VENGEANCE ASTRAY

John Hatfield had left Dartford, his wife, and his work, driven by an
impulse as vague as it was irresistible. He did not know what he meant
to do; his one idea was that he must face his daughter’s betrayer, and
tax him with his crime. He did not very much care what came after.
But the long tramp through England, broken though it was by many a
lift from good-natured waggoners, had given him time for thinking.
Reflection did not soften his resentment. On the contrary, the more
he thought, the harder his heart felt, and each new hour of solitary
musing left him more bitter, more vindictive, more angered than he
had been the hour before. His wife’s story convicted him of the one
fault from which he had always believed himself to be free–blind
stupidity. The loss of his daughter had never been out of his mind for
half an hour at a time since she had gone away, and he had thought and
thought, till his brain had seemed to spin round, over every least
detail of her flight, and of the time just before it, in the hope of
finding out who was her betrayer. And yet in all his thinking he had
never come anywhere near the truth. Other people had, though; he knew
that, as he remembered hints he had sneered at from some of the least
brilliant of the hands–fools he had often called them. Yet, fools as
they were, they had been able to see more clearly than he, the father,
whose brain sharpest love and sorrow ought surely to have had power to
quicken.

Added to all this, the thought that he had gone on working for, taking
the money of, and, to a certain extent, living in a condition of
dependence on, the man who had wronged him, and then had turned him out
on to the world, stung his spirit almost to madness.

The spring woke early that year, and the weather was bright and glad,
the air clear and sweet and joyous with a thousand bird-voices.
The Midland woods and hedges that he passed were beginning to deck
themselves in the fresh greenness of their new spring garments. Their
beauty brought no peace to him. He but noticed them to curse their
monotony and apparent endlessness. The only things he did notice with
anything like satisfaction were the milestones and fingerposts, which
told him that so much more ground had been got over. He put up at night
at the cheapest and poorest-looking inns he could find. They were
good enough to lie awake in, for his feverish longing and impatience
to reach his end almost consumed him and made sleep an impossibility.
Eager as he was to get on, he had self-restraint enough to spend none
of his store of money–such a little store as it was–on travelling.
Roland Ferrier might not be at Thornsett after all, and he might have
to follow him, or mayhap return to Dartford and bide his time; and so,
though his progress was straight and steady it was slow, and he did not
reach Thornsett until the night that had witnessed the explanations
between the brothers.

He had done more than twenty-five miles that day, and he was footsore
and tired out when, as night was falling, he reached the top of the
hill at whose foot lay the village which had been his home for thirty
years. All along he had been determined to make straight for Thornsett
Edge, and to confront Roland at once. He felt that the young man might
be surprised into more admissions than he would choose to make if
he were prepared. But physical fatigue is wonderfully effective in
upsetting mental decision. Hatfield felt that neither in body nor in
mind was he fit to go through at once with the part he had chosen. He
must rest–sleep, if possible. He threw himself down on the heather by
the pathside, and leaned his head on his arm, while he debated what to
do. Nature decided for him, and he fell asleep.

When he woke, a young moon was shining coldly down upon him. He felt
stiff, and not rested. The heather was wet with night-dew. How late was
it? He thought by the moon about eight o’clock.

He would go down to the village and see who was left in the old place;
perhaps he might get a lodging there. The Spotted Cow was closed, he
had heard. He limped down the steep stony street. There were no lights
to be seen. As he reached the house that had been his, he saw that it
was empty, and a longing came over him to get inside it. Why not sleep
there? So, turning aside, he went up the three stone steps and along
the narrow paved pathway that ran under the windows separating the
house from the tiny front garden. His hand fell on the latch of the
door quite naturally, and it never occurred to him that it would not
yield to his touch as it had been wont to do. But it did not yield. He
was in that frame of mind when any resistance is intolerable. He drew
back and then threw himself against the door with all his weight. It
gave way noisily and he went in. He passed round the wooden screen, and
stood in the middle of the flagged floor.

To return to a house where we have been happy, even if we have left it
for greater happiness, is always sad if not painful; but to go back to
a house that seems to hold within its desolate walls, not only all our
memories but all our possibilities of happiness–when we have left
it in sorrow, to take back to it an added load of new, unexpected,
intolerable trouble–this, let us be thankful, is not given to many of
us.

John Hatfield could not bear it. He cast one look round at the dark,
fireless hearth, the uncurtained window, turned, and came out. Sleep
there? He would rather sleep on the bare hillside, or in the churchyard
itself, for that matter.

