With Her Own Hands

By Charles E. Pearce

This story was first published in The Lancashire Daily Post on Saturday 26 July 1902.

“Is it for the last time, Janet?”

“You know best about that.”

The fire which had for a moment flashed in Stephen Musgrave’s dark eyes died down, leaving them sullen and expressionless. Though his glance was fixed on the fair landscape he saw nothing. The grassy slope descending to the placid stream, the line of pollards, the path on the other side of the river leading to the Hodsbourne Woods, black against the dull red of the setting sun, were to him invisible. The picture before his eyes was the proud, disdainful face of Janet Langdon.

The girl stood erect, every muscle, every nerve of her handsome, vigorous body stiffened into rebellion. When Stephen put his question, she turned from him abruptly, her blue eyes merciless, scorn in every line of her beautiful face. He heard defiance in her answer, in her voice, but he could not see how that defiance was belied by the quiver of the red lips.

“You’d better marry George Hurst and have done with it,” said he, with bitter emphasis.

“Keep your advice for those who want it, Stephen Musgrave.”

“Why don’t you say you are tired of me? I should know what you meant then,” he cried, passionately.

“Really? Not you. You’re too stupid.”

Her contempt made him wince, the smouldering fire leaped once more to his eyes, his mouth was compressed until it became little more than a white line.

He lost self control and seized the girl’s wrist roughly​—​more roughly than he imagined.

“Listen, Janet,” said he, sinking his voice until it was scarcely more than a hoarse whisper. “You’re the first girl who’s ever trifled with me, and, by Heaven! you shall be the last. I will never let you go, mind that. Marry Hurst, by all means​—​I pity him, poor beggar.”

He flung her arm from him as one jerks away something of no moment, and laughed exultantly.

She turned as fierce as he, her eyes ablaze, her cheeks scarlet with passion.

“I hate you​—​you​—​you coward!” she cried.

He had roused her from her contemptuous mood, and he drank in her enhanced beauty with a savage pleasure.

“Coward, is it? Not a coward, Janet, where a woman is concerned.”

Quick as lightning his arm was round her waist, and he kissed her full on the lips.

“Take that to George Hurst.”

The sharp sound of the girl’s hand on his cheek startled the still air like the crack of a whip.

“And that is my parting gift,” she cried. Breaking from him, she ran, her bosom heaving, her lips tremulous, along the path across the meadow where beyond the common Hodsbourne village lay nestled in the hollow.

Stephen Musgrave watched the girl’s shapely figure till, passing through the gate at the end of the path, she was lost to view; then, with his eyes fixed on the ground and his hands in his pocket, descended the slope towards the river. He still felt the sting of her hand, but his smarting cheek, instead of exasperating him, sent his love to fever heat.

The glow of the water cooled into gray, the shadow of the pollards became black as ink, the sky was overspread with the opalescence of a midsummer night; Stephen Musgrave, his head bent, wandered slowly along the river bank.

The man was nursing his love, to what end he knew not, though certain vague thoughts were beginning to take shape in his mind. Janet Langdon, a tempest of emotions raging within her, was hastening homewards, carrying her head high with a sense of victory. If she had anything clear in her whirling brain, it was a desire to inflict condign punishment and vexation on Stephen Musgrave, even if she made it up afterwards. The fiercer the quarrel and the more relentless the punishment, the sweeter the reconciliation.

By the time Janet reached her mother’s house the white heat of passion had cooled. She pushed open the garden gate, and a sharp pain brought back an irritating remembrance of Stephen Musgrave. She looked at her wrist; gray though the light was, five red marks showed distinctly on her white flesh.

She felt the sting of humiliation, Musgrave’s contemptuous gesture, the kiss that had blistered her lips, the taunt about George Hurst​—​it all returned and sent her quivering from head to foot.

She was tempted to stay out until calmness returned. Her mother’s pestering questions just then would be beyond endurance. But it was too late, the creaking of the rusty hinges had been heard. Mrs. Langdon met her half-way down the garden path.

“Come in, Janet, come in. I was afraid you’d be late. Farmer Hurst’s inside.”

“I don’t want to see him to-night,” answered the gal, sullenly.

