest night. Here, on Saturday evenings especially, the butcher smacked with appreciating hand the fat carcasses that hung around him; and flourishing his steel, roared aloud to every woman who passed the shop door with a basket, to come in and buy--buy--buy! Here, with foul frequency, the language of the natives was interspersed with such words as reporters indicate in the newspapers by an expressive black line; and on this "beat," more than on most others, the night police were chosen from men of mighty strength to protect the sober part of the street community, and of notable cunning to persuade the drunken part to retire harmlessly brawling into the seclusion of their own homes.
Such was the place in which Mat had set up his residence, after twenty years of wandering amid the wilds of the great American Continent.
Never was tenant of any order or degree known to make such conditions with a landlord as were made by this eccentric stranger. Every household convenience with which the people at the lodgings could offer to accommodate him, Mat considered to be a domestic nuisance which it was particularly desirable to get rid of. He stipulated that nobody should be allowed to clean his room but himself; that the servant-of-all-work should never attempt to make his bed, or offer to put sheets on it, or venture to cook him a morsel of dinner when he stopped at home; and that he should be free to stay away unexpectedly for days and nights together, if he chose, without either landlord or landlady presuming to be anxious or to make inquiries about him, as long as they had his rent in their pockets. This rent he willingly covenanted to pay beforehand, week by week, as long as his stay lasted; and he was also ready to fee the servant occasionally, provided she would engage solemnly "not to upset his temper by doing anything for him."
The proprietor of the house (and tobacco-shop) was at first extremely inclined to be distrustful; but as he was likewise extremely familiar with poverty, he was not proof against the auriferous halo which the production of a handful of bright sovereigns shed gloriously over the oddities of the new lodger. The bargain was struck; and Mat went away directly to fetch his personal baggage.
After an absence of some little time, he returned with a large corn-sack on his back, and a long rifle in his hand. This was his luggage.
First putting the rifle on his bed, in the back room, he cleared away all the little second-hand furniture with which the front room was decorated; packing the three rickety chairs together in one corner, and turning up the cracked round table in another. Then, untying a piece of cord which secured the mouth of the corn-sack, he emptied it over his shoulder into the middle of the room--just (as the landlady afterwards said) as if it was coals coming in instead of luggage. Among the things which fell out on the floor in a heap, were--some bearskins and a splendid buffalo-hide, neatly packed; a pipe, two red flannel shirts, a tobacco-pouch, and an Indian blanket; a leather bag, a gunpowder flask, two squares of yellow soap, a bullet mold, and a nightcap; a tomahawk, a paper of nails, a scrubbing-brush, a hammer, and an old gridiron. Having emptied the sack, Mat took up the buffalo hide, and spread it out on his bed, with a very expressive sneer at the patchwork counterpane and meager curtains. He next threw down the bear skins, with the empty sack under them, in an unoccupied corner; propped up the leather bag between two angles of the wall; took his pipe from the floor; left everything else lying in the middle of the room; and, sitting down on the bearskins with his back against the bag, told the astonished landlord that he was quite settled and comfortable, and would thank him to go down stairs, and send up a pound of the strongest tobacco he had in the shop.
Mat's subsequent proceedings during the rest of the day--especially such as were connected with his method of laying in a stock of provisions, and cooking his own dinner--exhibited the same extraordinary disregard of all civilized precedent which had marked his first entry into the lodgings. After he had dined, he took a nap on his bear skins; woke up grumbling at the close air and the confined room; smoked a long series of pipes, looking out of window all the time with quietly observant, constantly attentive eyes; and, finally, rising to the climax of all his previous oddities, came down when the tobacco shop was being shut up after the closing of the neighboring theater, and coolly asked which was his nearest way into the country, as he wanted to clear his head, and stretch his legs, by making a walking night of it in the fresh air.
He began the next morning by cleaning both his rooms thoroughly with his own hands; and seemed to enjoy the occupation mightily in his own grim, grave way. His dining, napping, smoking, and observant study of the street view from his window, followed as on the previous day. But at night, instead of setting forth into the country as before, he wandered into the streets; and, in the course of his walk, happened to pass the door of the Snuggery. What happened to him there is already known; but what became of him afterwards remains to be seen.
