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"Johnny Ludlow" was the name used by Ellen Wood as the by-line for a series of 90 popular stories and serial novels published in the British monthly Argosy, which she bought in 1867 and edited under her married name, Mrs. Henry Wood. The first story signed by and featuring "Johnny Ludlow" appeared in January 1868, the last in January-June 1891.
Six collections of stories in the series were published in book form. The first story, "Shaving the Ponies' Tails," was not included in any of these collections, presumably because some elements of the narrative and characterization are atypical in comparison with the rest of the series. The 48th story, "Fred Temple's Warning," was also omitted.
I'D never seen such a scene before: I have not seen one since. Perhaps, in fact, the same thing had never happened. What had done it nobody could imagine. It was as if the place had been smoked out with some deleterious stuff; some destructive or poisoning gases, fatal to vegetable life.
On the previous day but one, Tuesday, there had been a party at the Manor. Squire and Mrs. Todhetley did not go in for much of that kind of thing, but some girls from London were staying with the Jacobsons, and we all went over to a dance there on the Friday. After supper some of them got talking to Mrs. Todhetley, asking in a laughing sort of way why she did not give them one? She shook her head, and answered that we were quiet people. Upon that Tod spoke up, and said he had no doubt the Squire would give one if asked; would like to do it. Had Mrs. Todhetley gone heartily into the proposal at once, Tod would have thrown cold water on it. That was his obstinacy. The girls attacked the Squire, and the thing was settled; the dance being fixed for the following Tuesday.
I know Mrs. Todhetley thought it an awful trouble; the Squire openly said it was when we got home; and he grumbled all day on Saturday. You see, our servants were not used to fashionable parties; neither in truth were their masters. However, if it had to be done at all, it was to be done well. The laundry was cleared out for dancing; the old square ironing-stove taken away, and a few pictures were done round with wreaths of green and hung on the yellow-washed walls. The supper-table was laid in the dining-room, leaving the drawing-room free for reception.
It was the Squire thought of having the plants brought into the hall. He never could say afterwards it was anybody but him. His grumbling was got over by the Tuesday morning, and he was as eager as any of us. He went about in his open nankeen coat and straw hat, puffing and blowing, and saying he hoped we should relish it—he'd not dance in the dog-days.
"I should like to see you dance in any days now, sir," cried Tod.
"You impudent rascals! You must laugh, too, must you, Johnny? I can tell you young fellows what—you'll neither of you dance a country dance as we'd used to do it. You should have seen us at the wake. Once when we militia chaps were at the 'Ram' at Gloucester for a week's training, we gave a ball there, and footed it till daylight. 'We bucks at the Ram;' that's what we called ourselves: but most of us are dead and gone now. Look here, boys," continued the Pater after a pause, "I'll have the choice plants brought into the hall. If we knock up a few sconces for candles on the walls, their colours will show out well."
He went out to talk to Roger Monk about it. Mrs. Todhetley was in the kitchen over the creams and jellies and things, fit to faint with heat. Jenkins, the head-gardener, was back then, but he was stiff yet, not likely to be of permanent good; so Roger Monk was kept on as chief. Under the Pater's direction the sets of green steps were brought in and put on either side of the hall, as many sets as there was space for; and the plants were arranged upon them.
I'd tell you the different sorts but that you might think it tedious. They were choice and beautiful. Mr. Todhetley took pride in his flowers, and spared no expense. Geraniums of all colours, tulips, brilliant roses, the white lily and the purple iris; and the rarer flowers, with hard names that nobody can spell. It was like a lovely garden, rising tier upon tier; a grove of perfume that the guests would pass through. They managed the wax-lights well; and the colours, pink, white, violet, green, orange, purple, scarlet, blue, shone out as the old east window in Worcester Cathedral used to do when it sparkled in the morning sun.
It went off first-rate. Some of the supper sweet dishes fell out of shape with the heat; but they were just as good to eat. In London, the thing you call "society" is made up of form and coldness, and false artificialism; with us country people it is honest openness. There, any failure on the table is looked away from, not supposed to be seen; at the supper at Squire Todhetley's the tumble-down dishes were introduced as a topic of regret. "And to think it should be so, after all the pains I bestowed on them!" added Mrs. Todhetley, not hesitating to say that she had been the confectioner and pastry-cook.