“Don’t be a fool, child. He’s been waiting here an hour, fidgeting and looking at his watch every five minutes. D’ you think I can’t tell what that means? He wanted to know where you’d gone​—​said he’d walk and meet you, but I wasn’t going to let him slip. I dropped a word that you’d gone along by the river, past Patcham’s corner, and that was enough. I saw his jaw drop.”

Patcham’s Corner was on Musgrave’s land, and Mrs. Langdon’s diplomacy effected its object. Hurst said he would wait until Janet came back.

At her mother’s words the girl’s bosom rose and fell. Her riotous nerves tingled. A glorious triumph was within her grasp​—​a triumph over Stephen Musgrave. George Hurst had been a widower six years, and the prophecy of the village gossips that he would take to himself a second wife within a twelvemonth after the death of his first wife had been falsified. As he had prospered exceedingly and still remained single, the only reasonable explanation was that there was no one in Hodsbourne good enough for him.

Janet knew all this, but she had never troubled about the rich farmer until handsome Stephen Musgrave came after her. It was flattering when Stephen openly showed his attention, but she was not going to be added to the list of his conquests.

There was no one she could so well play off against Stephen Musgrave as the unattainable Farmer Hurst, and she had succeeded in bringing Stephen to his knees much more effectually than she anticipated, or, may be, intended.

In the arena of flirtation she had defeated the champion. Stephen Musgrave, hitherto unconquered, had gone down before her, and so far victory was sweet. But had she herself issued from the conflict unwounded? And was she prepared to deliver the “coup de grace” to Stephen Musgrave by marrying George Hurst?

She had never bargained for that fierce quarrel, and now the strain was over her feminine armour was gone, her weapons dropped. George Hurst had come at a moment when she was utterly defenceless.

Dazed and confused, she followed Mrs. Langdon round the house to the kitchen entrance.

“Mercy on me, you’re not fit to be seen! You look as if you had stuck your head in a furze bush.”

The girl had flung her hat on the table. The masses of her tawny hair were clustered loosely about her forehead, the coil, usually so neat and shining, was undone.

Her mother considered her ruffled hair slatternly, most men would have thought it gave a piquancy to her scarlet cheeks, her liquid blue eyes, her red lips, her dimpled chin.

“Gracious! You are not going to see Mr. Hurst like that? Whatever will he think?”

“I don’t care what he thinks,” returned Janet, doggedly.

She had caught sight of her reflection in the mirror, the tumult of emotions had intensified her brilliant colouring, the fire in her eyes roused by Stephen Musgrave’s kiss had not died away. She felt instinctively her beauty was provoking. Some demon within her urged her to see if the staid, the ultra-respectable, middle aged man could be tempted out of his coldness. Her mother would have detained her, but she evaded maternal solicitude and disappeared.

Mrs. Langdon sank into a Windsor chair, her large features working convulsively, and it was as much as she could do to avoid throwing her apron over her head and weeping.

“Farmer Hurst marry a slattern, and him used to everything so spick and span, first in his wife’s time, and next in his sister’s? Never! But there, I always said Janet would stand in her own light.”

She could not control her anxiety. She rose, stole into the passage, and listened at the door of the next room. She could hear Hurst’s deep growl, but his words were indistinguishable.

“Seems to have all the talk to himself,” she murmured. “I wonder whether that’s a good or bad sign,” and crept back to the kitchen.

Presently she heard the door open, a heavy step traversed the passage, the rustle of a skirt followed. The outer door closed abruptly; there was no lovers’ lingering farewell.

“Nothing’s come of it,” lamented Mrs. Langdon. “The girl’s thrown away her chance. I knew she would.”

Before the woman could rise from her chair Janet came hastily into the room, the scarlet of her cheeks and lips vanished, the light gone from her eyes. Her disordered hair, which a quarter an hour ago had given life to the picture, now brought to it the aspect of death.

“No wonder you look like a ghost,” snapped her mother. “I suppose now you’re sorry you didn’t do what I told you​—​make yourself tidy and respectable?”

“Yes, I am. Perhaps if I had he wouldn’t have wanted to marry me.”

“Eh? Then he did ask you?” returned Mrs. Langdon, breathlessly. “Of course, you said yes?”

