Told to PARSON
A dramatic story of horses and hounds, of masters and men, and a woman beloved
WHEN I heard that Bill Berry wanted to see me, my surprise was great. The veteran of the parish never came to church, and one pardoned him public worship seeing that he was a hundred and two years old; but he passed for a very anti-social personage who neither feared nor respected law and order. I well remember the v carage cook. Mrs. Bewes, who was related to the old huntsman and knew his history, confessing astonishment at how William, under his crushing weight of years, could set such an example of infamy to the rising generation.
"It ain’t what he does, your reverence,” said Mrs. Bewes, “because at five score, and mostly bedridden, a man can’t do much evil. It’s what he says; and such is the bite of his words and his bitter opinions in general, that young men will often go and sit by him and take him a screw of tobacco or a drop of spirits just for the pleasure of hearing him run down the universe. You can’t deny he’s got all his wits still, though he’s long lost whatever milk of human kindness the Lord put in his heart when he was born.”
I knew Bill by sight, and always passed the time of day when we met; while for his part he had not lost the good manners of his generation, and never failed to salute the cloth in a seemly manner. He was a great critic and interested in the politics of the village, and I had heard, also through Mrs. Bewes, that while he felt no wish to know me personally, Bill approved my outlook on life.
“As parsons go, he says, you fill the bill very clever." declared my cook. “And that’s high praise for William, for his general views of the quality ain't such as you can repeat. If he was younger they’d get him in trouble; but. as he s apt to say, when you’re a hundred and two you’re beyond their malice and power to hurt. The worst your fellow creatures could do would be to slay you, and you wouldn t be a mite worse if they did. Of course," admitted Mrs. Bewes, “if you believe like a Christian in the life to come, then such a man as William is like to be a great deal worse when he goes. But he don’t credit nothing at all. and no ancient man ever went to his doom with a better appetite as William will.”
TO MR. BERRY, not without some personal interest, I accordingly repaired on a mighty cold afternoon in early March, with a black wind set north and a few flakes of snow already driving out of sultry skies.
I put a couple of cigars in my pocket, one for him and one for myself. A cigar is often a very present help at the bedside of the poor if your sick friend’s ailment admits of it.
Bill Berry hardly looked his age, and the doctor of the parish told me that but for the evidence of his christening
in our church archives he would have judged him round about eighty and no more. Bill was very thin and his eyes were clouded by cataract, but his false teeth had preserved his mouth from falling in, and his hair, though scanty, was still evenly distributed about his snow white poll. He was underhung, and one could see a big chin beneath the remains of his beard. He wore a red flannel bed jacket buttoned to his neck. His bed linen was clean, his chamber tidy, and a fire burned in the grate. He put on a pair of spectacles, screw'ed up his furrowed brown forehead and regarded me steadfastly.
“You bear the character of a good sportsman, your reverence,” he said in slow but clear speech "There’s nobody I know have got a hard word for you; and if the doubtful ones—which 1 prefer ain’t got nothing against your manner of life, then 1 doubt not you’re all right for my purpose.”
“Thank you. Berry. Praise from the doubtful ones is praise indeed. But tell me first what’s wrong. Is it your tubes? Can we smoke?”
He pointed to his pipe.
“Smell the air,” he said. “When I ain’t sleeping I’m smoking. It ain’t my tubes. Sound as a bell I am. But doctor says my heart’s going tired, and one leg’s very near dead, so the end may be blowing up. I want to tell a story to some trustable, educated man, and I thought upon you if you can spare an hour to give ear.”
“Good. I like a story.”
"A pretty fair test of the sort you are if you like this one. Naked truth ain’t popular.”
“What about a cigar and a spot?” I said, getting out of my coat.
“I see you be one of the right sort, sure enough. There was a lot of devil dodgers when I was young as could smoke and drink and ride to hounds, and give the godless a bit of start on their own ground if need be. But gentlemen born don’t go in the church now, they tell me. Prefer business. ‘Born gentlemen,' I say, but gentle blood have most run down the sink nowadays.”
He smelled the cigar gratefully.
