A FIRST STEP

The funeral of Captain Rattenbury was conducted with that pomp and circumstance so dear to the West Country heart. The entire neighbourhood attended from both sides of the estuary of the Axe. Indeed, the village of Beer was for the afternoon denuded of its inhabitants; for, although only men were invited to the interment, yet the women flocked to it as well, to express their sympathy with the bereaved and their respect for the deceased, with copious gush of tears and flutter of kerchiefs, and to hang about the door of the house of mourning in hopes of being able to squeeze in and taste a little of that spirituous consolation which flows freely at the funeral of an adult, the absence of which from that of a child deprives it of its zest and popularity.
Olver Dench thrust himself forward officiously, acting as though he had been constituted master of the ceremonies and dispenser or steward of the refreshments.
Mrs. Jose, always forward in kindly help as she was ever prompt in kind intent, was there to assist Mrs. Marley. She had boiled the salt beef at the farm, and baked the saffron cakes in the Bindon oven. She had thoughtfully retained Winefred at her house, and had told her mother that it was her purpose to keep her there till something was settled relative to her future disposal.
When the ceremony in the churchyard was at an end, a sense of relief manifested itself among the sable mourners in a hum of conversation interspersed with sallies of cheerfulness and splutter of laughter. A black stream now set in the direction of the cottage, where the bearers might recruit after the muscular exertion of carrying the corpse, and the mourners after the tension of their feelings.
The Undercliff habitation could not possibly contain all, and[121] it resembled a hive about which the bees were thick, some entering eagerly, others emerging reluctantly, wiping their lips. Olver retained hold of a flask of spirits, and poured out to every one, accompanying each libation with a word on the irreparable loss the community had sustained, and on the unapproachable merits of the deceased, accompanied also by confident assurances that he was then smiling down on the mourners from aloft. Then he threw out observations on the good luck enjoyed by Jack at having come in for the fortune accumulated by the thrift of his father, who had been the most unselfish man he knew, toiling that Jack might enjoy, amassing that he might spend.
The ferryman did not fail to impress on all present that he had himself been the most intimate friend of Captain Job, associated with him throughout their lives, that they had lived as brothers, and that he had been constituted orally by the departed the guardian of Jack, and, added Dench, ‘Please God I will do my duty by the lad, for ever and ever. Amen.’ Then, as his cheeks grew redder, and his face more glossy, he moralised with greater unction. It behoved them all to take lesson, and so to order their lives as to be able to die as happy as had the captain. It would be well were their hearts in the right place, as was his. That was the great secret. All were doomed to fade as the lilies and to wither as the grass. Let them, therefore, lay up treasure for their children to enjoy, and comrades to be left behind to lament them.
Then he diverged into more or less open allusion to Jane Marley. He named no names, and he said nothing, but he felt all the deeper that it was a sad thing for a man when ill and dying to be in the hands of hirelings, who had no interest beyond grabbing what lay strewn about, and whose solicitude was wholly for themselves and not with the patient.
But these insinuations were made only when not liable to be overheard by Jane or Mrs. Jose. As his face glowed like a November setting sun, and assumed a gloss like young holly leaves, he became noisy, talking louder, excessive in his officiousness, demonstrative in his grief, and effusive in his piety.
‘I think,’ said he very boisterously, ‘that we’ll lift up our voices and sing John Wesley’s favourite hymn, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”‘
Mrs. Jose hastily interfered.
‘Well, ma’am, we’ll take it slow time, like a hymn.’
[122]
As this did not meet with approval, ‘Then some one start any hymn as is suitable—I ain’t very familiar with psalm-tunes.’
The influx of mourners was incessant, for no sooner had one set been refreshed than another battled its way in at the door to be regaled as well, and the first set, which had departed by the back door, made the circuit of the house, and appeared again at the front, fresh for new consolation.
The saffron cake and the cold beef were in request, but not to the same extent as the spirits. As each ate and drank he heaved a sigh, and said, ‘Ah, well! Us shan’t see the likes of he again,’ or, ‘He died beautiful—’appy as a hangel,’ or some similar commonplace. It was part of the etiquette to heave a sigh and utter a moan, and make a pious observation. At length the rapidly declining day put a term to the entertainment, and caused a diminution in the concourse of applicants for cake and liquor.
