A Tale of Four Moonlight Nights
The genial Justice of the Peace-now, alas, no more who made himselfresponsible for the facts of this story, used to begin in the good old-fashioned way with abright moonlight night and a mysterious figure, an excellent stroke for an opening, evento this day, if well followed up. The Christmas moon (he would say) was showing her cold face to the upland, theupland reflecting the radiance in frost-sparkles so minute as only to be discernible by aneye near at hand.This eye, he said, was the eye of a shepherd lad, young for hisoccupation, who stood within a wheeled hut of the kind commonly in use amongsheep-keepers during the early lambing season, and was abstractedly looking throughthe loop-hole at the scene without. The spot was called Lambing Corner, and it was a sheltered portion of that wideexpanse of rough pasture-land known as the Marlbury Downs, which you directlytraverse when following the turnpike-road across Mid-Wessex from London, throughAldbrickham, in the direction of Bath and Bristol.Here, where the hut stood, the landwas high and dry, open, except to the north, and commanding an undulating view formiles.On the north side grew a tall belt of coarse furze, with enormous stalks, a clumpof the same standing detached in front of the general mass.The clump was hollow, andthe interior had been ingeniously taken advantage of as a position for thebefore-mentioned hut, which was thus completely screened from winds, and almostinvisible, except through the narrow approach.But the furze twigs had been cut awayfrom the two little windows of the hut, that the occupier might keep his eye on his sheep. In the rear, the shelter afforded by the belt of furze bushes was artificiallyimproved by an enclosure of upright stakes, interwoven with boughs of the same pricklyvegetation, and within the enclosure lay a renowned Marlbury-Down breeding flock ofeight hundred ewes. To the south, in the direction of the young shepherd's idle gaze, there rose oneconspicuous object above the uniform moonlit plateau, and only one.It was a Druidicaltrilithon, consisting of three oblong stones in the form of a doorway, two on end, and oneacross as a lintel.Each stone had been worn, scratched, washed, nibbled, split, andotherwise attacked by ten thousand different weathers; but now the blocks lookedshapely and little the worse for wear, so beautifully were they silvered over by the light ofthe moon.The ruin was locally called the Devil's Door. An old shepherd presently entered the hut from the direction of the ewes, andlooked around in the gloom.'Be ye sleepy?' he asked in cross accents of the boy. The lad replied rather timidly in the negative. 'Then,' said the shepherd, 'I'll get me home-along, and rest for a few hours. There's nothing to be done here now as I can see.The ewes can want no more tendingtill daybreak-'tis beyond the bounds of reason that they can.But as the order is that oneof us must bide, I'll leave 'ee, d'ye hear.You can sleep by day, and I can't.And you canbe down to my house in ten minutes if anything should happen.I can't afford 'ee candle;but, as 'tis Christmas week, and the time that folks have hollerdays, you can enjoyyerself by falling asleep a bit in the chair instead of biding awake all the time.But mind,not longer at once than while the shade of the Devil's Door moves a couple of spans, foryou must keep an eye upon the ewes.' The boy made no definite reply, and the old man, stirring the fire in the stove withhis crook-stem, closed the door upon his companion and vanished. As this had been more or less the course of events every night since theseason's lambing had set in, the boy was not at all surprised at the charge, and amusedhimself for some time by lighting straws at the stove.He then went out to the ewes andnew-born lambs, re-entered, sat down, and finally fell asleep.This was his customarymanner of performing his watch, for though special permission for naps had this weekbeen accorded, he had, as a matter of fact, done the same thing on every precedingnight, sleeping often till awakened by a smack on the shoulder at three or four in themorning from the crook-stem of the old man. It might have been about eleven o'clock when he awoke.He was so surprised atawaking without, apparently, being called or struck, that on second thoughts heassumed that somebody must have called him in spite of appearances, and looked outof the hut window towards the sheep.They all lay as quiet as when he had visited them,very little bleating being audible, and no human soul disturbing the scene.He nextlooked from the opposite window, and here the case was different.The frost-facetsglistened under the moon as before; an occasional furze bush showed as a dark spot onthe same; and in the foreground stood the ghostly form of the trilithon.But in front of thetrilithon stood a man. That he was not the shepherd or any one of the farm labourers was apparent in amoment's observation, his dress being a dark suit, and his figure of slender build andgraceful carriage.He walked backwards and forwards in front of the trilithon. The shepherd lad had hardly done speculating on the strangeness of theunknown's presence here at such an hour, when he saw a second figure crossing theopen sward towards the locality of the trilithon and furze clump that screened the hut. This second personage was a woman; and immediately on sight of her the malestranger hastened forward, meeting her just in front of the hut window.Before sheseemed to be aware of his intention he clasped her in his arms. The lady released herself and drew back with some dignity. 