“I've smoked ’em in my time. When I was huntsman to the Elast Devon foxhounds a cigar would be a common event.”
He lifted his voice loud and clear.
“Milly !” he shouted, and his granddaughter, an elderly widow who lived with him, appeared.
With a stiff tot of spirits in one hand and his cigar in the other, Bill Berry launched the tale.
"Before your time naturally, and very near before mine you might say, for 1 was only twelve years of age when it all happened. When this occurred I was a stable boy at Oaklands, where thePastons lived and lorded it in them days.
A very fine family, and it was said that a good Paston always followed a bad one. The good would build up, and the bad would come along and lay waste and ruin all with his dice and his sporting and so on. But bad and good are only manners of speaking, and it’s the point of view that matters. If a man's a good sportsman, he’s good enough in my experience; and some of the racketty sort was the salt of the earth and some of the psalm singers muck for the dunghill. And if, as you hold no doubt, there’s a future life, a lot of the pious be going to get the astonishment of their born days when they find where they’re called to spend it."
“We’re not running short of hypocrites, I’m afraid, Berry."
“No; and it’s more than a parson can do to turn a born hypocrite into a straight man. ’Tis a vice in the blood and a curse of Nature to be born a humbug. Now I’ve got to go back a bit first and tell you how this tale fell out. There’s two men in it and a hoss and, of course, a woman. They’ve had a finger in most disasters since Eve wrecked the human race on a Ribston pippin, by all accounts.
“It stood like this. There’s Oaklands, where Sir Neville Paston reigns now, thanks to marrying money, for he'd have lost all but for that American. And there’s Clyst Si. John, let at present to a tobacco merchant. Well, in my boylnxxl young Sir Norman Bassett, baronite, had just come into Clyst St. John upon his father’s death; and he was a good lad like his father before him - a plain dealer and generous to his people, and promising to use his money as a gentleman should. My father and mother belonged to the parish, and my father was head woodman and my mother served for dairymaid in the home farm, and Sir Norman’s mother was very well addicted to ’em.
“As for me, it happened that Sir Norman’s neighbor wanted a stable lx>y, and as horses was my gods—just as good gods as any others —I got the job and went to work at Oaklands.
A young man was master there also, though not so young as Sir Norman. Captain Richard Paston came into that when his uncle died: and his uncle, the old admiral, was a good Paston as Pastons went in them days, and pulled the place together and paid off a mortgage or two and straightened it out; because in them days a rich man wasn’t robbet! living and stripped naked by the State after he was dead, same as what happens now. But Dick Paston you might call a right down bad ’un, with the sort of badness about which there ain’t two opinions.
"Him I mind well enough. I felt the weight of his hunting crop time and again, for he had the temper of a demon but lacked the vartues that often go along with they fierce and fiery men. 1 le was stark selfish and only lived for his own comfort and pleasure. He’d trample for the sake of trampling, and took a cruel delight in affronting his people and laughing to see ’em in trouble. But to his betters he could sing as small as you please, and hide his heart, and pretend to lie what he wasn’t and never could have been, and that’s an honest man. I’d say he only had one quality to boast of, and that was courage. A chap so dead to fear I've never met, and he’d outface the county in dangerous sporting, and left a record for horsemanship none ever beat. But a lot of cruelty went with his pluck. He didn’t care if he tortured a hoss to death, so long as it carried him to some fresh feat. And he was a wonderful shot also, very famous indeed in that matter. ’Twas thought there never was such another with a pistol, and he could write his initial letters with pistol bullets at twenty yards on a barndoor.
"Round about thirty years old he was a lean, light-riding customer, with good thighs for a hoss and w'onderful hands. A brown man, tann^i the color of old leather, with a drooping lid to one of his black eyes and a blue chin clean shaved. A hard hawk of a man, with a spice of the jackdaw in him. too, and a pinch of the snake. Such friends as he made knew how to get round him. for he was a vain chap and liked his bit of butter.
“He lived the life of a country gentleman of those days— spent his time sporting, and kept a close eye to his rents because he was merciless over money. He gambled a bit with poorer men than himself, but never lost his head at the job and knew when to stop. He didn’t drink nor yet smoke, for smoking weren’t the rage and habit in them days that it is now'.
