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   Chapter 3 No.3

A Final Reckoning By G. A. Henty Characters: 26024

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"What is that woman Whitney going to do with her boy?" the squire asked the schoolmaster, when he happened to meet him in the village about a month after she had left. "Have you heard?"

"Nothing is settled yet, sir. My wife had a letter from her, two or three days ago, saying that she had been disappointed in getting Penfold the mill wright to take him. He wanted fifty pounds premium, and she could only afford to pay twenty, so she is looking out for something else. You have heard nothing more that would throw any light on that affair, squire?"

"No, and don't suppose I ever shall. Have you any opinion about it?"

"My opinion is that of Reuben, himself," the schoolmaster said. "He believes that someone did it who had a grudge against him, on purpose, to throw suspicion on him."

"Who should have a grudge against him?" the squire asked.

"Well, squire, there was one boy in the village who had, rightly or wrongly, a grudge against Reuben. That is Tom Thorne. Reuben has not a shadow of evidence that it was this boy, but the lad has certainly been his enemy ever since that affair of breaking the windows of the school, just before I came here. Thorne, you know, did it, but allowed Reuben to be punished for the offence; and the truth would never have been known had it not been, as I heard, that your daughter happened to see the stone thrown. Since that time there has been bad blood between the boys. I do not for a moment say that Thorne poisoned your dog. Still, the boys are near enough of a size for one to be mistaken for the other in the dark; and Thorne knew that Reuben had been bitten by the dog, for Reuben spoke to another boy about it, that afternoon, while Thorne was standing by. Of course, this is but the vaguest suspicion. Still, if you ask my opinion, I should say that I consider, from what I have heard of the character of Tom Thorne, that he would be much more likely to poison the dog, in order to get Reuben into disgrace, than Reuben would be to do so out of revenge because the dog had bitten him."

The squire took off his hat, and passed his hands through his hair, in perplexity.

"I don't know what to think, Shrewsbury," he said. "It may be as you say. I look upon Thorne as the worst character in the village, and likely enough his son may take after him. That ale house of his is the resort of all the idle fellows about. I have strong reason to believe he is in alliance with the poachers. The first time I get a chance, out he goes. I have only been waiting, for some time, for an opportunity. I can't very well turn him out of his house without some excuse.

"What did you say was the name of the mill wright at Lewes Mrs. Whitney was wanting to get her son with?"

The schoolmaster repeated the name, which the squire jotted down in a notebook.

"Look here, Shrewsbury," he said, "don't you mention to Mrs. Whitney that you spoke to me about this matter. Do you understand?"

"I understand, sir," the schoolmaster said.

And he was not surprised when, a few days afterwards, his wife received a letter from Mrs. Whitney, saying that Mr. Penfold had come in to say that he had changed his mind, and that he would take Reuben as his apprentice for twenty pounds; adding, to her surprise, that he should give him half a crown a week for the first year, and gradually raise his pay, as he considered that boys ought to be able to earn a little money for themselves.

Reuben, therefore, was going to work on the following week. The half a crown a week which he was to earn was an important matter for his mother. For although she had found a cottage and opened a little shop, as before, her receipts were extremely small, and she had already begun to fear that she should be obliged to make another move, Lewes being too well supplied with shops for a small concern like hers to flourish. The half crown a week, however, would pay her rent; and she expected that she should make, at any rate, enough to provide food for herself and Reuben.

Mrs. Whitney had hoped that, although Lewes was but four miles from the village, the story about the dog would not travel so far; for it was not often that anyone from the village went over to the town. In this, however, she was mistaken for, a week after Reuben had gone to work, the foreman went to his master and said:

"I don't know whether you are aware, Mr. Penfold, about that new boy; but I hear that he had to leave Tipping, where he was employed by Squire Ellison, for poisoning the squire's dog."

"How did you hear it?" Mr. Penfold asked.

"William Jenkins heard it from a man named Thorne, who belongs to the village, and whom he met at a public house, yesterday."

"William Jenkins had best not spend so much time in public houses," Mr. Penfold said shortly. "I heard the story before I saw the boy and, from what I hear, I believe he was wrongfully accused. Just tell Jenkins that; and say that if I hear of him, or any of the hands, throwing the thing up in the boy's face, I will dismiss them instantly."

