The Spectator.—“We have read Mrs. Steel’s book with ever-increasing surprise and admiration—surprise at her insight into people with whom she can scarcely have been intimate, admiration for the genius which has enabled her to realize that wonderful welter of the East and West, which Delhi must have presented just before the Mutiny. We know in literature of few sketches better than those which reveal to us Buhadur Shah, the last great Moghul … or that of Zeemet Maihl, the evil Queen, … or of the Moulaire, who roused by his preaching the war against the English, … or of Tiddu, the hereditary juggler-actor, … or of Soma, the haughty, sullen Sepoy. And the best evidence of Mrs. Steel’s genius is that those who can scarcely conceive the society will feel certain that it is truly drawn. There is many an officer who would give his sword to write military history as Mrs. Steel has written the history of the rising, the siege, and the storm. It is the most wonderful picture. We know that none who lived through the Mutiny will lay the book down without a gasp of admiration, and believe that the same emotion will be felt by thousands to whom the scenes depicted are but lurid phantasmagoria.”
The Academy.—“All that relates to the natives, whether to the sepoys, or the Court, or the town, is admirable; and the sketches of British military and civil life are absolutely convincing. Mrs. Steel sees detail everywhere, and records it minutely; but she is full of humanity, and can give us the mysticism of the Oriental as faithfully as the easy-going morality of the Anglo-Indian. Each incident, almost each chapter, is a picture by itself, revealing an extraordinary wealth of descriptive power, and a masterly insight into character.”
A.T.Q.C. in The Speaker.—“It certainly is a remarkable book. The native intrigues are brilliantly handled. Alice Gissing may claim to stand beside the really great women of fiction. The whole book has the high seriousness which, until quite recently, few people dreamed of as possible in an Anglo-Indian novel.”
The Saturday Review.—“Many novelists and spinners of tales have made use of the Indian Mutiny, but Mrs. Steel leaves them all a long way behind. Major Erlton and Alice Gissing challenge comparison with Rawdon Crawley and Becky Sharp. ‘On the Face of the Waters’ is the best novel of the Great Mutiny, and we are not likely to see its rival in our time.”
The St. James’s Gazette.—“Of the familiar incidents of the early Mutiny, how vivid and full of dramatic effect are the scenes as she paints them! The tale has been often told, but never quite with Mrs. Steel’s catholic sympathy with the native point of view. Her position is now established as a writer of the truth and romance of India. She is a fine writer, and she has written a fine novel about an epoch in our history which Englishmen can never cease to weep over and to glory in.”
The Times.—“Time was when these sketches of native Punjabi society would have been considered a curiosity in literature. They are sufficiently remarkable, even in these days, when interest in the ‘dumb millions’ of India is thoroughly alive, and writers, great and small, vie in ministering to it. Mrs. Steel has evidently been brought into close contact with the domestic life of all classes, Hindu and Mahomedan, in city and village, and has steeped herself in their customs and superstitions…. Mrs. Steel’s book is of exceptional merit and freshness.”
The Pall Mall Budget.—“For this week the only novel worth mentioning is Mrs. Steel’s ‘The Potter’s Thumb.’ Her admirable ‘From the Five Rivers,’ since it dealt with native Indian life, was naturally compared with Mr. Kipling’s stories. In ‘The Potter’s Thumb,’ the charm which came from the freshness of them still remains. Almost every character is convincing, and some of them excellent to a degree.”
The Athenæum.—“There is no one but Mr. Kipling who can make his readers taste and smell, as well as see and hear, the East; and in this book (if we except the description of Tarvin’s adventures in the deserted city of Gunvaur, which is perhaps less clear-cut than usual) he has surely surpassed himself. In his faculty for getting inside the Eastern mind and showing its queer workings Mr. Kipling stands alone.”
All rights reserved
|His Little Maid||89|
|A Farm Tragedy||133|
|A Broken Tryst||183|
|An Only Son||201|
|A Woman’s Wager||225|
A dull red sun had just set amid purple storm-clouds behind the Sussex Downs. Nevertheless the twilight was falling softly beneath a wet west wind that had made the land full of colour and the sea full of shadow all day.
From the stubble-field where the “hoppers” were lighting their camp-fires, one could just see the sea through a dip in the land beneath the hill where the old farm stood among the ash-trees.
Against the privet hedge that hemmed the road, a girl leaned with her back to the marsh-land that spread westward from the hollow between the hills. The half-picked hop-gardens were to right of her, and, to left, the stubble-field where her comrades were laughing and chattering around the water-budge that had been drawn up in its midst. The girl’s head lay black upon the sunset, but she was not of a dark complexion—her hair was light brown, and her skin was only tanned from exposure, an exposure to which she had not, perhaps, 4always been used, for the shape that showed beneath her thin cotton dress was slenderer than that of most field-workers.
She stood there a moment watching the moving groups yonder, and then passed out through the gate on to the road. As she slammed it to behind her, a tall young woman came swinging up a path to the left, her black locks somewhat dishevelled and her bodice loose at the throat.
“Where are ye off to so glum, Jenny?” said she. “Come and ’ave a bit of a lark. ’Ere’s your beau a-comin’ across the field.”
The girl didn’t stop.
“’E ain’t no beau o’ mine, nor I don’t want him to be,” said she, and walked on quickly up the road.
“Oh, Lord no, o’ course not,” called out the other after her. “Ye don’t mind ’im lookin’ arter ye all the ’opping-time, though! But I’m sure I don’t want to take ’im from ye if ’e means business. ’E ain’t no beauty!”
The man lounging across the stubble-field stopped; he was still within ear-shot, as the girl knew. Jenny faced round on her.
“Ye’ll, please, not to say that again, Mary Ann Mitcham,” said she stiffly. “I’ve told ye Mr. Martin ain’t no beau o’ mine, and that’s all about it.” And she strode on again beside the hedge.
The other laughed as she swung herself over the gate and ran off across the field; and she laughed 5again when she met the man and he gave her no greeting, but passed her by with a sullen expression on his face. She was used to calling that expression on to folk’s faces, and rather enjoyed it than otherwise. She called it up again on the face of a slatternly woman who stood at the door of one of the straw huts further on with a fretful baby in her arms.
“Have ye seen Jenny anywheres, Mary Ann, my dear?” asked the woman. “I want ’er to come and ’old this child a bit for me.”
“So as you may step up to the ‘Public’ for your supper, eh, Mrs. Barnes,” laughed the girl as she ran. “Jenny’s always too good-natured, mindin’ yer squallin’ brats for ye. One’d think ye was ’er mother instead of only a neighbour. But she’s somethin’ better to do to-night: she’s a-courtin’.”
“Ye’re a rude minx, and I don’t believe it,” answered the woman tartly. “Why, Jenny never ’as no word to say for a man. And she’d nurse a child all day and think it a treat. Ye can’t give Jenny’s beau a name.”
“Can’t I then?” sneered the girl. “It’s Mr. Martin, that’s who her beau is!”
The woman uttered an exclamation and stepped outside.
“Ye’re dreamin’,” she said. “He’s got somethin’ else to think of than foolin’.”
“Ye can see ’em for yerself,” scoffed Mary Ann, pointing to the road where the heads of the man 6and the girl were to be seen slowly passing along above the privet hedge.
“Well, ’e ain’t much of a beau, then,” sneered the woman, “It’s disgustin’. A widower wi’ a child to keep.”
Mary Ann was hurrying on, but she turned back.
“What!” she shrieked. “Who says so?”
“I says so,” answered the woman. “Why, this is his brat as I’ve got ’ere, so I ought to know it. ’E and his slip of a wife lived in my court up in London, and when the mother died he guv me the child to mind. But Lord, what ’e pays ain’t worth the bother.”
“I never!” exclaimed Mary Ann impressively. “Do Jenny know it?”
“No,” answered the woman, “and, look ’ere, don’t ye go saying nothink about it neither. It’s little enough, but sich as it is I can’t afford to lose it, and he swore he’d take the brat away if ever I said i’ the place as it were his’n.”
Mary Ann laughed her resounding laugh.
“Don’t want no chaff, I suppose?” roared she. “I’ll think about it. If Jenny ain’t goin’ to ’ave ’im, there’s no call to tell. But Jenny’s my pal, and I’ll not promise.”
“If ye don’t I’ll scratch ye,” screamed the woman.
But Miss Mitcham had eluded her and escaped to the group beside the water-budge, where there was more fun.
7Meanwhile the man, shuffling in the dust, had caught up Jenny on the road. He had a slow, weary sort of gait, and was evidently not of the soil any more than the rest. In their different ways they all had an air of city slums about them in spite of their tanned faces and hands torn by ragged bines and rough hop-poles.
“What are ye goin’ to buy for supper to-night?” said he, after they had tramped along a little way without a word. “The bacon ain’t p’tickler good in this ’ere village, are it?”
He had a slow speech, but not unmusical, and the expression of his face, though of the contemplative order, was frank and friendly, and suggested none of the discontent that his words might have implied.
“No,” answered she. “But I ain’t goin’ to buy no supper to-night. I’ll get a drink o’ milk from the farm presently. I ain’t ’ungry.”
“Ye can’t work if ye don’t eat,” said he, and then added shyly: “’Aven’t ye got no money?”
She flushed a quick red, and he hastened to say apologetically: “Girls are apt to send it all ’ome, I know.”
“I ain’t got no ’ome,” said she shortly, “nor yet any one as wants my money.”
“What,” said he, “’aven’t you got no father nor mother?”
“No,” she answered; “I ’aven’t, and I don’t know as you’ve any call to ask.”
8“Beg pardon,” said the man, and then he began to whistle, and looked away awkwardly. “I filled a can o’ water for ye at the budge,” said he presently. “It’s by yer door.”
“Thank you,” said she. And then there was silence again.
They walked on thus another couple of hundred yards down the road, and then turned aside beyond the hop-fields up a steep and shady lane that was dark in the dusky light. Half way up there was a break in the trees on one side through which one could see the evening sky beyond the Scotch firs. Here Martin suddenly stopped and came close up to her.
“Miss,” said he, without any introduction, “I’ve noticed as ye’re short wi’ me to-night, and I’ve been thinkin’ as p’r’aps ye’ve cause.”
She looked at him now; she had eyes like a startled fawn’s—now brown, now grey.
“I ain’t been,” she said.
“Yes,” insisted he, “and ye’ve cause. I’ve been courtin’ ye all the ’oppin’, and we don’t get on—and folk talk and vex ye.”
He paused a moment, but she only hung her head.
“But we’ll make it right now, if so be as ye’re willin’,” said he. And still as she said nothing, he came closer, and tried to put his arm round her waist.
Then she sprang back, her eyes more than ever 9startled. She was slender, but she was strong, and she gave him such a thud in the chest as sent him reeling against the bank.
“Keep your distance, if you please,” panted she. “I don’t want none o’ that. Ye’ve been hearin’ tales o’ me, and ye’ve thought … but—well, there ye’re mistaken.”
He picked up his cap, which had fallen off, and stood with it in his hand.
“I don’t know what ye mean,” he said, a trifle sullenly. “I ain’t ’eard no tales of ye. But I’m sorry I angered ye.”
“I ain’t angry,” said she, and she spoke impassively, her sudden fire quenched as it was born. “Only I don’t want no courtin’.”
“I don’t think ye understand me,” said he, more softly. “I mean honourable by ye. I want ye to stand up afore the parson wi’ me.”
She gave a start, but she did not look at him, nor did she utter a word. Behind her head in the gap of the trees the huge arms of the windmill made a black cross on the luminous sky where the reflections of the afterglow were fading into a steely blue.
“I don’t want to git married,” said she at last, without lifting her eyes.
He looked at her in doubt. Then he said as though with a sudden thought:
“It’s you that’s ’eard tales o’ me, I’m thinkin’! But I’m comin’ to that. I’ve been wed afore, and 10I’ve a brat—a boy. But I ’oped ye wouldn’t let that stand in my way.”
She had looked up for a moment, but had as quickly looked away again, and, after waiting a little, he went on:
“You said just now you’d no ’ome. It ain’t comfortable for a young maid to ’ave no ’ome, and I’d work to give ye as good a one as most.”
“I don’t want no ’ome,” said she at last, sullenly.
He sighed a little. “It’s the brat ye’re afeard on,” murmured he sadly, shaking his head.
“No it ain’t then,” cried she quickly, almost fiercely. “I could love a brat well enough.” She stopped short, and if he could have distinguished her face in the dark he would have seen it flush hot and red. But he could not, and she moved away from him—moved away, but came back again. “There,” she said half surlily, “ye’ve got to know, and I’d as lief tell ye myself. I’ve ’ad a brat o’ my own,” and she looked away quickly.
For a moment he did not answer, then he seized her wrist roughly. “What, you’re married then?” he muttered. “Well, ’pon my word, I think ye might ha’ told a man when ye see’d as ’e were sweet on ye.”
She snatched her hand away. “I’m not married,” she cried roughly.
There was silence, but as he did not speak, she had to go on.
“I think ye might make shift to see,” said she 11angrily. “O’ course a girl don’t want to go a-talkin’ of it.” She caught her breath, but added quickly in the same tone as before: “For ye could ha’ knowed I shouldn’t be such a cheat as not to tell—when ye was goin’ to be’ave honourable to me.”
He stood there full half a minute, gazing at her as one dazed. Then he muttered: “How was I to guess?” and dropped his eyes.
He could hear her breathing hard, but she said no more, and after a while he asked suddenly:
“Where is ’e? ’Ave ’e deserted ye—the sc——”
She interrupted him. “’E’s dead,” she said quickly. And then she added, half whimpering: “’E said ’e would ha’ wed me, and p’r’aps ’e would. Anyways it’s too late now.”
“And the brat?” asked he in a dull voice.
She moved her head restlessly, looking out to the rosy west. Then dropping her voice to a whisper, she murmured softly:
“It’s dead too.”
He was awed involuntarily and answered nothing. He did not even dare look at her face, but he could see by the rise and fall of her shoulders that she was crying.
“Them as know I bore ’im,” she continued presently in an excited way, “they say as I ought to thank my stars ’e’s dead and buried and can’t tell no tales. That’s all they knows about it. They didn’t never lose a child, them folk didn’t! What if ’e ’ad ha’ told tales o’ my shame? I’d ha’ put 12up with that, and willing, so as I’d ’ad ’im to work for.”
She choked down a sob, and wiped her eyes with the hem of her skirt.
“I’m sorry for ye, I’m sure,” said he drearily.
“Oh, ’e were a pretty babe, Mr. Martin,” continued she, forgetful for the moment of all but the memories that this seeming touch of sympathy had awakened, and she turned to him with sweet and simple confidence. “Just the prettiest ye ever seed! He might ha’ been a lady’s, so white he were! I done all I could to save ’im, but it weren’t a bit o’ use. And I ’eld ’im in my arms hours and hours arter ’e was dead—’cos I couldn’t believe it, ye see. But I couldn’t put my breath into ’im, though I’d ha’ done it if I could—Lord, I’d ha’ done it willin’!” She drew in her breath with a quick gasp, and added hoarsely: “It do seem ’ard, don’t it?”
“Yes, it do seem precious ’ard,” he repeated, but without looking at her, and his voice as he said it was hard as iron.
In a moment her whole attitude changed. She drew herself up, as though turned to stone, and looked at him quickly. The light was growing so dim in the lane that she could not see his face. But there was no need; the voice told plainly enough what the face was like, and immediately her tears were quenched, and the softness in her shrank away, as from a cruel gaze.
13The afterglow was almost spent in the west, leaving only a warmer tone upon the marsh and a more metallic light upon the stream that crossed it; the moon, having risen out of the sea, was just level with the eastern down, and the pine-stems upon its ridge crossed the white disc darkly. Solitary figures coming from the mill on the hill’s crest, strayed across the brown slope beneath them, and a group of men and women returning to the camp sang snatches of song as they lounged along the road in the hollow.
Jenny shook herself as she heard them.
“Good-night,” she said curtly. “I expec’ ye ain’t got nothing more to say.”
“No, I don’t know as I ’ave,” murmured he slowly.
But almost before the words were out of his mouth, Jenny was far below him on the steep lane, running as though for her life. He stood there, still with his cap in his hand; there was a lump in his throat, and he swore a quiet oath to himself as he watched her flit through the twilight.
The fires of the “foreigners,” that had burnt so gaily in the hollow, had all fallen to embers; the moon rode across an inky blue sky where the afterglow had so late been warm; the camp was dead silent.
Martin rose from the straw within his hut and came out into the night, for he was restless and 14could not sleep. He stood outside trying to take comfort in a pipe, and looking up at the eastern sky where the windmill still made the huge black cross on the blue. The stars were coming out, but the moon’s light was fitful and the marsh-land beyond the hop-fields was gloomy save where the stream was touched now and then into the brightness of a glistening snake. A little dyke divided the stubble-field from the meadow beyond it, where a white horse strayed in the dusk. Martin thought he heard the wailing of an infant, and then the dull crooning of a woman’s singing come from among the willows, and then he saw a girl’s figure pacing up and down with a little bundle in her arms. Presently the girl crossed over to the last hut in the camp, which he knew to be Jenny’s, deposited the bundle within, came out again, and, stretching her tired arms above her head, stood leaning a moment against the straw.
He felt his heart stir; what did it mean? And he crossed the field at once that he might know.
Yet he was not sure that he wanted to speak to her, and it struck him that the sound of his footsteps crushing the stubble would arouse her. But she stood neither seeing nor hearing, with her eyes fixed on the sombre marsh-land yonder till a woman’s voice sounded in thick accents calling down the field.
“Jenny,” it said, “Jenny, girl, where ’ve ye got to?”
Then she started, and placed herself quickly 15before the door of the hut, and he as quickly withdrew behind it.
The woman shuffled over the stubble, catching her feet in it, and reeling slightly as she walked.
“Give me the child,” said she indistinctly when she got close to the girl. “I dursen’t let ye ’ave it no longer.”
Martin started now, for he saw that the woman was Mrs. Barnes.
“Dursen’t,” repeated Jenny savagely! “Ain’t I fitter to mind a child than you? Yes—though you be his mother! A nice state ye’re in to-night to mind a sick brat!”
“I ain’t in no state at all,” grumbled the woman feebly. “Give me the child, I tell ye.”
“No, I sha’n’t,” answered Jenny, “so there! I’ve ’ad job enough wi’ the poor mite, and he’s sleepin’ peaceful now. I ain’t a-goin’ to let you throw him back in convulsions; no, not if ye was twenty times ’is mother! Ye ain’t fit to ’ave ’im to-night, I tell ye. I’ll bring ’im in the mornin’!”
“Oh, Lord, twenty times ’is mother,” echoed Mrs. Barnes, beginning to laugh foolishly and as quickly changing the laugh to a whimper!
“Get ye’ gone, do,” said the girl, “ye’ll wake ’im again! I tell ye, ye shall ’ave yer child in the mornin’.”
She went within, and the woman, unable to cope with any resistance, shambled feebly off again, laughing and crying as she went.
16Martin stepped forward out of the shadow, shaking his fist at her. Inside the hut he could see Jenny on her knees beside a bundle of shawls, on which she had laid the little one,—Jenny, tenderly arranging ragged coverings more closely round a tiny body. Yes—Jenny on her knees beside his own child, stroking it softly, singing pretty ditties to it in an undertone, cherishing it with every sweet sound that bubbles to a mother’s lips: her own was gone, but she had learnt the trick of child-love that slumbers in every woman’s breast, and this strange and lonely babe was soothing her sore heart.
Martin stood watching her, motionless, not daring to breathe. But there was something in his throat that troubled him, and he lifted his hand to his eyes, and in so doing rustled the straw of the hut against which he stood.
“Who’s that?” she cried, jumping up.
Then he advanced slowly into the opening.
“It’s me,” he said humbly.
She motioned to him to go further off, and then she followed him outside until they both stood in the full moonlight. She was trembling.
“Ye ’adn’t no call to come round ’ere at this time o’ night,” said she in her old defiant tone—but her voice was low, for, stirred as she was, she still remembered the sleeping babe.
“Nor I didn’t mean to,” said he, nowise offended 17and still apologetic. “But I see’d ye hushin’ the brat, and I wondered what was up.”
“It’s Mrs. Barnes’s brat,” said she, a trifle coldly. “It’s sick, and I’m mindin’ it for ’er. She ain’t fit to ’ave a child of ’er own.” She said it almost roughly, and then lapsed into silence.
Martin sighed, and stood considering.
“It ain’t Mrs. Barnes’s brat,” said he at last.
She looked at him quickly.
“It ain’t Mrs. Barnes’s?” repeated she, puzzled. “Why, o’ course it is! I fetched it to-night.” Then a quick suspicion of his possible suspicion crossing her mind she said, in a voice in which shame and anger strangely wrestled: “Who’s do you think it is?”
But he had no glimmering of her thought, and said in the same humble tone as before:
“Well, ye see, I know who’s ’tis—’cos it’s mine.”
She turned sharply, staring at him open-mouthed.
“Well, I never!” she ejaculated.
“Yes,” said he in the same awkward way, “that ’ere’s my boy that I told ye of. Mrs. Barnes ’as ’ad the mindin’ of ’im—and I never knowed till now what sort o’ mindin’ it was—but that ’ere’s my boy.”
“Who’d ha’ thought ’e was such a little ’un?” murmured Jenny dreamily—“just as big as mine were.”
“Yes, ’e ain’t very old yet,” allowed the man, “only a year come Lord Mayor’s Day, and his 18mother died as ’e were born. She was but sickly, and ’e ain’t much. Not but what ’e might ha’ been better, but, Lord, a man don’t know ’ow a child have got to be minded, bless ye.”
The old defiance that had flashed back into Jenny’s face a minute ago had faded away again, and she was pale in the wan light.
“O’ course not,” she said commiseratingly, and yet with a quiet air of superiority.
“Ah, you know,” said he, with honest admiration. “But, there, I don’t suppose ye’d give a thought to such a thing as mindin’ of ’im?” he murmured sheepishly. He had lifted his eyes to her, but he drew them away again—while he waited.
“I’ve got my living to work for,” said she. “I shouldn’t ’ave time.”
Then he took heart of grace—he came close to her.
“But if there was some one to work for you,” said he. “If we was wed, so to speak?”
She didn’t move, but her eyes grew startled, and then just a touch of hardness came back into her face.
“Ye didn’t say that up yonder,” said she.
“No,” he said, “I’ll allow I was startled a bit at first. But … well, I know as you’re a good woman somehow … and I love ye, Jenny—there! So if you can forget, well, so can I.”
She stood, with her lips parted, gazing straight out across the field—but a film of tears gathered slowly across her eyes.
19Neither spoke, and the minutes sped by as in a dream, while the stars rained down their tenderness.
But as she stood there with that sweet seriousness of thought on her simple face, the babe, missing its lullaby, sent forth a piteous wail from within.
Then she sprang to its side, and snatching it to her breast and bending o’er it a face, tender as the moonlight that bathed her, she whispered softly:
“I’ll think on it.”
A man and a woman stood in a country lane as the sun was setting. It was where the lane broke out into the open ground of the common, and above them on the hill a windmill was swinging gaunt, lazy arms against the sky. On one side it looked down and across the marsh to the incoming tide, and on the other it commanded miles of pasture-land and hop-fields, and saw the Sussex Downs roll away beyond: behind it, on a sky of opaque blue, the moon had just risen red, and looked at the setting sun opposite. The man stood ruefully, gazing up at the mill, his back half turned to the woman, who was talking fast and loud.
They were hop-pickers; not of those out of city slums, but of the tidier and better class who come from distant villages for the sake of the change and airing; there had been a gang of them, and they were all to be sent home on the morrow.
24“But o’ course it’s enough for me to say I want a thing for you to gainsay me,” the woman was saying. She was a tall, dark, powerful young person, and the man, with his slouching gait and thin, sallow face, was evidently immeasurably her inferior in physical strength, and had a meek, deprecating manner that made her words seem somewhat of a mockery.
“I’m sure I don’t want for to gainsay ye, Martha,” he replied humbly. “But I don’t see why ye can’t go up to the mill and see Mrs. Moss without me coming too. Ole friends is ole friends, o’ course, and ’tis nat’ral comin’ back to th’ ole place—we should want to see ’em. But there’s reasons for things, and reasons agin ’em, so to speak. You and Milly Harkitt was none such friends when ye lived ’ere afore ye was wed—if the sayin’s true.”
Martha laughed harshly.
“Sayin’s ain’t never true,” she said bluntly. “Else there’s a sayin’ as you and she was friends if we wasn’t! Reasons for and reasons agin, indeed! Milly’s wed since I see ’er, and I want to ’ave a look and see if it’s altered ’er.”
The man blushed and smiled, but he neither retorted nor denied the charge.
“She were a pritty gentle crittur,” was all he said, thoughtfully looking beyond his wife. “I ’ope she bain’t altered.”
The woman looked at him sharply.
25“Well, if ye want so much to know, ye’d best come and see,” she said tartly.
He brought his slow gaze back to her.
“Is that all ye be goin’ up there for?” said he irrelevantly, and one might have said, suspiciously.
“Never you mind what I’m goin’ for,” retorted she, stepping out up the hill. “I be goin’ to please myself, and that’s enough. I’ll be ’ome to supper, and mind you don’t go fallin’ in with no pals as you did last night, and come ’ome late. I don’t know but what you ’adn’t best step up and fetch me.”
“All right,” said the man as he turned away down the lane. “What time?”
“Eight o’clock,” she called back promptly. “And you know I don’t relish waiting.”
“I won’t keep ye waitin’,” said he quietly. “I’ll stop outside for ye at eight o’clock.”
“What, afraid to have a look at the girl!” laughed she again. And she went on smartly up the hill. But when she got to the top she did not at once turn into the garden that surrounded the house, but stood awhile in the field, leaning her arms on the gate and staring out to the sunset.
She was not of the dreamy sort, but to-night she was thinking: thinking a little bit of the man who had just left her—trying to remember just how much she had heard about him and Milly, but thinking more still of another young man who had many times stood at her side in yonder lane 26or at this very gate whence she now watched the afterglow gild the purple cloud-banks out west.
She had thought that she had loved the latter, and there could be no doubt that he was younger and richer and comelier than the man whom she had married, and he had bent tender eyes on her such as a girl loves. But there had come a little rift between them, and when she had been obliged to leave the village and go to keep house for an uncle some distance off, the rift had widened, and then she had heard that he had married another. That other was the very girl she had come to see to-night, and she was just wondering whether she would like to meet the man or no.
But as she was secretly determining on the exact measure of scorn she would throw into her manner, and wondering if her beauty was in any way dimmed since he had seen her, fate decided for her, for the door of the mill-house opened, and she heard his voice on the threshold.
“Come, leave that whimperin’, Milly, do,” said the voice sharply, but not unkindly. “I never see sich a gal! Ye be allers low-spirited now-a-days. Why can’t ye be cheerful a-nussin’ o’ the baby, and let a man go ’bout ’is business?”
“Oh, Dan, I don’t want ye to go to the ‘Public’ to-night,” said the woman within, and there was no doubt that the tone did lay itself open to the accusation of a whimper. “Ye come ’ome so late last night, and I bain’t strong yet, ye know. I’ve 27been alone all day—I don’t want ye to go out agin.”
“Late! Lor’ bless me, it weren’t gone ten o’clock!” retorted the man. “You’d want a ’usbin’ allers ’oppin’ around ye! I bain’t that sort! When be ye goin’ to pluck up and show a feller a jolly face, and get about yer work agin—eh?”
“Ye’re niver goin’ to throw it up agin me as I bain’t strong, and baby not six weeks old,” began the woman, the whimper bidding ominously fair to swell to greater volume.
Then Martha heard a rough, quick, jovial expostulation, and then a big, loud kiss; the whimpering grew softer, and a moment after the door slammed to, and she saw a man come striding towards her down the garden-walk in the dusk. At first she had a silly desire to run, but a moment after she laughed at the very thought, and felt that she really didn’t care. So she walked straight up to the garden-gate, and put her hand on the latch at the very same instant as the man reached it.
“What be your business, ma’am, please?” he began, then quickly changing his tone added: “Why I’m blowed if it ain’t Martha Bond!”
The young woman laughed.
“Oh, no, ’tain’t!” said she. “It’s Martha Hewson. I be married, same as you.”
“Well, I’m pleased to ’ear it, I’m sure,” said the man, without being in the least ruffled, “and no 28ill-will bore, I can see, which there bain’t no cause, o’ course.”
“O’ course not,” agreed she. “Ill-will, indeed! I should like to know what for?”
“Least said, soonest mended, I s’pose,” assented the man with a jolly laugh. “And where might you be livin’ now-a-days?”
“Up to Wycombe,” answered she. “Me and my ’usbin’ come over ’ere to do a bit o’ hop-pickin’. ’E bain’t over-strong, and I thought it ’ud do ’im good. We be off to-morrer, and I thought I’d just step up and see yer wife.”
“She’ll take it very kindly, I’m sure,” said the man doubtfully, but rather glad to be rid of this visitor at any cost. “She bain’t very well—she bain’t never strong same as other women,” he added. “You might put a bit o’ spunk into ’er.”
And he led the way up the garden-walk.
Martha was half offended. She was not sure she had come to put spunk into her old sweetheart’s wife—and surely Dan Moss was very dull to what he used to be! She felt still more sorry she had come when she saw the awkward shyness of the little woman whom they disturbed nursing her babe at the fireside.
“’Ere be Mrs. Hewson, Martha Bond as was, come to see you,” said the husband, and added hurriedly to the visitor: “There, Milly ’ll get ye a cup o’ tea, ma’am, and you two ’ll ’ave a good bit of a gossip whiles I steps down to the village. She was 29just a-sayin’ she were a bit lonesome. Good-night to ye, and pleased to see ye look so ’earty.” And he bustled out as quickly as he had bustled in.
“You must excuse ’im,” said the young mother, blushing for her man, while she stilled the cries of the injured babe interrupted at his meal. “Dan’s allers in a ’urry to be off.”
“May be ’e ’ave got business,” said Martha, civilly.
“Oh, no, ’e ain’t,” said the wife. “But Dan bain’t niver been a stay-at-’ome man. ’Is mother were a rough customer they do say, and she didn’t use ’im to it.”
“Well, and I’ve ’eard tell she were too much sot on ’im altogether,” laughed Martha. “Wouldn’t let ’im go out for ’alf a’ ’our’s chat but what she’d call ’is dead father to mind when ’e come ’ome, and snivel over ’im as if ’e was a child. A man couldn’t be expected to stan’ that.”
“P’r’aps not,” assented the other, considering. “All the same it bain’t much use ’avin’ a man if ’e bain’t niver at ’ome. Maybe your ’usbin’ don’t care for company.”
“I’d catch im carin’ for any company but mine when I wanted his’n,” declared Mrs. Hewson defiantly. “But I bain’t one to care for a man allers draggin’ about—they be more in the way than hanythink. I can’t niver find two words to say to Bill when once I’ve giv’ ’im ’is cup o’ tea or whativer it might be. It be more nor I can make out ’ow women can bide men plaguin’ round ’em 30from mornin’ till night. Bill be too stay-at-’ome by ’alf—though, to be sure, I do let ’im ’ave it if ’e come ’ome late o’ nights, that be certain,” she added, laughing.
The other woman stared at her a minute, speechless and wondering; then she sighed.
“Well, I niver!” ejaculated she. “Pore feller!” and the thought flew through her mind that she would not have treated him so.
“Pore feller indeed!” cried Mrs. Hewson indignantly. “Why, bain’t ’e dead sot on me, and wouldn’t ’e rayther ’ave my tongue any day than another gal’s palavers? What else should ’e be so stay-at-’ome for, I’d like to know? Pore feller! What next?”
She settled her hat on her head with a quick, irritated movement, but the next minute she laughed again.
“But belike you fancy a man allers a-dancin’ round you,” laughed she. “Some gals do. I can swop a buss now and then as well as most, but I like to get it over o’ proper times.”
Milly blushed, and shifted the baby to the other arm.
“I thought as iverybody liked their man to get time to admire ’em a bit,” said she shyly.
“Is that what ye be after?” laughed Martha. “Lord, I wouldn’t give much for Bill’s taste. ’E don’t know black from blue.”
“’E ’ave ’ad the taste ye wanted ’im to ’ave, I 31s’pose,” retorted the little woman—“’e ’ave ’ad the taste to fancy you!”
Her delicate face flushed, and there was just a tinge of spite in her tone, for could she not remember the day when Mr. Hewson’s taste had not been for dark, powerful girls?
“Oh, yes, ’e ’ave ’ad that,” assented the other in an off-hand way. “He knowed I were the only one as could ha’ made hanythink of ’im. If ’e ’ad ha’ married a pore gumptionless soul like some”—and Martha looked out of the corner of the eye at her hostess—“’e wouldn’t ha’ been nowhere! ’E needs a good strong, smart gal, ’e do, pore soul! Ye wouldn’t b’lieve the time I be seein’ —as good as gold, but a pore shiftless crittur! If it weren’t for me, we wouldn’t ’ave bite nor sup to put in our mouths. I be forced to put spunk into ’im same time as I work for the lot.”
“I wouldn’t ha’ believed it,” said Milly Moss, rocking the child.
“Ah, you may then,” declared Martha emphatically. “It be a good job I ain’t got no little ’un yet, for I’d ’ave two to see to then. You be to be envied, you be, with a great, fine, strappin’ feller for a ’usbin’ what knows ’is own mind, and….”
And Martha stopped abruptly, for it had crossed her memory that she had once upbraided Dan Moss in her heart for not knowing his own mind, and a quick dart of vexation ran through her because, in the heat of the hour, she had both praised 32the man who had not followed up his attentions to her, and run down the man who had.
She bit her lip and thought how she could repair her error, but her turn for speech was gone.
“You do surprise me,” said the envied woman, opening a pair of pale blue eyes very wide. “And I was jist a-thinkin’ what a lucky body you was to ’ave a man as stayed at ’ome and looked arter ye. For ye can’t think ’ow lonesome I am o’ times! Dan ’e be such a favourite-like i’ the village. Somebody’s allers askin’ ’im to go along wi’ ’em drinkin’ or spreein’ one way or another. O’ course I know ’e be rare and clever. ’E wouldn’t make the mill pay as it do if ’e wasn’t. And I don’t grumble so long as it’s work as takes im out—but I do think it’s a shame not never to get a look-in at your own man till it’s time to go to sleep-like.”
Mrs. Moss took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes furtively, but the baby waking at this interruption, she was forced to give all her mind to hushing it.
Mrs. Hewson sat pondering.
She remembered that she had once thought that life with Dan Moss would be rather a jolly affair, but if his jollity was always kept for out-of-doors, it wasn’t all beer and skittles after all.
“Ye treat ’im too meek-like,” said she after a minute. “I wouldn’t mind so much.”
“’Ow can ye ’elp mindin’ when ye’ve married a man?” retorted the other.
33“Well, I’d be cheerfuller—I’d pay ’im back a bit in ’is own coin, I be blowed if I wouldn’t,” laughed Martha.
Milly shook her head.
“Dan ain’t one to stand no nonsense,” said she. “I tried it on a bit when we was fust wed, and blessed if ’e didn’t up and off it for a week! Didn’t say nothink, mind you, but jist up and off it. Said it were business, but o’ course that wasn’t what I wanted!”
“Lor’ bless me!” ejaculated the other. “Well, I be pleased my Bill don’t give me no tantrums. We ain’t ’ad a word ever since we was wed.”
“Oh, well, who said we had words? Everybody ’as their faults. We don’t ’ave no words,” retorted the miller’s wife, tossing her head a bit proudly. And she got up and began busying herself over the tea.
She too was a little sorry she had let herself be betrayed into these confidences.
Meanwhile outside, the moon had climbed the first steeps of the horizon, and had put out the last fires of the sunset; the merest memory of gold was left floating on the western clouds and yellowing the streak of clear sky above the solemn, purple downs; but in the blue overhead the moon had sway, and hung silver on the gently swaying plumes of the pines upon the hills hard by.
Bill Hewson was climbing the hill in obedience to the promise given to his wife an hour before.
34But he was not alone; he had met Moss on the village green down yonder by the “Public,” and Moss, in his genial way, had accosted him to wish him joy of his marriage, and so it had come to pass that the two—never more than the merest acquaintances when both lived in the village—had fallen into intimate converse.
Hewson was panting a bit as he kept pace up the road beside his great, long-limbed companion, for the air was coming briskly from the west, and the first frosts were falling at night, and he was asthmatic.
“Ye didn’t ought to be out o’ nights now it’s turned so sharp,” said his companion kindly.
“A man can’t afford to think o’ such things,” said Hewson.
“Well, leastways when there bain’t no need,” allowed the miller. “And ye didn’t so much as put a drop inside ye at the bar to warm ye up for the job.”
“I scarce ever touches sperrits,” said Hewson quietly. “Martha, she don’t think it’s right.”
The miller stopped short in the road and stared at his comrade; but they were in a wood now, and he couldn’t see his face.
“Martha, be——” he began. But he dropped a brown-paper parcel that he was carrying and he turned the phrase into: “Drat the thing——” as he stooped to pick it up.
“Yes, Martha don’t think it’s right, nor she don’t 35think it’s ’olesome neither,” repeated the feebler man slowly,
Moss laughed long and loudly.
“Well, I be blessed if I’d go blowin’ up this ’ill as you be a-doin’ then,” said he at last. “No, not to fetch any woman under the sun, if she wouldn’t allow me a swaller first to put the ’eart into my stomach, so to speak! Ye be too easy, mate. Bain’t she well and ’earty and fit to look arter ’erself?”
“Oh, she be well and ’earty enough,” allowed the husband. “I don’t know as I iver see’d a ’eartier gal. But … well, ye see, Martha don’t think small beer of ’erself, and she be a fine woman, ye’ll allow.”
“Oh, she be a fine woman and no mistake,” allowed the miller, smiling to himself.
“I often wonders what it was made ’er take to the likes o’ me,” went on the other, “for I bain’t no catch. And I allers feels I ought to make it up to ’er, so to speak. But I don’t deny it do come a bit ’ard o’ times.”
“A bit of a Tartar, eh?” asked Moss confidentially.
“I won’t go so far as to say that,” replied the henpecked one as who should refuse to admit a thing that he feared might be true. “She be a just woman, she be, but she bain’t just what ye might call a gentle un’. I’ve sometimes thought as she be too clever.”
“Ah. I don’t know as I care for ’em so clever 36as all that,” said the miller. “I shouldn’t like a wife cleverer nor myself, now. But there be them as gives up, like, every minute, and that bain’t all fun neither. Why, Lor’ bless me, there be some women want ye to be at their elber to ’elp ’em tell whether the milk be sour or no. It be real contrairy o’ times. Ye be forced to go out-doors to get a minute’s peace.”
“What, talk at ye twenty to the dozen?” asked Hewson feelingly.
“Not so much talk as whine at ye! Make ye believe ye’re a downright brute afore they’ve done. Till ye be forced to go and get a glass o’ beer into ye to see things straight agin.”
“Talkin’ be wuss,” said Hewson simply.
“Ah, ye ’aven’t tried whinin’,” retorted Moss. “You wait till you ’ave!”
“I bain’t likely to,” answered the other in a matter-of-fact way. “Martha she bain’t given that way. And I be glad of it, now I hear what you say. I did think—but, there, that’s neither here nor there. I don’t mind sayin’ I’ve altered my mind since I’ve ’eard what you say. I likes ’em gentle, but I likes ’em spry.”
The miller shook his head doubtfully.
“I don’t believe ye can ’ave it both ways,” he said, with a great air of wisdom. “They ’as their feelin’s when they’s soft-like, and feelin’s is a darned noosance. Ye don’t get no dinner when feelin’s is on the go.”
37“I wouldn’t stomach that,” declared Hewson, shaking his head. “The smart ones they do look arter ye well, if they don’t let ye call yer soul yer own.”
“Blowed if I’d put up wi’ not bein’ master under my own roof, though,” declared the miller emphatically. “I’d rather find the kitchen fire out, by a long way, than ’ave my words snapped up when I be settin’ aside it. I can’t abide temper in a woman nor more nor in a ’oss!”
“All the same a bit o’ warm fire and a cosy ’ome do come in comfortable when a man be feelin’ a bit rocky,” urged Hewson more decisively than usual. “No dinner—that be bad! I feel sorry for ye, neighbour, I do indeed!”
The miller stood still and stared a minute, and then he broke into his loud, resonant laugh.
“Oh, ye bain’t no call to be sorry for me,” he said cheerily. “I be gettin’ on fust-rate, thank ye,” and he shifted the brown-paper parcel from one arm to the other. “We was but passin’ opinions on the breeds and pedigrees o’ the women-folk, as far as I be aware. Why, I’d rather ’ave all the pumps on at once than see the ricks a-burnin’ for ten minutes. Each man to ’is taste, neighbour, and thank you for a ’alf hour’s exchange ’o notions, so to speak.”
Hewson smiled, a trifle bewildered.
“That be it,” said he genially. “Each man to ’is taste, or in other words—let every one put up wi’ 38what ’e ’ave got. A blemish is a blemish, but the mare may be sound for all that.”
“Sound!” began the miller, half angrily. But he had reached the top of the hill; his own garden-gate was in sight, and his own house-door opened and sent a flood of yellow light down the walk to put out the white moonbeams on the hollyhocks and the sunflowers.
“Right ye be, man,” cried he good-humouredly, slapping his comrade noisily on the back. “We won’t fight over ’em; there’s blemishes, I dare say, but the mares be both sound for all that.”
And on the doorstep the women were exchanging a last word.
The miller’s wife, warmed to further unbosoming by a seductive cup of tea, was pouring final confidences into Mrs. Hewson’s willing ear.
“If you’d believe it,” she was saying shyly, “there were a time when I were nigh to fancyin’ Mr. Hewson myself. Not that there iver were much atween us, and I don’t know as I could say ’e iver come nigh to askin’ me. But ’e were that kind and gentle, I thought as ’e’d make a nice, considerin’ ’usbin’, and I thought I could ha’ got him if I’d tried. But, Lor’, now I know ’e’ve so little sperrit, I don’t think as it’d ha’ suited at all.”
“Oh, don’t ye!” retorted Martha, with a good dash of honest viciousness in her tones which the other was too dense or too pre-occupied to notice.
39“I ain’t got your ’ealth nor yet your managin’ ways, ye see,” Milly was murmuring on softly. “Not but what I do pity you, my dear….”
“Well, then, ye needn’t to do no such thing,” interrupted Mrs. Hewson sharply. “My man may be a bit soft o’ times—though ’ow you come to fancy it, I be sure I don’t know—but ’e don’t come masterin’ it over a body, nor yet ’e don’t spend his evenin’s at the ‘Public,’ and leave ’is wife alone at the fire-side. If I was a chatterbox I might ’ave a word to say ’bout bygones too! But, Lor’ bless me, I niver was one to boast! Nor yet to ’anker after showin’ up as I was once nigh upon makin’ a fool o’ myself!”
Martha laughed a rough laugh, and the ready eyes of the miller’s wife filled with tears.
“My word, I don’t know what ye mean!” faltered she with quivering voice. “But if anybody says as my Dan neglects ’is wife….”
“Well, there, least said soonest mended,” put in Martha Hewson hurriedly, for she had seen two dark forms coming up the hill in the moonlight. Her temper had been “up” at the slight which the other, in her foolishness, had dealt to her “man”; and she had not the smallest intention of hearing him made light of, however much she might grind him down herself. But being a good-natured soul at bottom, and not anxious moreover to give herself away, she was not going to have this silly conversation overheard.
40“I don’t know as it is,” began the foolish little woman, swallowing her tears. “I shall tell Dan what ye said, and….”
“If ye do ye’ll ’ave to tell ’im who ’t were said he went to the ‘Public’ every night,” laughed Martha, jeering. But she added quickly: “There, ye mustn’t mind me. I’ve a rough tongue, but I don’t mean no ’arm. We’ve both on us ’ad a gossip and talked a bit o’ nonsense, but there bain’t no bones broke arter all. You dry yer eyes and show your ’usbin’ a jolly face. Look, ere ’e be! I must be gone. I be late as ’tis. We’s off to-morrer, and I’ve got the bits o’ things to put together. Good-night.”
Martha had seen that her own husband was with the other, and she did not intend him to come up that garden-path just then if she could help it.
“Good-night!” echoed the little woman, who, if none so clever as her friend by a long way, saw the point of what she had said very well. She concealed the signs of her perturbation as she was bid, and held out a meek, limp hand.
“Good luck,” whispered Martha, seizing the hand in her powerful grasp. “Mind you put lots o’ spunk into it all!”