But it is not of the party I have to tell you. It was jolly; and everybody said what a prime ball-room the laundry made. I dare say if we had been London fashionables we should have called it the "library," and made believe we'd had the books taken out.
Getting ready for company is delightful; but putting things to rights the next day is rather another thing. The plants were carried back to their places again in the greenhouse—a large, long, commodious greenhouse—and appeared none the worse for their show. The old folks, whose dancing-days were over, had spent half the night in the cool hall, admiring these beautiful plants; and the Pater told this to Roger Monk as he stood with him in the greenhouse after they were put back. I was there, too.
"I'm glad they were admired, sir," said Monk in answer. "I've taken pains with them, and I think they do the Manor credit."
"Well, truth to say, Monk, it's a better and brighter collection than Jenkins ever got. But you must not tell him I say so. I do take a pride in my greenhouse; my father did before me. I remember your mother spending a day here once, Johnny, before you were born, and she said of all the collections in the two counties of Warwick and Worcester, ours was the finest. It came up to Lord Coventry's; not as large, of course, but the plants in the same prime condition."
"Yes, sir: I've seen the conservatories at Croome," returned Monk, who generally went in for large names.
"The late Lord Coventry—Yes! Here! Who's calling?" Tod's voice outside, shouting for the Squire, caused the break. He had got Mr. Duffham with him; who wanted to ask about some parish business; and they came to the greenhouse.
So that made another admirer. Old Duff turned himself and his cane about, saying the colours looked brighter by daylight than wax-light; and he had not thought it possible the night before that they could do it, He stole a piece of geranium to put in his button-hole.
"By the way, Monk, when are you going over to Evesham about those seeds and things?" asked the Squire, as he was departing with old Duff.
"I can go when you like, sir."
"Go to-morrow, then. Start with the cool of the morning. Jenkins can do what has to be done, for once. You had better take the light cart."
"Very well, sir," answered Monk. But he had never once looked in the Squire's face as he answered.
The next morning was Thursday. Tod and I were up betimes to go fishing. There was a capital stream—but I've not time for that now. It was striking six as we went out of the house, and the first thing I saw was Jenkins coming along, his face as white as a sheet. He was a big man once, of middle height, but thin and stooping since his last bout of rheumatism; gray whiskers, blue eyes, and close upon fifty.
"I say, Tod, look at old Jenkins! He must be ill again."
Not ill but frightened. His lips were of a bluey gray, like one whom some great terror has scared. Tod stared as he came nearer, for they were trembling as well as blue.
"What's up, Jenkins?"
"I don't know what, Mr. Joe. The devil has been at work."
"Whereabouts?" asked Tod.
"Come and see, sir."
He turned back towards the greenhouse, but not another word would he say, only pointed to it. Leaving the fishing-rods on the path, we set off to run.
Never had I seen such a scene before; as I told you at the beginning. The windows were shut, every crevice where a breath of air might enter seemed to be hermetically closed; a smell as of some sulphurous acid pervaded the air; and the whole show of plants had turned to ruin.
A wreck complete. Colour was gone; leaves and stems were gone; the sweet perfume was gone; nothing remained, so to say, but the pots. It was as if some burning blast had passed through the greenhouse, withering to death every plant that stood in it, and the ripening grapes above.
"What on earth can have done this?" cried Tod to Jenkins, when he was able to speak.
"Well, Mr. Joseph, I say nothing could have done it but the—"
"Don't talk rubbish about the devil, Jenkins. He does not work in quite so practical a way. Open the windows."
"I was on by half-past five, sir, not coming here at first, but—"
"Where's Monk this morning?" again interrupted Tod, who had turned imperative.
"The Squire sent him over to Evesham for the seeds. I heard him go by in the light cart."
"Sent him when?"
"Yesterday, I suppose: that is, told him to go. Monk came to me last evening and said I must be on early. He started betimes; it was long afore five when I heard the cart go by. I should know the rattle of that there light cart anywhere, Mr. Joe."
"Never mind the cart. What has done this?" That was the question. What had done it? Some blasting poison must have been set to burn in the greenhouse. Such substances might be common enough, but we knew nothing of them. We examined the place pretty carefully, but not a trace of any proof was discovered.
