As these words were in his mind he joined the small crowd who were gathered round the railings, and saw that they were looking at three sheep with very small lambs only a day or two old, which had been penned off for shelter and protection from the others that ranged the park.
They were very pretty, and Londoners so seldom get a chance of seeing lambs that it was no wonder every one stopped to look at them. Ernest observed that no one seemed fonder of them than a great lubberly butcher boy, who leaned up against the railings with a tray of meat upon his shoulder. He was looking at this boy and smiling at the grotesqueness of his admiration, when he became aware that he was being watched intently by a man in coachman’s livery, who had also stopped to admire the lambs, and was leaning against the opposite side of the enclosure. Ernest knew him in a moment as John, his father’s old coachman at Battersby, and went up to him at once.
“Why, Master Ernest,” said he, with his strong northern accent, “I was thinking of you only this very morning,” and the pair shook hands heartily. John was in an excellent place at the West End. He had done very well, he said, ever since he had left Battersby, except for the first year or two, and that, he said, with a screw of the face, had well nigh broke him.
Ernest asked how this was.
“Why, you see,” said John, “I was always main fond of that lass Ellen, whom you remember running after, Master Ernest, and giving your watch to. I expect you haven’t forgotten that day, have you?” And here he laughed. “I don’t know as I be the father of the child she carried away with her from Battersby, but I very easily may have been. Anyhow, after I had left your papa’s place a few days I wrote to Ellen to an address we had agreed upon, and told her I would do what I ought to do, and so I did, for I married her within a month afterwards. Why, Lord love the man, whatever is the matter with him?”—for as he had spoken the last few words of his story Ernest had turned white as a sheet, and was leaning against the railings.
“John,” said my hero, gasping for breath, “are you sure of what you say—are you quite sure you really married her?”
“Of course I am,” said John, “I married her before the registrar at Letchbury on the 15th of August 1851.
“Give me your arm,” said Ernest, “and take me into Piccadilly, and put me into a cab, and come with me at once, if you can spare time, to Mr Overton’s at the Temple.”
I do not think Ernest himself was much more pleased at finding that he had never been married than I was. To him, however, the shock of pleasure was positively numbing in its intensity. As he felt his burden removed, he reeled for the unaccustomed lightness of his movements; his position was so shattered that his identity seemed to have been shattered also; he was as one waking up from a horrible nightmare to find himself safe and sound in bed, but who can hardly even yet believe that the room is not full of armed men who are about to spring upon him.