CO THAT was Captain Dick, and of course he knew' ^ young Norman Bassett, and they pursued the same fashion of life and enjoyed the same pleasures, except that Sir Norman lived like a gentleman. The captain w'as far the richer of the two and had the bigger estates, but their lands marched together and they bided for a few years in friend-
ship, each keeping his opinion of t’other to himself. Lady Bassett, the baronite’s mother, looked after her son and daughter at Clyst St. John, and a very good mother and lady of the manor she was said to be; but Dick Paston hadn’t got no woman of his blood to keep his house. He said he’d never go in chains to a female and marry one of ’em. He tried a mistress at Oaklands for a bit, but young men didn't do them things in the open in those days, and so his housekeeper and one or two other old servants left and he got wind the county was going to give him the go-by. That wouldn’t have suited him at all. so he sent the woman packing and played for safety, and started the East Devon foxhounds at his own charge and w'as forgiven that crime.”
Bill lighted his cigar again and took a pull at his drink.
“Tobacco, that is,” he commented. “You feel it like a gracious flood. Well, it was round about then that I came to work as a nipper at Oaklands, and had my fill of fine cattle and was allowed to put a leg over a bit of a blood hoss for the first time. They soon see I was born for the job, and the captain, after watching me taking a young hunter over hurdles, showed a bit of interest. He thought as I might make a jockey if 1 kept small enough, and talked to me in his short sharp way about it. He raced a bit at local meetings but never spent a lot on valuable horses, and he made me ride an old ’chaser on one such occasion. But I weren’t clever enough or experienced enough to do the best possible, and a man beat me on a poorer hoss than mine. The captain, fool that he w'as, hated me after that and never showed no
more interest in me except to cuss me and tell the grooms to keep me off the hosses. So I didn’t love him very much, and felt the same to him at heart as every other man and boy was bound to do. 1
“Then came Mr. Philip Waverley to Hill Crest—the moderate-sized house on the knoll up past the church and vicarage.”
“Called River View, Berry."
“The same. Mr. Philip Waverley and his widowed sister and his daughter. That was the family. A retired tradesman he was; a go-by-the-ground sort of man, and nothing accounted of naturally. The bettermost didn’t know tradesmen in them days; but young men will always be willing to know a pretty girl, whatever her descent, and Ann Waverley
was a lot more than pretty. You can see her painted picture,
I believe, if you know where to ask, but never no man painted that face within a mile of the truth. Old as I am, I mind it from the day I saw it first and ’twas about the most amazing piece of woman’s loveliness I ever did see. It took a lot to make me feel inclined to goodness when I was a boy; but afore that maiden you felt there was a grey-eyed mystery from another world looking at you and couldn’t but feel there was truth in the talk about angels. I saw her often when I came to manhood, and always got the same creepy feeling. A fair girl, light built, head carried high, step natural, not mincing, mouth that made you giddy with its perfection, and a clear, tender note of speech—‘the still small voice,’ I always called it.
WELL, her parent, with an eye to the future no doubt and seeing he’d drawn a prize, was said to have had his Ann educated a good bit above her station. Be that as it will, her natural gifts and high order of intellects would have put her high beyond most girls in any rank of life. And a creature like her couldn’t be hid under a bushel anyway, so it came about that the first time she rode to hounds, which she did do, she flashed like the light to St. Paul upon the eyes of a good few young chaps as had never known what heights a female could rise to until they’d seen her.
“Mr. Waverley, whatever he was by trade, had a clever eye for a hoss and a wide understanding of ’em. He came to a meet along with the girl and received the usual civilities of the hunting field, where all good sportsmen are supposed to be equal. And he conducted himself quite correct, and showed he knew the game. He rode hard and well, and cut a fair figure for a man not born and bred to it. The girl did all right also, and, as old Ned Pointer, first huntsman appointed to the East Devons, told my father after, if ever he see an angel on horseback ’twas on that occasion.
“For Ann Waverley, you see, weren’t the sort just to fill the eye of one man here or one man there. She had a proper fantastic beauty that beamed out of her so as king and tinker alike must bend to it. In fact, I doubt if such a woman ever happened afore or since.”
