Read Cunning Murrell Online

Authors: Arthur Morrison

Tags: #Historical Romance

Cunning Murrell (18 page)

Time was called, and Paddington Sharp and the Bricky sprang from their
corners and went to business with a rattle. Plainly the Bricky had orders to
mix things up, and he hammered in with all his steam. The Paddington champion
was no way loth, and the knuckles pelted merrily all round the ring. The
red-faced man, with a pecuniary interest in the Bricky, waxed clamorous, and
brandished his newspaper, folded into a truncheon, till presently it knocked
off a neighbour’s hat. The neighbour said something hasty, and the red-faced
man apologised, and let the paper drop.

Roboshobery Dove, eager for news, snatched it as it fell, and asked:
“Den’t yow want to keep the newspaper, sir?”

The red-faced man, without turning his head, bequeathed the newspaper to
the devil, and proceeded to encourage the Bricky with more shouts.

Dove saw the round through, and made up his mind that the Bricky was doing
best; and as soon as the seconds had hold of their men he unfolded the paper
and turned the war news uppermost.

The Black Sea news headed the column, and had nothing of importance. Nor
did there seem anything very interesting at first under the heading “The
Baltic Fleet.” And then of a sudden, just at the cry of “Time,” the paper
went grey and blue before Roboshobery Dove’s eyes, and the tumult of shouts
died in his ears.

He turned about like a man deadly sick, seeing and hearing nothing,
conscious merely of staggering and buffeting against one thing after another,
till he was away from the crowd and out on the road leading to the
causeway.

He took his way by instinct, looking straight ahead, but seeing nothing.
He was vaguely conscious of an abatement of noise, but could hear nothing
distinctly yet but the steady thump of the wooden leg beneath him, which now,
singularly enough, obtruded itself on his senses as it never did commonly.
But for long this sound and a feeling that he was walking in a road in
daylight were all the impressions his senses gave him.

For he had read this paragraph in the London paper:

“LUBECK, Monday.—At Baro Sound a landing party
from the frigate
Phyllis
was fired on by a small body of Russians, who
decamped, leaving one dead and two wounded behind them. Our loss was John
Martin, ordinary seaman, killed.”

XVIII. — HEAVY TIDINGS

ROBOSHOBERY DOVE was half way up the long hill between
Bemfleet and Hadleigh ere the numbness left his faculties, and his first new
impression was one of physical nausea. He was sick, sick in the stomach at
each jolt of the wooden leg as he strode up-hill. Then he remembered the
newspaper. It was still in his hand, and he looked at it blankly, without
knowing why. He fell to slapping his thigh with it at each step, and trying
hard to think.

Canvey Island began to look like a map again, and the crowd by Kibcaps
Farm lay a dark patch with a little square hole in the middle, where
Paddington Sharp and the Bricky still pummeled one another for fifty pounds a
side. But Roboshobery Dove saw nothing of that. He had himself fought for his
life, he had seen men killed at his side even when he was a small boy, but
that had never affected him like this. Why, he would have found it hard to
say. For then he had seen the real thing, heard the groans and the babble of
dying men, and felt the sticky, slimy blood under his bare feet on the deck;
and now he merely read four lines in a London newspaper. Howbeit this was
worse altogether.

He fell to wondering whom he should tell first; what Jack’s mother would
say or do; what the people would say who had been calling her a witch.
Perhaps they would say it was a judgment. But there—he was sick; sick
as a cat; and he shuddered.

He had an odd, vague feeling of responsibility. He was bringing the
horrible news; how could he face the boy’s mother and his cousin with it?
More, how could he ever face them afterward? He had a confused feeling that
he was somehow inflicting the blow himself.

So he took his way up the long hill, and at last emerged at the four-wont
way. He went on past his own garden gate, without as much as a glance at the
roses over his door or a look at the starlings that were ravaging his cherry
tree. He hesitated for a moment at Prentice’s gate, looked up the garden
path, saw Mrs Prentice at the upper window, and then went on to Lingood’s
forge.

