A DARK NIGHT
Sarah Orne Jewett
Many years ago two men were talking together one morning in the private room of a bank in the west of England. The senior partner of the house, a white-haired, sage-looking financier, was cautioning his companion, who evidently had their business enterprise very much at heart. There was something eager and adventurous in the younger man's appearance, in spite of the look that betrayed the country Squire and lawyer that he was. The bank, personified by the elder man, was making an investment quite apart from its usual steady customs, to join the Squire, who was putting a good bit of money into a venture by sea. This money was to be forwarded to the port of Bristol to be shipped, and the two capitalists had received news from the captain of the vessel that he was sailing much sooner than had been his first intention. The difficulty was to find a proper messenger at such short notice, and the Squire, who was something of a sportsman, had come to say that he had fallen in unexpectedly with a horse dealer, a very honest man, fearless and a good rider, whom he had known for many years, and who, fortunately, was on his way to Bristol the next day but one.
"The only defect he has is in being a stranger to the roads hereabouts; I mean between here and Bristol," said the Squire. "But Rogers, you say, can go with him, and knows the way well. Weymouth has an English tongue in his head, but with so much gold to carry a man is sometimes glad to take a short cut, or a different turn, especially in these days when there is so much tramping and thievery. You never know whom you fall in with on the road. I must say I never liked the looks of Rogers-"
The Squire turned quickly from the window where he stood with hands deep in his pockets, looking out in the street and saw Rogers himself, who had come, soft-footed as a cat, from the outer room to stand behind the senior partner. The Squire stared at him angrily,
"I knocked, sir," said Rogers, deferentially.
"I should hope so," answered the Squire with coldness. But the clerk seemed to take no offense, and departed on tiptoe after handing some checks to his chief. The old man flushed a little and was disturbed. Rogers was his daily companion and made himself quite indispensable. To the Squire he was only a subordinate and apt to be presuming and curious.
"I don't like him,["] in spite of all you say," the Squire grumbled to the senior partner a moment after the door was softly closed.
"Well, perhaps not as a companion," agreed the old gentleman with a smile. "I thought he looked crafty and sneakish myself at first sight, but he has been perfectly faithful and steady these six or eight years now, and I long ago gave up suspecting Rogers. He is curious, perhaps, but harmless, harmless."
"He'll wait forever for his chance, but he'll take it when he gets it," said the Squire. "That is, if I know anything of human nature. I wish we had our money all in notes instead of so much gold, but we cannot risk the chance of our changing the notes in Bristol before the Mary and Bell sets sail. And my man Weymouth can hold his own, I'll warrant him. I hope he'll be prompt about starting. He as much as told me that it was not all business that keeps him here; he is paying attention to a young woman whom he hopes to marry. But he's a man of his word. 'Tis a good bit of work for him and money easily earned, as you may say, since he was going to Bristol a day later, at any rate."
The Squire took his riding stick and gloves from the table and bade his old friend good morning. They shook hands heartily and had a cheerful word or two about their business and its probable success.
Two Mounted Messengers.
"See that they start at 6 o'clock Sunday morning, or even earlier," the younger man turned back to say. "The roads are heavy already with so much rain, and if I don't mistake the signs there's more coming. They can't get to Bristol at best before night. I don't know what sort of a mount Rogers will get. He'll soon worry a good horse out of his wits, I should think. Tell him that Fenderson is set upon sailing early."
"He'll wait a tide for his money," said the senior partner with assurance, tapping the arm of his chair. "He's a prompt man, is Fenderson, and an excellent shipmaster, but eighteen hundred pounds is a good sum to miss; his luck depends on getting it, you know. Still, I'll tell Rogers. Take a glass of Madeira before you go; will you join me, sir, 'tis toward noon!"
As night was falling two mounted messengers, spattered with mud from cap to stirrup, were riding wearily along a deep, worn country lane. They were in the north part of the county of Somerset, near the waters of the Severn. The lane itself, deserted enough that night, was a great thoroughfare for those who came from the south and west to cross over into Wales. By this immemorial stream of travel and the wearing of the weather it had been worn like a swift stream's channel, deep below the level of the country. One of the riders kept glancing fearfully at the bushy banks above him, as if he expected to see a head in the thicket peering down. The other man rode straight and stern in his saddle, and took no notice of anything but his horse and the slippery road.
As they came, riding northward side by side, to the top of a little hill, Rogers, who wore a strangely pale and craven look, gave a sigh of relief, and his horse, which limped and bore the marks of having been on his knees, whinnied as if in sympathy. The wide, gray Severn spread before them; the high headlands sloped gently away on the right, and fell off like a cliff on the left; below the land was edged by a long line of dyke which fenced the sea from marsh and meadows that stretched away from the coast. Over the wide water drifted low clouds of fog and rain, and in the southwest a dull red gleam of fading Winter sunset lightened but little the cold and stormy color of the sky. High above the Severn, at the road's end, stood a group of low buildings perched on the headland together, like a convent or place of military defense.
As the travelers rode into the yard of the old Black Eagle Inn in the twilight, the inn itself and all its stables and outhouses seemed deserted. There was a bare and empty look everywhere. The sunset just struck a last whip of rain at the two tired men, and Weymouth called impatiently to the hostler, and then got stiffly to the ground and stamped his feet and stretched himself as he stood holding his horse's bridle. The creature dropped his head low and steamed in the cool air.
There were two windows in the inn itself, dimly lighted, as if by firelight, and in another window in the landward corner a candle flickered faintly. The whole place seemed dull and unfriendly with its stony walls and roofs. Rogers grumbled with a plaintive whine, his companion shouted again with a strong, honest voice, and presently a stable door was flung open and two men came out. Inside, the light of an early lantern beamed comfortably, and the horses turned their heads that way, as if eager for their supper and warm bedding. There was no sound from within of stamping hoofs or cry of crowded and biting horses. The business was evidently at lowest ebb.