"What's this?" cried out Jenkins, presently.
Some earthenware pot-stands were stacked on the ground at the far end of the greenhouse—Mrs. Todhetley always called them saucers—Jenkins had been taking two or three of the top ones off, and came upon one that contained a small portion of some soft, white, damp substance, smelling just like the smell that pervaded the greenhouse—a suffocating smell that choked you. Some sulphuric acid was in the tool-house; Tod fetched the bottle, poured a little on the stuff, and set it alight.
Instantly a white smoke arose, and a smell that sent us off. Jenkins, looking at it as if it were alive and going to bite him, carried it at arm's length out to the nearest bed, and heaped mould upon it.
"That has done it, Mr. Joseph. But I should like to know what the white stuff is. It's some subtle poison."
We took the stack of pot-stands off one by one. Six or eight of them were perfectly clean, as if just wiped out. Jenkins gave his opinion again.
"Them clean saucers have all had the stuff burning in 'em this night, and they've done their work well. Somebody, which it must be the villain himself, has been in and cleaned 'em out, overlooking one of 'em. I can be upon my word the stands were all dusty enough last Tuesday, when the greenhouse was emptied for the ball, for I stacked 'em myself one upon another."
Tod took up his perch on the edge of the shut-in brick stove, and surveyed the wreck. There was not a bit of green life remaining, not a semblance of it When he had done looking he stared at me, then at Jenkins; it was his way when puzzled or perplexed.
"Have you seen anybody about here this morning, Jenkins?"
"Not a soul," responded Jenkins, ruefully. "I was about the beds and places at first, and when I came up here and opened the door, the smoke and smell knocked me back'ards. When I see the plants—leastways what was the plants—with their leaves and blossoms and stems all black and blasted, I says to myself, 'The devil must have been in here;' and I was on my way to tell the master so when you two young gents met me."
"But it's time some of them were about," cried Tod. "Where's Drew? Is he not come?"
"Drew be hanged for a lazy vagabond!" retorted old Jenkins. "He never comes on much afore seven, he doesn't, Monk threatened last week to get his wages stopped for him. I did stop 'em once, afore I was ill."
Drew was the under-gardener, an active young fellow of nineteen. There was a boy as well, but it happened that he was away just now. Almost as Jenkins spoke, Drew came in view, leaping along furiously towards the vegetable garden, as though he knew he was late.
He recognized Tod's voice, turned, and came into the greenhouse. His look of amazement would have made a picture.
"Sakes alive! Jenkins, what have done this?"
"Do you know anything about it, Drew?" asked Tod.
"Me, sir?" answered Drew, turning his wide-open eyes on Tod, in surprise at the question. "I don't as much as know what it is."
"Mr. Joe, I think the master ought to be told of this," said Jenkins. "As well get it over."
He meant the explosion of wrath that was sure to come when the Squire saw the ravages. Tod never stirred. Who was to tell him? It was like the mice proposing to bell the cat: nobody offered to do it.
"You go, Johnny," said Tod, by-and-by. "Perhaps he's getting up now."
I went. I did always what he ordered me, and heard Mrs. Todhetley in her dressing-room. She had her white petticoats on, doing her hair. When I told her, she just backed into a chair and turned as white as Jenkins.
"What's that, Johnny?" roared out the Squire from his bed. I hadn't noticed that the between-door was open.
"Something is wrong in the greenhouse, sir."
"Something wrong in the greenhouse! What d'ye mean, lad?"
"He says the plants are spoiled, and the grapes," interrupted Mrs. Todhetley, to help me.
"Plants and grapes spoiled! You must be out of your senses, Johnny, to say such a thing. What has spoiled them?"
"It looks like some—blight," I answered, pitching upon the word. "Everything's dead and blackened."
Downstairs I rushed for fear he should ask more. And down came the Pater after me, hardly anything on, so to say; not shaved, and his nankeen coat flying behind him.
I let him go on to get the burst over. When I reached them, they were talking about the key. It was customary for the head-gardener to lock the greenhouse at night. For the past month or so there had been, as may be said, two head-gardeners, and the key had been left on the ledge at the back of the greenhouse, that whichever of them came on first in the morning might get in.