And so Reuben did not know, till long after, that the story of the killing of the dog was known to anyone at Lewes.

For three years he worked in Mr. Penfold's yard, giving much satisfaction to his employer by his steadiness and handiness. He continued his studies of an evening, under the advice of his former master; who came over with his wife, three or four times each year, to spend a day with Mrs. Whitney. Reuben was now receiving ten shillings a week and, although the receipts of the shop failed, he and his mother were able to live in considerable comfort.

One day, about three years after coming to Lewes, he was returning to work after dinner when, as he passed a carriage standing in front of one of the shops, he heard his name pronounced, and the colour flushed to his cheek as, looking up, he saw Kate Ellison. Timidly he touched his cap, and would have hurried on, but the girl called to him.

"Stop a minute, Reuben. I want to speak to you. I am glad I have met you. I have looked for you, every time I have come to Lewes. I wanted to tell you that I am sure you did not kill Wolf. I know you wouldn't have done it. Besides, you know, you told me that you never told stories; so when I heard that you said you didn't, I was quite sure about it."

"Thank you, miss," Reuben said gratefully. "I did not kill the dog. I should never have thought of such a thing, though every one seemed against me."

"Not every one, Reuben. I didn't think so; and papa has told me, since, that he did not think so, and that he was afraid that he had made a mistake."

"I am glad to hear that, miss," Reuben said. "The squire had been very kind to me, and it has always grieved me, very much, that he should think me capable of such a thing. I felt angry at the time, but I have not felt angry since I have thought it over quietly; for the case seems so strong against me that I don't see how the squire could have thought otherwise.

"Thank you, miss. I sha'n't forget your kindness," and Reuben went on with a light heart, just as Mrs. Ellison and her elder daughter came out from the shop.

"Who were you speaking to, Kate?" she asked, as she took her seat in the carriage.

"I was talking to Reuben Whitney, mamma. He was passing, so I called him to tell him that I did not believe he had killed Wolf."

"Then it was very improper behaviour on your part, Kate," her mother said angrily, for she had never quite recovered from the shock Mrs. Whitney had given to her dignity. "You know my opinion on the subject. I have told you before that it is one I do not care to have discussed, and that I consider it very improper for a girl, of your age, to hold opinions different to those of your elders. I have no doubt, whatever, that boy poisoned the dog. I must beg of you that you will never speak to him again."

Kate leaned back in the carriage with a little sigh. She could not understand why her mother, who was so kind to all the village people, should be so implacable on this subject. But Kate, who was now between fourteen and fifteen, knew that when her mother had taken up certain opinions they were not to be shaken; and that her father himself always avoided argument, on points on which he differed from her. Talking alone with his daughter the squire had, in answer to her sturdy assertion of Reuben's innocence, owned to her that he himself had his doubts on the subject, and that he was sorry he had dismissed the boy from his service; but she had never heard him do more than utter a protest, against Reuben's guilt being held as being absolutely proved, when her mother spoke of his delinquency.

But Kate was not one to desert a protege and, having been the means of Reuben's introduction to her father's, she had always regarded herself as his natural protector; and Mrs. Ellison would not have been pleased, had she known that her daughter had seldom met the schoolmaster without inquiring if he had heard how Reuben was getting on. She had even asked Mr. Shrewsbury to assure him of her belief in his innocence, which had been done; but she had resolved that, should she ever meet him, she would herself tell him so, even at the risk of her mother's displeasure.

Another year passed. Reuben was now seventeen, and was a tall, powerfully-built young fellow. During these four years he had never been over to Tipping, in the daytime; but had occasionally walked over, after dark, to visit the Shrewsburys, always going on special invitation, when he knew that no one else would be there. The Thornes no longer occupied the little public house. Tom Thorne had, a year before, been captured with two other poachers in the squire's woods, and had had six months' hard labour; and his father had at once been ejected from his house, and had disappeared from that part of the country. Reuben was glad that they had left; for he had long before heard that Thorne had spread the story, in Lewes, of the poisoning of the dog. He felt, however, with their departure all chance of his ever being righted in that matter was at an end.

