During Leslie's illness I strolled down to the mill one Saturday evening. I met George tramping across the yard with a couple of buckets of swill, and eleven young pigs rushing squealing about his legs, shrieking in an agony of suspense. He poured the stuff into a trough with luscious gurgle, and instantly ten noses were dipped in, and ten little mouths began to slobber. Though there was plenty of room for ten, yet they shouldered and shoved and struggled to capture a larger space, and many little trotters dabbled and spilled the stuff, and the ten sucking, clapping snouts twitched fiercely, and twenty little eyes glared askance, like so many points of wrath. They gave uneasy, gasping grunts in their haste. The unhappy eleventh rushed from point to point trying to push in his snout, but for his pains he got rough squeezing, and sharp grabs on his ears. Then he lifted up his face and screamed screams of grief and wrath unto the evening sky.
But the ten little gluttons only twitched their ears to make sure there was no danger in the noise, and they sucked harder, with much spilling and slobbing. George laughed like a sardonic Jove, but at last he gave ear, and kicked the ten gluttons from the trough, and allowed the residue to the eleventh. This one, poor wretch, almost wept with relief as he sucked and swallowed in sobs, casting his little eyes apprehensively upwards, though he did not lift his nose from the trough, as he heard the vindictive shrieks of ten little fiends kept at bay by George. The solitary feeder, shivering with apprehension, rubbed the wood bare with his snout, then, turning up to heaven his eyes of gratitude, he reluctantly left the trough. I expected to see the ten fall upon him and devour him, but they did not; they rushed upon the empty trough, and rubbed the wood still drier, shrieking with misery.
"How like life," I laughed.
"Fine litter," said George; "there were fourteen, only that damned she-devil, Circe, went and ate three of 'em before we got at her."
The great ugly sow came leering up as he spoke.
"Why don't you fatten her up, and devour her, the old gargoyle? She's an offence to the universe."
"Nay—she's a fine sow."
I snorted, and he laughed, and the old sow grunted with contempt, and her little eyes twisted towards us with a demoniac leer as she rolled past.
"What are you going to do to-night!" I asked. "Going out?"
"I'm going courting," he replied, grinning.
"Oh!—wish I were!"
"You can come if you like—and tell me where I make mistakes, since you're an expert on such matters."
"Don't you get on very well then?" I asked.
"Oh, all right—it's easy enough when you don't care a damn. Besides, you can always have a Johnny Walker. That's the best of courting at the Ram Inn. I'll go and get ready."
In the kitchen Emily sat grinding out some stitching from a big old hand-machine that stood on the table before her: she was making shirts for Sam, I presumed. That little fellow, who was installed at the farm, was seated by her side firing off words from a reading book. The machine rumbled and rattled on, like a whole factory at work, for an inch or two, during which time Sam shouted in shrill explosions like irregular pistol shots: "Do—not—pot——" "Put!" cried Emily from the machine; "put——" shrilled the child, "the soot—on—my—boot,"——there the machine broke down, and, frightened by the sound of his own voice, the boy stopped in bewilderment and looked round.
"Go on!" said Emily, as she poked in the teeth of the old machine with the scissors, then pulled and prodded again. He began "—boot—but—you——" here he died off again, made nervous by the sound of his voice in the stillness. Emily sucked a piece of cotton and pushed it through the needle.
"Now go on," she said, "—'but you may'."
"But—you—may—shoot":—he shouted away, reassured by the rumble of the machine: "Shoot—the—fox. I—I—It—is—at—the—rot——"
"Root," shrieked Emily, as she guided the stuff through the doddering jaws of the machine.
"Root," echoed the boy, and he went off with these crackers: "Root—of—the—tree."
"Next one!" cried Emily.
"Put—the—ol——" began the boy.
"What?" cried Emily.
"Wait a bit!" cried Emily, and then the machine broke down.
"Hang!" she ejaculated.
"Hang!" shouted the child.
She laughed, and leaned over to him:
"'Put the oil in the pan to boil, while I toil in the soil—Oh, Cyril, I never knew you were there! Go along now, Sam: David 'll be at the back somewhere."
"He's in the bottom garden," said I, and the child ran out.
