Sixth Series Part 38

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He made game of Jane for doing so; but Jane wanted to see the dresses and the ceremony. Oliver had not the opportunity of going; and would not have gone though he had had it. Just about eleven o'clock, when the gay doings were in full swing, Mr. Preen took Oliver off to Worcester in the gig.

About a fortnight before, Mr. Preen had appointed a saddler in Worcester to be his agent for the new patent agricultural implements, for which he was himself agent-in-chief. Until this under agency should be well in hand, Mr. Preen considered it necessary to see the saddler often: for which purpose he drove into Worcester at least three times a week. Once, instead of going himself, he had sent Oliver, but this day was the first time the two had gone together. It might have been--one cannot tell--but it might have been that Mr. Preen discerned what this wedding of Emma Paul's must be to his son, and so took him out to divert his mind a bit.

Now, upon entering Worcester, to get to the saddler's it was necessary to drive through High Street and turn into Broad Street. At least, that was the straightforward route. But Oliver had not taken it the day he drove in alone; he had preferred the more roundabout way of the back streets. After driving through Sidbury, he--instead of going forward up College Street and so into High Street--went careering along Friar Street, along the whole length of New Street, turned up St. Swithin Street, or Goose Lane, or one of those dingy thoroughfares, made a dash across the top of High Street, and so into his destination, Broad Street. In returning he took the same way. What his objection to the better streets could be, he alone knew. To-day, however, Mr. Preen held the reins.

Mr. Preen was driving quietly up College Street, when Oliver spoke.

"I wish you'd put me down here, father."

"Put you down here!" repeated Mr. Preen, turning to look at him. "What for?"

"I want to get a little book for Jane," answered Oliver, glancing towards Mr. Eaton's house. "I shall be up in Broad Street nearly as soon as you are, if you want me there."

"I don't particularly want you," said Mr. Preen, crustily, "but you needn't be long before you come." And, drawing up to the side, he let Oliver get out.

Driving on to the saddler's, Mr. Preen transacted his business with him.

When it was over, he went to the door, where his gig waited, and looked up and down the street, but saw nothing of Oliver.

"Hasn't given himself the trouble to come up! Would rather put his lazy legs astride one of those posts opposite the college, and watch for my pa.s.sing back again!"

Which was of course rather a far-fetched idea of Mr. Preen's; but he spoke in a temper. Though, indeed, of late Oliver had appeared singularly inert; as if all spirit to move had gone out of him.

Mr. Preen got into his gig at the saddler's door and set off again.

Turning into High Street, he drove gently down it, looking out on all sides, if truth must be told, for Oliver. This caused him to see Stephenson standing at the silversmith's door, the silversmith himself, back now for good at his business, being behind the counter. Now and then, since the bank-note was traced, Mr. Preen had made inquiries of Stephenson as to whether any news had been heard of its changer, but he had not done so lately. Not being in a hurry, he pulled up against the curb-stone. Stephenson crossed the flags to speak.

"Nothing turned up yet, I suppose?" said Mr. Preen.

"Well, I can hardly say it has," replied Stephenson; "but I've seen the gentleman who paid it in to us."

"And who is it? and where was he?" cried Preen, eagerly.

Stephenson had stepped back a pace, and appeared to be looking critically at the horse and gig.

"It was last Sat.u.r.day," he said, coming close again. "I had to take a parcel into Friar Street for one of our country customers, a farmer's wife who was spending the day with some people living down there, and I saw a gig bowling along. The young fellow in it was the one who changed the note."

"Are you sure of it?" returned Mr. Preen.

"Quite sure, sir. I had no opportunity of speaking to him or stopping him. He was driving at a good pace, and the moment he caught sight of me, for I saw him do that, he touched the horse and went on like a whirlwind."

Mr. Preen's little dark face took a darker frown. "_I_ should have stopped him," he said, sternly. "You ought to have rushed after him, Stephenson, and called upon the street to help in the pursuit. You might, at least, have traced where he went to. A gig, you say he was in?"

"Yes," said Stephenson. "And, unless I am greatly mistaken, it was this very gig you are in now."

