It was the Sunday after Leslie's visit. We had had a wretched week, with everybody mute and unhappy.
Though Spring had come, none of us saw it. Afterwards it occurred to me that I had seen all the ranks of poplars suddenly bursten into a dark crimson glow, with a flutter of blood-red where the sun came through the leaves; that I had found high cradles where the swan's eggs lay by the waterside; that I had seen the daffodils leaning from the moss-grown wooden walls of the boat-house, and all, moss, daffodils, water, scattered with the pink scarves from the elm buds; that I had broken the half-spread fans of the sycamore, and had watched the white cloud of sloe-blossom go silver grey against the evening sky: but I had not perceived it, and I had not any vivid spring-pictures left from the neglected week.
It was Sunday evening, just after tea, when Lettie suddenly said to me:
"Come with me down to Strelley Mill."
I was astonished, but I obeyed unquestioningly. On the threshold we heard a chattering of girls, and immediately Alice's voice greeted us:
"Hello, Sybil, love! Hello, Lettie! Come on, here's a gathering of the goddesses. Come on, you just make us right. You're Juno, and here's Meg, she's Venus, and I'm—here, somebody, who am I, tell us quick—did you say Minerva, Sybil dear? Well you ought, then! Now Paris, hurry up. He's putting his Sunday clothes on to take us a walk—Laws, what a time it takes him! Get your blushes ready, Meg—now, Lettie, look haughty, and I'll look wise. I wonder if he wants me to go and tie his tie. Oh, Glory—where on earth did you get that antimacassar?"
"In Nottingham—don't you like it?" said George referring to his tie. "Hello, Lettie—have you come?"
"Yes, it's a gathering of the goddesses. Have you that apple? If so, hand it over," said Alice.
"Oh, Lum, his education! Paris's apple—Can't you see we've come to be chosen?"
"Oh, well—I haven't got any apple—I've eaten mine."
"Isn't he flat—he's like boiling magnesia that's done boiling for a week. Are you going to take us all to church then?"
"If you like."
"Come on, then. Where's the Abode of Love? Look at Lettie looking shocked. Awfully sorry, old girl—thought love agreed with you."
"Did you say love?" inquired George.
"Yes, I did; didn't I, Meg? And you say 'Love' as well, don't you?"
"I don't know what it is," laughed Meg, who was very red and rather bewildered.
"'Amor est titillatio'—'Love is a tickling,'—there—that's it, isn't it, Sybil?"
"How should I know."
"Of course not, old fellow. Leave it to the girls. See how knowing Lettie looks—and, laws, Lettie, you are solemn."
"It's love," suggested George, over his new neck-tie.
"I'll bet it is 'degustasse sat est'—ain't it, Lettie? 'One lick's enough'—'and damned be he that first cries: Hold, enough!'—Which one do you like? But are you going to take us to church, Georgie, darling—one by one, or all at once?"
"What do you want me to do, Meg?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't mind."
"And do you mind, Lettie?"
"I'm not going to church."
"Let's go a walk somewhere—and let us start now," said Emily somewhat testily. She did not like this nonsense.
"There you are Syb—you've got your orders—don't leave me behind," wailed Alice.
Emily frowned and bit her finger.
"Come on, Georgie. You look like the finger of a pair scales—between two weights. Which'll draw?"
"The heavier," he replied, smiling, and looking neither at Meg or Lettie.
"Then it's Meg," cried Alice. "Oh, I wish I was fleshy—I've no chance with Syb against Pem."
Emily flashed looks of rage; Meg blushed and felt ashamed; Lettie began to recover from her first outraged indignation, and smiled.
Thus we went a walk, in two trios.
Unfortunately, as the evening was so fine, the roads were full of strollers: groups of three or four men dressed in pale trousers and shiny black cloth coats, following their suspicious little dogs: gangs of youths slouching along, occupied with nothing, often silent, talking now and then in raucous tones on some subject of brief interest: then the gallant husbands, in their tail coats very husbandly, pushing a jingling perambulator, admonished by a much dressed spouse round whom the small members of the family gyrated: occasionally, two lovers walking with a space between them, disowning each other; occasionally, a smartly dressed mother with two little girls in white silk frocks and much expanse of yellow hair, stepping mincingly, and, near by, a father awkwardly controlling his Sunday suit.