Bill Berry mused upon the vanished vision, which it was clear his fading eyes would never forget. Then he rambled forward again.
“These things, of course, was hid from me when they happened, but I heard tell of ’em from my mother’s lips when I was allowed home for a holiday to see my parents now and again. It came about that Sir Norman, from the very first day when he catched sight of the girl at that meet of hounds, was shook to the roots. Twenty-five years old at the time, and had never thought to wed yet awhile. And when he begged for his mother to call on the newcomers and in his frank and open way explained that Waverley’s daughter was a peep of heaven on earth and so forth, Lady Bassett began to be uneasy and felt her first great care had overtook her since her husband’s death. But Sir Norman’s sister—Miss Linnette she was called —put him before the world and held he could do no wrong. She met the Waverleys in the field and had speech with Ann, and come home and told her ladyship that the maiden was a fairy changeling no less, and ought to be seen and heard before judgment was given against her.
“There had been a backstairs rumor that Captain Dick had offered for Miss Linnette that summer and been turned down by her, but none knew the truth as to that, and I only say it by the way.
“Well, the young ones gave their mother no peace, and the upshot was that Lady Bassett drove over to Hill Crest and called on Miss Waverley and her aunt that lived with her; and she was kindly received, and, very honest, didn’t deny but what she got a courteous welcome from the women such as a lady expects from a lady. She couldn’t pretend nothing about Ann neither, and owned up to it how the girl was a lovely piece of perfect deportment and seemingly as clever as she was fair. The families soon got to be friends, and Miss Linnette lost no chance to serve her brother, because her and the other maiden found themselves well addicted from the first. Mr. Philip Waverley, when he came before her ladyship, conducted himself all right and weren’t pushing or wishful to advance under the wing of his betters as shop folk will sometimes be.
“So there it stood. Sir Norman was making the running hot and strong and lost to all the world but Ann, and the family reckoned it had got to be, though her ladyship’s own friends behind the scenes took it very serious and some thought badly of her for not putting up a fight; because class hadn’t gone down the wind in them days.
“Then came the tremendous news from Oaklands that
Captain Dick Paston had fallen for Ann also and cast his famous opinions to the winds and meant to marry her, with the devil’s help if need be, and weren’t going to take no denial from mortal man. And knowing what he was, few but reckoned he’d cut Sir Norman out and carry off the girl from under her father’s nose if he had to do so.
THE boot was on the other leg, however, and for once I could carry home a bit of news, because I heard the head groom talk to our butler and he’d got it from Mr. Waverley’s own man. Captain Dick was far too downy to rub Ann’s father the wrong way. He’d gone about his job very clever, and made much of Waverley and sold him a fine hoss up to his weight at a rubbish price for friendship, and made much of his*widowed sister also and had ’em to Oaklands and shown ’em the fat of the land. Nobody could play his part better than the captain. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and a Frenchman couldn’t have mended his manners when he was set to be civil and win anybody over. Not that it was very often he laid himself out to please, for he’d got all the world could give him and money goes higher than manners with most folk.
‘‘So it soon came to be known that Mr. Waverley smiled upon our master and weren’t going to stand in his way so long as tire settlements went to his liking. Not but what he was a snug man in a small way himself for that matter, and Ann, being his only one, didn’t need to marry for comfort.
“’Twas then I saw the lady. My boy’s wits marked something else, and I was the first to say it weren’t all over buj. the shouting, because the first time my gentleman brought Ann Waverley into the stables to see his hosses, I led out half a dozen of ’em for her to cast her eye over, and even I could see she weren’t half so pleased with the captain as what he was with her. A lovely picture in her riding habit, for she’d rode over with her father to luncheon— sunshine in a dark place, you might say. I’ll swear I blinked on her like an owl at the risen sun, for I didn’t dream that such a creature walked on woman’s legs.
