ife is very difficult sometimes," sighed Mr Clowes, the old Vicar of Potterhampstead, as he laid his head on his hand, and looked out of his study window across the fair stretch of green meadow that lay in front of the house.
A sleek Alderney cow was browsing upon the fresh grass and yellow cowslips, and a rough brown cob stood with his patient, sleepy head thrown over the palings, apparently meditating repose.
There were no other signs of life around the house, for Potterhampstead was buried in the depths of the country: so far from everywhere, that to all intents and purposes it might just as well have been the end of the earth, and beyond it - chaos!
Mr Clowes had been studying with painful intentness a couple of account-books, the receipt and expenditure pages of which did not seem to tally to his satisfaction.
"I don't know how it is," he murmured wearily, the lines of care on his patient face becoming more deeply marked as he pushed the books aside: "no tithes, no rents, no money of any sort, nothing to trust in for bread save the Alonzo mines; and they, thank God, are safe. I seem - if one might say it in all religion - to have been born under an unlucky star."
Times had been bad in Potterhampstead, and the tenant-farmers, instead of meeting their difficulties cheerfully, had been roused into something like revolution by a scheming adventurer, and had refused point blank to pay their rents.
The old Vicar had neither the energy nor the inclination to take legal remedies, and had consequently been put to such serious difficulty that he knew not where to turn for help. In his trouble he had taken to speculating wildly with the little capital on which he could lay his hands, believing each flaring newspaper report as to this silver mine or that petroleum well, and hoping, with the confidence of a nature that does not know the meaning of the word suspicion, that each venture would mean wealth for him and his daughter Inez.
His son-in-law, Captain Holloway, was at that time quartered in Jamaica, and Inez, on account of her delicate health, had been unable to join him in that country, to her great sorrow.
The Vicar could hear her voice now, carolling through the garden, and presently there was a soft step behind him, and a pretty hand made prisoner of the account-books.
"Guess who it is, and what I have brought you," said a voice, while one roguish soft pink palm was laid across his eyes.
The Vicar lovingly took the two hands in his and kissed them, and looked up into his daughter's face.
Inez Holloway, as she stood there in her glorious beauty, her ripe red lips and black hair intensifying the Spanish cast of features she inherited from her dead mother, might have stood for a very model of youth and happiness. She threw the letters down on the table before her father, and straightened the bunch of scarlet roses she wore at her bosom. Then she looked up, blushing and dimpling with happy laughter.
"Father darling," she said, "I have had such happy news from Rex. He has got the offer of a good appointment in England, and he is coming home very soon; and he says that you are to come and live with us, and then we shall none of us ever be separated any more. Oh! it is too much joy to bear all at once. Fancy Rex in England, and our new happy home! Why, it is a whole long year since I saw him last!"
She was thrilling in every nerve with the ecstasy of her joy, which seemed to communicate itself to her father, for he looked at her with a smile.
"Dear little daughter," he said, "for your twenty years of life you have gone through much sorrow, and it is very good of your husband to wish me to be with you in your joy. But now you must let me open my letters, for old Thomas is far before his time this morning, and I had not expected them for the next hour."
Inez withdrew into the window with her husband's letter, which she read and re-read, pressing it furtively to her lips every now and then with a gesture of passionate love.
Her father seemed to be strangely silent over his share of the post-bag, and the girl looked round at last, with vague wonder and a sense of uneasiness. The Vicar was lying with his head bent forward on the desk. The London paper was spread out before him, and his hand was resting heavily against one of the columns. There was a rigidity about the lines of his figure which frightened Inez, and she came forward hurriedly.
"What is it, father?" she said, and stooping over him, she tried in vain to rouse him from the torpor which seemed to have overcome him. She glanced down at the paper in her terror, wondering what catastrophe could have numbed his senses so strangely, and her eyes took in mechanically two paragraphs which were printed together in the same column in large type -
"Disastrous Failure of the Alonzo Mine Company. Disappearance of the Cashier. Wind-up of the whole Business. Claims to be made upon the Shareholders."Then further down -
"A sad affair took place yesterday in Upton, Jamaica. A sergeant and six men of the 999th West India Regiment mutinied, and Captain Holloway, DSO, was unfortunately fatally wounded while sallying into the bush to attack the mutineers. This gallant officer will be much missed by his regiment. He leaves a wife in England, to whom he has been married little more than a year."
|A Lincolnshire Lass|
Compare the scene here with that of the death of Dr Fawcett in Weigall's serial A Lincolnshire Lass in the same volume of the Quiver:
"As he read, a great and wonderful change came over the man. It was neither fear nor horror, but a rigid blending of both, in a face grey with an awful shadow.
Then the paper rustled to the ground unheeded, and Dr Fawcett, still silent, still motionless, fell forward across the table beside him, with his face hidden, his rigidly stiff fingers still grasping the fatal sheet. ...Eternity had begun for Dr Fawcett..."