'You have come, Harriet-bless you for it!' he exclaimed fervently. 'But not for this,’ she answered, in offended accents.And then, moregood-naturedly, 'I have come, Fred, because you entreated me so!What can havebeen the object of your writing such a letter?I feared I might be doing you grievous ill bystaying away.How did you come here?' 'I walked all the way from my father's' 'Well, what is it?How have you lived since we last met?' 'But roughly; you might have known that without asking.I have seen many landsand many faces since I last walked these downs, but I have only thought of you. 'Is it only to tell me this that you have summoned me so strangely?' A passing breeze blew away the murmur of the reply and several succeedingsentences, till the man's voice again became audible in the words, 'Harriet-truth betweenus two!I have heard that the Duke does not treat you too, well.' 'He is warm-tempered, but be is a good husband.''He speaks roughly to you, and sometimes even threatens to lock you out ofdoors.' 'Only once, Fred!On my honour, only once.The Duke is a fairly good husband,I repeat.But you deserve punishment for this night's trick of drawing me out.Whatdoes it mean?' 'Harriet, dearest, is this fair or honest? Is it not notorious that your life with him isa sad one-that, in spite of the sweetness of your temper, the sourness of his embittersyour days? I have come to know if I can help you.You are a Duchess, and I am FredOgbourne; but it is not impossible that I may be able to help you. . . . By God! thesweetness of that tongue ought to keep him civil, especially when there is added to it thesweetness of that face!' 'Captain Ogbourne!' she exclaimed, with an emphasis of playful fear.'How cansuch a comrade of my youth behave to me as you do? Don't speak so and stare at meso!Is this really all you have to say?I see I ought not to have come.'Twasthoughtlessly done.' Another breeze broke the thread of discourse for a time. 'Very well.I perceive you are dead and lost to me,' he could next be heard tosay; ' "Captain Ogbourne " proves that.As I once loved you I love you now, Harriet,without one jot of abatement; but you are not the woman you were-you once werehonest towards me; and now you conceal your heart in made-up speeches.Let it be; Ican never see you again.' 'You need not say that in such a tragedy tone, you silly.You may see me in anordinary way-why should you not? But, of course, not in such a way as this.I should nothave come now, if it had not happened that the Duke is away from home, so that thereis nobody to check my erratic impulses.' 'When does he return?' 'The day after to-morrow, or the day after that.' 'Then meet me again to-morrow night.' 'No, Fred, I cannot.' 'If you cannot to-morrow night, you can the night after; one of the two before hecomes please bestow on me.Now, your hand upon it! To-morrow or next night you willsee me to bid me farewell!' He seized the Duchess's hand. 'No, but Fred-let go my hand!What do you mean by holding me so?If it be loveto forget all respect to a womans present position in thinking of her past, then yours maybe so, Frederick.It is not kind and gentle of you to induce me to come to this place forpity of you, and then to hold me tight here.' 'But see me once more!I have come two thousand miles to ask it.' 'O, I must not!There will be slanders-Heaven knows what!I cannot meet you. For the sake of old times don't ask it.' 'Then own two things to me; that you did love me once, and that your husband isunkind to you often enough now to make you think of the time when you cared for me.' 'Yes-I own them both,' she answered faintly.'But owning such as that tellsagainst me; and I swear the inference is not true.' 'Don't say that; for you have come-let me think the reason of your coming what Ilike to think it.It can do you no harm.Come once more!' He still held her hand and waist.'Very well, then,' she said.'Thus far you shallpersuade me.I will meet you to-morrow night or the night after.Now, O let me go.' He released her, and they parted.The Duchess ran rapidly down the hill towardsthe outlying mansion of Shakeforest Towers, and when he had watched her out of sight,he turned and strode off in the opposite direction.All then was silent and empty asbefore. Yet it was only for a moment.When they had quite departed, another shapeappeared upon the scene.He came from behind the trilithon.He was a man of stouterbuild than the first, and wore the boots and spurs of a horseman.Two things were atonce obvious from this phenomenon: that he had watched the interview between theCaptain and the Duchess; and that, though he probably had seen every movement ofthe couple, including the embrace, he had been too remote to hear the reluctant wordsof the lady's conversation-or, indeed, any words at all-so that the meeting must haveexhibited itself to his eye as the assignation of a pair of well-agreed lovers.But it wasnecessary that several years should elapse before the shepherd-boy was old enough toreason out this. The third individual stood still for a moment, as if deep in meditation.He crossedover to where the lady and gentleman had stood, and looked at the ground; then he tooturned and went away in a third direction, as widely divergent as possible from thosetaken by the two interlocutors.His course was towards the highway; and a few minutesafterwards the trot of a horse might have been heard upon its frosty surface, lesseningtill it died away upon the ear. The boy remained in the hut, confronting the trilithon as if he expected yet moreactors on the scene, but nobody else appeared.How long he stood with his little faceagainst the loophole he hardly knew; but he was rudely awakened from his reverie by apunch in his back, and in the feel of it he familiarly recognized the stem of the oldshepherd's crook. 