And as she spoke the words she remembered the request that had been made to her by her one-time sweetheart as she came in!
Well, she had fulfilled it!
And without another word she sped down the 41walk, and was out on the downs before Dan Moss and her husband had reached the gate.
“What, ye be never off in such a darned ’urry!” cried the former as she came up to them. “I won’t stand that! Ye’ve got to come back and both on ye ’ave a drink for old times’ sake.”
“Thank you kindly,” said she. “We don’t often drink nothin’ but a glass o’ beer o’ dinner-time don’t Bill and me.”
“Well, ye’ll ’ave to this time,” insisted the man hospitably. “This pore man o’ yourn’s just pumped out.”
“Oh, ’e be right enough, bain’t ye, Bill?” said she.
“Yes, I be right enough,” agreed the man addressed, and wouldn’t have dared to admit the contrary.
“A warm posset’s the best thing for ’im when ’e gets to bed. So we’ll just get along and see to it.”
She buttoned his coat tight about his throat as she spoke, and gave him a friendly thump on the back.
“Yer wife’s tired,” she added. “She ought to turn in too. The brat ain’t very old yet.”
“Tired, be she?” said Moss, and scratched his head. “Well, if ye won’t, ye won’t,” he added presently. “So, it’s good-night to ye.”
“Good-night,” echoed the husband and wife in one breath as they turned down the hill.
Moss stood a minute looking after them, whistling 42a rowdy, popular song in a slow, contemplative sort of way.
Then he turned with a chuckle.
“Rum lot,” he said to himself as he opened his garden-gate.
At the porch the little wife stood waiting. Her eyes were dry and there was a pretty smile on her lips.
“Ye are nice and early to-night,” she said affectionately.
“Why, ye asked me to come ’ome early, didn’t ye?” he whispered, pinching her ear.
And she did not say that she always made that request without it’s being always attended to.
“But ye ain’t been lonesome this time,” he added. “’Aven’t you and Mrs. Hewson had a nice chat?”
“Yes,” she said doubtfully.
He laughed his jolly laugh.
“Ye don’t care over much for the woman, I can see,” chuckled he. “Well, she be a bit rumbustious though a well-meanin’ wench enough. I used to half-fancy ’er myself once, but she bain’t my style, I likes ’em cosier nor that.”
And he drew his wife’s smooth, fair head to his bosom and kissed her.
“See ’ere,” said he, “I’ve bought ye a present.”
He untied the brown-paper parcel and spread out a black silk dress.
Milly’s eyes shone and she clapped her hands.
43“For me! What, niver!” she murmured.
“Oh, ain’t it!” he chuckled. “You should ha’ ’ad it long ago only I ’adn’t just got the cash ’andy. There!” and he threw it across to her merrily.
“You be kind to me, Dan,” whispered she, and she threw her arms round his neck.
Down in the hollow below the downs, Martha was hurrying her husband along. She had him by the elbow that she might the better urge him forward, and whenever he opened his mouth to speak she bade him hold his tongue, for though the moon was bright, the wind whistled from the nor’-west and the air was keen.
But she talked for two.
“To think of it, Bill!” laughed she. “There were a time when I was sweet on that great ’ulkin’ chap up yonder. Yes, and ’e on me, too! We’s changed our minds since then, ain’t we! He ’ave got a little ninny of a wife and no mistake! I wouldn’t stand bein’ chucked about as ’e do ’er. So I s’pose we be both best suited as we be.”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” agreed Bill Hewson through his mufflers.
And then they reached the inn and went in to the warmth, and Martha Hewson saw her husband to bed.
Mother and daughter came toiling up the hill above the marsh-land, swinging a basket of linen between them. The daughter was but a little one—just eleven years old—but beginning to be fit to help mother a bit: and the mother herself was scarcely past thirty, though she had three younger than Sue to care for.
They came up fast, for there was a mass of purple cloud behind the town on the distant hill, and a still darker bank of it across the horizon out to sea, and the rain might come down again at any moment. It had been a bad season for laundresses, and the drying of clothes a very difficult job; there was another lot to get home to-night before going to bed if it could be managed: more than enough to do, yet not enough with it all to keep the six mouths filled, and Mrs. Wood was on her way to try for another family’s work.
“You get along ’ome with this, Sue,” she said to her child; “you can manage the basket alone now 48you be on the top, can’t ye? There be cold bacon in the cupboard for dinner. You lay it out ready: I’ve got to step in and see post-mistress. She ’ave let ’er ’ouse on the ’ill to a family from London. They say there be lots o’ children, and it’d be a good job for us if I could get ’er to speak for me.”
“I ’ope post-mistress won’t be nasty then,” said the child with wisdom that sat sadly on her chubby face and seemed to have no place in the innocent, brown eyes. “She caught father drunk last night when you guv ’im that postal order to git cashed, and she went on at ’im h’awful.”
The mother’s brow clouded. She seemed to find nothing strange in the child’s remark; it was evident that she was wont to make this little eldest daughter the confidante of her troubles—but her brow clouded with anger.
“Did she though?” cried she defiantly, her thin, delicately pretty face lighting up with a flame that gave it a momentary brilliancy of colouring. “And ’ose fault was it as father was drunk? It weren’t my earnin’s nor his’n neither as ’e spent on it, for ’e didn’t cash the paper till arter! It be them nasty do-nothin’s at the road-corners as tempts ’im and treats ’im, for the fun of ’earin’ ’im go on a bit merry, that’s what it be—and it be a burnin’ shame, it be!”
They had reached the top of the hill, and Mrs. Wood set the basket down on the flags just outside the doctor’s surgery. There were loiterers even 49now at the corner of the churchyard that was the centre of the village square, and she had raised her voice with the last words, and they had smiled.
She took the corner of her apron and wiped her mouth, that was quivering a little.
“There, never you mind, you go ’long ’ome, dear,” said she softly, as though she were half-ashamed. “It ain’t ’cos father ’as ’is drop as Miss ’Earn’s so set agin me, noways.”
“Why be it then, mother?” asked the little maid with natural curiosity. “She do seem to owe you some grudge, she do. And folks all callin’ of ’er so pious and Christian-like.”
“Never you mind,” repeated the mother again. “Them pious folk is allers the ones to be down on their neighbours.” And she stooped and lifted the basket to the child’s head. “Can ye manage it?” said she, “or shall I come to the corner with ye?”
“No, it be all right,” declared Sue, though she staggered a minute at first. And lifting a tiny arm to the load to steady it, she set off down the street towards where the cottages stood so close to the hill’s edge that one might have jumped off straight into the waste of blue mist below that was marsh-land and river unrolling to the sea.
Mrs. Wood watched her a minute to see that she was safe, and then she turned her back on the loiterers and went on towards the post-office.
One lad called out a greeting to her and asked 50who her mate was with, but she paid no heed though the others laughed. She shook her spare shoulders as she walked with a way that she had, and drew her spare little black jacket around her and held her little head, that had once been so pretty, well up, so that the thin nose was tilted, sniffing the cool air, and any one who knew her could have told that the next person she met would “catch it.”
The loiterers knew it, and laughed as they saw who the next person would be.
For it was her own man who came lounging across the churchyard. He was a great, hulking fellow who looked as though he could have taken the frail little body in one great hand and crushed it to death, yet the woman showed no fear of him. She just stood where she was and waited for him to reach the gate and come through to her, and though the laughter went on at the corner by which he must pass, and she knew very well what the joke was, she was nowise daunted nor even seemed to notice it.
And as the man came closer one could see that on the top of that great body there was a handsome, gipsy face with coal-black beard and hair curling crisply, and dark eyes that might have flashed if they would, but that were soft and velvety as those of his own little daughter, while the mouth smiled almost tremulously, showing a row of even, white teeth.
51“Why ain’t ye at work?” said the wife as the Adonis came up.
“’Ere, Jerry, I wants a word with ye,” called one of the young fellows on the wall.
“You budge if you dare,” said the little woman, setting her lips together.
“Don’t ye stop to be bullied, man,” laughed another one yonder. “What be the good of a good time if ye pay for it next day this way?”
But the Adonis only smiled a charming smile, looking from one to the other.
“Why ain’t ye at work?” repeated his wife.
“It be close upon dinner-time,” answered the man good-humouredly. “It weren’t worth while goin’ up there for less nor ’arf a hour.”
“What—ye don’t mean to tell me ye ’aven’t been to work at all?” screamed the little woman. “’Close upon,’ indeed! ’Aven’t ye got turned off jobs times untold ’cos o’ ‘close upon’? It be allers ‘close upon’ dinner-time or tea-time or leavin’ off time wi’ you! If Major Dennis turns ye off again, ’e won’t take ye on no more, and you know that well enough!”
“I wouldn’t stand it, I wouldn’t,” laughed the demon at the corner.
Jerry looked doubtfully from one to the other, still smiling; then something that was almost a flash of anger came from the soft, dark eyes.
“And I be dashed if I do,” said he, taking off his cap and digging his great fingers into the crisp, 52black curls! “A man must ’ave ’is bit o’ leisure, damn it all! I’ve worked for the Major nigh upon five years….”
There was a roar of laughter at this, and Jerry himself smiled.
“Well, I mean countin’ the off-times,” he added, without the slightest touch of ill-humour.
“The times ’e ’ave turned ye off, ye mean, and took ye on again, eh?” put in the chorus.
“And I be darned if I be goin’ to work for ’im no more if I can’t do it my own way,” concluded the giant, without regarding the interruption otherwise than by his pleasant smile. “I ain’t got the ’ealth to keep it up mornin’, noon and night without so much as a breathing….”
“Or a whettin’ o’ yer whistle,” slipped in the other. “Yer back’s too long to stand the stoopin’, I’ll be bound!”
Jerry turned his smile into a laugh in polite recognition of the witticism, before he added his ultimatum. “And if ’e bain’t a-goin’ to be reasonable,” declared he, “well, I shall just chuck it! I’ve ’eard say there be a gardener wanted up at the ’Ill, and I shall apply for the sitivation.”
Jerry drew himself up to all his splendid height and looked round on his audience with dignity. But his wife spoiled the whole thing.
“Ye fool,” snarled she under her breath as this last proposition met with its well-deserved appreciation from the loungers; “can’t ye see as they be 53all a-laughin’ at ye? ’Ow are ye goin’ for to get a sitivation without no character? Come ’long ’ome do, for mercy’s sake, and ’ave yer dinner and get to work.”
She clutched at his arm to lead him away as she was sometimes able to do when he was in a good mood; for Jerry always found it easier to please anybody than to say them “nay,” and often would patiently do even his wife’s bidding—provided he was not in his cups—when he could, alas! descend even to the boot or the kitchen-poker at his need. But to-day, unluckily his wife was demanding submission when others were by to see, and these others the very ones over whom his wit had gained a supremacy of its own the night before in the hour of carouse. What man could brook this—least of all what man who had his position for popularity to maintain?
He drew his arm away.
“I tell ye the Major ’ll ’ave to be’ave very different to me afore I work for ’im agin,” reiterated he, and as the woman still nudged him: “You go and mind the children, Lucy,” he added loftily, “and leave me ’lone. Women-folk ain’t supposed to understand these ’ere things.”
His supporters cheered him loudly at this, and he moved across towards them, but Lucy Wood was not easily to be set aside. She knew that her influence with him was for the moment in abeyance, but she turned to her tormentors.
54“Ain’t ye ashamed o’ yerselves, a pack o’ idle young vagabonds, to sit there and make fun of a man as ’d ha’ been a good ’un enough if it weren’t for you and your likes?” cried she passionately. “If you ’aven’t got no one to work for—though Lord knows there’s mothers dependin’ on ye if there ain’t wives and childer—can’t ye ’ave the grace to leave them alone as ’as?”
The woman’s voice was breaking, if not her spirit, and she had to pause for breath. A little bantam cock of a man, older than the rest, took his pipe from his mouth and snarled out an ugly oath at her.
Jerry, who wore a vexed look on his handsome face, murmured deprecatingly, “Easy, easy, mate!” but the man only retorted: “Well, send ’er ’ome and don’t be rid over by yer women-folk so meeklike, man,” and the giant, anxious to keep his good footing with his comrades, bid his wife once more be gone.
“You come ’ome to yer dinner and leave talkin’ stuff as ye can’t act up to and I’ll let ye be,” was all she said, and added, catching a nasty look in the little man’s face, and seeing the ill effect it was having on her own man: “Oh, I know what ye be up to, Casey, and it won’t be the first time ye’ve played me a bad turn this way, if it be the last. But I don’t care for your bad words, not I! It be your sort as be the curse o’ my man, and I’ll save ’im from ye if I can.”
55It was an ill-judged remark, and she paid dearly for it.
Away from his mates Jerry might have been docile, but supported by them he was not going to be wife-ridden.
“You go ’ome and I’ll come when I please,” repeated he doggedly.
Lucy Wood knew the mood and knew that it was idle to fight it.
“Dinner-time’s dinner-time to-day,” was all she said. “Sue and me ’as got a sight a linen to get done, and I shall clear away sharp.”
“There’s a wife for ye,” said Casey facetiously. “Don’t let’s you and me get spliced, lads! That be ’ow the women study a man!”
“I pity the one as ’ll ’ave to study you, Jim Casey!” retorted Lucy. “And may be if she’ve got to earn the money as well as feed the childer, she won’t get time to study no one much.”
She turned as she spoke, and drew her jacket together with her old pettish movement.
“That be a nasty one!” laughed Casey. “But if I was ‘cheeked’ like that, I be blowed if I’d give a woman what I earned! No, I’d keep it for myself, I would.”
Lucy turned quickly. Up till now she had known well enough he would come home sooner or later, since he had no money wherewith to buy victuals. But now a sudden uneasiness seized her.
56“’E ain’t got any now, any ways,” said she, looking at him. “’E don’t get ’is wage till to-night.”
Jerry quailed beneath her gaze. To do him justice, he had forgotten till this very moment that he had money in his pocket: it was such a very rare occurrence. His master, owing to a sudden departure, had paid him his due the evening before; he had faithfully promised to take it straight to his wife, but the tempters had come along, and a good part of it had already gone in the carouse of the night, which she supposed he had owed to his friends.
“’Old on, Jerry; stick to it, man!” came from the group.
“Ye’ve never got your wage by now,” asked Lucy almost incredulously.
He did not answer, and her face went white; she had counted on this rare week’s money of his for so many little debts.
He lowered his eyes—he was genuinely sorry. The sight of her frail little body quivering with anxiety, of her frail little face going paler because of his selfish cruelty, reminded him vaguely of the day when she had been near to leaving him in consequence of what the doctor had called “grinding herself to death for a good-for-nothing husband.” He wondered if she was going to faint again now, as she had done then, when he had thought she was dead, and his heart turned sick.
57But she did not faint—his silence had told her the truth, and she pulled herself together, as she always did in an emergency. She said nothing; she knew there was nothing more to be said—then; she just left him and went on up the road. But when she had gone a little way she turned half round and waited, and her man came up a few steps towards her.
“I’ll leave the cold bacon on the table ready for you,” said she, quite gently. “I may ’ave to go out with the linen.”
“Keep it up, old man,” came Casey’s rasping tones up the path, followed by a brutal laugh.
Jerry faced about towards him once more, and Lucy disappeared round the corner. She had no heart for the post-mistress then, and indeed she half guessed that that inquisitive woman had witnessed the scene on the green through the window-frame behind which she dispensed postal conveniences and morality to the village; it was bad enough to face Miss Hearn when she had no special reason to crow over one—it was impossible when she had.
Lucy was quite right. Miss Hearn had seen and heard everything, and was discussing it now with the doctor’s housekeeper, who had come in to send a postal order to her son.
“Poor soul!” the latter was saying in kindly commiserating tones, “I feel right down sorry for ’er, I do! A-slavin’ and a-killin’ of ’erself workin’ 58for that good-for-nothin’ lazy-bones! And a confinement thrown in most Christmas-times. Why, there’s been one every year since they was wed, to my certain knowledge—and there couldn’t be no more.”
“Since they was what?” repeated Miss Hearn, pursing her lips and wagging her head till the long, sleek ringlets on either side of her round, furrowed face shook sorrowfully.
“Well, they was wed, though it might ha’ been sooner,” said the other, blushing a little, but smiling a little too; “there was only one of ’em born out o’ wedlock after all.”
“Ain’t one enough?” retorted the post-office lady distantly. “I scarce call it a wedding myself—when it ain’t at the right time. If that sort o’ thing weren’t made light of among ye, it wouldn’t ’appen. It ought not to be tolerated. It’s a disgrace to the parish.”
“Well, Lucy was looked askance at at first,” answered the other, who, as the doctor’s right hand for many a year, considered herself competent to argue a question even with the post-office mistress. “I allers passed her by on the other side o’ the road myself. But ye must allow she did make ’im marry ’er, and virtue ’ave got to be rewarded, ’aven’t it? Else it ain’t no good a-practisin’ of it.”
“Virtue!” sniffed Miss Hearn. “A tardy reparation don’t wipe out sin.”
“Oh, I ain’t a-goin’ to defend sin,” said the elder 59woman hastily. “And o’ course Lucy ’adn’t no business to go runnin’ along dark lanes wi’ the man on moonlight nights! But there, the gal did what she could to make up—for you won’t go for to deny it wanted a bit o’ pluck to tie ’erself up to ’im! Why, it’s my belief, ’e beat ’er when ’e was drunk afore they was so much as wed—not to say nothink o’ goin’s on with them gals at the ’Arbour.”
“I wonder at yer bringin’ yer mouth to speak o’ such things,” said the post-mistress severely. “And if you ask me, I’d ’ave said pitch was best let alone anyways.”
But the humbler Chapel-goer was not daunted.
“Well, I never!” ejaculated she. “And you, a Church-woman! You’d never ’ave ’ad ’er not give Sue a name?”
“For one she give a name to, she’s brought three into the world to own a drunken sot and evil-liver for a father!” sneered Miss Hearn. “’Tis writ the sins o’ the fathers shall be visited on the children. No, no, you take my word for it,” added the lady dictatorially, “the sinful passions o’ man—not to say woman—is the root o’ the whole o’ that there business.”
“I never thought o’ that,” declared the housekeeper, a trifle shaken in her opinion. “Not but what I can’t deny she were dead gone on ’im. But, there, anyways she do ’ave a life on it,” she added irrelevantly; “and I do think ye might 60give ’er that job o’ work if ye could manage it, ma’am.”
Miss Hearn pursed her lips and moved away to fetch the order which both women had forgotten in the eagerness of their gossip.
This request put her back on the pedestal of her dignity.
“I think o’ the example, ma’am,” she whispered, her eyelids positively quivering with righteousness as she proceeded to her work. “I’ve done more for Mrs. Wood than I should ha’ done a’ready. Many’s the time I’ve overlooked it when she were late with my rent. And yet she earns as good as most, and I didn’t ought to. We must think o’ the deservin’ fust.”
“Well, she ’ave done the best she could for ’er childer ye must allow,” argued the other. “They’s the cleanest and best be’aved children in the village—everybody says so—and allers at school, ’cept Sue, as stays to ’elp ’er mother now. Nobody can’t say but what Lucy Wood ’aven’t toiled for ’em all, and ’alf killed ’erself too! The master told me if ever she was to ’ave another turn same as that she ’ad last winter, she couldn’t get over it no-ways.”
“Folk must lie as they’ve made their beds,” repeated Miss Hearn, pitilessly. “If she ’ad ha’ kep’ ’erself to ’erself she wouldn’t ha’ ’ad no sich turns at all.”
“Well, ye can’t expect girls to bide single,” 61began the other; but the post-mistress handed her postal order with: “Six and sixpence, ma’am, please,” in such a business-like voice that the torrent of her speech was checked.
She took out the money sadly. She had seen trouble enough in the doctor’s house to have a kindly corner in her heart, disciplinarian though she professed herself.
“Nobody wouldn’t deny but what poor Lucy would ha’ done better if she ’adn’t never ha’ seen that Jerry,” she began again; “and if the Lord was to be minded to take ’im, o’ course she could do much better for ’erself and the childer….”
“That may be very like,” interrupted the tyrant sternly. “Nevertheless, ye’ll please not to take the Lord’s name in vain on my premises! We poor sinners ain’t got nothin’ to do wi’ the ways o’ Providence.”
“No offence,” said the visitor cheerily. “I’m sure I don’t want to presume to interfere with Them above; and p’r’aps Lucy mightn’t be pleased, though it would make things so much easier for ’er. She do seem sot on ’im still, don’t she? I often wonder,” she added confidentially, “if she guesses as ’e ain’t true to ’er.”
Miss Hearn assumed a more shocked expression than ever.
“When a woman ’ave so far forgot ’erself there’s no length she won’t go to!” said she sententiously. 62“She ain’t never ’ad no proper pride—and she won’t get it now. Always a-defendin’ and a-upholdin’ o’ ’im! It’s terrible to witness!”
“Yes, it’s my belief she loves ’im still,” said the doctor’s housekeeper reflectively.
And then the postman came in with the mail-bag, and the post-mistress was forced to make up for lost time, and look sharp stamping the letters. The visitor hastened to depart.
If she could have seen the object of her good-natured consideration a few hours later she would certainly have been inclined to endorse her own opinion that Lucy loved him still.
All the day long she had been watching for him, and no cries of children nor weary attention to work, nor quaint, practical comfort from her wise little first-born, could dull her ear to every footstep along the stony road outside, or steel her heart against the silent misery that was slowly creeping around and upon it.
Father had not been home either to dinner or to tea. She had sent Sue to the Major’s, but he had not been there all day. She had even been herself to the “Public” on the village green to ferret out news of him, but no one had met him since they had seen them together that morning on the churchyard corner, and she began to feel pretty sure now that he had gone on the spree to some more distant “diggings,” as he was wont to do at 63times when he was thoroughly in with his bad companions and wanted to be out of reach of her “worritin’.”
“I ’spect ’e be down at the Arbour,” moaned she to the little daughter who sat laboriously darning a pair of stockings at her side, while she herself passed the iron up and down over the fine damask table-linen belonging to her best customers up at the “house.” And her gaze crept out of the window across the marsh-land that swept to the sea from the base of the cliff, on whose crest their cottage stood. She could not see “the Harbour,” as the villagers called it, for it was three miles away where the river oozed through muddy banks to the sea, but she could see a bit of the long white road upon which he would come when he started homewards.
“There were a brig due to-night,” she added, “and father do like to be by when there be a brig due—the fellers keep so merry.”
She was silent a moment, taking up her goffering-tongs to goffer a pillow-case frill and holding them to her cheek to test the heat.
“There, I do wish I ’adn’t been such a silly as to let out to Jim Casey this morning!” she went on presently. “I might ha’ knowed ’e’d pay me out somehow. ’E allers does.”
“I ’ate Jim Casey,” said the child, lifting serious brown eyes to her mother’s face, for all the world like her father’s.
64“And the Lord knows I do,” declared the mother peevishly. “It be all ’is fault as father be as ’e be. ’E ’ave done more ’arm than the Lord knows in this world, ’ave Casey.”
The child was silent. She didn’t understand, but she wasn’t meant to understand, and she didn’t want to. She was used to having her mother run on to her in an endless, peevish moan when things were “contrairy,” and she liked to sit and listen and feel important without knowing why.
“I’d like to pay Casey out some day, and no mistake,” said the mother vindictively.
And the little girl echoed the sentiment, looking up again with her frank eyes in which vindictiveness had not yet learned to dwell. “Do, mother,” she said, being sure of one thing only, and that was that she did not like Jim Casey, because he somehow worked her father ill.
The mother’s face did not relax; she went on ironing desperately, slapping the iron on to the linen and dropping it heavily on to the stand again. But presently she looked up; she was folding the last table-napkin, and she laid it on the pile. Her eyes were full of tears.
“Father ’ll be ’ome soon, I ’spect,” said Sue gently, watching her.
“The Lord knows,” sighed the mother, and if the child had had more worldly wisdom she would have guessed that a fresh sting had crept into her misery; “there be no tellin’! But you ’aven’t got 65no need to worrit. You go and bring the children in from their play, and get ’em washed, and the supper spread, there’s a good child. I ’ope they ’aven’t strayed far.”
She put up the back of her hand and dried her eyes as she stepped to the door whence a flight of brick stairs led to the road along the cliff’s edge.
All day long storm-clouds had been circling round the distant sister town, and sweeping up across the marsh from the sea, piling themselves together thick and dark, and emptying their heaviness upon the wide, sad land. But, with the westering sun, they had lightened a bit, and there were holes in them that let the blue through in patches, and, above the ramparts of purple downs that enclosed the land that had once been water, they had parted now, leaving a long red line between their own murkiness and the sombre hue of the hills below: in one place the red was of blood, and the black arms of the windmill on the down’s crest made a cross upon it as of a Calvary.
Mrs. Wood did not notice the sunset, but she sighed as she looked out into the waste below, where, slowly and steadily, thick mists were rising from the dykes, or stealthily creeping across the marsh-land.
“My, it ’ave rained a lot,” said she, “the river be big. And I shouldn’t be surprised if we ’ad a nasty sea-fog to-night too.”
“Well,” said the child smiling with quick intention, 66“father knows ’is way ’cross the marsh, well enough.”
“Oh, I don’t s’pose ’e be likely to lose ’is way at this time o’ day, drunk or sober,” allowed the mother, with another sigh. “That ain’t all.”
And then she shaded her eyes and made out two dark and two fair-haired curly heads in the group of children playing in the road, and called out to them to come in to bed. She caught the last, the youngest, who was a boy, in her arms as he came up the steps and hugged him, and laughed for the first time that day as he kicked and struggled to get free.
“They’re in a rare mess, Sue,” she called out to the little elder sister. “You’d best give ’em their supper first, while I step up wi’ the linen. I won’t be long, but I must look in at the Post-office ’bout that there job or I’ll be too late. Leave washin’ o’ Johnnie till I come in; ’e’ll be too much for you.”
She passed back into the dwelling-room, taking off her apron and rolling down her sleeves as she went.
“The shirts can wait till the mornin’,” she added. “They want some airin’ yet.”
“I ’ope ye’ll get the work at the new ’ouse, mother,” said Sue cheerily as her mother went down the road; and she set the little brothers and sisters around sitting on the doorstep and gave them their milk and dry bread for supper.
67But the luck was not in Mrs. Wood’s way that day; the job was gone before she got to the Post-office. Miss Hearn assured her curtly that it had been gone before she knew of her wanting it; it had gone to Widow Collins.
“I should ha’ thought ye might ha’ guessed I should want it fast enough, ma’am,” said poor Lucy humbly. “Widow Collins ain’t got no mouths to feed now ’er son’s provided for, and I don’t never ’ave work enough, wi’ all I can get to feed them as counts upon me.”
“Well, I’m sorry for ye,” said the post-mistress, though her tone belied her words, “but I’m bound to speak fair and honest to strangers accordin’ to what I’m asked, ye know. And folk will put awkward questions sometimes.”
Mrs. Wood flushed hot.
“’Tain’t fair, then,” said she, her voice trembling, but whether she alluded to the question that had been put, or to the answer that had been given, she did not specify. “If I do my work proper, and up to time, I don’t think nothink else ain’t nobody’s business.”
“That’s as may be,” retorted the superior, pursing her lips, and Lucy Wood went home.
She had heard no word of her husband—nothing but that Jim Casey had gone to the sea-port, and thither she was forced to suppose Jerry had gone too.
She washed her boy and put him to bed and 68bade Sue turn in too, and when she had damped the linen ready for the morrow’s final ironing, she put a light in the window, in case Jerry should come by the top way, and closing the front door softly, slunk shyly down to the wall at the end of the road to watch for that home-coming that she longed for and yet dreaded.
Many a time had she thus watched and waited before, but somehow to-night there was on her a deeper and more incomprehensible fear than she had ever known.
A horrible and sinister sense of mystery seemed to hang over everything: the moon was struggling with clouds that continually overswept and swamped her, and even when she looked forth it was with no mild radiance, but as though coldly trying to pierce some cruel secret; white and dense the sea-fog overspread the marsh like a blanket, swaying even up to the village on the cliff and floating softly down its streets and around its old church in the big square graveyard. One could scarcely see a yard in front of one, and two men who came smartly up the hill and round the corner did not see Lucy as she hung over the wall peering down the road.
“Pore Mrs. Wood, she’ll ’ave a job wi’ ’im to-night, she will!” said one with a laugh. “I often wonders whether she guesses the worst on ’im and just keeps dark on it for ’er pride’s sake.”
“Ye never can tell wi’ folk,” said the other 69sagely. “The gals from the ’Arbour don’t often come up this way, and I don’t s’pose no one’d go for to tell ’er.”
“Lord love ye, ye can’t never tell what nasty turn one woman’d do another,” declared Wilson. “Though I dare say she’d sooner put up wi’ it all than be rid on ’im, if the truth was known. It be past crediting what some women’ll look over in a man as they love.”
He started, for he felt a touch on his arm in the mist, and looking round recognized Lucy.
“I was thinkin’ p’r’aps ye might ha’ seen my ’usband down at the ’Arbour, Mr. Wilson,” said she in a thin, panting voice, that told of inner anguish bravely concealed. “’E ain’t come ’ome yet, and it be a nasty aitchy night.”
The man turned away his eyes from her miserable, eager face and looked at his comrade.
“Oh, don’t ye worrit, Mrs. Wood,” said the latter after a minute, during which the two looked blankly at one another. “Jerry be all right. We did see ’im down yonder, but ’e be wi’ a lot of ’em, and they’ll bring ’im ’ome, you can make sure.”
Bring him home! The words had an ominous sound, and she did not dare ask more.
She looked wistfully down the hill—or down as much of it as one could see in the damp, creeping atmosphere; the long, weary road across the lonely plain, with the sad swish of the waves coming nearer the further one went, till one reached the 70place where only white stones by the dyke’s side marked the way across the marsh to the harbour—it was all vividly present to her mind’s eye, and she knew it was no safe spot for a drunken man to cross in a thick fog.
“’E might want to leave and come ’ome afore the others was ready,” she said in the same thin, high voice. “I’ve ’alf a mind to go ’long the road to meet ’im.”
“Lord love ye, Mrs. Wood, ye mustn’t do no such thing,” said the man whom she had called Wilson, authoritatively. “The mist be as thick as mush on the marsh, and it wouldn’t be safe. Your man be all right. The boys wouldn’t never leave ’im—I know.”
She sighed; the assertion made it plainer than ever to her in what condition they had last seen him. She drew the old shawl that she had caught up in her haste tightly round her elbows and shivered.
“You go ’ome to the childer,” said the man kindly. “They be little uns; they needs ye most, ye know.”
“Thank ye,” retorted she sharply, “I knows best for myself where’s I be most needed. The childer’s in bed and asleep these hours gone.”
And she turned back to her old place by the wall, leaning on it and gazing down into the marsh.
The men walked on, and were gone in the mist.
71It was the last mortification that could be laid on her—that folk should know—what she had known for long. But she was too actually sodden with misery to care as she would have cared a year or two ago. For she knew it—oh, yes, she knew it all! But she had never let any one guess that she knew it, least of all him. Perhaps it was because of her pride, as the man had surmised; perhaps it was because she had a vague hope that by silence and patience she would best strengthen the thread that still held him to her. She was only a simple woman, but she understood him pretty well, and she knew that the thread was there; she knew that it was weakness that led him away from her—weakness fortified by evil counsel and evil comradeship. And in the darkness she clenched her poor horny little hand and prayed that she might be even with Casey some day.
And meanwhile she waited, shivering in the fog, and her heart went out in passionate longing to the man who was faithless to her, who neglected her, who squandered her earnings, and was slowly bringing her to the grave. Wilson had said: “It’s past crediting what some women’ll look over in the man they love!”
But the minutes flew fast and grew into a long hour, and there was no sign of Jerry, and at last the wife had to remember the mother and go home to the babes.
Little Sue stirred.
72“Be that father?” asked she drowsily.
“No, dear, not yet. You go to sleep,” said the mother,
“But ye won’t fret, mother, will you?” said the child again.
“Oh, no, dear, I won’t fret,” promised the poor soul, though her voice would have given the lie to her words had the child not been dulled with healthy weariness.
The little one turned round in bed, and the mother sat herself by the window wrapping her shawl more closely around her.
But she did not keep her promise—she did fret. She sat and rocked herself to and fro, and thought of all she might have done which she had not done, and of all she had done that would have best been left undone.
Yes, she had worried him; she had been too sharp, too fretful. She had not been able to make life gay for him—there were always so many cares; and he hated cares and loved gaiety.
Only that very morning she had found fault with him, and been cross to him before strangers; any man would hate that, and he hated it more than most. Why had she been so foolish? No wonder he had gone to the Harbour and to “them ’orrid girls.” It was her own fault. But when he came home, she would not speak a word of reproach. He should just sleep it off and not a word said. And she would get credit somehow to get him nice 73dinners. If only it weren’t that nasty old Miss Hearn to whom the rent was due!
And so she sat and planned and waited, and the lamp burned low, but he did not come.
Sleep won on her after her hard day’s work and she dozed off, and as she dozed she thought she was in the steep lane again where her Jerry had courted her first, and she felt the scent of pines after a hot day sweet in her nostrils, and the breath of kisses sweeter still upon her lips, and the soft tenderness of the warm moonlight slowly persuading her happy senses.
And she awoke with a start.
There was moonlight without, but it was wan and chill, and the only scent was a scent of salt sea spray that was borne in upon the fog: but there was a sound of voices in the night.
In a moment her hand was on the latch, and she was out on the threshold above the brick steps.
A man and a woman were coming up them, but the man was not her husband. It was Mr. Wilson, whom she had seen earlier in the evening—whom she had overheard—wondering “if she knew.” A sudden wave of anger against him swept over her, the foam of the mortification that she had so long endured.
The blood went to her head.
“What d’ye want?” said she savagely, standing at the top of her steps as though to guard her threshold.
74But even as she spoke the words, the wave had passed over her, leaving her cold and shivering. For Wilson was silent, and there was a look of pity on his plain face. She looked at the woman: it was the doctor’s old housekeeper.
“What do ye want?” she repeated, but there was less fierceness in the voice now: it was half plaintive, half peevish.
The woman came two steps further up, but still Lucy guarded her threshold.
“Hush!” she whispered hoarsely, “don’t wake the childer. If there be trouble, say so. It won’t be nothin’ new for ye to tell me my man be drunk. Ye be all on yer pleased enough to come and say so. And if the truth was known I dare say ye wouldn’t mind sayin’ as ’e’d been down with the bad girls at the ’Arbour as well,” added she recklessly. “You be all on yer glad enough to say every bit o’ ill ye can on us both. Oh, yes, I know ’ow you and Miss ’Earn lays yer ’eads together agin me,” cried she, working up her anger the better to drown her fear. “I s’pose ye think it do but serve me right if ’e should treat me bad seein’ as I made myself too cheap to ’im at first. Oh, yes, don’t mind me—say it out, do.”
She ended in a whimper, and the old woman looked helplessly back at the man who waited lower down.
“Whativer shall we do wi’ ’er?” she whispered.
Mr. Wilson moved up.
75“Look ’ere,” said he firmly, “we ain’t come to say no such things as you fancy. We means kindly by ye—we wants to ’elp ye all we can. For there be trouble, missus, and ye got to brace up to meet it.”
“Yes,” repeated the old woman, “ye’ve got to brace yerself up and keep yerself quiet, my dear.”
Lucy drew her shawl very tightly about her, and came down to them, driving them, as it were, before her.
“I don’t want no noise ’ere,” she said surlily. “Where be ’e?”
“’E be at the doctor’s,” said Wilson.
“Yes, ’e be at the master’s,” repeated the woman—“there’ve been a bit of a h’accident….”
Lucy pushed past her, and hurried round the corner and up the hill; the two had hard work to keep up with her.
“Casey be in it,” she muttered to herself. “Casey done it, I know. I’d like to be even wi’ Casey!” Then turning, she said fiercely, “Where be ’e?”
“Who?” asked Wilson.
“Casey,” said she.
“’E be … ’e be took up,” answered the man.
Her face positively shone.
“What, took by the perlice?” she cried, clutching his arm. “Will ’e go to prison?”
“Oh, yes, ’e’ll go to prison,” said the man.
“The Lord be praised!” she said, stopping dead.
76The old woman, who had been unable to keep the pace, caught them up.
“Look ’ere, ye must look sharp,” she panted, “if ye want to see ’im alive, my dear.”
“Alive? Who?” asked Lucy stupidly.
The old woman glanced at the man.
“I thought ye’d told ’er,” she said.
Lucy gazed at them.
“If ye mean as Casey ’ave killed my Jerry,” she began slowly, trembling as she spoke.
“’E ain’t dead, my dear, ’e ain’t dead yet,” faltered the old housekeeper.
Lucy began to run.
“Anyways it weren’t the blow Casey ’it ’im as done for ’im, Mrs. Wood,” panted Wilson, keeping up with her, “Nobody don’t love Casey, but ’tweren’t all ’is fault. There were a bit of a brawl—over a gal. Jerry was drunk, ’e ’it out. Then the perlice come. Somebody did say Casey split on Jerry, but if ’e did ’e be paid for it. For t’other boys ’elped Jerry off—’e was allers a favourite with ’em—and Casey, seein’ ’isself left-like, ’it out at the perlice. Nobody knows the rights o’t, but Casey be took up. So’d Jerry ha’ been if ’e ’adn’t come by that fall on the bridge. ’E was blind-drunk, and ’e missed ’is foot in the mist.”
“Casey done it,” was all Lucy said. “’Oo’s fault was it as ’e were drunk?” And she ran on.
Lights appeared faintly before her through the murky mist; they shone from the doctor’s house 77at the corner of the churchyard. The moon, piercing the clouds for a moment, threw a wan light on the square tower of the old church, on the summit of its massive buttresses, on the lopped pine-tree beyond; but it was too feeble to illumine the dank vapours that floated through the ghostly arches of the ruined transepts and rested, almost opaquely, on the tops of the time-worn tombstones in the graveyard.
There was a little knot of folk in the road hard by the surgery door; the same lads were there who had stood at the same corner in the morning, goading the wife to frenzy with their careless taunts, merrily “chaffing” the man whom they had now carried home to die: they stood aside, shamed and silent, to let the widow pass.
The doctor appeared in the doorway; he was a rough old man, and he had often roughly upbraided this woman for bringing children into the world at the risk of her life—children whom she was too frail to suckle and too poor to properly feed; but he took her kindly by the hand now.
“Come,” said he gently.
Something in his voice told her the truth: she looked at him wildly.
Yet she would not understand.
“Where be ’e? I must see ’im alone,” she said, always speaking in that hard, high voice. “We had words this mornin’ when we parted … it were that Casey’s fault … I must tell Jerry….”
78“Hush!” said the doctor, solemnly, interrupting her. “You shall see him. But you must be brave—for the sake of your children.”
“Oh, never mind the children,” cried she, half-petulantly. “I want Jerry….”
“Hush!” said the doctor again. And he led her within into the surgery where those lights were burning that she had seen through the mist as she ran—cursing Casey in her heart.
There was a deep silence for a moment, and then those without heard a great cry.
“Poor soul!” murmured the old housekeeper, wiping her eyes. “He were a bad man to ’er, God knows! But—there—she loved ’im to the last, I do b’lieve.”
A year had passed away. It was autumn again, and Lucy Wood sat out on the threshold above her brick steps and gazed down into the marsh, and across it to the distant town and harbour. Her delicately fair face was wan and shrivelled, her eyes dull and sunken, her slender form now emaciated. She had been very ill. The doctor had given her up, but he had done all he could though he guessed well enough she could never pay him, and to-day he had sent his trusty housekeeper with a bowl of her special milk-broth, and to induce her to take a breath of fresh air in the late September sunshine. For it was no stormy September this year: the marsh lay brown and 79mellow with the hips and haws red on its hedges, and the river stealing across it to the sea; and the sea was dappled with the pale purple shadows cast upon its gently heaving surface by little fleecy puffs in the serenest of skies, that was only barred by the violet horizontal clouds of fine weather across the distance.
But the fine weather brought none of its peace to the widow; the placid sunshine seemed only to make her the more gloomy, as though she were fretting to have even the mist back again on the marsh—the mist through which she had so often listened and trembled—the mist that brought her the keenest memory of the worst, yet the best, that she had ever known on earth.
Every one had said that when Lucy Wood got over the shock she would “’ave ’er ’ealth again” as she had never had it through the last five years of her wretched married life, and Miss Hearn had been “pleased to think that the misguided woman wouldn’t ’ave nothing now to take ’er off them pore children as she ’ad been so wicked as to bring into this weary world.”
But every one had been wrong.
Miss Hearn had been shocked to see that the children looked less neat than formerly, and were more rarely sent to school, and shook her curls quite viciously when she declared that she should turn the woman out after all if she didn’t pay her rent next quarter; and Miss Hearn would have 80been more bitter than ever if she had heard the whisper that ran round to the effect that poor Lucy had been known to take her drop of comfort at times when she was most low. But the kindlier neighbours kept her secret and tried to screen her. Only they shook their heads too when the scarlet fever appeared in the village, and Tom and ’Lizabeth took it, and the doctor upbraided the mother for carelessness, and perhaps they might have been more down upon her still, but that the boy died, and the mother collapsed entirely, so that there was nothing for it but to help with the other children and nurse the woman—because there was no one else to do it.
Thanks to these good folk and the handy and patient little elder daughter, Lucy was creeping slowly back to life again, but it was helplessly and unwillingly, and the doctor’s old housekeeper was trying to put a little spirit into her this pleasant autumn day.
“Why, it’s a real treat to see ye out again, my dear,” she was saying cheerily. “And ye look nicely; don’t she, Sue?” she called to the little girl who was tidying up busily within.
The child came to the door to shake a duster; her plump, rosy checks were thinner and sallower than of yore, and her round, brown eyes less bright.
“Yes,” she said, speaking cheerfully, but looking across rather doubtfully at the invalid; “mother do look a bit spryer.”
81“Why, ye’d be about agin in no time if ye’d but use a little h’effort yerself,” declared the old woman. “Doctor says so, and I’m sure ’e’d ought to know, seein’ as ’e brought ye through them h’awful times ye used to ’ave afore yer ’usbin’ was took.”
Lucy’s white face flushed as with anger.
“I didn’t ’ave no sich h’awful times as I’ve ’ad since!” she whined. “There was summit to get better for then.”
The child bit her lip and went indoors. There was silence for a moment while one could hear her clattering the irons down to the fire ready for the bit of laundry-work she was trying hard to keep pace with against the time mother should be fit to take it up again.
“Ye didn’t ought to talk so, Mrs. Wood,” said the woman. “What, ’aven’t ye got your childer?”
“What ye’ve got don’t giv ye back what ye ’aven’t got,” she said, in the same peevish tone.
“But ye ought to think o’ yer duty,” said the other.
Lucy flushed again.
“Oh, I’ve done my duty ’s well as most,” she said. “I don’t feel no call to be ’shamed. As for the gals, Sue be fit for service now, and I’ve ’eard of a place for ’er down town, and my sister ’ave promised to ’ave ’Lizabeth out to the ’Arbour till she be old enough to do for ’erself.”
“Ain’t ye afraid o’ lettin’ a gal grow up at the ’Arbour?” said the woman. “Don’t ye know what most o’ them comes to? And they do say….”
82“What do they say?” cried Lucy fiercely.
“Lor’ a mercy,” said the woman, “ye didn’t ought to catch a body up so sharp. I was only a-goin’ to say as they do say the air down by them mud-banks ain’t ’ealthy for growin’ childer.”
“Oh, was that all?” said the widow, turning her face away.
The woman beside her shook her head, and lifted her eyes as much as to say that this was altogether past her comprehension; then, presently, as though to start a new subject of conversation, she said, cheerfully:
“’Ave ye ’eard as that Jim Casey ’ave got two years this time? ’E did ought to ha’ got it long ago, but….”
She stopped suddenly, for Sue had come up behind her and was tugging at her dress and making signs to her behind the mother’s back.
At first the old woman only gaped at the child, but slowly she seemed to grasp the situation, and nodding and winking at her knowingly, finished up lamely enough with: “but there, never mind, it don’t signify.”
The sick woman turned round and saw the child.
“Ye don’t need to worry, Sue,” said she, in just the same spiritless tone as before. “I don’t take no ’eed o’ Jim Casey now. There was a time I’d ha’ been pleased to be even with ’im for a-leadin’ astray of yer pore father but, Lor’, ’tain’t no use 83now. I thought I was pleased ’e’d come to grief that night ’e done ’is worst, but, Lor’, it didn’t bring me my man back, and I don’t know now as it ’d ’elp me if Jim Casey was to swing.”
