after the dark moor

The sun had gone down behind a bank of angry, leaden-coloured clouds,
which were fast spreading over the whole surface of the sky. Only here
and there a stunted, half-grown, and leafless oak-tree stretched out
its naked branches towards the darkening sky, and within a yard or two
of me there was a miserable apology for a cottage.

No one, save they had known otherwise, would have taken it for anything
but a cowshed of the rudest form. It was built of boards dipped in
black tar, windowless, chimneyless, save for a hole in the roof through
which a small piece of dilapidated stove piping had been thrust, and
without the merest pretence of a garden. It stood, or rather leaned,
against one side of a sharp slope in the moor, and fifty yards from the
rude sheep-track which did duty as a road, and even in the daytime
there was no other human habitation within sight, or any sign of one.

With my arm in the bridle of the Black Prince, I led him down the
slope, and, grasping my riding-whip by the stock, knocked sharply at
what I concluded to be the door. I heard the quick sound of a man’s
startled curse, and then there was a dead silence. I knocked again,
but no one answered. Then I kicked at the loose planks till the place
seemed as though it would tumble down like a pack of cards.

“What d’ye want?” a woman’s shrill voice cried through the open chinks.
“Who be you?”

“I want your husband,” I answered.

“Well, he bean’t here, ‘e bean’t coom home.”

“It’s a lie!” I shouted back. “Tell him I shall not go away until I
have seen him, though I kick this place about your ears. Is he afraid?
Tell him I am alone.”

She withdrew muttering, and I fastened Black Prince as securely as I
could against the wall. Suddenly the door was opened, and stooping
low, with my heavy riding-whip grasped firmly in my right hand, I
stepped inside.

At first I could see nothing, but just as I was cautiously feeling in
my pockets for a match, the red flames of a wood fire, which was
smouldering on the hearth, leaped up and showed me the bare walls and
miserable interior of the tumble-down hovel, showed me, too, the figure
of a tall, evil-looking man grasping a thick cudgel in his hand, and
peering through the gloom at me with a sort of threatening
inquisitiveness.

“What d’ye want wi’ me?” the man began, suspiciously. Then suddenly he
dropped his cudgel and staggered back against the frail wall, with his
arms stretched out as though to keep me off.

“God, it’s Muster Herbert! It’s Muster Herbert’s ghost. What d’ye
want? What d’ye want? What d’ye want here wi’ me? Speak, can’t you!”
he cried out in a tone of hysterical dread.

“Don’t be a fool, John Hilton,” I said, contemptuously. “I am Hugh
Devereux, son of the man against whom you swore a lie twenty-five years
ago, and I have come here to ask you a few questions.”

He kept his eyes fixed upon me in a sort of sullen fascinated stare.

“First tell me why you swore that lie? It was Rupert Devereux who made
you.”

The man’s brute courage was returning to him slowly. He picked up his
cudgel and began to beat the side of his legs with it.

“You know how to command, young sir,” he said, sneeringly. “Suppose I
say I won’t answer your d–d questions?”

“I don’t think you’ll be so foolish,” I said. “If you don’t want to
find yourself in gaol for poaching, before the week’s out, you’ll do
exactly as I tell you.”

He swore savagely, and turned his ugly face full upon me.

“So you was the d–d young swell that came busting in upon us when we
was just a-settling things off nice and comfortable t’other night, was
you! I’ve a good mind—-”

He had advanced a step or two towards me, and his fingers had closed
firmly round his cudgel.

“Put that piece of timber down, John Hilton,” I said, firmly; “you’ve
tried conclusions with me once at Porlock, and you got the worst of it.
So you will again if you try the same game. Drop it. Do you hear?”

I took a quick step forward, and raised my riding-whip. He hesitated,
and then threw it savagely down.

“Curse it, what d’ye want to know?”

“It was Rupert Devereux who made you tell that lie before the
court-martial?”