'Blame thy young eyes and limbs, Bill Mills-now you have let the fire out, and youknow I want it kept in! I thought something would go wrong with 'ee up here, and Icouldn't bide in bed no more than thistledown on the wind, that I could not!Well, what'shappened, fie upon 'ee 'Nothing.' 'Ewes all as I left 'em?' 'Yes.' 'Any lambs want bringing in ? 'No.' The shepherd relit the fire, and went out among the sheep with a lantern, for themoon was getting low.Soon he came in again. 'Blame it all-thou'st say that nothing have happened; when one ewe have twinnedand is like to go off, and another is dying for want of half an eye of looking to! I told 'ee,Bill Mills, if anything went wrong to come down and call me; and this is how you havedone it.' 'You said I could go to sleep for a hollerday, and I did.' 'Don't you speak to your betters like that, young man, or you'll come to thegallows-tree!You didn't sleep all the time, or you wouldn't have been peeping out ofthat there hole!Now you can go home, and be up here again by breakfast-time.I be anold man, and there's old men that deserve well of the world; but no-I must rest how Ican!' The elder shepherd then lay down inside the hut, and the boy went down the hillto the hamlet where he dwelt.
When the next night drew on the actions of the boy were almost enough to showthat he was thinking of the meeting he had witnessed, and of the promise wrung fromthe lady that she would come there again.As far as the sheep-tending arrangementswere concerned, to-night was but a repetition of the foregoing one.Between ten andeleven o'clock the old shepherd withdrew as usual for what sleep at home he mightchance to get without interruption, making up the other necessary hours of rest at sometime during the day: the boy was left alone. The frost was the same as on the night before, except perhaps that it was a littlemore severe.The moon shone as usual, except that it was three-quarters of an hourlater in its course; and the boy's condition was much the same, except that he felt nosleepiness whatever.He felt, too, rather afraid; but upon the whole he preferredwitnessing an assignation of strangers to running the risk of being discovered absent bythe old shepherd. It was before the distant clock of Shakeforest Towers had struck eleven that heobserved the opening of the second act of this midnight drama.It consisted in theappearance of neither lover nor Duchess, but of the third figure-the stout man, bootedand spurred who came up from the easterly direction in which he had retreated the nightbefore.He walked once round the trilithon, and next advanced towards the clumpconcealing the hut, the moonlight shining full upon his face and revealing him to be theDuke.Fear seized upon the shepherd-boy: the Duke was Jove himself to the ruralpopulation, whom to offend was starvation, homelessness, and death, and whom to lookat was to be mentally scathed and dumbfounded.He closed the stove, so that not aspark of light appeared, and hastily buried himself in the straw that lay in a corner.The Duke came close to the clump of furze and stood by the spot where his wife and theCaptain had held their dialogue; he examined the furze as if searching for a hiding-place,and in doing so discovered the hut.The latter he walked round and then looked inside;finding it to all seeming empty, he entered, closing the door behind him and taking hisplace at the little circular window against which the boy's face had been pressed justbefore. The Duke had not adopted his measures too rapidly, if his object wereconcealment.Almost as soon as he had stationed himself there eleven o'clock struck,and the slender young man who had previously graced the scene promptly reappearedfrom the north quarter of the down.The spot of assignation having, by the accident ofhis running forward on the foregoing night, removed itself from the Devil's Door to theclump of furze, he instinctively came thither, and waited for the Duchess where he hadmet her before. But a fearful surprise was in store for him to-night, as well as for the tremblingjuvenile.At his appearance the Duke breathed more and more quickly, his breathingsbeing distinctly audible to the crouching boy.The young man had hardly paused whenthe alert nobleman softly opened the door of the hut, and, stepping round the furze,came full upon Captain Fred. 