“Lor’ a mercy!” ejaculated the old woman again.
And Sue wiped away a tear with the corner of her little apron; but the mother did not heed.
“Come, there, now,” said the housekeeper, presently, “if ’ere don’t come post-mistress to cheer ye up a bit! She told me she should step up this arternoon to see ye ’bout the family’s washin’ up at the ’Ill. Old Widow Collins died last week, ye know, and she thinks she can git it for ye, may be.”
“I don’t want none o’ Miss ’Earn’s favours,” snapped Lucy. “She wouldn’t gi’ me the job when I wanted it—she can keep it now.”
“Well, I’m sure,” sighed the other. “Ye didn’t ought to be so ungrateful, ye didn’t. Anyways, ye’ll ’ave to tell her so yerself, for I’m sure I won’t.”
“Oh, I’ll tell ’er,” said Lucy.
And the old woman stood aside in the doorway as the post-mistress—the pink of respectability in rusty black—came slowly up the steps.
“Pleased to see ye yerself again,” said she, in tones that were meant to be kind.
“Thank you,” replied Lucy curtly. “I’m not sure as I know what that is.”
84Miss Hearn stared. She was forced to suppose that illness had affected Mrs. Wood’s brain, for a mere laundress could never dare be impertinent to her!
“Well, anyways on the road to work again,” said she conciliatingly. “And I’ve brought ye a nice job,” she went on, with a patronizing shake of her greasy black ringlets. “Pore old Mrs. Collins ’ave gone at last”—this with a pious closing of the lids over the little black eyes—“so I’ve asted the missus at the ‘’Ill ’ouse’ to take ye on i’stead.”
“Thank ye; I ain’t fit for no more work yet,” said the widow ungraciously.
“Nonsense!” declared the post-mistress authoritatively. “Ye’re in a good way to be better nor ever ye’ve been in yer life, ain’t she, ma’am?” turning to the old housekeeper, who still stood aside.
“The master do say she ’ave pulled through wonderful,” allowed the person addressed.
“I ain’t never goin’ to be the same no more,” declared Lucy obstinately, setting her lips tightly, and drawing her skinny little body together with her own petulant movement.
“Ye ’aven’t got no business to talk so,” persisted the post-mistress sharply. “Ye can be what you choose.”
“Well, I ain’t goin’ to be no different, then,” repeated Lucy doggedly. “And I won’t take in no more work, thank ye.”
85She tried to rise, but Miss Hearn held her with a mighty eye.
“Woman, do you know as you’re settin’ up yer ’orn against the Lord God A’mighty?” said she solemnly. “And do you know as you’ll be punished h’awful?”
“I been punished a’ready,” said Lucy.
“And if ye don’t do as ye ought by them as ye’ve brought into this sinful vale, ye’ll be punished worse,” decreed Miss Hearn.
“Them above ’as done their worst by me,” said Lucy, with a wan smile. “I don’t h’expec’ no more from them, and they don’t need to h’expec’ no more from me.”
Miss Hearn lifted her hands to heaven in silent horror.
“There, now, ye know ye care for the childer,” said the old housekeeper, from the doorway.
At the kind tones the tears sprang to Lucy’s eyes.
“There be enough for them,” she said.
“Not if ye pay yer way as ye should do,” said the post-mistress sententiously. “Folk ’as been kind cos o’ yer misfortune, but ’tain’t in reason they should keep it up. I’ve ’eard tell as ye ’an’t so much as paid for the smart funeral ye thought fit to ’ave a year ago.”
A spark of anger flew to Lucy’s weary eyes.
“Then it’s a lie!” she cried. “If I’d owed for the bread I put into the children’s mouths, I’d ha’ 86paid for that! And I don’t see what business it is o’ nobody’s neither if I chose to spend my money so as my own ’usbin’ should be nailed down in a coffin better nor some.”
She ended in a whimper, and sat shaking, the tears slowly trickling down her cheeks. But the post-mistress had no mercy. She was incensed at being thus set at naught, and put no guard on her tongue.
“Ye’ll ’ave them children on the parish,” she said, “and a disgrace to ye it’ll be! Ye ’ad wits enough and spunk enough so long as ’e was to do for! Didn’t ye wrong ’em enough whiles ’e was livin’ but what ye must wrong ’em worse now the Lord ’ave mercifully delivered ye from ’im? I’m ashamed of ye, Lucy Wood! And all for the sake o’ a drunken blackguard as couldn’t so much as keep ’isself to ye!”
Lucy had said she would never be the woman she was; but in a moment all her old energy returned to her.
“What d’ye mean?” she said.
“Well, if ye don’t know ye’d p’ra’ps best should,” said the post-mistress, half ashamed yet determined to have her say. “I mean as yer man….”
But she stepped aside hurriedly, for Lucy had risen tottering to her feet, and stood pointing to the road.
“Get out o’ ’ere!” interrupted she fiercely, her whole little body trembling with rage. “I know 87well enough what ye mean! But if ye dare so much as breathe a word agin my man in my ’ouse, I’ll knock ye down them stairs.”
All Miss Hearn’s elderly blood flew in a purple flood to her face.
“Hush, for mercy’s sake, ye don’t know what ye’re sayin’,” cried the old housekeeper in a frightened whisper.
“Yes, I do,” she said, quietly now. “Sue”—seeing the child standing in the doorway with a white and terrified face—“Sue, don’t be frightened, but come ’ere. We ain’t a-goin’ to ’ave father made light of, be we? Miss ’Earn says I ought sooner to ha’ schooled you and ’Lizbeth than ’ave bought yer father a decent coffin. But ye ain’t o’ that mind, I know!”
The child had come out on to the little terrace.
“No, mother,” said she valiantly, though in a low voice.
Lucy drew the girl to her and put her arm round her waist.
“We’ll stand up agin’ ’em when they take to makin’ light o’ yer father, anyways,” panted she, as she watched Miss Hearn pound down the stairs, muttering as she went. “And I’d take it very kindly o’ you if you’d see as the neighbours ’ears o’ this and understands my meanin’,” she added faintly, turning to the other old woman as she sank exhausted back into her chair.
“Yes, yes, don’t you worry now,” said the latter, 88sorely perplexed and scared as she tried to soothe her. “They’ll ’ear it all fast enough.”
“Sue be a good girl,” added the mother, patting the child feebly. “I ain’t long for this world, but so long as I’m ’ere they sha’n’t speak ill o’ my Jerry when I’m by, and Sue’ll stand by me in that.”
“Nobody won’t do it agin,” said the old woman. And then to the girl in an undertone: “Get ’er to bed, dear. I’ll run and tell the doctor. I’m afeard she might ha’ done ’erself a mischief.”
And she too stumped down the broken steps.
“I know I ’aven’t done the best for you and the little ’uns since father went,” whimpered the mother. “But father were allers fust, and I never couldn’t do nothin’ when ’e weren’t by. Ye’ll forgive me for it, Sue, and p’r’aps God will too.”
The child did not answer for a moment. Then she said simply:
“O’ course father were allers fust.”
And wearily the mother repeated:
“Yes, father were allers fust.”
HIS LITTLE MAID
The waning of the hot midsummer day spread its mellow sunlight and its long shadows across the marsh-land beside the sea. The haymakers had been busy since daybreak; men, women and children labouring through the hot hours, when the whole level was one scarcely varied monotony of golden haze on soft-green meadows and pastures that grew yellower as they neared the yellow beach; when the sun caked the pale brown earth in the furrows between the crops and drew faint odours from the rush-grown banks of the dykes where the moor-hen hid and the yellow iris bloomed; when the blue waves sparkled, and the shots and shades of the shallows purpled beneath the sun shining on the sea, and brought the only sense of freshness that came to the sun-steeped plain.
But now slender amethyst clouds barred the horizon and shed parallel shadows where the sky and sea melted together; the long line of white foreland to left grew clearer beneath the 92slanting rays; the sun was near to setting and the labourers were near to their rest.
Tom Wycombe stood beside the last waggon upon which he had just helped to hoist the last load of hay.
It was not his own land, though he had his bit up on the hill behind the old gateway of the ancient town. But he had given his day’s work to a farmer, as many another neighbour had done likewise.
He was a man somewhere near fifty on its wrong side, square and fair and rough-visaged, but the neighbours said kind of heart though sparing of speech.
But then he was a widower, and it was said he had never been the same man since he had become so, saving all his words and all his gentleness for his little mite of a motherless daughter—all the kin that he had.
As he stood now, wiping his brow with his hand, he glanced about him as though seeking something, and a woman guessing his mind, answered the unasked question,
“She be down by the river,” she said, “with farmer Daring’s lad.”
The man looked uneasy.
“Ain’t no one looking after ’em?” asked he.
The woman smiled.
“Ye be over timid about that child, Mr. Wycombe,” she said. “Ye cosset ’er more than her 93mother would ha’ done. And ye didn’t ought to, ye know. You’ll make ’er that tender and fearsome, she won’t be fit to stand up to the world.”
The man did not reply; he turned away to give a last hoist to the hay as the waggon moved off. He was used to these remarks from kindly busy-bodies, and he never paid more than scant attention to them, but went his own way as he listed.
“’E be downright silly over ’er, that’s what ’e be,” declared the woman confidentially to a girl who had been working beside her.
“Be ’e ’er dad?” asked the girl, who was a stranger in the parish.
The woman laughed.
“What makes ye ask that?” said she.
“Well,” said the girl, “’e looks old to be ’er dad. I thought ’e might be ’er gran-dad.”
“Oh, I see,” said the woman. “No, he ain’t ’er gran-dad.”
“Married a bit on in life p’r’aps,” said the other, tying the strings of her sun-bonnet and speaking without any particular interest.
“That’s it,” assented the woman, “and more fool ’e. ’E would ’ave a young wife, and a pretty ’un too—and ’e turned forty.”
“Well, small blame to ’im there,” laughed the girl. “And so long as she were pleased….”
“She!” sneered the woman. “Why ’e was rich, and he married nothin’ but a shrimper’s darter down at the Harbour! ’Er face was ’er fortune if 94ever one was, for she ’adn’t a brass farthing beside.”
They had gathered their rakes and forks together, and were making their way across a little dyke into the road that wound across the marsh-land to the village on the hill.
“Then the little ’un be like her mother,” said the younger woman. “She don’t favour ’er father any way.”
“She be more like ’er mother than she be like Tom Wycombe, sartin sure,” laughed the woman. “But that ain’t saying much. ’Er mother were darker in the skin nor she be.”
“But they say she were rare ’andsome,” said the girl. “And now she’s dead and buried, and ’im alone!”
“Yes, died in childbed, and ’im alone this four years and more to mind that child. That’s what comes o’ marryin’,” said the woman, who was a spinster.
“Pore soul!” murmured the girl feelingly, thinking of her own pretty face and the pretty face that was underground. And added with keener interest: “But ’e doated on er, o’ course.”
“Doated on ’er? I b’lieve ye,” sniggered the elder. “’E was a fool over ’er, and she knew it.”
“That’s why ’e be so soft on the little ’un, you bet,” declared the girl wisely.
“That’s as may be,” said the woman. “’E’s mothered and fathered ’er ever since she was born, 95at any rate. And that set on his own way with ’er too, ye wouldn’t believe! Won’t never take no advice from nobody. And she’ll get the top ’and of ’im—same as ’er mother did! See if she don’t! ’E be a downright ninny over ’er.”
The man strode past as she spoke, and Mrs. Goodenough gave a start.
“Eavesdroppers don’t never ’ear no good o’ themselves,” remarked she sententiously.
But Tom Wycombe had heeded neither the first nor the last remark.
His work was done and he was hastening to his child; he neither cared for nor noticed any one else.
The sun, when it set, shed just as warm a glow over his heart as it did over the marsh-land, though he did not put two and two together about it. From the village on the hill, the flaming sky that reddened behind the solemn buttresses of the ancient church, sent soft and palpitating reflections over the quiet land that lay stretched below; and the tender radiance reached to his patient spirit also. For he too had waited through the hot hours for this blessed eventide that lay so calm and peaceful a touch upon the seething earth, and the red in the west was the signal for his rest and for his reward.
He hastened towards the one thing in the world that he loved—glad, eager, and a little anxious as he always was when his little maid was, even a stone’s throw, away from him.
96And as he drew near to the river-bank where he had been told that she was playing, his vague uneasiness began to take a sort of shape. For there was a little knot of children gathered there—and they were not noisily fighting or playing—but standing huddled together gazing into the water, and two of them, who were girls, were crying, and one, who was a boy, was stripping off his little jacket.
Wycombe dashed forward—throwing his harvesting tools on the ground as he ran, and pulling off his coat.
The children parted as they saw him, speechless with terror; their silence told him the truth, but he needed no telling—he had known it was his Daisy who was in the water.
“Where?” was all he said, breathless.
“There, under the bridge,” cried a lad, pointing.
It was an awkward spot; he plunged and dived once, without success. But the second time the little petticoats bubbled up before his eyes: he seized them and scrambled up the bank with her, a little, inert mass under his arm.
Mrs. Goodenough and the girl who was a stranger, had come running up, and other neighbours followed.
“’Ot blankets and ’ot water to ’er feet,” said one; “and a drop o’ spirit in ’er inside be the thing,” suggested another; and a third, more practical, ran 97up the steep bank towards the village, saying she would fetch the doctor and get things ready in the cottage agin’ Mr. Wycombe carried her up.
He had thrown himself upon the little body, breathing into it with all his might, though with little knowledge of how to effect restoration.
But luckily the little one had been in the water but a moment, and she was strong and lusty. In a few minutes she began to stir, then to open her eyes, and then to cry, and at that the man seized her in his arms and pressed her to his warm heart, and, waving the curious and sympathizing little crowd aside, leapt to his feet and strode up the hill with her on his neck.
It was late. The afterglow had died away, leaving no more than a warm memory in the softer blue of the night sky, and a subtle sense of colour that had been, in the fast darkening marsh-land where faint vapours and floating mists were rising upon the dykes.
The doctor had been and gone, the neighbours had been cleared out ruthlessly, and Tom Wycombe sat content once more beside the calmly sleeping child. Her pretty rings of soft brown hair lay curling over the white pillow, or creeping against her rich little sunburnt face, where even now the fresh red colour glowed so warm and healthfully. Ruddy lips were parted by a gentle breathing, and heavy lids with long lashes veiled eyes that even 98Tom Wycombe, who was no poet, could have told were blue in the waking as the blue sea beyond the green marsh-land.
Every one said that Daisy was the prettiest child in the village as her mother had been its handsomest woman, in her different style.
Well enough had Tom Wycombe been aware of this latter fact, and surprised enough, too, that Milly Moss had agreed to take him for a mate—older than she and plain as he was—when there were so many lads sighing around her. Twice he had asked and twice had been refused, but the third time she had consented, and he had asked himself no questions of why or wherefore, but had simply rejoiced in his luck. And she had been a good wife: a bit quiet—as, indeed, she had always been with him, even before marriage—but always dutiful, and he loved her as the working man is not always inspired to love his wife, and did all in his power to make up to her for the one disappointment of those happy years of wedded life—the disappointment of childlessness.
Then at last a little one had come to them, and with her coming the mother had died.
At first he had scarce wished for the sight of the child who had cost him his wife; but as that feeling slowly faded, it gave place to just as ardent a worship of the babe who was wife and daughter in one to him, and he adored her blindly as he had adored the mother, and lived for nothing else.
99She stirred now, and he sprang to her side.
One dimpled brown arm was flung over the white coverlet and the other fat hand pushed the golden-brown curls off the forehead. Then those blue eyes—blue as speedwells in the spring hedges—opened wide, and when they lighted on him the red mouth smiled.
“Dad—I be too ’ot,” said she.
“’Ot,” echoed he, alarmed, feeling her brow as the most careful mother would have done. “May be ye’ve too many bed-clothes on. Ye see, ye was cold when we put ye to bed.”
And he pulled the padded quilt off her.
“Yes,” said she, “I know, ’cos I tummled into the river. It was cold. ’Oo pulled me out, Dad?”
“Why, I did, o’ course,” replied the man jealously. “’Oo else should? But little girls mustn’t run away from their Daddies so far another time and get playin’ by nasty rivers.”
“Tain’t a nasty river,” said the child, “I like it. But I won’t go tummling in no more, Dad. ’Cos it frights ye, don’t it?”
“It do!” agreed the man fervently.
“And I might ha’ been drownded dead, I might,” added Daisy with impressiveness, though of course without any understanding of the words which she repeated merely as she had heard them from his lips when enjoining caution upon her. “And then what would my poor old Dad ha’ done, wivout ’is little maid?”
100“Whativer would he?” repeated Wycombe with a shudder, realizing the terror in quite a different manner! And he sighed so deeply and looked so scared that she was frightened too.
“But I bain’t goin’ away now, be I, Dad?” asked she, sitting up in bed, uneasiness in the blue eyes.
Then he smiled, and folding her in his rough arms kissed her passionately.
“No, darlin’, please God ye won’t never go away from your old Dad—not so long as ’e be above ground,” added he, beneath his breath.
She flung her little arms round his neck and hugged him, and after a few minutes, still softly kissing her, he said: “And now Daisy must kneel up like a good girl and say ’er prayers ’cos she was too cold to say ’em when she went to bed, and she’s got to thank God for sparin’ of ’er to ’er old Dad.”
And the little creature turned round dutifully and knelt, in her coarse white night-dress, upon the little white bed, with her curly head dusky in the twilight and her innocent face—tuned to momentary seriousness—clear against the solemn blue of the night sky behind the window-pane, and thanked God, as she was bid, for sparing her to her dear Dad.
Then with a little laugh of satisfaction at a duty performed, and sleep weighing the long lashes down once more, she turned and let him tuck her up again in the cot, and nestled down as before into her pillow.
101He watched her till she had dropped to sleep, and then he went out to smoke his evening pipe on the bench beside the garden door. And as he looked through the warm dusk across the warm plain to the sea, he kept repeating to himself the words: “Thank God for sparin’ ’er to ’er old Dad!” And his rugged, emotionless face was tender and solemn as he said them, and there were tears in his eyes, but he brushed them hurriedly away with his coat-sleeve as a knock sounded on the outer door. The cottage looked to the sea, and its pretty garden overhung the cliff above the wide marsh-land, but one door opened on to the road opposite the ancient Abbey Church, whence the quavering clock was even now striking its nine slow strokes. It was too late for a visitor, in all conscience, and Tom Wycombe saw no reason why he should say “Come in.” He did not say it, but the latch was lifted nevertheless, and Mrs. Goodenough stepped warily into the cottage.
“And ’ow be our pretty little pet now?” said she, stealing up to the cot in spite of the fact that Wycombe stood forbiddingly in front of it, trying to bar the way. “Why, she looks as sound as a bell and as sweet as clover,” added she, turning down the coverlet to peep at the child. “But ye didn’t ought to keep ’er so ’ot, Mr. Wycombe. ’Tain’t ’olesome for children.” And she drew off a blanket as she spoke.
A spasm of anger flew to the man’s heart.
102“Thank ye,” said he shortly, replacing the covering, “but I’ll manage my own child my own way, if you please. And I’ll thank you not to interfere.”
Mrs. Goodenough flushed.
“Oh, very well,” said she. “Then it weren’t no sort o’ good my turnin’ out at this time ’o night. I thought as you might need a woman to make that poultice as I ’eard the doctor order for ’er chest if she should cough.”
“No, thank ye,” said he in the same tone. “I can make a poultice as well as most. But Daisy ain’t coughed once, and she don’t fancy poultices.”
“Oh, and she ain’t never to ’ave nothin’ as she don’t fancy, o’ course!” sneered the woman. “Ye’d best bring ’er up a borned lady! She won’t never ’ave no cause to ’ide ’er ’ead and be thankful for what she can get—no, not she, I s’pose!”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said the man. “She’ll ’ave what I can give ’er so long as I be above ground. It’d be queer if she didn’t and she my only one.”
“Yes, but ye won’t be above ground for ever, Tom Wycombe. Ye be old—and she but a mite. And then what’ll she do? Folk may look askance at her then as don’t now, mind ye! A pretty piece o’ goods you’re a-makin’ of ’er to stand what she’ll ’ave to stand!”
“What’ll she ’ave to stand?” asked Wycombe, suspicious, though he knew not of what.
103“Well, I’ve give ye warnin’s enough,” began the busybody evasively, drawing her shawl pettishly around her preparatory to departure; but the man interrupted her with a muttered oath.
“Yes, warnin’s enough and to spare, thank ye,” said he. “Daisy’s to my likin’, and I don’t care to ’oo’s else’s she be or no! She be my child, and I’ll bring ’er up as I please and be damned to them as don’t approve.”
Mrs. Goodenough flushed. She was wont to be thought an oracle upon all subjects connected with children, because she had, in her youth, been a nurse for a year or so; and she had vowed in the village that she would make Tom Wycombe hear reason about this brat.
She had vowed it, and instead of that, she was being sworn at for her pains; it was too much.
She flushed, and her anger bubbled.
“For shame on ye, then, Tom Wycombe, for a godless ungrateful wretch!” shrieked she. “Oh, ye’ve ’ad warnin’s enough, ’ave ye! Well, ye shall jist ’ave this one afore I’ve done wi’ ye! She be yer own child, be she? Just you make quite sure o’ that afore ye swear at yer old friends, a-worritin’ as to ’ow ye shall bring ’er up!”
Her anger had bubbled and boiled over; it would not go down all at once, though she was frightened at the effect of her words.
For Wycombe had turned not white but blue: 104his features twitched, his lips trembled, but no words came from them.
“If it weren’t as I ha’ knowed ye this twenty year, and closed yer pore mother’s eyes for ye fifteen year ago come Martinmas, and was with that pore wife o’ yours in ’er trouble, I’d ha’ spoke long ago, I would,” said the woman, as though trying to find good reason and excuse for her hastiness. “I allers said as ye did ought to know and you wastin’ yerself on that brat! And them’s my feelin’s.”
Tom Wycombe found his voice.
“Well, I never!” retorted the woman, but she turned a bit pale.
“Get o’ my ’ouse,” panted the man again, “and don’t dare come to me with no more cowardly lies!”
At the word the flush flew back to her cheek.
“Lies!” shrieked she. “Ask the neighbours, ask the ’ole parish, ask the parson if it be a lie as this ’ere brat be Ben Forester’s!”
A shudder ran through him: she noticed it.
“But, Lord love ye,” she said with a brutal laugh, “you know well enough ’tain’t no lies! A blind bat ye was, I know, and so terrible sot on that woman, ye was the very one to be made a ninny on. But the wind do blow, and when smoke flies in yer face ye be bound to wonder 105where the fire be! You knowed they was old sweet’earts same as others did! Why didn’t ye see to it as they shouldn’t ’ave a chance to get so chummy? Pore soul, she weren’t all bad-like, p’r’aps! It were kind of agin ’er will. I was sorry for ’er, I was, when she took to pinin’ wus ’n ever as soon as ’e were gone to sea, and she in the family way! Why, the little un’ was born afore ’er time, if ye mind, the very night the Mary Jane went down with all ’ands. And as like that pore lad as two peas, it were, when I first dressed it! Why, you won’t go for to say Daisy be like you, I reckon! Nor yet like ’er mother, seein’ as yer wife was black-eyed as a gipsy. But there be none so blind as them as won’t see!”
Mrs. Goodenough had moved towards the door as she finished this speech, her back half turned towards the man, who was standing by the fender. She laughed again as she spoke the last words, the flush of anger still on her cheek.
But it paled once more as she turned to him for a last thrust.
He had stooped and had taken up the poker that lay at his feet: his face was horrible to behold. Wycombe had the name of a kindly man in deed, though surly and chary of speech; everybody said he had spoiled his wife, and was gentle to every woman for her sake; but Mrs. Goodenough opened his door and fled from him that night.
Tom Wycombe heaved a deep sigh.
106That awful peevish, maddening voice rambling on, like cinders dropping on a wound, had nearly driven him crazy. If she had not gone away he would have hunted her forth with blows. He had never beaten a woman in his life—he had never raised his hand on a man—but he knew that he must have fallen upon that woman now.
Slowly—for he was cold and stiff though it was a June night—he dragged himself to the door and locked and bolted it. Then he went to the recess in which stood the child’s cot, and drew the curtains in front of it—curtains which he had put up with his own hand to keep her tiny chamber sacred, and to shield her tender little head from the night draughts.
After he had done that, he let himself drop wearily into his old chair by the empty hearth, and sat gazing vacantly into the dead embers. He could not think—he was stunned; only he felt old for the first time—very old, older than his fifty odd years.
Without, the summer night had, for a short space, dropped the whole cloak of its darkness upon the wide plain. Unconsciously, he was glad of it: glad that the moon was hidden behind a deep bank of cloud that had overlapped the horizon and was gradually creeping up the sky: glad that, as he looked through the door, left open because of the heat, he could scarcely make out the cabbages and sweet-peas in his terrace garden: glad that the 107darkness covered him—that the earth could not see his misery.
He sat, stupid, almost senselessly stupid, not trying to realize his woe. But gradually the blood flowed back to his brain, and with it the power of thought came to him; the woman’s words, though he had scarcely been conscious of them all at the time, came dropping back into his recollection, and, with the remembrance of each careless thrust, the tide of his conviction slowly but surely gathered strength till it flooded his reason and rushed in at last and swamped his soul in terrible certainty.
He had told the woman to get out of his house, he had longed to kill her for what she had said—but it was not because he had not believed her.
Alas! if he had not believed her perhaps he could have done it! But from the first word that she had spoken an awful fore-knowledge that he should have to come to believe her had been borne in upon him.
Yes, Ben Forester, the good-looking, easy-going, pleasant-spoken sailor-lad whom his wife had known all her life down at the Harbour, who had been away at sea when he had wooed her—but who had come back—who had come back!
But why, if she loved Ben, had she married him? The answer was easy enough. She had a brute of a drunken father, and neither kith nor kin beside. Her only chance of escape from a life of slavery, spiced with blows, was marriage, and—fancied 108as she had been by many—he was the only one who had offered her that. Ben was a rolling stone that gathered no moss, and he was sure enough Ben had never offered her marriage. Why, yes, she had told him the very day he asked her last, that his was the only offer she had had!
He could hear her now, aye, and see her too! There—down on the beach, on a warm October night with the after-glow, still a fire in the west, casting rosy reflections over the sea, and the harvest moon rising red behind the hill.
Why had he been so eager to get her that he had never noticed how listless she was—how gently anxious to withdraw from his kiss? He called it all to mind now…. If Ben had not been away at sea—even then … but he would have hated him a little sooner, that is all, and he would not have had those five years.
It was no use hating him now, he was dead. And Milly was dead and could never tell the truth….
Never tell the truth? Why, she had told it! In a flash there rose up before him the scene of her death-bed—the moment that he had thought till then was the bitterest that life could bring to him.
“Ye won’t ’ate ’er, Tom! Ye won’t never visit it on ’er, come what may! Oh, do promise me that!” she had cried. “’Tain’t ’er fault, no ways, Tom!”
109And he had promised, not knowing what he promised. She had been weak, delirious, he had thought, and he had supposed she had meant that he was not to hate the child for being the cause of the wife’s death.
He remembered to have said in his haste that he should so hate the little one, little guessing how it might … how it might come true!
Yes, he remembered that he had said: “I couldn’t never forgive ’er, Milly, if ye was to die and leave me ’cos of ’er.”
And then she had said what she had said.
But of course he knew now what she had meant by her passionate prayer! And he had promised that which he could not perform!
The little one moved and moaned in her sleep. He started instinctively towards her, the long habit of five years compelling; then remembrance rushed upon him and choked him, and he sat down again, moaning himself. Ah, could it be that those idle words of his were going to come true under this different stress—that he was going to hate her—his little maid whom he had reared and nursed as a mother nurses her first-born? Had he indeed blindly promised that which he could not perform?
Remembrance rushed in upon him.
Now that the veil was lifted the past lay vivid and hard before him, as the familiar marsh-land would lie to-morrow morning, when the kindly night had lifted her cloak and the whole world 110would smile, bright and garish, with never a covered place, with never a secret, and different, different from yesterday!
It had been a good world on the whole till now, but now he was fain to say in his haste that it had never been good! For he remembered that Milly had never had any happiness in it save that which she had had apart from him; he remembered that her sunniest days had been those when the Mary Jane was in port, and she had asked leave to walk down to the harbour to see her father; or when Ben Forester had come up to the village—never, as he recollected, consenting to come in to the cottage—but certainly, oh, most certainly wandering with her along the quiet lanes, or upon the lonely downs while he was at work.
Why remember any more? Why torture himself with further proof? He was quite soundly enough convinced. He saw that he ought to have guessed it long ago. He scarcely even blamed them—they were dead. He blamed himself: himself for having so often asked her to have him; himself for not guessing; himself for having been a fool, and for having been old. Yes, there had been the mischief—he had been too old to understand, and it was hard he had not been too old to love.
His anger was slowly dying out, but with the fire of his wrath was dying also the fire of his life.
He felt very old.
111Milly had been taken from him, but Daisy had been left, and she had made life new for him—she had made him young. But Milly had gone from him afresh to-day, and she had taken Daisy away with her. There was no one left to him, and he knew that he was too old ever to begin caring for anything again—ever to make another clutch at life in its fulness.
His appointed days he would have to run, and to that end he must needs work that he might eat; but the savour of work was gone, for the savour of life was gone—with his child.
He sat there beside the dead hearth and faced it all out, while the cool dawn crept slowly into the sky behind the downs, first putting out the stars in the blue-black heaven, then softly washing it with faintest grey, then slowly streaking it and flushing it with violet and with rose and with gold.
Rising out of the plain, a red-roofed town caught the first of the morning light, its buildings clustered thick on a steep hill crowned by an ancient church that was pinnacled upon its summit, its feet girdled by the pale purple mists of the marsh which the sun would soon pierce and disperse.
Many a time had he seen that crown take the earliest wave of the morning as though it were the first thing that the new day looked at, but he had never noticed it before as he noticed it now, remembering that it was in that very church he had wed his wife; in that same town he had been wont 112to take his little maid to buy her new shoes, or the stuff for her best frocks.
But the dawn was waxing into daybreak; the clouds had vanished with the night; the town was reddening, the marsh was yellowing, the river was pearling silver-white: the sun rose.
The world was bright and light as he had foreseen it: full of hope, full of work, full also of prying curiosity and eager, cruel cheerfulness.
The day was here, darker for him now than the night—and he knew that he must face it.
He went to the little recess behind which was the child’s cot and drew aside the curtains.
She was sleeping still, and there was a little flush on her cheek that would have troubled him at any other moment. But as he looked he saw her with fresh eyes—he saw the round face, the dimple in the chin, the clear skin, the golden-brown curly hair, and even the eyes that, when open, were as veronicas in the sunshine: the skin, the eyes, the hair, and the dimple of Ben Forester. Yes, he saw it all now in one complete picture. His wife had been oval-faced, ox-eyed, sallow-hued—and he—he was but a sandy nondescript. He saw it—and one last great wave of hate swept over his heart. In the little person of the child he saw Ben Forester before him, and the morning sky swam red in his sight.
Daisy awoke. Daddie had forgotten to draw 113the chintz curtain that shaded the little window opposite to her bed, and the first sunbeam shot straight at her eyes and lifted the curtains there and shone into the blue depths beneath.
She stirred, rubbing the eyes with her chubby fists, then she called out “Dad!”
She did not generally need to call at all, but this morning she called twice—then a third time, lustily; then she sat up in her cot and looked round, and seeing the room empty she began to cry.
Still Dad did not come to his little maid—to his little maid who had unconsciously learnt to think that to cry was the safe way to get everything she wanted.
The garden door stood open; the scent of the morning dew on the earth came stealing in with here and there a whiff from the sweet-pea hedge beyond the path; the sun was slanting across the threshold, and had almost reached her bed. She slipped down and ran to the door with her feet bare; she knew that she should get a scolding for that, but she was frightened, and she risked it.
What she saw when she got to the threshold did not stop her tears.
The June lilies were a-bloom against the grey wall at the garden’s edge; the wall was low and the lilies were higher—they stood white and tall against the green marsh and the blue sea in the distance.
114In front of the lilies on the grass plot Daddie knelt on the ground with his head bowed down on the garden wall. She was too little to be definitely alarmed, but she was vaguely frightened, and she cried louder than ever.
Then as he did not immediately respond she gathered her little night-dress about her and trotted across the wet turf towards him.
“Daddie, Daddie!” cried she, shaking him, “I wants to get up; I wants my breakfast!”
A shiver ran through him; then slowly he pulled himself up by the wall and sat on it as though he were afraid to stand on his feet; he passed his hand across his face and through his hair: Daisy thought his face looked very funny.
She stopped crying, but fright was still in the blue eyes as she gazed at him with her finger in her mouth. Instinctively she felt that something was amiss.
“Has ’oo been to bed in the garden?” she asked in a puzzled way—“be ’oo very sleepy and cold like me was when me tummled into the river?”
He nodded his head.
“Be ’oo still frightened ’cos me tummled in? She won’t never go for to do it again. ’Cos whatever would ’oo do wivout me?” said she, trying to console. But he only groaned, and she was sore puzzled.
Then his eyes fell on her little night-dress 115and on her bare, brown feet, and automatically he said what he would have said on any other occasion:
“Ye didn’t ought to ha’ come out with no frock and no shoes and stockings on,” said he. “Run in directly, like a good girl.”
He spoke in a low, dull voice; but she was reassured at getting the expected scolding, and stopped the whimper that she was about to start upon afresh.
“Ain’t ye comin’?” said she. “I want my breakfast.”
“Well, run in and get dressed, and I’ll get it for ye,” said he.
She looked at him again, still a little puzzled that he did not kiss her, that he did not hasten to do all her bidding, but on the whole consoled, since things seemed to be resuming their ordinary routine of getting dressed and having breakfast.
So she took her finger out of her mouth and gathered up her night-dress again and ran back through the morning dew.
On the threshold she turned to see if he were coming; the sun shone on her golden head and into her blue eyes; her little robe gleamed white in it, but on her creamy cheeks was the flush of recent sleep: she was like the morning dew herself—and like the spring-time.
He gazed at her fascinated—but he gazed as one who looks through a heavy mist into a great 116distance; he gazed at her as though she were already only a memory.
Not an hour afterwards he was leading her out into the distance himself. No soul had been stirring in the village as the two had passed through the silent little street and under the old gateway, down the hill.
Alone and unnoticed they took their way across the wide marsh that glistened with the sunlight on the mists of the night; she was prattling gaily—the “long journey” on which he had told her they were going, was a great treat, and so was the wearing of her best blue frock on a week-day: but his face was heavy, and he did not look at her.
Daisy jumped along at his side; her saucy chatter which had called many a smile to the dull face where others rarely saw anything but gloom—woke never a ghost of one to-day.
But she was too much excited to notice that.
“Be we goin’ to buy a new frock?” she cried in high glee as they neared the town on the marsh. “It were a good job it were the old one as I messed when I tummled into the river, weren’t it, Dad? And it were a good job I weren’t drownded, weren’t it?” she added, loth to leave a subject which she felt invested her with an additional importance.
He groaned, but she was too much pre-occupied to hear it.
“We’ll ’ave a pink frock, this time, won’t we, 117Dad? ’cos it were such a good job I didn’t get drownded,” she insisted. “You said we wouldn’t ’ave blue again, and I want pink, so I will ’ave it, won’t I?” And she kept on repeating “won’t I?” until he was forced to reply.
But he only said: “We ain’t goin’ to buy no frocks to-day.” And as he said it he struck off towards the lower road that skirted the base of the hill.
“But I’d rather see the shops, Daddie,” declared she. And as he took no notice, she added fretfully: “’Tain’t the right way to the sweet shop—no ’tain’t.”
It was the first time he had ever refused her an innocent wish; his heart tightened as he answered:
“We ain’t got no time to buy sweets to-day. We’se got a long way to go. Ye must come along like a good girl, and maybe ye shall ’ave some sweets another time.”
“Does ’oo promise?” said she authoritatively.
And with the tightening at his heart again, he said: “I promise!”
They struck out again on to the sun-scorched marsh-land beyond the town. She was a sunny-souled babe, and she was reconciled, but as the heat began to pour down on them, she began to flag.
“Where be we goin’, Daddie?” she would ask. “To the se’side? I ain’t never been to this se’side before. Be it a far beach?”
118“Yes,” he would answer, “it be a very far beach.”
Then, presently: “Ain’t we goin’ to ’ave no dinner, Dad? I’d rather go ’ome. I be tired.”
“Soon,” he would reply; but the complaints multiplied.
“I don’t want to go no further,” was the next. “Daddy carry Daisy on his back!”
At first he had tried to be deaf to this last request; he had a vague feeling that he dared not take her in his arms.
But the old habit of the past five years was upon him still. He could not endure that the little footsteps should lag painfully, and that the little voice that had been so dear to him should plead in vain.
“Daddie, Daddie,” it cried, “don’t ye ’ear?”
He heard, he heard well enough!
A sob rose in his throat, and he turned away that the child might not see tears on his old cheeks. But he stooped down and lifted her on to his back. And then he could hear her laugh for contentment, and could feel her nestle her head down against his, as she slowly dropped to sleep.
A farmer, driving across that distant marsh-land, met them thus. Months afterwards he told it in the village on the hill.
Two months and more had passed by: where 119the plain had been at its greenest against a sea—blue beneath the hot sun and east winds of spring—it was golden now with the gold of the harvesting, and brown with the seeds of many grasses that nodded heavy heads in the western breezes.
The cottage on the cliff was sad and quiet.
For the best part of a week after that memorable evening when little Daisy had fallen into the river—it had remained absolutely silent: no smoke had ascended heavenward from its old brick chimney, no voice, either sober or merry, had been heard from out its latticed windows or its orchard-garden.
To the dismay of the neighbours and most of all to the maker of the whole mischief, Tom Wycombe’s house was bolted and barred, and when “the perlice” in the person of one man who had overlooked the village morality for many years, considered it its duty to scale the garden wall and investigate the premises—it was found to be swept and garnished, but deserted.
Men had gathered outside the inn above the old Church Square, or under the public shed that overlooked the marsh and—between the puffs of an evening pipe—had declared it to be their solemn opinion that the “pore old chap had ’eard somethin’ at last,” though who had been “so blackguardly as tell ’im and them two dead and buried,” they couldn’t think, and would dearly have liked to know.
120The women whispering across the counter to the old post-mistress, who always knew everything, had their suspicions.
They had them, and they aired them, but they got no satisfaction. For Mrs. Goodenough herself was too frightened to be indiscreet, and Tom Wycombe—when he returned—kept his own counsel. For he did return, to the relief of all, but he returned alone—a changed and aged man—and he kept his own counsel in solitude.
To the kindly inquiries of timid neighbours, he answered civilly but very curtly that “Daisy was livin’ at the sea for the sake of ’er ’ealth.”
The reply eased the minds of those who had loved the little one, but it had not deceived them. For the child had always been perfectly strong, and if she had not been, Wycombe would have been less than ever likely to part from her.
Less than ever likely unless something had happened to change his blind devotion to her, and that that something had happened, no one had any doubt, but everybody pitifully respected his silence and left him alone in his wretchedness.
And thus the weeks wore away till the harvest had ripened and been gathered in.
“Oo’d ha’ thought he’d ha been so old,” said the neighbours, watching him totter back from the village well, with his two pails of water hanging on hooks from a bar of wood across his shoulders. “’E seemed a likely man too, when ’e married the 121girl, but folk didn’t ought to wed where there’s such a breach in years.”
“Ah, ’e feels that now,” said an old man wisely. “And yet it seems a pity ’e couldn’t ha’ kep’ the comfort o’ the little ’un. It wern’t ’er fault no ways, and it do seem rough on a child too.”
Was that what he was beginning to think himself also?
When their backs were all turned, and they had gone back to their work or their pleasure, to friends or to home; when the door was safely shut behind him and he was alone once more with the lonely, silent plain—the distant, murmuring sea—his face let go of that cruel hold on secrecy, he dared to think of his pain—to tell it—to himself and to the land that was his most familiar friend.
For his pain was there, it never left him. Only from having been a furious beast, flying at his throat, it had become merely a constant and wearisome companion, who would leave him no peace even in his loneliness—a persistent aching—a weary, weary longing.
Yes, that was it: a weary, weary longing—a longing for the little duties that used to need fitting in to his rougher man’s work, the care of a tender little body, the care of a sunny little soul, the daily anxieties and the hourly joys, the rare punishments, the frequent rewards, the mischief, and the noise and the laughter—the endless vitality of the day and the deep and tender rest of even.
122Where were they all?
To use her own little phrase—the phrase that came back to him at every turn—“all gone—all gone!”
The words echoed through his brain most days, but, when the bells of which the parish was so proud pealed on Sundays, and he closed his door and sat by his lonely hearth, instead of leading her forth to church in her best as he had been wont to do—then they fairly maddened him.
For the first chime of seven bells would seem to ring out other words that were almost as often in his mind; those last appealing words of his poor erring wife, that he so little understood at the time: “It ain’t ’er fault no ways, Tom!” and then the last short bell would say over and over again: “All gone, all gone!” until he could have sworn at it to bid it stop.
But it never stopped; it went on in his head all the time.
And the long summer was at an end, and was fading into the sad autumn, and after autumn would come the long winter.
He used to sit upon the wooden bench outside the door into his garden and smoke his pipe when his work was done, and watch the autumn come.
He would have no woman about the house now; he would do everything for himself—so that he was alone,—always alone, for never a neighbour was admitted even if one dared to intrude,—and 123for the most part they all let him be. The hollyhocks still stood tall and quiet, with their black and crimson tufts against the grey stone of his outer wall, and the sunflowers bowed heavy heads to the setting sun where the white lilies had bloomed against its rising one day in summer.
He sat there every evening and remembered it, but one evening in particular he wished the autumn flowers away more regretfully than usual, and wondered what he would do if the June lilies were blooming there once more, and he had that to fight and that to do again which he had fought and had done that day.
He always thanked his God who had numbed his arm and his senses—thanked Him whenever the memory of that one moment forced itself upon him: the only moment of all the bad moments when his hate had taken strange shape against her: the awful moment when her innocent face upon the pillow had been the face of the false comrade who had robbed him, and when the dawn had swum red in his sight.
He thanked Him for the dew of that summer morning that had cooled his rage and taught him, at least, to wait; but of late when he thought of it and brooded on his grief, another sense but that of mere selfish regret at his loss mingled with his weight of weary loneliness: the sense of her loss, the realization of what the neighbours had remembered but he had forgotten till now, that it 124“weren’t ’er fault,” and that it did seem “rough on a child.”
Rough on a child! A child! A creature who had not desired to come into this world—who would have, sure enough, to fight its cruel thrusts in later life, but who might have a few years of complete happiness—of time in which to grow strong and beautiful and valiant.
To whom could this child look to give her these short years of happiness that were hers by right?
He looked around him on the village children, who had once been her comrades: they were sick sometimes, they were sometimes hungry, they were often cuffed and scolded in the haste of a moment’s vexation, but they were all of them beloved. There was always some one to pick them up where they fell, to comfort them when they suffered, to bid them play and be glad.
Who was there to comfort this motherless child now that he had forsaken her?
He paid that she should be fed—that she should be clothed; but who pitied her in her childish troubles, who heard her prayers and gave her her morning and evening kiss,—who loved her?
And yet she, whom he had doated on and spoiled to his heart’s delight, was she not likely to crave love more than any of them?
“Ye’ll make ’er that tender and fearsome she won’t be fit to stand up to the world”—his enemy, Mrs. Goodenough, had many a time said to him.
125He had hated her for her warning and had spurned it, thinking that he had plenty of time to harden her to the world in future. But was it fair now that he had made her tender, that he should leave her to stand up to the world before she was fit?
The thought troubled him sore, and on this Sabbath evening, as the cruel bells sang their cruel tune: “It ain’t ’er fault no ways, Tom,” it troubled him more than ever.
What was she doing?—who was making the day of rest sweet to her?
And instead of asking himself bitterly why God had saved her from death that He might take her from him after all and leave him desolate, he asked himself why he had snatched her from the river that he might forsake her in her helplessness the very next day? And a heartbreaking picture rose up before him of his little maid thin and sad, hungering for love, pining for him—unconsciously made to feel, in her childish sensitiveness, that she was different from other children; set apart by something that she could not understand, to be less loved—perhaps even to be shunned, despised, neglected! His pretty Daisy—his good little maid—who had never done any harm!