"Rub them down well and give them good feed as soon as you dare; full oats and scant hay. We must be on our way again two hours from this at least; we lost the road and were in haste at any rate," said Weymouth. "I'll come out and look after them in an hour. Mind they're not in the wind," he added. "Come, get down," he said in a colder tone to his fellow-traveler, who, through weariness or uncertainty, still sat his horse like a drooping statue. "Strike the mud off you; here, I'll help you, then," as the man gave a groan and tried to dismount. "After the first wrench you're all right. Come! you're none the worse for your cropper into clay and mud! Queer inn they keep here," he said angrily as they crossed the yard toward the door whither one of the hostlers had pointed them. They could hear a woman's scolding voice inside before it was opened.
As the mistress flung it open wide and stood on the threshold, she bade her guests good evening in a civil tone, but insisted somewhat ostentatiously that she desired no guests that night. She had ceased to keep the tavern since the travel had all gone, or been stolen away to the lower ferry. She had some people already whom she must make a shift to care for, old Welsh folk who had been put into the only room that could be used. She was giving up her lease to leave the place -
"We only ask for supper and a fire, 'tis but to rest our horses," said Weymouth, boldly making his way into the inner kitchen where the firelight looked cheerful. Rogers followed ruefully, limping and holding his shoulder as if he were badly hurt. When he sank into the corner of the settee his head dropped back as if he were ill, and his eyes shut as if the sight swam with giddiness. Such distress of weariness and squalor of mud and wet could not but appeal to the beholder.
Weymouth stood before the fire steaming like the horse he had just left and regarded his companion with pity and surprise. Then he gave himself another stretch, and yawned comfortably, and taking off his short cloak spread it carefully upon a bench. There was a stout leather wallet at his side which he unslung and put by the cloak at the fireside, handling it as lightly as he could, but not concealing the fact of its weight, or that such a broad-shouldered man as himself was glad to get rid of it. As he turned again he saw that the landlady had stopped her work among pans and crocks at the table and was watching him sharply, but Rogers groaned as if in his sleep and Weymouth repented his contempt and harsh words on the way. His fellow-messenger had been officious in his pretense of knowing every turn of road that would bring them quick and safe to Bristol, but he had taken the worst of his mistake with so bad a fall, if the color of his face were any sign, and it grew plain that Weymouth must somehow or other find the rest of the way to Bristol alone. In his heart he flinched for a moment, knowing what he carried and that he was a stranger; yet for some reason he had all that day distrusted the smiling clerk and his bland and double manner, and wished more than once that he were riding with a better man.
"Get me some brandy," said Weymouth to the landlady, "and a glass for him when he wakes, a good stiff glass. When he wakes, you know, he'll need all that he can drink, 'twas a hard ride for so poor a horseman. I'll leave him here to-night; neither he nor his horse can go further. I must be on my way by ten or as soon as my horse is fit and has had his feed."
"Oh, no, poor lad!" exclaimed the woman, but there was something disturbed and dissatisfied in her tone. "He'll get to no Bristol to-night," she added, as she trotted off with more willingness than she had shown before and came back with a single clumsy-looking glass on a tray. Weymouth thanked her and took it in his hand and offered it again with much gallantry; but she shook her head, not displeased, and went back to her work.
Then the guest cast another glance at his fellow-traveler, who just at that moment stirred and groaned again, uneasily. Weymouth bent toward him and shook him gently, holding the glass to his lips. The drowsy man was quick to know the welcome odor, and drank the brandy down with eagerness, opening his eyes wide and making a queer face as he finished.
"What's this?" said he.
"'Tis brandy," said Weymouth, laughing boyishly. "So you've forgotten how it tastes since noon!"
"'Twas not for him!" exclaimed the woman, coming back from her cupboard angrily. "You might have choked a sleeping man," she railed at Weymouth, and clenched her fist like a fury.
"Sleep, then," she said to Rogers, who laughed a little and gazed at her stupidly, but much startled. "'What's the odds, Betsy," he faltered, as if he knew her well.
"Betsy me none of your Betsys," said the rough-mannered mistress of the house sharply; then, controlling herself, she caught up the empty glass and her tone changed. "Some other drink would have done for him just as well," she said in a wheedling whisper, and, returning to her shelf, she filled a second glass. Weymouth observed that it was fuller than the first and accepted it amicably. The cross-grained creature had meant to pay him a pretty compliment in pouring him her best grog, and he thanked her civilly, with a proper toast to her good fortune, as he raised the glass to his lips.
He was still standing before the fire; something crossed his mind at that moment. The woman was by her table, where she could see him, and with his hand covering the glass he tossed his head back gayly and pretended to drink. She turned away with a queer sigh. Rogers had shut his eyes again, and quick as a flash Weymouth threw the brandy behind him into the ashes.
Weymouth did not leave his place by the fire, but stood there innocently drying his muddy clothes. The fire had caught a fagot and was cracking and snapping bravely, suddenly it shot up a strange gleam at the side which nobody appeared to notice, though it shone full in the face of the landlady and showed her to be more serene and less excited, and presently she became unexpectedly talkative.
"I do feel proper disgraced to be found so shiftless by you gentlemen," she apologized to Weymouth, whose face was in a shadow. "Custom is so poor that there was no counting on anybody from week's end to week's end. We're give up our lease to go to America and said that on Monday we'd harbor strangers no more, and since then I've had five companies of traveling folk lighting down, all crying for the best, and being thankful for the worst before they got away.
