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   Chapter 2 No.2

A Final Reckoning By G. A. Henty Characters: 30271

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The boys soon felt that Mr. Shrewsbury really wished to teach them, and that he was ready to assist those who wanted to get on. In the afternoon the schoolmaster's wife started a sewing class for the girls and, a week or two after he came, the master announced that such of the elder class of boys and girls who chose to come, in the evening, to his cottage could do so for an hour; and that he and the boys would read, by turns, some amusing book while the girls worked. Only Reuben Whitney and two or three others at first availed themselves of the invitation, but these spoke so highly of their evening that the number soon increased. Three quarters of an hour were spent in reading some interesting work of travel or adventure, and then the time was occupied in talking over what they had read, and in explaining anything which they did not understand; and as the evenings were now long and dark, the visits to the schoolmaster soon came to be regarded as a privilege, and proved an incentive to work to those in the lower classes, only those in the first place being admitted to them.

Reuben worked hard all through the winter, and made very rapid progress; the schoolmaster, seeing how eager he was to get on, doing everything in his power to help him forward, and lending him books to study at home. One morning in the spring, the squire looked in at Mrs. Whitney's shop.

"Mrs. Whitney," he said, "I don't know what you are thinking of doing with that boy of yours. Mr. Shrewsbury gives me an excellent account of him, and says that he is far and away the cleverest and most studious of the boys. I like the lad, and owe him a good turn for having broken in that pony for my daughter; besides, for his father's sake I should like to help him on. Now, in the first place, what are you thinking of doing with him?"

"I am sure I am very much obliged to you," Mrs. Whitney said. "I was thinking, when he gets a little older, of apprenticing him to some trade, but he is not fourteen yet."

"The best thing you can do, Mrs. Whitney. Let it be some good trade, where he can use his wits-not a butcher, a baker, or a tailor, or anything of that sort. I should say an upholsterer, or a mill wright, or some trade where his intelligence can help him on. When the time comes I shall be glad to pay his apprentice fees for him, and perhaps, when you tell me what line he has chosen, a word from me to one of the tradesmen in Lewes may be a help. In the meantime, that is not what I have specially come about. Young Finch, who looks to my garden, is going to leave; and if you like, your boy can have the place. My gardener knows his business thoroughly, and the boy can learn under him. I will pay him five shillings a week. It will break him into work a little, and he is getting rather old for the school now. I have spoken to Shrewsbury, and he says that, if the boy is disposed to go on studying in the evening, he will direct his work and help him on."

"Thank you kindly, sir," Mrs. Whitney said. "I think it will just be the thing, for a year or so, before he is apprenticed. He was saying only last night that he was the biggest boy in the school; and though I know he likes learning, he would like to be helping me, and feels somehow that it isn't right that he should be going on schooling, while all the other boys at his age are doing something. Not that I want him to earn money, for the shop keeps us both; but it's what he thinks about it."

"That's natural enough, Mrs. Whitney, and anything the boy earns with me, you see, you can put by, and it will come in useful to him some day."

Reuben was glad when he heard of the arrangement; for although, as his mother had said, he was fond of school, he yet felt it as a sort of reproach that, while others of his age were earning money, he should be doing nothing. He accepted the offer of the schoolmaster to continue to work at his studies in the evening, and in a week he was installed in Tom Finch's place.

The arrangement was not the squire's original idea, but that of his younger daughter, who felt a sort of proprietary interest in Reuben; partly because her evidence had cleared him of the accusation of breaking the windows, partly because he had broken in the pony for her; so when she heard that the boy was leaving, she had at once asked her father that Reuben should take his place.

"I think he is a good boy, papa," she said; "and if he was clever enough to break in my pony, I am sure he will be clever enough to wheel the wheelbarrow and pull weeds."

"I should think he would, lassie," her father said, laughing, "although it does not exactly follow. Still, if you guarantee that he is a good boy, I will see about it."

"Mamma doesn't think he is a very good boy," Kate said; "but you see, papa, mamma is a woman, and perhaps she doesn't understand boys and girls as well as I do. I think he's good, and he told me he never told stories."

The squire laughed.

"I don't know what your mamma would say to that, puss; nor whether she would agree that you understand boys and girls better than she does. However, I will take your opinion this time, and give Reuben a chance."