The last bell was dinning it into his ears: “All gone—all gone!” But there was silence at last. The folks were all safe in church, and he was alone in the quiet evening.
126Alone, but not at peace; though the land that lay stretched below him, miles upon miles of serene pastures, studded with browsing cattle and brown with tender shades, might well have brought him some measure of serenity.
Mechanically he thought of the words that the parson would speak when the service was ended: “And the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”
Was it because no one could understand, that it was never to be found? It was no use going to church to find it—for he had tried that … “parson” he could not grasp, and the sight of the neighbours and the knowledge that they guessed his grief, put peace further from him than ever. Where was it to be found? He did not know … but something within him knew, and whispered to him that it was to be found doing the right; yes, and again—that it was to be found in the heart of his little maid.
She had known it; she had breathed it forth from her sunny innocence; she had brought it to him often and often. Would she not bring it again? Was she changed because others had sinned?
A sound of distant singing came to him across the hollyhocks and the sunflowers: it was the evening hymn. It was kinder than the bells—it brought him nearer to peace: she had been so fond of it, so proud to raise her baby voice with the rest. Was she singing it to-night? Was she happy? 127He lost himself in his dream of her; not that she was not always in his thoughts, in work or in leisure, but that when he was at leisure he could live only in his dreams.
Bitterness—or at least active anger and resentment—had long ago died out of him; all that was dead as the dead woman whom he had once loved—buried in her grave. It was always of his little maid that he dreamed.
The sun had set; the west was still glorious behind the cottages, and even the grey downiness of the lightly-veiled sky overhead was warm with the memory of the borrowed flush, but the twilight was gathering, dusky and tender: the great plain took a sorrowful farewell of the day, lingering over it softly: the red harvest moon crept slowly between the sea and the sky.
Vaguely he remembered that it was on just such a night, ten years and more ago, that he had wooed his wife down yonder by the distant harbour. Yet it was less of her that he thought than of his maid—of his dear little maid.
He dreamed of her as he saw her that last time framed in the doorway, with the first of the sunlight upon her and the dew of the morning and the springtime. And even as he dreamed—there she was! There was a little rustle in the cabbages below the garden wall—and there she stood with her golden head just in front of the red moon.
Only it was not quite like his little maid; this 128little one was taller and thinner, and her cheeks were not so round and had not the sweet flush that he knew, and her eyes were bigger and had a wistful look in them that she had never had cause to wear. It was a vision—but it was like her—oh, very like her as she had looked in her whiteness and her innocence….
He took his pipe from his mouth; it dropped between his fingers on to the bench beside him; and he sat staring at her; but he would not move for fear the sweet figure should vanish, for fear the joyful dream should come to an end and he should be awake again and alone with his loneliness.
But she moved.
She swung her little arms on high as she had been wont to do whenever she was happy; then she ran forward—ran straight towards him across the lawn—ran, with a cry of joy, straight to her old place upon his bosom.
Then he knew that it was no vision, but just his little maid in the flesh, warm and living and loving—his little maid come back to him. He asked no questions; he just held her there—where she had flown—to his heart; he just held her there and was content.
But she spoke.
“I be come ’ome, Daddie,” she said. “Daisy didn’t like bein’ away down there by the far beach where there wasn’t no Daddie. And she didn’t know whativer er old Daddie would do wivout ’is 129little maid. ’Cos when I was near drownded dead in the river ’oo said I mustn’t niver—niver go away from my old Dad.”
He clasped her a little tighter, but still he did not speak.
“I be very tired, Daddie,” she said in a minute. “I be dreadful tired.”
Then he opened his lips.
“’Owever did you get ’ere, little ’un?” he said.
“I runned,” she answered simply.
“What, all the way?” asked he.
She nodded her head.
“First I runned very fast,” she said, “’cos I was f’ightened Mrs. Low’d ’ave me and whop me. And then I runned slower, but I runned all the time. I remembered the way, I did,” said she, wisely nodding her head again.
A spasm of fury seized him, but it turned to self-reproach, and then again, quickly, it turned to simple thankfulness.
“That was clever of you,” said he mechanically as he had often been wont to say when he knew she expected praise.
“Yes, that was clever of me,” assented she, well-contented, “but I wanted to get ’ome quick. They said down there I ’adn’t got no Dad, they did. But I knew THAT weren’t true, so I come. And I didn’t stop on the way, neither—not to look at the sweets nor nothin’—’cos I wanted my Daddie, I did!”
She paused for an answer but none came—only 130the arm held her a little more firmly in her place.
So she added, shaking him a little as she had used to do: “But I wants my supper bad. I be very hungry, I be!”
“Pore little ’un!” murmured he, thinking of her face that was not so plump or so rosy as it once had been, and of her eyes that were more wistful: “Pore mite!”
“And we’ll go and buy sweets one day, Daddie, won’t we?” insisted she. “’Cos you promised, ye know.”
“Did I?” said he dreamily.
“O’ course you did!” she declared. “And folk must allers do what they promises.”
Again he did not reply, because, though he heard, his heart was too full to heed. This was why his arm had been sure that day when he had saved her from death.
But a sudden misgiving seemed to seize her at his silence, and she cried defiantly: “’Cos I ain’t niver goin’ away no more, Daddie. Niver no more!”
Then the torrent of his joy was loosed. He pressed her convulsively to his heart and kissed her … kissed her for all the weary days that were past … for all the many hours of longing emptiness, when he might have had her to kiss and had not chosen to do so! Kissed her for all the kisses that he had cheated her of.
131“No, never no more!” echoed he fervently. “Daisy sha’n’t go away from ’er old Daddie never no more!”
The moon was high up in the sky; the red had waned in her but the gold glowed, for she was the harvest moon. Over the dim marsh-land faint mists were beginning to rise, like tender ghosts of the day that was gone,—and the mystery of dusk hovered abroad.
Tom Wycombe sat as he had sat three months ago, when he had given thanks to his God for restoring his child to him from the grave.
And now he understood what was the meaning of the peace which passeth all understanding.
A FARM TRAGEDY
The moon shone fitfully into the wood; shone fitfully because wild clouds were hurrying across the sky at intervals, so that the feeble radiance could not even pierce, as it might have done, the tender shadows of the forest that autumn gales had not yet stripped of its golden glory.
At the foot of the dell two figures stood leaning against the gate that led from the wood on to the undulating ground beyond.
The damp, russet leaves made a carpet under their feet, and fluttered softly down upon them as the gusts flew past; for their heads were bare, his cap had fallen off and bonnet she had none, and golden curls mingled with black ones as her face lay upon his shoulder and his rested against her cheek.
They were lovers and they were young—very young. Any one could have told that—even in the fitful moonlight, even in the shadow: slender and strong and supple of pose—boy and girl still.
136“Oh, Charley, what ever shall I do when you’re gone!” moaned she. “I don’t see as ’ow I can get along anyways! It’d be bad enough for any girl, but it’s worse for me, ye must own, ’cos I can’t never say a word to nobody about ye. It’s as much as my life’s worth to let it be knowed as I wish ye a good-even. Ye don’t guess ’ow father ’ates you and yours, I’ll be bound ye don’t. I b’lieve as ’e’d sooner see me dead than wed to ye. Oh, Charley, must ye go away?”
There was a plaintive prophecy of tears in the soft murmuring voice, and the lad’s tones were nearly as rueful as he answered.
“I don’t see whatever I can do else, Bess,” said he, pressing her closer than ever to his side. “Father won’t never give me no proper share in the farm, I know. There’s Ben to come afore me, and if ever he had a soft place for me, it’s pretty nigh froze over since that row last night. That’s what ’ave made my mind up, ye see?”
“Tell me about it, dear,” said she, lifting her face.
“I don’t see as that’ll do no good,” answered he, kissing her face instead.
“I’d sooner know,” she sighed.
“Well, there, ’e said as if ever ’e caught me a-courtin’ of ye, ’e’d turn me out neck and crop that very day, and never a penny of ’is should I see. It’s real onnat’ral it is, ’ow them two old blokes keep up that ’ere old row over a darned bit o’ land that 137was sold away a year ago. They must ’ave a real mind to quarrel, they must. So, ye see, as ’e said ’e’d turn me out neck and crop, says I to myself, the best way for me is to turn myself out first and save trouble. There’ll be no bones broke that way. For it’s sartin’ sure I ain’t goin’ to give ye up.”
And then he kissed her again more passionately than before.
For a few minutes neither spoke; there was no need. They were together, the world was far and parting was near and love sang aloud with triumphant and commanding voice.
But at last she sighed and with infinite tenderness whispered simply: “And I won’t never give you up neither, Charley. No, not if I was to die for it.”
“I know ye won’t,” said he, “I ain’t a bit afraid, else I wouldn’t go.” He paused a moment, looking into her eyes. A ray of moonlight filtered through the trees and lit her face; it made it white as the face of death. But the lips were parted in wondering rapture, and after a few moments he laughed a little laugh and repeated dreamily: “No, I ain’t a bit afraid. Ye’d never give me up.”
Then he sighed too, and in a different tone, striving for cheeriness, added: “And it won’t be so bad, ye know, arter all, darlin’. I’ll be bound I shall get on. Where there’s a will there’s a way, they say, and there ain’t no mistake about the will, is there? Besides, I’m a man now—twenty-one last 138March—and I’m strong, and school-master used to say I’d got a precious good head-piece when I’d a mind. I ’ave got a mind now, ye see, though I never ’ad before. I’ll soon come back and fetch you, you bet. It ain’t so much as we shall want.”
“No,” said she eagerly, “a very little ’d do to keep me on. I don’t eat much, and I’m very quick at things and real hearty, though some might think I looked a bit slim. Why, I could do a bit of earnin’ too,—take in needlework or some such-like, though I’d rather work out-doors, with you. Oh, Charley,” cried she again entreating, “I don’t see why we shouldn’t just be wed now, somewheres on the quiet, and me go away with you wherever you be bound for. It’d be much safer, and they won’t never say ‘yes’ to us, not if we was to wait till Doomsday.”
A great gust of wind swept them furiously, and she clutched his arm and looked up at him with bewildering pleading in her eyes.
But the boy turned his away and shook his head with a superior air of wisdom.
“It’d never do, Bess,” said he. “Ye’re too young. Why, you ain’t seventeen yet! Ye might be fallin’ sick on my ’ands. We mightn’t ’ave enough to eat. A man can starve a bit, but a girl can’t—not one like you.”
She sighed again, it was almost a moan, and lay her cheek against his once more. Then, suddenly, a tremor ran through her. They were standing 139within the edge of the wood with their backs to the open land beyond it. But in seeking his face she had turned hers towards the sky upon which low thorn-trees stood black, studding the rising ground.
“What’s that there?” she whispered terrified.
A cloud was hurrying across the moon and had laid a shadow on the whiteness of the open.
“Where?” he asked, turning to follow her gaze.
“There, there,” she repeated. “Didn’t ye see some one a-movin’ across behind the bushes? Charley, Charley, there’s father’s eyes everywheres—a-gleamin’ out at us all the time. Let’s get away from ’em—do!”
The lad moved forward, though still holding her fast with one hand.
“No, no,” said he reassuringly. “Ye’re a bit excited, that’s what it is,—ye fancy things. We should ha’ been bound to see any one move across the open there, you take my word for it.”
She pressed closer to his side, but she trembled still.
“I b’lieve father ’d kill me if he knowed as I’d been with ye to-night,” she whispered. “Ye don’t know what ’e’s like, father. It’s bad enough when ’e ’aven’t got the drink in ’im. ’E’s mad agin you and yours—downright crazy-mad. Oh, Charley,” she moaned again, clinging to him with trembling hands, “take me with ye, do, now! Don’t leave me wi’ father! I’d not be a bit o’ trouble to ye, 140that I wouldn’t! You try me. I’d rather live on a crust for weeks than stay ’ere alone. I’m frightened, I am. It seems as if somethin’ bad was bound to ’appen if ye go away and leave me. Take me along with ye, Charley!”
The boy wavered. He too was frightened, though he would not have acknowledged it. He too, with the headlong recklessness of youth, would have adventured all to hold what he had won, to have what he wanted; but a vague sense of responsibility born of this new and strangely constraining love, an uncomprehended instinct to protect what clung to him, prevailed at last. He kissed her again, but it was no longer feverishly; he was as he had said—a man.
“There, now, there,” said he soothingly, “ye mustn’t be onreasonable, ye know. I shouldn’t be actin’ right by ye if I was to take ye from yer ’ome afore I’d somethin’ to keep ye on. I ’aven’t acted just as I should ha’ done by ye, may be, but I can make that right. Only ye must let me go and work for ye. If I was a ’cute un like my brother Ben, I’d say to the Guv’nor: ‘Give me the bit o’ money what’d be mine some day, and let me go and take my own chance wi’ it.’ But it’d be trickin’ ’im to do that for to marry the darter o’ the man as ’e ’ates—and I ain’t a bad lot. No, I’ll make my own way, and we’ll be man and wife, fair and open, and please God father ’ll come to love ye too—some day. ’Tain’t in nature as both on 141’em shouldn’t forgive when it’s done. Ay, we’ll be man and wife come Lady Day, Bess. I swear it, and it shall be done square. I ain’t a bad lot, dear, and I’ll make ye a good ’usband, s’elp me God.”
His voice shook a little, but he lifted one hand to the moon that was bright on them for a moment, while he strained her wildly to his breast with the other; and she felt the purpose in him and bowed to the inevitable.
But her tears flowed softly, and though he stroked her cheek to dry them, they flowed still and her body shook with her grief.
“Tell me ye’ve faith in me, dear?” whispered he. “Tell me ye feel as ye can trust me?”
She did not answer; the sobs that she strove against would not be stilled.
“Why, Bess!” whispered he again, half frightened. “Ye’ll never be afraid to trust me?”
Then she understood and raised her head.
“Trust ye?” she echoed bravely, and her eyes shone in the moonlight. “Trust ye? D’ye think I take ye for a blackguard?”
He kissed her passionately and she dried her eyes.
“It ain’t that,” said she, and tried to smile. “It’s only as Lady Day’s a long way off.”
The moon had topped the tallest tree that bent and quivered in the wind; she might have been hurrying herself, so wildly the clouds hurried past her, so cruelly the moments hurried onward.
142“They’ll be waitin’ supper for me,” said the girl with a little shudder, looking up at the trees. “Father’s been to market. He was to be late ’ome, but ’e’ll ’ave been back long afore this. Oh dear!”
“Well, ye mustn’t notice ’im too much,” declared he bravely. “’E won’t plague ye, if ye stand up agin’ ’im. Ye must be a bit saucier. I’m sure ye used to be saucy enough to me when first I fancied ye!”
“That was ’cos I knowed ye loved me,” smiled she, and then they kissed again. But they couldn’t keep the sauciness up, and the next thing she said was said sadly enough.
“It’s near six months to Lady Day,” she whimpered. “And I sha’n’t ’ave no news of ye till then!”
“I’ll write when I get a bit settled,” he said.
“I’d never get the letter,” moaned she.
“Ye must go to the Post-office for it,” he answered.
“Post-mistress might tell,” objected she. But then with a sudden inspiration: “May be Nan Fordham ’d fetch it for me. She’s a good child. And ye might put A. B. on it, same as the girls do when they ’vertise for a situvation.”
“Why, yes, that’s capital,” he cried. “What a clever one you is, to be sure! Nobody’d find that out, I’ll be bound.”
The comfort was a little one, but they hugged it 143and planned their plan with fresh courage. But it was parting all the time, bitter-sweet, though they painted the future brightly for one another, and took their fill of the kisses the memory of which was to keep them alive: it was parting and it hurt.
They made it last as long as they could; sheltering her from the blasts with his arm around her, he took her to the edge of the wood, and many a time did he leave her, yet was fain to come back for a last word, a last embrace. But it was all over at last; he was gone, and she was left on the empty road, swallowing her tears, alone.
Some one stood at the house-door as she crossed the common; the moon had sailed forth from among the clouds again and stared at her grief, and would not cover her sorrow. She could see the figure plain enough in the hard, white light, and her heart leapt to her mouth and she thanked the chance that had made Charley run down the grass slope to the railway-station instead of coming round with her by the road.
She knew to whom the figure belonged, and she knew what it would say, and try as she would to call to mind her lover’s brave banter, try as she would to steel herself as he had bade her, her cheek was as white as the moonlight and her heart fell against her side.
“Where’ve ye been?” thundered the figure as she came up, and the first word told her that the man was in drink.
144“Down the village,” she faltered, faintly.
“That’s a lie,” he shouted. “Why’s your feet soppin’ wet, and what are them dead leaves a-stickin’ in yer ’air for?”
She put her hand up vaguely; it was true—the leaves of the wood had left upon her the loving memory of her happiness. She took the two withered witnesses from her curls and pressed them to her bosom.
“Ye’ve been down in the copse, and ye’ve been and met a man there, ye shameless slut,” shrieked the father, shuffling a step nearer to her and seizing her by the arm. “Now, don’t tell me no more darned lies. It ain’t no use. You’ve been see’d a-cuddlin’ and a-kissin’, fit to shame the mother that bore ye. And I tell ye what, I’ve ’ad my suspicions this fortnight past, and if this lover o’ yours—damn ’im!—’ave got aught to do with that stuck-up good-for-nothing son of a scamp—ye know well enough who I mean!—I’ll break every bone in his blasted body! So now ye’re warned, and ye know me well enough to guess I’ll do what I say.”
Bess stood still and said not a word; she was cold and she trembled, but a blessed peace glowed within her, and she was not afraid, for she was happy. The glamour of her bliss was fresh upon her, his kisses still burned her lips, his heart still beat against hers. She stood still, rapt and listening—listening for the whistle of the train that 145should tell her he was being carried far from her but far from harm also.
It struck upward from the valley, and she sighed a sigh of relief. For herself she could bear much—and he was safe. No one could break every bone in his blessed body now.
“Why don’t ye answer?” snarled the man. “Am I to be fooled and cheeked by a mere brat, a chit as ain’t fit to be tret as a woman at all? Am I to be gainsayed by the likes o’ you?”
And he shook her violently by the arm.
“I don’t gainsay ye, father,” said she, quietly. “I ’aven’t said nothin’. I ain’t got nothin’ to say.”
The words seemed to exasperate him to frenzy.
“Oh, you won’t speak, won’t ye?” cried he. “You ain’t goin’ to give the young blackguard away, eh? Well, then, ye can take what I meant for ’im instead.”
And with a violent jerk he threw her from him, kicking her even as she fell.
She went down, striking the garden gate, which in her fear she had left unlatched, and lay, huddled together, with her head in the dust of the road, and her face as marble under the moon.
He looked at her a moment, muttering curses still, and lurched up the path again, calling fiercely to some one within as he went.
“Ye’d best come and fetch this precious darter o’ yours, marm,” cried he. “And ye’d better lock her up when ye get ’er. D’ye ’ear me? Lock 146her up, I say! She’s not fit to be let out doors. I thought she were only a chit,—but she’s a slut, that’s what she is—a dirty slut. But I’ve punished ’er for it! Oh, and I’ll do it again if I find ’er at ’er tricks! That I swear! So now ye both on ye know.”
A feeble, spiritless-looking woman appeared on the threshold. She gave a little moan when she saw what had happened, but she attempted no remonstrance, only ran foolishly crying down the path to where the figure lay motionless in the dust.
But Bess, though stunned and bruised, was not dead. As her mother slid an arm under her head to raise it, she turned towards her.
“Never mind,” she gasped, “it ain’t so bad. Father’s been drinkin’—’e didn’t mean no ’arm. Take me indoors, mother, or the neighbours’ll see.”
Mrs. Benson looked round nervously. There was nothing she minded so much in the world as “the neighbours seeing” anything.
But luckily it was night, farm work was over, and the farm buildings that clustered close together opposite the house were deserted and silent: and the village proper lay further down the hill.
Bess tried to sit up, and the woman helped her; she helped her with her arm, but word of comfort for the young and sore spirit there was none.
“Whatever ye must needs go and take up with that young Chiswick for I’m sure I don’t know,” 147whimpered she. “Ain’t there trouble enough a’ready? You did ought to ha’ knowed better—your father so set on agin them Chiswicks as ’e is! One’d think there weren’t no other chaps about! But, Lor’, ye can’t count on girls!”
She had her arm round the slender waist and helped the drooping figure up the path. And in the kitchen she set her in a chair and wiped the blood from her forehead, and then took her up and put her to bed. It was done deftly enough, but all the time the same moan went on till the child was glad when the candle was taken away and she was left to her thoughts.
For in her thoughts she could live over again the happy moments that were so near in the past … and of the future she would not think. That was grim enough, for she guessed pretty surely that her home would give her nothing but what it had given her to-night, and Charley was gone: gone to some unknown spot in that vast and unknown London, that to Bess was as the wilderness itself.
She had not put it too strongly when she had said that her fight would be a worse fight than another’s.
It was a bad fight, but it was a brave one. For a while there was a lull in the persecution; either sobriety brought shame for the brutal assault on his daughter, or the departure of young Chiswick from the village removed his excuse, but anyhow Farmer Benson quieted down to sullen moroseness 148within-doors, and to bitter attacks upon his neighbour without.
Christmas came and went, and on Christmas Day Bess wore a face so bright that her mother looked at her wondering, and her father swore beneath his breath in sheer perplexity.
The night before a red-haired little maid had run into the kitchen with eager eyes, and the girl’s heart had leapt into her mouth. Luckily there had been no one by, but Bess had snatched the child in her arms and carried her into the orchard, kicking and screaming at the indignity, ere she had dared to ask her for what she carried. It was a letter, addressed A. B., and was supposed to be for some person unknown.
Bess took possession of it, in exchange for a good scolding for instructions of secret delivery not adhered to, and a bright penny for acid-drops. And then she ran away into the wood.
The leaves were all off the trees, and lay rotting in the purple brushwood; a hard sky looked on a hard and frozen land, and there was a promise of snow in the air in place of the soughing of the wind in the watching forest on that night when every gust had borne a tale of love through the moonlight.
But Bess knew nothing of wind or weather: Charley was beside her once more; his kisses made her heart beat again, and her face was hot in the frost as it lay, in her thought, against his. He was well, he loved her, he had never looked at another 149girl, he had got work at last, and he was coming back for her soon. And she kissed the letter as girls do, and cried over it in her joy.
That was why her face shone over the plum-pudding as it used to do when she was a little maid, and that was why the Christmas bells were sweet to her.
But Christmas went by, and New Year went by, and the frost held unrelenting sway, and Bess drooped. The crispness went out of her pretty hair, and her tall young figure grew quite too slim, and her fair, fresh skin became wan and transparent. The mother sighed, as any mother must, but dared make no remark, for she lived in terror of her man, and if it was for love of one whom he had said must not be loved that Bess grew pale,—pale she must grow, and there was no help: Farmer Benson never changed his mind, other folk had to change theirs.
But it was not only with the hunger of love unsatisfied that Bess was growing white; her health was strange, and a great fear was growing in her mind. Yes, young as she was, she was too much of a country girl not to know very well what things meant, and an awful chill struck at her heart.
What should she do? Whither turn for help, with whom consult, in whom confide?
Her mother? She loved her mother, and would never have dreamed of blaming her for being what 150she was; but was it wonderful that she should feel the burthen would only weigh the heavier on herself for endeavouring to share it with one who was too weak to bear any part of it? Perhaps—perhaps if she had known more of mother’s love she would have trusted it a little, and perhaps she might have been right; perhaps even that wavering heart would have swelled to a sense of its greatest duty, have yearned to protect that which it had borne. But Bess never gave it a thought.
“Not to worry mother” had always been her motto, it was her motto still.
The one person in the world who should have helped her, she held to be useless; the one person in the world who would have helped her was far away, and knew naught of her distress.
For that one cherished Christmas letter was the only one that she had had, and in that he had given her no address to which she could have written, even had she dared. He had said that he was changing it, and he had said that he was coming—coming very soon.
So she waited, hoping every day that “very soon” might mean the morrow; but her smile grew rarer and sadder, and her eyes more wistful and her cheek more white.
One Sunday in early February, when the sun was shining gay upon the crisp snow and icicles hung rainbow-tinted from the cottage-eaves, Farmer Benson strode into the farm kitchen. His wife 151was busy mixing the Sunday pudding, but Bess, contrary to her wont, was sitting listless in a chair. She rose quickly as her father entered, but not before he had had time to notice her attitude.
“Now what’s that puling face for, pray?” said he sharply. “Let’s ’ave none o’ them airs and graces ’ere. It won’t pay wi’ me, I can tell ye! No, nor get ye a ’usband, neither!”
Bess looked up with a new fear in her face, and Mrs. Benson said, half-appealing: “What, Lor’, she don’t want a ’usband yet awhile, do she, John? She’s but a child, surely.”
“Get out wi’ yer ‘do she, John!’” snarled the man. “Most women’s pleased to get their darters out o’ hand, but you’re such a lazy one ye want to keep ’er ’angin’ round to do yer work for ye, I suppose? But whether you want or whether she wants, she’s got to ’ave one. A child she is, but if she’s woman enough to play tricks, she’s woman to ’ave a ’usband. And a child does as it’s bid.”
Bess gave a great start and went paler than ever, and her father held his bleary eye fixed fast on her.
“Yes, she’s got to ’ave a ’usband,” repeated he doggedly, emphasizing every word, “and ’igh time too!”
“What d’ye mean, father?” faltered the girl faintly.
“I mean what I says,” insisted he, still watching her. “Ye’ve got to ’ave a ’usband if ye can get one, and one o’ my choosin’ too, and that in just 152about as jolly quick time as I can do it in! Ye’ve got yerself talked about i’ the parish, a-prowlin’ round with a young vagabond at dead o’ night, and I ain’t a-goin’ to ’ave no girl o’ mine talked about, not if I knows it!”
“It’s ’ard lines, that it is,” sniffed the woman irrelevantly. “And we with on’y that one.”
“It’s ’ard lines to ’ave such a slut for a darter,” snarled the man, drawing up his bloated figure to its awful height and turning his drink-sodden face upon his wife. “The Bensons ’ave been respectable folk ever sin’ I can remember, though you be a bit of a fool, Mary, and I ain’t a-goin’ to ’ave ’em blowed upon.”
“I can’t get married,” faltered Bess, with a break in her voice.
“Oh, can’t ye!” sneered the father. “We’ll soon see about that, leastways if there’s a man fool enough to take ye. And that’s where I’m comin’ to. Jim Preston, from over Harraden way, is a-comin’ in this arternoon to ask ye to walk out wi’ ’im. ’E’s not much to look at, but ’e can keep a wife, and ’e saw ye over in the town one day, and was flat enough to fancy ye. Ye’re lucky to git the chance, and ye’d best catch ’old of it. Leastways, if ye don’t, I’ll know the reason why.”
“I can’t git married, father,” was all Bess said again.
And then the man went up to her with his heavy fist raised above his head, as on the night 153when she had come home from her tryst in the wood. She shrank against the dresser, and Mrs. Benson murmured frightened words beneath her breath.
But he seemed to think better of it, for his arm dropped at his side, and he turned from her with a muttered curse.
“Yes, I’ll know the reason why, so sure as my name’s John Benson,” he repeated. “And if I find you sittin’ pulin’ and whinin’ ’ere over that darned scapegrace lad o’ Ben Chiswick’s—damn ’im!—I tell ye fair and square I’ll turn ye out of ’ouse and ’ome.”
“I knowed it’d come to this,” moaned the mother.
“Come to this?” laughed he. “Ay, and it’ll come to wus afore I’ve done if ye can’t make ’er mind my orders, marm. Ye may think it’s tall talk, miss,” he added, turning to his daughter again, “but as sure as this is the Sabbath Day and there’s a God above us, I’ll turn ye out sooner than see ye wed to Ben Chiswick’s son. I’ll turn ye out, be the disgrace what it may.”
He brought his great fist down on the dresser with a thud that made the plates and dishes rattle on the rack, and turned upon his heel.
At the door he faced her once more, with the latch in his hand.
“Jim Preston ’ll be round somewheres about three o’clock,” said he. “Ye’d best look alive arter dinner and smarten yerself up.”
154After that first shrinking from his hand, Bess had not moved while he had been speaking. She had not even dropped her eyes. And now that he was gone, she just sat down again quietly, but with a sort of slowness that told of momentarily spent energy though not of waning courage.
“Ye’ll give the young man a nice welcome, leastway, Bess,” begged the mother, half frightened without knowing it, of this silent daughter, whose moods and intentions were as a foreign tongue to her. “Even if ye did fancy young Chiswick a bit, ’e’s left the place, and out o’ sight ’s out o’ mind wi the men, they say. Very like ’e knowed it weren’t no go, for they do say th’ old man’s as set agin father as father’s agin ’im. I call it main reason’ble o’ the lad to take ’isself off: most girls fancy another lad afore the one they weds. I did myself—’andsomer than John ’e was—but, Lor’, what’s to be, ’ave got to be. And there’s no tellin’ ye mightn’t take to this Preston chap once ye got used to ’im. Anyways ye’ll speak the man civil. I don’t know whatever I shall do wi’ father if ye don’t.”
“All right, mother,” said Bess quietly, “I’ll speak ’im civil.”
The winter evening fell softly.
Jim Preston had been and gone.
He had proved to be “not much to look at;” indeed, a stout, plain young man, with a scanty wit, but Bess had been kinder to him than if he 155had been smart, for he had paid her no court, and for the matter of that had scarce spoken half-a-dozen words to her.
And now he was gone, and for a while at least he would not come back, and she sat alone, trying to think what she should do.
The garden stretched away on the right towards the common, but at its foot it ended in a sort of dry water-cress moat, beyond which were pastures where the cattle grazed in summer, but that were now deserted and barren, staring at the barren trees that flanked their two sides. Snow lay white over them and clung to the broad frost-bitten leaves of the winter cabbages in the garden; snow was sprinkled on the privet hedge, and the skeleton boughs of the beeches and maples that began the wood were set clear and black upon a brilliant frosty sunset. The sky was the softest thing to be seen; and all unconsciously Bess kept her eyes on the sky, and forgot the hard earth, and dreamed of love again.
Her song still had the same old rhythm; there had crept into it first one little natural womanly moan of regret because Charley had not heeded her presentiment—had not taken her with him, but the burthen of it had not changed: she loved Charley—Charley loved her; Charley would come back, he would come back soon. It was only a matter of waiting, of being plucky a little longer, and all would be well yet. To be brave, to be 156silent, to let matters take their course, and to wait and to trust—that was her only instinct, and that instinct she obeyed.
So when her father came in that night from the “Public” he found her restored to her usual simple sweet serenity, and was appeased in his wrath; the silly girl had thought better of it, said he to himself, and would be safely married yet before the year was much older.
But he did not quite know his gentle daughter. To him she was a child still; he did not guess that in the last few months she had become a woman: a woman strong to suffer because she loved.
Lady Day drew near, Lady Day when Charley had promised to come back and fetch her that they might be wed. But there was no news of him; no letter had come save that one long ago, and the fear that had come upon Bess was a certainty, and she knew that she could not wait much longer.
March that had come in as a lion bid fair to go out like a lamb. A sudden fit of balmy spring weather had sprung upon the heels of the cruel winter; the wood had a tender flush over its brown bareness that told of tiny buds struggling forth into the new world, a hope and a promise of green leaves and of blossoms, of summer and the sun. A few primroses opened pale petals to the unwonted warmth, like the wondering eyes of little children; a few violets in warm, moss-covered corners burst their buds amid sheltering leaves; the almond tree 157in the garden began to look pink, and the old thorns on the common to stud their black boughs with the tiny white stars that first tell of a winter that is past; the birds twittered and Bess sang, for it was Lady Day—the spring was come and the sun of love shone fair.
But, lo! a shower struck across the world; the sky had grown black in a moment, the geese on the common huddled drearily together, the ducks waddled disconsolate beside the pond, the chickens in the yard stood under shelter, and the little newborn lambs ran to their mothers for comfort in the meadow.
Through the sheet of wet a thick, squat figure pounded along the shining road towards the farm. Bess could see it from the parlour window where she was dusting the china. It was Jim Preston, and her heart sank a little and she wished the rain would not patter so against the window; she noticed weather now-a-days as she never used to do.
He undid the latch of the gate and came up the garden path.
Bess drew back behind the window-curtain; somehow she hoped he would not see her, she hoped she might not have to see him. She had seen him several times since that day of her father’s brutal bidding, but she had never been frightened of him, for he got so little—so very little—“forrarder,” but to-day a sudden instinct bade 158her beware. It was a working day and she had not expected him.
He knocked, but she did not move.
“Bess,” called her mother from the kitchen, “open the door, I can’t go just now.”
Still she did not answer.
The woman pushed open the door of communication.
“Don’t stand gapin’ there, child,” whispered she. “Didn’t you ’ear a knock? Why, Lor’, it’s Mr. Preston,” she added, peeping through the muslin and seeing the broad back on the threshold. “It’s a good job you’ve got a clean frock on. Look sharp, I ain’t fit to be seen. I must go up-stairs and change.”
And she went into the kitchen again and closed the door softly.
There was no help for it; Bess opened the front door.
Preston turned round, he looked a bit shame-faced; he had on his best, but it was wet and he looked his worst; he put down his umbrella and stood there fumbling with it.
“Won’t you step in?” she said at last.
He crossed the threshold, and then she saw that he had a letter in his hand. Something in the look of it made her heart beat. She pushed open the door of the sitting-room and went in before him.
“I come across a little maid down at the foot of the ’ill,” said he, closing the door after him, “and 159she asted me if I was a-comin’ up to the farm. I don’t know how she guessed I might be, but she said I was to give ye this ’ere letter ’cos she’d got to go to school, and she’d come up in the arternoon for the penny.”
Bess held out a trembling hand and he put the letter into it.
“But it ain’t for you, are it?” said he, puzzled.
There did not seem to be much blood in the whole of the girl’s body before, but all there was rushed to her face now; her eyes shone and a faint smile flickered across her lips.
“Yes, yes,” murmured she, forgetting caution in her joy; “it’s for me!”
She did not open it, she held it in her hand gazing at it. She knew well enough what it said—it said that he was there, waiting for her, coming to her, loving her: the knowledge that she had it to read when she liked was enough.
“You’re never ’vertising for a situation,” said Preston, aghast, “and your father so well to do!”
The words recalled her to herself.
“No, no,” she said quickly. “O’ course not.”
Preston looked away, twirling his cap in his hands. He did not like to ask her why her own name was not on the letter; that would have seemed like prying. So he was silent.
“Won’t ye sit down?” said Bess, in a minute. “Father’s out, but he’ll be back soon, and mother 160’ll be down in a minit. Unless ye’d like to leave a message?”
“No, I ain’t got no message,” said he. “I seed yer father this morning.” He paused, and then added nervously: “If the truth’s to be known, I come to see you.”
Bess did not answer. She was not surprised, and it did not occur to her to pretend to be so. She was vexed, but looking down at the letter in her hand she was so happy that she forgot it.
He woke her from that dream.
“I seed yer father this morning,” he was repeating. “He said ’e thought I’d best not wait till Sunday come round again.” He paused once more, and then with a blush blurted forth—“’E said as ’ow ’twas ’is opinion I was a-beatin’ about the bush too much, and you’d sooner ’ave the thing done and settled with off-’and.”
“Done and settled with,” faltered Bess quite awake now!
“Yes—regardin’ me and you,” he went on more courageously. “It’d be a good marriage. I ain’t no beauty, nor yet much for smartness, may be. But I can give ye a comfortable ’ome, and I ain’t got no bad ’abits. I’d make ye a good ’usband, s’elp me God.”
She put her hand to her head. The words recalled something to her, but she was so dizzy she could not remember what. Then it flashed across her that Charley had used them down there in the 161wood, under the falling leaves the night when he had kissed her good-bye.
She sat down, looking at her letter.
“I’ve been to blame,” she said. “I oughtn’t to ha’ let ye come at all. I ought to ha’ told ye at the first.”
“What?” said he.
She looked up at him with contrite eyes.
“I couldn’t wed ye,” she answered. “I couldn’t—no ways. Ye wouldn’t wish it if ye was to know.”
“I know they say there’s another chap,” said Preston bluntly. “But they say ye can’t ’ave ’im anyways, so ye might just as well ’ave me as set and fret ’ere. Ye’d ’ave a comfortable ’ome and no worry. I ain’t a worritin’ sort.”
“Ye wouldn’t wish it if ye was to know,” repeated Bess softly. And then she rose and made a step towards him. Something was on her tongue, something inspired by his honest, stolid face. But it was never said.
A door banged in the background, a heavy step ground the kitchen floor; her hand fell at her side and her mouth twitched, and her father flung the door open and stood before them.
He looked at them both and laughed.
“Well, ’ave ye settled it at last, Jim?” said he. “My word, we was spryer at catchin’ ’em o’ my time.”
There was silence and his face turned sour.
162“Well, out wi’ it, man,” said he.
“Miss don’t seem to fancy me,” said the poor fellow, driven to speak.
“What?” roared the farmer, turning to her.
His ruddy colour became purple, his eyes grew small and wicked; travelling downward from her face they fell upon the letter which she still unconsciously held.
“What’s that?” said he, snatching it from her.
She drew in her breath with sudden dismay and held out a trembling hand.
“Don’t, ah, don’t!” she cried. “It ain’t for you.”
He laughed harshly.
“It ain’t for you, anyways,” he said, looking at the superscription. “And as I don’t know some one o’ the name o’ A. B. in this ’ere ’ouse, I’d best open it and find out who ’tis for.”
And he tore the cover as he spoke.
The girl tottered where she stood, and stretched out a hand to steady herself against the mantelpiece.
Preston had made two steps towards the door, but a furious gesture from the farmer had been more than he dared disobey, and he stayed where he was, still twirling his hat in his hands.
The old man’s face grew livid as he read; then, with a muttered curse, he crushed the paper in his hand and tossed it into the fire.
Bess made no effort to save her property; the flames curled round it and swallowed it at once. 163Her lips had parted as though she would have cried out, but no sound came from them; she only leant a little more heavily against the mantelpiece and her face went white.
Her father made a step towards her, and pushed her into a chair.
For an instant he glared at her; then slowly putting his hands in his pockets, he turned to the crest-fallen suitor.
“Ye ain’t pressin’ enough, man!” laughed he unpleasantly. “Try her again. She won’t say ye nay. That’s on’y coyness. Oh, no, she won’t say ye nay.”
And he slapped Preston loudly on the back, laughing again, and so passed back into the kitchen, still muttering, “Oh, no, she won’t say ye nay.”
But still Farmer Benson reckoned without his host.
“Were the letter from t’other chap?” asked he at last.
“Yes,” she said.
“It’s a pity ’e burned it,” declared Preston sympathetically. “P’r’aps it might ’ave told ye somethin’ as ye wanted to know.”
“Yes,” assented Bess, “it’s a pity ’e burned it.”
“D’ye think it might ha’ been to tell ye the lad had changed ’is mind?” asked he.
164She did not smile. She shook her head.
“No,” she said. “He’s a-comin’ back to fetch me.”
“Oh,” said Preston, “he is, is he? Will yer father stomach it then, d’ye think?”
“I don’t know,” said Bess, looking at him. “But there’ll be some way.”
No misgiving occurred to her in confiding her secret to this new suitor; instinctively she felt he was her best friend.
“Yes, yes,” said he soothingly, “p’r’aps there will. Anyways,” he added after a minute, “I understand as ye don’t care to give yer word to no other chap just now. So we’ll let that be.”
“Thank you,” she said.
He took the door-knob in his hand.
“If I can do anything to ’elp ye, I’d be pleased,” he said. “And if it should fall through arter all, and ye seemed to feel ye could change yer mind, why in course I shall allers be willin’, ye know. I ain’t a changeable man. Ye can bear in mind that it’d be a comfortable ’ome and no worritin’.”
Bess lifted grateful eyes to his.
“You wouldn’t want it if ye knew all,” she repeated.
“Well, I ain’t a changeable man,” was his reply once more. “And I’ll be willin’ to serve ye at any time. Good-arternoon.”
He left her and she sat still, gazing into the fire.
She was grateful to Jim Preston—very grateful to 165him; she felt that she had one more friend in the world than she had thought to have an hour ago; still, her perplexity and trouble were greater than anything else could be. Jim Preston could do no more for her than what he had done—than promise not to renew his suit. And she sat gazing into the flames that had swallowed her last hope.
She saw her father join the young man at the garden gate, and walk with him down the road; she saw him stop suddenly, shaking his stick in the air, then stride forward, striking it furiously against the stones. She knew that what he was hearing was in no way appeasing his wrath against her; but she was past trembling, only she knew that she must make up her mind at once—before he came home—as to what she must do.
Yes; and there was only one thing she could do: go to Charley. Somehow or other she must find him and go to him—at once. And still she sat looking into the red embers, where fluttered the gossamer remnants of her lost letter—the letter that would have told her what to do—where to find him who alone could save her.
A lump rose in her throat, but she choked it down. That the letter should have come at all showed that Charley was safe, and if he was safe he loved her, he would protect her. Why should she cry? Surely she could trace him somehow!
She swallowed her grief and set herself to think, seriously, practically, as she had never been wont 166to think before. But the more she thought the better she realized that she could not find Charley—that she had no clue to his whereabouts—that there was nothing, nothing to be done but to wait till he came.
Yet perhaps the letter had said that he was not coming, that he dared not show himself, or that for some other reason it was best she should come to him. Lady Day was past when he had promised her to return, and perhaps that was the reason. He had told her in that letter where to come to him, and the letter was gone, and its secret with it.
She rose, pressing her hands to her aching brow. How dared she wait for him—even a week longer? A week would seem little to him, guessing naught of her trouble: but if he knew, if he only knew!… For at any moment her secret might be discovered, and then her father might kill her! Yes, she believed he would kill her!
Ah, she must go, she must go at once. She must leave home, leave the village; take refuge somewhere, in some place where she was not known, and try to find work and invent some means of letting Charley know.
Her mother came into the room. She had her best dress on, but her eyes were red and she had a scared look.
“What,” said she, looking round, “is he gone? Well, ’ave ye settled it?”
“Settled what?” replied Bess wearily.
167“Why, bless the girl, settled to marry Jim Preston, to be sure,” said Mrs. Benson, peevishly. “It ain’t no good to keep on a-beatin’ about the bush. Ye’ll ’ave to do it sooner or later.”
“I can’t marry Mr. Preston, mother,” repeated the poor creature in a dull voice. “I told you and father I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to him any ways. I’ve told ’im so, and ’e ain’t goin’ to ask me no more.”
Mrs. Benson let herself flop into a chair.
“Ye’ll be the death o’ me, Bess,” she whimpered. “Ain’t goin’ to ask ye no more! Lord, what’ll yer father say?”
“I don’t know,” said the girl. “I told Mr. Preston he wouldn’t want to marry me if he knew all, and he ain’t goin’ to ask me no more.”
Mrs. Benson lifted a pair of scared eyes before her daughter and looked at her searchingly.
“Whatever did ye tell ’im?” whispered she.
“No more than that, mother,” said Bess. “But I can’t never marry nobody but Charley Chiswick, and if I don’t marry ’im I must bide single.”
“Lord-a-mercy, and to think we must needs come to this!” moaned the mother. “And we allers ’olding our ’eads so ’igh in the village and fit to do it too! Nobody won’t be able to say no more that Mary Benson’s nasty proud! I sha’n’t dare look folk in the face, I sha’n’t! I sha’n’t dare go to church.”
“Mother,” said the girl, disregarding her complaint 168and suddenly and desperately resolving to make one first and last appeal to the only possible helper she had—“mother, won’t ye ’elp me to marry Charley Chiswick? Won’t ye?”
Her voice shook for the first time and she looked up piteously.
But the mother turned away her eyes.
“’Elp ye to marry Charley Chiswick!” echoed she stupidly. “Why, father’d kill me for it, ye know ’e would, Bess! ’Ow can ye ask such a thing and you knowing ’ow set on ’e is against it all?”
Mrs. Benson fell a-crying again, and Bess turned away with a sigh.
“Why, ’e told me I was to lock ye up if ye ’adn’t come to no understanding with Jim Preston, ’e did. ‘Mary,’ says he, ‘she ain’t fit to go out-doors, and out-doors she don’t go till she goes as Jim Preston’s wife.’ Ye knows as well as me what father is. There ain’t no gainsayin’ father.”
Bess raked the fire together. The last ashes of her letter had disappeared.
“Very well,” said she quietly. “Ye needn’t trouble to lock me up, mother. I won’t come down no more till father sends for me.”
