Mr. Harold by Anonymous

No one who had seen John Green sitting on a mile-stone opposite to the huge iron gates which opened into the Manor-house drive would have thought that it was a bitterly cold evening in December. His hands were in his pockets, and he was wrapped in thought, and he did not notice the cold.

He had been to town to try and collect a few small sums which were owing to his mother, but with little success. Things had not gone well with Mrs. Green and her son since Mr. Green's death, six months before. Mr. Green had had a long and expensive illness, and all his savings and most of his furniture had had to go in medicine and doctor's bills. He had been a carpenter, earning good wages, and Mrs. Green was very anxious to live in the same cottage, as there was a big garden, which she thought she and her son ought to be able to cultivate profitably. But, unfortunately, the apple crop failed that autumn, their rent was in arrears, and Mr. Tucker, the land agent, whom John had just met in the town, had told him that they must either pay in a week or go. There were plenty of people who would willingly have lent them the necessary money, but Mrs. Green declined to borrow under any circumstances whatever.

'If the Squire really knew what was happening on his estate,' said the boy, bitterly, to himself, 'I don't believe he would let old Tucker go on as he does. It's a shame to live up in a great house like that, and never take the trouble to find out how his agent is treating people. I'd go to him myself, but they say he always speaks to Tucker if any tenants do that, and Tucker turns them out at once. At any rate, there's one more week in which to raise three pounds—and a lot of chance there is of finding it,' and the boy laughed aloud bitterly.

'Well, there does not appear to be much to laugh at to-night,' said a voice at his elbow, and turning round Jack saw that a man, apparently a tramp, in even shabbier clothes than his own, had come up noiselessly over the snow. 'Also,' continued the new-comer, 'it would be possible to find a warmer and more comfortable seat than that mile-stone.'

'I was waiting opposite the gates, trying to make up my mind whether I would go in or not,' answered the boy, 'and I was laughing because I did not think it would make any real difference whether I went in or stayed outside.'

'That depends, I suppose, on what you want there! If I might ask, what is it?'

'I want the Squire to give my mother a little time to get together her rent; but since Mr. Harold ran away, ten years ago to-day, the Squire has never been the same man. That nearly broke his heart, and now he takes no interest in anything; he has turned us all over to an agent, who does just what he likes with us.'

'Then Mr. Harold was—— '

'His son. My father said he would have run away too if he had been Mr. Harold, though the Squire wasn't as bad in those days.'

'And who was your father?'

'Peter Green, the carpenter.'

'Well, Peter Green's son,' said the stranger, with a queer laugh, 'if you will go in and see the Squire, and come out and tell me in what sort of temper he is, I will give you my last shilling,' and he spun a coin in the air. 'You must go in by the front door, and I will wait for you in the drive.'

'Right you are,' said the boy, jumping off the mile-stone. 'I'll risk it for a shilling.'

Side by side they tramped up the snowy drive till they saw the light shining through the glass in the front door. Then the tramp drew aside, and John went boldly up the steps. The clang of the bell had scarcely died away before the door was opened by an elderly butler.

'Can I see the Squire?' asked John, in as brave a voice as he could muster.

'Show him in at once, Williams; show him in at once,' called out an impatient voice at the back of the hall.

The butler stepped back. 'I don't think, sir,' he said, 'that this is the gentleman you are expecting.'

'How do you know what gentleman I am expecting? 'Show him in at once, I tell you.'

'You'd better come straight in,' said the butler, shrugging his shoulders. He led the way across the hall, and ushered John into a comfortably furnished library. An old gentleman was sitting by the fire, enveloped in rugs. He leant forward and peered into John's face. Then he fell back wearily into his cushions. 'Dear, dear! another disappointment,' he groaned. 'Take him away, Williams.'

But John, having penetrated into the lion's den, did not mean to be dismissed so easily.

'Please, sir,' he began, hurriedly, 'I want to know whether you will give my mother a little longer to pay her rent. We have had a very hard time. Mr. Tucker is going to turn us out.'

'You must go and see Mr. Tucker about that,' answered the old man, indifferently. 'I leave all such matters to him; or, stay,' he added, 'I am expecting Mr. Harold to-night. You can come in and see him about it next week if you like.'

Then John remembered that he had heard that on the anniversary of his son's departure the old man always expected him to return, and he understood why he had been shown in so hurriedly.

'But, please, sir,' he pleaded, 'won't you write me a line for Mr. Tucker, in case Mr. Harold missed the train or anything?'

The old man put up his hands feebly. 'Take him away, Williams,' he said, querulously.' I can't be worried, or I shall be too tired to speak to Mr. Harold when he comes. Do whatever you think Mr. Harold would like.'

John followed the butler out of the room, and half an hour later he went down the steps triumphantly. In his pocket was a paper which the butler had written out and persuaded the Squire to sign, stating that Mrs. Green was on no account to be turned out of her cottage without Mr. Harold's express orders. He found the tramp waiting for him, and told his story joyfully, declining to accept the proffered shilling in return.

The tramp listened attentively, and drew himself together at the end. 'I think I will risk it,' he said, huskily. Then he turned to John: 'Look here, young man, you will find it to your advantage to say nothing about to-night, whatever news you may hear in the village to-morrow. See?'

'You aren't going to hurt the Squire?' asked John, anxiously.

'I hope not, but you will probably understand to-morrow,' and the shabby figure strode away up the drive.

The next day the villagers were electrified by the news that Mr. Harold had returned at last.

That is many years ago now, and John Green, the head-gardener at the Manor-house, sometimes wonders, as he watches the care with which the present Squire selects an orchid for his button-hole, whether the tramp who spoke to him on that snowy December night was not the figure of a dream.