The Squire stormed at this—with that scene before his eyes he was ready to storm at everything. Pretty gardeners, they were! leaving the key where any tramp, hiding about the premises for a night's lodging, might get into the greenhouse and steal what he chose! As good leave the key in the door, as hang it up outside it! The world had nothing but fools in it, as he believed.
Jenkins answered with deprecation. The key was not likely to be found by anybody but those that knew where to look for it. It always had a flower-pot turned down upon it; and so he had found it that morning.
"If all the tramps within ten miles got into the greenhouse, sir, they'd not do this," affirmed Tod.
"Hold your tongue," said the Squire; "what do you know about tramps? I've known them to do the wickedest things conceivable. My beautiful plants! And look at the grapes! I've never had a finer crop of grapes than this was, Jenkins," concluded the Pater, in a culminating access of rage. "If I find this has arisen through any neglect of yours and Monk's, I'll—I'll hang you both."
The morning went on; breakfast was over, and the news of the strange calamity spread. Old Jones, the constable, had been sent for by the Squire. He stared, and exclaimed, and made his comments; but he was not any the nearer hitting upon the guilty man.
About ten, Roger Monk got home from Evesham. We heard the spring-cart go round to the stables, and presently he appeared in the gardens, looking at objects on either side of the path, as was his usual wont. Then he caught sight of us, standing in and about the greenhouse, and came on faster. Jenkins was telling the story of his discovery to Mr. Duffham. He had told it a good fifty times since early morning to as many different listeners.
They made way for Monk to come in, nobody saying a word. The Pater stood inside, and Monk, touching his hat, was about to report to him of his journey, when the strange aspect of affairs seemed to strike him dumb. He looked round with a sort of startled gaze at the walls, at the glass and grapes above, at the destroyed plants, and then turned savagely on Jenkins, speaking hoarsely. "What have you been up to here?"
"Me been up to! That's good, that is! What had you been up to afore you went off? You had the first chance. Come, Mr. Monk."
The semi-accusation was spoken by Jenkins on the spur of the moment, in his anger at the other's words. Monk was in a degree Jenkins's protégé, and it had not previously occurred to him that he could be in any way to blame.
"What do you know of this wicked business, Monk?" asked the Squire.
"What should I know of it, sir? I am only just come in from Evesham. The things were all right last night!"
"How did you leave the greenhouse last night?"
"Exactly as I always leave it, sir. There was nothing the matter with it then. Drew—I saw him outside, didn't I? Step here, Drew. You were with me when I locked up the greenhouse last night. Did you see anything wrong with it?"
"It were right enough then," answered Drew.
Monk turned himself about, lifting his hands in dismay, as one blackened object after another came under view. "I never saw such a thing!" he cried, piteously. "There has been something wrong at work here; or else—"
Monk came to a sudden pause. "Or else what?" asked the squire.
"Or else, the moving of the plants into the hall on Tuesday has killed them."
"Moving the plants wouldn't kill them. What are you thinking of, Monk?"
"Moving them would not kill them, sir, or hurt them either," returned Monk, with a stress on the first word; "but it might have been the remote cause of it."
"I don't understand you!"
"I saw some result of the sort once, sir. It was at a gentleman's place at Chiswick. All the choice plants were taken indoors to improvise a kind of conservatory for a night fête. They were carried back the next day, seemingly none the worse, and on the morrow were found withered."
"No, sir, not so bad as these. They didn't die; they revived after a time. A great fuss was made over it; the gentleman thought it must be wilful damage, and offered twenty pounds reward for the discovery of the offenders. At last it was found they had been poisoned by the candles."
"Poisoned by the candles!"
"A new sort of candle, very beautiful to look at, but with a vast quantity of arsenic in it," continued Monk. "A scientific man gave it as his opinion, that the poison emitted from the candles had been fatal to the plants. Perhaps something of the same kind has done the mischief here, sir. Plants are such delicate things!"
"And what has been fatal to the grapes. They were not taken into the house."
The question came from the surgeon, Mr. Duffham. He had stood all the while against the end of the far steps, looking fixedly at Monk over the top of his cane. Monk put his eyes on the grapes above, and kept them there while he answered.