To endure all this it was necessary to chatter unconcernedly. George had to keep up the conversation behind, and he seemed to do it with ease, discoursing on the lambs, discussing the breed—when Meg exclaimed:
"Oh, aren't they black! They might ha' crept down th' chimney. I never saw any like them before." He described how he had reared two on the bottle, exciting Meg's keen admiration by his mothering of the lambs. Then he went on to the peewits, harping on the same string: how they would cry and pretend to be wounded—"Just fancy, though!"—and how he had moved the eggs of one pair while he was ploughing, and the mother had followed them, and had even sat watching as he drew near again with the plough, watching him come and go—"Well, she knew you—but they do know those who are kind to them——"
"Yes," he agreed, "her little bright eyes seem to speak as you go by."
"Oh, I do think they're nice little things—don't you, Lettie?" cried Meg in access of tenderness.
Lettie did—with brevity.
We walked over the hills and down into Greymede. Meg thought she ought to go home to her grandmother, and George bade her go, saying he would call and see her in an hour or so.
The dear girl was disappointed, but she went unmurmuring. We left Alice with a friend, and hurried home through Selsby to escape the after-church parade.
As you walk home past Selsby, the pit stands up against the west, with beautiful tapering chimneys marked in black against the swim of sunset, and the head-stocks etched with tall significance on the brightness. Then the houses are squat in rows of shadow at the foot of these high monuments.
"Do you know, Cyril," said Emily, "I have meant to go and see Mrs Annable—the keeper's wife—she's moved into Bonsart's Row, and the children come to school—Oh, it's awful!—they've never been to school, and they are unspeakable."
"What's she gone there for?" I asked.
"I suppose the squire wanted the Kennels—and she chose it herself. But the way they live—it's fearful to think of!"
"And why haven't you been?"
"I don't know—I've meant to—but——" Emily stumbled.
"You didn't want, and you daren't?"
"Perhaps not—would you?"
"Pah—let's go now!—There, you hang back."
"No I don't," she replied sharply.
"Come on then, we'll go through the twitchel. Let me tell Lettie."
Lettie at once declared, "No!"—with some asperity.
"All right," said George. "I'll take you home."
But this suited Lettie still less.
"I don't know what you want to go for, Cyril," she said, "and Sunday night, and, everybody everywhere. I want to go home."
"Well—you go then—Emily will come with you."
"Ha," cried the latter, "you think I won't go to see her."
I shrugged my shoulders, and George pulled his moustache.
"Well, I don't care," declared Lettie, and we marched down the twitchel, Indian file.
We came near to the ugly rows of houses that back up against the pit-hill. Everywhere is black and sooty: the houses are back to back, having only one entrance, which is from a square garden where black-speckled weeds grow sulkily, and which looks on to a row of evil little ash-pit huts. The road everywhere is trodden over with a crust of soot and coal-dust and cinders.
Between the rows, however, was a crowd of women and children, bare heads, bare arms, white aprons, and black Sunday frocks bristling with gimp. One or two men squatted on their heels with their backs against a wall, laughing. The women were waving their arms and screaming up at the roof of the end house.
Emily and Lettie drew back.
"Look there—it's that little beggar, Sam!" said George.
There, sure enough, perched on the ridge of the roof against the end chimney, was the young imp, coatless, his shirt-sleeves torn away from the cuffs. I knew his bright, reddish young head in a moment. He got up, his bare toes clinging to the tiles, and spread out his fingers fanwise from his nose, shouting something, which immediately caused the crowd to toss with indignation, and the women to shriek again. Sam sat down suddenly, having almost lost his balance.
The village constable hurried up, his thin neck stretching out of his tunic, and demanded the cause of the hubbub.
Immediately a woman with bright brown squinting eyes and a birthmark on her cheek, rushed forward and seized the policeman by the sleeve.
"Ta'e 'im up, ta'e 'im up, an' birch 'im till 'is bloody back's raw," she screamed.
The thin policeman shook her off, and wanted to know what was the matter.
"I'll smosh 'im like a rotten tater," cried the woman, "if I can lay 'ands on 'im. 'E's not fit ter live nowhere where there's decent folks—the thievin', brazen little devil——" thus she went on.
"But what's up!" interrupted the thin constable, "what's up wi' 'im?"