'You have dishonoured her, and you shall die the death you deserve!' came to theshepherd's ears, in a harsh, hollow whisper through the boarding of the hut. The apathetic and taciturn boy was excited enough to run the risk of rising andlooking from the window, but he could see nothing for the intervening furze boughs, boththe men having gone round to the side.What took place in the few following momentshe never exactly knew.He discerned portion of a shadow in quick muscular movement;then there was the fall of something on the grass; then there was stillness. Two or three minutes later the Duke became visible round the corner of the hut,dragging by the collar the now inert body of the second man.The Duke dragged himacross the open space towards the trilithon.Behind this ruin was a hollow, irregularspot, overgrown with furze and stunted thorns, and riddled by the old holes of badgers,its former inhabitants, who had now died out or departed.The Duke vanished into thisdepression with his burden, reappearing after the lapse of a few seconds.When hecame forth he dragged nothing behind him. He returned to the side of the hut, cleansed something on the grass, and againput himself on the watch, though not as before, inside the hut, but without, on the shadyside.'Now for the second!' he said. It was plain, even to the unsophisticated boy, that he now awaited the otherperson of the appointment his wife, the Duchess-for what purpose it was terrible to think. "He seemed to be a man of such determined temper that he would scarcely hesitate incarrying out a course of revenge to the bitter end.Moreover-though it was what theshepherd did not perceive-this was all the more probable, in that the moody Duke waslabouring under the exaggerated impression which the sight of the meeting in dumbshow had conveyed. The jealous watcher waited long, but he waited in vain.From within the hut theboy could hear his occasional exclamations of surprise, as if he were almostdisappointed at the failure of his assumption that his guilty Duchess would surely keepthe tryst.Sometimes he stepped from the shade of the furze into the moonlight, andheld up his watch to learn the time. About half-past eleven he seemed to give up expecting her.He then went asecond time to the hollow behind the trilithon, remaining there nearly a quarter of anhour.From this place he proceeded quickly over a shoulder of the declivity, a little to theleft, presently returning on horseback, which proved that his horse had been tethered insome secret place down there.Crossing anew the down between the hut and thetrilithon, and scanning the precincts as if finally to assure himself that she had not come,he rode slowly downwards in the direction of Shakeforest Towers. The juvenile shepherd thought of what lay in the hollow yonder; and no fear of thecrook-stem of his superior officer was potent enough to detain him longer on that hillalone.Any live company, even the most terrible, was better than the company of thedead so, running with the speed of a hare in the direction pursued by the horseman, heovertook the revengeful Duke at the second descent (where the great western roadcrossed before you came to the old park entrance on that side-now closed up and thelodge cleared away, though at the time it was wondered why, being considered the mostconvenient gate of all). Once within the sound of the horse's footsteps, Bill Mills felt comparativelycomfortable; for, though in awe of the Duke because of his position, he had no moralrepugnance to his companionship on account of the grisly deed he had committed,considering that powerful nobleman to have a right to do what he chose on his ownlands.The Duke rode steadily on beneath his ancestral trees, the hoofs of his horsesending up a smart sound now that he had reached the hard road of the drive, and soondrew near the front door of his house, surmounted by parapets with square-cutbattlements that cast a notched shade upon the gravelled terrace.These outlines werequite familiar to little Bill Mills, though nothing within their boundary had ever been seenby him. When the rider approached the mansion a small turret door was quickly openedand a woman came out.As soon as she saw the horseman's outlines she ran forwardinto the moonlight to meet him. 'Ah dear-and are you come?' she said.'I heard Hero's tread just when you rodeover the hill, and I knew it in a moment.I would have come further if I had been aware-' 'Glad to see me, eh?' 'How can you ask that?' 'Well; it is a lovely night for meetings.' 'Yes, it is a lovely night.' The Duke dismounted and stood by her side.'Why should you have beenlistening at this time of night, and yet not expecting me?' he asked. 'Why, indeed!There is a strange story attached to that, which I must tell you atonce.But why did you come a night sooner than you said you would come?I am rathersorry-I really am!' (shaking her head playfully) for as a surprise to you I had ordered abonfire to be built, which was to be lighted on your arrival to-morrow; and now it iswasted.You can see the outline of it just out there.' The Duke looked across to a spot of rising glade, and saw the faggots in a heap. He then bent his eyes with a bland and puzzled air on the ground, 'What is this strangestory you have to tell me that kept you awake?' he murmured. 'It is this-and it is really rather serious.My cousin Fred Ogbourne-CaptainOgbourne as he is now -was in his boyhood a great admirer of mine, as I think I havetold you, though I was six years his senior.In strict truth, he was absurdly fond of me.' 'You have never told me of that before.' 'Then it was your sister I told-yes, it was.Well, you know I have not seen him formany years, and naturally I had quite forgotten his admiration of me in old times.Butguess my surprise when the day before yesterday, I received a mysterious note bearingno address, and found on opening it that it came from him.The contents frightened meout of my wits.He had returned from Canada to his father's house, and conjured me byall he could think of to meet him at once.But I think I can repeat the exact words,though I will show it to you when we get indoors.