She folded away the duster with which she had been doing her work and went out of the room. And the mother sat there only feebly crying and listlessly listening to the young footfall as it lightly shook the rafters of the old chamber overhead.
169The night had descended and the stars shone. There had been a row down-stairs, and a woman’s scream had pierced to the bedroom where Bess sat alone in the dark. She had held her breath a moment, but such scenes were of too frequent occurrence for her to be deeply frightened, and presently her mother came up carrying a candle in her hand and bringing the bread-and-water that was to be her only food. She was still crying, but she did not speak, not even when the girl, with a sudden tightening at her heart, went up to her and threw her arms round her neck.
“Oh, mother, mother,” whispered she, “I’m real sorry to bring all this trouble upon ye—I’m real sorry!”
She smoothed the thin, bleached hair and kissed the wrinkled brow, and the mother cried more copiously, and for an instant strained her daughter to her breast, but she quickly shook her head, and, as though afraid of herself, hastened away as she had come, taking the light with her.
And Bess sat down again and waited.
The twilight was gone, the stars brightened, and the darkness deepened. The two pine-trees that stood over against the farm-buildings across the road, shook their solemn heads against the inky sky out of which the blue had been drained by the stars.
Bess was glad of the stars, for they gave her courage, but she was also glad that there was no 170moon, and glad too that although she could hear the footsteps of a belated labourer echo clear along the road, she could scarcely see his figure under the opposite hedge.
That which she had to do needed darkness to cover it.
Slowly the house grew silent: her father had been out to the “Public,” and had come in again; she had heard him grumbling and swearing in the kitchen as he had grumbled and sworn so often before; then her mother raked the fire out and the two came up-stairs slowly and went to bed. Presently the heavy breathing that had put her to sleep many a night through the thin partition, sounded again along the wall, only to-night it did not put her to sleep.
When the night was two hours older and the village lay dead quiet, Bess rose up and silently bade good-bye to all that she had known in her short, young life: good-bye to the father whom she feared, to the mother whom she dared not trust, good-bye to the virgin bedroom, good-bye to all the foolish little keepsakes of childhood; and with dry eyes, with a spirit that was too tremulous to grieve, yet with a trust as great and a courage as high as ever, made her modest little bundle of clothes, and slid noiselessly down the stairs.
She dared not unlatch the door, but the kitchen-window was low and she managed easily to drop from it into the garden; the hens sat asleep on 171their perch, and though the dog stirred it was only to wag his tail and lick her hand at the first whisper of her voice.
She shivered as she felt the cold night air—shivered in spirit as well as in body, but Charley was waiting for her, Charley would make all good to her again, and she would not be afraid.
A bend in the lane was hiding the old house from view, and she turned and looked at it for the last time: it was the home of her happy childhood, before her father had become morose and savage, before her mother had grown peevish and tearful—the only home she had ever known, for was she not a child still? It was cold and silent, and smiled no good-bye to her as she left it behind—left it wondering what home would next be hers and when and if safely she might reach it.
But beside her as she walked lay the wood—barren now of leaves beneath the wintry sky, but full of many and tender memories, and with the thought of kisses upon her lips, she went gallantly forth to the unknown.
The stars shone steadily: she lifted her eyes to them and was comforted, for they smiled on her as the eyes of her lover. But one fell down the sky as she looked—fell from its triumphant height, away into the darkness below the edge of the world. She turned another corner, and was lost in the deeper shadow of the wood.
172A merry April day drew to its close. The buds on the elms had burst from pink to green, the almond-blossom was at the rosiest of its bloom, the daffodils along the garden-walk were crowning themselves with gold, the blue-bells began to colour the brown earth in the graveyard of the very leaves that had fluttered softly upon a pair of young lovers in October last.
The sun had just set, and a line of ruddy light glowed behind the still sparsely-clad trees of that same wood when Charley Chiswick stepped from the train into the little station below the hill.
He fancied that the porter stared at him strangely, and that two labourers who met him on the platform grinned as he passed, but he only nodded to the one and passed the others by, and running quickly down the steps, took the road to the farm.
A little red-haired maid was playing by the wayside. He stopped and looked at her, considering.
“Will you take a bit of a letter up to Benson’s for me, little un?” said he presently.
“Iss,” said she staring at him. “Will they give me a penny for it, same as Bess used to?”
Something in the turn of the phrase struck a sudden chill to the lad’s heart, but he shirked investigating the matter and only said:
“What, ’ave you took letters up there before?”
“Iss,” repeated the child. “I carried one up, and Bess giv me a penny. But it was school-time 173when post-mistress giv me the other, so I giv it to Mr. Preston for ’er. And Bess didn’t giv me no penny.”
“I’ll give ye the penny,” said Chiswick, “and another for this ’un if ye’ll run with it. But ye mustn’t give it to no Mr. Preston. Maybe ’e never give it to ’er. And ye’d best bide yer chance, and slip it into ’er ’and when nobody ain’t by.”
The child stared open-mouthed.
“But Bess ain’t at ’ome,” said she. “She ’ave goned away.”
His heart dropped.
“Gone away!” muttered he, stupidly.
“Iss, well-nigh upon a month ago,” said the little one.
He passed his hand across his forehead. He had told her to wait—for that he had nearly got a home ready for her now, and that he was surely coming to fetch her—coming very soon. She could never have got his letter. But if she had gone she could only have gone to him. How was it he had missed her? A horror came over him! Had he ever told her where he lived in London? A month ago! Where had she been during that long month?
“Maybe she ’ave come ’ome agin now,” said he feebly. “You run up and see, there’s a good little girl. And if she ain’t there, you ask Mr. Benson if they ’aven’t got no news of ’er. But don’t say I sent ye, mind. Only come and tell me arterwards 174and you shall ’ave a whole sixpence. I’ll wait for you in the wood—see, yonder by the gate.”
The child nodded and ran away pleased, and Charley climbed the grassy slope and cut across the common to the wood.
It was not till he was there that it struck him he was standing by the very gate where he had stood one windy night, seven months ago—with her. It had been a rough night then; yet, though sad indeed at parting, they were full of courage and hope: the sky was blue now and the world was full of promise, but in his breast he knew that hope was dying.
He stood there, gazing. Behind the ricks and barns the smoke from the farm-house chimney curled up to a cruelly placid heaven amid the budding boughs of the elms; the sheep browsed peacefully upon the pastures, and the little lambs played to and fro, but Bess did not come stealing forth and running across amongst them, joyful too, as he had so often pictured her to himself at this meeting. Bess did not come, and there was no peace in his heart; he was frightened—frightened at the awful “inevitable” that he saw marching upon him.
Presently the little maid issued forth alone, and crept crying across the mead. It was long before she took courage to come to him, long before he could still her sobs enough to hear her words.
Farmer had got hold of her, Farmer had sworn 175at her, and she was frightened. For when she had asked for Bess, he had said a bad word, and had talked very loud, and had looked very fierce, and had made her cry. Pressed as to what he had said, she sobbed out that he had sworn “Bess would never come ’ome no more,” that he “didn’t know where she was, nor didn’t care, for ’e never wanted to see ’er no more,” and that any person, little girl or other, who should come inquiring for her would be treated “same as” herself.
The sobs had burst into a howl at the end of this speech, but Charley stood as one dazed, gazing out through the soft evening light upon the quiet landscape with a mist before his eyes. He attempted no comfort, and the child cried on, stopping sometimes to gaze at him amazed. But at last he seemed to shake himself, and, fetching a deep sigh, put his hand in his pocket and gave a sixpence to the little one, bidding her run home to tea.
She needed no second persuasion, and when she was gone he turned slowly away and went down the hill to the station. He had made up his mind now. If Bess had gone, she had gone to try and find him. He must go back to London, he must go back to every place in that vast and terrible city where he had ever set foot. He would not let himself remember that it was an absolutely foolish and bootless search: it was all he could do, and he must do it at once.
But at the station they told him that there was no 176train for an hour and a half, and he turned into the “Public” hard by to get something to keep up his spirits before starting.
The bar was full, for it was a Saturday, and tongues were wagging noisily. But there was a lull as he came in, and he was sure—yes, he was quite sure this time—that men looked at him curiously.
He nodded carelessly to those whom he knew, and walking up to the counter ordered his drink.
A young man stood beside it: a short, thick-set young man with flaxen hair. He didn’t know him, and they did not speak, but a lad of about his own age lounged up to him.
“Well, Charley Chiswick, gettin’ on pretty fair since ye left the old place?” asked he.
The fair young man turned round and looked at Charley on hearing this; he noticed it.
“Yes, thank ye,” said he to the questioner, “nicely. It were a fight at first, but I’ve got my foot well in now.”
“London?” inquired an old labourer laconically, between the puffs of his pipe.
“Yes,” replied the lad.
“What trade?” asked a third.
“Carpentering,” said Charley. “I’m in a good firm now—City ways.”
There was a pause, and then the first speaker volunteered the information that “Farmer Benson ain’t come to no better mind ’bout that right o’ 177way, and ’ave took to drink wus nor ever,” and that he didn’t suppose “Farmer Chiswick’d give in neither.”
“I never knowed my father to give in,” said Charley, half sadly.
“No,” agreed the other, “if old folks weren’t so darned obstinate, there mightn’t be so much mischief in the world as what there is! It serve ’em right—it do!”
Charley looked up quickly. There seemed somehow to be more in this speech than it said; but the fellow who had spoken it slunk away and retired into the background, and again the lad felt as though many eyes were upon him; and he began to guess why: folk pitied him. He drank his glass in silence, and thought he would go and wait in the lanes till his time was up.
But some one in the background wanted to have his word too, and called out cheerily:
“So now ye ’ave come back to look arter the young ’ooman yourself, eh? I call it real ’ansome of ye, Charley, on’y it’s a bit late.”
There was a murmur of “Hush!” all round, but the speaker, who seemed to have had a drop too much, would not be silenced.
“Preston ’ere’s the one to tell ye most obout ’er,” laughed he. “’E ’ad the last buss. That old rascal up at the Farm’d ’ave made ’er wed ’im, but ’e can thank ’is stars ’e’s well out o’ that.”
Folk surrounded the mischievous talker, and 178argued with him, and Preston accosted young Chiswick.
“Don’t ye believe a word of it,” said he in an undertone. “Your girl wouldn’t ’ave none o’ me. She told me so flat. And I guess that’s why she runned away.”
“Thank ye,” said Charley huskily, holding out his hand which the other grasped.
“I’d never ’ave asked ’er if I’d ha’ known the rights of it,” added the young farmer, “but I live over t’other side o’ the county, and I hadn’t heard no talk then. But she were true to ye, and if she’d ’ave ’ad a sight o’ that letter….”
“Ay,” said the lad eagerly, “that was my letter … what of it?”
“Why, t’ old villain burned it afore ’er very eyes, and she not read a word of it,” said Preston.
Charley clutched the counter; he was dizzy. He knew now that his last hope had vanished: it was impossible that she should know where to seek him in London. His head dropped forward.
“But you mustn’t believe one word o’ what they say agin ’er,” began the farmer once more, “for I’d take my oath….”
He did not finish his sentence, for the head went up again.
“Say agin ’er?” repeated the lad slowly, but in a clear voice.
179Preston looked foolish, but the meddler in the background, whom the peacemakers had not been able to quiet, pushed up to the bar.
“Well, ’say agin ’er’” mimicked he. “And what shouldn’t they say agin ’er? You’re well out of it, my lad, and Preston ’ere too. She’s no better nor she should be. Why, ’twas plain to every eye.”
The boy’s face went crimson and then dead white again.
“Ye lie,” said he in a clear voice again, looking round steadily on the little company: “ye lie.”
For a moment there was a disagreeable silence, and in that silence there flashed suddenly into the lover’s mind the true explanation of this awful aspersion upon his girl.
He was a father! More than ever now must he find her. He would find her, but first of all he would avenge her. He stood stock still, and those who watched him wondered perhaps at the strange variety of expression that flitted across his face.
Bess was true to him, Bess was the mother of his child … and he waited for his adversary to come on.
For he knew well enough that the word he had spoken would not pass unnoticed; the man to whom he had said it was in drink, and his rage was the quicker and the more unreasoning.
But lest there should be any mistake, Charley repeated the word.
180“You lie,” he said again. “And if ye don’t like that ye may come on.”
And the man came on. The others no longer attempted to hold him back; they only watched to see fair play.
But they did not watch long.
Charley’s adversary was a little man, but he had the strength of two ordinary men, and, if the poor lad had known it, was the best boxer in the county.
He did not know it, but it would not have made any difference.
He staggered under the first blow, but dealt a good one in return, and prepared for the second. But the second threw him.
There was a laugh, and they looked to see this man, who was so quick to take offence yet was so easily beaten, get up to defend himself.
But Charley did not get up.
There was a confused murmur that gradually grew to dismay. Those nearest the door went out, and those surrounding the boxer dragged him quickly after them, as the landlady—summoned by the barmaid—came hastily round to the front.
She threw a scathing word at the gaping knot of ne’er-do-wells that was left. In a moment the place was cleared of all but one man, who knelt with her beside the prostrate body: it was young Preston.
“Shall I fetch the doctor?” he said.
181“The barmaid’s gone,” answered the woman.
She did what she could for him, but she shook her head.
Once he opened his eyes, but his mind was gone before.
“Is it a boy or a girl, Bess?” he said. And then he murmured—“Bless you—my wife!”
It was his last word.
When the doctor ran in it was too late; Charley Chiswick was dead. He had struck his head in falling against the iron of the fender; and there was another cause too—a faulty heart. It wouldn’t even be manslaughter at the inquest.
But Charley Chiswick was dead.
When Jim Preston got home that night he found a letter waiting for him. It was from the Sister-in-charge of a London Hospital, and told him that Bess Benson had died that morning after prematurely giving birth to a son. The girl had asked her to write to him and to beg him to find Charley Chiswick, and tell him that he was a father. After that she had sunk into unconsciousness, and had not known that her babe had passed away before her.
Jim Preston stood dazed with the letter in his hand. He remembered how he had offered to serve her that day when he had told her that he should not change, though he would trouble her no more. She had taken him at his word, she had 182trusted him, unwelcome lover though he had been; yes, she had trusted him—and him only. He was grateful to her.
He gazed at the message—the useless message from a dead mother and a dead child to the father who had followed them before it had reached him. Then he put the letter in his breast-pocket and buttoned his coat tightly across it.
A BROKEN TRYST
“Lor’, yes, ’Melia be off to the ’op-pickin’ again, sure enough,” grumbled a shrivelled and careworn little woman, who stood bent over an ironing-board just inside of a poor cottage on the brow of the hill. “Though, as I says to ’er, it’d be more worth my while for ye to stay at ’ome to-day and help me with this washin’, for it be more than one pair of ’ands can do to get all them shirts ready to go ’ome to the Priory to-night.”
“Why, ye ought to make that girl mind ye better, Mrs. Shaw, indeed ye ought,” declared the neighbour to whom this feeble complaint was addressed, and who stood poised on the threshold, twisting the pinch of starch that she had come to borrow in a paper, and throwing back her advice as she prepared to descend the steps into the road.
“Well, it don’t seem much use talkin’ to girls now-a-days,” moaned the mother helplessly. “They be all so mighty sure they know all about 186it. In my time it weren’t considered respectable for a young woman to go ’op-pickin’ all by ’erself like that; but, Lor’, things be all changed since I were young.”
“Maybe they ain’t so much changed as you think for, ’Liza Shaw,” nodded the neighbour—Martha Jones by name—sententiously. “There be some as say she be too much with the men, be your daughter; there be some as says as she be too fond o’ feathers and fashions and sick-like; and there be some as can chaff her about them dark lanes of a summer night.”
Mrs. Shaw flushed all over her poor wrinkled, sallow face as she put down one iron and took up another with a trembling hand, holding it to her cheek to test the heat.
“I should like to know who they can be, then,” said she with a note of righteous indignation in her quivering voice. “I never did ’old with them dark lanes, and ’Melia knows it; but when it comes to be’aving—well, there, ’Melia may be a bit light-’earted—I don’t say she bain’t—but she comes o’ respectable folk, and none can say contrairy to that.”
“Oh, Lor’ bless you, yes; no offence, I’m sure,” declared Martha Jones, retreating. “Girls will be girls, so I say. But I’d make her do a bit at them shirts to-night. ’Tis but fair to you.”
She nodded in an offhand, friendly way as she shambled down the rough brick steps to the road—the 187matter dismissed from her mind. But the poor widow drew many a laboured sigh from her aching breast as the iron passed quickly or slowly over the white linen; and when she stepped to the threshold now and then to look to the children playing in the road there was more than the usual fret of work unfinished and worry to come on her weary face, and Martha Jones’s friendly advice was the cause.
Meanwhile, in the sun-steeped hop-gardens down the hill towards the sea, ’Melia was taking her fill of health and fun.
It was very hot; beyond the waste of yellow turf—relieved by the richer brown of nodding grasses at seedtime, and by the green of rushes along the sides of brackish dykes, all of which went to form the mellow plain between the village on the hill and the ocean in the distance—blue waves rippled in the sunlight and the shallow water farther out was streaked with purple shadows till a yellow dash in the distance told of scarce covered sands.
She was a tall, powerful, dark girl, in every particular opposite to the fragile woman over the ironing-board. Some strain of gipsy blood in the unknown past must have bred those deep, dark eyes and kindled the quick flash that pride, anger, or pleasure would stir in their brown softness. And in her gait, too, and in her movements there was a fulness and a freedom foreign to the less 188well-developed persons of most of her companions. Was it any wonder that the lads liked her, that her merry spirit and her hearty ways kept them good-tempered and civil, when a gloomy face would sour the best of them—that ’Melia Shaw was a favourite with every male creature, and not quite so popular with her own sex?
But for that, truth to tell, she seemed to care but little. She was hail-fellow-well-met with everybody—girl and boy alike; but if anybody presumed to “cheek” her, or to interfere with what she considered it right and proper to do, that person repented of his or her indiscretion in a very short space of time.
And to-day some one had ventured to interfere with ’Melia, and was “catching it hot” in return. The imprudent person was a hard-featured woman of about forty, who was cordially hated in the field because she never looked up from her work, but picked more poles in an hour than anybody else to right or left of her.
“Ye didn’t get much out o’ the lads yerself seemingly when you was young, Miss Crutch,” the girl was retorting with a merry toss of her black head. “Maybe we young ’uns know a way worth two o’ that now-a-days.”
And there was a roar of laughter in the field at her words, for Miss Crutch was a single woman.
“Yer pore mother wouldn’t be pleased to ’ear 189ye speak so, anyway,” remarked the spinster severely.
“You leave my mother alone,” retorted ’Melia, with one of those quick flashes from her bright eyes. “She knowed her way about, anyway.”
Another laugh around, but Miss Crutch said sourly, “Ay, pore soul, much of a way she cut out for herself! A widder in the prime o’ life wi’ a pack of ungrateful children to moil and slave for. No wonder she be broke and old afore her time.”
“Who says as they be ungrateful?” said ’Melia.
“Them as sees the oldest on ’em racin’ round to please ’erself instead of ’elpin’ her,” retorted the old maid.
“Well, she don’t want your ’elp to mind ’em anyway,” giggled the girl, turning to empty her pocketful of hops into the bin and meeting as she did so the grave eyes of a thick-set man of quiet aspect who was lifting fresh poles for the pickers.
She lowered her own that were not in the habit of falling before any one’s gaze, and her laugh was less confident as she added: “There’s earnin’ as well as elpin’, ye see.”
“Oh, I say, ’ow much o’ your earnin’s gone ’ome, eh, ’Melia?” sneered a fat girl hard by; but her mouth was stopped by a young fellow who brushed past her quickly, and, stooping over ’Melia, pulled a hop-pole out of the ground for her that was trying even her strength, and laid it across for her 190ready to pick. The elder man, who was going on steadily with his own work, smiled a little, and the girl who had spoken cried out, “Lor! it ain’t every one of us gets that done for us!”
’Melia looked a little conscious as she said, “Ye ’adn’t no call to do it, thank ye, Mr. Farr. Mr. Wilkins ’ere”—nodding towards the other man—“lays ’em ready for us.”
But she looked pleased as any other girl would have looked, and blushed a bit under her brown skin at something the fellow said to her in an undertone. The girls around sniggered and whispered together, but the next minute ’Melia threw her jokes and laughter around her in just the same wholesale and indiscriminate manner as usual, and the lads took heart of grace again and gathered round her—each confident that he could oust the stranger from her favour—and she was, as always, the centre of life and fun and banter. Only he whom she had called Mr. Wilkins held aloof, and went on steadily with his work without paying her any attention, without even laying the poles as near to her hand as he did to that of many another girl, and she—strange to say—never flung him even one of her lightly casual words, never appealed to him for his opinion, as she laughingly did to so many others.
“A good ’usband?” she was saying now with her merriest manner. “Well, now, I wonder what sort that’d be? Some tell ye one thing and some 191another, till ye don’t know what to believe, ’pon my word ye don’t. ’Ere be Johnnie says he’ll give me every blessed thing I can want; but, Lor’ bless me, ’ow can I tell what I shall want? A proper man ’d find out for ye, and give it ye into the bargain!”
The laugh went round louder than ever at this, and Johnnie declared he would find out fast enough; but he was told that as he had never made a good shot at her tastes yet she wasn’t likely to have any confidence in him for the future, and Johnnie, crestfallen, fell into the rear.
“Nay,” continued she, “there be some as’ll tell ye a woman be happiest when the man leads her a devil’s life; but there, I say it be according to taste again, and ’ow am I to know till I’ve tried? No, no, there be many a lad’s good for a day’s larking that’d never do to settle down with! So ye may all take it I mean to lark around a bit more yet awhile, and there be no tellin’ at all who I shall take in the end.”
“I wouldn’t wait too long, ’Melia. Ye mightn’t get asked so often as you might think for,” sneered the fat girl again; and ’Melia—ready, as usual—said that of course there was that danger to fear, but that she would take her chance all the same. And at that the lads laughed so vexatiously loud that the girls were vexed and bit their lips. By all of which it is to be surmised that, fond as ’Melia was of frolic and flattery, she had never 192even given the smallest portion of herself away, thus far, and, as her poor mother had proudly said of her, was no more than a bit light-hearted. Only to-day, for the first time, she had not been quite honest with herself, and if she had chosen to confess it, did know who she would take in the end—provided he asked her!
But there was the rub. He had not yet asked her. There had been larking enough, but nothing serious; and though you might possibly know how far you dared go with a lad of your own village whom you had known all your life, you did not feel quite so sure with a London chap, for the ways of London chaps were cruel and uncertain, and everybody said you must needs beware of them if you did not want to be led astray; and, though ’Melia wanted as much fun as she could get, she had no intention of being led astray.
So, if the truth were known, ’Melia was rather cross with herself than otherwise that it should just happen to be this London chap who had made her feel something that she had never somehow felt for any lad before. She didn’t recognize it to herself as love, and she had scorned to acknowledge it at first, but she knew very well now in the depths of her heart that it was stronger than her will, and that she would take that Mr. Farr fast enough if he were to ask her. What was it in him that was making a fool of her? There was many a better-looking man among her own 193acquaintance, and he had not even any of the dash that one was wont to expect in one bred in the great world; while as for his condition in life, it was absolutely dark to her, and she had always supposed she would not sell her universally acknowledged charms but to a high bidder.
So ’Melia was ashamed of herself when—as the hoppers wandered up the hill again that day at the sunsetting—she found herself loitering behind with the chap from London, and actually consenting to a tryst that very night under the lea of the down beneath the windmill—a moonlight tryst with a stranger, a thing that she had never done in her life before—gadabout as she too truly was, though not in the sense in which the neighbours hinted it. Yes, ’Melia was ashamed of herself, but she was going to do it all the same! So, of course, she was none the better pleased when Mr. Wilkins—meeting her on the meadow’s brow after she had parted from her new swain—said, speaking to her for the first time that day, “’Melia Shaw, there’s Miss Crutch waitin’ for ye round by the oast-house. She’s got a word to say to ye afore ye goes home.”
He spoke very seriously, looking her straight in the eyes as he had done once before that day in the hop-field. There was nothing to take offence at either in the words or the look; yet ’Melia fired up. Her conscience was sore, and it did her good to fly out at somebody, and so she made sure that the “word” that was going to be said was a word 194of warning about that which she knew she was doing amiss.
“I haven’t got nothing to say to Miss Crutch,” cried she quickly. “She be a nasty old backbitin’ crosspatch, and I ain’t a-goin’ to take nothin’ from ’er.”
Still the man looked at her quietly.
“Do you know what ’tis she ’ave got to say to ye?” asked he.
“I can make a good guess at it,” said she, with a toss of her head and a short laugh. “Miss Crutch never got no courtin’ ’erself, and she don’t like them as do.”
“There be courtin’ and courtin’,” began Wilkins in a low voice, “and there’s a time for everythin’ …” but she interrupted him passionately.
“There be folks as thinks a girl must needs be a born fool if she thinks fit to take her own way,” cried she fiercely, but there was a quiver as of tears in her voice. “But, Lor’ bless me, it be yourself ye’ve got to choose for, and ye must choose your own—come what may.”
“Ay, that may be,” echoed the man, and she was far too preoccupied to note the wistful way in which he said it. “But young maids can’t allers be ’spected to know all the ways o’ this wicked world. We’ve knowed ye a little ’un, ye see, and we don’t want ye to come to no ’arm.”
“’Arm!” exclaimed ’Melia impetuously, firing up at once; but he stopped her.
195“Well, anyways,” he said quietly, “ye won’t be thinkin’ o’ courtin’ just now? ’Tain’t about that as Miss Crutch was wantin’ to speak with ye.”
“What then?” answered she moodily, as was not her wont.
“Maybe ye had best go up and see,” said he. But as she still stood still, with ruffled brow, uneasily twisting a piece of grass round her fingers, and as though meditating further speech, he added gently, “Yer mother be sick.”
The change was instantaneous. She did not say a word, but she flashed a quick, frightened look at him, and turned on her heel and fled. He looked after her pitifully as her tall figure flitted down the lane beside the wind-twisted pine-trees, behind whose red trunks the sun was setting in a sea of crimson beyond the purple downs. He watched to see if she would look for Miss Crutch, but she passed the oast-house by on her right, and ran straight on down the lane till she came to the turning that led to her home.
The moonlight fell into that lane the same night as the clock of the old Abbey struck its nine wavering strokes, fell so full upon it that the shadow of the pines lay hard and black upon its whiteness, and that the figure of a man sauntering leisurely along between its low stone walls was conspicuous as in broad daylight. He had come up from the camp in the marsh-land below, where the fires of 196those “hoppers” who were not villagers burned brightly in the still night; he left the oast-houses on his left, and before he came to the farm on the right he vaulted the low paling and made off across the down to the windmill. He was not an inhabitant or he would have known that that was not the shortest way from the plain to his destination. And there—on the slopes under the great spreading arms of the mill, with the dykes wandering rippleless across the plain below, like winding streams of molten metal in the moonlight—this man waited awhile patiently. He was not used to waiting, and the scene before him engrossed him but little, so that when the ashes of his pipe had burned themselves out and the moon was riding high in the heavens, he grew weary of the tryst, and slowly but surely incensed against the girl who had broken it. He was no beauty—many even said that he was an ugly chap—but he knew that he always got his way with women, and not infrequently even with men, and he never troubled himself to wonder why, and would have been very much surprised if he had been told that it was because folk were in a certain sense afraid of him—afraid not of his strength, but of his selfishness—of the selfishness that always managed to take that for which it had no intention of paying.
It was the first time he remembered being baulked of what he had intended to get, and his fury grew as the minutes sped past. He ground 197out a fierce oath from between the white teeth that were the most conspicuous thing in his face, and turned back across the down. The “public” lay but a little way down the road to the village. He could soon forget ’Melia Shaw, and she should repent bitterly of her folly.
Was ’Melia repenting already, and was it really of her folly that she was repenting—of the folly of her wild and misguided craving? Or was she mourning the broken tryst that it was now too late to keep?
Who can tell? Anyway, a duty had fallen across her path, so plain and strong that she saw nothing else for the moment; for on the bed in the corner of the little cottage on the brow of the hill Widow Shaw lay motionless, speechless—struck down in the midst of her work—the soul only alive still, and eager as it looked forth, piteous and beseeching, from the weary grey eyes.
“It be them shirts she be frettin’ over,” said the neighbour, Martha Jones, standing at the foot of the bed as ’Melia rushed in, white and scared. “Ye didn’t ought to have left her to do it all. But it be jest like what ye be always after.”
But Miss Crutch in the doorway, throwing a scornful glance at the girl, tossed her head.
“Shirts,” echoed she with a laugh, “shirts, indeed! A pore mother ’ave got somethin’ wuss nor shirts to think about when she knows her daughter’s a-carryin’ on with good-for-nothing 198chaps as ’aven’t the fear o’ God so much as in their backbone. No wonder the Lord ’ave stricken ’er!”
“Hush, now, do there!” cried a kindlier woman who had risen from beside the bed, “ye’ll drive the poor lass crazy. The doctor says as she’ll get over it this time, dear,” added she to ’Melia, “but she ’ave got to be kep’ quiet, and he’ll call again presently.”
The girl had thrown herself on the bed, the younger children, who were standing huddled together in a corner, clinging on to her skirts. At the words she leapt to her feet.
“To be kep’ quiet!” echoed she fiercely. “Then clear out o’ ’ere all of yer, if you please. I’ll see as she be kep’ quiet.”
The women quailed before her and made for the door, grumbling; all but she who had spoken last, on whose arm ’Melia laid a detaining hand. Then she threw herself once more on the bed.
“Lord! to think they must needs prate like that just now!” moaned she. “And there ain’t no truth in it neither. No, mother, no, I ain’t a-carryin’ on with no chap, I ain’t. And I’m sorry I didn’t do the shirts for ye, I am. But they’ll all go ’ome to-night, same as if you was well—I swear they will, mother! Oh, Lord! she won’t speak to me—not a word! Whatever is it? Whatever shall I do?”
No, the mother could not speak, but the tired eyes grew quiet and drooped presently in sleep, 199and there were tears in the black eyes of the daughter as she gazed on her; and the neighbour, busying herself now about the supper and the children, cried as she answered.
“She can’t speak to ye, ’Melia,” said she. “She’s ’ad a stroke. But she won’t die this time. They often lives years arter the first, only they can’t never do no work again. Ye’ll ’ave to work for the lot. It’s ’ard on ye, dear, but ye’ve ’ad yer turn.”
And as she sat through the silent night, watching tenderly over the mother whom she had neglected, and who had so bravely toiled for her, and so proudly defended her, ’Melia looked her future quietly in the face.
Yes; she would have to work for the lot. There would be no more larking. Would there be no more love-making either? Would she never find that out which she had not even desired to know till of late, which she had been so nearly finding out to-night? The sound, common-sense of her present nature told her that it was more than likely. How many men would care to saddle themselves with a bed-ridden mother and a parcel of brats?
Was ’Melia repenting as he had said she should repent—repenting that broken tryst that she knew in her heart she should never, never keep? All her life she had always had what she wanted. But she had never wanted anything as she wanted the love of this one man, who was a stranger to her, and who was even now tramping away from her, 200miles away already along the dusty road that led to the nearest town.
Every year when the harvest moon drew near the hoppers gathered into the camp beneath the hill, and made their fires beside the straw huts in the hollow, and every year the picking went on busily in the fields; but there were some folk who said that there never was such a merry “hopping” as there had been that year—for ’Melia never got time to go back to it.
She worked hard to keep the laundry work together, and she did it, though there were folk enough that said she would never succeed. One by one the children grew up, and were put to service or to a trade, and at last the mother was laid to rest in the graveyard, and ’Melia was left with only one of her brood at her heels.
It had been a hard fight, and save for one hand that had often been stretched out for her in the dark and unknown to herself—she had fought it unaided.
There had been no time, as she had guessed, for larking, or trysting, or love-making. And it was in a very quiet spirit that one autumn Sabbath, when the hops were all in, ’Melia Shaw walked to church with a middle-aged man named Bill Wilkins, and said a gentle and quite untremulous “Yes” to the old question that is for ever being asked and answered in so many and varied moods.
AN ONLY SON
“’Ave you ’eard as Widow Collins’ lad be down from London, Mr. Barfield?” said a little spare woman who stood willingly patient before the counter of a small shop and watched the grocer’s deft fingers pack up a neighbour’s tea and sugar before attending to her own demands.
It was dark, for it was eventide, and the shop did not face the sunset that was going on brilliantly behind the pines at the top of the village street; but any one could have told from the tone of the voice that there was something more than common about Widow Collins’ lad.
Mr. Barfield lit an odoriferous paraffin lamp and hung it to a hook on the low ceiling, amid a wonderful collection of boots and hats and sunshades, of kettles and coils of rope and saucepans—and of Spanish onions on strings.
“What, he that’s clerk in the London Post Office?” asked the other customer with sudden interest.
204“I never ’eard as she had no other, Mrs. Neave,” answered the first speaker half crossly, for she was not pleased that the grocer should give more attention to business than to her news; “and I s’pose its ’cause he’s the only one that she see’d fit to bring ’im up above ’is station.” The lamp lit up a thin, pinched face that had once been pretty with that frail, trivial prettiness that seems so strangely ill-fitted for the hard life of daily labour, where it is nevertheless so common. Mrs. Cave drew her ill-fitting little black jacket around her with an irritability of gesture that told in itself how perpetual struggles and over-fatigue had wrought on her. She had had no chance of bringing up any one of her seven boys above his station, for laundry work only brought in a fair pittance in the summer time, when the place was full of visitors, and Widow Collins had the monopoly of the all-the-year-round families.
“Ah, it’s a sad mistake to bring ’em up above their stations,” said Mrs. Neave piously, as she gathered up her purchases. “We’re sure to be punished for it in the long run, as Mrs. Collins is bound to be one o’ these days.” Mrs. Neave, being a plumber’s wife, considered herself just a cut above laundresses, and patronized them accordingly.
“Ah, how’s that?” asked Mr. Barfield, quite interested now, though he ran busily round to the other side of the shop at the same time to fetch 205a skein of yarn from his haberdashery counter for Mrs. Cave; “I thought the lad was doin’ well, though to be sure pride is sure to ’ave a fall.” As the prop and stay of the Dissenting Chapel round the corner, Mr. Barfield often felt it his duty to add a pinch of righteousness to his customers’ purchases to make up the weight, and Mrs. Neave, being the wife of a fellow-warden, required special attention in this particular.
But Mrs. Cave tossed her head; though she was no warden’s wife she needed no one to tell her how old Mrs. Collins was being punished, for, secretive as was that absent lady, the little laundress would have wormed the heart out of a stone. Manners, however, forbade that she should take the word out of a neighbour’s mouth, so she held her peace, though it was pain and grief to her, and let the plumber’s wife take up the tale again.
“Well, the lad have married a woman with money, to be sure,” continued that lady, sadly, almost as though she were grieved to have to allow the fact, “but they do say”—and from the tone of the voice it was to be supposed that Mrs. Neave knew of circumstances that would have mitigated the joys of that match, but she was not permitted to make them known.
The grocer himself interrupted her.
“So I did ’ear,” he said quickly, almost betraying a certain satisfaction of his own at being able to add his mite to the gossip, “in the fish-trade.”
206“I know nothin’ about that,” began Mrs. Neave again, feebly peevish, but at this open avowal of incompetence Mrs. Cave could keep peace no longer. It was more than flesh and blood could stand, and she burst in scornfully.
“Fish-trade, indeed,” cried she. “Why, it’s a restaurant, and a smart one too, in some part o’ London they calls ’Igh ’Olborn. But though he did catch her with that ’andsome, softy face o’ his, she be that sort of a person she won’t look at ’is poor relations, and won’t so much as let ’im ask ’is own mother to ’is own ’ouse.”
Mrs. Cave looked triumphantly round for her effect, and she got it.
The plumber’s wife “Well, I never!” and was speechless, though whether her emotion resulted from horror at the younger Mrs. Collins’ arrogance, or from astonishment at Mrs. Cave’s audacity in taking the speech from off her very tongue was not clear; and Mr. Barfield made a strange little noise with his lips indicative of amazement and dismay, not unmixed with religious disapproval.
“And I should say it was more nor a year since he was even here to see her last,” said he sententiously. “And well I remember it must be fifteen year since she’s been alone to slave and toil for that boy.”
“Fifteen? Why, it be twenty,” cried the laundress. “And many’s the time I could swear she went 207without ’er dinner so as ’e should be schooled better than others. And shabby she’ll go to her dyin’ day—though one’d think she might take a bit of ’elp from ’im now as ’e’s got others to keep ’im, and she not so much as the bit o’ comfort o’ seein’ ’im now and again. But it be all ’er pride—it be pride as has kep’ ’er up all these years. Pride to ’ave ’im better than ’erself. And this is ’ow she’s served.”
There was an honest ring in Mrs. Cave’s indignation, and who was to tell—certainly not herself—that there was a spice of satisfaction in it as well?
“Poor soul!” murmured Mrs. Neave. “Though it do serve ’er right for settin’ up her horn as she do.”
“Well, there,” declared the grocer, returning to his usual cheeriness, “she’s got the satisfaction o’ seein’ him a gentleman. I suppose ’e’ll scarce pass the word to his old acquaintance as equals when ’e walks to church with ’er to-morrow mornin’. That ought to be a reward to any woman.”
“She’ll look us all in the face and no mistake to-morrow,” said Mrs. Cave, moving to the door, but even as she did so, envy and satisfaction were both merged in wonder pure and simple as she beheld striding down the village street in the dusk, the figure of a tall young man, bearing a large wicker basket under his arm.
“Well, I’m blest,” cried she, gasping, “if that ain’t—but, no, it never can be Johnnie Collins!”
208Mrs. Neave was at her side in a moment, and Mr. Barfield sidled quickly from behind his counter and stood beside the two women at the door.
“Well, I never!” ejaculated Mrs. Neave again. “Why, he’s carrying his mother’s linen ’ome same as he used to do before he went to London!”
Mr. Barfield whistled, and they all three stood staring commiseratingly at the handsome youth, who quite unconcernedly swung along the road and disappeared down a bye-lane at the corner. “Well, I wouldn’t ha’ believed it not if you’d ha’ told me!” murmured Mrs. Cave. And at the same time, her eyes wandering to Mr. Barfield’s face, went past him down the hill, and saw Widow Collins herself toiling a little painfully up towards the shop from the sea. “Hush!” she whispered, dragging Mrs. Neave within again, “’ere she comes, I do declare!”
They all stood waiting, and the widow came on slowly, looking neither to right nor to left. She passed the shop, at first noting none of them, but then turned back and, merely giving a casual nod to Mrs. Neave as she brushed by her, walked straight in and up to the counter, whither Mr. Barfield had quickly retreated.
“A pound of Dutch cheese,” said she shortly, without preliminary greeting of any sort. “A nice fresh cut, please.”
She looked at the cheese and not at Mr. Barfield. She was a hard-featured woman—thin and tall, 209with sad keen eyes, wherein there was no gleam of the cheerfulness that some might have expected to see there because of that unwonted presence in her lonely home yonder.
“I ’ear you’ve your son ’ome, Mrs. Collins,” said Mr. Barfield, pleasantly, paring off the outer rind of the cheese as he spoke, for he knew the customers that he was forced to humour. “Married, ain’t he? Wife with him?”
“No,” answered the woman, shortly. “His wife is visitin’ her own folk.”
Mrs. Cave glanced at Mrs. Neave as who should say, “I told you so,” but the latter took it as a hint to proceed, and said quickly to the widow:
“Ah, but you’ll be goin’ up to London presently. That’ll be nicer for you than ’avin’ visitors at ’ome. She’s a well-to-do woman, ain’t she, your son’s wife? So she’ll ’ave time to leave her work a bit to show ye round the place.”
“Yes, she’s a rich woman,” answered the widow, looking the speaker in the face with that quiet self-satisfaction that was the special annoyance of the female portion of the village. “But if she ’ave got time to leave ’er work, I ’aven’t got time to leave mine. I’ve my customers to think of.”
Whether Mrs. Cave saw a covert taunt in this remark or not, it seemed somehow to goad her into speech.
“Well, anyways you must be rare and pleased to see your son just the same simple lad as 210’e always was, now ’e could play the gentleman if he liked,” said she.
The remark should have seemed innocent enough, and what most mothers would have flushed with pride to hear, but Mrs. Cave was clever, and knew her prey.
The widow glanced at her sharply, uneasily, and laid her money down on the counter.
“Look alive, Mr. Barfield, please,” said she, “I’m late to-night.”
The slight was too great to be borne. Mrs. Cave moved to the doorway.
“Oh, you don’t need to ’urry,” said she, tartly. “’E be only just gone round the corner to the Parsonage with your basket o’ linen. ’E won’t be back just yet.”
A faint tremor ran through Mrs. Collins’ body even to the hand that she stretched out to take her parcel, but she said nothing, and to any observer less keen than the rival laundress, the tremor was but a shiver that was easily accounted for by the sea-fog that was slowly sweeping up across the marsh below.
“Well, I wish you joy o’ getting him back so well set up,” said Mr. Barfield, good-naturedly, as he tied the knot in the string. “It must do your ’eart good, I’m sure, to have him by to give you a ’and again when you ’ave to work for yourself all the year round.”
The widow looked at him, and in her eyes was a 211hardness that might well have chilled a braver man.
“Thank you,” she said coldly, “I don’t know as one day makes much odds.”
Mr. Barfield was silent, and so indeed was Mrs. Cave, but the plumber’s wife, blundering on, said patronizingly:
“There now, you oughtn’t to take it so ungrateful, and him so nice and obliging to you. There’s some lads ’ud be so stuck up with being raised up—why, they might think it beneath ’em to do such a job!”
Mrs. Cave smiled, and then laughed outright, and the old woman’s eyes grew harder than ever.
Mr. Barfield brought her change—two coppers and a threepenny-bit—and laid it on the counter before her. She took it up without a word, nodded good-night a trifle more surlily than usual, and without unlocking her set lips or turning her eyes once upon either of the two women, passed out into the dusk. Her face was as thunder.
“Well, ’pon my word, it ain’t no sort o’ use tryin’ to be civil and kindly to ’er,” sighed Mrs. Neave; but Mr. Barfield, who had seen the widow’s face, felt a vague sense of pity rise in his calculating little soul, and said as he stuck his pen briskly behind his ear after “entering” Mrs. Neave’s purchase:
“We can’t always just tell, ye know. She may be glad enough to get a sight of ’im though she do 212talk so short, and as like as not she never sent him round with the linen at all.”
Mrs. Cave was already in the road; she was watching the mother, who set her face once more to the sunset, and, whipped by the creeping mist, struggled on to the cross-roads, where a line of straight pine-stems stood black against the sky that flamed beyond the downs: the downs were blue with mist and the sky was red—red and angry—and the spare bent figure made a spot upon it, and that little spot was the blackest in the whole scene.
“No,” said Mrs. Cave decisively, to those within, “I shouldn’t think she did send him round with it! I should like to know what a body’d want to spend years toilin’ and moilin’ for, except to have the boy cut a bit of a figure when ’e come back among them as knowed ’im a little dirty brat! She sent him indeed!”
Mrs. Cave stuck her sharp little nose in the air, and Mrs. Neave retorted stoutly:
“Well, if she didn’t send ’im, I should say she’d be all the better pleased. I s’pose she’s fond o’ the lad arter her fashion, though, to be sure, she showed it a queer way when ’e was little. My boys do say ’e was that frightened of her there was times when they’d a job to get him to go ’ome.”
“And yet,” put in the grocer, “I can call to mind the day when he fell into the river down yonder. Some one ran up and told ’er of it, and 213didn’t know whether the child was alive or dead, and they do say she went down all of a ’eap like a corpse of lead. And the doctor told my wife she’s never been the same woman since. And yet when the neighbours brought ’im in drippin’’ wet and queer—if she mustn’t needs go rating ’im for it all the while she was a puttin’ ’im to bed. I know she spoke quite sharp to me when I went round at night to ask after ’im, and yet I could swear I ’eard her cryin’ over ’im soft and a kissin’ of ’im whiles he slept, as I stood waitin’ at the door.”
“She’s a curious piece of goods,” sighed Mrs. Neave, “for though it don’t scarce seem like truth, I can recollect I see’d her once bring him a jam-tart to ’s tea when ’e was spudding thistles one day down in the marsh, and if you’d believe it, she kissed ’im just as one of us might ha’ done, ’cos he looked so pleased.” Mrs. Neave glanced at Mrs. Cave as one expecting to be disbelieved, but that shrewder lady only just looked her over and then burst into a loud laugh.