The rush of memories drove him before it. He could not stay in the
village. Every other house in it had been a home too, and was crowded
with recollections almost as maddening as those that peopled his own
home, in which–bitterest thought of all–Roland Ferrier had lisped out
childish prattle, and climbed on his knee to share his caresses with
baby Alice. And at the remembrance his resolution came back. He would
go to Thornsett Edge then and there, let come what might. Weak as he
was, he was strong enough to make his tired feet carry him so far, and
once there his passion could be trusted to give him strength to say
and do all that needed to be said and done. He clenched his nerves, as
though the pain of his bruised feet would grow less by being despised,
and he walked on. But when he reached the turn in the road that brought
the mill in sight his mood altered again, and almost before he knew
that his intention had changed he found himself limping painfully down
the stone steps into the little hollow. As he caught sight of the door
where Litvinoff had stood on the night of the fire he muttered a curse
on the man who had stood between the ‘hands’ and their purpose that
night. He felt faint and giddy. The many square windows of the mill
seemed to look on him like eyes, and the broken panes in them lent them
a sinister expression. The few past months had changed the face of the
mill wonderfully. No one had repaired the damage done by the rioters,
and the wind and rain had had their will of the place. It looked now,
Hatfield thought, as though it had been deserted for years instead of
months.

Everything was deadly still. The only sounds were the trickling of the
stream as it flowed past, and his own heavy breathing. He was becoming
unaccountably sleepy. Why should he not sleep here? He would go on to
Thornsett in the morning. He stumbled downward till he reached the
wall of the mill. He soon found a window that could be unfastened by
passing his hand through one of its broken panes and turning round
the primitive hasp. It was rusty, and moved, as it were, reluctantly.
Still, it did move, and he opened the window and crept through it.
He found himself on the edge of a huge stone tank, or vat. One more
forward movement and he would have been plunged in the dark-looking
water that half filled it. He shuddered. How could he have been such a
fool as to forget the position of that tank? He crept round the edge
of it, and reached the stone-paved floor of the basement. There lay
a mass of something dark. It was the great stone that had thundered
through the roof of the mill just after young Roland Ferrier had given
the deputation their answer. Hatfield looked up at the ugly hole in the
ceiling, a hole that repeated itself in the two upper floors and the
roof, through which he could see the sky. The moon was shining brightly
by this time, and the many-windowed building was lighted well enough
for the man to find his way about. Had it been dark, he thought he
should not have had much difficulty. He went up the stairs, and made
his way to a room on the second storey, where he fancied there would be
some soft rubbish he could lie down on. He was not disappointed, and,
yielding to the utter weariness that had come to him, he lay down, and
in a moment slept.

He had not been asleep three minutes when he awoke with a start to
find himself sitting up and listening. What had he heard? The click of
a door and a footstep. He was widely, nervously, intensely awake now.
Had it been fancy, born of the utter desolation and loneliness of the
place where he was? He listened strainedly. No. This at least was no
fancy. There was a footstep resounding hollowly through the great empty
rooms.

Some watcher, perhaps, from whom he ought to keep himself hidden if
he did not want to be handed over to the constable as a vagrant. What
an ending, that, to his journey! Yes, he must lie quiet, and yet, how
could he? Suppose–and at the thought his blood ran coldly through his
veins–suppose old Richard Ferrier had got up from under that white
stone in Thornsett churchyard, and had come down to keep watch over
what his sons had so little regarded. The footsteps came nearer, and
Hatfield sprang to his feet and walked not away from, but towards, the
sound. The impulse of a naturally brave man when he _is_ frightened is
to face the fearsome thing as speedily as may be. Hatfield opened the
door. Then he sprang forward, for he saw no ghost, but, as it seemed
to him, the object of his search–not old Richard, but young Roland,
standing with his back to him. The bright moonlight lighting up the
figure left no room in his mind for a doubt. At the sight, all his
ideas of asking for explanation vanished in an instant, and left him
with no impulse but to catch the young man by the throat and to squeeze
the life out of him.

As the other turned at the sound of the opening door he gave a cry of
horror at the sight of the wild, haggard figure springing at him–the
white, angry, maddened face close to his own.

‘Keep back!’ he almost screamed, as Hatfield rushed upon him, but even
as he spoke the man’s hands fastened on his throat, and the two closed
in a silent, deadly struggle. They had hardly grasped each other when
both remembered the danger that lay behind them–that black gap in the
floor–and each tried to edge away from it without loosening his hold.
Too late, though. The strain of the strong men wrestling was too much
for the splintered boards already rotted through by the rain and snow
of the past months. Crash went the flooring beneath their feet, and as
the two went through, fast locked in each other’s arms, Hatfield, above
his adversary, saw, in a flash of intensest horror, that the face below
him was not that of Roland, but of Richard.

It was the last thing he ever saw in this world. In another moment
he was lying, a dead man, at the bottom of the great tank. Again the
stillness of the empty mill was undisturbed, and the only movement in
it was that of the heavy-coloured water as it settled down again into
stagnation over him.