"You'll wait an hour for you suppers at best," she added; "I'd no eggs by me, but I've sent up the road a bit; I cooked the last I had for the folks that was just before ye. An' I ain't got but the one room to show ye; the chimney fell as belongs to the t'other side the house. He'd ought to get t' bed," nodding at the poor crooked-necked figure on the settee. "I make bold to say I want my kitchen to myself. There's a fire in thur - there's somebody in there a'ready, but she's stone deaf and crippled; an old Welsh body as was left wi' me by her son an' darter. They'll be getting a boat across 'arly, and I promised to mind her while they stepped along the dyke to see friends they've got above. She's fast asleep, ye'll hear her snore from here, poor thing, and will neither trouble nor be troubled. I've drawed her curtains tight an' I've stocked the fire. You an' him can take a bit of rest" (persuasively) - "an' I'll do what I can for ye here."
The landlady's tone was peremptory, as well as persuasive; she kept casting uneasy glances at Rogers, who seemed to be falling together in a heap in the settee corner. Weymouth hesitated, but when the woman crossed the room and opened a door he got his companion to his feet and managed to shuffle and drag him to the inner room and put him on the nearest bed. Rogers waked only enough to protest in a weak, strange way, and then fell off to sleep again, while his face grew very red, as if the drink and hot fire had put him in a fever. Here there was a most depressing chill and dreariness. Weymouth hastened back to the kitchen for his cloak and wallet, declaring himself to need the better fire without, and ready to insist upon the rights of a guest.
"'Tis newly lighted within; it burnt out and 'twas just made up new; 'twill soon be too much for you an' I'll hear complaints the other way," the landlady answered him, good-humoredly. "You're not in a Lunnon inn, whatever you may think. Leave me your cloak an' I'll dry an' clean it. My own folks is coming in to their supper. Mind that poor soul ye brought, an' I'll do my best here."
At this moment there were loud voices in the yard, and Weymouth stepped quickly toward the door, full of a traveler's curiosity. "Stop!" said the woman in an insolent tone that made him confront her with wrath and amazement.
"'Tis but some teamsters, sir," she said, her eyes falling before his unspoken reproach of her manners, and going back to the wheedling tone she had taken earlier. "You're too heated, sir," she explained humbly, "an' 'tis wet without and blowing again. You'd best stay under cover while you may."
The inner room to which Weymouth returned was long and narrow with but one narrow window at each end. That toward the courtyard was shuttered and fastened on the outside and some of the glass was broken while there were cobwebs and dust that had long been gathering. The other window was high above the steep slope of the cliff and looked down at the dyke and the meadows and far over the gloomy water beyond.
Innocently Drying His Muddy Boots.
The moon was rising behind the heavy mist, and, though daylight was now completely gone there was a strange dim light in its place so that Weymouth could presently see where he was and he scanned the shadowy country with a growing belief in his heart that he was a prisoner and that he might be glad to escape from this not reassuring house of entertainment. Once or twice it had seemed from some look or gesture that they had been expected. Rogers and the landlady had undoubtedly betrayed the fact that they were not strangers to each other. If he had been a free man bound on one of his own journeys, nothing that had happened would have made him uneasy, but as the guardian of other men's gold he was more and more on the alert. Clearly the best thing now was to stay quiet for a brief time, for his horse's sake, and then to plead haste and push on. He would risk himself in a bit of fighting, even without his pistols, which had been left in the saddle. For another half hour at least he would possess his soul in patience, then find his way to another inn less solitary and alarming. With a fresh horse and the night before him he could find Bristol himself. He clenched his fist and shook it at the man on the bed; their coming so far out of the way might perhaps be an accident, but Weymouth doubted more than ever the honesty of the man whom he had distrusted at first sight, and the drugged liquor was the surest proof of mischief. He found himself in a tight place.
As he looked down from the window into the misty night the great dismal plain of the Severn stretched away into the shadows of the distance. A fishing smack or small packet boat had crept up toward the headland and cast anchor under its lee. There was a lantern in the rigging and another dim light being brought upon the hill toward the inn. The wind was still blowing as if it had gone down with the sun, and risen less wild than before.
Weymouth left the window, uneasy enough in his mind; he could not see his way to escape in that direction; it was evidently too high for a safe drop to the ground. Then he laughed; his own plan was best and nobody could with decency oppose it; he would call for his horse presently and ride away. Yet if it were known, as he suspected, that he was carrying treasure, it would still take courage to start out alone on a tired horse.
He sat down by the fire and looked about him. There was little furniture in the place except the two old beds, one with its closed curtains of thick stuff and the other a poorly-posted, makeshift of comfort on which Rogers lay. The old Welsh woman breathed loud now and then, but Rogers slept as if he were dead. "Curse him," muttered Weymouth. "He should have known his roads or let an honest man alone."
Two Rough Looking Men by the Fireside.
There was a loud voice in the kitchen; the landlady could be heard now and then railing fretfully at some one, who was not slow to answer back. His thoughts, like those of a tired man, went back to the past and he seemed to himself curiously indifferent to the perplexities of the present. He had just left the woman he loved, disappointed by her coldness. She was younger than he, they had not known each other long, but after a separation of some months he had joined her with the hope of marriage only to find that she had changed, that she put him off and spoke doubtfully of the future. She had confessed that it was no change in her own feelings, but that she feared to bring shame upon him, and the thought of her lonely figure as they parted returned to him like a vision. She had refused to see him again; this was two days before; and the journey to Bristol must be quickly over so that he might go back to plead with her. It was wrong to have parted angrily as he had done - if ever life was in a snarl it was now, but there were ways to conquer. He started to his feet and went quickly toward the kitchen only to discover that the door had been fastened on the outside.