"True, sir; the grapes, as you say, didn't go in. Perhaps the poison brought back by the plants may have acted on them."
"Now, I tell you what, Monk, I think that's all nonsense," cried the Squire, testily.
"Well, sir, I don't see any other way of accounting for this state of things:"
"The greenhouse was filled with some suffocating, smelling, blasting stuff that knocked me back'ards," put in Jenkins. "Every crack and crevice was stopped where a breath of air could have got in. I wish it had been you to find it; you'd not have liked to be smothered alive, I know."
"I wish it had been," said Monk. "If there was any such thing here, and not your fancy, I'll be bound I'd have traced it out."
"Oh, would you! Did you do anything to them there pot-stands?" continued Jenkins, pointing to them.
"Oh! didn't clean 'em out?"
"I wiped a few out on Wednesday morning before we brought back the plants. Somebody—Drew, I suppose—had stacked them in the wrong place. In putting them right I began to wipe them. I didn't do them all; I was called away."
"'Twas me stacked 'em," said Jenkins. "Well—them stands are what had held the poison; I found a'most one half of 'em filled with it."
Monk cast a rapid glance around. "What was the poison?" he asked.
Jenkins grunted, but gave no other reply. The fact was, he had been so abused by the Squire for having put away the trace of the "stuff," that it was a sore subject.
"Did you come on here, Monk, before you started for Evesham this morning?" questioned the squire.
"I didn't come near the gardens, sir. I had told Jenkins last night to be on early," replied Monk, bending over a blackened row of plants while he spoke. "I went the back way to the stables through the lane, had harnessed the horse to the cart, and was away before five."
We quitted the greenhouse. The Pater went out with Mr. Duffham, Tod and I followed. I, looking quietly on, had been struck with the contrast of manner between old Duff and Monk—he peering at Monk with his searching gaze, never once taking it off him; and Monk meeting nobody's eyes, but shifting h is own anywhere rather than meet them.
"About this queer arsenic tale Monk tells?" began the Squire. "Is there anything in it? Will it hold water?"
"Moonshine!" said old Duff, with emphasis.
The tone was curious, and we all looked at him. He had got his lips drawn in, and the top of his cane pressing them.
"Where did you take Monk from, Squire? Get a good character with him?"
"Jenkins brought him here. As to character, he had never been in any situation before. Why? Do you suspect him?"
"U-m-m-m!" said the doctor, drawing out the sound as though in doubt. "If I do suspect him, he has caused me to. I never saw such a shifty manner in all my life. Why, he never once looked at any of us! His eyes are false, and his tones are false!"
"His tones? Do you mean his words?"
"I mean the tone his words are spoken in. To an apt ear, the sound of a man's voice, or woman's either, can be read off like a book; a man's voice is honest or dishonest according to his nature; and you can't make a mistake about it. Monk's has a false ring in it, if ever I heard one. Now, master Johnny, what are you looking so eager about?"
"I think Monk's voice false, too, Mr. Duffham; I have thought himself false all along. Tod knows I have."
"I know that you are just a muff, Johnny, going in for prejudices against people unreasonably," said Tod, putting me down as usual.
Old Duff pushed my straw hat up, and passed his fingers over the top of my forehead. "Johnny, my boy," he said, "you have got a strong and good indication here for reading the world. Trust to it."
"I couldn't trust Monk. I never have trusted him. That was one reason why I suspected him of stealing the things the magpie took."
"Well, you were wrong there," said Tod.
"Yes. But I'm nearly sure I was right in the thing before."
"What thing?" demanded old Duff, sharply.
"Well, I thought it was Monk that frightened Phoeby."
"Oh," said Mr. Duffham. "Dressed himself up in a sheet, and whitened his face, and went up the lane when the women were watching for the shadows on St. Mark's Eve! What else do you suspect, Johnny?"
"Nothing else, sir; except that I fancied Mother Picker knew of it. When Tod and I went to ask her whether Monk was out that night, she looked frightened to death, and broke a basin."
"Did she say he was out?"
"She said he was not out; but I thought she said it more eagerly than truthfully."
"Squire, when you are in doubt as to peoples' morals, let this boy read them for you," said old Duff, in his quaint way. The Squire, thinking of his plants, looked as perplexed as could be.