The subject was not mentioned again in Kate's hearing, but she was greatly pleased, one morning, at seeing Reuben at work in the gardens.

"Good morning, Reuben," she said.

"Good morning, miss," he replied, touching his hat.

"I am glad you have come in Tom's place, and I hope you will be good, and not get into scrapes, for I told papa I thought you would not; and you see, if you do, he will turn round and blame me."

"I will try not to get into scrapes, Miss Kate," Reuben said. "I don't do it often, you know, and I don't think there will be much chance of it, here."

Kate nodded and walked on, and Reuben went about his work.

There was, however, much more opportunity for getting into scrapes than Reuben imagined, although the scrapes were not of the kind he had pictured. Being naturally careless, he had not been there a week before, in his eagerness to get home to a particularly interesting book, he forgot to carry out his orders to shut the cucumber frames and, a sharp frost coming on in the night, the plants were all killed; to the immense indignation of the gardener, who reported the fact, with a very serious face, to the squire.

"I am afraid that boy will never do, squire. Such carelessness I never did see, and them plants was going on beautifully."

"Confound the young rascal!" the squire said wrathfully, for he was fond of cucumbers. "I will speak to him myself. This sort of thing will never do."

And accordingly, the squire spoke somewhat sharply to Reuben, who was really sorry for the damage his carelessness had caused; and he not only promised the squire that it should not occur again, but mentally resolved very firmly that it should not. He felt very shamefaced when Kate passed him in the garden, with a serious shake of her head, signifying that she was shocked that he had thus early got into a scrape, and discredited her recommendation.

The lesson was a useful one. Henceforth Reuben paid closer attention to his work, and even the gardener, who regarded boys as his great trial in life, expressed himself satisfied with him.

"Since that affair of the cucumbers I must own, squire," he said a month later, "that he is the best boy I have come across. He attends to what I say and remembers it, and I find I can trust him to do jobs that I have never been able to trust boys with, before. He seems to take an interest in it, and as he is well spoken and civil, he ought to get on and make a good gardener, in time."

"I am glad to hear a good account of him," the squire replied. "He is sharp and intelligent, and will make his way in life, or I am mistaken. His father was an uncommonly clever fellow, though he made a mess of it, just at the end; and I think the boy takes after him."

Among Reuben's other duties was that of feeding and attending to the dogs. These consisted of two setters, a pointer, and a large house dog, who was chained up at the entrance to the stables. Reuben was soon excellent friends with the sporting dogs, but the watchdog, who had probably been teased by Reuben's predecessor, always growled and showed his teeth when he went near him; and Reuben never dared venture within the length of his chain, but pushed the bowl containing his food just within his reach.

One day, he had been sent on an errand to the stables. He forgot the dog and ran close to the kennel. The animal at once sprang out. Reuben made a rush, but he was not quick enough, and the dog caught him by the leg. Reuben shouted, and the coachman ran out and, seizing a fork, struck the dog and compelled him to loose his hold.

"Has he bit you badly, Reuben?"

"Well, he has bit precious hard," Reuben replied. "I think he has nearly taken a piece out of my calf," as, on pulling up his trousers, he showed his leg streaming with blood.

"Put it under the pump, lad. I will pump on it," the coachman said. "He's a bad-tempered brute, and I wonder the squire keeps it."

"The brute ought to be killed," Reuben grumbled angrily. "I have never teased it or worried it, in any way. I wish you had stuck that fork into him, instead of hitting him with it. If you hadn't been within reach, he would have taken the bit out of me. He will kill somebody some day, and it were best to kill him, first."

The gardener pumped for some time on Reuben's leg; and then, going into the kitchen, he got some strips of rag from the cook and bound it up.

"You had best go home now," he said. "I will tell the gardener, when he comes round, what has happened to you. I doubt you will have to lay up, for a day or two."

As Reuben limped home, he met Tom Thorne walking with another boy.

"Hello, Reuben!" the latter exclaimed. "What's come to you? Yer trousers bee all tore."

"That brute of a house dog at the squire's has had hold of me," Reuben answered. "The savage beast has had a try, a good many times; but this time he got hold, and he has bit me pretty sharp."