The girl nodded, and stood motionless, her eyes fixed on the ground, her left hand grasping her right wrist where Stephen Musgrave had left the marks of his fingers.

A sob, a passionate cry, and the next moment her mother was left alone in the midst of pious thanksgivings.


Farmer Hurst evidently intended to make up for tardiness in taking a second wife by the celerity of his preparations for the wedding.

Perhaps he thought Janet might alter her mind, for the banns were at once put up; he packed off her sister to a cottage about a mile from the Rectory Farm, a good deal of his old furniture was replaced by modern articles, more in accordance with the taste of a young bride, and the wedding was celebrated with congratulations and not a little adverse criticism.

Still, outwardly all seemed to indicate fair weather. When Farmer Hurst led his bride from the vestry to the porch his square, hard face wore the slightly cunning, wholly self-satisfied smile familiar to his associates on market days when he had succeeded in driving a close bargain, but the general opinion was that Janet did not look as a bride should, radiant with happiness.

Only once did her expression change, and that was when the crowd pressed forward and packed the porch. Despite the gloom, her eyes caught sight of Stephen Musgrave​—​his brown face no longer of its healthy ruddiness, his lips white, his eyes sunken.

Farmer Hurst saw him, too, and the cunning smile curved his mouth a little more.

“Won’t you alter your mind, Stephen, and come up to the farm? There’ll be rare doings to-day, I’ll warrant,” said he, condescendingly.

“Thank ’ee. I’ll choose my own time for coming,” returned Musgrave, his sullen glance fixed on Janet.

The newly-made husband straightened himself, as much as to say, “I’ve fought fair and won the day, and now I can afford to be generous.”

The nine days’ wonder became a commonplace fact, and Janet Langdon, the village coquette, was forgotten in Mrs. Hurst, the farmer’s wife. Stephen Musgrave dropped out of sight, allowing his man, Ralph Herne, the use of his cottage at Patcham’s Corner, and himself living in London.

Autumn mists, winter frost and snow, were gone, and with the spring farming woke into activity. George Hurst, busy all day among his men, out of whom it was said he got every ounce of work, came home mud-bespattered, smelling of the soil and the rankness of greasy wool. Sheep-shearing had that day commenced.

The farmer threw himself into the solid armchair by the side of the great fireplace. He was a big, ungainly man, and his bulky form, his sprawling, gaitered legs, loomed large in the fitful glow of the burning wood.

The table was spread for the last meal of the day, a compromise between supper and tea, and a buxom farming wench was moving heavily about the brick-paved kitchen.

Hurst sat silently for two or three minutes staring straight before him, then his coarse fingers clenched with the suddenness of a nervous spasm, and, without shifting his eyes, he said harshly:

“Where is your mistress, Molly?”

Before the girl could answer the door opened and his wife entered. She must have heard his question, but she said nothing. She took her accustomed seat at the bottom of the table, and scarcely glanced at her husband.

In the glare of the lamp which the girl lighted after Janet was seated George Hurst looked even less sightly than before. The light revealed his hard, square, seamed face, the scanty grayish hair, damp with perspiration and plastered on his narrow forehead, a furrow round the head left by his felt hat showing distinctly. It brought into prominence his heavy, prominent jaw, his large ears, his loose, ill-fitting clothes.

He pulled his chair to the table with unnecessary noise and helped himself to the beef and beer, eating with the voracity of an animal. Not a word did he say to his wife, though every now and then a furtive half-savage glance darted upwards from beneath his shaggy brows.

Nearly a year had made a great difference in Janet, but whether she had improved or deteriorated it was difficult to say. The figure was fully developed, and in harmony of line was perfect. The beauty of the face had ripened, but it had not the suggestion of sweetness, the old lurking smile in the dimples. Faint lines slightly depressing the corners of the firm lips were just visible.

She was sitting almost as motionless as a statue, her proud, scornful face turned from her husband, when a clatter of crockery aroused her. Hurst had thrust his plate from him with a jerk, and, planting his elbows square on the table, was glaring at her with a spot of angry colour in each cheek. The beer jug by his side was empty, and had been more than once replenished.

Mrs. Hurst,” said he, with a thump of the fist that made the plates and dishes dance. “Listen to me. You’re not stone deaf, though you look it. I’ve got something to tell you.”