“And then master had out his great hoss, Baal—a black mare with a temper like the devil one day and as good as gold the next. Baal hated the captain, who’d broke her in himself, and he knew it and liked to beat her. He sauced the mare before Ann Waverley and told her what an uncertain brute she was and what a wonder; and then he slapped Baal on the cheek and took liberties with her, to show he weren’t feared of the hoss. But, like everybody else, he kept clear of her hind legs, because she’d whip a kick short and sudden as a pistol firing, like a half-arm blow at boxing, and she’d killed a good foxhound that way and broke one groom’s leg in the bargain before he’d been warned. “And then it was I saw, under my eyebrows, how the
lady didn’t like Captain Dick very much. She’d flinched when he slapped the horse’s cheek, and told him in a voice cold as running water to give over. She said that she hated to hear a man saying insulting things to a horse what couldn’t answer back. And when the captain spoke to her again presently, with his tail between his legs, she didn’t answer a word but looked at him out of the corner of her lovely grey eye, same as I’d often seen Baal look at him. And I grinned in my heart and thought what he’d store up for her if ever he got her.
“That’s how it was, and the next piece of news came from Waverley’s again, because we heard tell how Captain Dick had offered for Ann and been declined, and there was a brave upstir at her place because her father was set on the match and had as good as promised the maiden to our master. In them days, of course, a female weren’t supposed to have no will of her own. Their affairs was planned for ’em, and they was only too glad to come by husbands when such might offer, especially when they happened to be such a catch as Captain Dick Paston. And the captain weren’t taking no chances, but had gone to headquarters and got her father’s consent first.
“Ann Waverley, however, reckoned she wasn’t going to marry him, and her reason appeared soon after. She’d fallen in love with Sir Norman Bassett and accepted the baronite, and Sir Norman had asked to pay a duty visit to Mr. Waverley, and Mr. Waverley had expressed his regrets and declared that no such match would suit his convenience. These things was got through Waverley’s butler and serving man, and soon came to be known in both houses, as such things will be.
IOOKING back after I came to manhood, of course I J could see what happened next behind the scenes. Waverley and the captain got together, and the latter heard what he was up against and doubtless poured scorn upon his rival and told Ann’s father he’d best sit tight and leave the next step to him. A job of this sort was quite in the captain’s powers to handle and, being a man not used to opposition, he doubtless reckoned that once Sir Norman and his nonsense was out of the way. the girl would soon come round. He was too vain to think he’d been fairly bested, but thought, no doubt, how Sir Norman had took some mean advantage and bewitched Ann for the minute.
Because he’d argue that no woman with half the brains of
Ann Waverley was such a fool as to put the baronite......no
better than a raw boybefore him. Be it as it will, he meant to get Ann and weren’t going to be bested by any male living in the fight for her.
“They say all’s fair in love— just one of them smooth lies we’re prone to -but they only say it because the fair way don’t get you nowhere where passion’s the master. Sunk to love, men often ain’t masters of themselves, nor yet of their morals, nor yet their honor. Captain Dick well knew there weren’t no fair way of getting Ann if she loved the other man; and if there had been a fair way, he wouldn’t have took it. He was faced with just such a piece of dirty work as he liked to handle, and he didn’t waste no time neither.
“How much Sir Norman and his sister knew about the truth of Ann just then I couldn’t tell you, but I judge they didn’t know much. Ann weren’t the sort to tell Sir Norman another had offered for her and been refused, because ’tis unwritten law that a woman don’t name the names of them who draw a blank; and though, no doubt, by then Sir Norman had understood very clear Mr. Waverley didn’t favor him, and the course of love weren’t going to run smooth, he couldn’t be thought to know that Dick Paston was the tradesman's choice for his daughter. ’Tis clear that up to then him and Captain Dick were as friendly as usual, and the crack only happened on a night when a dinner party came to be given at Clysl St. John and my master was among the guests. The next bit of spicy news flew abroad from there.
“A small party it was. twelve all told, so we heard, and my master rode over to take his place thereat. Then, after the feeding, the women left the men to drink and eat walnuts, what had just come in, the time being late October. For all these things had happened with a rush since the beginning of the cubbing season, ana neither of the two men had known Ann Waverley above six weeks when the trouble fell. The young didn’t waste time nor hang fire and count the cost over a woman then like this cowardly generation do.