Reuben had to keep his leg quiet for three days but, the third evening, he was well enough to go down the village to the schoolhouse. After the lesson was over he walked for some distance up the road, for his leg was very stiff; and he thought it would be a good thing to try and walk it off, as he intended to go to work next morning. On getting up early in the morning, however, he found it was still stiff and sore; but he thought he had better go and try to work for a bit.

"I am glad you are back again," the gardener said, when he saw him, "for there's a lot of work on hand; but I see you are still lame. The coachman tells me it were a nasty bite."

"It's pretty sore still," Reuben replied, "and I don't think I can walk about much; but I thought I might help in some other way."

"Very well," the gardener said. "There are a lot of plants which want shifting into larger pots. You do them, and I will take up the fork and dig up that piece of ground I want to put the young lettuces into."

Reuben worked hard till half-past eight, and then went off to his breakfast. On his return, he was told the squire wished to speak to him.

"It's about that dog, I expect," the gardener remarked. "I suppose you know he were poisoned last night."

"No, I didn't know," Reuben replied; "but it's a precious good job. I wish he had been poisoned before he got his teeth into me."

Reuben, on going round to the back door, was shown into the library, where the squire was sitting. The coachman was with him.

"Now then, Reuben," the squire said, "I want you to tell me the truth about this matter. The coachman told me, three days ago, that you had been bitten by the yard dog, and I made up my mind to get rid of him, on the first opportunity; but I find he was poisoned, yesterday evening."

He stopped as if expecting Reuben to say something; but the boy, having nothing to say, merely replied:

"Yes, sir, so the gardener has told me."

"What do you know about it, Reuben?"

"I don't know anything about it, sir," Reuben replied, opening his eyes.

"Now, look here, lad," the squire said gravely, "I am disposed to think well of you; and although I consider it a serious offence your poisoning the dog, I shall consider it very much worse if you deny it."

"But I didn't poison it, sir," Reuben affirmed. "I never dreamt of such a thing."

The squire set his lips hard together.

"Just tell me your story over again," he said to the coachman.

"Well, yesterday evening, squire, I went down into the village to buy some 'bacca. Just as I got back to the gate, out runs a boy. It was too dark for me to see his face, but I naturally supposed it were Reuben, so I said, 'Hello, Reuben, how's the leg?' But the moment I spoke, he turned off from the path and ran away.

"Well, I thought it was queer, but I went on to the stable. About a quarter of an hour afterwards, and as I was a-cleaning up the bits, I heard Wolf howl. He kept on at it, so I took a lantern and went out to see what was the matter. He was rolling about, and seemed very bad. I stood a-looking at him, wondering what were best to do, when sudden he gave a sort of yell, and rolled over, and he was dead. I thought it was no good telling you about it till this morning; and thinking it over, and seeing how sudden like it was, I come to the 'pinion as how he had been poisoned; and naturally thinking that, as he had bit Reuben, and as how Reuben said he ought to be killed, and seeing as I had met the boy a quarter an hour afore the dog was took bad, it came to me as how he had done it.

"This morning I knew for certain as the dog had been poisoned, for just outside of the reach of his chain there was that piece of paper a-lying, as you have got before you."

It was a piece of blue paper, about four inches square, on which was printed: "Rat poison."

"You hear that, Reuben? What have you to say?" the squire asked.

"I have got nothing to say, sir," Reuben answered, "except that whoever the boy was, it wasn't me, and that I know nothing about it."

"Well, Reuben, it will be easy for you to clear yourself, by saying where you were at the time.

"What o'clock was it, Robert, that you saw the boy?"

"It was just a quarter past eight, squire. The quarter struck just as I opened the gate."

"Were you out or at home at that hour, Reuben?"

"I was out, sir. I went to the schoolmaster's."

"What time did you leave there?"

"I left at eight, sir."

"Then if you got in just after eight, it is clear that you were not the boy," the squire said. "If your mother tells me that you were in at five minutes past eight, that settles the question, as far as you are concerned."

"I didn't get in till half-past eight, sir," Reuben said. "I walked about for a bit, after I came out from school, to try and get the stiffness out of my leg, so as to be able to come to work this morning."

"Was anyone with you, Reuben? Is there anyone to say what you did with yourself, b

etween eight and half-past eight?"