Steve Lingood had that morning finished an order of Murrell’s—almost
a wholesale order. For the cunning man, finding himself in funds, had not
only paid what he owed, but had bespoken three more bottles, to keep for
sudden occasions. Murrell had given his order with an air, maintaining the
advantage and authority which he felt that his rejection of Lingood’s
overtures had given him over the smith. Perhaps, also, because of a remote
consciousness that as yet the effect had been a trifle impaired by the
continuance of the little debt. Lingood, on his part, had a first impulse to
refuse the work; but he was a man of common sense as well as of independence,
and he reflected that such a refusal would irritate Cunning Murrell, and in
that way do Dorrily Thorn and her aunt no good—might even jeopardise
that secret of his own that was in the wise man’s keeping. Further, that
trade was trade, and the smith at Bemfleet or Leigh would make the bottles if
he did not; and moreover, that another smith might do the work so thoroughly
as to cause danger to life at the next explosion; whereas he, instructed by
experience, might take private means to render that contingency less likely.
Which, in truth, he did.

So he received the order civilly, and now the three bottles lay, wet from
the tank, on a bench, while he and the boy turned their attention to a plough
coulter.

Roboshobery Dove stood in the doorway, and Lingood, apprised by an
obstruction of light, looked up. The old seaman stood black against the
light, and it was not until Lingood came to the door that he saw that his
face, commonly so broad and so brown, was white and drawn.

“Why,” said the smith, “yow fare gastered!”

Roboshobery Dove moved his lips, but found them dry; so he offered the
newspaper, pointing to the paragraph with so thick and withal so shaky a
forefinger that at first Lingood was puzzled to guess what piece of news had
troubled him. Then young Jack Martin’s name came in view, and the smith
read.

He was never a demonstrative man, but now he dropped the newspaper and
stared dully, like a sleep-walker. He paled, too; but for him this thing
meant more than Dove knew, and he put his hand over eyes and forehead, as
though something heavy had struck him there and distracted his senses.

“Larned him his cutlass drill myself,” said Roboshobery, at last finding a
thick utterance. “Larned him it when he were so high. An’ I fit the French
myself the same age; but I den’t feel it like this.”

Lingood turned into the forge. For a few moments he said nothing, and Dove
watched him anxiously as he stooped and moved one article and another this
way and that, with his face from the light. Then, without turning, he asked
in a strained voice: “Do
they
know?”

“His mother?”

“Ay.”

“No. I brote the paper straight from Canvey, from a Lunnon man at the
fight there. What shall’s do?”

Lingood was silent. What could they do? Plainly Dorrily and her aunt must
learn sooner or later, and the odds were that on Friday or Saturday there
would be a newspaper brought in from Chelmsford, and then the news would fly
over the village and perhaps fall on the bereaved women in some harsh and
sudden way. Such a chance as that must be forestalled, somehow. But now his
faculties were disordered, and he could not consider clearly.

“Shall’s go an’ ask Harry Prentice?” suggested Dove.

That seemed to be a reasonable notion. Prentice was a staid old fellow,
respected in the village, and not so closely acquainted with young Jack
Martin as to lose his head at the news. So Lingood reached his coat and his
cap. But then Dove remembered Mrs Prentice, and it was resolved to send the
boy to ask Prentice to come and speak to the smith. Presently Prentice came,
mightily astonished at the summons; for Hadleigh was not one of those places
of business where interviews were often requested. People said what they
wanted to say when and where they chanced to meet. Prentice came in his
shirtsleeves, with no hat.

“Why,” he said, “what’s up? Hullo, Bosh—yow here? What is’t
arl?”

Dove gave him the newspaper as he had given it to Lingood.

Prentice took it to the light, read the paragraph, and looked serious.
“That be young Jack Mart’n,” he said, “sarten to say.”

“Ay,” Dove replied, “that it be. An’ we want to know what about tellin’
the boy’s mother.”

“O! Tellin’ his mother!” said Prentice, doubtfully, thrusting his fingers
up into his curly white hair. “Tellin’ his mother! Umph!”

He looked from one to the other and then at the newspaper again. Then he
put the newspaper into the other hand, and seized his hair on the opposite
side. “Tellin’ his mother!” he repeated, doubtfully. He paused for a few
seconds, and at last said: “Well, I dunno!”

“We fare a bit dunted like,” Roboshobery Dove explained. “An’ I thote
‘haps that yow, bein’ a knowledgeable man, an’ one o’ good gumption, might
take it in hand to break it to ‘em.”

Prentice’s mouth opened, and his face lengthened. “Me?” he exclaimed. “Me?
Lord, no, not me!
I
can’t do’t! ‘Twants a woman.”