“Lord,” said she, “ye don’t understand the likes of ’er, that be certain!” and with a hasty nod to the company she passed on quickly up the street.
The after-glow had faded from the sky behind the downs, and the sea-mist had ceased to hurry across the marsh towards them, but had crumbled and massed itself into mounds and ridges that hung or floated over the wide, brown plain beneath the 214village—warmed and illumined by the rays of the bright October moon that had risen red out of the sea. Upon the little public terrace overhanging the marsh-land, the village lads were gathered for their evening pipe; they sat grouped beneath the thatched roof of the pent-house, men and boys together, while outside, upon the paved walk, a few women lounged with babies, taking their leisure too after the day’s labour. Mrs. Cave came down among them; she had given the family its supper, and had put a goodly portion of it to bed, but she had left the washing-up to her eldest girl—for Mrs. Cave was sighing for more gossip upon the great event of the day, and here she knew that she should find it.
“Be my Jim ’ere?” cried she, as she approached, alluding to her husband, who was indeed very rarely anywhere else, unless it were at the public-house.
“Yes, o’ course he be! Let the man ’ave his leisure a bit,” grinned a slatternly girl. And for the moment Mrs. Cave seemed only too much inclined to obey her.
For within with the men it was Johnnie Collins again, and Mrs. Cave’s keen eyes had noticed a black figure standing just opposite in the shadow of the old gateway, that gave zest to the situation.
“He might as well ha’ brought ’is smart missus round for us to ’ave a look at,” said one, “but I s’pose we ain’t fit for such as ’im now-a-days.”
“Lord, it ain’t Johnnie’s fault,” said another 215for Johnnie, though sometimes envied for the odd shillings he used to earn as a lad, through lending his handsome face and figure to be an artist’s model—had yet ever been a favourite, for he had been the easiest, most good-natured comrade in the world, and could always be led anywhere by any one.
“No, there ain’t no beastly pride about Johnnie!” declared a third, “but they say as ’is missus leads ’im a smarter dance nor ever ’is ’ard old mother did, and won’t let ’im come nigh the old lady now, so as ’e has to get away on the sly.”
Mrs. Cave strained her eyes, for she saw the gaunt figure creep out of the shadow at these words and quietly climb the village street; it was the widow as she had thought. Yes, and positively—lounging slowly down towards her—was that very son of hers in his elegant suit of grey homespun. It was as good as a play. Mrs. Cave hurried softly down the steps by the terrace and warily followed Widow Collins up the road. Curiosity was certainly Mrs. Cave’s besetting sin.
“Why, mother,” said the young man softly, “where have you been? I just went round to the Vicarage with your basket of linen, and when I got in again you were gone. Who would ever have thought to find you a-gossiping! But, there, indeed it does my heart good to see you hob-nobbing with the neighbours, and not so lonesome as you might be.”
216The old woman took no note of this that to her might have seemed a weird jest. She did not even smile, but she said quickly: “I’m sorry you went round with the linen, John. There weren’t no call. I’ve got used to doing it myself now, and I don’t like it meddled with.”
“Why, I always used to,” he began.
But she interrupted him sharply. “Never you mind what you used to do,” she said pettishly, as though half ashamed of herself. “You ain’t here all the year round, nor I don’t want you—and what I do every week you needn’t to do just for once.”
“What, are you going to blame me now for being up in London,” he began, nervously laughing, “when it was you drove me there first?”
“Blame you!” she cried, and then stopped. “There,” she said, “you let me be, that’s all I want. I’ll see to myself so long as I’m above ground.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but she laid a quick, trembling hand on his coat-sleeve.
“Ye used to have to mind me,” she said, and her voice shook a little, “for, Lord knows, I was a bit ’ard with you o’ times! Ye’ve got to do other’s bidding now, and I’m glad on it. But ye’ll mind your mother to-day for the last time.”
Mrs. Cave, as she played eavesdropper, involuntarily thought of the day when her neighbour had seen the widow give a jam-tart to the lad on the 217sly, and she looked for her to kiss him now as she had kissed him then. But the old woman’s keen ear had caught the sound of the step behind her, and though the young fellow stooped towards her impulsively she pushed him back.
“Come,” she whispered, “let’s get ’ome to supper,” and she tried to hurry up the road, but not before Mrs. Cave had placed herself abreast of them, and holding out a friendly hand to Johnnie, had said effusively: “There, now, I thought it were Mr. Collins! But, ’pon my word, it be so long since we’ve seen you ’ere, there ain’t no knowing you again. And you so smart, too! Why, you’ll scare care to shake hands with a poor body like me.”
They all three stopped, and Johnnie blushed as he took her hand, perhaps with shame or perhaps with annoyance, knowing that the woman must have overheard his mother’s foregoing words—but the mother’s own face was as iron.
Mrs. Cave walked graciously on beside them, but the widow never glanced at her nor took any heed of her, but presently just stopped short in the road, and, hastily producing from her pocket the yellow envelope of a telegram, said quickly to her son: “There, I declare, I’d clean forgot! And I come down here on purpose to find ye too! The post-mistress brought this ’ere for ye.” And she held it out to him as she spoke.
The young man’s face fell a little, and he held 218the document in his hand as though fearing to open it.
He had stopped walking, and Mrs. Cave stopped too, and as neither mother nor son spoke she said pleasantly to the former: “Well, now I ’ope there’s no ill news to spoil your treat for you, Mrs. Collins, for I’m sure you’ll be proud to show him off to us all to-morrow o’ church time, and small blame to you. Though to be sure,” added she, turning to the young man, while the battered bow in her well-worn bonnet positively wagged with her eagerness, “ye might ha’ brought your wife with ye to see your old friends! For all folk do say she’s a lady born and bred, and it stands to reason we ain’t good enough for such as that.”
Mrs. Cave smiled, and Mrs. Collins’ face wore a mingled expression of pride and scorn, as she listened. She had forgotten the telegram; she lifted her head royally, gazing with satisfaction in her weary eyes at this handsome son of hers who was outwardly so like a gentleman that she might well be excused for thinking that folk really supposed him to be one. She thought he was one, and little guessed that she had blindly done her best to crush out of him those natural qualities of devotion and tenderness that were really the most like to what she desired him to be. If she had been angry with him for compromising his dignity, it was just because she was proud of him. She was proud even of his condescension to her. Yes, she was proud in 219secret to-night, but to-morrow she would be proud openly—before them all. It would be a triumph that would more than repay her for many patient years.
But Johnnie had opened the telegram. His face had changed; one could see it even in the shifting light of conflicting moon and twilight. There had been some sort of assurance in it before, and it had been gay and smiling; now it was tremulous, ashamed, and frightened.
He took out his watch, and the joyful pride faded out of the old woman’s face as she saw him do it.
“When’s the last train to Seacombe?” said he.
“Half-past nine,” answered Mrs. Cave, for the mother seemed suddenly to have lost the power of speech. “But whatever do you want to know that for?”
Johnnie turned to his mother. There was a sort of shame-faced humility in his attitude that belied an attempted swagger in his speech. “I shall have to go into Seacombe to-night, mother,” said he. “It’s very important. It’s—well, it’s business, you see, and a man must think of that first of all.”
“Lawk-a-mercy!” cried Mrs. Cave. “And you scarce ’ere a few hours! Why, there ain’t no business to do on a Saturday night, man! And you’ll never get a train back in time for church in the morning. You’d never disappoint your mother of that?”
220But the old woman had recovered her composure now, and answered him.
“Business be always first,” said she, “to them as wants to get on in the world; and it wouldn’t be a mother as’d want her son to miss it. Come, John, there’ll just be time to get your supper afore ye go.”
The two went up the street together, and Mrs. Cave stood staring after them. Then she went back to the “Look-out,” and gave the benefit of her investigations to the village.
“It be my belief as that message were from ’is wife,” cried she. “It be my belief she was cross at ’im coming ’ere, and wasn’t going to let him stay a minute longer. And, Lord, any one might know he’d never dare say a masterful woman nay—be it wife or be it mother! Well, it serves the old soul right. She brought ’im up above ’is station, and she druv ’im and druv ’im all the time ’e was young, and, ’pon my word, ’e be just like a poor sheep as don’t know which way to run if there ain’t some one behind ’im with a stick.”
“Yet there’s good in the lad, I do believe,” said the grocer, who had just honoured the terrace for a few moments with his presence on his way home from the shop; “and one can’t choose but be sorry for the woman, for she’s worked ’ard for ’im.”
“Lor’ bless ye, she don’t mind,” laughed Mrs. Cave. “She’d rather ’ave ’im druv—though it be away from ’er—than not see ’im keep the ’igh road. 221She knows well enough as some one ’ave got to drive ’im. But we sha’n’t see Mrs. Collins at chapel to-morrow mornin’.”
In the latter part of her surmise Mrs. Cave was not correct. Mrs. Collins appeared at chapel, sternly neat in her rusty black, and was more gracious than she had ever been known to be before. As the little congregation poured out into the mellow autumn sunshine, where the birches were silver and yellow against the blue sky, and against the purple downs, and where the creepers lay crimson upon the grey walls of the cottages, a burly old farmer came up to her when she was returning Mrs. Cave’s commiserating greeting. “Why, Mrs. Collins, that son o’ your’s ’ave grown a smart young man, and no mistake,” said he. “I seen ’im get out o’ the train last night at Seacombe. There was a lady come to meet ’im. A fine dressed-up lady she were too, as might ha’ held up ’er ’ead with the best. It was ’is wife, as I made out. Lucy he called her.”
Mrs. Cave, who had pressed up to hear, shot a hasty glance at Mr. Barfield, and nodded her head.
But the widow did not notice it. Her eyes were far away on the dancing sea that shone so blue beyond the mile of yellow marsh where the street opened at the turn down the hill; she dropped the heavy lids over the triumph that was in them, but a flush crept to her sunken cheek, and she pressed her thin lips together as though to crush the smile that she knew hovered around them.
222“Yes,” she said, demurely, “Lucy be the name of my son’s wife.”
“Well, and a handsome couple they make, then,” declared the farmer, “and well-to-do, too, as it seems. They druv off in a ’ired fly, they did. They’ll be driving over here next and driving you off along wi’ ’em.”
Again Mrs. Collins closed her lips over a smile. “I’m too old for strange places,” said she quietly.
“Well, well,” said the farmer, “you’ve a son to be proud of anyways. He’s done well for himself.”
Then Mrs. Collins lifted her eyes. “He ’ave done what I meant ’im to do,” she said slowly, “and I am proud of him.”
She stood a moment looking round upon them all one after another, as though tasting her triumph. Then she shook hands with the farmer, nodded to the rest, and went away slowly to her lonely cottage against the downs.
The farmer smiled rather foolishly, looking after her. He knew the widow but little. “Rather a queer sort of a body, ain’t she?” said he questioningly.
“Aye, sir, that she be indeed,” put in Mrs. Cave, the ever-ready. “If you’d believe it, she’d sooner never ’ave seed that son of hers again than ’ave ’ad ’im marry a girl of his own station as wouldn’t have took ’im away from ’er to make a gentleman of ’im. There’s pride for ye!”
The farmer looked surprised, but the grocer—approaching 223at that moment, fresh from his responsible Sunday duties in his irreproachable black clothes—put in his word cheerily.
“Oh,” said he, “the women make him out too bad. ’E’s not a bad sort. ’E’ll be sure to come back and see her again.”
And after that the congregation dispersed to their homes.
But though Johnnie Collins was not a bad sort, though he often begged his mother in a vague sort of way to come up to London and see him, and showed nothing but disappointment when she persistently refused, something always happened at the last moment to prevent him from coming down to see her.
He often wrote to her and often, too, sent her little sums of money, which the post-mistress declared she always cashed with a very sour face; and once his letter said that he intended to come and bring his little son to see grandmother. But “business” as usual intervened, and the little lad was sent down at last with a maidservant—the fresh air being considered beneficial for him after some childish ailment. Then it was that the old tree might have been said, as it were, to bloom afresh. All the tenderness that out of a Spartan pursuit of a distinct and difficult object had been withheld from her own boy’s childhood was lavished upon this little flower of her strange ambition.
Mrs. Cave and Mrs. Neave and Mr. Barfield all had tales to tell of this secret but undoubted transformation. 224The fair-haired babe and his stern grandmother were seen wandering along the lanes hand in hand as the twilight fell upon the day’s work, or when the August moon rose at the sun-setting—gold upon the golden harvest land. He was seen teazing her at the wash-tub, she patiently submitting, and she was even known beyond a doubt to have caught him in her arms in the open churchyard where the whole village might have seen her, and to have kissed him there to her heart’s content.
And even when that glad three weeks was over, and the boy went back to his parents, there were those who declared that the light never faded again from the old woman’s eyes till she was laid in the grave not two months afterwards.
Some one found her dead one day beside her own lonely fireside. In her hand was a letter from her son; it contained a £5 note, and said he wished it could have been more, but that they had an establishment to keep up now and their expenses were heavy.
Mrs. Neave was shocked, but Mrs. Cave declared that Johnnie had fulfilled all that his mother required of him, and that if she could but have known that he walked behind her coffin in a well-brushed suit of black broad-cloth, it would have added the last touch to her perfect satisfaction.
Be that as it may, and though the neighbours pitied her, there was a peaceful and a triumphant smile on the dead, old face.
A WOMAN’S WAGER
The postman came swinging down the village street. It was morning, but the street was already astir, for though it was but early spring, and the apple-blossom was not yet out, the weather was warm, and those who found spare moments managed to get to the cottage doors and look out upon the sunshine.
At the corner the mill-wheel was going round, and upon the bridge that spanned the stream a knot of girls had gathered, with whom the miller’s son and a young farmer on his way to the early train were holding merry converse.
The postman came past. He bore the character of a surly fellow, though he was young yet, and should have been too well-mannered not to throw a civil word to a pretty girl. But some said he had been disappointed in love, and had sworn never to look at woman more.
“What, never a letter for me?” cried the foremost of the girls, planting herself full in his path as 228he went by. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re a postman for, Mr. Frewin, for it don’t seem to me as if ye ever had nothing to carry!”
She planted her arms akimbo and laughed in his face, her own a blaze of sweet merriment, too pretty to be bold, and too frank and sincere to be anything but captivating.
But Ben Frewin neither answered nor looked up, and the girl drew back baffled, but no wit discomposed, as he strode past her.
“Not a bit of it, ye’ll never do it, Letty,” laughed another of the girls, and the young farmer lit his pipe with a merry twinkle in his eye.
“Well, I shouldn’t like to say as Miss Letty couldn’t do any blessed thing as she pleased,” declared he gallantly, “but I’m bound to allow, it don’t look likely so far.” And he nodded to them all round as he went on his way to the station.
“What don’t look like it?” asked the young miller, coming out of the mill with his whitened face. He had not heard the last passage of arms.
“’Ere’s Letty Cox swears she’ll get Mr. Frewin to be her beau for a Sunday evening,” laughed one of the girls, nudging her friend good-humouredly.
The miller looked at Letty sharply; then he smiled.
“Bob Frewin ’ain’t been seen walking with a young ’ooman since Bett throwed him over,” said he.
229“Well that ain’t no reason,” smiled Letty with a little pout, and a killing glance from under the black fringes of her soft grey eyes.
The miller answered it as it became him to do, and the girl who had spoken before giggled: “Lor, ain’t she just a bit set up?” said she.
But the miller did not seem to mind.
“Ye promised to walk with me next Sunday though,” said he persuasively.
“There’s no tellin’ what I might be wantin’ to do next Sunday,” said she. “It might be rainin’ for aught we know.”
“It might,” allowed he. “But again it mightn’t, and if it don’t—well, ye promised.”
“Did I then?” repeated Letty innocently. “Well, there’s other Sundays, and I bet Mr. Frewin shall walk with me one on ’em.”
“Done with you for a pair o’ gloves,” cried the miller, laughing, “for I bet he won’t!” And Letty flushed and demurred, for such a precise arrangement as this had not occurred to her; but the girls were delighted and wouldn’t let her refuse.
“They’ll be sure to be a nice pair, Letty,” whispered they. And Letty thought so too, and since she was so very, very sure to succeed, it seemed a pity to forego both the gift and the glory of winning it.
“All right then,” said she at last, blushing still and smiling; “when ’ave it got to be?”
“Sunday come three weeks,” declared he; but 230the other girls meant to see fair play, and vowed that this was far, very far from it.
“Well, if a woman can’t make a fool of a man in three weeks, she ain’t goin’ to do it at all,” answered he. “Ye did for me in one!”
There was a roar at this, and at that very moment the cause of all this commotion strode back again down the road passing the bridge by on the left this time, with his bundle of sorted letters in his right hand and his bag slung in front of him. He might very well have heard the miller’s last words, for they had been spoken in a loud voice, but his face was inscrutable, though the scowl upon it had deepened momentarily.
“Well,” added the miller, as he watched him pass, “I’ll grant ye you’ve a tough job, so we’ll say Sunday come four weeks. That’ll throw ye in Bank ’Oliday, and I’m sure that ought to count double.”
The girls giggled afresh as the miller went indoors.
“My, what a lark, Letty,” said one. “I wish it was me. My best gloves ain’t fit to be seen. But I don’t suppose ye’ll get ’em.”
And then they all parted and ran off to their various jobs, and left Letty, with the only one who lived up her way, to climb the village street to the old farm.
“I wish now as I ’adn’t done it,” sighed the girl half seriously.
231But the other rallied and encouraged her, envying her secretly between whiles.
The farm stood above the village, on a common that was breezy when the valley lay languid in the heat; cherry and plum-trees were a-bloom in the orchard, and daffodils along the sides of the straight brick-paved walk that led from the gate to the old-fashioned porch.
As Letty stood in that porch the very self-same evening drying her plump brown arms on a cloth after washing up the tea-things, the postman stopped at the gate and began looking through the letters in his left hand.
The girl hung down her head and blushed; she was resolved, but she had not thought she would have to begin so soon; she was not ready.
As it so happened she could not have opened her campaign more neatly. He had always set her down as a bit of a bold-faced hussy, and had never looked at her properly, but with her eyes cast down, and her fresh cheek flushed with a modest pink, he was fain to take a good stare at her, waiting for her to come down to the gate and take the letter as usual.
But somehow she did not come, and he was forced to go up the garden walk to the porch.
“I’ve got something for ye at last,” said he stiffly as she did not speak. “I ’ope it’ll be good news.” And he handed the letter.
232Still she did not look up; her courage had all forsaken her.
“Shall I lay it down ’ere?” said he, pointing to the window-sill.
“Yes, do,” answered she, “my ’ands is wet;” and then she stole a glance at him and he felt the softness of her grey eyes flash suddenly into his.
She lowered hers again at once, but the first shot in the war had been most successfully fired, although she did not guess it.
“Good evening to you,” said he hastily.
And he strode down the path again and swung to the latch-gate with a jerk.
Again Letty was sorry that she had made that silly wager.
The days passed by, and the postman had not come again to the farm with a letter, neither would the now unwilling besieger of his heart have found an opportunity of addressing him again, even had she desired to do so.
He kept himself aloof, and not all the chaff of more envious companions, nor the merry persuasion of her clever friends, could induce the girl to accost him as she had so frankly done before she had undertaken to win him.
The miller’s Sunday came round. In fresh shirt-front and well-brushed hat he turned up, as arranged, to take her for the promised walk.
233“It’s goin’ to rain,” said Letty, “the clouds is awful black.”
“We won’t go far,” answered the young man, “and I can ’old the umbrella over your ’at and feathers if it should come down a bit.”
So Letty went, but it was against her will, though she couldn’t have told you why, for the miller was a likely man for a husband, seeing that he was as handsome a fellow as any in the village, and had about the best prospects. She laughed and chatted and chaffed, however, as was her wont, and how was the postman to know, when they met him presently going soberly to evening church with his old mother, that she was not quite so merry for the rest of the way, and went home quite half-an-hour earlier than she had intended?
But that might have been because the rain came down as she had prophesied, and she had supper to get at home, and could not risk being late by staying at the mill till the storm was over, as the miller’s mother had begged her to do.
Nevertheless her skirt was drenched when she got to the top of the hill. Perhaps it was a fellow feeling in the matter of having one’s Sunday best spoilt that made her take her courage in both hands and accost the postman when she met him again, just at her own door, walking without any protection against the weather in his black broad-cloth and tall hat.
234“Won’t ye take the loan o’ my umbrella, Mr. Frewin?” said she timidly. “It’s comin’ down wonderful hard.”
Ben Frewin stopped, and as luck would have it, looked at her.
Her eyes were wistful, and there was a bashful sort of appeal in them that he had never seen there before. He could not account for it, but she might have done so; that is to say, she might have done so if she had been in the habit of analyzing her feelings. As it was, she did not know that shame for what she had undertaken was at the bottom of the sudden fit of apologetic coyness that made her so doubly and unconsciously fascinating.
From any one else, and still more from her at any other moment, Frewin would curtly have refused the offered civility. But she looked so timid and so anxious, standing there in the rain with her skirts gathered round her, and the umbrella half held out towards him, that he hadn’t the courage to snub her.
“Well, it’s real kind of you,” said he. “But ye’ll have to run indoors first, or ye’ll spoil yer pretty ’at.”
She turned and tripped up the path, and he must needs of course follow, the gate slamming to behind him. At the porch she closed the umbrella and held it out to him, but a voice from within called out authoritatively:
235“Whatever don’t ye ask Mr. Frewin to step indoors for, Letty? Ye’ll both get wet to the skin out there.”
“Please won’t ye come in?” repeated the girl obediently. “Mother and me ’ll be very pleased.” And of course she had to lift those grey eyes up to his again, and though he had sworn that he would never cross glance with theirs more, yet he found his gaze entangled afresh, and for an instant did not remove it. Then his senses awoke to their danger, and he donned his armour again hastily.
“Thank ye,” said he almost roughly, “I won’t come in now, if you please. And there ain’t no call to trouble ye for the humbrella neither. The rain’s a’most over.”
She was looking out into the garden, and would not see that disputed article which he was holding out towards her.
“Oh no,” declared she. “It’s pourin’ still. Mother won’t be pleased if ye don’t step in for five minutes.”
But he was on his guard now, and obdurate.
“Not to-night,” said he shortly. And he placed the umbrella beside her against the lintel of the door. “Men ain’t afraid of a drop o’ rain, ye know, same as a girl’d be for sake of ’er smart clothes. It’s lucky for you it didn’t come on so ’ard when you was out a-walking with Mr. Lambert.”
Mr. Lambert was the young miller, and at any other time Letty would have tittered delighted at 236this covert proof of jealousy. But to-night she was half-hurt and half-frightened at it, and shrank back into herself.
“As you please,” answered she, pouting a little. And when he had gone, and she went in to get the tea, she was quite cross at being scolded for not having made him come in, and cross again with her friend who ran over from her home opposite when the storm was past, and congratulated her upon having got that far towards the winning of her bet.
“I don’t want to win no bet,” declared she. “He’s a uncivil sort of a chap, and I don’t know as I cares to ’ave nothink to do with ’im. And what’s more, I don’t think as bettin’s nice for girls, and I don’t know as I shall go on with it.”
“Well, whatever did ye do it for then?” cried the other.
“Because ye was all a-worryin’ of me on, I suppose,” retorted Letty, with a sharpness very unlike her usual merry and good-humoured self.
“Ye didn’t ought to go for a thing and not stick to it,” said her friend, vexed to see such a good piece of fun fall flat. “But there, ye’ll do it yet. Ye never was one to cry ‘’Ware!’ There’s no ’arm in it. It’s only for a bit of a lark, and he’s fair sport, he’s such a mooney, thinkin’ as he can walk through without seein’ us. I like his cheek.”
“Well, there’s no tellin’ what I may do and what I mayn’t do,” said Letty, tossing her head, and in 237that she was perfectly right, and many had said it of her before.
“The gloves’ll be beauties, that I’ll take my oath of,” said the girl encouragingly as she went.
Nevertheless time passed, and nothing of great moment occurred in this interesting duel that so many were eagerly watching, while one at least of the combatants was unaware of being engaged in it.
One day, coming home from the next station where she had been to see a married sister, Letty found herself alone in the same carriage with Bob Frewin, who had had occasion to go to the town hard by. And though no one could exactly accuse him of an on-coming disposition, any one who had seen him would have allowed that the postman was more friendly than he had been to a girl for many a long day. Letty had noticed it herself, and though piqued by his manner on that wet Sunday, she had begun with her proudest and most off-hand mood—the mood that always “fetched” the men, but which, to do her justice, she would not have dreamed of intentionally trying on such a tough customer—she lapsed into her apologetic and gentle manner long before the journey was over. And when they reached their destination, and Letty, in shame-faced distress, found that she had dropped her return ticket, and must pay the fare over again, it was not Frewin’s loan that she would accept to replenish her empty purse. As it so happened, Mr. Lambert 238was there, going off to London, and it was his shilling that Letty chose to take, declaring that as he lived close by, she could the more easily repay it.
It was what the men called a woman’s excuse that didn’t bear sifting, and it naturally had the effect of sending Frewin off with a flea in his ear and a sour face, so that the miller very cheerfully declared to Letty in confidence, that he didn’t see any call to buy the gloves in readiness, as he had intended to do that very day.
Things, in fact, were not going at all hopefully for Letty’s wager, which was perhaps the reason why she was going about with a more serious expression than her careless beauty had ever worn before, and why she never appeared on the bridge of an evening now, and even went past knots of her old comrades in the village with a hasty nod or such a conscious bit of chaff as might have betrayed to any one her unusual state of mind.
Bank Holiday loomed in the near distance without the wager being any nearer the winning than three weeks ago. And if it had not been for an unforeseen incident perhaps it would never have been won at all. But won it was, and this was how it came about.
It was a bright, clear spring morning. A keen east wind was blowing the cherry-blossom about, and the narcissus and daffodils along the cottage path swayed beneath it; but the sun was shining, 239and it was a good drying day, so Letty had just set to at the week’s washing, and was standing with her arms white in suds, when she saw Frewin open the gate and come slowly—very slowly—up to the door. She dried her hands and went to open it.
He held out a black-edged letter towards her.
“I’m sure I ’ope it ain’t bad news,” said he sadly.
She took it with a frightened face, still drying her hands mechanically. He turned his back, preparing to depart; yet he waited until she had opened it.
A little low ripple of laughter broke from her.
“Well, I suppose I ought to be ashamed to laugh,” said she. “But, Lor’, it give me such a fright I can’t ’elp but be pleased. Ye see, my brother’s away at sea, and it do give ye a turn when ye get a thing like this. But it’s only to say as old Aunt Porter’s gone, and she’s been bedridden and childish this ten years, and I ’aven’t seed her for twenty! Mother’d say it weren’t seemly of me not to take on, but, truth to tell, I’m so pleased it ain’t Jim, I can’t seem to mind much.”
“O’ course not,” assented the postman. “Old folks is bound to go,”—and he sighed—“and when they’s lost their wits and their limbs ’tis but a ’appy release, as the saying is. Well, I’m glad it ain’t nothink wrong with yer brother,” he said as he turned to go. But he said it sadly, and sighed again.
Letty put the letter in her pocket, and lifted her eyes to his with their sweetest, kindest look.
240“It’s very friendly o’ you to mind whether the news was good or bad,” said she with a little laugh. “I’m sure it ain’t many as’d care a rap. Do you mind all the black-edged letters as ye give round now?”
There was just a thought of roguishness in the smile, and just a suspicion of the old coquettish air in the tilt of the dainty face; but it must only have been from habit, for the pretty grey eyes were a little dewy still, and the voice had none of the usual raillery in its tone.
But Frewin did not answer her question, and his quiet young face was still sad and preoccupied as he said:
“I’m in trouble myself to-day. I’d be sorry to bring the same to anybody.”
Her expression changed at once; every trace of coquetry was wiped out of it in a twinkling. She came a step nearer to him.
“In trouble!” echoed she. “Now I am sorry. But p’r’aps ye wouldn’t care to tell, me being but a stranger, so to speak.”
“I don’t know as you’re so much a stranger,” he began, and then he broke off. “I ha’n’t got nobody but mother,” he added in a moment, irrelevantly.
“What, she ain’t sick?” cried the girl quickly, with real feeling in her voice.
“Got to go to the ’orspital,” answered Frewin shortly. “It’s her eyes. They say as she’ll be 241stone blind if she don’t ’ave su’thing done immediate. They say as it’d be coward-like o’ me not to persuade her to it, for it’s sarten-sure to be all right; but, Lor’, I ain’t got no faith in doctors.”
Letty was silent—most likely she shared his opinion, and could find nothing consolatory to say, but her pretty face was full of sympathy. He allowed himself one piece of comfort; he looked at it. Their eyes met, and hers filled with tears; but not before she had poured something into his that was not only sympathy.
“Good-day,” said he quickly, and in another minute he was hurrying down the road.
But the wager was won, though the village little guessed it, and though Letty gave that part of the matter never a thought just then—never a thought till Bank Holiday came and went without her having so much as a bit of a swain for the day—never a thought till the girls came up and laughed at her, and pitied her for having spent it sitting alone in the chimney-corner.
Then she thought of it, but not as they imagined. She did not tell them that she might have had the handsome miller for a “walking-stick” without any trouble at all—that he had laughingly declared he was in luck’s way, since he was like to keep the gloves and get her company as well, upon which she had tossed her head with all those old airs of supremacy which so forsook her in her intercourse with Bob Frewin, and told him that he might keep 242the gloves and welcome, but that her company he should never have again; she did not tell them that she might have been winning her wager that very afternoon, but that the young postman had been obliged to use this one day off duty to take his mother up to the hospital; she did not tell them, because she was doing her very best to forget she had ever made that wager at all.
But she was destined to win it for all that. The operation on the old woman’s eyes passed off most successfully, and every morning and every evening as Bob Frewin strode up and down the village street, with his post-bag swinging in front of him, and his sorted bundle of letters in his left hand, Letty managed to be somewhere about in the garden or the porch just to hear the last news of the invalid.
When Saturday evening came, the weather, that had been wet all the week, cleared up for a fine Sunday; it was the very last Sunday that was left to win the wager in, but it was not on that account that Letty’s heart beat as she saw Frewin stop at the wicket, and not seeing her in the front garden, fumble a minute at the latch, and come half reluctantly up to the porch.
She was glad that she was in the orchard beside the house, taking down the linen that she had hung out in the morning to dry—for the big apple-tree, that was pink with budding bloom, sheltered her, and from behind the sheet that she was just 243going to unfasten from the line she could watch him unseen.
But she wondered whether her mother would say where she was, and she just edged a little further beyond her ambuscade as she saw him turn away from the door.
Her heart beat, but—yes, mother had told, or else he had seen her, for he came towards her through the side wicket.
Then she came forward, and her smile was so tremulous, and her cheeks so blushing, that he seemed to forget all his stand-offishness and any cause of offence that he might have, and to take heart of grace from her bashfulness.
“Ye are busy,” said he, “but I won’t keep ye long. Mother’s getting on first-rate, and the Sister has writ me a line for her. There’s a message for you in it.”
The grey eyes went up to his.
“I do call that kind,” said she. “What is it?”
It was the young man who blushed now.
“It’s a foolish message,” said he with a little laugh. “But mothers are that way. Anyway it don’t seem fair not to give it ye.”
“Oh, never mind,” faltered the girl, for there was a misgiving at her heart. But he had taken the letter out of his pocket.
“Tell Letty Cox,” he said, “as I thank her for her kindness to my lad in his trouble.”
244“Kindness!” repeated she tremulously, and with downcast face.
“Well, when a feller’s a bit down, miss, ye wouldn’t think how it sort o’ cheers ’im up to ’ave somebody ’pear to care. It’s not many thinks of an old woman, but mother’s all the world to me.”
“O’ course she is,” murmured Letty.
“Leastways,” added the postman, rather darkly, “I didn’t think as I should ever think of another female but ’er again.”
“No,” said Letty softly.
“But there’s never no tellin’ what folks’ll do—man nor woman,” added Frewin wisely.
“No,” said Letty again.
And then there was a pause, during which she unfixed another white sheet from against the gentle blue of the evening sky.
“You’ll excuse me if I’m too free, miss,” said Frewin presently. “But you see—well, there, it was talk o’ the village, so ye must ’ave ’eard it with the rest! I was fooled once, and that’s the truth, and I don’t mean to be fooled again.”
There was no answer, and Letty’s face was somehow hidden behind the blushing blossom of a low branch of the apple-tree.
“So p’r’aps you’d excuse me,” he repeated, “if I was to ask you, as a plain man, whether you was a-walkin’ with Lambert o’ Bank ’Oliday when I was in town?”
245The face emerged from behind its leafy screen, and was no longer tremulous but haughty.
“Well, it is a queer question,” said she, “and no mistake! But,” she added quickly, seeing him turn away,—“well, there, I don’t mind answering: Mr. Lambert asked me, but I didn’t fancy ’im. I sat alone all day.”
And it may have been the shame of such a confession from an acknowledged village belle that called the blush again to her cheek.
“Ye don’t say so, now,” declared the man, pleased. “Ye see, ye took Lambert’s loan as against mine the other day at the station, and, one thing and another—well, there—a man ain’t goin’ to be fooled twice, you bet.”
At the last word she hung her head lower than ever, and there was another pause.
At last he said, sheepishly now: “But I don’t s’pose ye would walk with me next Sunday. Though it seems clearin’ up for a nice day.”
He waited for an answer, but none came. Only after a minute or so a little sound as of stifled sobbing came from behind the white screen.
“Lor, whatever is the matter?” cried Frewin aghast. “Is it me that’s upset ye, my dear? There, ye don’t need to come if ye don’t want to. Any girl can say a feller nay. There’s no ’arm done yet.”
But still she cried on.
“I’d come right enough,” faltered she at last, 246between the sobs. “But—but there is ’arm done.”
And then suddenly she dried her eyes, and looked up at him with frank, fearless gaze.
“Your mother said as I’d been kind to ye, Mr. Frewin,” said she. “But I ’ain’t been—for I’ve behaved bad to ye. Yes, I ’ave. And ye said as you weren’t goin’ to be fooled again. And—and I like ye too well to fool ye, and that’s truth. And—and so I’d rather tell ye as I ’ave fooled ye already.”
His face went white, and he stared at her.
“Fooled me!” echoed he. “Not a bit of it!”
“Yes, I ’ave,” insisted she doggedly. “The girls said ye was a rude, surly chap as wouldn’t throw a word to any of us, and I swore I’d make you. And then Charlie Lambert dared me to, and wagered me a pair o’ gloves it’d be no go. It was just a lark,” said she half defiantly, but then added, with a tell-tale throb of the voice, “though you can’t say as I’ve ever done it.”
Frewin did not smile, the unconscious humour of the phrase did not seem to strike him; he was upset.
“It was a dirty trick to play on a chap,” said he at last, “and Lambert shall pay me out for it.”
“No, come, that ain’t fair,” said Letty quickly. “It was a dirty trick, and I knew that soon as ever I’d done it, but it was me that did it, and it’s me as has got to pay.”
247“Ye seem bound to stand up for Lambert,” growled Frewin.
Letty looked up; she clenched her fist.
“I ’ate ’im,” said she between her teeth. “Yes, I do,” she repeated, though half shame-facedly, as he gazed at her surprised. “I ’ate ’im, ’cos it was ’im as made me do it.”
“’Ate ’im, do you?” echoed Frewin, with the ghost of a contented smile. “Well, may be that’s fair.”
“I don’t care if it’s fair or no,” declared Letty stoutly. “May be it ain’t, for I’d ought to ha’ known better myself, but I ’ate ’im all the same. Though that ain’t no reason why you should mention the matter to ’im, for it stands to reason I’d no call to agree to what ’e said, and it’s me as ’as got to pay.”
“It was ’e ought to ha’ known better,” grumbled Frewin again, still with a scowl on his honest face, “for ’e’s a man, and you expect a man to know better nor a girl.” But, after a pause, the scowl fading just a trifle, and the smile broadening instead: “So you ’ate ’im, do you?” he asked once more.
Letty dried her eyes afresh, and it was her turn to smile just a wee little bit. She had watched these symptoms before—for was she not the village belle?—and even in the midst of her misery and remorse she could not help smiling as she recognized them under a new guise.
“O’ course I do,” she repeated emphatically. 248Then she turned and pulled down another sheet off the line, and another and another, till her arms were quite full.
Meanwhile Frewin stood watching her, indecision in every line of his face and figure. She was very pretty, very graceful about her work, very strong and hearty. Her fresh cheeks were pink even amid the pink blossom, and her golden hair shone against the golden sky, where the sun was setting on a bank of soft rose-washed grey clouds behind the trees of the orchard.
“I s’pose anyways ye are sure to be taken up to-morrow evening?” said he at last. “A pretty girl like you always is o’ Sundays.”
“Well, if you know as I’m taken up, I s’pose I must be,” said she with a little pout.
“Ye didn’t answer just now,” he said.
“Maybe ye didn’t ask,” retorted she.
“Well, there, I’ll ask now,” said he with a bit of a shame-faced laugh. “Ye ’ave got a way with ye, miss, and no mistake!”
“Don’t ask to please me,” she said with the old toss of the little head. But the smile took the venom out of the words, and Frewin bowed beneath it as he had been slowly bowing ever since he first felt the flash of it.
“No, I’ll ask to please myself,” said he. And he went up to her and took her one free hand in his. Then the blushes crept right up into the bright hair, and there was silence.
249“But we won’t walk hereabouts,” murmured she after a pause. “I’d not like to meet—folks. I tell ye what I should like if mother ’ll spare me, and that’d be for to go off right early and up in the train to see yer poor mother.”
“Would ye now?” declared he, well satisfied. “She’d be rare and pleased. Then that’s what we’ll do.”
The grey eyes stole a look at him.
“And by-gones to be by-gones?” begged she timidly. “And not a word to Charlie Lambert?”
He frowned a little.
“That’s as I sees fit,” said he.
“No, it’s as I sees fit,” murmured she softly, and her face was very close to his.
He smiled vaguely.
“You leave Charlie Lambert to me,” she added presently. “He pretty soon knew I was off it as soon as I was on. He’s got a flea o’ mine in his ear a’ready, and ’e’ll ’ave another if ’e don’t look out. You leave ’em all to me.”
“I s’pose everybody’s bound to do yer bidding sooner or later,” laughed Frewin half ruefully, “me as well as most.”
“Yes, don’t you make no mistake about that,” smiled she. “And what’s more, don’t ye ever go for to fancy that because I was such a bold-faced silly as to lay that wager I ever went for to win it. If ever there was a man I didn’t try to catch, it was you.”
“Ye’ve caught me though,” said he.
“That’s as may be,” she said. “But I was too frightened at what I’d done to fish for you.”
“P’r’aps that’s ’ow ye caught me then,” he said. “And p’r’aps that’s ’ow I must needs forgive ye!”
So the wager was won, but never paid.
For the trip to town was so deftly managed from a neighbouring station in the early hours of the Sunday, that nobody guessed it had taken place; and on the evening of the same day upon the old bridge, Letty swore a bold, brave lie that she had lost what she declared she had never tried to win. The laugh against her was loud, but then so was her own in reply, and when, six weeks later, instead of accepting Mr. Lambert’s gloves, she accepted Bob Frewin himself, she was too happy to care which way the laugh went. But to tell the truth, folk are good-natured enough; and if the girls suspected Letty’s little fraud, and, nudging one another, declared she was a clever one, they had no objection to her triumph, for Charlie Lambert was the better match of the two, and he was left for somebody else.
Two women and a lad came down the hill towards the stream on a frosty January evening at sunset.
It had been a good typical Christmas, and though the snow had partially disappeared, the river ran grey in the cold air, and the frost sparkled on the twigs of willows and on the brown stalks of tall water plants upon the banks.
The lad lounged easily along with his cap on the back of his head, his hands in his breeches pockets, and his pipe in his mouth; but the women bore burthens—one a bundle of brushwood on her head, the other a sack of potatoes—and as they reached the bridge they stopped to rest them awhile on its old brick parapet.
“’Old yer row, do!” the boy was saying. “What do it matter to you whether old Jeremiah ’ave a-turned me off agin or no? Ain’t I my own master?”
“Oh, ye’re yer own master safe enough,” retorted 254the woman, a sharp-featured body of middle age. “There ain’t nobody as ’ll worrit ’emselves much over ye now ye’ve put yer pore mother underground. If that’s what ye wanted when ye set to work to break ’er ’eart, why ye’ve got it.”
“Well, I want it now anyways,” retorted the lad with a brutal laugh.
“You’re an ungrateful beast, that’s what ye are!” said the woman shrilly. “I’d ’ave guv ye bite and sup for a night or two, for my pore sister’s sake, till ye got work again; but I shan’t now.”
“Nobody asted ye to!” laughed the lad. “When ye guv me a shake-down before ye said ye did it for ’er, but ye wanted my earnin’s all the same. And when I was turned off the farm ye turned me out in the road. I’d sooner shift for myself, thank ye!”
“Do it, then!” retorted the woman. “It looks like it, it do, and you sent adrift agin this very night! Lord, to think the devil o’ drink can get into a lad afore ’e’s forgot ’is mother’s milk!”
“If you don’t stop that jaw I’ll——” began the boy.
But the other woman laid a hand on his arm. She had a fresher, plumper, kindlier face than her neighbour, and she gave him a little friendly push as she whispered—
“There, now, there, she’s yer own mother’s sister ye know. You go ’ome.”
“Mother’s sister be damned,” said the lad irreverently. 255“She’s come that dodge over me long enough. She wouldn’t lift a finger to ’elp me, and I won’t ’ave no more of ’er preachments. I ain’t got no one to think of, and what I earns I’ll spend as I please.”
“A jolly lot you ever did hanything else,” began the aunt afresh, but the neighbour stopped her mouth.
“Now you go ’ome, Nat, you go on ’ome,” reiterated she to the boy; and “Can’t ye see as yer on’y aggrawatin’ the lad, Mary Ann?” she whispered to the woman. “Let ’im be, do! Maybe ’e misses his ’ome and his pore mother more than you thinks for.”
But Nat laughed as he blew the ashes from his pipe.
“Ye needn’t trouble to speak up for me, marm,” he sneered. “Lord, she don’t ’urt me, bless you,” and he snapped his fingers in the direction of his relative. “A precious sight I ever cared for the women-folk’s jaw. Oh, yes, I’ll go ’ome,” and something that somehow did not belong to the scowl flitted across the passionate young face that self-indulgence had so sorrowfully marred. “I’ll go ’ome! But where I goes there I bides—ye ’ear that? No one ain’t got no right to interfere wi’ me. I won’t never darken your doors no more, and if I’m a-goin’ to the devil I’ll go my own way.”
He stuck his cap on the back of his head again 256and his hands in his pockets, and lounged up the road singing a scrap of a low song in a louder voice than he could keep quite steady.
“It’s a pity, so it is,” murmured the stout woman, looking after him. “There was the makin’s of a nice lad in ’im once, I’ll be sworn.”
“You’re a new comer to the place,” retorted Mary Ann, “and that’s all you knows! If ’is pore mother didn’t fret the very guts out of ’erself a-tryin’ to bring ’im up respeckable! But the devil of ’is father were in ’im—that’s where it was. The low brute that man was! And died same as ’e lived. Found on the road—i’stead o’ dyin’ respeckable in ’is bed! As if ’e ’adn’t ha’ done the woman injury enough! Why—there was a Crowner’s inquest and all! But, Lor’, when all was said and done, I declare I niver spent a comfortabler ’alf hour than when I seed ’em nail ’im down! For, ye see, I says to myself: ‘Clara ’ll take on a bit, but she’s well rid on ’im. She can work to bring one up, and the boy ’ll soon be able to work for ’er.’ Lord, I didn’t reckon as ’e’d be a wuss devil nor ’is father, bad luck to ’im!”
“May be ’is pore mother spoiled ’im, being but the one, so to speak,” said the other half apologetically.
“Spoiled ’im!” laughed the other, preparing to shoulder her burthen again. “I reckon she did! Many’s the time I swore she’d be punished for it!”
257“Well, I s’pose she was,” said the neighbour simply. “There, pore soul, I’m sorry for ’er.”
“’E broke ’er ’eart, ’e did, the young scoundrel,” growled Mary Ann, as she hitched the bundle of brushwood forward on to her back. “And I’m sure I ’ope he’ll break his own neck.”
“Oh, come, don’t say that,” murmured the gentler spirit reprovingly. “I dare say ’e’s lonesome enough anyways.”