"No, sir," Reuben said quietly. "I didn't speak to a soul; and didn't see a soul, so far as I know, from the time I came out of the gate of the schoolhouse till I got home."

"Does your mother sell packets of this poison?" the squire said, pointing to the paper.

Reuben looked at the paper.

"Yes, sir; I believe she does."

"Well, my lad," the squire said, "you must acknowledge that the case looks very ugly against you. You are known to have borne bad feelings against the dog; naturally enough, I admit. A boy about your size was seen by Robert in the dark, coming out of the gate; and that he was there for no good purpose is proved by the fact that he ran away when spoken to. A quarter of an hour later, the dog dies of poison. That poison you certainly could get at home and, by your own admission, you were out and about at the time the dog was poisoned. The case looks very bad against you."

"I don't care how bad it looks," Reuben said, passionately. "It wasn't me, squire, if that were the last word I ever had to speak."

"Very well," the squire said coldly. "In my mind, the evidence is overwhelming against you. I have no intention of pursuing the matter further; nor will I, for your father's and mother's sake, bring public disgrace upon you; but of course I shall not retain you here further, nor have anything to do with you, in the future."

Without a word, Reuben turned and left the room. Had he spoken, he would have burst into a passion of tears. With a white face, he walked through the village and entered his mother's shop.

"What? Back again, Reuben?" she said. "I thought your leg was too bad to work."

"It isn't my leg, mother," he said, in a choking voice. "The squire has dismissed me. He says I have poisoned his dog."

"Says you poisoned his dog, Reuben! Whatever put such an idea into his head?"

"The coachman saw a boy coming out of the yard, at a quarter past eight last night. It was too dark for him to say for certain, but he thought it was me. A quarter of an hour later the dog died of poison, and this morning they picked up a cover of one of those rat powders you sell. I couldn't say where I was at a quarter past eight, when the coachman saw the boy; for as you know, mother, I told you I had walked out a bit, after I came out from the school, to get the stiffness out of my leg. So, altogether, the squire has made up his mind 'tis me, and so he has sent me away."

Reuben had summed up the points against himself in a broken voice, and now broke into a passion of tears. His mother tried in vain to pacify him; but indeed her own indignation, at her boy being charged with such a thing, was so great that she could do little to console him.

"It's shameful!" she exclaimed, over and over again. "I call it downright wicked of the squire to suspect you of such a thing."

"Well, mother, it does look very bad against me," Reuben said, wiping his eyes at last, "and I don't know as the squire is so much to be blamed for suspecting me. I know and you know that it wasn't me; but there's no reason why the squire should know it. Somebody has poisoned his dog, and that somebody is a boy. He knows that I was unfriendly with the dog so, putting things together, I don't see as he could help suspecting me, and only my word the other way. It seems to me as if somebody must have done it to get me in a row, for I don't know that the dog had bit anyone else. If it is anyone, I expect it's Tom Thorne. He has never been friends with me, since that affair of the school window."

"I will go at once and speak to his father," Mrs. Whitney said, taking down her bonnet from the wall.

"No, mother, you can't do that," Reuben exclaimed. "We have got nothing against him. The squire has ten times as good reason to suspect me, as I have to suspect Tom Thorne; so as we know the squire's wrong, it's ten times as likely we shall be wrong. Besides, if he did it, of course he would deny it, he is the worst liar in the village; and then folks would say I wasn't satisfied with doing it myself, but I wanted to throw the blame on to him, just as he did on me before. No, it won't do, mother."

Mrs. Whitney saw that it wouldn't do, and sat down again. Reuben sat thinking, for some time.

"I must go away, mother," he said at last. "I can't stop here. Every one in the village will get to know of it, and they will point at me as the boy as poisoned the squire's dog, and then lied about it. I couldn't stand that, mother."

"And you sha'n't stand it, my boy," Mrs. Whitney said, "not a day. I will give up the cottage and move into Lewes, at once. I didn't go there before, for I am known there, and don't like folk to see how much I have come down in the world."

"No, mother, you stop here, and I will go up to London. They say there is lots of work there, and I suppose I can get on as well as another."