“Ay, ’twas him, right enough. I’ll tell yer all about it. Muster
Rupert Devereux ain’t nothink to me! He comes to me that morning t’
moment the bugle had sounded, and we was in the tents. ‘Hilton,’ he
said to me, ‘would yer tell a lie to be made a rich man for the rest of
your life?’ ‘In coors I would,’ said I. ‘Then when you’re summoned
before General Luxton to-morrow,’ says he, ‘tell him that you saw
nothing of my brother during the fight. Forget that he ran out to help
us against those two black varmint. Do that, and I’ll allow you two
hundred pounds a year as long as you live.’ ‘I’m your man,’ said I.
‘That’s right,’ says he, and turns on his heel and walks back again.
That were ‘ow it war,” he wound up defiantly.

I had hard work to keep my hands off him, but I did.

“And your two hundred pounds a year?” I asked, glancing around and at
the bold-looking, slatternly woman who sat crouched on a stool watching
us. “What’s become of that? I presume you don’t live here from
choice?”

He broke into a volley of horrible curses.

“I should think I don’t,” he broke out. “I’ll tell ‘e how that —-
served me. I was maybe a bit of a fool; anyways, I was a bit
strong-headed, and when we got back to England I would live wi’ ‘im as
his servant, though he didn’t like it, and said I was too rough and
clumsy, and so I war. But I got into his ways a bit, and live wi’ ‘im
I would, for I didn’t nohow feel safe about getting the coin, he war
always moving about so. Often we had rows, and he used to say as he’d
send me a-packing; but I only laughed at ‘im. But that ‘ere night,
down at Porlock, yer remember it, he got to hear what I’d done, and he
sent for me. ‘Hilton,’ he said, ‘here’s a month’s wages, and you can
go to the devil. I’ve done wi’ you.’ ”Ow about our little secret,
mister?’ I said, for I didn’t think as he was noways in earnest, and he
says, ‘You’re a fool. Hilton. You think you’ve got me in your power,
but it’s the stupidest mistake you ever made in your life. You can go
and tell your secret to any one you like, and I wish you joy of those
who’ll believe yer.’ And I saw then as I wor done, for of coors no one
would believe me. They all said as it wor a bit o’ spite because he’d
given me the sack and so I went down, down, down, and here I am.”

“A poacher,” I remarked.

“I didn’t say nowt about that,” he answered, sullenly. “Wot more do
yer want wi’ me?”

“A little family history, that’s all. Whom did your master marry?”

“Miss Saville, or some such name. She war a clergyman’s daughter, and
she died soon after the second child were born.”

“The second child! There is a daughter living at Devereux Court
now–is the other one a son?”

The man nodded sullenly.

“And where is he?”

“How the devil should I know! He war at college when I left Muster
Rupert; ain’t ‘eard of ‘im since!

“Or of Rupert Devereux?”

“No, I ain’t ‘eard of ‘im. D’ye think I reads the sassiety papers down
‘ere to know where all the fine folks is, ‘cos I don’t.”

I was silent for a few minutes, thinking. Of what use was this
fellow’s confession to me now that I had got it? Who would believe the
word of such a disreputable vagabond against the word of Rupert
Devereux? Still, I would have his confession–some day it might be
useful.

“Have you a candle?” I asked.

The woman rose from her seat for the first time, and after groping
about for a moment or two produced a few inches of tallow dip I struck
a match, and, righting it, thrust it in the neck of a black bottle
which she silently handed me. Then, in as few words as possible, I
wrote down the substance of Hilton’s confession and handed it to him,
with the pencil, to sign.

“If it only does ‘im the harm I wish it will,” he muttered, “it’ll do.
Now, mister,” he went on, turning towards me half threateningly, half
whiningly, “wot I wants to know is this–Be yer going to peach on me
for that poaching job, and how in thunder’s name did yer know where to
find me?”

“By accident, the latter,” I answered. I saw you come out of this den
months ago, when I was riding across the moor to Silverbridge. I
thought it was a chance resemblance then, but when I saw you in the
wood I knew you. John Hilton, I am not going to denounce you as one of
that gang of poachers; on the other hand, I have purposely refrained
from handing in your description. But you have an account to settle
with me.