The young woman made no reply, her scorn only deepened.

“A fortnight ago, when I caught Ralph Herne, the servant of your old flame, Steve Musgrave, near the big barn, I swore if I found him foxing round again, I’d mark him. I’ve kept my word. The hound’ll reach home with some stripes on his face he hadn’t got when he set out to deliver a love message to another man’s wife.”

He paused to watch the effect of his words. If possible, his wife sat more statuesque than before. The red spots on the farmer’s cheeks deepened.

“See here, Mrs. Hurst,” he roared, “I’ll make you speak. I’ll tame you yet. Ralph Herne’ll take back something else besides his marks. ‘Tell your master,’ says I, ‘my whip cuts deep.’”

If he thought to rouse her, he was mistaken. Not a muscle in her cold, impassive face quivered. She rose from the table and rang the bell.

“Molly,” said she, “your master has finished.”

The inflection of her voice showed the double meaning, but whether Hurst’s sluggish brain grasped the allusion to his own words is doubtful.

The entry of the servant silenced him. He sat with his elbows resting on the table, his chin buried in his big brown hands, his face flushed to a deep purple, his eyes swollen, his veins in his temples throbbing, dead to everything but his own jealousy.

Rumour had been busy with Farmer Hurst’s domestic affairs since his marriage. The most discreet of couples cannot conceal their differences from their servants. It was an open secret that during a fierce quarrel Hurst had struck his wife, and she swore she would never speak to him again. Two months had gone since that terrible scene, and Janet had kept her word.

In marrying George Hurst she thought to show Stephen Musgrave her independence, but in reality she had thrown away freedom for slavery. George Hurst had no notion of giving something for nothing and as he was rich and worshipped riches, he considered he had performed an act of condescension in marrying Janet Langdon, who had nothing, and that she was deficient in gratitude when she was indifferent to him and his affairs.

In truth, she was as unsuitable for the Rectory Farm and its master as were the modern furniture, the piano, the mirrors for what was called the best room, with its dark oak panelling and great beam running across the low ceiling.

It was not her indifference, her listlessness, her thorough unfitness to be the farmer’s wife which rankled. Though all this formed the groundwork of Hurst’s ill-humour, it did not do more than vex and mortify him. But when it came to his ears that Ralph Herne, Stephen Musgrave’s man, was continually hanging about the Rectory Farm, jealousy took the place of ill-temper, and jealousy soon grew into hatred.

The day following the encounter with Ralph Herne the farmer was due at Ralston Market. He had drank heavily after the scene with his wife and awoke with parched throat, yellow skin, and shaking hands. Morose and taciturn, he breakfasted by himself, and set out at an early hour on his roan.

Night came, he did not return, and Janet, assuming he had got tipsy at the farmers’ dinner, and had stopped at Ralston, was not surprised. But when the next night arrived and he was still absent, it was time to make inquiries. She sent a messenger to Ralston, and the man came back with the news that Farmer Hurst had left the town about six on the evening of the market day. This was strange and alarming, and still more alarming was the intelligence which reached the Rectory Farm in the early morning that the man had been found floating in the river​—​dead.


There was little doubt as to the cause of the farmer’s disappearance. The nearest road to Ralston was by crossing the river, not by the bridge, but by the ford a mile lower down. As a rule, the water at the ford was no more than a couple of feet deep, but April and May were rainy months, and the river was swollen. The roan had evidently stumbled, for its knees were cut, and unable to recover its footing had been swept away by the current, and so drowned together with its master.

This was the theory, and a very feasible one everybody considered it to be. The only question was, what had become of the farmer? The river was dragged for a couple of miles below the ford, but the body was not found. To pursue the search beyond this point was considered useless, for the river here widened into an estuary, where the mud was of considerable depth; besides, why should not the body have been washed into the sea? Maybe at low water some day the corpse would be discovered, but for the present the mystery must remain unsolved.

Hodsbourne was not a little scandalised when Janet Hurst refused to put on mourning, but she did not want supporters who declared that she was right. In the first place, said they, her husband had treated her badly, and in the second, he had not left her a penny piece. Molly and Giles Hoskins, the herdsman, told how they had been called into the room by the master to witness his signature, and they wrote their names in proper form on the document.