'MY DEAR COUSIN HARRIET,' the note said, 'After this long absence you will besurprised at my sudden reappearance, and more by what I am going to ask.But if mylife and future are of any concern to you at all, I beg that you will grant my request. What I require of you, is, dear Harriet, that you meet me about eleven to-night by theDruid stones on Marlbury Downs, about a mile or more from your house.I cannot saymore, except to entreat you to come.I will explain all when you are there.The onething is, I want to see you.Come alone.Believe me, I would not ask this if myhappiness did not hang upon it-God knows how entirely !I am too agitated to say more-Yours.FRED.'
'That was all of it.Now, of course, I ought not to have gone, as it turned out, butthat I did not think of then.I remembered his impetuous temper, and feared thatsomething grievous was impending over his head, while he had not a friend in the worldto help him, or anyone except myself to whom he would care to make his trouble known. So I wrapped myself up and went to Marlbury Downs at the time he had named.Don'tyou think I was courageous?' 'Very.' 'When I got there-but shall we not walk on; it is getting cold?' The Duke, however,did not move.'When I got there he came, of course, as a full grown man and officer,and not as the lad that I had known him.When I saw him I was sorry I had come.'I canhardly tell you how he behaved.What he wanted I don't know even now; it seemed tobe no more than the mere meeting with me.He held me by the hand and waist-O sotight-and would not let me go till I had promised to meet him again.His manner was sostrange and passionate that I was afraid of him in such a lonely place, and I promised tocome.Then I escaped-then I ran home-and that's all.When the time drew on thisevening for the appointment-which, of course, I never intended to keep-I felt uneasy, lestwhen he found I meant to disappoint him he would come on to the house; and that's whyI could not sleep.But you are so silent!' 'I have had a long journey. 'Then let us get into the house.Why did you come alone and unattended likethis? 'It was, my humour.' After a moment's silence, during which they moved on, she said, I have thoughtof something which I hardly like to suggest to you. He said that if I failed to come to-nighthe would wait again to-morrow night.Now, shall we to-morrow night go to the hilltogether -just to see if he is there; and if he is, read him a lesson on his foolishness innourishing this old passion, and sending for me so oddly, instead of coming to thehouse?' 'Why should we see if he's there?' said her husband moodily. 'Because I think we ought to do something in it.Poor Fred! He would listen toyou if you reasoned with him, and set our positions in their true light before him.It wouldbe no more than Christian kindness to a man who unquestionably is very miserable fromsome cause or other.His head seems quite turned.' By this time they had reached the door, rung the bell, and waited.All the houseseemed to be asleep; but soon a man came to them, the horse was taken away, and theDuke and Duchess went in.THIRD NIGHT
There was no help for it.Bill Mills was obliged to stay on duty, in the oldshepherd's absence, this evening as before, or give up his post and living.He thoughtas bravely as he could of what lay behind the Devil's Door, but with no great success,and was therefore in a measure relieved, even if awe-stricken, when he saw the formsof the Duke and Duchess strolling across the frosted greensward.The Duchess was afew yards in front of her husband and tripped on lightly. 'I tell you he has not thought it worth while to come again!' the Duke insisted, ashe stood still, reluctant to walk further. 'He is more likely to come and wait all night; and it would be harsh treatment to lethim do it a second time.' 'He is not here; so turn and come home.''He seems not to be here, certainly; I wonder if anything has happened to him.Ifit has, I shall never forgive myself !' The Duke, uneasily, 'O, no.He has some other engagement.' 'That is very unlikely.' 'Or perhaps he has found the distance too far.' 'Nor is that probable.' 'Then he may have thought better of it.''Yes, he may have thought better of it; if, indeed, he is not here all thetime-somewhere in the hollow behind the Devil's Door.Let us go and see; it will servehim right to surprise him.' 'O, he's not there.' 'He may be lying very quiet because of you,' she said archly. 'O, no-not because of me!' 'Come, then.I declare, dearest, you lag like an unwilling schoolboy to-night, andthere's no responsiveness in you!You are jealous of that poor lad, and it is quite absurdof you.' 'I'll come!I'll come!Say no more, Harriet!' And they crossed over the green. Wondering what they would do, the young shepherd left the hut, and doubledbehind the belt of furze, intending to stand near the trilithon unperceived.But, incrossing the few yards of open ground he was for a moment exposed to view. 'Ah, I see him at last !' said the Duchess. 'See him!’ said the Duke.'Where?' 