On leaving Zack, he walked straight on; not slackening his pace, not noticing whither he went, not turning to go back till daybreak. It was past nine o'clock before he presented himself at the tobacco-shop, bringing in with him a goodly share of mud and wet from the thawing ground and rainy sky outside. His long walk did not seem to have relieved the uneasiness of mind which had induced him to separate so suddenly from Zack. He talked almost perpetually to himself in a muttering, incoherent way; his heavy brow was contracted, and the scars of the old wounds on his face looked angry and red. The first thing he did was to make some inquiries of his landlord relating to railway traveling, and to the part of London in which a certain terminus that he had been told of was situated. Finding it not easy to make him understand any directions connected with this latter point, the shopkeeper suggested sending for a cab to take him to the railway. He briefly assented to that arrangement; occupying the time before the vehicle arrived, in walking sullenly backwards and forwards over the pavement in front of the shop door.
When the cab came to take him up, he insisted, with characteristic regardlessness of appearances, on riding upon the roof, because he could get more air to blow over him, and more space for stretching his legs in, there than inside. Arriving in this irregular and vagabond fashion at the terminus, he took his ticket for DIBBLEDEAN, a quiet little market town in one of the midland counties.
When he was set down at the station, he looked about him rather perplexedly at first; but soon appeared to recognize a road, visible at some little distance, which led to the town; and towards which he immediately directed his steps, scorning all offers of accommodation from the local omnibus.
It did not happen to be market day; and the thaw looked even more dreary at Dibbledean than it looked in London. Down the whole perspective of the High Street there appeared only three human figures--a woman in pattens; a child under a large umbrella; and a man with a hamper on his back, walking towards the yard of the principal inn.
Mat had slackened his pace more and more as he approached the town, until he slackened it altogether at last, by coming to a dead stand-still under the walls of the old church, which stood at one extremity of the High Street, in what seemed to be the suburban district of Dibbledean. He waited for some time, looking over the low parapet wall which divided the churchyard from the road--then slowly approached a gate leading to a path among the grave-stones--stopped at it--apparently changed his purpose--and, turning off abruptly, walked up the High Street.
He did not pause again till he arrived opposite a long, low, gabled house, evidently one of the oldest buildings in the place, though brightly painted and whitewashed, to look as new and unpicturesque as possible. The basement story was divided into two shops; which, however, proclaimed themselves as belonging now, and having belonged also in former days, to one and the same family. Over the larger of the two was painted in letters of goodly size:--
Bradford and Son (late Joshua Grice), Linendrapers, Hosiers, &c., &c.
The board on which these words were traced was continued over the smaller shop, where it was additionally superscribed thus:--
Mrs. Bradford (late Joanna Grice), Milliner and Dressmaker.
Regardless of rain, and droppings from eaves that trickled heavily down his hat and coat, Mat stood motionless, reading and re-reading these inscriptions from the opposite side of the way. Though the whole man, from top to toe, was the very impersonation of firmness, he nevertheless hesitated most unnaturally now. At one moment he seemed to be on the point of entering the shop before him--at another, he turned half round towards the churchyard which he had left behind him. At last he decided to go back to the churchyard, and retraced his steps accordingly.
He entered quickly by the gate at which he had delayed before; and pursued the path among the graves a little way. Then striking off over the grass, after a moment's consideration and looking about him, he wound his course hither and thither among the turf mounds, and stopped suddenly at a plain flat tombstone, raised horizontally above the earth by a foot or so of brickwork. Bending down over it, he read the characters engraven on the slab.
There were four inscriptions, all of the simplest and shortest kind, comprising nothing but a record of the names, ages, and birth and death dates of the dead who lay beneath. The first two inscriptions notified the deaths of children:--"Joshua Grice, son of Joshua and Susan Grice, of this parish, aged four years;" and "Susan Grice, daughter of the above, aged thirteen years." The next death recorded was the mother's: and the last was the father's, at the age of sixty-two. Below this followed a quotation from the New Testament:--Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. It was on these lines, and on the record above them of the death of Joshua Grice the elder, that the eyes of the lonely reader rested longest; his lips murmuring several times, as he looked down on the letters:--"He lived to be an old man--he lived to be an old man after all!"