He coolly let the latch fall and returned to his chair; beside it was the heavy pouch of notes and gold and he slung it over his shoulders and fastened the belt with steady fingers. The sudden wave of eagerness a brave man feels in the presence of danger and that brief space while the troubles of his own heart came uppermost both passed quickly; there was a single moment when Weymouth remembered that he was a tired and defenseless man at the mercy of his foes. Then his fears most nobly passed; he must not only escape to plead with Elizabeth Brent, but he was bound in honor to carry his wallet to Bristol to Captain Fenderson, of the ship Mary and Bell.
He had a feeling that he was watched. What about the old Welsh woman? It was by no means uncommon for travelers to be crowded together in country inns, but the landlady had been almost too eager to forestall suspicion. And now glancing across the room he saw the curtains move. The landlady had told him to call her if the poor old creature spoke.
Weymouth left his chair again, lifted the latch of the kitchen door, and knocked boldly when it would not open. "Let me out!" he cried, grumbling and growling. "Let me out! I want more brandy!" With sudden instinct he took on the behavior of a drunken man. "Let her think I am drugged if she pleases," he said to himself, and knocked again, scolding finely and asking for the brandy by turns. He could hear the voice of another woman now, as if in protest, but presently the door opened and the landlady appeared. "You've had brandy enough now," she told him, roughly. "I locked the door because the latch is old and it flies open and keeps both fires a-smoking. Cease your noise; I'll call you for your supper." There were two rough looking men by the fireside and a woman stood behind the settee whose eyes met his as if they struck a flash of light. At the first sight of her face he stopped, for an instant he lost power of speech; then he went on with his drunken play and staggered toward the middle of the room.
The men laughed, the landlady scolded, and the slender figure behind the settee was half hidden in its shadow. Elizabeth Brent, the woman he loved and whom he had left so heavy-hearted, for whose sake he was hurrying to Bristol and hurrying back, the woman he thought of by night and day, here before his astonished eyes! How in the world could she have also fallen into what looked like a den of thieves? How could he manage to get word with her?
His head dropped on his breast as Rogers' [Rogers] might have done, he was growing faint for want of food, the old woman's supper seemed no nearer ready than at first. The two men were watching him and chuckling together by the fire.
"Get me the brandy," he called again, and they chuckled louder. "Drinks all around, you pretty pictur!" he commanded the mistress of the house; and this time they laughed even louder, as well they might.
"I'll get it, aunt," said the younger woman, unexpectedly, "which bottle then?["] She came out into the firelight, not once looking at Weymouth, but her face was very pale and her eyes were shining. He could almost have touched her as she passed.
"'Tis there in the cupboard at the right hand, the small bottle if he must have it; my hands are fast in the dough," grumbled the old woman. "Half a glass'll be enough in all conscience," she added, in a lower tone, and Weymouth, as if with much effort and unsteadiness, got to his feet and followed to the cupboard, protesting as he went. At that moment a dog began to yelp and whine before the fire; a coal had snapped up on his poor back and burnt its way to the skin. The cupboard was at the far end of the room; there was half a minute of confusion and loud laughter while the two were standing side by side at the cupboard door.
"I'm not drunk. I must get away from this," whispered Weymouth, but she stopped his eager whisper. "The net, the net!" she cried, with strange insistence.
"Don't drink! the net and the farther window!"
"Don't waste it. You'll kill him if you give him more," said the old woman close behind them, but Weymouth held the bottle high in his hand and staggered past her to the bedroom door, muttering angrily, and shut himself in. There was a strong bolt inside which he slid, and pounded the door with his fist finely. He could hear the men laughing by the fire, and went back to his elbow chair. The wallet of money banged against the arm of it as he sat down.
"You're what they're seeking," he said under his breath as he put his hand on the leather bag. "Please Heaven we'll keep together till we get to Bristol," but the presence of the two men in the kitchen was significant enough of there being no hope of a peaceable departure on horseback. The certainty of a careful plot against him was impossible to be denied; it was in the very air; he was one against many, and a stranger in this strange and dismal harborage of thieves. Whether they looked for the ordinary purse of a traveler or had been given news of that treasure he carried was a puzzle. In that moment a cold chill of horror stole over Weymouth's great frame; had the woman he loved much, who had suddenly repulsed him with so little reason or excuse, been the means of this danger and disaster? Had she and Rogers - no, it was impossible - impossible! She might be, she was, the victim of misfortunes, but in her honest eyes and heart there was no possibility of such a fault. He whistled a gay shrill tune as he sat by the fire alone; it was a tune they had both known well the year before when they had seen each other first in Southampton. Please Heaven there were more happy days to come for Lizzie Brent and himself. He began to whistle the song again in broken snatches and the men laughed louder than before in the next room.
Weymouth now bethought himself of his two sleeping companions, and especially of the mysterious occupant of the curtained bed. He leaned over and took the bottle from the hearth and pretended to take a long drink. He saw the curtains move again and felt that there were eyes behind them.
The house was very still, there was a dull droning wind in the chimney. Weymouth smacked his lips and whistled another bar of his tune.
"I'll soon see who you are lying there ready to rob me, or to open the door to those who will," he said under his breath as he reached for the guttering candle that stood on the mantel shelf. With the bottle still in his other hand he went to Rogers and tried to wake him, insisting that they must soon be starting, and loudly offering the encouragement of more drink or more pay, as if he were possessed by a besotted man's generosity. Rogers was in a stupor, not asleep, and presently Weymouth crossed the room to the other bed; but one thing meanwhile had been made plain. The candle had shone into the dark corner of the ceiling and revealed what his eyes had anxiously sought for as he sat waiting with forced patience by the fire. A wide board had been nailed from one heavy beam to another of the ceiling, making a shelf into which something was crowded that drooped over the edge in unmistakable folds; to make sure he reached to touch it and his hand was entangled among the cords of a new net.