"’Twas over the port wine anyway that Captain Dick took his next step. The ladies hadn't withdrawn half an hour before he differed over some trifle with Sir Norman, and said a contemptuous word here and there to gall the
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younger man. Cool as a snake he kept till he edged to his plot, and then at the appointed time he pretended to let his fury go. A man servant was in the dining room at the moment by good chance. He’d just come in with some more wine and saw the smash-up. There was a good bit of noise and the wax candles flickered a bit among the shouting men, and then the captain jumped up and told Sir Norman he was a darned liar and flung a glass of wine across his face.
YWELL, ninety years ago you couldn’t YV ¿o that sort of thing, not if you was a gentleman, without risking your life for it; and, as the captain very well knew, there was only one way to settle that rumpus. He also knew that Sir Norman would be the challenger, and so he’d have the choice of weapons.
“ ‘Get out of my house, you dirty dog!’ ” roared Sir Norman at the man. ‘You’ll hear from me tomorrow !’
“Captain Dick said he couldn’t hear too quick, and went farther and told the footman to bid ’em fetch his horse round.
“It was a plant, of course, and old Mr. Wallace Bassett, an uncle of Sir Norman, who was at Clyst St. John at the time and the Dnly man there who kept his head and watched the row, said that my master had provoked it of set purpose and for one reason alone. I believe Mr. Bassett doubted whether, if the case was brought before a jury of gentlemen, they’d have let Sir Norman go out. But, of course, Sir Norman wasn’t that sort, and he wouldn’t have took no lesser course than a duel to make good his honor after an open insult like that afore neighbors.
“Such things was kept quiet as death and, unless they spelt death for one or other after, were never known. But murder will out, and attempted murder likewise, and a good few of the serving men knew very well what was in the wind, though it would have meant losing their places to breathe it.
“Then came what I saw myself, and you might say it was the cream of the tale, for though it meant a lot, no eyes but mine marked it and no tongue but mine could tell it after.
“Silence like the grave settled over them people, but the parties worked unbeknownst and the challenge went and was accepted, and the place was determined and a doctor given the office. When and where it would be, none knew, and the fate of Sir Norman hung over every man Jack of us, for the people liked him well and felt a good bit put
about that he should be trapped to his death. For nobody doubted how it wras like to go.
“The day before the adventure my master came to me in the stables and said a queer word. ‘Have Baal saddled and ready for me at half past five o’clock tomorrow,’ he said, ‘and keep your mouth shut. Don’t you tell a living soul.’ He pitched me half a crown and went his way; and though I obeyed the man and didn’t let on nor tell anybody, of course I told myself a bit and well knew the job that was taking him out so early. He was going to shoot Sir Norman without a doubt, and I felt as sorry as a child could be expected to feel for the troubles of grown-up people. The men was talking about it that night, however, and, with my ears cocked, I heard that Captain Dick was a dead shotsman and never known to miss his mark, and was thought to have fought at least one duel before; whereas Sir Norman, though fond of sport as any man, weren’t no great hand with firearms. So . I went to my bed with that thought on my chest.
“Not that I slept much, and I didn’t dare let myself go off again when I woke and heard the stable clock tell four. I arose then, and went down and out and poked about round the kennels; because the headquarters of the hounds weren’t above quarter of a mile away.
TYAAL was asleep on her legs, as good horses will sleep, and she didn’t much like being woke up at that hour, and less she liked being saddled. I offered her a carrot to calm her but she wouldn’t bite to it, and she was in one of her bad moods when, sharp on time, Captain Dick appeared where I walked the hoss up and down in the stable yard. He was dressed in black, black stock and all, and it made him look smaller than usual. ’Twas the use, you understand, always to wear black if you was going to fight a duel. For once the man appeared as cheerful as if he was going to be married instead of face death, and I daresay he reckoned that morning’s work was the first step to getting married if you could have looked in his heart.
“ ‘Morning, Billy,’ he says. ‘How’s the mare?’ ‘Not in a very good mood if you please, your honor,’ I answered; and he gave his short, cruel laugh and said: ‘Well, I am in a good mood.’