There was sufficient vacant space left towards the bottom of the tombstone for two or three more inscriptions; and it appeared as if Mat expected to have seen more. He looked intently at the vacant space, and measured it roughly with his fingers, comparing it with the space above, which was occupied by letters. "Not there, at any rate!" he said to himself, as he left the churchyard, and walked back to the town.
This time he entered the double shop--the hosiery division of it--without hesitation. No one was there, but the young man who served behind the counter. And right glad the young man looked, having been long left without a soul to speak to on that rainy morning, to see some one--even a stranger with an amazing skull-cap under his hat--enter the shop at last.
What could he serve the gentleman with? The gentleman had not come to buy. He only desired to know whether Joanna Grice, who used to keep the dressmaker's shop, was still living?
Still living, certainly! the young man replied, with brisk civility. Miss Grice, whose brother once had the business now carried on by Bradford and Son, still resided in the town; and was a very curious old person, who never went out, and let nobody inside her doors. Most of her old friends were dead; and those who were still alive she had broken with. She was full of fierce, wild ways; was suspected of being crazy; and was execrated by the boys of Dibbledean as an "old tiger-cat." In all probability, her intellects were a little shaken, years ago, by a dreadful scandal in the family, which quite crushed them down, being very respectable, religious people--
At this point the young man was interrupted, in a very uncivil manner, by the stranger, who desired to hear nothing about the scandal, but who had another question to ask. This question seemed rather a difficult one to put; for he began it two or three times, in two or three different forms of words, and failed to get on with it. At last, he ended by asking, generally, whether any other members of old Mr. Grice's family were still alive.
For a moment or so the shopman was stupid and puzzled, and asked what other members the gentleman meant. Old Mrs. Grice had died some time ago; and there had been two children who died young, and whose names were in the churchyard. "Did the gentleman mean the second daughter, who lived and grew up beautiful, and was, as the story went, the cause of all the scandal? If so, the young person ran away, and died miserably somehow--nobody knew how; and was supposed to have been buried like a pauper somewhere--nobody knew where, unless it was Miss Grice--"
The young man stopped and looked perplexed. A sudden change had passed over the strange gentleman's face. His swarthy cheeks had turned to a cold clay color, through which his two scars seemed to burn fiercer than ever, like streaks of fire. His heavy hand and arm trembled a little as he leaned against the counter. Was he going to be taken ill? No: he walked at once from the counter to the door--turned round there, and asked where Joanna Grice lived. The young man answered, the second turning to the right, down a street, which ended in a lane of cottages. Miss Grice's was the last cottage on the left hand; but he could assure the gentleman that it would be quite useless to go there, for she let nobody in. The gentleman thanked him, and went, nevertheless.
"I didn't think it would have took me so," Mat said, walking quickly up the street; "and it wouldn't if I'd heard it anywhere else. But I'm not the man I was, now I'm in the old place again. Over twenty year of hardening, don't seem to have hardened me yet!"
He followed the directions given him, correctly enough, arrived at the last cottage on his left hand, and tried the garden gate. It was locked; and there was no bell to ring. But the paling was low, and Mat was not scrupulous. He got over it, and advanced to the cottage door. It opened, like other doors in the country, merely by turning the handle of the lock. He went in without any hesitation, and entered the first room into which the passage led him. It was a small parlor; and, at the back window, which looked out on a garden, sat Joanna Grice, a thin, dwarfish old woman, poring over a big book which looked like a Bible. She started from her chair, as she heard the sound of footsteps, and tottered up fiercely, with wild wandering grey eyes and horny threatening hands, to meet the intruder. He let her come close to him; then mentioned a name--pronouncing it twice, very distinctly.
She paused instantly, livid pale, with gaping lips, and arms hanging rigid at her side; as if that name, or the voice in which it had been uttered, had frozen up in a moment all the little life left in her. Then she moved back slowly, groping with her hands like one in the dark--back, till she touched the wall of the room Against this she leaned, trembling violently; not speaking a word; her wild eyes staring panic-stricken on the man who was confronting her.
