Mr George Attwood was, at the time of our story, an extensive landed proprietor, a little past the middle period of life. His hair was slightly frosted with silver, his eyebrows firm, and his countenance one of mingled resolution and kindness. Yet, despite a certain sternness of deportment and marked decision of manner, backed up by strong conservative leanings, and more particularly by a great love of field sports, and an accompanying detestation of poachers, he was, as all his tenants and all the poor of the parish well knew, a most philanthropic and honourable man. He made it his study to do everything for the interests of his tenantry, and was a praise to all that did well, and also by his scorn and detestation of wrong, a terror to evil doers. It must be told, however, that our landlord had a superlative hatred of the crime of poaching, not that he cared for the loss of his game, but he decidedly objected to the practice. Mr Attwood kept no gamekeeper, and was of course duly taken advantage of. Ultimately, he became determined to put a stop to this illegal traffic on his grounds, and was not long in discovering three fellows, loaded with rabbits and hares, returning from a poaching expedition. He had them immediately apprehended, and two of them—Dick Holden and Ralph Ripon—suffered three months’ imprisonment. These two gentlemen took it into their heads that they were cruelly ill-used, and vowed, as soon as released, that the hard landlord should share the fate of his game.
But we must leave the two worthies for a little, and introduce our readers to the hero and heroine of our tale.
Henry Lee rented a cottage and an acre or two of Mr Attwood’s land, which he laid out to the best advantage as market garden. Henry went three times a week to the next village, about three miles distant, and disposed of his wares, which were always first-class, returning in the evening, sitting upon his vehicle, sometimes whistling some favourite air, and sometimes smoking. None more happy and contented in Attwoodland than the industrious gardener. Next to his wife and children, he declared he loved his pipe, and occasionally one or other of his neighbours would playfully chide with him on his ardent love of tobacco. “Smoking again, Harry?” “Oh, yes,” good-naturedly answered he; “just helping the Queen.” Henry was well liked in his neighbourhood, but the poor gardener had an enemy he was not aware of.
Our hero and Will Wharcliffe both courted the same fair one, but Will came off second best; and such was his hatred of the victor that he tried all in his power to disturb his happiness. Mr Attwood’s heir had also solicited the hand of Mary Lee, Henry’s love, and people wondered that she did not accept of his offer; but Mary frankly told William Attwood that “her heart was Henry’s, and never would she let it be said that she wedded for wealth or station.” No mercenary motives—the promise of wealth or honour— however tempting the offer, or however strong the argument in its favour, can remove the affection which is seated on the throne of the heart. To real love wealth is no consideration, and a source from which happiness is not expected to flow. It is the truest love that depends on itself, and needs not the fleeting support of wealth or the influence of the great to keep it in existence. It is a health-giving feeling of itself, and has often restored the bloom of wonted health to the pale cheek when all the skill of the physician had been bestowed in vain.
Mr William Attwood, seeing he had no chance, honourably gave up the chase, and Mary became the gardener’s wife.
Mary Lee, the heroine of our tale, was the only daughter of a deceased blacksmith. Her mother had also died before her daughter was sixteen years of age, and Mary was left in charge of an aunt, who resided in the little village of S—, where Henry Lee sold his merchandise, and where he first became acquainted with her. Mary was a good-natured, confiding girl—and of a noble but gentle disposition. Her round, beautiful face was the admiration of all the young swains in the village, and not a few of them would have given “the best button on their coat” for a glance of those clear blue eyes, or the shadow of a lock of those golden ringlets. But, alas! they all sighed in vain, and deemed Harry Lee the happiest fellow in the world.
Half-a-dozen years had passed, and the young and beautiful maiden was the happy and contented wife. She still retained her beauty, although two little cherubs, who trotted about the cottage, called her—mother. Isa and William were their names—the little daughter being just another Mary Lee, and her father’s pet.
Henry was thus happy in his family, and everybody thought so too. Not an evening did he return home from the village but he was welcomed with the gladdening smiles of his nearest and dearest. Each evening in summer did Mary make a sweet bouquet, gathered from the choicest flowers in her husband’s garden; and as regularly on Henry’s first entering his little parlour did he admire his wife’s taste in the construction of the bouquet, which stood in a vase on the Table, and lent a delicious fragrance to the atmosphere of the “canty ben house.”
It was one of the fairest days in June, and everything around Attwoodland looked charming and fair. The birds sang merrily on the trees; the fields had a fresh tinge of summer; and the sweet flowers in Henry Lee’s garden were rich in blossom. The gardener had gone in the morning to the village as usual, and his sweet little wife was gathering a bunch of flowers to please him when he came home. It was about eight of the evening, and Mary was pulling a few sweet moss roses to complete the bouquet in her hand, when she heard two voices, talking in whispers, on the other side of the wall which sheltered the garden. She knew, from the manner of conversation, that there was some dark plot hatching, and the words “Shoot him dead” almost paralyzed her, and she dropped the flowers in her hand and listened.