When the last had departed, Dench cast himself into the arm chair and said, ‘Darned if I ain’t pretty nigh done up. Now it is my turn to touch a drop.’
‘There is none left,’ said Mrs. Jose, who had quietly removed the bottle, ‘and what is more, you must clear out of this. Jane and I are about to wash up, and then we must carry back to Bindon the dishes and glasses that I lent for the occasion.’
‘Well,’ said Dench, ‘it can’t be said but that we did it handsome, and I reckon they enjoyed themselves—prodigious. As to clearing out—I don’t see it, but I’ll help to clear away.’
He set to work accordingly to make himself useful. He was, in fact, impatient to be rid of the two women. He replaced the chairs against the walls, brought in wood and made up the fire. He mounted the stairs and drew up the blind in the bedroom above, and as he did so peered into everything. The chamber had been well searched before; he searched it again now.
He did not descend till the women were gone burdened with baskets that contained glass and crockery. When he came down he saw Jack standing at the window, looking forth into the dark night that had set in, with an expression of sadness and in an attitude of dejection.
Olver said cheerily, ‘We’ll have out another bottle and smoke. Care killed the cat. Make this your home. Draw a chair to the fire and close the shutters, there is a good fellow. I’m a bit fagged—I’ve worked hard to-day. But blow me if I would not go through it all again for your dear old father. Ah![123] he was my most familiar friend. We knew each other from boyhood, and he valued me for my poor gifts. Hanged if I know what he saw in me—but there was something that made him cling to me. He trusted me above any one in the world. I am one of your straight men, you know. When he was bad with the stroke, and you had gone for the doctor, he could not speak, but he made eyes for the slate, and I understood him, and brought it to him, and he wrote on it, “I fear Jack, that he’s thoughtless, and may waste his inheritance. Be a father to him, old friend. Tell him to intrust his money to you and beware of a bank.” There,’ said the ferryman, taking down the slate, ‘you see it here. Drat it—only “I fear Ja——,” the rest was there, upon my soul, I can swear to it; but there have been a deal of people in the house to-day rubbing against it with their shoulders, and they have rubbed the most of it out.’
‘What you tell me seems too much to get on to the slate,’ said Jack, but without exhibiting a lively interest in the communication.
‘Oh, not a bit. You see the commencement,’ said Dench. ‘What follows has been brushed away. Then your father turned the slate and finished on the other side. Ah! that is gone. I warrant you that Jane Marley has done this. She is deep and she does not like us. A bad lot that. Do not trust her. If she had been able to write, there is no saying what she might have added and passed off as his last will. There has been no will found, I believe.’
‘None. I do not think my father made one.’
‘No. He would have informed me if he had. He did nothing of importance without advising with me. But you may take this as the expression of his last wishes, and I can swear to every word. Jane Marley was present, saw him write, and because she spited me has cleaned out the scribble—all but the beginning. What has your father left?’
‘I do not know—except debts.’
‘Debts! but there is plenty of money for wiping them out.’
Jack shook his head.
‘I say there must be.’
‘Then where is it?’
‘That is just what I supposed you knew. He did not tell me, though we were so intimate.’
‘I have no idea as to what he was worth, and where he placed what he had.’
‘My dear boy, he never spent one-tenth of what he made.[124] He has been a hoarding man ever since I knew him, close and frugal. On himself he spent nothing.’
‘But he never stinted me; and that is how the money went.’
‘Fiddlesticks! He ordered you a cutter, that don’t cost a trifle.’
‘But it is not paid for.’
‘He was not the man to order when he had not the money in hand wherewith to pay.’
‘There were fifteen pounds in a bag in his pocket,’ said Jack; ‘I know of no more. That will meet the cost of the funeral, but not leave much over.’
Dench went to the window seat, lifted it, and took out a flask of spirits.
‘I don’t understand. There must be money.’
‘To be frank with you,’ said Jack, ‘I have no faith in money made in the way he has been speculating. It may come in freely, but it runs out again as freely. It is drawing water in a leaky bucket. I have heard Mrs. Marley say that her father died as poor as a rat, and he had been in the business since he was a boy of fifteen. It has been the same with my father.’