“Lonesome!” sneered the incensed relative. “Much use ’e made of ’er company when ’e’d got it! Out on the roads, or what not, from night till morn and more! Didn’t ye ’ear ’im say precious little ’e cared for the women’s jaw? Precious little ’e did. Precious little ’e cared for aught about ’er, pore soul. Why, ’e was dead drunk the very day of ’er funeral!”
Mary Ann trudged forward as she spoke, hurling the words out against the wind under the penthouse of her burthen, and the sympathetic neighbour, standing behind her with her hands in her hips, shook her head sadly.
“That was bad,” she murmured, “that was bad, sure enough.”
Then she too turned to take up her load.
The potatoes were heavy; she failed to raise them on to her back at the first effort.
Just then the gate on to the railway line slammed to, and a girl coming down on to the bridge hurried forward and gave her a lift with them.
258“Thank ye, thank ye,” said the woman. And when she had settled her burthen comfortably, glancing up to see who had helped her, she added again: “Oh, thank ye. Ye’re a stranger in the parish, ain’t ye?”
The girl blushed. She was pretty enough, but she was thin and pale, not to say wan, and her cotton dress was poor covering for the wintry day, and her ill-fitting black jacket and shabby straw hat betokened an even greater poverty than was usual in the village.
She blushed as one who knew the tone and the words, and was wont to understand beneath them the insinuation, “You’re a tramp.”
But she was mistaken. The woman before her prided herself on knowing a respectable female when she saw her, and though poor and miserable, the girl did not look “a bad ’un.”
“I’m a-goin’ on further,” said she evasively.
“Oh!” said the woman again. Then, as not wishing to be inquisitive, she added, “Well, thank ye. I wish ye a good evenin’. It’s cold weather; it’s best to walk fast to keep warm.”
And she nodded, moving on quickly to suit her action to her words.
“Good evenin’,” said the girl.
But she did not follow the advice.
Though she carried but the smallest of little bundles, she rested it on the brick parapet as the women had done with their heavier loads, 259and stood looking down the river into the afterglow.
It was four o’clock. The sun had set, and the poplars that crossed the stream and the fields, dividing meadow-land from water-cress grounds, shot straight arrows against a pale crimson sky, that was cool even in its fire in the cold, crisp air. Every little bare twig on the slender, bare boughs of the poplars pointed upwards; the willows by the river, though less spare and less commanding, modestly followed their example; the sky might have been constraining with its tender glory, but the girl—after one glance around on the clear-cut winter landscape, so calm with the patience of waiting Nature, but so cruelly silent with the dearth of stirring life—fastened her eyes on the water and on the water alone.
The long strings of half-dead, slimy weed that swayed idly to and fro, attached and yet floating, like the traveller’s joy on a summer’s day a-moving in the wind—or better, yes, much better still—like some dank, clinging cotton stuffs, held to the gravel bed by some heavy weight, yet erring softly, saturated with much water, on the bosom of the stream—these seemed to fascinate her beyond the power to tear away her gaze.
At last she shivered—the frost was intense—and lifted her head and sighed, a long, miserable, moaning sigh. Then she put her hand in her pocket and drew forth a letter—a letter and a thimble.
260The moon, that had risen in time to see the sun go down, had just crept high enough in the sky to shine through the bare branches of the elms in the meadow beside the lower stream: it shone now upon the paper which the girl held trembling in her hand.
“Don’t ye come back here,” said the letter. “There ain’t no work to be got ’ere, and I’ve my hands full enough to keep them as are left.”
There was more, but she did not read it. She crushed the paper in her hands, and let it flutter slowly down into the water, but the thimble she put back into her pocket. Then she rested her two elbows on the brick parapet and leaned her head in them and cried softly to herself, still looking down into the darkening water as it lapped to and fro over the swaying body of weeds.
A bell sounded from the village on the hill; it cut clear and sharp across the frosty air; it was the bell from the straw-plaiting factory, sending the girls home from their day’s work. She knew it well enough, and roused herself at the sound, moving her hand to take up her little bundle once more. But in the waning light she pushed it forward instead of grasping it, and, in spite of a quick clutch, it slipped over the rounded edge of the parapet and fell with a thud into the river below. She gave a little cry as she followed it with her eyes, leaning over a long way to try and descry it in the green water beneath.
261But there was nothing to be seen but the same swaying, dank body of weeds. And presently she gave a low, harsh laugh, and shrugged her shoulders, and pulling her miserable little black jacket across her chest, as though to persuade it to cling more closely to her frail, shivering body, she turned away and walked quickly up the by-path that led to the high road above.
Lights were burning in the cottage windows along the village street, and from the little straw factory on the left-hand side beside the Baptist chapel, the women were pouring forth into the road—some gay, some weary, some young, and some middle-aged, some hurrying to other duties at home, some loitering to chatter and chaff—most of them noisy, but all of them busy with work done and to do.
The girl watched them askance, drawing back under the shadow of the hedgerow, for the moon had not risen far enough yet to illumine the way, and the shadows had grown dark. When all had passed by or dispersed she moved out again, and stepped up to the door whence they had issued, and which still stood ajar on to the road.
She knocked at it and a woman appeared.
“What d’ye want?” said she.
Her tone was not unkind but it was sharp—the tone of a woman with her hands full of work, and no time for those who have theirs empty. The girl answered surlily.
262“I want work,” she said.
“Well, there ain’t none to be ’ad ’ere.”
“I’m used to the straw-plaiting and shape-sewing too,” said the girl more humbly.
“Well, ye must go elsewhere. We’re full up ’ere,” said the woman, “and shall be for weeks, as far as I know. ’Ave ye got a reference?”
The girl nodded.
“Sort of, I s’pose,” said the woman shrewdly.
“I’ve got my character,” repeated the girl doggedly.
“Well, ye must take it elsewhere then,” said the woman again. “I’m sorry for ye. Good-night.”
And she shut the door quietly.
The girl turned away. She did not speak, nor even mutter, nor even sigh. But her wan little face was set and hard.
She looked down the road towards the open country, and up it where the cottages clustered, and she chose the forward way.
Wayfarers had almost cleared out of the village street, for it was quite dark now and bitterly cold; fires were burning and supper was preparing behind frosty windows and scanty window-curtains. Here and there a weary labourer or hurrying house-wife trudged past, but most people were indoors by now, most people were at home.
The girl walked on till she came near to the public-house near the village-end, where the signpost points separate fingers up the fork of the road.
263There was a solitary lamp above the post-office hard by, and she stopped under it and put her hand in her pocket; the thimble and one halfpenny was all that she drew out, and she put them back again.
Then she looked behind her.
There was no one by, no one coming, and she crept stealthily up to the window of the “public,” and laid her face against the cold pane, gazing into the light and brightness and warmth within.
There were four or five men clustered round a table near the fire, and a few more standing at the bar with a couple of girls.
One of them at the table was singing in a loud voice; he was young—very young—and it was a good voice, and whatever were the words, the ditty seemed to please the company.
There was a roar of laughter every now and then, and whenever he stopped a cry of “Go on, Nat, go on, lad! That’s right,” and so forth.
The boy grew more and more excited, and the men cheered, and the girls clapped their hands and bent themselves double with laughter, and then the men laughed again till they coughed and choked with their merriment.
The song was funny, or the point lay in the youth of the singer.
And the girl outside listened.
Twice she crept to the door, twice had the knob in her hand to open and go in, and twice her pluck seemed to fail. The song stopped, there was a lull 264within; the warmth drew her as a magnet, and the third time she turned the handle. But she stood with the door ajar; for on a sudden there was a sound of chairs moved, of scuffling, of quick words and quick retorts within; the laughter was changed to angry altercation, words of which she could not catch the sense were flung to and fro, and all at once a man threw the door wide, and the lad who had been singing was suddenly flung forth into the road.
The girl started back at the first noise, then turned and fled into the darkness.
But the boy stood where they had hurled him, and the men slammed the door to again behind him.
There had been furious words in his mouth when he had made his ignominious exit, but they had died suddenly away as though frozen in his throat, and his limbs, that had struggled to deal revenge on his foes, had become paralyzed, his hot face had turned white with fear; he stood as one petrified, horror-struck, gazing after the thin cotton dress that flitted away in the gloom.
The clamour went on within, some angry, some grossly laughing, some striving to pacify.
The landlord had come down to the door, and after looking out through the glass, had half opened it and had glanced out. But the lad had drawn aside under the eaves.
“Why didn’t ’e keep ’is ’ands off what weren’t ’is?” one was saying angrily.
265“’E’s gettin’ too cheeky by ’alf,” said another.
“Well, ’e shan’t come into my bar no more,” declared the landlord decisively, turning back into the room. “Many’s the time I’ve ’ad a mind to say so afore, when ’is pore mother used to come a-loiterin’ and waitin’ out there in the cold to try and fetch ’im ’ome. Mighty little ’e ever cared for ’er, nor anythin’ as she might ha’ said. But so long as ’e be’aved I ’adn’t the right to turn ’im out. ’E’s done for ’isself to-night though, and ’e don’t come in no more.”
“Good riddance too,” said one of the girls, settling her hair that had been loosened in the scuffle; and the landlord closed the door and drew the curtain across it.
But the lad outside made no effort to re-enter. He did not seem to have heard what had passed within his earshot.
He stood stock-still as they had left him, slowly rubbing his head with a trembling hand.
“Rot,” said he at last, to himself, with a feeble attempt at a laugh. “Ghosts! There ain’t no sich things as ghosts!”
Then he took a few steps forward, slowly and unsteadily, for he was drunk; not, however, in the direction of the village, and of his rough and lonely lodging, but between the hedges of the narrow lane beyond, where the figure had flitted before him.
Perhaps he had made a mistake; down that lane 266to the left stood the cottage, deserted now, where he had spent all the years of his life, alone—ever since he could remember—with the mother whom he had neglected and ill-treated, whom they all told him that he had killed.
The words buzzed wearily through his aching brain.
“Mighty little ’e ever cared for ’er, nor anythin’ as she might ha’ said!”
Yes, it was jolly true too!
And his own words, spoken an hour ago, echoed back again: “Precious little I ever cared for the women-folk’s jaw!”
It was as they said: he had killed her, and he had never cared for her, he had never mourned her, he had been drunk the day of her very funeral; he never missed her now.
He stumbled on. The winter twilight had faded long since, and the moon had slipped behind a cloud. The lane was quite dark, and he could no longer make out the swish of the white cotton skirt which he had fancied he had seen against the hedgerow. Nevertheless he stumbled on.
The old home lay close at hand; the well-known turning to it struck off here to the left. It stood in a field a little back from the road; there was an apple-tree in front of it and behind it, in the meadow that stretched down to the river, their cow used to feed in the days before his mother had had to sell her.
267He stumbled on. Here, by the fence, she was wont to come down of a morning to see him off to work, of an evening to welcome him home, and—yes—often and often o’ night time to watch for him along the dark and lonely road, when he was coming home—as he was coming to-night—full of drink.
Home? Yes, it was home then, little as he had appreciated it.
He stopped at the fence, and steadied himself on its worn and worm-eaten bar.
The moonlight was leaking through the cloud again, and dimly lit the thatched roof of the cottage, whose blank windows and sealed door looked sadly across the field at him.
The latched gate was close to his hand: he opened it and went in, and the moon shone out more brightly.
The apple-tree was bare, the climbing blush rose and hardy canary-creeper on the porch were barren and leafless, the frost lay hard and crisp on the neglected garden path where he had often seen her watering the peonies and the sweet-william, or dressing the hollyhocks in some leisure moment. It was cold and lifeless now in the cold moonlight, but he saw it in sunlight and in summer, when the vegetables were green in the tiny plot of land, when the few sweet-peas scented the air, or when the apples were red on the tree.
He had never noticed any of it then, but now 268he was sure there had been sweet-peas and hollyhocks, and that he had seen his mother cutting the cabbages beyond them.
He scratched his head, he could not make himself out.
If it had been daylight no power would have led him to open that gate and steal into this forgotten corner, but even so he could not make himself out.
The cold air had been sobering him fast, but he told himself that he was drunk.
It was “jolly true enough” all that they had said: he hated his home, and had been in it as little as might be; he had broken his mother’s heart, and now that she was dead how could it be that he should either miss her or mourn her? Of course it could not be.
But still he lingered; the drink that was in him kept him warm, and he forgot the frost and saw the summer again.
And as he looked, the moon left the last of the cloud behind and shone out brilliantly; and there, beneath the apple-tree, he saw again the spare figure of medium height in the faded print gown, standing still as large as life.
His heart seemed to stop beating: there might be no such things as ghosts, but who was that figure standing there under the apple-tree?
It stirred now. Was it coming to meet him? He felt a cold sweat break out over his brow. 269No, it moved in the opposite direction—across the grass, past the cottage; it was moving in the direction of the river.
And he followed—as though he were obliged to follow; slowly at first, as in a dream, but as the figure quickened its pace—more quickly too.
What was it, where was it going?
It moved lightly, more lightly than she had done of late, and now it was hurrying—hurrying across the crisp meadow, whose damp marshiness the frost had seized fast—hurrying towards the river.
And he hurried too; without thought, blindly.
But the moon slid behind a cloud again, all grew dark, and the spirit—if spirit it was—was lost in the shadow.
Still he hurried; now he seemed to see it here—now there—he was not sure; perhaps it was all a dream. But his liquor had never served him so before—and he had often been worse drunk.
He was near upon turning back, when the moon fringed the cloud with silver again, and gradually showed him the figure, as clear as in daylight, standing upon the bridge that led across to the road.
He looked; it was facing him, but though in the white light and to his heated sense the features looked ghostly still, and the eyes wild and inhuman, there was something life-like about the creature, and even as he looked, it threw up its 270arms and took one leap forwards and downwards into the water.
Then he awoke; he was no longer drunk. He did not stop to think—he dashed forward, stripping off his coat as he ran, and pushed through the reeds on the river bank, and plunged into the stream.
The cold of the water was horrible—it took his breath away. But, as luck would have it, the stream here was not deep but swift, and it carried the body towards him; he clutched it, caught it, and, half swimming, half wading, brought it, in little more than a minute, safely on to the bank.
His teeth were chattering, but it was not with fright now; he had forgotten that he had once fancied this to have been a ghost.
It was a girl, and it lay motionless.
He stripped off the shoddy black jacket and wrung the water from it, then tried to wring it from the poor, clinging cotton skirts, that were stiffening with frost in the biting air; after that he chafed the cold body, and took off the worn boots and emptied the water out of them; and then he searched in his pockets, and drew forth a half-pint flat bottle, which he put to her lips.
A pungent odour of common spirit filled the air.
“It’s lucky I left a drop,” he murmured to himself, and a keener satisfaction than he had ever 271experienced even from drinking it himself filled him as he watched the colour slowly come back to the ashen face. But it took a deal of rubbing again before the eyes opened, before any breath seemed to come struggling through those pale lips. Several times he was for leaving her and running for assistance, because he was frightened.
But the village was far behind, and he was afraid she might die while he was gone; so he waited with a beating heart, and at last she moved and tried to speak.
“D’ye feel better now?” said he.
She nodded feebly.
He passed his hand under her head and set her up against his knee.
But the head drooped again, and she began to shiver.
“She didn’t ought to be ’ere,” he muttered to himself; “it’s freezin’ plaguey ’ard, and she soaked through.”
“D’ye think ye can walk?” said he to her ear.
She did not answer, and he scratched his head.
Then suddenly an inspiration came to him. He knew a way into the old home by the back; it would be empty and cheerless, but it would be safer than the frosty night air, and maybe he might be lucky enough to find a morsel of old wood with which he might light a bit of a fire.
It was worth trying, and without more ado he 272took the poor thing in his arms, and stumbled up the meadow with her.
She was light enough in all conscience, and she lay passive.
Yes, the rotten old door was broken, as he last remembered it, and he pushed it open and bore her in. The place was bare, but he lay her down beside the cold hearth, with her head against the chimney-corner, and ran to the outhouse. The luck was with him to-night as it was not wont to be: there were some remnants of brushwood scattered about; he swept together a handful, and with the matches that luckily were safe and dry in the pocket of the coat he had cast off, he soon kindled a bit of a blaze in the forsaken old dwelling-room.
Then he hung her jacket to dry and set to work again to rub her body.
The warmth revived her, she crept as close as she could to it, shivering still.
He took out the bottle again, his best notion of help; but she shook her head at the sight of it, and a sudden idea struck him.
“When did ye ’ave yer food last?” he asked.
She did not answer.
“Maybe ye’re ’ungry?” he said.
And as she was still silent, he turned out his pockets again, and produced a broken bit of dry crust.
“It’s all I left o’ my dinner,” he said, “but it’ll stay yer stomach till ye can get ’ome.”
273She let him put it into her hand, but she did not eat.
“It’s a queer thing,” said he ruminatingly, “women don’t seem to ’ave no pecker when they ain’t fit.”
She shivered again.
“Now, look ’ere,” said he, drawing out the spirit bottle once more, “ye’ve got to have another go at this or I’m damned, and then ye’ve got to eat that crust.”
He forced it on her, and she submitted, and then he added: “And as soon as ye can walk ye ought to go ’ome. Ye’ll catch yer death in them damp clothes.”
She was silent, and he stood watching her nibbling the crust, while he took a pull at the spirit himself.
A notion seemed to occur to him, and he paused with the flask in his hand.
“What did ye go and jump into the water for?” he said at last, perhaps thinking that what she wanted was to “catch her death.”
And as still she was dumb, he added another to the string of his questions: “Where d’ye live?”
Then at last she answered.
“Nowhere,” said she bitterly.
“What, ain’t ye got no ’ome?” asked he.
“No,” she said.
274“No more ’aven’t I,” he said.
“Nor yet no mother?” he added in a low voice after a while.
“No,” she said.
He looked round the ghostly, deserted old home—at the figure huddled by the hearth where another had been wont to cook his meals, at the empty window where a familiar chair had once stood.
“No more ’aven’t I,” he said. And after a pause he added with a half laugh, “P’raps ye ’aven’t even got no work?”
“No,” she replied for the third time.
And he laughed outright as he added again: “No more ’aven’t I!”
He walked to the window, and she struggled to her feet.
“So I guess ye wanted to catch yer death,” he muttered.
She stood hanging over the blaze that was beginning to flicker down, and he with his back to her at the window gazing out into the garden, where the moonlight lay white and hard on the frosted walk and on the dreary, empty potato patch.
If his mother had been up-stairs she would have known what to do now. She had always known what to do somehow. And suddenly there crossed his mind a vision of her taking into the house a poor starved dog that had been hooted down the road by the village boys.
275Yes, she would have known what to do. But she was not up-stairs.
“I s’pose there’s plenty as wouldn’t mind a-catchin’ their death,” murmured he, half to himself. “Folk as ’ave made a mess of it, or as ’aven’t got no one to work for.”
The girl at the fire threw up her head almost proudly.
“I ain’t what yer might think,” she said. “I ain’t done nothin’ wus than starve. They turned me off at the factory, but it weren’t no fault o’ mine.”
“Weren’t ye drunk?” asked the boy simply.
Her wan face flushed purple.
“Drunk!” said she. “I ain’t never been drunk in my life.” And she moved from him.
Then he flushed too—ashamed.
“I beg yer pardon,” he stammered. “It’s what they turn me off for—but o’ course … I beg yer pardon!”
“Granted,” said she. “It’s likely ye should think so. But my dead mother might see me and welcome, for all the ’arm I’ve a-done, and that’s the truth!”
He shivered at the words and looked round.
“I wish I could say as much,” said he.
She looked at him and came a step nearer, but the sob that had risen in her throat at his unintentional insult had turned to a fit of coughing, and she could not speak.
276He turned quickly to the hearth, and kicked the bits of stick together with his foot; but there was no more life in them, they were burnt out, and there were no more.
“Ye’re catchin’ yer death o’ cold,” repeated he testily. “I dursen’t advise ye to stop ’ere no longer. Let me show ye the way to the next village, if ye’re a stranger to the place. Leastways, I think there’s a parcel o’ ’ouses afore ye come to it, where ye might get a night’s lodgin’.”
She laughed harshly, and he stopped—confused.
He guessed her meaning.
“’Aven’t ye got no money?” asked he after a minute or two, timidly.
“No,” she answered, struggling fiercely with tears again. “I’ve been out o’ work this three weeks. Ye’d ha’ done best to leave me where I was!”
“Don’t say that,” said he quite gently. “The luck’s bound to turn.”
She stood quietly wiping a tear now and then, and he beside her turning his hand round and round in his breeches pocket.
At last he pulled the hand out and held it towards her: there was a silver coin in it.
“Ye’d best take it,” said he sheepishly. “I ’ad my week’s wage to-day, though they ’ave a-turned me off, and I can spare it nicely. It’ll get ye a bed and a bit o’ supper anyways.”
Her face flushed and her lip quivered again. But she took it.
277“Ye’re very kind,” said she. “I ought to thank ye, I’m sure. If mother was alive…”
Her voice shook, and she didn’t finish the sentence.
He stepped to the hearth and took up her wretched little jacket that had lain there a-drying, handing it to her clumsily. Her last words echoed in his ears.
She took the jacket, and pushed her poor, thin arms into its shrunken sleeves; it was damp still, and it would not meet, even across her narrow chest.
“The luck’ll turn,” he repeated awkwardly. “It allers do turn—one way or t’other. Ye must try for work again at Hoo, yonder. There’s another factory there.”
“Seems as though God A’mighty did ought to give me another chance,” she said with a sigh, “if it were on’y for this. For I shan’t be able to pay ye back else.”
He had opened the cranky door, and they had passed out into the moonlit frostiness.
“Never think o’ that,” said he.
“I shall though,” she declared. “Ye must show me your ’ome, so as I shall know where to find ye to pay it back agin—when I do get work.”
“My ’ome!” echoed he.
And he turned and looked at the deserted cottage with its closed, silent windows.
From the chimney a faint line of smoke from 278the remnants of the fire that he had lit was stealing up straight into the calm, cold air—ascending steadily, like incense, into the sky.
He caught his breath.
“This’d be the best place,” he said. “I’ll come ’ere next Saturday night and see if ye’re anywheres about. I’d like to ’ear ’ow ye was a-gettin’ on, but I don’t want the money.”
They had crossed the garden by this time, and stood at the gate.
“I shan’t rest till I can bring it ye though,” said she. “I ’aven’t never borrowed from nobody afore. That was why … you know…! P’r’aps I didn’t ought to ha’ took it now. But it seemed as though … well, it seemed as though, if yer pulled me out o’ the water, I’d got to keep the life in me! I couldn’t ha’ felt like taking it from no one else, I think. But there, ye’re a good sort, and I’ll owe it to you. But I’ll pay you—s’elp me God.”
She shoved the gate open and went out into the road, he following.
“A good sort!” He “a good sort!” An hour ago he would … no, not have laughed; he would have sworn, to say the very least of it, at any one who had dared to say such a thing; for he would have known they meant it as an insult. But he neither laughed nor swore at this woman. He simply stood still and looked at her.
The clock in the church steeple up the stream struck ten.
279“Ye’ll ’ave to look sharp,” said he, “or no one won’t take ye in to-night.”
She was shivering in the bitter air, and she could walk but slowly; still she walked alone.
He moved a few steps beside her, then stopped.
A sudden instinct that he could not have defined bade him send her on her way alone.
“Ye’ll do now,” said he, “won’t ye? Them’s the cottages—up there to yer right. You knock at the first door—there’s an old woman lives there—she used to be mother’s chum. She’d take ye in, if ’twas for nothing, but that … if she only knowed….”
Nat blushed, and he was not in the habit of blushing, and stammered as he was not in the habit of stammering, for he did not know how to finish his sentence.
“Well, anyways ye’ve got the money,” concluded he, “and if it comes to that—there’s a ‘public’ at Hoo where they lets out beds. So you look sharp.”
“Good-night; and thank ye,” said the girl.
“Good-night,” answered he.
“I shan’t forget what you done for me,” said she.
“Oh, stow that,” he said.
He watched her as she moved slowly along: watched her till she had turned up the lane to the cluster of cottages, and waited to see if she would come back on it.
280He put his hand in his pocket to feel for his pipe and matches; the matches were gone, and he remembered that he had used them to light the fire—yonder in his old home, on the hearth where his mother had been wont to boil the pot for his supper.
He turned and looked again.
The trail of smoke from the old chimney was thinner and fainter—but it was still there—ascending softly and steadily.
His heart was lighter at the sight of it, and he whistled gently to himself.
The girl had not reappeared; she must be housed and safe by now.
He set his face back whence he had come, and went on his way content.
A little bird twittered pitifully in the frost-bound hedge as he passed.
He searched for the place and found it; it was dying of cold and hunger.
He put it in his warm bosom within his coat; he thought that he would feed it when he got in, and that perhaps he might bring it back to life.
The Times.—‘With the exception of The Scapegoat, this is unquestionably the finest and most dramatic of Mr. Hall Caine’s novels … The Manxman goes very straight to the roots of human passion and emotion. It is a remarkable book, throbbing with human interest.’
The Guardian.—‘A story of exceptional power and thorough originality. The greater portion of it is like a Greek tragic drama, in the intensity of its interest, and the depth of its overshadowing gloom…. But this tragedy is merely a telling background for a series of brilliant sketches of men and manners, of old-world customs, and forgotten ways of speech which still linger in the Isle of Man.’
The Standard.—‘A singularly powerful and picturesque piece of work, extraordinarily dramatic…. Taken altogether, The Manxman cannot fail to enhance Mr. Hall Caine’s reputation. It is a most powerful book.’
The Morning Post.—‘If possible, Mr. Hall Caine’s work, The Manxman, is more marked by passion, power, and brilliant local colouring than its predecessors…. It has a grandeur as well as strength, and the picturesque features and customs of a delightful country are vividly painted.’
The World.—‘Over and above the absorbing interest of the story, which never flags, the book is full of strength, of vivid character sketches, and powerful word-painting, all told with a force and knowledge of local colour.’
The Queen.—‘The Manxman is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable books of the century. It will be read and re-read, and take its place in the literary inheritance of the English-speaking nations.’
The St. James’s Gazette.—‘The Manxman is a contribution to literature, and the most fastidious critic would give in exchange for it a wilderness of that deciduous trash which our publishers call fiction…. It is not possible to part from The Manxman with anything but a warm tribute of approval.’—Edmund Gosse.
The Christian World.—‘There is a great fascination in being present, as it were, at the birth of a classic; and a classic undoubtedly The Manxman is… He who reads The Manxman feels that he is reading a book which will be read and re-read by very many thousands with human tears and human laughter.’
Mr. T. P. O’Connor, in the ‘Sun.’—‘This is a very fine and great story—one of the finest and greatest of our time…. Mr. Hall Caine reaches heights which are attained only by the greatest masters of fiction…. I think of the great French writer, Stendhal, at the same moment as the great English writer…. In short, you feel what Mr. Howells said of Tolstoi, “This is not like life; it is life.”… He belongs to that small minority of the Great Elect of Literature.’
The Scotsman.—‘It is not too much to say that it is the most powerful story that has been written in the present generation…. The love of Pete, his simple-mindedness, his sufferings when he has lost Kate, are painted with a master-hand…. It is a work of genius.’
Mr. Gladstone.—‘The Bondman is a work of which I recognise the freshness, vigour, and sustained interest, no less than its integrity of aim.’
The Times.—‘It is impossible to deny originality and rude power to this saga, impossible not to admire its forceful directness, and the colossal grandeur of its leading characters.’
The Academy.—‘The language of The Bondman is full of nervous, graphic, and poetical English; its interest never flags, and its situations and descriptions are magnificent. It is a splendid novel.’
The Speaker.—‘This is the best book that Mr. Hall Caine has yet written, and it reaches a level to which fiction very rarely attains…. We are, in fact so loth to let such good work be degraded by the title of “novel” that we are almost tempted to consider its claim to rank as a prose epic.’
The Scotsman.—‘Mr. Hall Caine has in this work placed himself beyond the front rank of the novelists of the day. He has produced a story which, for the ingenuity of its plot, for its literary excellence, for its delineations of human passions, and for its intensely powerful dramatic scenes, is distinctly ahead of all the fictional literature of our time, and fit to rank with the most powerful fictional writing of the past century.’
The Athenæum.—‘Crowded with incidents.’
The Observer.—‘Many of the descriptions are picturesque and powerful…. As fine in their way as anything in modern literature.’
The Liverpool Mercury.—‘A story which will be read, not by his contemporaries alone, but by later generations, so long as its chief features—high emotion, deep passion, exquisite poetry, and true pathos—have power to delight and to touch the heart.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘It is the product of a strenuous and sustained imaginative effort far beyond the power of any every-day story-teller.’
The Scots Observer.—‘In none of his previous works has he approached the splendour of idealism which flows through The Bondman.’
The Manchester Guardian.—‘A remarkable story, painted with vigour and brilliant effect.’
The St. James’s Gazette.—‘A striking and highly dramatic piece of fiction.’
The Literary World.—‘The book abounds in pages of great force and beauty, and there is a touch of almost Homeric power in its massive and grand simplicity.’
The Liverpool Post.—‘Graphic, dramatic, pathetic, heroic, full of detail, crowded with incident and inspired by a noble purpose.’
The Yorkshire Post.—‘A book of lasting interest.’
London: WILLIAM HEINEMANN, 21 Bedford Street, W.C.
Mr. Gladstone writes:—‘I congratulate you upon The Scapegoat as a work of art, and especially upon the noble and skilfully drawn character of Israel.’
Mr. Walter Besant, in ‘The Author.’—‘Nearly every year there stands out a head and shoulders above its companions one work which promises to make the year memorable. This year a promise of lasting vitality is distinctly made by Mr. Hall Caine’s Scapegoat. It is a great book, great in conception and in execution; a strong book, strong in situation and in character; and a human book, human in its pathos, its terror, and its passion.’
The Times.—‘In our judgment it excels in dramatic force all the Author’s previous efforts. For grace and touching pathos Naomi is a character which any romancist in the world might be proud to have created, and the tale of her parents’ despair and hopes, and of her own development, confers upon The Scapegoat a distinction which is matchless of its kind.’
The Guardian.—‘Mr. Hall Caine is undoubtedly master of a style which is peculiarly his own. He is in a way a Rembrandt among novelists. His figures, striking and powerful rather than beautiful, stand out, with the ruggedness of their features developed and accentuated, from a background of the deepest gloom…. Every sentence contains a thought, and every word of it is balanced and arranged to accumulate the intensity of its force.’
The Athenæum.—‘It is a delightful story to read.’
The Academy.—‘Israel ben Oliel is the third of a series of the most profoundly conceived characters in modern fiction.’
The Saturday Review.—‘This is the best novel which Mr. Caine has yet produced.’
The Literary World.—‘The lifelike renderings of the varied situations, the gradual changes in a noble character, hardened and lowered by the world’s cruel usage, and returning at last to its original grandeur, can only be fully appreciated by a perusal of the book as a whole.’
The Anti-Jacobin.—‘It is, in truth, a romance of fine poetic quality. Israel Ben Oliel, the central figure of the tale, is sculptured rather than drawn: a character of grand outline. A nobler piece of prose than the death of Ruth we have seldom met with.’
The Scotsman.—‘The new story will rank with Mr. Hall Caine’s previous productions. Nay, it will in some respects rank above them. It will take its place by the side of the Hebrew histories in the Apocrypha. It is nobly and manfully written. It stirs the blood and kindles the imagination.’
The Scottish Leader.—‘The Scapegoat is a masterpiece.’
Truth.—‘Mr. Hall Caine has been winning his way slowly, but surely, and securely, I think also, to fame. You must by all means read his absorbing Moorish romance, The Scapegoat.’
The Jewish World.—‘Only one who had studied Moses could have drawn that grand portrait of Israel ben Oliel.’
The Athenæum.—‘It is so full of interest, and the characters are so eccentrically humorous yet true, that one feels inclined to pardon all its faults, and give oneself up to unreserved enjoyment of it…. The twins Angelica and Diavolo, young barbarians, utterly devoid of all respect, conventionality, or decency, are among the most delightful and amusing children in fiction.’
The Academy.—‘The adventures of Diavolo and Angelica—the “heavenly twins”—are delightfully funny. No more original children were ever put into a book. Their audacity, unmanageableness, and genius for mischief—in none of which qualities, as they are here shown, is there any taint of vice—are refreshing; and it is impossible not to follow, with very keen interest, the progress of these youngsters.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘Everybody ought to read it, for it is an inexhaustible source of refreshing and highly stimulating entertainment.’
The World.—‘There is much powerful and some beautiful writing in this strange book.’
The Westminster Gazette.—‘Sarah Grand … has put enough observation, humour, and thought into this book to furnish forth half-a-dozen ordinary novels.’
Punch.—‘The Twins themselves are a creation: the epithet “Heavenly” for these two mischievous little fiends is admirable.’
The Queen.—‘There is a touch of real genius in The Heavenly Twins.’
The Guardian.—‘Exceptionally brilliant in dialogue, and dealing with modern society life, this book has a purpose—to draw out and emancipate women.’
The Lady.—‘Apart from its more serious interest, the book should take high rank on its literary merits alone. Its pages are brimful of good things, and more than one passage, notably the episode of “The Boy and the Tenor,” is a poem complete in itself, and worthy of separate publication.’
The Manchester Examiner.—‘As surely as Tess of the d’Urbervilles swept all before it last year, so surely has Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins provoked the greatest attention and comment this season. It is a most daringly original work…. Sarah Grand is a notable Woman’s Righter, but her book is the one asked for at Mudie’s, suburban, and seaside libraries, and discussed at every hotel table in the kingdom. The episode of the “Tenor and the Boy” is of rare beauty, and is singularly delicate and at the same time un-English in treatment.’
The New York Critic.—‘It is written in an epigrammatic style, and, besides its cleverness, has the great charm of freshness, enthusiasm, and poetic feeling.’
The Morning Post.—‘Sarah Grand’s Ideala…. A clever book in itself, is especially interesting when read in the light of her later works. Standing alone, it is remarkable as the outcome of an earnest mind seeking in good faith the solution of a difficult and ever present problem…. Ideala is original and somewhat daring…. The story is in many ways delightful and thought-suggesting.’
The Literary World.—‘When Sarah Grand came before the public in 1888 with Ideala, she consciously and firmly laid her finger on one of the keynotes of the age…. We welcome an edition that will place this minute and careful study of an interesting question within reach of a wider circle of readers.’
The Liverpool Mercury.—‘The book is a wonderful one—an evangel for the fair sex, and at once an inspiration and a comforting companion, to which thoughtful womanhood will recur again and again.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘Ideala has attained the honour of a fifth edition…. The stir created by The Heavenly Twins, the more recent work by the same authoress, Madame Sarah Grand, would justify this step. Ideala can, however, stand on its own merits.’
The Yorkshire Post.—‘As a psychological study the book cannot fail to be of interest to many readers.’
The Birmingham Gazette.—‘Madame Sarah Grand thoroughly deserves her success. Ideala, the heroine, is a splendid conception, and her opinions are noble…. The book is not one to be forgotten.’
The Woman’s Herald.—‘One naturally wishes to know something of the woman for whose sake Lord Downe remained a bachelor. It must be confessed that at first Ideala is a little disappointing. She is strikingly original…. As the story advances one forgets these peculiarities, and can find little but sympathy and admiration for the many noble qualities of a very complex character.’
The Englishman.—‘Madame Sarah Grand’s work is far from being a common work. Ideala is a clever young woman of great capabilities and noble purposes…. The of the book does not lie in the plot, but in the authoress’s power to see and to describe the finer shades of a character which is erratic and impetuous, but above all things truly womanly.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘Six stories by the gifted writer who still chooses to be known to the public at large by the pseudonym of “Sarah Grand.” In regard to them it is sufficient to say that they display all the qualities, stylistic, humorous, and pathetic, that have placed the author of Ideala and The Heavenly Twins in the very front rank of contemporary novelists.’
The Globe.—‘Brief studies of character, sympathetic, and suggesting that “Sarah Grand” can do something more than startle by her unconventionality and boldness.’
The Ladies’ Pictorial.—‘If the volume does not achieve even greater popularity than Sarah Grand’s former works, it will be a proof that fashion, not intrinsic merit, has a great deal to do with the success of a book.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘All are eminently entertaining.’
The Spectator.—‘Insight into, and general sympathy with widely differing phases of humanity, coupled with power to reproduce what is seen, with vivid distinct strokes, that rivet the attention, are qualifications for work of the kind contained in Our Manifold Nature which Sarah Grand evidently possesses in a high degree…. All these studies, male and female alike, are marked by humour, pathos, fidelity to life, and power to recognise in human nature the frequent recurrence of some apparently incongruous and remote trait, which, when at last it becomes visible, helps to a comprehension of what might otherwise be inexplicable.’
The Speaker.—‘In Our Manifold Nature Sarah Grand is seen at her best. How good that is can only be known by those who read for themselves this admirable little volume. In freshness of conception and originality of treatment these stories are delightful, full of force and piquancy, whilst the studies of character are carried out with equal firmness and delicacy.’
The Guardian.—‘Our Manifold Nature is a clever book. Sarah Grand has the power of touching common things, which, if it fails to make them “rise to touch the spheres,” renders them exceedingly interesting.’
The Morning Post.—‘Unstinted praise is deserved by the Irish story, “Boomellen,” a tale remarkable both for power and pathos.’
The Court Journal.—‘Our Manifold Nature is simply fall of good things, and it is essentially a book to buy as well as to read.’
The Birmingham Gazette.—‘Mrs. Grand has genuine power. She analyses keenly…. Her humour is good, and her delineation of character one of her strongest points. The book is one to be read, studied, and acted upon.’
The Times.—‘This is a novel of sensation. But the episodes and incidents, although thrilling enough, are consistently subordinated to sensationalism of character…. There is just enough of the coral reef and the palm groves, of cerulean sky and pellucid water, to indicate rather than to present the local colouring. Yet when he dashes in a sketch it is done to perfection…. We see the scene vividly unrolled before us.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘The story is full of strong scenes, depicted with a somewhat lavish use of violet pigments, such as, perhaps, the stirring situations demand. Here and there, however, are purple patches, in which Mr. Stevenson shows all his cunning literary art—the description of the coral island, for instance…. Some intensely graphic and dramatic pages delineate the struggle which causes, and a final scene … concludes this strange fragment from the wild life of the South Sea.’
The St. James’s Gazette.—‘The book takes your imagination and attention captive from the first chapter—nay, from the first paragraph—and it does not set them free till the last word has been read.’
The Standard.—‘Mr. Stevenson gives such vitality to his characters, and so clear an outlook upon the strange quarter of the world to which he takes us, that when we reach the end of the story, we come back to civilisation with a start of surprise, and a moment’s difficulty in realising that we have not been actually away from it.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘We are swept along without a pause on the current of the animated and vigorous narrative. Each incident and adventure is told with that incomparable keenness of vision which is Mr. Stevenson’s greatest charm as a story-teller.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘It is brilliantly invented, and it is not less brilliantly told. There is not a dull sentence in the whole run of it. And the style is fresh, alert, full of surprises—in fact, is very good latter-day Stevenson indeed.’
The World.—‘It is amazingly clever, full of that extraordinary knowledge of human nature which makes certain creations of Mr. Stevenson’s pen far more real to us than persons we have met in the flesh. Grisly the book undoubtedly is, with a strength and a vigour of description hardly to be matched in the language…. But it is just because the book is so extraordinarily good that it ought to be better, ought to be more of a serious whole than a mere brilliant display of fireworks, though each firework display has more genius in it than is to be found in ninety-nine out of every hundred books supposed to contain that rare quality.’
The Morning Post.—‘Boldly conceived, probing some of the darkest depths of the human soul, the tale has a vigour and breadth of touch which have been surpassed in none of Mr. Stevenson’s previous works…. We do not, of course, know how much Mr. Osbourne has contributed to the tale, but there is no chapter in it which any author need be unwilling to acknowledge, or which is wanting in vivid interest.’
Morning Post.—‘The merits of the book are great. Its range of observation is wide; its sketches of character are frequently admirably drawn…. It is extremely refreshing, after a surfeit of recent fiction of the prevalent type, to welcome a really clever work by a writer who is certainly not hampered by conventional prejudice.’
The Queen.—‘It is impossible to deny the greatness of a book like The Master, a veritable human document, in which the characters do exactly as they would in life…. I venture to say that Matt himself is one of the most striking and original characters in our fiction, and I have not the least doubt that The Master will always be reckoned one of our classics.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘It is a powerful and masterly piece of work…. Quite the best novel of the year.’
Literary World.—‘In The Master, Mr. Zangwill has eclipsed all his previous work. This strong and striking story of patience and passion, of sorrow and success, of art, ambition, and vain gauds, is genuinely powerful in its tragedy, and picturesque in its completeness…. The work, thoroughly wholesome in tone, is of sterling merit, and strikes a truly tragic chord, which leaves a deep impression upon the mind.’
Jewish World.—‘For a novel to be a work that shall live, and not merely please the passing taste of a section of the public, it must palpitate with the truth of human experience and human feeling…. Such a novel is The Master, Mr. Zangwill’s latest, and assuredly one of his best works. Interest in the story is sustained from beginning to end. From the first page to the last we get a series of vivid pictures that make us feel, as well as understand, not only the personality and environment of his characters, but the motives that compel, like fate, their words and actions.’
Leeds Mercury.—‘The Master is impassioned and powerful, and, in our judgment, is vastly superior to Children of the Ghetto. From the first page to the last the book is quick with life, and not less quick surprises…. The impression which the book leaves is deep and distinct, and the power, from start to finish, of such a delineation of life is unmistakable.’
Liverpool Mercury.—‘The accomplished author of Children of the Ghetto has given us in The Master a book written with marvellous skill, and characterised by vivid imaginative power. It is not a volume to be taken up and despatched in a leisure evening, but one to be studied and enjoyed in many an hour of quiet, or to be read aloud in the family circle, when the toils of the day have given place to retirement and peace.’
The Times.—‘From whatever point of view we regard it, it is a remarkable book.’
The Athenæum.—‘The chief interest of the book lies in the wonderful description of the Whitechapel Jews. The vividness and force with which Mr. Zangwill brings before us the strange and uncouth characters with which he has peopled his book are truly admirable…. Admirers of Mr. Zangwill’s fecund wit will not fail to find flashes of it in these pages.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘Altogether we are not aware of any such minute, graphic, and seemingly faithful picture of the Israel of nineteenth century London…. The book has taken hold of us.’
The Spectator.—‘Esther Ansell, Raphael Leon, Mrs. Henry Goldsmith, Reb Shemuel, and the rest, are living creations.’
The Speaker.—‘A strong and remarkable book.’
The National Observer.—‘To ignore this book is not to know the East End Jew.’
The Guardian.—‘A novel such as only our own day could produce. A masterly study of a complicated psychological problem in which every factor is handled with such astonishing dexterity and intelligence that again and again we are tempted to think a really good book has come into our hands.’
The Graphic.—‘Absolutely fascinating. Teaches how closely akin are laughter and tears.’
Black and White.—‘A moving panorama of Jewish life, full of truth, full of sympathy, vivid in the setting forth, and occasionally most brilliant. Such a book as this has the germs of a dozen novels. A book to read, to keep, to ponder over, to remember.’
W. Archer in ‘The World.’—‘The most powerful and fascinating book I have read for many a long day.’
Land and Water.—‘The most wonderful multi-coloured and brilliant description. Dickens has never drawn characters of more abiding individuality. An exceeding beautiful chapter is the honeymoon of the Hyams. Charles Kingsley in one of his books makes for something of the same sort. But his idea is not half so tender and faithful, nor his handling anything like so delicate and natural.’
Andrew Lang in ‘Longman’s Magazine.’—‘Almost every kind of reader will find Children of the Ghetto interesting.’
T. P. O’Connor in ‘The Weekly Sun.’—‘Apart altogether from its great artistic merits, from its clear portraits, its subtle and skilful analysis of character, its pathos and its humour, this book has, in my mind, an immense interest as a record of a generation that has passed and of struggles that are yet going on.’
The Manchester Guardian.—‘The best Jewish novel ever written.’
The Athenæum.—‘Several of Mr. Zangwill’s contemporary Ghetto characters have already become almost classical; but in The King of Schnorrers he goes back to the Jewish community of the eighteenth century for the hero of his principal story; and he is indeed a stupendous hero … anyhow, he is well named the king of beggars. The illustrations, by Phil May, add greatly to the attraction of the book.’
The Saturday Review.—‘Mr. Zangwill has created a new figure in fiction, and a new type of humour. The entire series of adventures is a triumphant progress…. Humour of a rich and active character pervades the delightful history of Manasses. Mr. Zangwill’s book is altogether very good reading. It is also very cleverly illustrated by Phil May and other artists.’