“Should I miss,” muttered one of the voices, “you attack him.”
“I shall have my persuader ready,” answered the other, “and blame me if he escape! Which is the best entrance to the hall?”
The two speakers were our old acquaintances—Dick Holden and his confederate, Ralph Ripon—consulting on the carrying of their old threat into execution—viz., the killing of Mr George Attwood.
Dick answered his friend’s query by declaring that the least resistance might be expected from the back entrance.
“It is five miles by the high road,” added Dick, “but that is nothing to the satisfaction of our revenge. He shall never again put us inside those detestable walls.”
“Is there not a shorter road?” asked Ralph.
“There is, but very dangerous; besides, we would have to cross Mayden Quarry, which is said to be haunted by the spirit of Emily Green.”
“No more!—the high road and a speedy journey.”
Thus decided as to their mode of procedure, the two poachers quickly walked on to the high road that led to Attwood Hall.
“What shall I do?” asked Mary Lee of herself. “They intend to murder our kind landlord, Mr Attwood. Oh, horror! Henry, Henry, had you only been here! My children, what can your mother do? We are a quarter of a mile from any house! Nobody could overtake them by the road they are going. The Quarry road will save two miles! Adieu for a while, Isa! William! Henry, wait with patience till your Mary returns!”
So soliloquising, Mary Lee darted out of the garden, and plunged into the dark forest that had to be passed before the bye-road to Attwood Hall could be reached. No danger feared the gardener’s wife. The spirit of heroism reigned within her; and to save a fellow-creature from death was at that moment her first and foremost thought. On through the thick recesses of the forest did she glide, while her ringlets, which a little time ago hung in clusters round her neck, became more and more disordered. That usually modest and calm countenance was crimson as the dress she wore, while the sweat was running down her girlish brow. “Ah, Mr Attwood, I shall save you! I shall save you!” she half-screamed, as she emerged from the wood. “I see the mansion! They can’t be there already. It is still two miles yet!” On, on, ran the heroic Mary, still she felt no fatigue. The heart that is prompted by heroism knows no flinching. That dreadful quarry had to be crossed—how was it to be done? It was only to be accomplished by first descending a precipice of 100 feet deep, and then the road was clear. “Descend, Mary! descend!” proudly cried she to herself, while the rocky walls of the quarry reverberated the brave words. Mary Lee stood on the brink of the precipice, which threatened death to any one who might have the hardihood to descend it. Down, down she scrambled, hanging on to the loose stones, which more than once yielded to her hold. It was yet ten feet to the foot, on which the grass grew. One leap, and Mary Lee stood on the base of Mayden Quarry. With thankful eyes, and a beating heart, she rushed on towards Attwood Hall, and shouted, as she reached the back-door—”Mr Attwood.”
“What is the matter, girl?” demanded the old landlord, who heard the warning.
Mary quickly explained the object of her mission; and the inmates of the hall being on the alert, the two intended assassins were cleverly captured and disarmed before they could offer any resistance.
Poor Mary was so afraid her husband might be anxious about her, that she, without waiting for a recognition of her noble services, immediately took the road by which the poachers had come to the hall, and was soon out of sight on her way home.
Will Wharcliffe, who happened to be in the neighbourhood of Mr Attwood’s mansion, perceived the brave girl running in the direction of the hall, and deeming this a fit opportunity to satiate his revenge upon Henry, he, nerved with the infernal impulse which hate gives to its devotees, hastily sent a note to Mary’s husband, stating that his wife had eloped with William Attwood; and that the two had been seen walking together on the road which led west from his father’s mansion.
His wife not coming to meet him as usual, Henry thought that something must be wrong, and he hastened home with speed. On entering the house Mary was not there—Isa and William were weeping, and they could tell nothing about mother. On entering into the parlour, his wife was not there—no, nor even the fresh bouquet which ought to have been on the table! What could have become of her? As the wildest fancies flashed across his brain, the poor gardener’s eye caught a letter, which lay on the floor, addressed to himself;—he broke the seal; but how that ruddy countenance became pale, and that manly form shook with despair, as the terrible words—”your wife has eloped”—attracted his notice. Henry Lee’s eyes became fixed on the unwelcome paper—he felt a beating at his heart—he was chained to the spot—his brain reeled, and he seemed almost unconscious.
“Where is mother, father?” imploringly asked little Isa.
“Gone, gone! Alas! you have no mother! My dearest children—!”
His eyes swam with tears, and the kind father found relief by pressing his two innocent children to his throbbing heart.
“Oh, Mary! Mary! my wife! my wife!” were the only words which escaped the lips of Henry Lee.
The little cottage, so lately the scene of happiness and contentment, was now the abode of bitter misery and sorrow, caused by the wicked and spiteful letter of a disappointed lover. What effect imagination has on human nerves! Henry Lee an hour ago was sitting cheerfully whistling on his vehicle, returning home from his labour to meet the smiling face of the only woman his affection rested on; and now, what a change! All his fond hopes are blasted, and he thinks his earthly happiness is ruined for ever.