'By the Devil's Door; don't you notice a figure there? Ah, my poor lover-cousin,won't you catch it now?' And she laughed half-pityingly.'But what's the matter?' sheasked, turning to her husband. 'It is not he!' said the Duke hoarsely.'It can't be he!' 'No, it is not he.It is too small for him.It is a boy.' 'Ah, I thought so!Boy, come here.' The youthful shepherd advanced with apprehension. 'What are you doing here?' 'Keeping sheep, your Grace.' 'Ah, you know me!Do you keep sheep here every night ?' 'Off and on, my Lord Duke.' 'And what have you seen here to-night or last night?' inquired the Duchess.'Anyperson waiting or walking about?' The boy was silent. 'He has seen nothing,' interrupted her husband, his eyes so forbiddingly fixed onthe boy that they seemed to shine like points of fire.'Come, let us go.The air is tookeen to stand in long.' When they were gone the boy retreated to the hut and sheep, less fearful nowthan at first-familiarity with the situation having gradually overpowered his thoughts ofthe buried man.But he was not to be left alone long.When an interval had elapsed ofabout sufficient length for walking to and from Shakeforest Towers, there appeared fromthat direction the heavy form of the Duke.He now came alone. The nobleman, on his part, seemed to have eyes no less sharp than the boy's, forhe instantly recognized the latter among the ewes, and came straight towards him. 'Are you the shepherd lad I spoke to a short time ago?' 'I be, my Lord Duke.' 'Now listen to me.Her Grace asked you what you had seen this last night or twoup here, and you made no reply.I now ask the same thing, and you need not be afraidto answer.Have you seen anything strange these nights you have been watchinghere?' 'My Lord Duke, I be a poor heedless boy, and what I see I don't bear in mind.' 'I ask you again,' said the Duke, coming nearer,have you seen anything strangethese nights you have been watching here?' 'O, my Lord Duke!I be but the under-shepherd boy, and my father he was butyour humble Grace's hedger, and my mother only the cinder-woman in the back-yard!Ifall asleep when left alone, and I see nothing at all!' The Duke grasped the boy by the shoulder, and, directly impending over himstared down into his face, 'Did you see anything strange done here last night, I say?' 'O, my Lord Duke, have mercy, and don't stab me!' cried the shepherd, falling onhis knees.'I have never seen you walking here, or riding here, or lying-in-wait for aman, or dragging a heavy load!' 'H'm!' said his interrogator, grimly, relaxing his hold.It is well to know that youhave never seen those things.Now, which would you rather-see me do those thingsnow, or keep a secret all your life?''Keep a secret, my Lord Duke l' 'Sure you are able?' 'O, your Grace, try me!' 'Very well.And now, how do you like sheep keeping?' 'Not at all.'Tis lonely work for them that think of spirits, and I'm badly used.' 'I believe you.You are too young for it.I must do something to make you morecomfortable.You shall change this smock-frock for a real cloth jacket, and your thickboots for polished shoes.And you shall be taught what you have never yet heard of,and be put to school, and have bats and balls for the holidays, and be made a man of. But you must never say you have been a shepherd boy, and watched on the hills atnight, for shepherd boys are not liked in good company.''Trust me, my Lord Duke.' 'The very moment you forget yourself, and speak of your shepherd days-thisyear, next year, in school, out of school, or riding in your carriage twenty years hence -atthat moment my help will be withdrawn, and smash down you come to shepherdingforthwith.You have parents, I think you say 'A widowed mother only, my Lord Duke.' 'I'll provide for her, and make a comfortable woman of her, until you speakof-what?' 'Of my shepherd days, and what I saw here.' 'Good.If you do speak of it?' 'Smash down she comes to widowing forthwith!''That's well-very well.But it's not enough.Come here.' He took the boy across tothe trilithon, and made him kneel down. 'Now, this was once a holy place,' resumed the Duke.'An altar stood here,erected to a venerable family of gods, who were known and talked of long before theGod we know now.So that an oath sworn here is doubly an oath.Say this after me:"May all the host above-angels and archangels, and principalities and powers-punishme; may I be tormented wherever I am-in the house or in the garden, in the fields or inthe roads, in church or in chapel, at home or abroad, on land or at sea; may I be afflictedin eating and in drinking, in growing up and in growing old, in living and dying, inwardlyand outwardly, and for always, if I ever speak of my life as a shepherd-boy, or of what Ihave seen done on this Marlbury Down.So be it, and so let it be.Amen and amen."Now kiss the stone.' The trembling boy repeated the words, and kissed the stone, as desired. The Duke led him off by the hand.That night the junior shepherd slept inShakeforest Towers, and the next day he was sent away for tuition to a remote village. Thence he went to a preparatory establishment, and in due course to a public school.