He sat down unbidden, and asked if she did not remember him. No answer was given; no movement made that might serve instead of an answer. He asked again; a little impatiently this time. She nodded her head and stared at him--still speechless, still trembling.
He told her what he had heard at the shop; and using the shopman's phrases, asked whether it was true that the daughter of old Mr. Grice, who was the cause of all the scandal in the family, had died long since, away from her home, and in a miserable way?
There was something in his look, as he spoke, which seemed to oblige her to answer against her will. She said Yes; and trembled more violently than ever.
He clasped his hands together; his head drooped a little; dark shadows seemed to move over his bent face; and the scars of the old wounds deepened to a livid violet hue.
His silence and hesitation seemed to inspire Joanna Grice with sudden confidence and courage. She moved a little away from the wall, and a gleam of triumph lightened over her face, as she reiterated her last answer of her own accord. "Yes! the wretch who ruined the good name of the family was dead--dead, and buried far off, in some grave by herself--not there, in the churchyard with her father and mother--no, thank God, not there!"
He looked up at her instantly, when she said those words, There was some warning influence in his eye, as it rested on her, which sent her cowering back again to her former place against the wall. Mentioning the name for the first time, he asked sternly where Mary was buried. The reply--doled out doggedly and slowly, forced from her word by word--was, that Mary was buried among strangers, as she deserved to be--at a place called Bangbury--far away in the next county, where she died, and where money was sent to bury her.
His manner became less roughly imperative; his eyes softened; his voice saddened in tone, when he spoke again. And yet, the next question that he put to Joanna Grice seemed to pierce her to the quick, to try her to the heart, as no questioning had tried her before. The muscles were writhing on her haggard face, her breath burst from her in quick, fierce pantings, as he asked plainly, whether it was only suspicion, or really the truth, that Mary was with child when she left her home?
No answer was given to him. He repeated the question, and insisted on having one. Was it suspicion, or truth? The reply hissed out at him in one whispered word--Truth.
Was the child born alive?
The answer came again in the same harsh whisper--Yes: born alive.
What became of it?
She never saw it--never asked about it--never knew. While she replied thus, her whispering accents changed, and rose sullenly to hoarse, distinct tones. But it was not till the questioner spoke to her once more that the smothered fury flashed out into flaming rage. Then, even as he raised his head and opened his lips, she staggered, with outstretched arms, up to the table at which she had been reading when he came in; and struck her bony hands on the open Bible; and swore by the Word of Truth in that Book, that she would answer him no more.
He rose calmly; and with something of contempt in his look, approached the table and spoke. But his voice was drowned by hers, bursting from her in screams of fury. No! no! no! Not a word more! How dare he come there, with his shameless face and his threatening eyes, and make her speak of what should never have passed her lips again--never till she went up to render her account at the Judgment Seat! Relations! let him not speak to her of relations. The only kindred she ever cared to own, lay heart-broken under the great stone in the churchyard. Relations! if they all came to life again this very minute, what could she have to do with them, whose only relation was Death? Yes; Death, that was father, mother, brother, sister to her now! Death, that was waiting to take her in God's good time. What! would he stay on in spite of her? stay after she had sworn not to answer him another word?
Yes; he was resolved to stay--and resolved to know more. Had Mary left nothing behind her, on the day when she fled from her home?
Some suddenly-conceived resolution seemed to calm the first fury of Joanna Grice's passion, while he said those words. She stretched out her hand quickly, and griped him by the arm, and looked up in his face with a wicked exultation in her wild eyes.
He was bent on knowing what that ruined wretch left behind her? Well! he should see for himself!
Between the leaves of Joanna Grice's Bible there was a key, which seemed to be used as a marker. She took it out, and led the way, with toilsome step, and hands outstretched for support to the wall on one side and the banisters on the other, up the one flight of stairs which communicated with the bed-room story of the cottage.
He followed close behind her: and was standing by her side, when she opened a door, and pointed into a room, telling him to take what he found there, and then go--she cared not whither, so long as he went from her.