"It is such a thing, you know, Duffham, to have one's whole hothouse destroyed in a night. It's no better than arson."
"And the incendiary who did it would have no scruple in attacking the barns next; therefore, he must be bowled out."
The Pater looked rueful. He could bluster and threaten, but he could not do much; he never knew how to set about it. In all emergencies he would send for Jones—the greatest old woman going.
"You don't seriously think it could have been Monk, Duffham?"
"I think there's strong suspicion that it was. Look here:" and the doctor began to tell off points with his cane and fingers. "Somebody goes into the greenhouse to set the stuff alight in the pot-stands—for that's how it was done. Monk and Jenkins alone knew where the key was; Jenkins, a trusty man, years in the employ, comes on at six and finds the state of things. Where's Monk? Gone off by previous order to Evesham at five. Why should it happen the very morning he was away? What was to prevent him stealing into the greenhouse after dark last night, putting his deleterious stuff to work, leaving it to burn, and stealing in again at four this morning to put all traces away? He thought he cleaned out all the tale-telling earthern saucers, but he overlooks one, as is usually the case. When he comes back, finding the wreck and the commotion consequent upon it, he relates a glib tale of other plants destroyed by arsenic from candles, and he never looks honestly into a single face as he tells it!"
The Squire drew a deep breath. "And you say Monk did all this?"
"Nonsense, Squire. I say he might have done it I say, moreover, that it looks very like it. Putting Monk aside, your scent would be wholly at fault."
"What is to be done?"
"I'll go and see Mother Picker; she can tell what time he went in last night, and what time he came out this morning," cried Tod, who was just as hasty as the Pater. But old Duff caught him as he was vaulting off.
"I had better see Mother Picker. Will you let me act in this matter, Squire, and see what can be made of it?"
"Do, Duffham. Take Jones to help you?"
"Jones be shot," returned Duff in a passion. "If I wanted anybody—which I don't—I'd take Johnny. He is worth fifty Joneses. Say nothing—nothing at all. Do you understand?"
He went off down a side path, and crossed Jenkins, who was at work now. Monk stayed in the greenhouse.
"This is a sad calamity, Jenkins."
"It's the worst I ever met with, sir," cried Jenkins, touching his hat "And what have done it is the odd thing. Monk, he talks of the candles poisoning of 'em; but I don't know."
"Well, there's not a much surer poison than arsenic, Jenkins," said the doctor, candidly. "I hope it will be cleared up. Monk, too, has taken so much pains with the plants. He is a clever young man in his vocation. Where did you hear of him?"
Jenkins's answer was a long one. Curtailed, it stated that he had heard of Monk "promiskeous." He had thought him a gentleman till he asked if he, Jenkins, could help him to a place as ornamental gardener. He had rather took to the young man, and recommended the Squire to employ him "temporay," for he, Jenkins, was just then falling sick with rheumatism.
Mr. Duffham nodded approvingly. "Didn't think it necessary to ask for references?"
"Monk said he could give me a cart-load a'most of them, sir, if I'd wanted to see 'em."
"Just so! Good day, Jenkins, I can't stay gossiping my morning away."
He went straight to Mrs. Picker's, and caught her taking her luncheon off the kitchen table—bread and cheese, and perry.
"It's a little cask o' last year's my son have made me a present of, sir; if you'd be pleased to drink a cup, Doctor Duff'm," said she, hospitably.
She drew a half-pint cup full; bright, sparkling, full-bodied perry, never better made in Gloucestershire. Mr. Duffham smacked his lips, and wished some of the champagne at gentlemen's tables was half as good. He talked, and she talked; and, it may be, he took her a little off her guard. Evidently, she was not cognizant of the mishap to the greenhouse.
A nice young man that lodger of hers? Well, yes, he was; steady and well-conducted. Talked quite like a gentleman, but wasn't uppish 'cause o' that, and seemed satisfied with all she did for him. He was gone off to Evesham after seeds and other things. Squire Todhetley put great confidence in him.
"Ay," said Mr. Duffham, "to be sure. One does put confidence in steady young men, you know, Goody. He was off by four o'clock, wasn't he?"
