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There was some whispering going on between the old lady who had been her travelling companion, and the woman of the house, evidently relating to herself, but Janette took little heed of it. The warmth of the fire, the sound of homely voices seemed enough for her now, and seated in the chimney corner, her weary eyes closed, and she fell into a peaceful slumber.
“We had better not disturb her, poor soul,” said the elder woman in a compassionate whisper, “there's something queer about her, depend
“We can lift her feet up on the settle and cover her over, and I don't see but what she'll be as well here as in bed," said the other.
They settled her as comfortably as they could in the warm chimney corner, covering her with shawls, &c., and then left her still sleeping soundly.
The winter sun was trying to peer into the small room when Janette Meredith awoke. Wildly she looked around and tried to recollect where she
would not regain its power. The inmates of the cottage, tired with the journey and the late hours of the previous night, were not yet awakened. The poor girl was frightened by the newness of the scene before her distorted sight. A horror of discovery again seized her, and gently opening the latch, she stole out over the snow-covered path, down the beaten road, past the railway bridge, and out into the open, cold winter landscape, without a guide. Alone!
The fact that no reply. was received to Mr. Montgomery's telegram, was supposed by the squire to prove that it had been altogether a myth, and that the Janette Meredith at school with Edith was not the girl known in early years to Mr. Montgomery. He, on the contrary, was all the more anxious from the delay; and determined to leave the manor house by an early train to prosecute his inquiries. He thought it not unlikely that, as was the case, the Miss Hensmans were spending the holidays away from home, and he imagined they had taken Janette with them. This he thought might explain in some sort the delay in the reply to the telegram, but he had a sort of nameless fear clinging to him, until the moment when he might ascertain the truth, and meet his old friend's child once more.
Taking the express train, Mr. Montgomery reached Thorpbrough House soon after the arrival of Miss Hensman, who had been summoned by telegraph by the frightened servants as soon as they discovered Miss Meredith's absence, which was not however until the following morning.
To say the truth poor Miss Hensman was very much frightened and dreadfully annoyed that publicity should be given to anything that had happened within the precincts of her safely-guarded home. Conscience also suggested that it might have been more humane to have given the poor lonely girl some sympathy and not have allowed her mind to brood on its own sorrows at a time when all else was rejoicing.
The poor lady was in a helpless state of indecision, as to what steps to take, when Mr. Montgomery arrived. He asked at once for Miss Meredith.
La, sir !” said the frightened housemaid as she opened the door, “I was in hopes you was come to say you knew something about her. She's gone away, she's been missing since this morning. Please walk in, sir."
He grew pale, showing only by compressed lips that his emotion was great. But as he stood before Miss Hensman, his tall figure drawn up to its full height, his eyes flashing, there was something in his expression which made her crouch before him in unspoken dread.
“ You are a relation of Miss Meredith's ??? she gasped out; "it is most unfortunate she should not be at home."
“Tell me at once,” said Mr. Montgomery in a clear determined voice, “where she is, what you know of her, what cause she had for leaving your house."
The schoolmistress recounted as well as she could the little she had gathered from her servants as to Janette's departure. The information was scanty enough, and Mr. Montgomery listened with impatience and bitterness.
“ You have left this poor child to loneliness and sorrow," he said, “ until the strain upon her has been too great, and she has gone away homeless and friendless. If her life, as may well be the case, is the forfeit, her blood will be on your head.”
It was a new phase of Miss Hensman's existence to be upbraided in her own house, but she did not resent it. - God forbid !” she said meekly.
“ Can you give me no clue as to where she is likely to have gone ?” added the visitor more quickly.
“None,” she said, " unless she has gone to Forduth, her father's old place. She has spoken of it often lately, but she has no friend left there now.”
“It is then as I thought," said Mr. Montgomery as he turned away; “this is really little Janette Meredith, and I shall find her perhaps dead !” He hurried through the streets of the crowded city, now wet and slushy with the fast falling snow, and calling at the police station he ordered placards to be struck off, and everything to be put in order to assist the search. The description of her person was given by Miss Hensman, as also the poor dress she was supposed to have worn. How could one not shudder to think of a delicate girl exposed to the pitiless winter weather in such clothing!
The next step was to the railway station, but she had not been particularly observed amongst the crowd of third-class passengers by the cheap night train. Sad and dispirited Mr. Montgomery determined to proceed at once to Forduth. It would be easy he thought to trace any stranger in a small country place. But Miss Hensman affirmed it was quite impossible she could have travelled far, for she had certainly no money to take her any distance, and where could she procure it? Nevertheless Mr. Montgomery felt impelled to go straight to the old rectory where his early happy days were spent with Janette's father and herself, a sweet golden-haired child. He well remembered her intense love of home, how dear every nook and corner of the garden and orchard had been to her; how many long hours she used to spend playing or reading under the spreading cedar tree. The place he knew now was silent and empty, the house shut up pending the appointment of a new rector. A curate was doing the duty and living in a farmhouse near the village, and the rectory lay still and quiet under the shadow of the venerable chureh, tenanted only by. an old woman who was left in solitary charge.