"Up—it's 'im as 'is up, an' let 'im wait till I get 'im down. A crafty little——"
Sam, seeing her look at him, distorted his honest features, and overheated her wrath, till Lettie and Emily trembled with dismay.
The mother's head appeared at the bedroom window. She slid the sash back, and craned out, vainly trying to look over the gutter below the slates. She was even more dishevelled than usual, and the tears had dried on her pale face. She stretched further out, clinging to the window frame and to the gutter overhead, till I was afraid she would come down with a crash.
The men, squatting on their heels against the wall of the ashpit, laughed, saying:
"Nab 'im, Poll—can ter see 'm—clawk 'im!" and then the pitiful voice of the woman was heard crying: "Come thy ways down, my duckie, come on—on'y come ter thy mother—they shanna touch thee. Du thy mother's biddin', now—Sam—Sam—Sam!" her voice rose higher and higher.
"Sammy, Sammy, go to thy mammy," jeered the wits below.
"Shonna ter come, Shonna ter come to thy mother, my duckie—come on, come thy ways down."
Sam looked at the crowd, and at the eaves from under which rose his mother's voice. He was going to cry. A big gaunt woman, with the family steel comb stuck in her back hair, shouted, "Tha' mun well bend thy face, tha' needs ter scraight," and aided by the woman with the birthmark and the squint, she reviled him. The little scoundrel, in a burst of defiance, picked a piece of mortar from between the slates, and in a second it flew into fragments against the family steel comb. The wearer thereof declared her head was laid open and there was general confusion. The policeman—I don't know how thin he must have been when he was taken out of his uniform—lost his head, and he too began brandishing his fists, spitting from under his sweep's-brush moustache as he commanded in tones of authority:
"Now then, no more on it—let's 'a'e thee down here, an' no more messin' about!"
The boy tried to creep over the ridge of the roof and escape down the other side. Immediately the brats rushed round yelling to the other side of the row, and pieces of red-burnt gravel began to fly over the roof. Sam crouched against the chimney.
"Got 'im!" yelled one little devil "Got 'im! Hi—go again!"
A shower of stones came down, scattering the women and the policeman. The mother rushed from the house and made a wild onslaught on the throwers. She caught one and flung him down. Immediately the rest turned and aimed their missiles at her. Then George and the policeman and I dashed after the young wretches, and the women ran to see what happened to their offspring. We caught two lads of fourteen or so, and made the policeman haul them after us. The rest fled.
When we returned to the field of battle, Sam had gone too.
"If 'e 'asna slived off!" cried the woman with a squint. "But I'll see him locked up for this."
At this moment a band of missioners from one of the chapels or churches arrived at the end of the row, and the little harmonium began to bray, and the place vibrated with the sound of a woman's powerful voice, propped round by several others, singing:
"At even 'ere the sun was set——"
Everybody hurried towards the new noise, save the policeman with his captives, the woman with the squint, and the woman with the family comb. I told the limb of the law he'd better get rid of the two boys and find out what mischief the others were after.
Then I enquired of the woman with the squint what was the matter.
"Thirty-seven young uns 'an we 'ad from that doe, an' there's no knowin' 'ow many more, if they 'adn't a-gone an' ate-n 'er," she replied, lapsing, now her fury was spent, into sullen resentment.
"An' niver a word should we a' known," added the family-comb-bearer, "but for that blessed cat of ourn, as scrat it up."
"Indeed," said I, "the rabbit?"
"No, there were nowt left but th' skin—they'd seen ter that, a thieving, dirt-eatin' lot."
"When was that?" said I.
"This mortal night—an' there was th' head an' th' back in th' dirty stewpot—I can show you this instant—I've got 'em in our pantry for a proof, 'aven't I, Martha?"
"A fat lot o' good it is—but I'll rip th' neck out of 'im, if ever I lay 'ands on 'im."
At last I made out that Samuel had stolen a large, lop-eared doe out of a bunch in the coal-house of the squint-eyed lady, had skinned it, buried the skin, and offered his booty to his mother as a wild rabbit, trapped. The doe had been the chief item of the Annables' Sunday dinner—albeit a portion was unluckily saved till Monday, providing undeniable proof of the theft. The owner of the rabbit had supposed the creature to have escaped. This peaceful supposition had been destroyed by the comb-bearer's seeing her cat, scratching in the Annables garden, unearth the white and brown doe-skin, after which the trouble had begun.