Earlier nor that, Goody Picker thought. Monk were one o' them who liked to take time by the forelock, and get his extra work forrard when he were put on to any.
"Nothing like putting the shoulder to the wheel. This is perry! The next time I call to see your son Peter, at Alcester, I shall ask him if he can't get some for me. As to Monk—you might have had young fellows here who'd have idled their days away, and paid no rent, Goody. Monk was at his work late last night, too, I fancy?"
Goody fancied he had been; leastways he went out after supper, and were gone an hour or so. What with the fires, and what with the opening and shutting o' the winders to keep the hothouses at proper temperture, an head-gardener didn't sit on a bed o' idle roses, as Dr. Duff'm knew.
Mr. Duffham was beginning to make pretty sure of winning his game. His manner suddenly changed. Pushing the empty cup from him, he leaned forward, and laid hold of Mrs. Picker by the two wrists. Between the perry and the doctor's sociability and Monk's merits, her eyes had begun to sparkle.
"Don't be alarmed, Mrs. Picker. I have come here to ask you a question, and you must answer me. But you have nothing to fear on your own score, provided you tell me the truth honestly. Young men will do foolish things, however industrious they may be. Why did Monk play that prank on Easter Monday?"
The sparkle in the eyes faded to a sort of pale fright. She would have got away, but could not, and so put on an air of wonder.
On Easter Monday! What were it he did on Easter Monday?
"When he put himself and his face into white, and went to the churchyard by moonlight to represent the dead, you know, Mrs Picker."
She gave a shrill scream, got one of her hands loose and flung it over her face.
"Come, Goody, you had better answer me quietly than be taken to confess before Squire Todhetley. I dare say you were not to blame."
Afore Squire Todhetley! O-o-o-o-o-h! Did they know it at the Manor?
"Well," said Mr. Duffham, "you see I know it, and I have come straight from thence. Now then, my good woman, I have not much time."
Goody Picker's will was good to hold out longer, but she surrendered a coup de main, as so many of us have to do when superior power is brought to bear. Monk overheered it, was the substance of her answer. On coming in from work that there same blessed evening—and look at him now! at his work on a Easter Monday till past dark!—he overheered the two servants, Molly and Hannah, talking of what they was going out to watch for—the shadders in the churchyard. He let 'em go, never showing hisself till they'd left the house. Then he got the sheets from his bed, and put the flour on his face, and went on there to frighten 'em; all in fun. He never thought of hurting the women; he never knowed as the young girl, Phoeby, was to be there. Nobody could be more sorry for it nor he was; but he'd never meant to do harm more nor a babby unborn.
Mr. Duffham released the hands. Looking back in reflection, he had little doubt it was as she said—that Monk had done it out of pure sport, not intending ill.
"He might have confessed: it would have been more honest And you! Why did you deny that it was Monk?"
Mrs. Picker at first could only stare in reply. Confess to it? Him? What, and run the risk o' being put into 'ancuffs by that there Jones with his fat legs? And she! a poor old widder? If Monk went and said he didn't do it, she couldn't go and say he did. Doctor Duff'm might see as there were no choice left for her. Never should she forget the fright when the two young gents come in with their querries the next day; her fingers was took with the palsy and dropped the pudd'n basin, as she'd had fifteen year. Monk, poor fellow, couldn't sleep for a peck o' nights after, thinking o' Phoeby.
"There; that's enough," said Mr. Duffham. "Who is Monk? Where does he come from?"
From the moon, for all Mrs. Picker knew. A civiler young man she'd not wish to have lodging with her; paid reg'lar as the Saturdays come round; but he never told her nothing about hisself.
"Which is his room? The one at the back, I suppose."
Without saying with your leave, or by your leave, as Mrs. Picker phrased it in telling the story a long while afterwards, Mr. Duffham penetrated at once into the lodger's room. There he took the liberty of making a slight examination, good Mrs. Picker standing by with round eyes and open mouth. And what he discovered caused him to stride off at once to the Pater.
Roger Monk was not Monk at all, but somebody else. He had been implicated in some crime (whether guilty or not remained yet a question), and to avoid exposure had come away into this quiet locality under a false name. In short, during the time he had been working as gardener at Dyke Manor and living at Mother Picker's, he was in hiding. As the son of a well-known and most respectable landscape and ornamental nursery-man, he had become thoroughly conversant with the requisite duties.