“With that he made to get up, while I made her so steady as I might, and the moment his leg was over the saddle I ran for my life. Captain Dick didn’t laugh no
more that day. The gate was open and Baal danced out on her hind legs under the hig Spanish chestnut tree that stands there, and then she came down and bucked, and a child could see the man on her was going to have his hands full if he meant to stop there. She didn’t behave that way as a rule, and I well knew the captain found himself a good hit aslonished. At another time he’d have liked the battle and fought her to a standstill; hut this was a morning when he was going to a job that wanted his nerves quiet and his eye cool and his pistol hand steady. So he was vexed a good bit with the hoss from the start.
“The way from the stables runs out under a sloping spinney of oak and beech, and then takes a curve and rounds up into the drive to the front of Oakland*. A broad way, with the spinney one side and an iron fence the other. I’ve known hounds, on their way to meet, chivy a fox in that spinney afore they got started, you might say.
“Well, I stood at the stable door and watched and saw a sight. The captain kept his wits for a bit, but the hoss was properly mad from the start and acted as if every imp of hell had got in her. All over the shop she was and going from bad to worse; and very soon Master Dick knew he wouldn’t keep his appointment that morning—not on Baal. She fought him and I heard her screaming with rage; a thing I’d never heard from any hoss before and a very ugly sound if you was on her, no doubt. Then the certain thing happened, and the man got angry, too. And when a bad-tempered man and a bad-tempered hoss lose their tempers together, it don’t take long for something final to happen.
“The captain no doubt thought to settle her down and get her going and put the fear of him in her with a bit of sharp agony, so he leant forward and hit her with his hunting crop across the side of her face. With all his might he struck twice, but he loosed his rein liand for a second with the blow, and her head came up and her neck would have brained him if he hadn’t been ready. But then I saw that she’d got the bit, and wondered where she would take him. It weren’t going to be far, I reckoned. They wasn’t a hundred yards from the stable door yet, and now Baal, blind and raving mad, turned up to the slope into the spinney like a streak of lightning; and I ran after ’em. because I knew that five seconds would see the finish now for one or both. They was gone into the wood and. before you could tell it, there came a devil of a crash and one shout and no more. Out flew a brace of pheasants high overhead with a rare clatter, and then all was still as a churchyard.
“I crept in as fast as I might, and ten yards inside was the man, crumpled up in a knot on his face beneath a hugeous bough that had struck him breast high and knocked him oil the hoss. A dozen yards further on
was Baal, down on her side with one leg broke.
T HATED the hoss less than I hated the
man, so I went to her first, and saw she’d run head on into a tree bole and was knocked insensible if not actually dead. And she’d have to die in any case, because her right foreleg was smashed pretty near off her h(xJy under the knee. I took off her saddle, and she never moved nor yet heaved, so I hoped she was dead and out of it. Then I had a look at the captain and judged his neck was broke and his breast drove in. But I didn't touch him. I ran back as fast as I might, and raised the alarm and woke the house and told what had befallen.
“A parcel of men came running in no time and I let ’em hear my tale; and one got on a hoss and rode for a doctor, while others fetched a hurdle and brought in the captain. Joe Ford, head groom, a merciful man by nature, got a fowling piece loaded with ball and finished the mare, what had come to and showed her sorrows and sufferings in her great eyes.
“As we brought the captain in, two gentlemen came galloping up the drive. They was our dead master’s seconds, and they’d been waiting for him by appointment at a crossroads two miles off, called ‘Milly’s Grave,’ because a noted witch had been buried there. The stake of whitethorn they drove through her body struck root and grew, and you can see the May bush there to this day.
“Finding their man didn’t arrive, the chaps had ridden to seek him, and I was pushed forward to tell ’em the tale. When they had heard it they took a look at the dead and then galloped off, hell for leather, to some place where, no doubt, Sir Norman Bassett and his seconds and a doctor was all waiting for the morning’s work.