There was only one thing to do; a man did not wish to frighten an old deaf and crippled body, but a careful look would do no harm, and, though his heart thumped for the first time, he threw open the curtains. There was only a decent old cap with white borders, and a face turned away into the pillows. For an instant he looked down compassionately and with a sense of relief, the next instant he saw at the foot of the bed among the bedclothes, which were strangely disarranged, the large muddy riding boots of a man. "Poor old granny!" he laughed aloud, as if he were unconscious of being besieged, and were growing more foolish and comfortable every moment with his drink. "A little grog won't do 'ee no harm. I'll rouse the old mother an' give her a taste o' gin. She looks a bit blue and cold. Too old, anyway, to be on the road such weather." He brought the bottle hastily from beside Rogers, and bent down close to the cap. "Rise up now, granny, an' take a taste!" he counseled her, persuasively. " 'Twill warm 'ee, dear."
There was a moment of hesitation, and Weymouth lifted the becapped head and held the bottle to the lips. The attack was too sudden and unexpected; the watcher was, for some reason, not ready to declare himself or to provoke an open quarrel; the light was dim, and with much choking and spilling the liquor went down an unwilling throat.
As the peaceful figure with its grandmotherly cap recognized the bitter dram and rose with fury, a straight blow from Weymouth's fist and two or three more that followed, laid the disarranged headgear back among the pillows, and stunned its wearer into harmlessness. Then Weymouth pulled the net from its shelf, after dropping the bottle as if it had fallen from a tipsy man's hand, and, catching the stout tongs from the fireplace, he hurried to the window and opened it softly. It looked far to the ground, but he hastily pushed out the loose armfuls of the net and heard them drop softly, then, fastening a stout twist of the end about the bars of the tongs and bracing them across the corner, he got out of the window, let himself down, let go the window sill, and lowered away down by stretching loops and tangles, bumping and swinging like a pendulum against the stone walls until he came to the ground.
It was a breathless beginning of a most uncertain journey, yet while Weymouth sat for a moment on the narrow ledge of rocky ground the freedom and freshness of the Winter night seemed sweet enough, after the damp and chill of the room he had left. Such is human nature, the alternate prey of fear and careless pleasure.
Weymouth could hear no footsteps, he could see but dimly the steep road above at his right; below, the hill was steeper still, and looked perilous as he started to find his way down. Even a man who is bold at heart feels all the instincts of stealthiness when he is a hunted man, the prey instead of the pursuer. At this instant there came a faint sound from the roadway close by. There was something moving. There was the least sound like a hiss, and then one pebble was tapped against another as he still crept downward. His heart seemed to stop - a gust of wind caught the light net and swished it to and fro against the house. He flattened himself against the ground and clutched [cluthed] the sod with his fingers, then he dropped one foot slowly over the edge to find the shelf below. The burden of the wallet hindered him so that he longed to get rid of it. Suddenly he heard an eager whisper: -
"This way! Come this way! Weymouth!"
The dim shape showed itself plainer now above him. A woman knelt at the wall above, reaching down to give him a hand whose touch he well knew. He quickly found his footing now and was helped up the steep scramble and stood with her in the road.
"Come, come," she urged in a whisper, "they will be keen after us! 'tis for your life!"
She started off instantly down the hill toward the water and he followed. They were running on turf, not gravel, and made no sound. As he ran by her side she pushed him back impatiently, "Keep away, don't come near!" she said. "Hurry, for heaven's sake!"
As they reached the low ground the light figure that flitted before Weymouth led him into a path that ran low down on the landward side of the dyke, which must have been made partly by cattle and partly by men who shielded themselves from the fierce north winds of Winter which blew across the water. Two figures could easily have been seen in the smooth path that ran along the dyke top, but here they were sheltered and the silent guide took a slower pace as they passed some thickets of osiers. Once she stopped and motioned to him and crept up the dyke side. Weymouth followed, and they saw that they were nearly abreast of the fishing smack or smuggler if such she were. There was a boat just leaving her, a lantern was held for an instant over the side and then was hidden again. Weymouth looked back at the house on the height; they were now perhaps half a mile away. There were no lights in the windows, even in that which he had left, but by this time the wretched guttering candle would have melted and sucked itself into extinction. Without a word they both stepped back to the path again, and ran on until the leader turned from the dyke across a wide ditch which was bridged by some unsteady planks. The meadow was wet under foot, they lost and found again a narrow causeway that led among the upland fields, and presently stopped to take breath beside an overgrown hedge.
"Be still," said the woman, anxiously, for Weymouth forgot everything except that they were lovers. "Speak soft!" and she moved away a little, but still left her hand in his. "A voice carries far in this mist; we are not out of danger yet."
She was panting for breath; they had come nearly a mile at a fine, steady pace for the most part. There was a singing in Weymouth's ears as he shifted the strap of his pouch to the other shoulder; to see her again was worth whatever might befall.
"'Twas a hard day's ride," he said, boyishly, "and here I'm on the road again."
"'Tis a mercy, then!" said the woman, roughly, but the mother that is in every wife has mercy for the boy that is in every husband, and she and Weymouth were lovers, and so she began to pity him.
"I brought a bit of bread and cheese, dear, here in my apron," she said. "I almost forgot it, but don't stop to eat it now. 'Twas poor housing for you, God pity me!"