"I will not hear of your doing such a thing. I should never expect to hear of you again. I should always be thinking that you had got run over, or were starving in the streets, or dying in a workhouse. No, Reuben, my plan's best. It's just silliness my not liking to settle in Lewes; for of course it's better going where one is known, and I should be lost in a strange place. No; I daresay I shall find a cottage there, and I shall manage to get a living somehow-perhaps open a little shop like this, and then you can be apprenticed, and live at home."

An hour later, Mrs. Ellison called. Reuben had gone upstairs to lie down, for his leg was very painful. Mrs. Whitney did not give her visitor time to begin.

"I know what you have called about, Mrs. Ellison, and I don't want to talk about it with you. The squire has grievously wronged my boy. I wouldn't have believed it of him, but he's done it; so now, ma'm, I give a week's notice of this house, and here's my rent up to that time, and I will send you the key when I go. And now, ma'm, as I don't want any words about it, I think it will be better if you go, at once."

Mrs. Ellison hesitated a moment. Never, from the time she entered the village as the squire's wife, had she been thus spoken to; but she saw at once, in Mrs. Whitney's face, that it were better not to reply to her; and that her authority as the squire's wife had, for once, altogether vanished. She therefore took up the money which Mrs. Whitney had laid on the counter and, without a word, left the shop.

"I do believe, William," she said as, greatly ruffled and indignant, she gave an account of the interview to the squire, "that the woman would have slapped my face, if I had said anything. She is the most insolent creature I ever met."

"Well, my dear," the squire said seriously, "I can hardly wonder at the poor woman's indignation. She has had a hard time of it, and this must be a sad blow. Naturally she believes in her son's innocence, and we must not altogether blame her, if she resents his dismissal. It's a sad business altogether, and I know it will be a worry and trouble to me for months. Mind, I don't doubt that the boy did it; it does not seem possible that it should be otherwise. Still, it is not absolutely proved; and upon my word, I wish now I had said nothing at all about it. I like the boy, and I liked his father before him; and as this story must get about, it cannot but do him serious damage. Altogether it is a most tiresome business, and I would give a hundred pounds if it hadn't taken place."

"I really do not see why you should worry about it, William. The boy has always been a troublesome boy, and perhaps this lesson may do him good."

The squire did not attempt to argue the question. He felt really annoyed and put out and, after wandering over the ground and stables, he went down to the schoolhouse after the children had been dismissed.

"Have you heard, Shrewsbury, about that boy Whitney?"

"No, sir, I have heard nothing about him," the schoolmaster said. "He was here yesterday evening, as usual. His leg is no worse, I hope. Those dog bites are always nasty things."

"I wish it had been worse," the squire said testily; "then he would have been laid up quietly at home, instead of being about mischief."

"Why, what has he done, sir?" the schoolmaster asked, in surprise.

The squire related the history of the dog's death, and of his interview with Reuben. The schoolmaster looked serious, and grieved.

"What do you think of the matter, Shrewsbury?" the squire asked, when he had finished.

"I would rather not give any opinion," the schoolmaster replied quietly.

"That means you think I am wrong," the squire said quickly. "Well, say it out, man; you won't offend me. I am half inclined to think I was wrong, myself; and I would as lief be told so, as not."

"I don't say you are wrong, sir," the schoolmaster said, "except that I think you assumed the boy's guilt too much as a matter of course. Now, I have seen a great deal of him. I have a great liking for him, and believe him to be not only a singularly intelligent and hard-working lad, but a perfectly truthful and open one. I allow that the circumstances are much against him; but the evidence is, to my mind, completely overbalanced by his absolute denial. You must remember that he saw that you were quite convinced of his guilt; and that, in your eyes, his denial would be an aggravation of the offence. Therefore you see he had no strong motive for telling a lie.

"Who killed your dog I do not know but, from my knowledge of his character and assurance of his truthfulness, I am perfectly convinced that Reuben Whitney did not do it. The boy is, in some ways, very superior to the other lads I teach. I hear that his father was in a good position, as a miller; and his mother is of a different class, altogether, to the other women of the village. The boy has a certain refinement about him, a thoughtfulness and consideration which set him apart from the others. Mischievous and somewhat inclined to be noisy as he generally is, on days when I have not felt quite equal to my work he would notice it at once and, without saying a word, would, by his quietness and attention to his work, try to save me trouble; and I have heard him try to quiet the others, as they trooped out. The boy has a good heart as well as a good intellect, and nothing save his own confession would make me believe that he poisoned your dog."