The will by which the whole of the property was left to the farmer’s sister was perfectly valid, and the odd thing was that it was made the night before Hurst set out on his ill-fated journey. That he must have had some presentiment of his approaching end was the solemn belief of the village.

Three weeks went over; again Stephen Musgrave and Janet Hurst were walking in the meadow sloping to the river. They had been talking in low, earnest tones, and then had come a silence.

“Best let bygones be bygones,” said she at last, slowly, and with an evident effort. “I’ve had enough of married life.”

“Yes, with a man you hated. I know all about it, Janet. You married Hurst to spite me, but now my turn’s come. Haven’t I waited patiently? If I haven’t kept the oath you made me take the night we met in Hodsbourne Woods, it was because no mortal man could. Have I forgotten your confession?”

Janet’s face paled a little, a look half of fright, half of shame came into her eyes.

Her confession! Well, not so much a confession as an admission, extorted from her by Stephen one evening when they met by accident​—​an accident, at least, on Janet’s part​—​in Hodsbourne Woods.

It was that fatal day when her husband struck her. All her being was in revolt; her thoughts rushed back to Stephen Musgrave, and when Stephen met her he spoke not in the old vainglorious spirit, but sympathisingly, respectfully, almost humbly. He, too, like herself, had changed, and the strange softness of his voice, the unwonted tenderness in his eyes, broke down her self-control, and she sobbed out the truth in his arms. She felt he was more generous than she had a right to expect, and this increased her penitence. She owned she loved him when she married George Hurst; that she loved him still.

Then a flood of shame and remorse swept over her, she made him swear that he would never seek to see her again, and he reluctantly consented, but failed to keep his promise.

After his reminder of her confession, Stephen pursued his advantage. She could not, he urged, deny that she loved him. She was now free, what was there to prevent their marriage?

“I​—​I don’t know. Oh, Steve,” she burst out, “swear to me that——”

She stopped, she pressed her hand to her bosom, a thrill​—​nay, a shudder​—​seemed to go over her, and the hand Stephen was clasping became as cold as ice.

“I am a fool,” she exclaimed, with a half-hysterical laugh.

The man heard her silently, his head bent low down, his grasp over her cold fingers gradually tightening. Suddenly she withdrew her hand, and, flinging her arms round his neck, pressed her lips to his as though to make amends for some unjust thoughts concerning him.

Stephen suggested being married in London, and he hastened to town, made all arrangements, took apartments for Janet and her mother, to whom she had returned on the contents of her husband’s will being known, and came back to Hodsbourne. For Janet’s sake, he urged the utmost secrecy. The villagers might make an unpleasant demonstration if it got wind she intended to marry again, especially as there was no absolute evidence Farmer Hurst was dead; and so Stephen never went near Mrs. Langdon’s house, but met Janet at the old spot by the river.

The meeting of this cold, dreary wet May afternoon, so unlike the May of the poets, was to be their last in Hodsbourne. It was settled that Janet and her mother should leave by an early train the following morning, and Stephen was to precede them that night.

Stephen Musgrave was, he said, establishing a business in London, and he never wanted to see Hodsbourne again. Janet was equally anxious to leave the place where she had passed her miserable married life.

They wandered on, Stephen talking continuously, even feverishly, of his plans for the future and Janet listening in silence. Neither of them noticed how far they had gone. It was only by Janet shivering violently that Stephen awakened to the fact that they were two miles from Hodsbourne, and that the drizzle had become an absolute downpour.

“You will catch your death of cold. What shall we do?” he cried, anxiously.

What he could do was obvious. His own house which he had let to Ralph Herne was but a hundred yards away​—​why not take shelter there? But this did not seem to occur to him, and when Janet suggested it he made an objection on the score that the place was not fit for her to enter, the Hernes were such dirty people. But she persisted, and at last he consented, though with evident reluctance.

Desolate enough Musgrave’s house looked in its misty shroud. The garden was choked with rank vegetation, the leaves of the previous autumn had not been cleared away, the paths were run over with weeds. A close, unwholesome, damp smell seemed to pour from the interior when the door was opened by Mrs. Herne, a dark-browed woman of diminutive stature, who started with surprise, almost with alarm, as it seemed, when she recognised her visitor.