She descended the stairs again, as he entered the room. There was a close, faint, airless smell in it. Cobwebs, pendulous and brown with dirt, hung from the ceiling. The grimy window-panes saddened all the light that poured through them faintly. He looked round him, and saw no furniture anywhere; no sign that the room had ever been lived in, ever entered even, for years and years past. He looked again, more carefully: and detected, in one dim corner, something covered with dust and dirt, which looked like a small box.
He pulled it out towards the window. Dust flew from it in clouds. Loathsome, crawling creatures crept from under it and from off it. He stirred it with his foot still nearer to the faint light, and saw that it was a common deal-box, corded. He looked closer, and through cobwebs, and dead insects, and foul stains of all kinds, spelt out a name that was painted on it: MARY GRICE.
At the sight of that name, and of the pollution which covered it, he paused, silent and thoughtful; and, at the same moment, heard the parlor door below, locked. He stooped hastily, took up the box by the cord round it, and left the room. His hand touched a substance, as he grasped the cord, which did not feel like wood. Examining the box by the clearer light falling on the landing from a window in the roof, he discovered a letter nailed to the cover. There was something written on it; but the paper was dusty, the ink was faded by time, and the characters were hard to decipher. By dint of perseverance, however, he made out from them this inscription: "Justification of my conduct towards my niece: to be read after my death. Joanna Grice."
As he passed the parlor door, he heard her voice, reading. He stopped and listened. The words that reached his ears seemed familiar to them; and yet he knew not, at first, what book they came from. He listened a little longer; his recollections of his boyhood and of home helped him; and he knew that the book from which Joanna Grice was reading aloud to herself was the Bible.
His face darkened, and he went out quickly into the garden; but stopped before he reached the paling, and, turning back to the front window of the parlor, looked in. He saw her sitting with her back to him, with elbows on the table, and hands working feverishly in her tangled grey hair. Her voice was still audible; but the words it pronounced could no longer be distinguished. He waited at the window for a few moments; then left it suddenly, saying to himself: "I wonder the book don't strike her dead!" Those were his only words of farewell. With that thought in his heart, he turned his back on the cottage, and on Joanna Grice.
He went on through the rain, taking the box with him, and looking about for some sheltered place in which he could open it. After walking nearly a mile, he saw an old cattle-shed, a little way off the road--a rotten, deserted place; but it afforded some little shelter, even yet: so he entered it.
There was one dry corner left; dry enough, at least, to suit his purpose. In that he knelt down, and cut the cord round the box--hesitated before he opened it--and began by tearing away the letter outside, from the nail that fastened it to the cover.
It was a long letter, written in a close, crabbed hand. He ran his eye over it impatiently, till his attention was accidentally caught and arrested by two or three lines, more clearly penned than the rest, near the middle of a page. For many years he had been unused to reading any written characters; but he spelt out resolutely the words in the few lines which first struck his eye, and found that they ran thus:--
"I have now only to add, before proceeding to the miserable confession of our family dishonor, that I never afterwards saw, and only once heard of, the man who tempted my niece to commit the deadly sin, which was her ruin in this world, and will be her ruin in the next."
Beyond those words, he made no effort to read further. Thrusting the letter hastily into his pocket, he turned once more to the box.
It was sealed up with strips of tape, but not locked. He forced the lid open, and saw inside a few simple articles of woman's wearing apparel; a little work-box; a lace collar, with the needle and thread still sticking in it; several letters, here tied up in a packet, there scattered carelessly; a gaily-bound album; a quantity of dried ferns and flower leaves that had apparently fallen from between the pages: a piece of canvas with a slipper-pattern worked on it; and a black dress waistcoat with some unfinished embroidery on the collar. It was plain to him, at a first glance, that these things had been thrown into the box anyhow, and had been left just as they were thrown. For a moment or two, he kept his eyes fixed on the sad significance of the confusion displayed before him; then turned away his head, whispering to himself, mournfully and many times, that name of "Mary," which he had already pronounced while in the presence of Joanna Grice. After a little, he mechanically picked out the letters that lay scattered about the box; mechanically eyed the broken seals and the addresses on each; mechanically put them back again unopened, until he came to one which felt as if it had something inside it. This circumstance stimulated him into unfolding the enclosure, and examining what the letter might contain.