The squint-eyed woman was not so hard to manage. I talked to her as if she were some male friend of mine, only appealing to her womanliness with all the soft sadness I could press into the tones of my voice. In the end she was mollified, and even tender and motherly in her feelings toward the unfortunate family. I left on her dresser the half-crown I shrank from offering her, and, having reduced the comb-wearer also, I marched off, carrying the stewpot and the fragments of the ill-fated doe to the cottage of the widow, where George and the girls awaited me.
The house was in a woeful state. In the rocking chair, beside the high guard that surrounded the hearth, sat the mother, rocking, looking sadly shaken now her excitement was over. Lettie was nursing the little baby, and Emily the next child. George was smoking his pipe and trying to look natural. The little kitchen was crowded—there was no room—there was not even a place on the table for the stew-jar, so I gathered together cups and mugs containing tea sops, and set down the vessel of ignominy on the much slopped tea-cloth. The four little children were striped and patched with tears—at my entrance one under the table recommenced to weep, so I gave him my pencil which pushed in and out, but which pushes in and out no more. The sight of the stewpot affected the mother afresh. She wept again, crying:
"An' I niver thought as 'ow it were aught but a snared un; as if I should set 'im on ter thieve their old doe; an' tough it was an' all; an' 'im a thief, an me called all the names they could lay their tongues to: an' then in my bit of a pantry, takin' the very pots out: that stewpot as I brought all the way from Nottingham, an' I've 'ad it afore our Minnie wor born—"
The baby, the little baby, then began to cry. The mother got up suddenly, and took it.
"Oh, come then, come then my pet. Why, why cos they shanna, no they shanna. Yes, he's his mother's least little lad, he is, a little un. Hush then, there, there—what's a matter, my little?" She hushed the baby, and herself. At length she asked:
"'As th' p'liceman gone as well?"
"Yes—it's all right," I said.
She sighed deeply, and her look of weariness was painful to see.
"How old is your eldest?" I asked.
"Fanny—she's fourteen. She's out service at Websters. Then Jim, as is thirteen next month—let's see, yes, it is next month—he's gone to Flints—farming. They can't do much—an' I shan't let 'em go into th' pit, if I can help it. My husband always used to say they should never go in th' pit."
"They can't do much for you."
"They dun what they can. But it's a hard job, it is, ter keep 'em all goin'. Wi' weshin, an' th' parish pay, an' five shillin' from th' squire—it's 'ard. It was different when my husband was alive. It ought ter 'a been me as should 'a died—I don't seem as if I can manage 'em—they get beyond me. I wish I was dead this minnit, an' 'im 'ere. I can't understand it: 'im as wor so capable, to be took, an' me left. 'E wor a man in a thousand, 'e wor—full o' management like a gentleman. I wisht it was me as 'ad a been took. 'An 'e's restless, 'cos 'e knows I find it 'ard. I stood at th' door last night, when they was all asleep, looking out over th' pit pond—an' I saw a light, an' I knowed it was 'im—cos it wor our weddin' day yesterday—by the day an' th' date. An' I said to 'im 'Frank, is it thee, Frank? I'm all right, I'm gettin' on all right,'—an' then 'e went; seemed to go ower the whimsey an' back towards th' wood. I know it wor 'im, an' 'e couldna rest, thinkin' I couldna manage——"
After a while we left, promising to go again, and to see after the safety of Sam.
It was quite dark, and the lamps were lighted in the houses. We could hear the throb of the fan-house engines, and the soft whirr of the fan.
"Isn't it cruel?" said Emily plaintively.
"Wasn't the man a wretch to marry the woman like that," added Lettie with decision.
"Speak of Lady Chrystabel," said I, and then there was silence. "I suppose he did not know what he was doing, any more than the rest of us."
"I thought you were going to your aunt's—to the Ram Inn," said Lettie to George when they came to the cross-roads.
"Not now—it's too late," he answered quietly. "You will come round our way, won't you?"
"Yes," she said.