"Oh, it cannot be true!" she muttered drearily, her fingers playing aimlessly with the fatal paper, as she steadied herself against the table on which it lay. "I know that Rex is coming home soon, very soon, and we are both to live with him. How can they put such lies into the paper - such terrible untruths to frighten people? Father dear, wake up and tell me that Rex is coming home safely. Father..." She laid her hand on the powerless fingers still grasping the paper, and their very touch sent an icy thrill of horror through her soul.
The whole sense of her awful loss came upon her, surging up into her heart like an overpowering flood. She grasped her throat to check the convulsive sob of agony that threatened to tear her very frame asunder.
"Father!" she cried again, "my husband is dead - and, can it be? my father is dead too!" And in another instant her shrieks were ringing through the house.
The servant who came hurrying up at the sound found the old Vicar of Potterhampstead freed from his troubles, his gentle soul at rest, and Inez Holloway at his feet, talking wildly to him, the blessed light of reason quenched in her beautiful, horror-stricken eyes.
"What a stupid sort of individual that Captain Holloway seems to be, my dear," said pretty Mrs Pearce, as she lay back in her deck-chair on board the Peleusium, homeward-bound from Jamaica. "People talk about him being so clever and distinguished, and all that sort of thing, you know, but I can't get a word, good or bad, out of him."
"Well, Florrie, you see he has only just recovered from that nasty knock on the head," said her friend, laughing. "And perhaps he is thinking too much of his wife in England to be able to spare time to indulge in idle chatter."
"Chatter! Mary Hawkins would think I was as insatiable for gossip as a boa-constrictor is for rabbits," returned Mrs Pearce in indignant staccato tones.
Her friend only looked at her curiously, shrugged her shoulders, and walked away to where Captain Holloway was standing, dreamily watching the creamy wake of the steamer.
"Are you thinking of England and your friends?" she said pleasantly; for Mary Hawkins was a girl who always sympathised with the feelings of others, and was ready to listen to the confidences of half a hundred love-sick swains or home-going husbands.
Rex Holloway smiled back at her.
"I am thinking of the wife whom I have not seen for nearly a year," he answered. "I have been a little anxious at not hearing from her by the mail which came in just before I left, and I fear the account of the Upton skirmish must have frightened her a good deal, for she is almost a child in years, and she has no one to console her, for her father is too old and delicate to be troubled by other people's sorrows, and she has not another relation in the world."
"Poor little girl!" repeated Miss Hawkins softly. And they stood together for a few moments, watching the sun set redly in the sea and the soft primrose haze of evening tremble across the sky and fade into the deep blue of night, lit by the steadfast stars.
Rex Holloway set off for Potterhampstead as soon as the boat touched at Southampton, for he could not bear to be parted from his darling for even one unnecessary hour.
The cab that drove him the six miles from the little wayside station was all too slow for his impatient desires, and when its rickety wheels crunched over the gravel sweep and drew up at the Vicarage door, he sprang breathlessly to the ground.
A strange silence seemed to pervade the whole house, and to lurk behind the shuttered windows and closed doors, and with a pang of anxiety he rang a peal at the bell that resounded noisily through the house.
"Are the Vicar and Mrs Holloway away from home?" he asked of the middle-aged woman who came crossly to the door.
"What do you ring the bell like that for?" she said. "You'll not waken the dead in that way. The Vicar was buried rather better than a fortnight ago; and Mrs Holloway was took ill, and she went away with a doctor or some such person that was fetched from somewhere. Hannah, the girl that was servant here, went home to her mother, who lives London-way, after the funeral; and that's all I or anyone else can tell you. But, lor, sir! whatever's the matter? You do look bad!"
For Holloway had staggered against the wall of the house, and was staring at her with white, drawn face. He had not recovered entirely from his wound, and the shock was almost more than he could bear.
"Mr Clowes dead, and Inez gone away!" he groaned. "Merciful heaven! what can it mean?"
But this was more than the caretaker or anyone in the village could tell him; and, sick at heart, he retraced his steps to the station, and took the train for Lexington, the nearest big town, in the hope of learning something there as to his wife's fate, and where at any rate he could set detectives on her track.
He knew that Inez had no relations or intimate friends to whom he could apply in his trouble, for the girl had lived an unusually solitary life, and had seldom left the little country village, where he had come across her by chance during a walking tour through Lancashire, and had fallen madly in love with her wonderful beauty.
As it was late in the evening, he secured a room in the Grosvenor Hotel, and deferred unwillingly any further proceedings till the following morning.
But rest was for him out of the question. The pale image of Inez weeping alone for her father, with no one to wipe her piteous tears, was ever before his eyes; and pacing to and fro in the room, he tried to unravel the mystery of her illness and her departure from Potterhampstead.