“And that was the finish of Captain Dick Paston and his short and merry innings. The crowner sat on him and the jury fetched in ‘Death by Misadventure.’ And then came his brother; a putty-faced bookworm who spent the Paston thousands on the library and orange houses and flower gardens and made the place a wonder to them that like such things. But he weren’t no sport, and afore the next hunting season Sir Norman done two things. He took over the mastership of the East Devons and he married, and as master of foxhounds and husband of Ann Waverley he gave a very good account of himself.
“I went back to Clyst St. John after the captain joined his forebears and got work at the kennels under Sir Norman, and was a whip at twenty-one years old and a huntsman at thirty-one. But hosses and hounds and masters and men have all gone down the wind long since—all but me. The generation’s all spent, and Lady Ann and Sir Norman be in the Bassett vault, and Sir Alec, the second to follow ’em, is all for politics—heaven help the poor fellow—and the place let to a tobacconist.”
ARARE good yam, Berry’, and mighty well told. I’ve heard it all from Sir Alec himself, for that matter, but he doesn’t tell it half so well as you do.”
Thus I spoke and rose to depart. But Billy had not quite finished.
“Sit down,” he said. “You've got to hear a bit more, and that’s why I made you come. I'm going to earth tolerable soon now and can spill the milk to you as well as another, and I ain’t got no relations to bear the brunt neither. You see, Captain Dick didn’t die what you may call a natural death exactly, because ’twas I killed the gentleman. I’ve laughed in my sleeve a good few times during the last ninety year to think how a stableboy could alter the face of Nature, and keep one man in the land of the living and send another where he belonged, and bring Ann Waverley to Sir Norman instead of a bullet through his head from Captain Dick. Very amusing if you look at it the right way, and a great source of consolation to me to look back upon.”
He peered into my face with his dim eyes and grinned as he spoke. He expected condemnation and censure, and evidently looked forward to enjoying my furious indignation. But I answered otherwise.
“I doubt you’re an old liar, Berry,” I said. “But you must never pull a parson’s leg, you know. Not the game. We’re a trusting and hopeful breed.”
“True by this hand,” he answered, lifting a big, withered paw. “Every word gospel, and if you’re a right parson you ought to say I was the tool in the hand of Providence. It’s easily told, and looking back upon it all it is as clear as it was to my boy’s mind at the time. And I’d do the same tomorrow if I had to live my life again.”
“Tell me, Berry. We’re all the Lord’s tools, come to that.”
“Or else the devil’s. A man’s got to serve one or t’other. I said to myself that night that I must stop the captain from slaying Sir Norman, and afore I slept I saw how it might very well be done, though at some tidy risk for myself. I knew Baal. She was friendly to me, and when I was saddling her I put four Spanish burrs, with old thorns so tough as nails, under the saddle and drew home the girths so gentle as I could.
“That meant hell let loose so soon as the captain mounted; but the end I couldn’t know, nor guess how kindly chance was going to plan it for me. The mare might have bolted and taken him a mile or two in the open before she broke his neck, or she might have maimed him, and a dozen things might have fallen out to keep me from being in at the death. But when I saw how it all happened, how the captain was killed at his own gate and I was able to be first on the spot and nip the hoss’s saddle off and hide my work—why, then I saw, same as a blind man would, that Providence was on my side and I’d done my job so clever as a grown man, and did ought to be rewarded for it in due time. And if you or anybody round these parts feel wishful to hang me, they’re welcome to the amusement, your reverence.”
He laughed, then grew serious.
“And I hope you’ll believe it and won’t carry away no false opinion that I’m a liar, because that would be a bad mark against me at my time of life. And if you take it in a proper sporting spirit you can come again, sir, when you mind to, and I’ll tell you another good tale about they Pastons. But if you don’t believe I’ve told the solemn truth, then don’t you come no more.”
“I believe you, Bill, and I shall tell no man the story till you’re gone,” I said.
“That’s all right, then, and if you can still read ‘sure and certain hope’ over me when I drop, then I’d say you was worthy to stand by the old parsons. For as a huntsman and one to showr sport for fortyfive years, none can say no word against me. I’ve lied in my day same as any other fellow, and shall again like as not; but I’ve never lied to a ‘man of God and never shall do.”
I left the veteran and went out into the snow, but not before I had promised to come back again.