He had left her stern and cold two days before, and the wistful love she now betrayed was more to Weymouth than any danger, past, present or to come. It must be that she had forgotten her unkind decision, but at the first word of an eager question she left his side and hurried up the long slope. The heavy leather pouch chafed and lamed its carrier's side, but, worse than that, unhappy forebodings took the spirit out of his heart. The whole adventure seemed unreal, danger and assistance were both alike strange events, a play which developed itself before his eyes. Weymouth was light-headed for the moment and neither his own safety nor the gold's appeared to be important, while the whole happiness of his life was at stake.
She Left Her Hand in His.
A mile or two away the old inn stood up against the dark sky like a dismal prison. There were lights about it now, as if there were some stir and excitement. The escaped man drew a long breath and hastened forward to overtake his companion.
"What shall I do?" he asked. "I have no horse and I must reach Bristol by dawn. I have spent my life with horses, but this one was like a brother. Well, I must leave him to their mercy. We should have been in Bristol now, for the sailing of a ship."
"You were led astray," said she, speaking over her shoulder as he walked close behind.
"By whom, then?"
"By Rogers; they have trusted too long at the bank; he has been waiting his chance, and has been in league with - with these people," she faltered. "Let us make haste."
"I thought you meant to hail the vessel," said Weymouth. "They could have set round into Bristol."
"Do you not see that the wind has fallen?" answered his companion. "Folks have been dropped overboard from that craft before now. The Severn is deep and wide enough to hide many a man with a stone fast to his neck."
Again they walked on for some time without speaking, but at the foot of a long ridge of land with a hedge at the top she stopped once more and whispered in his ear.
"We must do something bold now," she said; "that is the road above us."
Weymouth stood like a soldier waiting for his orders.
"There is an inn close by us at the path's end. 'Tis no palace, yet not a den of thieves like that," and she pointed back to the shore. "To let you escape may bring down the law on their heads. If they have not sent some one here already they will do it soon. They will not let you get away so easily," she said, faltering again. "No one has escaped them yet who could tell tales," and she sobbed in spite of herself and let him take her into his arms. Her strength had broken at last. "Promise me something," she said, and he promised in love and pity.
"It is my shame and doom," she said, when she could speak. "I cannot marry an honest man. They are my own people, my nearest kin, these murderers and thieves. But they are going to America; their passage is already taken. Next week all will be at an end. Let them go free; they took me an orphan and bred me up kindly. 'Tis as good as any banishment. I have promised to go with them; it is my only hope and prayer to help them save their souls by honest living in a new country."
She was wild and piteous now with her kisses and entreaties. "Oh, my man, I cannot be your shame!" she cried, like one whose nerves were ailing and whose distress was more than could be borne. "You do not know - you do not know; 'twas worse with them while I had gone away!"
"Then I must follow you," said the troubled man, trying to comfort her. "You are more than ever the wife for me."
Her face shone in the dark with whiteness; she stood before him and pushing him back with a firm hand, her manner wholly changed.
"Listen to me" - she stopped a moment while they both heard a horse's tread coming along the highway.
"Whatever horse that may be, if the rider stops at the inn you must be ready to take it and ride on."
She rapidly told him to find his way where the road divided just beyond, and they hurried together up the last steep rise of ground. The horse was coming at a gallop.
"Good Heavens! I believe it's my own," said Weymouth, ready to rush out in the middle of the road. The low building of the inn was opposite and there were lights in the window. They stood under the eaves of a bushy hedge as the rider came up and, stopping his horse, gave a call. The quick-witted woman pushed Weymouth under the ivy tod and ran out and caught the bridle.
"He came by the fields! Look in the inn kitchen!" she said aloud, triumphantly.
"I'll mind your horse. Quick, now!" she insisted, and the rider leaped to ground, pleased at an ally, and had hardly opened the inn door when Weymouth, safe in his own saddle, rode away free as a bird down the Bristol road.
There was no time for farewells, but all the way the thought of the lonely figure behind him in the road was like a sword in Weymouth's heart. As day broke he rode into Bristol a weary but not hopeless man. Through all the hurry and business of the morning the experience of such a night shimmered in his mind, full of unreality, like the remembrance of a bad dream. In spite of his promise he must see that such horrid business was stopped. This thought possessed him at one moment, and at the next he only desired to rescue the woman, whom he now loved more than ever, from such surroundings and from the sense which so preyed upon her of responsibility. It was necessary to act with discretion. He knew now the reason of her withdrawal from her promise made when they were together in a distant part of England, and while she for some reason had felt free and lighthearted. Why had she come back to the old shame or to new certainty of shame? All these things must wait for explanation, but, for his part, he could not wait long to see his deliverer again. It was a wonder that he was not under the Severn like the rest. But for the woman he loved best, but for Elizabeth Brent, he might indeed be drifting and swaying under the tide, the treasure stolen and he himself charged with the robbery. As he rode he made the whole plot clear to himself with its clever undoing; he could never forget the look of horror on that face in the shadow of the settee when the man whose robbery was planned had proved to be himself. What pity grew in his heart for that young creature, an angel, as she seemed to him, lost among thieves!
The first thing to be done was to make his report to those who had sent him out on the errand, and then to take the quickest of journeys to find her again and make sure that they should never be parted. So he rode in short time from Bristol, grudging each minute, but planning his return with eagerness.
When he reached the bank and told his story and asked for help, he was listened to with surprise, and almost with incredulity. Rogers had not returned and the tale of his craft and dishonor seemed to be questioned. The wrong road; a suspicious den toward which Weymouth believed himself to be enticed (and which for purposes of his own he refused for the moment to describe); the strange liquor, with its deadly drug meant for him, all which Rogers had got by mistake; all this sounded even in the days of greater lawlessness like a very strange story. The senior partner was again heard to grumble that Rogers was the best clerk they ever had, and grew more and more impatient.