We were eating bread and milk at the farm, and the father was talking with vague sadness and reminiscence, lingering over the thought of their departure from the old house. He was a pure romanticist, forever seeking the colour of the past in the present's monotony. He seemed settling down to an easy contented middle-age, when the unrest on the farm and development of his children quickened him with fresh activity. He read books on the land question, and modern novels. In the end he became an advanced radical, almost a socialist. Occasionally his letters appeared in the newspapers. He had taken a new hold on life.
Over supper he became enthusiastic about Canada, and to watch him, his ruddy face lighted up, his burly form straight and nerved with excitement, was to admire him; to hear him, his words of thoughtful common-sense all warm with a young man's hopes, was to love him. At forty-six he was more spontaneous and enthusiastic than George, and far more happy and hopeful.
Emily would not agree to go away with them—what should she do in Canada, she said—and she did not want the little ones "to be drudges on a farm—in the end to be nothing but cattle."
"Nay," said her father gently, "Mollie shall learn the dairying, and David will just be right to take to the place when I give up. It'll perhaps be a bit rough and hard at first, but when we've got over it we shall think it was one of the best times—like you do."
"And you, George?" asked Lettie.
"I'm not going. What should I go for? There's nothing at the end of it only a long life. It's like a day here in June—a long work day, pleasant enough, and when it's done you sleep well—but it's work and sleep and comfort,—half a life. It's not enough. What's the odds?—I might as well be Flower, the mare."
His father looked at him gravely and thoughtfully.
"Now it seems to me so different," he said sadly, "it seems to me you can live your own life, and be independent, and think as you like without being choked with harassments. I feel as if I could keep on—like that——"
"I'm going to get more out of my life, I hope," laughed George. "No. Do you know?" and here he turned straight to Lettie. "Do you know, I'm going to get pretty rich, so that I can do what I want for a bit. I want to see what it's like, to taste all sides—to taste the towns. I want to know what I've got in me. I'll get rich—or at least I'll have a good try."
"And pray how will you manage it?" asked Emily.
"I'll begin by marrying—and then you'll see."
Emily laughed with scorn—"Let us see you begin."
"Ah, you're not wise!" said the father sadly—then, laughing, he said to Lettie in coaxing, confidential tones, "but he'll come out there to me in a year or two—you see if he doesn't."
"I wish I could come now," said I.
"If you would," said George, "I'd go with you. But not by myself, to become a fat stupid fool, like my own cattle."
While he was speaking Gyp burst into a rage of barking. The father got up to see what it was, and George followed. Trip, the great bull-terrier, rushed out of the house shaking the buildings with his roars. We saw the white dog flash down the yard, we heard a rattle from the hen-house ladder, and in a moment a scream from the orchard side.
We rushed forward, and there on the sharp bank-side lay a little figure, face down, and Trip standing over it, looking rather puzzled.
I picked up the child—it was Sam. He struggled as soon as he felt my hands, but I bore him off to the house. He wriggled like a wild hare, and kicked, but at last he was still. I set him on the hearthrug to examine him. He was a quaint little figure, dressed in a man's trousers that had been botched small for him, and a coat hanging in rags.
"Did he get hold of you?" asked the father. "Where was it he got hold of you?"
But the child stood unanswering, his little pale lips pinched together, his eyes staring out at nothing. Emily went on her knees before him, and put her face close to his, saying, with a voice that made one shrink from its unbridled emotion of caress:
"Did he hurt you, eh?—tell us where he hurt you." She would have put her arms around him, but he shrank away.
"Look here," said Lettie, "it's here—and it's bleeding. Go and get some water, Emily, and some rags. Come on, Sam, let me look and I'll put some rags round it. Come along."
She took the child and stripped him of his grotesque garments. Trip had given him a sharp grab on the thigh before he had realised that he was dealing with a little boy. It was not much, however, and Lettie soon had it bathed, and anointed with elder-flower ointment. On the boy's body were several scars and bruises—evidently he had rough times. Lettie tended to him and dressed him again. He endured these attentions like a trapped wild rabbit—never looking at us, never opening his lips—only shrinking slightly. When Lettie had put on him his torn little shirt, and had gathered the great breeches about him, Emily went to him to coax him and make him at home. She kissed him, and talked to him with her full vibration of emotional caress. It seemed almost to suffocate him. Then she tried to feed him with bread and milk from a spoon, but he would not open his mouth, and he turned his head away.