The Literary World.—‘Of Mr. Zangwill’s versatility there is ample proof in this new volume of stories…. More noticeable and welcome to us, as well as more characteristic of the author, are the fresh additions he has made to his long series of studies of Jewish life.’
The St. James’s Gazette.—‘The King of Schnorrers is a very fascinating story. Mr. Zangwill returns to the Ghetto, and gives us a quaint old-world picture as a most appropriate setting for his picturesque hero, the beggar-king…. Good as the story of the arch-schnorrer is there is perhaps an even better “Yiddish” tale in this book. This is “Flutter-Duck.”… Let us call attention to the excellence, as mere realistic vivid description, of the picture of the room and atmosphere and conditions in which Flutter-Duck and her circle dwelt; there is something of Dickens in this.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘The King of Schnorrers, like Children of the Ghetto, depicts the habits and characteristics of Israel in London with painstaking elaborateness and apparent verisimilitude. The King of Schnorrers is a character-sketch which deals with the manners and customs of native and foreign Jews as they “lived and had their being” in the London of a century and a quarter ago.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘It is a beautiful story. The King of Schnorrers is that great rarity—an entirely new thing, that is as good as it is new.’
The Glasgow Herald.--‘On the whole, the book does justice to Mr. Zangwill’s rapidly-growing reputation, and the character of Manasseh ought to live.’
The World.—‘The exuberant and even occasionally overpowering humour of Mr. Zangwill is at his highest mark in his new volume, The King of Schnorrers.’
The Cambridge (University) Review.—‘That the book will have readers in a future generation we do not doubt, for there is much in it that is of lasting merit.’
The Graphic.—‘It might be worth the while of some industrious and capable person with plenty of leisure to reproduce in a volume of reasonable size the epigrams and other good things witty and serious which The Premier and the Painter contains. There are plenty of them, and many are worth noting and remembering,’
St. James’s Gazette.—‘The satire hits all round with much impartiality; while one striking situation succeeds another till the reader is altogether dazzled. The story is full of life and “go” and brightness, and will well repay perusal.’
The Athenæum.—‘In spite of its close print and its five hundred pages The Premier and the Painter is not very difficult to read. To speak of it, however, is difficult. It is the sort of book that demands yet defies quotation for one thing; and for another it is the sort of book the description of which as “very clever” is at once inevitable and inadequate. In some ways it is original enough to be a law unto itself, and withal as attractive in its whimsical, wrong-headed way, as at times it is tantalising, bewildering, even tedious. The theme is politics and politicians, and the treatment, while for the most part satirical and prosaic, is often touched with sentiment, and sometimes even with a fantastic kind of poetry. The several episodes of the story are wildly fanciful in themselves and are clumsily connected; but the streak of humorous cynicism which shows through all of them is both curious and pleasing. Again, it has to be claimed for the author that—as is shown to admiration by his presentation of the excellent Mrs. Dawe and her cookshop—he is capable, when he pleases, of insight and observation of a high order, and therewith of a masterly sobriety of tone. But he cannot be depended upon for the length of a single page; he seeks his effects and his material when and where he pleases. In some respects his method is not, perhaps, altogether unlike Lord Beaconsfield’s. To our thinking, however, he is strong enough to go alone, and to go far.’
The World.—‘Undeniably clever, though with a somewhat mixed and eccentric cleverness.’
The Morning Post.—‘The story is described as a “fantastic romance,” and, indeed, fantasy reigns supreme from the first to the last of its pages. It relates the history of our time with humour and well-aimed sarcasm. All the most prominent characters of the day, whether political or otherwise, come in for notice. The identity of the leading politicians is but thinly veiled, while many celebrities appear in propriâ personâ. Both the “Premier” and “Painter” now and again find themselves in the most critical situations. Certainly this is not a story that he who runs may read, but it is cleverly original, and often lightened by bright flashes of wit.’
The Times.—‘He is a remarkably even writer. And this novel is almost as good a medium as any other for studying the delicacy and dexterity of his workmanship.’
The National Observer.—‘Interesting and well written, as all Mr. Norris’s stories are.’
The Morning Post.—‘The fidelity of his portraiture is remarkable, and it has rarely appeared to so much advantage as in this brilliant novel.’
The Saturday Review.—‘The Countess Radna, which its author not unjustly describes as “an unpretending tale,” avoids, by the grace of its style and the pleasant accuracy of its characterisation, any suspicion of boredom.’
The Daily News.—‘The Countess Radna contains many of the qualities that make a story by this writer welcome to the critic. It is caustic in style, the character drawing is clear, the talk natural; the pages are strewn with good things worth quoting.’
The Speaker.—‘In style, skill in construction, and general “go,” it is worth a dozen ordinary novels.’
The Academy.—‘As a whole, the book is decidedly well written, while it is undeniably interesting. It is bright and wholesome: the work in fact of a gentleman and a man who knows the world about which he writes.’
Black and White.—‘The novel, like all Mr. Norris’s work is an excessively clever piece of work, and the author never for a moment allows his grasp of his plot and his characters to slacken.’
The Gentlewoman.—‘Mr. Norris is a practised hand at his craft. He can write bright dialogue and clear English, too.’
The Literary World.—‘His last novel, The Countess Radna, is an excellent sample of his style. The plot is simple enough. But the story holds the attention and insists upon being read; and it is scarcely possible to say anything more favourable of a work of fiction.’
The Scotsman.—‘The story, in which there is more than a spice of modern life romance, is an excellent study of the problem of mixed marriage. The book is one of good healthy reading, and reveals a fine broad view of life and human nature.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘This is an unusually fresh and well-written story. The tone is thoroughly healthy; and Mr. Norris, without being in the least old-fashioned, manages to get along without the aid of pessimism, psychology, naturalism, or what is known as frank treatment of the relations between the sexes.’
The Westminster Gazette.—‘Mr. Norris writes throughout with much liveliness and force, saying now and then something that is worth remembering. And he sketches his minor characters with a firm touch.’
The Speaker.—‘A Victim of Good Luck is one of those breezy stories of his in which the reader finds himself moving in good society, among men or women who are neither better nor worse than average humanity, but who always show good manners and good breeding…. Suffice it to say that the story is as readable as any we have yet had from the same pen.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘A Victim of Good Luck is one of the brightest novels of the year, which cannot but enhance its gifted author’s well-deserved fame and popularity.’
The World.—‘Here is Mr. Norris in his best form again, giving us an impossible story with such imperturbable composure, such quiet humour, easy polish, and irresistible persuasiveness, that he makes us read A Victim of Good Luck right through with eager interest and unflagging amusement without being aware, until we regretfully reach the end, that it is just a farcical comedy in two delightful volumes.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘It has not a dull page from first to last. Any one with normal health and taste can read a book like this with real pleasure.’
The Globe.—‘Mr. W. E. Norris is a writer who always keeps us on good terms with ourselves. We can pick up or lay down his books at will, but they are so pleasant in style and equable in tone that we do not usually lay them down till we have mastered them; A Victim of Good Luck is a more agreeable novel than most of this author’s.’
The Westminster Gazette.—‘A Victim of Good Luck is in Mr. Norris’s best vein, which means that it is urbane, delicate, lively, and flavoured with a high quality of refined humour. Altogether a most refreshing book, and we take it as a pleasant reminder that Mr. Norris is still very near his highwater mark.’
The Spectator.—‘Mr. Norris displays to the full his general command of narrative expedients which are at once happily invented and yet quite natural—which seem to belong to their place in the book, just as a keystone belongs to its place in the arch…. The brightest and cleverest book which Mr. Norris has given us since he wrote The Rogue.’
The Saturday Review.—‘Novels which are neither dull, unwholesome, morbid, nor disagreeable, are so rare in these days, that A Victim of Good Luck … ought to find a place in a book-box filled for the most part with light literature…. We think it will increase the reputation of an already very popular author.’
The Scotsman.—‘A Victim of Good Luck, like others of this author’s books, depends little on incident and much on the conception and drawing of character, on clever yet natural conversation, and on the working out, with masterly ease, of a novel problem of right and inclination.’
The Pall Mall Budget.—‘For this week the only novel worth mentioning is Mrs. Steel’s The Potter’s Thumb. Her admirable From the Five Rivers, since it dealt with native Indian life, was naturally compared with Mr. Kipling’s stories. In The Potter’s Thumb the charm which came from the freshness of them still remains. Almost every character is convincing, and some of them excellent to a degree.’
The Globe.—‘This is a brilliant story—a story that fascinates, tingling with life, steeped in sympathy with all that is best and saddest.’
The Manchester Guardian.—‘The impression left upon one after reading The Potter’s Thumb is that a new literary artist, of very great and unusual gifts, has arisen…. In short, Mrs. Steel must be congratulated upon having achieved a very genuine and amply deserved success.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘A clever story which, in many respects, brings India very near to its readers. The novel is certainly one interesting alike to the Anglo-Indian and to those untravelled travellers who make their only voyages in novelists’ romantic company.’
The Scotsman.—‘It is a capital story, full of variety and movement, which brings with great vividness before the reader one of the phases of Anglo-Indian life. Mrs. Steel writes forcibly and sympathetically, and much of the charm of the picture which she draws lies in the force with which she brings out the contrast between the Asiatic and European world. The Potter’s Thumb is very good reading, with its mingling of the tragedy and comedy of life. Its evil woman par excellence … is a finished study.’
The Westminster Gazette.—‘A very powerful and tragic story. Mrs. Steel gives us again, but with greater elaboration than before, one of those strong, vivid, and subtle pictures of Indian life which we have learnt to expect from her. To a reader who has not been in India her books seem to get deeper below the native crust, and to have more of the instinct for the Oriental than almost anything that has been written in this time.’
The Leeds Mercury.—‘The Potter’s Thumb is a powerful story of the mystical kind, and one which makes an instant appeal to the imagination of the reader…. There is an intensity of vision in this story which is as remarkable as it is rare, and the book, in its vivid and fascinating revelations of life, and some of its limitations, is at once brilliant and, in the deepest and therefore least demonstrative sense, impassioned.’
The National Observer.—‘A romance of East and West, in which the glamour, intrigue, and superstition of India are cunningly interwoven and artfully contrasted with the bright and changeable aspects of modern European society. “Love stories,” as Mr. Andrew Lang once observed, “are best done by women”; and Mrs. Steel’s treatment of Rose Tweedie’s love affair with Lewis Gordon is a brilliant instance in point. So sane and delightful an episode is rare in fiction now-a-days.’
The Times.—‘Time was when these sketches of native Punjabi society would have been considered a curiosity in literature. They are sufficiently remarkable, even in these days, when interest in the “dumb millions” of India is thoroughly alive, and writers, great and small, vie in ministering to it. They are the more notable as being the work of a woman. Mrs. Steel has evidently been brought into close contact with the domestic life of all classes, Hindu and Mahomedan, in city and village, and has steeped herself in their customs and superstitions…. Mrs. Steel’s book is of exceptional merit and freshness.’
Vanity Fair.—‘Stories of the Punjaub—evidently the work of one who has an intimate knowledge of, and a kindly sympathy for, its people. It is to be hoped that this is not the last book of Indian stories that Mrs. Steel will give us.’
The Spectator.—‘Merit, graphic force, and excellent local colouring are conspicuous in Mrs. Steel’s From the Five Rivers, and the short stories of which the volume is composed are evidently the work of a lady who knows what she is writing about.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘This is a collection of sketches of Hindu life, full for the most part of brilliant colouring and cleverly wrought in dialect. The writer evidently knows her subject, and she writes about it with unusual skill.’
The North British Daily Mail.—‘In at least two of the sketches in Mrs. Steel’s book we have a thoroughly descriptive delineation of life in Indian, or rather, Hindoo, villages. “Ganesh Chunel” is little short of a masterpiece, and the same might be said of “Shah Sujah’s Mouse.” In both we are made the spectator of the conditions of existence in rural India. The stories are told with an art that conceals the art of story-telling.’
The Athenæum.—‘They possess this great merit, that they reflect the habits, modes of life, and ideas of the middle and lower classes of the population of Northern India better than do systematic and more pretentious works.’
The Leeds Mercury.--‘By no means a book to neglect…. It is written with brains…. Mrs. Steel understands the life which she describes, and she has sufficient literary art to describe it uncommonly well. These short stories of Indian life are, in fact, quite above the average of stories long or short…. There is originality, insight, sympathy, and a certain dramatic instinct in the portrayal of character about the book.’
The Globe.—‘She puts before us the natives of our Empire in the East as they live and move and speak, with their pitiful superstitions, their strange fancies, their melancholy ignorance of what poses with us for knowledge and civilisation, their doubt of the new ways, the new laws, the new people. “Shah Sujah’s Mouse,” the gem of the collection—a touching tale of unreasoning fidelity towards an English “Sinny Baba”—is a tiny bit of perfect writing.’
The Standard.—‘The Last Sentence is a remarkable story; it abounds with dramatic situations, the interest never for a moment flags, and the characters are well drawn and consistent.’
The Saturday Review.—‘There is a great deal as well as a great variety of incident in the story, and more than twenty years are apportioned to it; but it never seems over-crowded, nor has it the appearance of several stories rolled into one. The Last Sentence is a remarkable novel, and the more so because its strong situations are produced without recourse to the grosser forms of immorality.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘One of the most powerful and adroitly-worked-out plots embodied in any modern work of fiction runs through The Last Sentence…. This terrible tale of retribution is told with well-sustained force and picturesqueness, and abounds in light as well as shade.’
The Morning Post.—‘Maxwell Gray has the advantage of manner that is both cultured and picturesque, and while avoiding even the appearance of the melodramatic, makes coming events cast a shadow before them so as to excite and entertain expectation…. It required the imagination of an artist to select the kind of Nemesis which finally overtakes this successful evil-doer, and which affords an affecting climax to a rather fascinating tale.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘This is a very strong story…. It contains much rich colouring, some striking situations, and plenty of thoroughly living characters. The interest is of a varied kind, and, though the hero is an aristocrat, the pictures of human life are by no means confined to the upper circles.’
The Leeds Mercury.—‘It shows a command of the resources of the novelist’s art which is by no means common, and it has other qualities which lift it far above the average level of the circulating library. It is written with a literary grace and a moral insight which are seldom at fault, and from first to last it is pervaded with deep human interest.’
The Queen.—‘Maxwell Gray has a certain charm and delicacy of style. She has mastered the subtleties of a particular type of weak character until she may be almost called its prophet.’
The Lady’s Pictorial.—‘The book is a clever and powerful one…. Cynthia Marlowe will live in our memories as a sweet and noble woman; one of whom it is a pleasure to think of beside some of the ‘emancipated’ heroines so common in the fiction of the day.’
The Manchester Courier.—‘The author of The Silence of Dean Maitland gives to the reading world another sound and magnificent work…. In both these works Maxwell Gray has taken “Nemesis” as his grand motif. In each work there sits behind the hero that atra cura which poisons the wholesome draught of human joy. In each is present the corroding blight that comes of evil done and not discovered.’
The Athenæum.—‘There is no one but Mr. Kipling who can make his readers taste and smell, as well as see and hear, the East; and in this book (if we except the description of Tarvin’s adventures in the deserted city of Gunvaur, which is perhaps less clear-cut than usual) he has surely surpassed himself. In his faculty for getting inside the Eastern mind and showing its queer workings Mr. Kipling stands alone.’
The Academy.—‘The Naulahka contains passages of great merit. There are descriptions scattered through its pages which no one but Mr. Kipling could have written…. Whoever reads this novel will find much of it hard to forget … and the story of the exodus from the hospital will rank among the best passages in modern fiction.’
The Times.—‘A happy idea, well adapted to utilize the respective experience of the joint authors…. An excellent story…. The dramatic train of incident, the climax of which is certainly the interview between Sitabhai and Tarvin, the alternate crudeness and ferocity of the girl-queen, the susceptibility of the full-blooded American, hardly kept in subjection by his alertness and keen eye to business, the anxious eunuch waiting in the distance with the horses, and fretting as the stars grow paler and paler, the cough of the tiger slinking home at the dawn after a fruitless night’s hunt—the whole forms a scene not easily effaced from the memory.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘An entrancing story beyond doubt…. The design is admirable—to bring into violent contrast and opposition the widely differing forces of the Old World and the New—and while, of course, it could have been done without the use of Americanese, yet that gives a wonderful freshness and realism to the story. The design is a bold one, and it has been boldly carried out…. The interest is not only sustained throughout, it is at times breathless…. The Maharajah, the rival queens, the pomp and peril of Rhatore, are clearly Mr. Kipling’s own, and some of the Indian chapters are in his best style.’
The Speaker.—‘In the presentation of Rhatore there is something of the old Kiplingesque glamour; it is to the pages of Mr. Kipling that one must go for the strange people and incidents of the royal household at Rhatore…. It is enough to say that the plotting of that most beautiful and most wicked gipsy, Sitabhai is interesting; that Sitabhai is well created; and that the chapter which describes her secret meeting with Tarvin is probably the finest and the most impressive in the book.’
The Bookman.—‘The real interest of the book is in the life behind the curtains of the Maharajah’s palace. The child Kunwar, his mother, the forsaken Zulu queen, the gipsy with her wicked arts, are pictures of Indian life, which even Mr. Kipling has not surpassed.’
The Speaker.—‘In his first book, Mr. Bailey-Martin, Mr. White gave us a remarkable picture of the sordidness of life in a suburban household. In the present volume he rises to a higher social level, and treats of rising members of Parliament, of political leaders, and even of Prime Ministers…. The sketches of types are both forcible and true.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘None can travel over his brightly-written pages without being gladdened by the little flashes of epigram which light up the scene for us, or stirred by the shrewdness and worldly wisdom which he has put into the mouths of his characters. One of the charms of the book lies in the conviction that its author knows the world, and is full of a broad, full knowledge, and therefore sympathy with the foibles, passions, and sins with which it abounds…. It is a sermon preached on the old Æschylian text, that the evil doer must always suffer. The book is a drama of biting intensity, a tragedy of inflexible purpose and relentless result.’
The Daily News.—‘Will appeal to many tastes. There is intrigue enough in it for those who love a story of the ordinary kind, and the political part is perhaps rather more attractive in its sparkle and variety of incident than the real thing itself.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘Corruption more than fulfils the brilliant promise of Mr. Bailey-Martin…. As its title indicates, it deals with the political and social cankers of the day, which it lays bare with a fearless and unerring touch.’
The Standard.—‘The scenes in the South of France are particularly well done; without any attempt at local colour Mr. White has caught the atmosphere skilfully, and there are one or two clever touches of which he appears unconscious. Taking the book as a whole, it is written with ease and knowledge, and has about it nothing of the amateur.’
The Graphic.—‘A very able piece of work.’
Black and White.—‘The risqué situation is wrought with brilliance and subtilty…. Mrs. Mannering recalls Becky Sharp; and Carew is a typical man of the day…. Mr. Percy White assuredly takes rank with the foremost of the society writers.’
The Globe.—‘A graphic picture of social life.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘The characters are well conceived and cleverly portrayed; the dialogue is crisp and sparkling. There is not a dull moment in the volume.’
The Times.—‘Mr. White has written an audacious book.’
The Athenæum.—‘Mr. White, with the aid of the necessary qualities—dry humour and delicate irony—succeeds nearly all the time…. The character is one exceedingly difficult to portray…. Mr. White has resisted the temptation to force and exaggerate the note, and this is probably the secret of his success.’
The Speaker.—‘There is cleverness enough in Mr. Bailey-Martin to furnish forth a dozen novels…. It shows not only a remarkable knowledge of contemporary life, but a keen insight into character, and a considerable degree of literary power.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘The book teems with smart sayings and graphic characterisations, and cannot fail to make a mark among the cleverest novels of the year.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘The book must be pronounced a well-nigh unqualified triumph.’
The Literary World.—‘Mr. Bailey-Martin is one of those books whose opportune arrival serves to reconcile the critic to his task…. Bright, fresh, vigorous in action, and told with a wealth of incident and humour.’
The New Budget, in a criticism on Mr. Percy White as a novelist, says—‘In my opinion, you are by far the cleverest of the younger—or shall I say, youngest?—generation of writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. Street…. Your prose possesses in a high degree what I may call the lyrical note. At times you write like a poet rather than a writer of prose…. You serve in no school, and imitate no man…. In Mr. Bailey-Martin, though you write with an affectation of wholly dispassionate observation of your snob and his set, there is underlying that attitude a measureless contempt for your hero (if I may call him so) and his friends, which bites like an acid.’
The National Observer.—‘Admirably clever, and deserving to be read by those who are bored with the average novel.’
The Bookman.—‘One of the cleverest novels we have seen for many a day…. Take away from the average man a little of his affectation, and all his responsibilities; add some impudence, and the production of a Bailey-Martin is highly probable. We congratulate Mr. White on the vigour and vitality of his novel.’
The Scotsman.—‘When it is remembered that this story is told by Mr. Bailey-Martin himself, and with a great air of verisimilitude, it will be seen how able the book is as a piece of literature…. It will interest and entertain every one who takes it up.’
The Times.—‘All the stories are told by a man whose heart and soul are in his profession of literature.’
The Morning Post.—‘The discriminating will not fail to recognise in the tales composing this volume workmanship of a very high order and a wealth of imaginative fancy that is, in a measure, a revelation.’
The Athenæum.—‘The appearance of Terminations will in no way shake the general belief in Mr. Henry James’s accomplished touch and command of material. On the contrary, it confirms conclusions long since foregone, and will increase the respect of his readers…. With such passages of trenchant wit and sparkling observation, surely in his best manner, Mr. James ought to be as satisfied as his readers cannot fail to be.’
The Daily News.—‘Mr. James is a critic of life rather than a maker of stories; his appeal is more to the intellect than to the imagination. Terminations is a collection of four stories written with that choiceness and conciseness of phrase that distinguishes the work of the literary artist…. The Altar of the Dead is more mystic and imaginative. Mr. James finds phrases that express incomparably well the more spiritual longings of our nature, and this story is full of tender suggestiveness.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘What strikes one, in fact, in every corner of Mr. James’s work is his inordinate cleverness. These four tales are so clever, that one can only raise one’s hands in admiration. The insight, the sympathy with character, the extraordinary observation, and the neat and dexterous phrasing—these qualities are everywhere visible.’
The Scotsman.—‘All the stories are peculiar and full of a rare interest.’
The Manchester Guardian.—‘… But with The Altar of the Dead it is far otherwise. To attempt to criticise a creation so exquisite, so instinct with the finest and purest human feeling, so penetrated with the fastidious distinction of a sensitive spirit, would indeed be superfluous, if not impertinent. On its own lines, we know of no more beautiful, truer prose poem in the English language, and to have written it is to have formulated a claim to recollection which we do not think will be lightly set aside.’
The National Observer.—‘Clever characterisation, natural dialogue, moral sanity, and keen observation and knowledge of the world…. The minor characters are as diverse as they are numerous, and there is not a lay figure in the book.’
The Daily News.—‘Herbert Vanlennert is good throughout. The analysis of the hero’s character is excellent. The story is crowded with minor characters, all clearly individualised and seen in nice relation to their surroundings. There is much power of observation, much knowledge of life and art displayed throughout.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘A piece of life and a work of art…. Mr. Keary’s men and women are solid all through. He is as honest in his presentation of life as Mr. Gissing, but he is more pointed and wittier; he is less witty than Mr. Meredith, but he is more responsible…. Mr. Keary’s work stands out as a very brilliant piece of honest, knowledgable, wise artistry. We say it deliberately, that there are very few novels of our time that bear so unmistakably the grip of the master-hand as Herbert Vanlennert.’
The St. James’s Gazette.—‘A novel like this helps us at once to understand, to judge, and to enjoy life; and that is to say that he has written a novel of the kind that only the great novelists write. From time to time there comes a new novel marked by a kind and degree of excellence that compels praise of an emphatic kind. There need be no hesitation about deciding that Herbert Vanlennert is such a book.’
The Review of Reviews.—‘In Herbert Vanlennert indeed is a whole little world of living people—friends and acquaintances whom it is not easy to forget.’
The Sketch.—‘Full of cleverness and a legitimate realism. Of two of the most strongly marked and skilfully drawn characters, one is Maynard, the artist of genius; the other, a striking contrast to Maynard, is Bernard, who passes a serene existence in the study of metaphysics. Very charming and interesting are Mr. Keary’s bright and vivid descriptions of English country life and scenery in Derbyshire.’
St. Paul’s.—‘The book contains much clever writing, and is in many respects a strong one.’
Black and White.—‘There is abundance of skilfully drawn characters and brilliantly sketched incidents, which, once read, cannot be forgotten.’
The Scotsman.—‘Mr. Keary, even when he is treading on delicate ground, writes with circumspection and cleverness.’
The Bradford Observer.—‘It is a fine piece of art, and should touch its readers to fine issues.’
The Manchester Courier.—‘The book is most interesting, and embodies a great deal of careful work, besides some very plain speaking.’
The Literary World.—‘The novel is marked by great strength, which is always under subjection to the author’s gift of restraint, so that we are made to feel the intensity all the more. Pathos and humour (in the true sense) go together through these chapters; and for such qualities as earnestness, insight, moral courage, and thoughtfulness, The Years that the Locust hath Eaten stands out prominently among noteworthy books of the time.’
The Daily News.—‘Bears out to the full the promise given by Joanna Traill, Spinster. The author has a genuine sense of humour and an eye for character, and if she bids us weep at the tragedy of life and death, she makes us smile by her pleasant handling of human foible and eccentricities.’
The Standard.—‘A worthy successor to Joanna Traill, Spinster. It is quite as powerful. It has insight and sympathy and pathos, humour, and some shrewd understanding of human nature scattered up and down its pages. Moreover, there is beauty in the story and idealism…. Told with a humour, a grace, a simplicity, that ought to give the story a long reign…. The charm of the book is undeniable; it is one that only a clever woman, full of the best instincts of her sex, could have written.’
The Review of Reviews.—‘It has all the charm and simplicity of treatment which gave its predecessor (Joanna Traill, Spinster) its vogue.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘The book should not be missed by a fastidious novel-reader.’
The Court Journal.—‘The moral of the book is excellent; the style strong and bold.’
The Scotsman.—‘The story is well told, and a vein of humour serves to bring the pathos into higher relief.’
The Manchester Guardian.—‘It is sincere and conscientious, and it shows appreciation of the value of reticence.’
The Manchester Courier.—‘The book is full of delicate touches of characterisation, and is written with considerable sense of style.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘Worked out with great skill and success…. The story is powerfully told.’
The Liverpool Mercury.—‘The story is told with sympathy and pathos, and the concluding chapters are touching in the extreme.’
The Birmingham Gazette.—‘A sad story beautifully written, containing pure thoughts and abundant food for reflection upon the misery which exists in the world at the present day. The tale is particularly pathetic, but it is true in character. It will be read with interest.’
The Leeds Mercury.—‘Full of powerful situations.’
The Speaker.—‘Mrs. Lynn Linton commands the respect of her readers and critics. Her new story, In Haste and at Leisure, is as powerful a piece of writing as any that we owe to her pen.’
The St. James’s Budget.—‘A thorough mistress of English, Mrs. Lynn Linton uses the weapons of knowledge and ridicule, of sarcasm and logic, with powerful effect; the shallow pretences of the “New Woman” are ruthlessly torn aside.’
The Literary World.—‘Whatever its exaggerations may be, In Haste and at Leisure remains a notable achievement. It has given us pleasure, and we can recommend it with confidence.’
The Court Journal.—‘The book is a long but brilliant homily and series of object-lessons against the folly and immorality of the modern craze of the most advanced women, who rail against men, marriage, and maternity. The book is immensely powerful, and intensely interesting.’
The Daily Graphic.—‘It is an interesting story, while it is the most tremendous all-round cannonade to which the fair emancipated have been subjected.’
The World.—‘It is clever, and well written.’
The Graphic.—‘It is thoroughly interesting, and it is full of passages that almost irresistibly tempt quotation.’
The St. James’s Gazette.—‘It is a novel that ought to be, and will be, widely read and enjoyed.’
The Globe.—‘It is impossible not to recognise and acknowledge its great literary merit.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘In Haste and at Leisure is a striking and even brilliant novel.’
The Manchester Courier.—‘In this cruelly scientific analyses of the “New Woman,” Mrs. Lynn Linton writes with all the bitterness of Dean Swift. The book is one of remarkable power.’
The Saturday Review.—‘Every page of it is worth reading. The author sets herself to write a fascinating book, and, in our opinion, has undoubtedly succeeded.’
The World.—‘There are good things in this novel; excellent character-drawing, some forcibly realistic chapters in the life of a common soldier.’
The Daily News.—‘The story is skilfully constructed, and will certainly add to Miss Robinson’s reputation.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘Miss Robinson writes but little, and writes that little carefully…. Herein also is Miss Robinson true to life, and not false to art.’
The Realm.—‘The story is powerfully written. It is worth reading.’
The Standard.—‘All the vicissitudes of Treganna’s career are interesting, and are vividly told.’
The Lady.—‘A story of exceptional power and absorbing interest, earnest, forcible, intensely human, and of high literary merit.’
The Observer.—‘The book is very ably written, and it is well worth reading.’
The Globe.—‘There are in this book much power of observation, a relentless truthfulness, and a recognition of the value of detail. It should enchain the attention of the most callous reader.’
The Sunday Times.—‘A remarkably clever sketch of a man’s life and character…. The literary workmanship is good without being laboured…. We wish it the appreciation, not only of those who can distinguish good literature, but of those who prefer the good from the bad.’
Black and White.—‘An original plot vigorously treated.’
The Daily Graphic.—‘The whole story of the relations between Joseph Treganna and Fanny Star is very human, and handled with a breadth and understanding which very few women novelists of the day could hope to rival, while the gradual abandonment by the man of the outposts whereon he has planted his colours is admirable in its inevitableness.’
Woman.—‘A superb novel, strong and full of life, packed with observation and humour of the deep subcutaneous sort.’
The Times.—‘Miss Dixon shows herself no ineffective satirist of the shams and snobbishness of society.’
The Academy.—‘No one who reads The Story of a Modern Woman will be likely to gainsay the excellence of its writing, and the genuine talent shown by Miss Dixon.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘A subtle study, written by a woman, about a woman, and from the point of view of a distinctly clever and modern woman herself…. Miss Dixon has scored a great success in the treatment of her novel.’
Vanity Fair.—‘The main thread of the story is powerful and pathetic; but there are lighter touches, wit and humour, and here and there what seem like shadows of people we have seen and known…. In a word, a book to buy, to read, and to enjoy.’
Black and White.—‘The social sketches, with which this little story of modern, literary, fashionable, and Bohemian London is full, are very cleverly touched in.’
The Graphic.—‘Miss Ella Hepworth Dixon has inherited no small share of her father’s literary gifts, and she adds to it a faculty of observation, and a constructive and narrative skill, which are of considerable promise.’
The National Observer.—‘She writes well, and shows not a little power of drawing character, and even of constructing a story.’
The Sketch.—‘Miss Dixon’s style excels in delicate vignettes, full of suggestion, and marked, above all, by that artistic restraint which is such an agreeable contrast to the fluency of the average woman-novel.’
St. James’s Gazette.—‘Miss Hepworth Dixon knows how to write…. She can say what she wants to say in a sound, clear style, which (especially in the descriptive passages) is occasionally very felicitous and expressive. Altogether, A Modern Woman is a work which will better repay reading than most of the novels of the season.’
Illustrated London News.—‘A story of which so much can truthfully be said is a contribution to art as well as to the circulating library, a conjunction which, in these days of British fiction, is surprising.’
The Athenæum.—‘The characters are exceptionally distinct, the movement is brisk, and the dialogue is natural and convincing.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘Joanna Conway is on distinctly new lines, and it has given us pleasure to follow her spicy, attractive personality through all the phases of her carefully, finely-depicted evolution.’
The National Observer.—‘A remarkably life-like picture of English society. The author is a keen observer. The writing is above the average.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘An excellent novel. Joanna Conway is one of the most attractive figures in recent fiction. It is no small tribute to the author’s skill that this simple country girl, without beauty or accomplishments, is from first to last so winning a personality. The book is full of excellent observation.’
Black and White.—‘Some pleasant hours may be passed in following the fortunes of Joanna, the charming heroine of M. Hamilton’s A Self-Denying Ordinance. The book is well written, and holds the attention from start to finish. The characters are true to life.’
The Methodist Times.—‘The story retains its interest throughout. It contains some vividly-drawn delineations of character.’
Woman.—‘Contains the finest, surest, subtlest character drawing that England has had from a new writer for years and years past.’
Public Opinion.—‘A well written and fascinating novel. It is a clever sketch of life in its different phases…. “Every personage strikes one as being richly endowed with individuality.”’
The Manchester Courier.—‘A decided success. There are such women as Joanna Conway in the world, though, unfortunately, not so many as are required; but there are few writers of the present day who can do justice to such a character, so poetical, and yet so practical…. There is humour in the book: the scene is chiefly in Ireland, and who can truly write of Ireland without humour? but the greatest charm is in the wonderful tenderness, in the womanly chivalry which renders so true the title of a self-denying ordinance.’
The Times.—‘Ably conceived, and ably-written stories…. Mr. Frank Harris has proved himself at once a subtle and effective writer of fiction.’
The National Observer.—‘Mr. Harris’s work leaves on the mind a vivid impression. All the stories in the volume are well written and admirably constructed.’
The Academy.—‘Page after page glows with masterly invention, tender pathos, excellent wit: attributes belonging to the magicians of fiction. Its cleverness is often near akin to absolute genius; the dexterity of the writer evokes not only surprises, but rare pleasure.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘The characters are clearly defined and combined with great skill; they breathe genuineness and truth. There is force and pathos, too, in the story of Bancroft and Loo Conklin.’
The Review of Reviews.—‘There is a force and a charm, a vividness and an originality about these tales which give them a high, if not the highest, place in the literature of that kind which has been produced in the last few years, Not only is there a genius in the presentation of the human types which are described, but they display a closeness of observation and a keenness of insight into the heart of things which only those who have studied western civilisation in the making can appreciate.’
The Westminster Gazette.—‘The stories are masterpieces. They grip like life. And they live with one after, as living realities.’
The Sketch.—‘There is good workmanship in Mr. Harris’s volume, shows not merely in the vigorous story-telling. The inner idea in the tales is carefully wrought, and it will find a response among all readers who love sincerity.’
The Bookman.—‘Elder Conklin is a masterly picture of heroism and paternal love, of rare intensity and refinement, co-existing with capacities for hideous selfishness and cruelty.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘Mr. Harris’s excellent stories may be heartily recommended to all.’
The Times.—‘In a sense this novel is belated, being a straggler from the procession of books more or less directly concerned with the New Woman. This is a pity, for it is perhaps the best of the novels that have vindicated or mocked at that tiresome female…. Still it may be allowed that here we meet with less cant, less rancour, less prurience, less affectation of omniscience, more genuine philosophy, and a more careful style and more real literary power than in any other novel of the same school.’
The Athenæum.—‘The character-drawing is distinctly good. All the personages stand out well defined with strongly marked individualities.’
The Morning Post.—‘Clytie is made undeniably sympathetic while the author’s pictures of Bohemian life are bright and graphic.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘The merit of the book lies in the description of the life of Clytie Davenant (the heroine) as an artist in London, of her friendship with Kent, her wooing by Thornton Hammerdyke, and the struggles of her married life. All this is portrayed, not in the grand style, but soberly, truthfully, and on the whole effectively.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘This clever and somewhat audacious story…. We congratulate W. J. Locke, and shall be surprised if the reception accorded this book is not such as to cause him to congratulate himself.’
The Review of Reviews.—‘Here is a tale of women’s life in London in the present year, of varied societies, of a husband’s brutality, and of a woman’s fidelity, told with restraint, power, and originality. It is certainly one of the novels which mark a beginner out for attention.’
Vanity Fair.—‘After long course of flaccid, nerveless books that seem to have no raison d’être, it is refreshing to find a well-written novel whose characters seem “hewn from life,” and act as men and women really act.’
The Scotsman.—‘The story never drags and can be read from end to end. It seems to be a first work, and in its strength and vigour gives good promise for the future. The workmanship is careful and conscientious, while the characterisation is broad, human, and natural.’
The Manchester Guardian.—‘In depicting the friendship between Clytie and Kent the author shows both power and subtlety, and may fairly claim to have given us something new, for the portrayal of such a relationship between a man and a woman standing on an equal intellectual level has not been successfully attempted before.’
The Saturday Review.—‘The powerfully dramatic scene in the dancing rooms at Cairo would alone make the book worth reading. The humour, too, peculiar to himself is not lacking in Mr. Hichens’s novel. It is undoubtedly an artistic success.’
The Guardian.—‘There is no possible doubt as to the cleverness of the book. The scenes are exceeding powerful.’
The Graphic.—‘The story embodies a study of remarkable subtlety and power, and the style is not only vivid and picturesque, but in those passages of mixed emotion and reflection, which strike what is, perhaps, the characteristic note of late nineteenth century prose literature, is touched with something of a poetic charm.’
The Standard.—‘The setting of the book is vivid, and the effect of silence well imagined, so that the strange little drama goes on, and the reader watches it with an interest that does not suffer him to consider its absurdity.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘It treats an original idea with no little skill, and it is written with a distinction which gives Mr. Hichens a conspicuous place amongst the younger story-tellers who are really studious of English diction…. It is marked out with an imaginative resource which has a welcome note of literature.’
The Daily Graphic.—‘A profoundly impressive study in psychology. The descriptions of the shadier side of Egyptian life are fresh and vivid; indeed, Mr. Hichens has a rare power of stimulating the reader’s imagination until it fills in what no one can write, and thus helps to create a vivid picture.’
The Scotsman.—‘It is no doubt a remarkable book. If it has almost none of the humour of its predecessor (The Green Carnation), it is written with the same brilliancy of style, and the same skill is shown in the drawing of accessories. Mr. Hichens’s three characters never fail to be interesting. They are presented with very considerable power, while the background of Egyptian life and scenery is drawn with a sure hand.’
The Spectator.—‘Several of his types are painted in with a fine combination of breadth of effect and wealth of significant detail…. Certainly a book which has not merely cleverness, but real vitality.’
The Speaker.—‘A novel of such remarkable merit, and written with such easy mastery of style. From first to last this striking and powerful story maintains a high level of excellence, betokening no ’prentice hand. It is a story teeming with humour and pathos, instinct with the irony of human fate, and quick to apprehend the subtle twists and inconsistencies of human character. Above all, it is deliciously original … and told with great spirit, humour, and dramatic vigour. A vivid picture of a side of life upon which little light has been cast by our novelists since Dickens laid down his pen.’
The Morning Post.—‘On the whole realistic; this presentment of Holland in London has certain impressionist touches that are decidedly effective…. All the tragedy of the book centres in the figure of Peter van Eijk, a creation which says much for the author’s imaginative powers.’
The Daily Telegraph.—‘A singular little novel, which has so undeniable a power of its own.’ (Mr. W. L. Courtney.)
The Globe.—‘The literary treatment is fresh and impressive…. The author shows skill in all its characterisations, his mastery of Dutch idiosyncrasy being obviously complete.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘One does not care to put the book down till the last page is turned.’
The Westminster Gazette.—‘Vivid in portraiture, vivacious in manner…. The combination of close observation and grim sardonic humour gives the book a decided charm….The pathetic figure of Peter is drawn with a tenderness which indefinitely enlarges our impression of the author’s dramatic possibilities.’
The Weekly Sun.—‘Has the great merit of introducing us to a new world…. What a delightful creation Mrs. de Griendt is. Indeed, I should personally have been glad if we had had more of her. Whenever she appears on the stage she fills it with her presence, and you can see her, hear her, watch her with fascination and incessant interest…. I think the reader will agree with me that I have not exaggerated the literary merit of this exquisitely-described scene.’ (T. P. O’Connor, M.P.)
The Review of Reviews.—‘You will enjoy reading it.’
The Glasgow Herald.—‘A striking and amusing novel…. The author has a pleasant gift of humour, and has shown distinct originality.’
The Aberdeen Daily Free Press.—‘In the publication of this and kindred works, Mr. Heinemann is doing much to maintain the freshness and vigour of our English fiction….He has seldom provided a pleasanter and yet more bracing work than the Drama now before us…. As a mere story it will carry delight to even the most unthinking.’
The Times.—‘Since Mrs. Gaskell wrote her Mary Barton we have seen no more interesting novel on the condition of the working classes. Mr, Tirebuck is thoroughly master of his subject…. A vivid and impressive narrative of the great coal strike of a couple of years ago.’
The Literary World. —‘Every reader anxious to hear of a work that is full of brains and vigour may unhesitatingly enter Miss Grace of All Souls’ upon his list of books worthy to be perused…. Mr. Tirebuck, not content with providing “Grace” for our admiration, has made another claim upon our love by presenting us to Nance Ockleshaw. For her sake alone Miss Grace of All Souls’ should be read, and we hope that the novel will make its way into many a home, there to be considered with all the care that is due to it.’
The World.—‘The most remarkable contribution made by fiction to the history of the working classes since Mary Barton, and it has a wider range and import of deeper gravity. It appeals directly to the thoughtful among readers, those who care to learn, on the object-lesson plan, the facts and aspects of life among the multitudes, with whom they are brought into actual contact. The girl who is its central figure is an original and very attractive character.’
The Daily Chronicle.—‘An uncommonly well-told story, interesting from first to last. Mr. Tirebuck has drawn a truly delightful character in the miner’s wife; indeed, the whole family might well have been sketched straight from the life. It is difficult to make a work of fiction at once instructive and entertaining, but Mr. Tirebuck has done it in Miss Grace of All Souls’.’
The Pall Mall Gazette.—‘An admirable piece of work. Here is realism in its proper proportions: the rude, harsh, Methody life of the northern miner engraved in all its essentials. Mr. Tirebuck manages to illustrate the conditions of miners’ lives for us with complete fidelity. Not a touch of the humour, the pathos, the tragedy, the grime, the sin, and the ideals is lacking…. Mr. Tirebuck has done his work to perfection. The story is not a moral tract, but a work of art of great significance.’
The British Weekly.—‘Mr. Tirebuck is a practised and powerful novelist, and in this story he has taken us right inside the heart of the poor. His description of the collier’s wife is wonderful work.’
The Manchester Guardian.—‘As a picture of working men and women, instinct as it is with knowledge, sympathy, passion, and conviction, we have seldom, if ever, read anything so good.’
The Manchester Courier.—‘The character of Miss Grace reminds the reader of the heroine of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho.’
The Athenæum.—‘Told with a force and directness that hold the reader’s attention throughout…. A stirring and interesting novel.’
The Academy.—‘As a study of character, the work is admirable.’
The Saturday Review.—‘A finely conceived study. The book is true without being sordid—realistic in the better meaning of the word; and we have read it with the greatest interest and some stirrings of emotion.’
The National Observer.—‘The strong and true spirit of the husband gives an ennobling study of humanity worth many plots. Miss Sergeant has risen to her earlier level in this book, a fine study of character, and it is only just to say that it is also strong in detail.’
The World.—‘A work to which the much-used adjective “beautiful” may be applied with full intention and strict justice.‘
The Daily Chronicle.—‘Miss Sergeant has given her best matter, treated in her best manner.’
The Daily News.—‘A moving story. In the delineation of the softening of the man’s spirit, and of the mental struggles by which he reaches to forgiveness of his wife, Miss Sergeant shows a fine imagination. This is the best book of Miss Sergeant’s that has come under our notice for some time.’
The Globe.—‘Miss Sergeant follows her hero with a rare grasp of descriptive detail. The concluding chapters of the book reach a high level of pathos, dignity, and convincing humanity.’
Black and White.—‘Gideon Blake is a fine creation and the record of his devotion to the unworthy Emmy, an his attempted expiation of her sins, is forcibly wrought. The closing tragedy, simply treated, is impressive.’
The Literary World.—‘The story is well put together, and has points of more than passing interest and importance.’
The Scotsman.—‘It is in the development of the great theme of a man’s undying constancy to his erring partner, and his eventual forgiveness of her offence, that the author rises to a height of true dramatic power seldom attained in the modern novel. On its merits the story is worthy of a high place in contemporary fiction.’
Birmingham Daily Post.—‘The character of Gideon Blake, the intense and strong-minded husband of the fragile Emmy, is a fine creation, based on the harder types of moral grandeur.’
Bradford Observer.—‘The tale is sincerely and touchingly written. Its characters are veritable flesh and blood.’