When Mr. Montgomery reached the station at which Janette had left the train on the night of her wild journey, he immediately made inquiries of every one of the officials. Very little seemed to be known, the sleepy porter appeared to have been too sleepy to “take much note," as he said, "of any of the passengers in particular, and had seen no such young party as described.” The cross-examination was still being vigorously pursued by Mr. Montgomery, when an elderly woman came into the station with a basket, and soon became earnestly attentive to the conversation which was going on.
“Bless me, sir, I hope you'll excuse me for joining in, but I do believe I've a-seen the poor young lady—she came down in the train with me.”
Mr. Montgomery turned at once to the speaker and heard from her of poor Janette's lonely arrival, of her reception in the hospitable cottage and of her disappearance in the morning. “She's gone to Forduth, you may depend on it, sir. Her poor
mind was running on nothing else, and when she was asleep in the chimney corner, her poor lips muttered, 'home to Forduth, home at last,' or something like that. I said to my cousin, I did hope she was going to good friends, for she seemed pretty near off her head with some trouble or other."
Mr. Montgomery turned away, to hide the feeling of intense pity which oppressed him. But now he had a clue, he hoped the time was not far distant when he should be able to comfort the poor lonely wanderer, and take her to the Manor House, where he knew warmth and sympathy awaited her. He determined, in spite of the darkness which was closing around, and the bitter frost which was binding everything now in its icy grasp, to proceed on foot to Forduth, so that he might, as far as possible, trace the poor girl along the lonely path she had taken, and leave no house on the road unvisited, that he might find her. The snow had been beaten down on the road, and the moon was rising cold and clear on the winter night. The wind whistled now and again in gusts, and then sank down. In the quiet country road there were few passengers, people crept round their warm fires, and little children dried their wet garments before the faggot, crackling in the wide hearth of their cottage homes.
Where was poor homeless Janette ? No trace of her could be seen, nor had a sound been heard of her in any of the cottages which skirted the road through which Mr. Montgomery was passing.
He entered the quiet village, and the simple inhabitants were already retiring to rest, as sorrowing and dispirited he passed up the village street, over the bridge which spanned the sparkling river, whose beauty had added so much attractiveness to the pretty gardens of the Rectory.
The Church tower rose tall, sombre, and grand in the moonlight, and as he stood beneath its shadow the clock boomed in solemn tones through the frosty air the hour of ten.
With beating heart and quickened footsteps he went on towards the rectory. Not long before he had visited it with hope; now he knew that nothing but bitterness must be before him, and a dread of something even worse seemed to haunt him as he opened the broken gate, and walked up the grass-grown
drive to the door. For a long time he knocked and rang and rattled, and almost feared that these efforts would all prove fruitless. At last a step was heard coming with faltering sound along the uncarpeted floor, and a faint light was seen. Then a querulous voice demanded,
“Who's that? I shan't let nobody in at this hour of the night."
“I am the gentleman who came to inquire after poor Miss Meredith some few weeks ago. I am sure, my good woman, you will open the door to me."
“I won't do no such thing," said the old woman, crossly. “You can come to-morrow," and there seemed to be a sign of her shuffling away.
“ Here are five shillings for you,” called out Mr. Montgomery, "if you will open the door ; I have something particular to ask you."
This seemed in some degree to mollify the old woman, and after some more hesitation and parleying, the door was at last opened.
Mr. Montgomery, however, got no satisfactory answer to his inquiries even here. The old woman had not heard anything of the poor young lady for years past, and she did wish he would not stay. There were many tramps about, she had seen one or two this very day, and she did not like keeping the door open, &c.
At last he prevailed on her to let him walk through the now empty rooms, and though very unwilling, the guerdon given her by Mr. Montgomery secured this boon, and alone he wandered through the wellremembered house.
There were no blinds, and the moonlight streamed in, as his footsteps echoed on the deserted floor. Something impelled him to search. Should he find her there?
But no, it was all of no avail, and he went to a window which looked over the lawn, and gazed out almost despairingly.
Clear, and cold, and dark the shrubs stood out with their deep shadows on the snow-covered lawn, in the white moonlight. Dreary and weird, and still as death, everything looked. The cedar-tree, heavy with its snow wreaths, could scarcely be the same, he thought, which he remembered as the resting-place of his sweet child-love, whose merry ringing laugh had always been such music to his boyish ear. As he looked, the summer of his life seemed to have passed away for ever, and to have left nothing but cold, bleak, cheerless, lonely winter !