"But he said he wished it was killed," the squire urged, as in defence of his own opinion.

"He said so, squire, at the time he was smarting with the pain of a severe bite; and I think probably he meant no more than a man who, under the same circumstances, would say, 'Confound the dog!' or even a stronger oath."

Mr. Ellison was silenced, for when in wrath he was, himself, given to use strong expressions.

"I don't know what to say, Shrewsbury," he said at last. "I am afraid I have made a mess of it; but certainly, as I first heard it, the case seemed to admit of no doubt. 'Pon my word, I don't know what to do. My wife has just been up to see Mrs. Whitney, and the woman blazed out at her, and wouldn't let her say a word, but gave notice that she should give up the house at the end of the week. If it hadn't been for that, I might have done something; but Mrs. Ellison was very much aggrieved at her manner. Altogether, it's one of the most annoying things I ever had to do with."

In the evening the schoolmaster put on his hat and went up, with his wife, to Mrs. Whitney. The women had seen a good deal of each other, as they both stood somewhat apart from the rest of the village and, in thought and speech, differed widely from the labourers' wives; and on evenings when the sewing class did not meet, the schoolmaster's wife often went up for an hour or two to Mrs. Whitney's, or the latter came down to the Shrewsburys' cottage.

"We have come up, Mrs. Whitney," the schoolmaster said as they entered, "to tell you how sorry we are to hear that you are going to leave, and that we are still more sorry for the cause. Of course, neither my wife nor myself believe for a moment that Reuben poisoned the squire's dog. The idea is preposterous. I told the squire as much, today."

Mrs. Whitney burst into tears. She had kept up all day, sustained partly by indignation, and partly by the desire that Reuben should not see that she felt it; but the thought that all the village would believe Reuben guilty had cut her to the heart, and she had felt so unwilling to face anyone that, as soon as Mrs. Ellison had left, she had closed the shutters of her little shop; but she broke down, now, from her relief at hearing that someone besides herself believed the boy to be innocent.

"I don't know what I shall do without you, Mrs. Whitney," Mrs. Shrewsbury said, when the widow recovered her composure. "I shall miss you dreadfully. Is it quite settled that you will go?"

"Quite settled, Mrs. Shrewsbury. I wouldn't stop in the squire's house for an hour longer than I could help, after his believing Reuben to be guilty of poisoning his dog, and not believing the boy when he said he had nothing to do with it. He ought to have known my boy better than that. And he coming up only the other day, and pretending he felt a kindness for my dead husband."

"I think the squire was too hasty, Mrs. Whitney," the schoolmaster said. "But you see, he did not know Reuben as we do; and I think, if you will excuse my saying so, you have been a little hasty, too. The squire came in to me to tell me about it, and I could see he was not satisfied in his mind, even before I gave him my positive opinion that Reuben was innocent; and I do think that, if you had not given Mrs. Ellison notice so sharply, the squire would have taken back his words, and said that at any rate, as there was nothing absolutely proved, he would hold his judgment in suspense until the matter was cleared up."

"And having everyone pointing the finger at my boy in the meantime! No, thank you, Mr. Shrewsbury, that would not do for me. I was not a bit hasty. Mrs. Ellison came in here prepared to talk to me about Reuben's wickedness; I saw it in her face, so I wouldn't let her open her lips. If she had, I should have given her a piece of my mind that she wouldn't have forgot, in a hurry."

"I can quite understand your feelings, Mrs. Whitney," the schoolmaster said, "and I have no doubt I should have acted as you did, if a son of mine had been suspected in the same way. Still, I think it's a pity; for if Reuben had stayed here, there would have been more chance of the matter being cleared up. However, we won't talk about that now. Now tell me, what are your plans?"

Mrs. Whitney told her visitors what she had determined upon. As Lewes was only four miles off, the schoolmaster said that he and his wife would sometimes come over to see her; and that he hoped that Reuben, whatever trade he was apprenticed to, would still go on with his studies. He would give him any advice or assistance in his power.

The next day Mrs. Whitney and Reuben moved, with all their belongings, to Lewes.

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