He grasped his cudgel again.

“What do you mean?” he muttered.

“I shall show you,” I answered. I turned aside to the woman, who sat
watching us with a weary, indifferent stare.

“How long is it since you had anything to eat?” I asked.

“Yester forenoon,” she moaned. “Him there”–she pointed to her
husband–“he daredna go owt, and I ain’t got no money, nor nowt to
sell. We be starving.”

I put my hand in my pocket and gave her half-a-sovereign.

“Take that, and go and get something at once,” I said.

She started to her feet, and her fingers closed eagerly over the coin.
Then she drew her shawl around her and hurried to the door.

“I’ll be back inside o’ an hour, Jack,” she called out to her husband.
“We’ll ‘a some supper to-night; I’ll go to Jones’s”–and she hurried
away.

I turned to the man, who stood looking hungrily after his wife.

“John Hilton, I said that I had an account to settle with you. I have.
It is through your damnable conspiracy and lying that my father is
wandering about in a foreign land a miserable man; that I am here
compelled to bear a false name and occupy a false position. If you
think that I have forgiven you this because I gave your wife money and
do not cause you to be arrested as a poacher, you are mistaken. I
don’t want your miserable life. I wouldn’t take it if I had the
chance. But I am going to give you the soundest horsewhipping you ever
had in your life.”

He shrunk back. He was a coward at heart, but he had plenty of bravado.

“Now, look ‘ere, young mister,” he said, savagely, “you’ve given my
missus money when we wanted it, lad, and I don’t want to hurt you. But
you’re only a stripling, and if you lay ‘ands on me I sha’n’t take it
quiet, I can tell you. Now keep off.”

He was a tall man, but I was a taller; and though I was slim, my
out-of-door life had hardened my muscles till they were like iron. But
had I been less his superior in strength, the passionate hatred and
disgust which leaped up within me when I remembered what this man had
done would have helped me to have gained my end. As it was, he was
utterly helpless in my grasp, and I had wrenched his cudgel from him in
a moment. All round the little room he struggled and writhed; whilst
holding him by the collar with one hand I dealt him fierce, quick blows
with my thonged riding-whip. Then, throwing him from me, panting and
helpless, into the furthest corner of the room, I strode out of the
shaking tenement to where my horse was neighing impatiently outside.
He made no attempt to follow me, and in a few minutes I had given Black
Prince the rein, and we were flying across the moor homewards.

It was eighteen miles from John Hilton’s hut to the park gates, across
a wild country, and I had had two hours’ hard riding when, splashed
with bog mud from head to foot, I walked into Marian’s little
sitting-room, which, it seemed to me, after the dark moor, had never
looked so cheerful and cosy. Marian herself was there, lounging in a
low wicker chair, with her fair hair scarcely so tidy as usual, and a
soft, pleased light in her grey eyes, and opposite her was a
visitor–our curate. She sprang up as I entered.

“Hugh, how late you are! I waited dinner nearly two hours. Where have
you been?”

I was tired, and hungry, and cold; and I shook hands with our visitor
without a superabundance of cordiality before dropping into an easy
chair in front of the fire.

“A little business, that’s all. Did you keep any dinner back?”

“Of course I did.”

She rang the bell, and I sat still for a minute or two, expecting Mr.
Holdern to take his leave. But he did nothing of the sort. Presently
I rose.

“I’ll change my things, and have a wash, I think. You’ll excuse me for
a few minutes,” I said to Mr. Holdern, curtly.

He consented readily, without making any movement to go. When I
descended into our little dining-room, about half-an-hour afterwards,
Marian was not there, though she came in almost directly.

“That fellow Holdern not gone yet?” I asked, surprised.