One evening in winter, when Reuben had done his work, he said to his mother:

"I shall go over and see Mr. Shrewsbury tonight. I have not been over for some time and, as it is not his night for a class, I am pretty sure not to find anyone there. I told him, when I was there last, that I would take over a few tools and fix up those shelves for him.

"I don't suppose he will stay very much longer at Tipping. His health is completely restored now, and even his wife admits that he could work at his own business again. He has already been doing a little, for some of the houses he worked for in town, so as to get his connection back again. I expect, every time I see him, to hear that he has made up his mind to go. He would have done it, two years back; but his wife and the two little ones are so well that he did not like the thought of taking them up to London, till he was sure that his health was strong enough to stand steady work. I shall miss them very much. He has been a good friend, indeed, to me."

"He has indeed," Mrs. Whitney said. "I think anyhow, Reuben, you would have got on at your trade; but you would never have been what you are now, if it hadn't been for him. Your poor father would be proud of you, if he could see you; and I am sure that, when you take off that workman's suit and put on your Sunday clothes, you look as well as if the mill had never gone wrong, and you had been brought up as he intended you to be. Mrs. Tyler was saying only the other day that you looked quite the gentleman, and lots of people have said the same."

"Nonsense, mother," Reuben answered, "there is nothing of the gentleman about me. Of course, people say things that they think will please you, knowing that you regard me as a sort of wonder. I hope I shall make my way some day, and the fact that I have had a better education than most young fellows, in my position of life, of course may make some little difference; and will, I hope, help me to mount the ladder, when once I put my foot upon it."

But although, no doubt, Mrs. Whitney was a partial judge, her opinion as to her son was not an incorrect one; for with his intelligent face, and quiet self-assured bearing, he looked very much more like a gentleman than many young fellows in a far better position in life.

The stars were shining brightly when he started, at seven o'clock in the evening; and he walked with a brisk step, until he arrived within half a mile of the village. As he passed by the end of a lane which ran into the road, he heard a horse impatiently pawing the ground; the sound being followed by a savage oath, to the animal, to stand quiet. Reuben walked on a few steps, and then paused. The lane, as he knew, only led to some fields a short distance away. What could a horse be doing there? And who could be the man who spoke to it? There had, lately, been several burglaries on

lonely houses, in that part of the country; and the general belief was that these had been perpetrated by men from London.

"I daresay it's nothing," Reuben said to himself. "Still, it is certainly curious and, at any rate, there can be no harm in having a look."

Walking upon the grass at the side of the road, he retraced his steps to the end of the lane, and then stood and listened. He heard a murmur of voices, and determined to follow the matter up. He walked quietly down the lane. After going about a hundred yards, he saw something dark in the road and, approaching it very cautiously, found that it was a horse harnessed to a gig. As he was standing wondering what to do next he started, for the silence was broken by some voices near him.

"It was a stupid thing to get here so early, and to have to wait about for four hours in this ditch."

"It was the best plan though," another voice replied. "The trap might have been noticed, if we had been driving about the roads after dark; while in the daylight no one would give it a second thought."

"That's right enough," the first speaker said, "but it's precious cold here. Hand me that flask again. I am blest if the wind does not come through the hedge like a knife."

The voices came from the other side of the hedge, on the opposite side of the lane. Reuben crossed noiselessly. There was a gate just where the cart had stopped, and the men had evidently got over it, to obtain the shelter of the hedge from the wind. Reuben felt the gate, which was old and rickety; then cautiously he placed his feet on the lower bar, and leaned forward so as to look round the hedge.

"What time are the others to be here, Tom?"

"They said they would be here at nine o'clock. We passed them about six miles on the road, so they ought to be here to time."

"I suppose there's no doubt about this here being a good business?"

"I will answer for that," the other said. "I don't suppose as there's much money in the house, but there's no end of silver plate, and their watches, and plenty of sparklers. I have heard say as there's no one in the county as has more jewels than the squire's wife."

"You know the house well, don't you?"

"I never was inside," the other said, "but I have heard enough, from them that has, to know where the rooms lie. The plate chest is in the butler's pantry and, as we are going to get in by the kitchen window, we are safe to be able to clear that out without being heard. I shall go on, directly the others come, and chuck this meat to the dogs-that will silence them. I know the way there, for I tried that on once before."