"They are fools, at the best, these fellows," remarked Duffham, as he finished his narrative. "A letter written to him by some friend betrayed to me all this. Now why should not Monk have destroyed that letter, instead of keeping it in his room, Squire?"
The Squire did not answer. All he could do just now was to wipe his hot face and try and get over his amazement. Monk not a gardener or servant at all, but an educated man! Only living there to hide from the police; and calling himself by any name that came uppermost—which happened to be Monk!
"I must say there's a certain credit due to him for his patient industry, and the perfection to which he has brought your grounds," said Mr. Duffham.
"And for blighting all my hot-house plants at a blow—is there credit due to him for that?" roared out the Squire. "I'll have him tried for it, as sure as my name's Todhetley."
It was easier said than done. For when Mr. Jones, receiving his private orders from the Pater, went, staff in hand, to arrest Monk, that gentleman had already departed.
"He come into the house just as Dr. Duff'm left it," explained Mrs. Picker. "Saying he had got to take a short journey, he put his things into his portmanty, and went off carrying of it, leaving me a week's rent on the table."
"Go and catch him, Jones," sternly commanded the Squire, when the constable came back with the above news.
"Yes, your worship," replied Jones. But how he was to do it, taking the gouty legs into consideration, was a quite a different thing.
The men were sent off various ways. And came back again, not having come up with Monk. Squire Todhetley went into a rage, abused old Jones, and told him he was no longer worth his salt. But the strangest thing occurred in the evening.
The Pater walked over to the court after tea, carrying the grievance of his destroyed plants to the Sterlings. In coming up Dyke Lane as he returned at night, where it was always darker than in other places because the trees hid the moonlight, somebody seemed to walk right out of the hedge upon him.
It was Roger Monk. He raised his hat to the Squire as a gentleman does—did not touch it as a gardener—and began pleading for clemency.
"Clemency, after destroying a whole hot-houseful of rare plants!" cried the Squire.
"I never did it, sir," returned Monk, passionately. "On my word as a man—I will not to you say as a gentleman—if the plants were not injured by the candles, as I fully believe, I know not how they could have been injured."
The Pater was staggered. At heart he was the best man living. Suppose Monk was innocent?
"Look here, Monk. You know your name is—"
"Hush, sir!" interposed Monk, hastily, as if to prevent the hedges hearing the true name. "It is of that I have waited to speak to you; to beseech your clemency. I have no need to crave it in the matter of plants which I never harmed. I want to ask you to be silent, sir; not to proclaim to the world that I am other than what I appeared to be. A short while longer and I should have been able to prove my innocence; things are working round. But if you set the hue-and-cry upon me—"
"Were you innocent?" interposed the squire.
"I was; I swear it to you. Oh, Mr. Todhetley, think for a moment! I am not so very much older than your son; he is not more innocent than I was; but it might happen that he—I crave your pardon, sir, but it might—that he should become the companion of dissipated young men, and get mixed up unwittingly in a disgraceful affair, whose circumstances were so complicated that he could only fly for a time and hide himself. What would you say if the people with whom he took refuge, whether as servant or else, were to deliver him up to justice, and he stood before the world an accused felon? Sir, it is my case. Keep my secret; keep my secret, Mr. Todhetley."
"And couldn't you prove your innocence?" cried the Squire, as he followed out the train of ideas suggested.
"Not at present—that I see. And-when once a man has stood at a criminal bar, it is a ban on him for life, although it may be afterwards shown he stood there wrongly."
"True," said the Squire, softening.
Well—for there's no space to go on at length—the upshot was that Monk went away with a promise; and the Squire came home to the Manor and told Duffham, who was waiting there, that they must both be silent. Only those two knew of the discovery; they had kept the particulars and Monk's real name to themselves. Duff gave his head a toss, and told the Pater he was softer than old Jones.
"How came you to suspect him, Johnny?" he continued, turning on me in his sharp way.
"I think just for the same things that you did, Mr. Duffham—because neither his face nor his voice is true."
And—remembering his look of revenge when accused in mistake for the magpie—I suspected him still.
Roy Glashan's Library
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