* * * * *

Roland went to bed that night without troubling himself much about his
brother. He had been deeply wronged, and he was a man who, not easily
offended, was, when once alienated, implacable. He did not find it
easy to forgive. Though he had shaken hands with his brother he had
not forgiven him, and he came down to breakfast the next morning quite
prepared to keep up his _rôle_ of injured innocence, and to prevent
his brother from experiencing much satisfaction in the reconciliation.
Richard had always been an early riser, and Roland quite expected to
find him in the dining-room waiting, but he was not there. He waited
some little time, and then desired Mrs Brock to see if Mr Ferrier was
in his room, and it was not till she returned with the intelligence
that he was not and that his bed had not been slept in, that Roland
began to wonder in anxious earnest where his brother could be.

A very short search showed that he was not in the house or grounds.
Could he have gone to the churchyard? No, thought Roland; Dick wasn’t
that sort of fellow. Perhaps he had gone over to Gates, and had stayed
all night. In a very short time Roland was at The Hollies questioning
eagerly, and, with an inexplicable feeling of dread and anxiety growing
stronger upon him with each moment, he learned that Dick had not been
there. He would go down to the village, and Mr Gates volunteered to
come with him, though he laughed cheerfully at the idea of there being
anything to worry about in Dick’s non-appearance. ‘He’s playing off
some trick on you,’ he said. ‘However, come along, and we’ll soon find
him.’ So they walked together towards the village.

‘Hullo,’ said Mr Gates, as they passed the mill, ‘that door’s no
business open! Perhaps Dick’s up to some games in there.’

The door he pointed at was one opening from the mill on to a flight
of stone steps that ran sideways outside the building from the second
storey to the ground.

‘Whether he’s there or not,’ the lawyer went on, ‘some one has been
there, and we’d better see who it is.’

So they went down, and, crossing the courtyard, between whose stones
the grass was springing already, ran up the steps and passed through
the open door.

The whole place was flooded with the brilliant morning sunlight.

The two made a few steps forward. They saw the hole in the floor, and
paused. Then Roland’s heart seemed to stand still, for he saw on the
board at the edge of the gap a hat, and his brother’s silver-headed
walking stick, and he knew what had happened. With an exceeding bitter
cry he turned from Gates and sprang down an inner staircase, glancing
at each floor as he passed it, and on the stones at the bottom he
found what he sought–Dick. Or was it Dick? Could this mangled,
twisted, bloody mass be his brother? The pitiless light came through
the cobwebbed windows, and showed plainly enough that it was Dick, or
Dick’s body.

‘Run for Bailey,’ he shouted to Gates, who had followed him; and he
went.

Then Roland lifted Richard’s head. Was he alive? Yes. At the movement
a spasm of agony contracted his face, and his eyes opened. A look of
relief came into them when he saw his brother.

‘Don’t move me, old man,’ he whispered; and the other knelt beside him,
his arms under the poor head. He could not speak, for he saw that his
brother was dying.

After a moment Richard spoke again, very faintly.

‘I’m glad you’ve come.’ He could only say a few words at a time, and
between the sentences came long pauses, in each of which Roland fancied
the last silence had come.

‘I wanted you, old fellow. It’s nearly over now. It’s been like hell
lying here. I know he’s somewhere near, and I couldn’t help him. It was
Hatfield, and he mistook me for you. It was through me he believed you
had wronged Alice. He was hiding here, and attacked me. We struggled
and fell. I’m afraid he’s dead. You’ll see presently.’

Then came a longer pause than any that had gone before, and still
Roland could not speak.

Gates had sent down a man from the cottage above, but when he came
Richard made impatient signs, and he went and stood outside.

‘You didn’t care about making it up, Rowley; but it’s all right between
us now, isn’t it?’

Roland’s tears were falling over his brother’s face.

‘Oh, Dick, Dick, Dick!’ He could say nothing else.

‘It’s hard lines,’ Richard said; ‘but it’s all my own fault. Never
mind, old chap. Water!’

Roland called to the labourer, and when the water had been brought Dick
seemed to gather his strength together.

‘Since I’ve been lying here, I’ve wished I could believe I was going to
see father again, and I half believe it’s possible. I shouldn’t care if
I was going to the old dad again.’

‘Oh, Dick! Can I do nothing for you?’

‘No, old chap; only tell _her_ I sent her my love. She has it, and she
won’t mind now.’

Then he lay silent, with closed eyes. Presently he made a movement.
Roland interpreted it, and kissed his face.

‘I’m going, old man!’ he said. ‘Good-bye. Clare! Clare! Clare!’ He
murmured her name over and over again, more and more faintly.

Roland put the water to his lips again, but it was too late. He had
drunk of the Nepenthe of Death.