Reuben had thought that the voice was familiar to him, and the words gave him the clue-the speaker was Tom Thorne-and he, and those with him, were going to commit a burglary at the squire's. He was hesitating whether to make off at once, to warn the squire of what was intended; or to listen and learn a little more of their plan, when suddenly a light shone behind him, and a voice exclaimed with an oath:

"Who have we here?"

He leapt down, and was in the act of turning round to defend himself, when a heavy blow with a cudgel struck him on the head, and felled him insensible to the ground. While he had been listening to the conversation, two men had come quietly up the lane, walking on the grass as he had done; and their footsteps had been unheard by him, for the horse continued, at times, impatiently to paw the ground. The sound of their comrades' voices had told them where they were sitting and, turning on a bull's-eye lantern to show them the gate, they had seen Reuben leaning over it, in the act of listening.

When Reuben recovered consciousness, he found that he was lying in the ditch, his hands tightly bound to his sides, and a handkerchief stuffed into his mouth. The four men were gathered close by, talking in low tones.

"I ain't going to give up the job, now we come so far to do it," one said, with an oath. "Besides, it's not only the swag, but the grudge I owe the squire. If I am ready to go on, I suppose you needn't be afraid; besides, he don't know us."

"Best cut his throat and a done with it," a voice, which Reuben recognized as that of his old enemy, said. "I owe him one, and it will be safest to stop his mouth."

"No, no," a third voice protested; "I ain't going to have nothing to do with cutting throats. I don't mind running the risk of Botany Bay, but I ain't going to run the chance of being scragged. But let's move a bit away from here, while we settle it. You hit him pretty hard, but he will be coming round presently. I thought at first that you had killed him, but he's bleeding too free for that."

The men moved some little distance away, and for some time Reuben could hear a murmured talk, but could make out nothing of what had been said. It was, he judged, a quarter of an hour before the conversation ceased. They did not return to him but remained at some distance off, and Reuben thought that he heard the footsteps of one of them going down the lane. He could feel, by a warm sensation across his cheek, that the blood was flowing freely from the wound he had received on his temple. A dull torpid feeling came over him, and after a time he again lost consciousness.

How long he remained in this state he did not know, but he was at last aroused by being lifted and thrown into the bottom of the cart. Four men then climbed up into it and the horse was started. They drove at a quick pace, and Reuben wondered why they were taking him away with them. His head ached terribly, and he suffered much from the tightness of the cords which bound his arms. The men seemed in high good humour, and talked and laughed in low tones; but the noise of the vehicle prevented Reuben hearing what was said.

It was, as far as he could judge, full two hours before the vehicle stopped. He was roughly taken out of the cart, his arms were unbound; and the men, leaping up, drove away at full speed. The spot where he had been left was very dark, for trees overshadowed it on both sides. Where he was he had no idea, but he judged that he must be fully twenty miles from the village.

His first impulse was to take the handkerchief from his mouth, and he then walked slowly along the road, in the direction from which he had come. It was, he felt sure, no use shouting; for they would have been certain to have selected some lonely spot to set him down, and there would be no chance of awakening the inhabitants of any distant cottage. He walked slowly, for he was faint with loss of blood.

After proceeding about a quarter of a mile, he emerged from the wood and came upon a spot where the road forked. Having no clue whatever as to the direction in which Lewes lay, he sat down upon a heap of stones and waited patiently for morning. He had no doubt that the burglary had been a successful one, and he bitterly regretted his neglect to keep a watch down the lane, to see that he was not surprised by the men he had heard were coming. At any rate, he hoped that he should be able to give such information as would set the constables upon the track.

It seemed to him that some three hours passed before a faint light began to dawn in the sky. By this he knew that it must be about half-past six, and calculated, therefore, he must have set out in the trap about half-past one. He now started to walk along the road, hoping that he should soon meet some labourer going to work. Stopping by a small stream which ran across the road, he washed his head and face; as he had lain on the ground after being struck, the blood had not flowed on to his clothes.

After the wash he proceeded with a brisker step. Half an hour later he met a ploughman, riding one of his team to the fields.

"Is this the road to Lewes?" Reuben asked.

