“I will go away and have a look at that lot of young cattle I bought the other day. I don’t know that I ever saw a more likely lot.”
It was dark when George returned. On his way home he took a path that passed near the house whence he had turned away so angrily a few hours before. It was not the nearest way, but somehow he always took it, even at hours when there was no chance of his getting the most distant sight of Martha.
Presently he stopped suddenly, for from behind the wall that bounded the kitchen garden of the farm he heard voices. A man was speaking.
“You must make your choice at once, darling, for as I have told you I am off tomorrow. We will be married as soon as we get there, and you know you cannot stop here.”
“I know I can’t,” Martha’s voice replied, “but how can I leave?”
“They will forgive you when you come back a lady,” he said. “It will be a year at least before I return, and—”
George could restrain himself no longer. A furious exclamation broke from his lips, and he made a desperate attempt to climb the wall, which was, however, too high. When, after two or three unsuccessful attempts, he paused for a moment, all was silent in the garden.
“I will tackle her tomorrow,” he said grimly, “and him, too. But I dare not go in now. Bennett has always been a good friend to me, and so has his wife, and it would half kill them were they to know what I have heard; but as for her and that villain—”
George’s mouth closed in grim determination, and he strolled on home through the darkness. Whatever his resolutions may have been, he found no opportunity of carrying them out, for the next morning he heard that Martha Bennett had disappeared. How or why, no one knew. She had been missing since tea time on the previous afternoon. She had taken nothing with her, and the farmer and his two sons were searching all the neighbourhood for some sign of her.
The police of Stroud came over in the afternoon, and took up the investigation. The general opinion was that she must have been murdered, and every pond was dragged, every ditch examined, for a distance round the farm. In the meantime George Lechmere held his tongue.
“It is better,” he said to himself, “that her parents and friends should think her dead than know the truth.”
He seldom spoke to anyone, but went doggedly about his work. His father and mother, knowing how passionately he had been attached to Martha, were not surprised at his strange demeanour, though they wondered that he took no part in the search for her.
They had their trouble, too, for although they never breathed a word of their thoughts even to each other, there was, deep down in their hearts, a fear that George knew something of the girl’s disappearance. His intense jealousy had been a source of grief and trouble to them. Previous to his engagement to Martha he had been everything they could have wished him. He had been the best of sons, the steadiest of workers, and a general favourite from his willingness to oblige, his cheerfulness and good temper.