"Leave him alone—take no notice of him," said Lettie, lifting him into the chimney seat, with the basin of bread and milk beside him. Emily fetched the two kittens out of their basket and put them too beside him.
"I wonder how many eggs he'd got," said the father, laughing softly.
"Hush!" said Lettie. "When do you think you will go to Canada, Mr. Saxton?"
"Next spring—it's no good going before."
"And then you'll marry?" asked Lettie of George.
"Before then—oh, before then," he said.
"Why—how is it you are suddenly in such a hurry?—when will it be?"
"When are you marrying?" he asked in reply.
"I don't know," she said, coming to a full stop.
"Then I don't know," he said, taking a large wedge of cheese and biting a piece from it.
"It was fixed for June," she said, recovering herself at his suggestion of hope.
"July!" said Emily.
"Father!" said he, holding the piece of cheese up before him as he spoke—he was evidently nervous: "Would you advise me to marry Meg?"
His father started, and said:
"Why, was you thinking of doing?"
"Yes—all things considered."
"Well—if she suits you——"
"If you want her, I suppose you won't let that hinder you. She'll have a nice bit of money, and if you like her——"
"I like her all right—I shan't go out to Canada with her though. I shall stay at the Ram—for the sake of the life."
"It's a poor life, that!" said the father, ruminating.
George laughed. "A bit mucky!" he said—"But it'll do. It would need Cyril or Lettie to keep me alive in Canada."
It was a bold stroke—everybody was embarrassed.
"Well," said the father, "I suppose we can't have everything we want—we generally have to put up with the next best thing—don't we, Lettie?"—he laughed. Lettie flushed furiously.
"I don't know," she said. "You can generally get what you want if you want it badly enough. Of course—if you don't mind——"
She rose and went across to Sam.
He was playing with the kittens. One was patting and cuffing his bare toe, which had poked through his stocking. He pushed and teased the little scamp with his toe till it rushed at him, clinging, tickling, biting till he gave little bubbles of laughter, quite forgetful of us. Then the kitten was tired, and ran off. Lettie shook her skirts, and directly the two playful mites rushed upon it, darting round her, rolling head over heels, and swinging from the soft cloth. Suddenly becoming aware that they felt tired, the young things trotted away and cuddled together by the fender, where in an instant they were asleep. Almost as suddenly, Sam sank into drowsiness.
"He'd better go to bed," said the father.
"Put him in my bed," said George. "David would wonder what had happened."
"Will you go to bed, Sam?" asked Emily, holding out her arms to him, and immediately startling him by the terrible gentleness of her persuasion. He retreated behind Lettie.
"Come along," said the latter, and she quickly took him and undressed him. Then she picked him up, and his bare legs hung down in front of her. His head drooped drowsily on to her shoulder, against her neck.
She put down her face to touch the loose riot of his ruddy hair. She stood so, quiet, still and wistful, for a few moments; perhaps she was vaguely aware that the attitude was beautiful for her, and irresistibly appealing to George, who loved, above all in her, her delicate dignity of tenderness. Emily waited with the lighted candle for her some moments.
When she came down there was a softness about her.
"Now," said I to myself, "if George asks her again he is wise."
"He is asleep," she said quietly.
"I'm thinking we might as well let him stop while we're here, should we, George?" said the father. "Eh?"
"We'll keep him here while we are here——"
"Oh—the lad! I should. Yes—he'd be better here than up yonder."
"Ah, yes—ever so much. It is good of you," said Lettie.
"Oh, he'll make no difference," said the father.
"Not a bit," added George.
"What about his mother!" asked Lettie.
"I'll call and tell her in the morning," said George.
"Yes," she said, "call and tell her."
Then she put on her things to go. He also put on his cap.
"Are you coming a little way, Emily?" I asked.
She ran, laughing, with bright eyes as we went out into the darkness.
We waited for them at the wood gate. We all lingered, not knowing what to say. Lettie said finally:
"Well—it's no good—the grass is wet—Good-night—Good-night, Emily."
"Good-night," he said, with regret and hesitation, and a trifle of impatience in his voice and his manner. He lingered still a moment; she hesitated—then she struck off sharply.
"He has not asked her, the idiot!" I said to myself.
"Really," she said bitterly, when we were going up the garden path, "You think rather quiet folks have a lot in them, but it's only stupidity—they are mostly fools."