"Were you robbed, then?" he demanded, arrogantly, as if he believed the worst of these excuses and was ready to take vengeance; but the squire nodded shrewdly at Weymouth, as if they two kept understanding.
Weymouth sprang to his feet and threw the Captain's letter and his receipt for the money on the table.
The Lonely Figure Behind Him.
"I have put aside the thought of one dearer to me than life," he said, "to bring you these. To venture back alone or in company might have been my end. I have done your errand; ask my fellow-messenger, if you like, what he will never dare to answer."
He turned on his heel and left the room. "This is very strange," said the old man, looking at the squire. "Yes, here are the papers, the money is on the ship; he was there on time. Did you mind what a look there was in the fellow's face when I doubted him?["] But the squire was hurrying after Weymouth and the senior partner was left alone to wonder more than ever. Evidently, whatever pay went into Weymouth's pocket would be to him only the price of much happiness and peace of mind.
The squire was a lover of adventure, as has been already said, and he went hurrying down the street like a boy to overtake the man, for whom he had a great liking.
"Tell me more, Weymouth," he urged. "You're fagged to death with this affair whatever is at the bottom of it. Come, and we'll have something together and see what can be done! I always expected the like of this of Rogers -"
"I had to make a promise, sir," said Weymouth, "but I'll tell you all I can and be grateful for the chance. Sometimes a man who is alone must trust his friend, and I make bold to call you mine. 'Twill end in my borrowing your sorrel mare and begging you to mount the roan if I could have my wish."
"We'll start at dawn," said the squire eagerly when he had heard the story. "No, no constables till you've got her safe away - then I'll manage the game. I know the place, and that upper inn 'tis a low lodging with but an evil name, but 'twill do for a makeshift," and so they parted and Weymouth felt every hour to be a day and knew that they might be setting out on a long ride and was glad to remember that nobody would wait at home for the squire who was also a single man. They came in good time the next day to the old house above the waterside, to find it deserted. The door stood open to the Winter wind and its tenants had fled. At the other inn where Weymouth had parted from his love they got news that those whom they sought were sailing for America and must be hiding in Bristol, if indeed they were not already at sea.
The landlord and his hostlers said boldly, and with an air of great innocence and unconcern, that the country was well rid of such a pack - they were not old country folk but late comers, and their room in England was better than their company. Of Rogers nothing could be heard.
The disappointed riders called for supper and made the most of the poor comforts of the roadside tavern, but it being then after nightfall Weymouth slipped out alone and crossing the road followed the footpath down toward the Severn. He was at heart like a poor dog that had lost its master and by the hedge where they had rested and stood talking he shed many tears. It was again a dark and misty night, and darkest and saddest of all were the forebodings of his own heart.
They made haste to Bristol and searched there, but too late, for when getting word of their ship, they hurried to the harbor side, it was only to see the far white fleck of a sail.
The rest of the story might be a long tale by itself.
"Under floods that are deepest,
Over rocks that are steepest
Love will find out the way."
But Weymouth's way was a long one. He lost no time in starting on his quest and pilgrimage, and his business of horse dealing made an excellent excuse for riding hither and yon through the newly settled part of the country, finding what faint traces he could of the emigrants, from the day of their landing, but after many months had passed he kept what patience and hope he could in the midst of discouragement, and believed at last that fate would lead him where plots and plans had failed.
Like a Poor Dog That Had Lost Its Master.
One Spring evening, the second year that he had been in America, Weymouth was driving into one of the older villages, where he had once or twice been before, and there saw a worn and wistful face at a window, and knew that the search was ended. It seemed the simplest thing in the world to look up and see her there after all the mystery and silence; for a moment he could not take in the truth and felt strangely cold and dull - then a tremendous wave of joy struck into his very heart. There were some young horses leading behind his wagon and he was driving an excitable pair of colts for whom the sight of a bundle of straw on a wheelbarrow was too much altogether, so that they reared and plunged and seemed to be putting their driver in danger. Elizabeth Brent came to stand in a door with great distress and discovered Weymouth as his face turned toward her just as the frisky company settled to the harness and halter again, and went on quietly to the end of their day's journey.
Weymouth could hardly stop to give directions or to care for his livery property; he felt like a dazed man with his mind in such a whirl of sudden delight and strange timidity, and without listening to the questions of a group of tavern idlers he went hurrying back down the road.
The houses were far apart, and the footpath was only a worn track in the cropped grass; it might have been the field path above the Severn. It was a misty night and the sky was gray and heavy, and there, beside a wild thicket, they met again as they had parted, on a dark night, but neither thought of anything except of meeting; certainly not of parting any more while the world stood.
There were sad tales to tell of poverty and shame, and there was need of all the protection and comfort that Weymouth could give, most of all because some letters which had been written had all miscarried or never found him in his wandering way of life. This was the bitterest of all, to think one's self forgotten and perhaps disdained, but hope was stronger and now at last prevailed. As for the keepers of the dismal inn, they had failed to prosper even after their own fashion, and the woman [women] had died not long before, after a long and wretched illness, while her husband was in jail for theft, and their companions, who had fled with them, had long ago forsaken them. In her last days the miserable woman had been haunted by thoughts of the help she had given to the awful deeds, done at night in that dark low room, from which Weymouth had so luckily escaped. But as for Rogers, the accomplice, he had gone with them to Bristol, much hurt by his fall, and sick from the deadly drug which once was cruelly said to have done no harm to those who were also put to sleep by the deep water of the Severn. From Bristol, refusing to go to America, he had been put on board a brig that was sailing for France, and no one knew any more of Rogers from that day - the senior partner who missed his clerk from the bank, or the thieves into whose hands he tried to play. He had served them, and they had served him in years before, in other parts of the country - and but for this check upon their industries the bank itself had but a short race to run without robbery. The week before, after long waiting, Rogers had at last been trusted with a key to the safe, and the theft of the money which Weymouth was carrying to Bristol was a bit of by-play, while the larger robbery was to be planned that very night, and to be achieved the next. But a poorer company has rarely gone seafaring than these who meant to start with pockets full, and Weymouth's Elizabeth had long earned the money that supported herself and the old dying woman, who suffered every torture that illness can give in her last weary months. In this far-away village the two women had been befriended, and it was Weymouth's delight to pay the poor debts that his wife had been forced to make in her extremity, and to satisfy her generous heart with a new power of being bountiful to those who had saved her from distress. Then they went away together man and wife and lived and loved each other for many years and saw old England again before they died.