‘But you have heard him boast that he intended to make a gentleman of you.’
‘Yes, precisely because, like a gambler, he reckoned on his next throw being successful.’
‘He has spent a lot of money on your education.’
‘Yes, and he has ventured a lot of money in the trade—of late he has not been able to realise. The look-out has been so sharp that he has had no returns. You know how this last affair has ended.’
‘Nothing has been confiscated.’
‘No—but nothing has been sold.’
‘I am not satisfied. On the whole he has been a lucky man, and, by the foot of Pharaoh, a man like him is not ruined by a bad job. Let us look round. If we find anything, you know what was his last desire, that you should intrust it to me—make me your banker. You see this slate? He was vastly against you keeping it yourself. He knew how thoughtless and wasteful young men are.’
‘We will talk of the disposal of the money when we have found it,’ said Jack. ‘I will go round with you, and we will search, but I have formed no very great expectations, so shall not be downcast if we find nothing.’
Every candle was lighted, and Jack and Olver thoroughly[125] explored the house together. This was now the third time it had been searched; but on this occasion the ferryman was not hurried. He had the whole night before him.
They took down all the garments suspended in the wardrobe, Dench felt every fold, examined the linings, beat them with a stick. They searched above the receptacle, they looked under it. The only thing they did not do was to draw it bodily out of its place, and this they did not attempt because it was fastened into its place by crooks driven into the wall, secured with screws that had become rusted into their place. Jane Marley’s bedroom was subjected to a search so thorough that the two men omitted nothing.
It was during this investigation that Jane returned. She watched them as they continued the exploration, and held the candle for them.
‘We will let the fire out,’ said Olver. ‘I will go up the chimney and examine that.’
But when this also proved fruitless, ‘I wonder,’ said the ferryman, ‘whether he stuffed that violin of his with banknotes. A hundred-pound note don’t take up a terrible space.’
Again he encountered disappointment.
‘We will rip open each pillow and mattress,’ said Dench. ‘I’ve heard of large fortunes being secreted thus, and that is just where no preventive men would look for kegs.’
He unpicked a seam, thrust in his hand, and groped through the feathers of pillows and the wool of flock mattresses. Had there been a guinea secreted in either he would have fingered it. But there was nothing of that sort—dust only, and that not of gold.
Olver was puzzled, angry, disheartened.
‘Can it be anywhere outside the house?’ he asked. ‘Jack, to-morrow with the daylight we will give up hours to the search and leave not a stone unturned, not a bush unexamined. I’m darned, but it is somewhere.’
With a hard, unmoved face, Jane Marley had watched and attended on the two men.
She had been with Mrs. Jose to Bindon, helping to carry back the articles lent from the farm for the funeral feast. As she had neared the house Mrs. Jose had said to her, ‘Jane, Winefred has got a valuable watch, worth forty guineas, I should say, and she tells me a strange tale about it—that she has met and talked with her father, who gave it to her.’
‘Yes, it was so.’
[126]
‘But, Jane, what does he mean by it? Is he going to recognise her?’
‘Not immediately. She must be educated. But she is to be brought up to be a lady.’
‘A lady! And he will supply the money needful?’
‘The money I have. I am to have more as I require it. I shall give up peddling.’
‘I am glad. He has behaved very badly. I am glad that he sees the error of his ways, and will make amends to you and to her. It is a step in the right direction.’
‘A step! Yes.’ Jane considered. ‘Yes, it is a step.’
‘A first step, the rest will follow.’
‘Yes, others will follow.’
‘They must.’
Jane had said no more. Nor did Mrs. Jose till the door of Bindon was reached. There the farmer’s wife had said, ‘I do not know the rights of the story, and this is not the time for it to be told. But what about the name? Is Winefred still to be Marley?’
‘Winefred is to be no more called Marley, but is to bear her father’s name, Holwood.’
‘And you?’
‘Oh! I am nothing. I matter naught. I have been known as Marley. I am going back, but Winefred is beginning. That makes the difference;’ and as Jane walked in the darkness back to the Undercliff she said to herself, ‘It is done. I cannot draw back now. I have taken the first step. But Winefred shall be a lady.’