On a winter evening many years subsequent to the above-mentionedoccurrences, the ci-devant shepherd sat in a well-furnished office in the north wing ofShakeforest Towers in the guise of an ordinary educated man of business.Heappeared at this time as a person of thirty-eight or forty, though actually he was severalyears younger.A worn and restless glance of the eye now and then, when he lifted hishead to search for some letter or paper which had been mislaid, seemed to denote thathis was not a mind so thoroughly at ease as his surroundings might have led anobserver to expect.His pallor, too, was remarkable for a countryman.He wasprofessedly engaged in writing, but he shaped not a word.He had sat there only a fewminutes, when, laying down his pen and pushing back his chair, he rested a handuneasily on each of the chair-arms and looked on the floor. Soon he arose and left the room.His course was along a passage which endedin a central octagonal hall crossing this he knocked at a door.A faint, though deep,voice told him to come in.The room he entered was the library, and it was tenanted bya single person only-his patron the Duke. During this long interval of years the Duke had lost all his heaviness of build.Hewas, indeed, almost a skeleton; his white hair was thin, and his hands were nearlytransparent.'Oh-Mills?’ he murmured.'Sit down.What is it?' 'Nothing new, your Grace.Nobody to speak of has written, and nobody hascalled.' 'Ah-what then?'You look concerned.' 'Old times have come to life, owing to something waking them.'
'Old times be cursed-which old times are they?''That Christmas week twenty-two years ago, when the late Duchess's cousinFrederick implored her to meet him on Marlbury Downs.I saw the meeting-it was justsuch a night as this-and I, as you know, saw more.She met him once, but not thesecond time.' 'Mills, shall I recall some words to you-the words of an oath taken on that hill by ashepherd-boy?''It is unnecessary.He has strenuously kept that oath and promise.Since thatnight no sound of his shepherd life has crossed his lips-even to yourself.But do youwish to hear more, or do you not, your Grace ?' 'I wish to hear no more,' said the Duke sullenly. 'Very well; let it be so.But a time seems coming -may be quite near athand-when, in spite of my lips, that episode will allow itself to go undivulged no longer.' 'I wish to hear no more!' repeated the Duke. 'You need be under no fear of treachery from me,' said the steward, somewhatbitterly.'I am a man to whom you have been kind-no patron could have been kinder. You have clothed and educated me; have installed me here; and I am not unmindful. But what of it-has your Grace gained much by my stanchness?I think not.There wasgreat excitement about Captain Ogbourne's disappearance, but I spoke not a word.Andhis body has never been found.For twenty-two years I have wondered what you didwith him.Now I know.A circumstance that occurred this afternoon recaIled the time tome most forcibly.To make it certain to myself that all was not a dream, I went up therewith a spade; I searched, and saw enough to know that something decays there in aclosed badger's hole.' 'Mills, do you think the Duchess guessed?' 'She never did, I am sure, to the day of her death.' 'Did you leave all as you found it on the hill?' 'I did.' 'What made you think of going up there this particular afternoon?' 'What your Grace says you don't wish to be told.' The Duke was silent; and thestillness of the evening was so marked that there reached their ears from the outer airthe sound of a tolling bell. 'What is that bell tolling for?' asked the nobleman.'For what I came to tell you of, your Grace.''You torment me-it is your way!' said the Duke loudly.'Who's dead in the village?' 'The oldest man-the old shepherd.' 'Dead at last-how old is he?' 'Ninety-four.' 'And I am only seventy.I have four-and-twenty years to the good !' 'I served under that old man when I kept sheep on Marlbury Downs.And he wason the hill that second night, when I first exchanged words with your Grace.He was onthe hill all the time; but I did not know he was there-nor did you.' 'Ah!' said the Duke, starting up.'Go on-I yield the point-you may tell!' 'I heard this afternoon that he was at the point of death.It was that which set methinking of that past time-and induced me to search on the hill for what I have told you. Coming back I heard that he wished to see the Vicar to confess to him a secret he hadkept for more than twenty years-"out of respect to my Lord the Duke"-something that hehad seen committed on Marlbury Downs when returning to the flock on a Decembernight twenty-two years ago.I have thought it over.He had left me in charge thatevening; but he was in the habit of coming back suddenly, lest I should have fallenasleep.That night I saw nothing of him, though he had promised to return.He musthave returned, and-found reason to keep in hiding.It is all plain.The next thing is thatthe Vicar went to him two hours ago.Further than that I have not heard.' 