“N–no, Hugh, he’s not gone yet,” Marian answered, a little
consciously. “Now, I do hope that partridge isn’t done up to nothing.
And how’s the bread sauce? Rather thick, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t quite make Marian out. She seemed almost nervous, and after
she had waited upon me, and poured out a glass of the claret which Sir
Francis had insisted upon sending down from the house, she stood by my
side with her arm round my neck, and looking uncommonly pretty.

“Hadn’t you better go in and talk with that fellow Holdern, if he won’t
go?” I asked; “won’t do to leave him in there all by himself.”

“Oh, he won’t hurt,” she answered, stroking my hair caressingly; “he’s
been here ever since afternoon tea.”

“The deuce he has!” I exclaimed, setting down my glass, and looking up
at her surprised. “What does he want? A subscription?”

“N–no. I don’t think so, Hughie.”

Something of the truth commenced to dawn upon me, and, sitting back in
my chair, I caught Marian by the arms, and looked into her face.

“Marian, you don’t mean to say that the fellow’s been making love to
you!”

She was blushing all over her delicate little face, and she held up her
hands as though to hide it from me.

“I–I’m afraid he has, Hughie, and–and—-”

“And what?”

“And I’ve been letting him.”

“Oh, indeed!” I exclaimed, feebly.

It wasn’t a very impressive thing to say, but I was bewildered.

Suddenly she threw herself into my arms and hid her face on my shoulder.

“Oh, Hugh, you won’t be angry, will you? say that you won’t! He is so
nice, and I’m so happy.”

I don’t know how most men would have felt in my position, but I must
confess that my first impulse was to go and punch Mr. Holdern’s head.
But when I began to think the matter over a little it occurred to me
that this was scarcely the proper course to pursue–at any rate, it was
not the usual one. The more I thought of it the more natural it seemed
to me. I remembered now how often I had found Mr. Holdern sitting at
afternoon tea with Marian when I had come home about that time, and
what an interest she had been taking in parish matters lately. As far
as the man himself was concerned there was nothing against him; in
fact, I rather liked him. But to give him–a stranger–Marian, my
little sister, who had only just begun to keep house for me, the idea
was certainly not a pleasant one, and yet if she wished it, how could I
refuse her?

“You’re too young, you know, for anything of this sort, Marian,” I
began, with an attempt at severity, which I’m sure she saw through.

“I’m eighteen,” came a piteous voice from the vicinity of my waistcoat.
“Lots of girls are engaged before they’re eighteen.”

This was unanswerable. I tried another line.

“And you want to leave me, then, Marian, already?” I said, with a
plaintiveness that was not all affected.

The arms that were round my neck tightened their grasp, and a
tear-stained, dishevelled face was lifted piteously to mine.

“I don’t, Hugh! You know I don’t. We only want to be engaged. We
don’t want to be married.”

“Well, I suppose it’s all right,” I said, with a sigh. “Look here,
Marian, you run along in to Mr. Holdern, and leave me to think about it
while I finish my dinner.”

She unclasped her arms and looked at me radiantly.

“Dear old Hugh! I knew you’d say yes.”

“But I haven’t said anything of the sort,” I protested, severely.
“Don’t you run away with that idea, young lady. I shall have to hear
what Mr. Holdern’s got to say for himself first,” I added, frowning,
and assuming an air of paternal authority. But she saw through it, and
with a final kiss ran away laughing.

Being a somewhat matter-of-fact young man, and keenly conscious of an
as yet unsatisfied hunger, I finished my dinner before I commenced to
think seriously over this unexpected incident. Then I leaned back in
my chair and considered it, and in a very few minutes I had come to the
conclusion that it was about the most fortunate thing that could have
happened. I had never intended my stay here to be a permanent one, and
whilst there were now no reasons why I should remain, there were
several strong ones why I should go. First, I could attain no nearer
now, by stopping, to the great object of my life; on the other hand,
every day I stayed here and remained under the fascination of Maud
Devereux’s presence I stood in greater risk of forgetting my oath.
Then whilst here I had no opportunity of meeting Rupert Devereux, my
uncle, the man from, whom, if it came at all, must come my father’s
justification. My father!