Nothing but a piece of paper neatly folded. He undid the folds, and found part of a lock of hair inside, which he wrapped up again the moment he saw it, as if anxious to conceal it from view as soon as possible. The letter he examined more deliberately. It was in a woman's handwriting; was directed to "Miss Mary Grice, Dibbledean:" and was only dated "Bond Street, London. Wednesday." The post-mark, however, showed that it had been written many years ago. It was not very long; so he set himself to the task of making it all out from beginning to end.
This was what he read:--
"MY DEAREST MARY,
"I have just sent you your pretty hair bracelet by the coach, nicely sealed and packed up by the jeweler. I have directed it to you by your own name, as I direct this, remembering what you told me about your father making it a point of honor never to open your letters and parcels; and forbidding that ugly aunt Joanna of yours, ever to do so either. I hope you will receive this and the little packet about the same time.
"I will answer for your thinking the pattern of your bracelet much improved since the new hair has been worked in with the old. How slyly you will run away to your own room, and blush unseen, like the flower in the poem, when you look at it! You may be rather surprised, perhaps, to see some little gold fastenings introduced as additions; but this, the jeweler told me, was a matter of necessity. Your poor dear sister's hair being the only material of the bracelet, when you sent it up to me to be altered, was very different from the hair of that faultless true-love of yours which you also sent to be worked in with it. It was, in fact, hardly half long enough to plait up properly with poor Susan's, from end to end; so the jeweler had to join it with little gold clasps, as you will see. It is very prettily run in along with the old hair though. No country jeweler could have done it half as nicely, so you did well to send it to London after all. I consider myself rather a judge of these things; and I say positively that it is now the prettiest hair bracelet I ever saw.
"Do you see him as often as ever? He ought to be true and faithful to you, when you show how dearly you love him, by mixing his hair with poor Susan's, whom you were always so fondly attached to. I say he ought; but you are sure to say he will--and I am quite ready, love, to believe that you are the wiser of the two.
"I would write more, but have no time. It is just the regular London season now, and we are worked out of our lives. I envy you dressmakers in the country; and almost wish I was back again at Dibbledean, to be tyrannized over from morning to night by Miss Joanna. I know she is your aunt, my dear; but I can't help saying that I hate her very name!
"Ever your affectionate friend,
"P. S.--The jeweler sent back the hair he did not want; and I, as in duty bound, return it enclosed to you, its lawful owner."
Those scars on Mat's face, which indicated the stir of strong feelings within him more palpably than either his expression or his manner, began to burn redly again while he spelt his way through this letter. He crumpled it up hastily round the enclosure, instead of folding it as it had been folded before; and was about to cast it back sharply into the box, when the sight of the wearing apparel and half-finished work lying inside seemed to stay his hand, and teach it on a sudden to move tenderly. He smoothed out the paper with care, and placed it very gently among the rest of the letters--then looked at the box thoughtfully for a moment or two; took from his pocket the letter that he had first examined, and dropped it in among the others--then suddenly and sharply closed the lid of the box again.
"I can't touch any more of her things," he said to himself; "I can't so much as look at 'em, somehow, without its making me--" he stopped to tie up the box; straining at the cords, as if the mere physical exertion of pulling hard at something were a relief to him at that moment. "I'll open it again and look it over in a day or two, when I'm away from the old place here," he resumed, jerking sharply at the last knot--"when I'm away from the old place, and have got to be my own man again."
He left the shed; regained the road; and stopped, looking up and down, and all round him, indecisively. Where should he go next? To the grave, where he had been told that Mary lay buried? No: not until he had first read all the letters and carefully examined all the objects in the box. Back to London, and to his promised meeting next morning with Zack? Yes: nothing better was left to be done--back to London.
Before nightfall he was journeying again to the great city, and to his meeting with Zack; journeying (though he little thought it) to the place where the clue lay hid--the clue to the Mystery of Mary Grice.
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