"Lewes? Noa, this baint the road to Lewes. I don't know nothing about the road to Lewes. This bee the road to Hastings, if you goes further. So they tell me; I ain't never been there."

"Is there a village anywhere about here?" Reuben asked.

"Ay, half a mile or so on."

Reuben walked on till he got to the village; and then, going to a public house, obtained some refreshment and learned, from the landlord, the direction he should take to get to the main road leading to Lewes; which was, as he expected, some twenty miles away. He found that the cart had not followed the main road towards London, but had driven by crossroads for a considerable distance, before turning north.

It was late in the afternoon before Reuben arrived at Lewes, for he had been obliged to rest often by the way, and had made but slow progress. When within a few doors of his mother's house, one of the constables of the town came up to him and touched him on the shoulder.

"I arrest you in the king's name!"

"Arrest me! What for?" Reuben exclaimed.

"For breaking into the house of Squire Ellison, of Tipping, that's what it's for."

Reuben laughed.

"You have got the wrong man this time. I have no more to do with the burglary than a child."

"It's no laughing matter," the constable said. "If you are innocent you have got to prove it; that ain't no business of mine. All I have got to do is to arrest you."

So saying, and before Reuben knew what he was about, he slipped a pair of handcuffs over his wrists. Reuben flushed up. Hitherto he had scarcely taken the matter seriously, but to be marched handcuffed through the streets of Lewes was an indignity which enraged him.

"Take these off," he said angrily. "I will go quietly with you."

"You may or you may not," the man said doggedly. "You are younger than I am, and maybe can run faster. I ain't agoing to chance it."

Reuben saw that it was of no use to argue and, silent and pale, he walked along by the side of the constable, who retained a tight hold of his collar. A little crowd gathered speedily round, for such a sight was unusual in Lewes; and Reuben felt thankful when they reached the cells, and he was sheltered from the gaze of the public. A minute later the head constable came in.

"Now, my lad, don't say anything to criminate yourself," he began; "the less you talk, the better for you. I am sorry to see you here, for I knew your father, and I have a good character of you from your employer; so I give you my advice-keep your mouth shut."

"But I am not going to keep my mouth shut," Reuben said indignantly. "Here am I, arrested in the public streets, marched handcuffed through the town upon a most monstrous charge, which has been brought against me without a shadow of evidence."

"Don't be talking, don't be talking," the constable said testily; "you will hear the evidence in time enough."

"But I will talk. I want to tell you what's happened, and you will see that I am innocent, at once."

"Very well, if you will you will; but mind, don't blame me afterwards."

Reuben told the story of his adventures from the time of leaving.

"There," he said when he finished, "isn't that enough to show that I am innocent?"

"No," the chief constable said gravely, "it's not enough to prove anything, one way or the other. I am bound to say the story looks a likely one; and if it weren't for two or three matters which I heard of, from the constable who came over from Tipping, I should have no doubt about it. However, all that is for the magistrate to decide. There will be a meeting tomorrow."

"But can't I be taken before a magistrate at once? There's Captain Fidler, within a mile."

"What would be the good?" the chief constable said. "You don't suppose anyone would let you out, only on the strength of the story you have told me. He could only remand you, and you could gain nothing by it."

"Can I see my mother?" Reuben asked next.

"Yes," the constable said, "I will send her down a message, at once."

Mrs. Whitney soon came up. A neighbour had brought her in the news when Reuben had been arrested, and she was on the point of starting to inquire about it when the message arrived. She was more indignant than grieved, when she heard the charge which had been brought against Reuben.

"The idea of such a thing!" she exclaimed. "These constables don't seem to have natural sense. The idea of charging anyone who is known as a respectable young man with such a thing as that, and shutting him up without a question. Why, there can't be any evidence against you."

"There's no saying, mother," Reuben replied. "You mustn't be too sure of that. Don't you remember that affair of the dog? Well, the same hand is at work now. Before, I only suspected who had done it; but I am sure now. However, whatever evidence they may have got, we know it isn't true. I have four years' good character here to speak for me. Still, it is hard that I should get into positions of this sort, without any fault of mine."

"It's better that it is without any fault of yours, Reuben."

"That is right enough, mother, so we will both keep up our spirits."

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