I thought of him in his weary exile, and my heart ached. Not a line
had I heard from him since our parting, nor had I even the least idea
in what country of the world he was. If Marian left me, what was there
to prevent my finding him out and throwing in my lot with his?
Together we might accomplish what singly each might fail in. The more
I thought about it the more I liked the idea.

Leave Devereux I must, though I had grown to love the place, and to
feel a strange affection for my stern old grandfather. Yet how could I
go on living here to feel every day the subtle fascination of Maud
Devereux’s presence gaining a stronger hold upon me–Maud Devereux, the
daughter of the man who had wrecked my father’s life and mine, the man
whom I had cursed in my heart? It seemed to me almost like treachery
towards him whom I loved so well, and whose wrongs I so bitterly
resented, that a glance from her blue eyes could madden or elate me,
and that the sound of her voice could set all my senses quivering. I
must go, I must turn my back upon her for ever and take up the work of
my life wherever it might lead me. This thing which had happened to
Marian made the way clear before me.

I crossed over to our little drawing-room, and, entering without the
ceremony of knocking, found Marian and Mr. Holdern seated on chairs a
long way from one another, apparently engaged in a minute examination
of the ceiling. Marian took up her work and left us with a blushing
face, and Mr. Holdern, without any beating about the bush, stood up on
the hearthrug and began his tale.

He was a pleasant-faced, agreeable young fellow, and there was an
honest look about his eyes and a straightforward manner which I liked,
and which convinced me of his sincerity. He had a private income, he
told me, and had recently been offered a very comfortable living about
twelve miles away. “Of course,” he added, hesitatingly, “he felt some
diffidence in proposing to take Marian away from me, and thus leaving
me to live by myself–but, but, the long and short of it was, he wanted
to get married as soon as I could possibly spare her. They would not
be far away; indeed, if my prospective loneliness was an objection, I
could take up my abode with them. Anything so that I would give him
Marian, and give him her soon.”

I did not waste any time in affecting to consider the matter, but,
pledging him first to secrecy, I told him our history, what was our
rightful name, and my reasons for not bearing it. If I had had any
doubt before, I knew by his behaviour when I had finished my story that
he was a good fellow. He held out his hand and grasped mine, with the
tears standing in his eyes.

“Mr. Devereux,” he said, emphatically, “I don’t know how to express my
sympathy for you. I heard of this sad affair when I was a very little
boy, and I have heard my father say many a time that he would never
believe Herbert Devereux to be a coward. I hope to God that you will
succeed in your quest.”

“I hope so,” I echoed, fervently. “Marian knows nothing of this, Mr.
Holdern.”

“Nor need she ever,” he answered. “I think you have been quite right
to keep it from her! There would have been no object gained in her
knowing, and women do not understand these things like men.”

“Do you know anything of Rupert Devereux?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Very little. I have seen him once–a tall, dark
man, handsome, but very unlike the Devereuxs. I have heard him spoken
of as a Sybarite and a pleasure-seeker. He is seldom in England, I
believe.”

A Sybarite! A pleasure-seeker! I thought of him wandering at will
through the countries of the world, steeping his senses in every luxury
that money could buy, and living at ease and in comfort, and I thought
of my father, also a wanderer on the face of the earth, seeking neither
comfort nor pleasure nor ease, at war with the world and with himself,
with no joy in the present or hope for the future, seeking only for a
chance to throw his life away in the miserable quarrels of any
pettifogging country who would accept his sword! Mr. Holdern watched
me in silence while I walked up and down the room for a few minutes
almost beside myself with compressed passion. Then he walked up to me
and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Devereux,” he said, earnestly, “I can
understand your feeling like this, but you must try and keep it under
control, or I’m afraid there will be trouble soon.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, turning round and facing him.

He hesitated, and then answered slowly–

“I have just heard that young Francis Devereux, your cousin, is
expected down here for Christmas.”

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