Once Weymouth, who seldom reminded his wife of what could only bring shame and sorrow to her heart, as he sat thinking at night before the fire, said boldly: -
"Where was the master of the inn that night, and what was his part of the game? Why hadn't he wit enough to keep watch and follow us?" Then his wife answered, cheerfully, looking at him with a smile.
"Because he was the old Welsh woman in the curtain bed."
"And that new net?"
"It was I who put it there, my dear."
"And saved my life?" said Weymouth.
"Yet, I did not know that it was for you," she said. "I only feared for some poor soul in danger. I was going for help next moment, when you came into the kitchen and I saw your face."
"It was a dark night, indeed," said Weymouth, puffing at his pipe, "but the money got safe to Bristol, and here we are now together."
These comments are from a letter to Arthur Stedman (1859-1908), dated from South Berwick, Maine on 29 February 1895. The letter appears in David Bonnell Green, "Sarah Orne Jewett's 'A Dark Night.'" The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 53: 331-34 (1959).
Jewett Comments on "A Dark Night."I send you the story for Messrs. Bacheller & Co. and I hope that you will find that it serves their purpose I chose this scheme rather than one or two others which I had in hand, bearing in mind Mr. Bacheller's special message about "action & excitement" and that "the story would be printed in instalments of about 2000 words." Two, or three, of these four chapters go two or three hundred words beyond that but I hope the story will be manageable in every way! and pray do not let it be reckoned as over the 8000 words of the original contract!In a letter to Arthur Stedman's father, Clarence Stedman, (also in Green) Jewett wrote on 22 May 1899: "Sometimes I have printed things with deep regret and found them very much approved. Mr. Aldrich often reproaches me for my misunderstanding of the value of two or three Atlantic sketches while he was Editor!"
"A Dark Night" appeared in the Philadelphia Press in four installments in 1895: April 16, 17, 18, 19, on page 11 of each number. One chapter appeared in each installment. The illustrations from this printing are placed at their approximate locations in the original. Before chapters 2-4 appeared a synopsis of the previous parts of the story. See below for the texts. As the story was offered by the Bacheller, Johnson & Bacheller syndicate, it is possible it appeared in other newspapers at around the same time. This text duplicates the Press printing, except that where errors are apparent, they are corrected and indicated with brackets. The Philadelphia Press text is available here courtesy of the State Library of Pennsylvania.
This story makes use of the same setting as the climax of The Tory Lover (1901).
Richard Cary reprinted this story in Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, but it appears he did not use the Philadelphia Press text as his master. This text differs at several points from Cary's.
A manuscript of this story is held by the Bowdoin College Library: George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives.
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Somerset ... Severn: The river Severn forms the modern border between England and Wales. The County of Somerset is south of Bristol, indicating that the riders are approaching Bristol along the southern shore of the Bristol Channel, where the Severn flows into the Atlantic.
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thickets of osiers: Osier (common osier is Salix viminalis) is any of several types of willow whose pliable twigs are used for furniture, baskets, etc.
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ivy tod: A tod is a bush, thick shrub, bushy clump or a mat, as in the case of ivy vines.
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squire: This word is not consistently capitalized in the original.
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"Under floods that are deepest, / Over rocks that are steepest / Love will find out the way": This anonymous 17th-century lyric appears in The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900, which is available at: www.bartleby.com/101/391.html. The poem opens with this stanza:
OVER the mountains
And over the waves,
Under the fountains
And under the graves;
Under floods that are deepest,
Which Neptune obey,
Over rocks that are steepest,
Love will find out the way.
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Synopsis appearing before Chapter II.
The story opens in the office of a banking house in the west of England. The head of the firm and a neighboring 'Squire are going to send some money to Bristol for investment. There is doubt as to who shall carry it there, but finally a horse dealer named Weymouth and a clerk named Rogers are selected. Both the 'Squire and Weymouth distrust Rogers. On the way to Bristol they lose their way and finally arrive at an inn. Rogers drops asleep from fatigue and Weymouth, out of kindness, gives him the brandy which had been poured out for himself by the old woman who kept the inn. She acts in such an excited and angry manner at this time that Weymouth instead of drinking the second glass she pours for him throws it away when she is not looking.
Synopsis before Chapter III (duplicated before Chapter IV).
Reprints the above paragraph and adds the next.
Chapter II. - Weymouth is escorted to a dismal room, with Rogers, where the latter lies unconscious. An old Welsh woman, Weymouth is told, occupies the heavily curtained bed in the same room. Weymouth is suspicious and resolves to continue his journey, but is fearful of two rough men who have come in. Upon calling for brandy he is confronted with Elizabeth Brent, his sweetheart, who cautions him not to drink but to look for a net at the further window of his room.
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College, with the assistance of Kate Hartman.