'It is quite enough. l will see the vicar at daybreak to-morrow.' 'What to do?' 'Stop his tongue for four-and-twenty years-till I am dead at ninety-four, like theshepherd.' 'Your Grace-while you impose silence on me, I will not speak, even though myneck should pay the penalty.I promised to be yours, and I am yours.But is thispersistence of any avail ?' 'I'll stop his tongue, I say!' cried the Duke with some of his old rugged force. 'Now, you go home to bed, Mills, and leave me to manage him.' The interview ended, and the steward withdrew.The night, as he had said wasjust such an one as the night of twenty-two years before, and the events of the eveningdestroyed in him all regard for the season as one of cheerfulness and goodwill.He wentoff to his own house on the further verge of the park, where he led a lonely life, scarcelycalling any man friend.At eleven he prepared to retire to bed-but did not retire.He satdown and reflected.Twelve o'clock struck; he looked out at the colorless moon, and,prompted by he knew not what, put on his hat and emerged into the air.Here WilliamMills strolled on and on, till he reached the top of Marlbury Downs, a spot he had notvisited at this hour of the night during the whole score-and-odd years. He placed himself, as nearly as he could guess the spot where the shepherd'shut had stood.No lambing was in progress there now, and the old shepherd who hadused him so roughly had ceased from his labours that very day.But the trilithon stoodup white as ever; and, crossing the intervening sward, the steward fancifully placed hismouth against the stone.Restless and self-reproachful as he was, he could not resist asmile as he thought of the terrifying oath of compact, sealed by a kiss upon the stones ofa Pagan temple.But he had kept his word, rather as a promise than as a formal vow,with much worldly advantage to himself, though not much happiness; till increase ofyears had bred reactionary feelings which led him to receive the news of to-night withemotions akin to relief. While leaning against the Devil's Door and thinking on these things, he becameconscious that he was not the only inhabitant of the down.A figure in white was movingacross his front with long, noiseless strides.Mills stood motionless, and when the formdrew quite near he perceived it to be that of the Duke himself in his nightshirt-apparentlywalking in his sleep.Not to alarm the old man, Mills clung close to the shadow of thestone.The Duke went straight on into the hollow.There he knelt down, and beganscratching the earth with his hands like a badger.After a few minutes he arose, sighedheavily, and retraced his steps as he had come. Fearing that he might harm himself, yet unwilling to arouse him, the stewardfollowed noiselessly.The Duke kept on his path unerringly, entered the park, and madefor the house, where he let himself in by a window that stood open-the one probably bywhich he had come out.Mills softly closed the window behind his patron, and thenretired homeward to await the revelations of the morning, deeming it unnecessary toalarm the house. However, he felt uneasy during the remainder of the night, no less on account ofthe Duke's personal condition than because of that which was imminent next day.Earlyin the morning he called at Shakeforest Towers.The blinds were down, and there wassomething singular upon the porter's face when he opened the door.The stewardinquired for the Duke. The man's voice was subdued as he replied: 'Sir, I am sorry to say that his Graceis dead!He left his room some time in the night, and wandered about nobody knowswhere.On returning to the upper floor he lost his balance and fell downstairs.'
The steward told the tale of the Down before the Vicar had spoken.Mills had alwaysintended to do so after the death of the Duke.The consequences to himself heunderwent cheerfully; but his life was not prolonged.He died, a farmer at the Cape,when still somewhat under forty-nine years of age. The splendid Marlbury breeding flock is as renowned as ever, and, to the eye,seems the same in every particular that it was in earlier times; but the animals whichcomposed it on the occasion of the events gathered from the Justice are divided bymany ovine generations from its members now.Lambing Corner has long since ceasedto be used for lambing purposes, though the name still lingers on as the appellation ofthe spot.This abandonment of site may be partly owing to the removal of the high furzebushes which lent such convenient shelter at that date.Partly, too, it may be due toanother circumstance.For it is said by present shepherds in that district that during thenights of Christmas week flitting shapes are seen in the open space around the trilithon,together with the gleam of a weapon, and the shadow of a man dragging a burden intothe hollow.But of these things there is no certain testimony.
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