"What illness could possibly have assailed her?"
Strangely enough, the idea of a mind distraught with sorrow never once entered into his thoughts - perhaps mercifully, for surely the idea of his wife out of her mind and confined in an asylum would have been a far more crushing weight of misery to bear than hopeful uncertainty. He drew aside his curtain and sat down by the open window, staring out into the dewy darkness of the summer night, and cooling his fevered forehead against the cold stones.
He had not been there long, however, when the intense quiet of the street was broken by a wild, sharp cry of "Fire!" and up the road at breakneck pace came the engine and the few firemen that the town possessed. There was a panting, breathless little crowd at their heels; and Holloway, without an instant's hesitation, ran down the stairs and joined them. He could not have told why he did so; but the desire of work, anything to turn the miserable current of his thoughts, was strong upon him, and he kept pace with the fire-engine with the stern fixed face of a man who means work.
The scene of action lay evidently on the outskirts of the town, and they raced along through alley and street, ever keeping in sight the red glare that lit up the sky with lurid flashes of flame towards the east.
There was a cry from some man among the crowd as they drew nearer that it was the lunatic asylum that was on fire, and the thought of the helpless inmates quickened their steps and stirred all their pulses with sympathy.
The great grey stone building was pouring out volumes of smoke and flame as they dashed into the courtyard.
The warders were all drawn up outside, in charge of the lunatics who had been already rescued, and who were making the night hideous with their cries of terror.
"Are they all out?" said Holloway to one of the women, who was looking anxiously up at the flaming windows.
"No; there are about half a dozen up in that front room - God help them!" she said, clasping her hands pityingly; "and it'll be a brave man who dares to bring them out of the jaws of death!"
|Gordon: Charles George Gordon the "hero" of Khartoum who defended the isolated city for ten months with dwindling food supplies, from repeated attacks by followers of Mohammad Ahmed the self-proclaimed "mahdi" of Sudan. In a final assault on the city the garrison was overcome and Gordon executed on January 26th, 1885.|
Grace Darling: On September 7th, 1838, Grace, along with her father William the keeper of the Longstone (Farne Islands) lighthouse determined to try and reach the survivors of a wrecked boat the "Forfarshire." By dint of great skill and determination they managed to reach the wreck in their coble and rescue four men and a woman. William and two of the rescued men then made a further trip back to rescue the four remaining survivors. Grace was 22 at the time and she and her father received a gold medal from the Humane Society for their bravery.
(Encyclopædia Britannica, 1957)
When the crowd below grasped the fact that this stranger was going straight up into the danger which none of them dared to face, they put up a great shout of admiration, which thrilled through the night air back to the heart of the very town itself.
"Aye! but that is a brave chap," said one of the firemen, following Holloway up the ladder, dimly conscious that he was in the wake of a hero as courageous as any Gordon or Grace Darling.
When Holloway reached the smouldering frame of the window, he peered in through the smoke, and making out two forms crouching in a corner, leaped without hesitation into the room.
Picking up one of the women, he thrust her into the fireman's arms. Then with the other, an unconscious weight pressed to his own heart, he fought his way back through the smoke and darting tongues of flame to the window-ledge where the fire-escape stood.
It was the work of a moment to wind his arms more securely round the slim figure, and to slide to the ground.
As he did so the window-frame fell in with a crash, and as the fire blazed up fiercely for an instant, his eyes fell upon the pale upturned face that rested against his shoulder.
It was his wife, Inez, and he had saved her!
Without a word he made his way through the preoccupied crowd, who paid no attention to his departure now that a piteous cry from another wing of the asylum told them that there was yet another victim to be rescued.
He sped back with untiring feet, scarcely feeling the burden that he carried, under the fierce joy that possessed his every nerve.
He hurried up the hotel stairs to his room, and laid her on the sofa, employing every art he knew to restore her to consciousness. And when he succeeded, and the heavy lids quivered and slowly lifted, the soul that looked out of her glorious eyes was as sane as his own.
"Rex," she said faintly, "where am I? - Ah! what a dream I have had! Oh! my darling, have you come home indeed, never to leave me any more? It can't be true."
But the great strong fellow was down at her side on his knees, his arms clasped tightly round her, his very tears of joy on her cheek. And she knew that it was the truth indeed.
The fire at Lexington Lunatic Asylum has long since ceased to be a ten days' wonder in the neighbourhood.
But whenever it is mentioned the older inhabitants shake their heads gravely, and wonder for the thousandth time who the mysterious stranger might be who came and went in so rapid a fashion, and whether poor "mad" Mrs Holloway was burnt to death, or whether she escaped, and is still a lunatic at large.
But the inquisitive gossips are never likely to know the wrongs and rights of the story; for the Holloways never came back to Lexington after that night, and their home on the Devonshire coast is as happy and fair as love and the merry voices of children can make it.
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