While the afflicted gardener thus sat mourning over his unbearable loss, with his children on his knee, they asked often after their mother; but Henry only sighed, and looked affectionately in their innocent faces, where he plainly discovered the features of his Mary.
“But she is not my Mary now!” he bitterly exclaimed. “She will never be so again; she has rejected her husband!”
Two hours passed away, but they only seemed to confirm the contents of the dread letter. Suddenly, after a while, a knock was heard at the door.
“It is mother, father!” joyfully cried little Isa, as she darted from her father’s knee. “Let me open the door.”
“She shall not come in!” shouted Henry, in a voice that frighted both the children.
“Oh! O let me open the door, father!—you will open to mother?”
“Yes! yes!” said Henry, “she is your mother,” the tears blinding his eyes.
The child opened the door; and Mary Lee, breathless and exhausted, almost fell into the cottage. She could scarcely articulate the word Henry, and wondered that her husband did not speak to her. She rose, and came to kiss him, but he turned from her with loathing.
“What is this?” she gasped.
“Well you know what it is, madam! Has your paramour forsaken you already?”
“Oh! Henry! this to me? I see it all. Oh, I am your own true, your dear, faithful wife. I went to save Mr Attwood.”
In vain did Mary plead her cause.
“Mary,” calmly said Henry, “much as I love you, you never can be mine again. Read this letter.”
There was a column earnestness and determination in her husband’s words which sickened Mary, and she perceived that he was jealous, and would not be persuaded.
“Then, Henry!—oh! Will you not believe me! Then I shall leave you! I will not ask forgiveness, for I am not at fault! Isa—William!—my dearest children!—oh, let me kiss you for the last time! Your mother bids you farewell!”
Mary Lee then warmly pressed her two children, and imprinted a kiss on each of their foreheads, while the tears ran down her pale, but pure cheeks. “Adieu! adieu!” she cried, and darted from the house.
A week of intense sorrow and weariness did Henry Lee pass; Mary was not near him—he was desolate, and a deep melancholy came over him, which threatened to destroy his health.
One morning as Mr George Attwood walked down the shaded road that led to his house, he discovered a young and lovely female crouching beneath a tree to shelter her from the rain that was pouring in torrents. It was May Lee. At first she hesitated to speak to him, but he approached her, and kindly asked how she came there, and offered to lend her assistance.
“Assist me! yes you can assist me, sir,” she cried, not by your wealth, but with your voice. Oh! Mr Attwood, I have sat here all night, waiting to see you. Will you not reconcile me to my husband? I saved your life last week, and this is my reward!”
Mary gave Mr Attwood a brief description of the cause of her separation from her husband.
“With all my heart, Mary,” answered the benevolent Mr Attwood, “you are a brave girl, and deserve reward. I shall soon see you in the bosom of your family again. Will you not come into my house, and Mrs Attwood shall give you a change of dress? You must be very wet.”
“No, thank you, sir; I will rather go to Henry at once! I am sure he will believe you.”
Mr Attwood then gave orders to get the carriage ready, and he, along with his son and the injured wife, were soon rattling on the road to Henry’s cottage. It was agreed that Mary should alight from the carriage about a hundred yards or so before coming to the gardener’s dwelling, so as Mr Attwood and his son might accost Henry by themselves.
“Is it true? Is it true?” gasped the lonely gardener, as the truth began to appear; and he grasped the hands of father and son.
“She has been true to you, Henry,” answered Mr George Attwood. “She indeed saved my life, and my son here can testify to it.”
“You have wronged your wife, Henry,” said the young man, “and you ought sincerely to apologise to her. For a whole week has she wandered about in despair, till my father saw her; and—
“Oh, where is she? How can I atone? Let me fly to her feet and ask forgiveness! Mary is too good for me! Oh, sir, tell me where she is! I can never thank you enough for your kindness! Mary! Mary! my own faithful, noble-hearted wife!”
In a few moments Mary Lee was in the tender embrace of her husband; and Henry kissed away the tears which ran down her now pale but innocent cheeks, while she gazed into his face with looks of hearty forgiveness.
“Oh! Mary! We shall never part again! I shall ever toil for you and our children.”
“Yes, Henry,” said the brave girl, “my whole heart is yours; I frankly forgive you. That letter was a deceit, and has returned upon the head of the writer; but I forgive him also.”
“He shall never rent another cottage of mine,” said Mr George Attwood. “Will Wharcliffe shall by expelled from my lands.”
The worthy landlord, in acknowledgement of Mary’s brave behaviour, made her husband a present of the cottage in which he and his family dwelt, and also the portion of land which he cultivated. Happiness and contentment once more reigned within the walls of Henry Lee’s cottage, and never since has he doubted his faithful and loving Mary.