Stephen bade the woman light a fire in the best room and make some tea, and without a word of welcome to Janet, which would have been only natural, for it was her first visit to the house, sank into a wicker chair, staring blankly at the damp wood spluttering and hissing. His silence was in strange contrast to his talkativeness of a quarter of an hour ago.

The acrid smoke filled the room, and set Janet coughing, and the heavy rain having ceased, she wandered into the garden at the rear of the house. Here the desolation was even more pronounced than in the front. The neglect extended to the garden implements. Close to a shattered sundial was a spade flung down when it was last used, and left, its blade to rust, its handle to rot.

As her eye travelled from the lop-sided dial to the spade she noted that at one spot close to both there had been an effort at cultivation. It was a bed of mustard and cress, just ready for eating. The tender, level green was fresh and inviting, and she cut a quantity with a little pearl-handled penknife.

Something of the first meal with the man she loved should be prepared with her own hands, and, to complete the salad, she looked about for lettuces, but found none.

She went into the house, washed the mustard and cress, arranged it daintily on a plate, and took it into the room where she had left Stephen. She met Mrs. Herne in the passage, and noticed how the woman started back with scared face, and brushed past her.

Stephen Musgrave was in the same brooding attitude. With a loving caress she bade him come to the table, which was laid for tea. She had to tell him twice before he heard her, and when he rose, she saw his face was white and drawn, his eyes wild and staring.


Her voice died away in her throat, frozen with horror. The man was swaying backwards and forwards, his trembling right hand straight out before him. A rattling noise came from his throat, he seemed to be struggling with some words his pallid lips refused to utter. Then she saw he was pointing to the dish of mustard and cress on which his frenzied eyes were fixed.

“Good Heavens!” he screamed. “That——”

And reeling past the frightened girl he dashed out of the room. For a minute she stood paralysed with a strange fear, a sinister foreboding. Then she ran to the door​—​it was locked. She rattled the handle and hammered the panels with her clenched hands. No one came, yet she could hear rapid footsteps. After that all was still.

Twenty-four hours later, a man was found wandering some 30 miles from Hodsbourne, and taken into custody as one not fitted to be at large. He was without a hat, his dress was torn and muddy, his hair dishevelled, his face convulsed with a nameless fear, in his eyes the glare of madness. This man was Stephen Musgrave.

For some days no light could be thrown on the mystery. Then it was noticed Herne and his wife had disappeared from Musgrave’s house, and this set people thinking.

The garden was dug over, and beneath the bed of mustard and cress was found the body of Farmer Hurst.

The hue and cry was raised, and the Hernes captured in a distant part of the country. The woman doggedly held her tongue, but the man, to save his neck, confessed how Stephen Musgrave had schemed to murder Hurst.

A couple of stable buckets tied together, with a yard or so of loose rope between them, placed in the ford, sufficed to throw the horse, a blow from a bludgeon as Hurst lay floundering stunned the rider, and drowning completed the hideous work. Then the body was brought to Herne’s garden and mustard and cress seed sown over the grave, to cover the freshly-turned soil as rapidly as possible and avert suspicion in case anybody came prying about.

Herne’s confession did not save him. He was hanged, and his wife sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude. No suspicion rested on Janet. She had never been seen with Stephen Musgrave, and Herne was mercifully silent about her visit to the house from which she had escaped by the window after Ralph and his wife, fearing discovery was impending, locked her in to gain a start for their flight.

A prematurely aged woman, with the light gone from her eyes, her once tawny hair of a rusty white, she will bear her secret with her to the grave.

Stephen Musgrave, “detained” at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, never recovered his sanity. All day long, and sometimes far into the night, his hands perpetually went through the action of sowing seeds: every now and then his eyes glanced furtively, and those nearest heard him mutter: “It will grow quickly​—​quickly. They will never find out, and then we will be married.”

One day the attendant, taking Musgrave along one of the upper corridors, had his attention diverted for a moment. Something leaped past him into the air and dropped over the stair rail forty feet on to the stone pavement below.

Stephen Musgrave’s mad brain would be tortured by conscience no more.