"What do you mean by that?" retorted Preen, haughtily.

"I took particular notice of the horse and gig, so as to recognise them again if ever I got the chance; and I say that it was this gig and this horse, sir. There's no mistake about it."

They stared into one another's eyes, one face looking up, and the other looking down. All in a moment, Stephenson saw the other face turn ghastly white. It had come into Mr. Preen's recollection amidst his bewilderment, that Oliver had gone into Worcester last Sat.u.r.day afternoon, driving the horse and gig.

"I can't understand this! Who should be in my gig?" he cried, calling some presence of mind to his aid. "Last Sat.u.r.day, you say? In the afternoon?"

"Last Sat.u.r.day afternoon, close upon four o'clock. As I turned down Lich Street, I saw the lay-clerks coming out of College. Afternoon service is generally over a little before four," added Stephenson. "He was driving straight into Friar Street from Sidbury."

Another recollection flashed across Mr. Preen: Oliver's asking just now to be put down in College Street. Was it to prevent his pa.s.sing through High Street? Was he afraid to pa.s.s through it?

"He is a nice-looking young fellow," said Stephenson; "has a fair, mild face; but he was the one who changed the note."

"That may be; but as to his being in my gig, it is not---- Why, I was not in town at all on Sat.u.r.day," broke off Mr. Preen, with a show of indignant remonstrance.

"No, Mr. Preen; the young man was in it alone," said Stephenson, who probably had his own thoughts upon the problem.

"Well, I can't stay longer now; I'm late already," said Mr. Preen. "Good morning, Stephenson." And away he drove with a dash.

Oliver was waiting in College Street, standing near the Hare and Hounds Inn. Mr. Preen pulled up.

"So you did not chose to come on!" he said.

"Well, I--I thought there'd be hardly time, and I might miss you; I went to get my hair cut," replied Oliver, as he settled himself in his place beside his father.

Mr. Preen drove on in silence until they were opposite the Commandery gates in the lower part of Sidbury. Then he spoke again.

"What made you drive through Friar Street on Sat.u.r.day last, instead of going the direct way?"

"Through--Friar Street?" stammered Oliver.

"Through Friar Street, instead of High Street," repeated Mr. Preen, in a sharp, pa.s.sionate accent.

"Oh, I remember. High Street is so crowded on a market day; the back streets are quiet," said Oliver, as if he had a lump in his throat, and could not make his voice heard.

"And in taking the back streets you avoid the silversmith's, and the risk you run of being recognised; is that it?" savagely retorted Mr.

Preen.

Not another word did he speak, only drove on home at a furious pace.

Oliver knew all then: the disgrace for which he had been so long waiting had come upon him.

But when they got indoors, Mr. Preen let loose the vials of his wrath upon Oliver. Before his mother, before Jane, he published his iniquity.

It was he, Oliver, who had stolen the ten-pound note; it was he who had so craftily got it changed at Worcester. Oliver spoke not a word of denial, made no attempt at excuse or defence; he stood with bent head and pale, meek face, his blue eyes filled with utter misery. The same look of misery lay in Mrs. Preen's eyes as she faintly reproached him amid tears and sobs. Jane was simply stunned.

"You must go away now and hide yourself; I can't keep you here to be found and pounced upon," roared Mr. Preen. "By the end of the week you must be gone somewhere. Perhaps you can pick up a living in London."

"Yes, I will go," said Oliver, meekly. And at the first lull in the storm he crept up to his room.

He did not come down to dinner; did not come to tea. Jane carried up a cup of tea upon a waiter and some bread-and-b.u.t.ter, and put it down outside the chamber door, which he had bolted.

Later, in pa.s.sing his room, she saw the door open and went in. Cup and plate were both empty, so he had taken the refreshment. He was not in the house, was not in the garden. Putting on her sun-bonnet and a light shawl, she ran to the Inlets.

Oliver was there. He sat, gazing moodily at the brook and the melancholy osier-twigs that grew beside it. Jane sat down and bent his poor distressed face upon her shoulder.

"Dear Oliver! Don't take it so to heart. I know you must have been sorely tempted."

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