The others thought so too, though the fact had not struck them before.
Plainly a woman would be best; but what woman? They could think of no woman
who was friendly with Mrs Martin: scarce of one that was not bitterly
unfriendly certainly of none that was not afraid of her.

“‘Tis hard to know what to do,” said Roboshobery Dove. “Summat we
mus’
do, that’s plain. Somebody else may bring in the noos. Prentice,
oad frien’, ‘twould be a Christian mussy if your missus ‘ud go an’ tell
‘em.”

Prentice shuffled uneasily. In his own mind he had secret doubts of his
wife’s Christian mercy toward witches—indeed, he judged her far too
good a Christian to countenance any such weakness. Nevertheless he could not
refuse to ask her.

So he went to do so.

But he was soon back. “She won’t go,” he said, with a glum shake of the
head. “Says ‘tis a judgment ‘pen ‘em for witchcraft, an’ she wonders any
honest man should counsel her to cross a witch’s threshold so’s to putt her
in her power, soul an’ body, let alone the mortal danger o’ bein’ bearer o’
ill tidin’s to sich. ‘Twere all I could do to stop her coming an’ tellin’ of
ye so, herself.”

Dove and Lingood stood in gloomy doubt.

“‘Haps Mrs Mart’n knows it a’ready,” Prentice suggested, brightly, as
offering a cheerful way out of the difficulty. And presently added,
inconsistently, “An’ lor, them newspapers’ll say anythink!”

Neither Dove nor Lingood could extract much comfort from either
reflection. The smith gazed at his smouldering fire for a few moments,
thinking. Then he put his cap on his head, and said: “Come, Master Dove,
we’ll talk o’ this walkin’.”

He led the way into the street, and Roboshobery Dove followed. Prentice
rubbed his white curls again, looked blankly after the two for a few seconds,
and then went slowly back home. Lingood was still pale, but no longer in
doubt.


We
mus’ do it,” he said, “an’ do it at once. Prentice’s wife knows
it, an’ that’s within ten minutes o’ sayin’ that arl the village knows
it.”

“Ah, that is,” Dove assented dolefully. He turned his head, and then
added, “Why, damme, there she goes a’ready, with a hankercher on her head! No
time lost with her!”

“Then so much better haste mus’ we make,” Steve Lingood replied. “There’s
no knowin’ how’t may come to them if it comes from others. Like as not Mrs
Banham may get hoad o’t, an’ go an’ barl it at the door. She be bitter enough
for anything.”

“For that?” asked Dove as he mended his pace. “Bitter enough for that?
Cuther! what a woman!”

“Ay, bitter enough for worse now young Em’s so bad again, an’ one thing
an’ another.”

Hadleigh was a leisurely place for wayfarers, and women stared over fences
to see Roboshobery Dove and Steve Lingood making good pace along the street,
plainly with business in prospect.

Lingood said no more, and Dove was plunged in perplexity. What should they
say when they got there? If only there had been news of a battle to tell of
first: if only Jack Martin had fallen in the hour of a great victory, it
would not have seemed so hard a job. But as it was—shot dead from
behind a hedge in a miserable little scrimmage that would be forgotten
to-morrow—Roboshobery saw no way to the work.

They turned into the lane, and as they went Dove began to lag, though the
younger man kept on steadily. Then said Dove, looking paler than ever:
“Steve, my boy, I can’t. I ben’t game. I’m afeard.”

“Come,” the smith answered, impatiently, “we mus’ do’t, well or ill.
‘Twill come better from friends than from foes, an’ know it they must from
some one, an’ soon. I’ll say’t myself if need be. But come an’ back me, at
least.”

Roboshobery Dove would never desert a friend who appealed for support, and
he went on down the hill. But he had never before experienced such a fit of
fear—simple terror at the few minutes before him.

They reached the black cottage at last, and Lingood went up the steps in
the bank. Dove following with an unsteadiness that was scarce at all due to
the wooden leg.

Visitors were rare at the cottage of late, and Dorrily, hearing the
footsteps, came to the door. She had just composed her aunt to rest in a
chair, and was anxious to keep her undisturbed. The sight of the two men, the
faces of both, the haggard helplessness on Roboshobery Dove’s, struck her
heart still. She closed the door behind her and, filled with a shapeless
fear, looked from one to the other. Then she caught sight of the folded
newspaper still in the old sailor’s hand, and something cold closed tight on
her heart, and held it.

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