Directly George came in from the scullery, drying himself. He stood on the hearthrug as he rubbed himself, and surveyed his reflection in the mirror above the high mantelpiece; he looked at himself and smiled. I wondered that he found such satisfaction in his image, seeing that there was a gap in his chin, and an uncertain moth-eaten appearance in one cheek. Mrs. Saxton still held this mirror an object of dignity; it was fairly large, and had a well-carven frame; but it left gaps and spots and scratches in one's countenance, and even where it was brightest, it gave one's reflection a far-away dim aspect. Notwithstanding, George smiled at himself as he combed his hair, and twisted his moustache.
"You seem to make a good impression on yourself," said I.
"I was thinking I looked all right—sort of face to go courting with," he replied, laughing: "You just arrange a patch of black to come and hide your faults—and you're all right."
"I always used to think," said Emily, "that the black spots had swallowed so many faces they were full up, and couldn't take any more—and the rest was misty because there were so many faces lapped one over the other—reflected."
"You do see yourself a bit ghostish——" said he, "on a background of your ancestors. I always think when you stop in an old place like this you sort of keep company with your ancestors too much; I sometimes feel like a bit of the old building walking about; the old feelings of the old folks stick to you like the lichens on the walls; you sort of get hoary."
"That's it—it's true," asserted the father, "people whose families have shifted about much don't know how it feels. That's why I'm going to Canada."
"And I'm going in a Pub," said George, "where it's quite different—plenty of life."
"Life!" echoed Emily with contempt.
"That's the word, my wench," replied her brother, lapsing into the dialect. "That's what I'm after. We known such a lot, an' we known nöwt."
"You do——" said the father, turning to me, "you stay in one place, generation after generation, and you seem to get proud, an' look on things outside as foolishness. There's many a thing as any common man knows, as we haven't a glimpse of. We keep on thinking and feeling the same, year after year, till we've only got one side; an' I suppose they've done it before us."
"It's 'Good-night an' God bless you,' to th' owd place, granfeythers an' grammothers," laughed George as he ran upstairs—"an' off we go on the gallivant," he shouted from the landing.
His father shook his head, saying:
"I can't make out how it is, he's so different. I suppose it's being in love——"
We went into the barn to get the bicycles to cycle over to Greymede. George struck a match to look for his pump, and he noticed a great spider scuttle off into the corner of the wall, and sit peeping out at him like a hoary little ghoul.
"How are you, old chap?" said George, nodding to him—"Thought he looked like an old grandfather of mine," he said to me, laughing, as he pumped up the tyres of the old bicycle for me.
It was Saturday night, so the bar parlour of the Ram Inn was fairly full.
"Hello, George—come co'tin'?" was the cry, followed by a nod and a "Good evenin'," to me, who was a stranger in the parlour.
"It's raïght for thaïgh," said a fat young fellow with an unwilling white mustache, "—tha can co'te as much as ter likes ter 'ae, as well as th' lass, an' it costs thee nöwt——" at which the room laughed, taking pipes from mouths to do so. George sat down, looking round.
"'Owd on a bit," said a black-whiskered man, "tha mun 'a 'e patience when to 't co'tin' a lass. Ow's puttin' th' owd lady ter bed—'ark thee—can t' ear—that wor th' bed latts goin' bang. Ow'll be dern in a minnit now, gie 'er time ter tuck th' owd lady up. Can' ter 'ear 'er say 'er prayers."
"Strike!" cried the fat young man, exploding:
"Fancy th' owd lady sayin' 'er prayers!—it 'ud be enough ter ma'e 'er false teeth drop out."
The room laughed.
They began to tell tales about the old landlady. She had practised bone-setting, in which she was very skilful. People came to her from long distances that she might divine their trouble and make right their limbs. She would accept no fee.
Once she had gone up to Dr. Fullwood to give him a piece of her mind, inasmuch as he had let a child go for three weeks with a broken collar-bone, whilst treating him for dislocation. The doctor had tried the high hand with her, since when, wherever he went the miners placed their hands on their shoulders, and groaned: 'Oh my collar-bone!'
Here Meg came in. She gave a bright, quick, bird like look at George, and flushed a brighter red.
"I thought you wasn't cummin," she said.
"Dunna thee bother—'e'd none stop away," said the black-whiskered man.
She brought us glasses of whisky, and moved about supplying the men, who chaffed with her honestly and good-naturedly. Then she went out, but we remained in our corner. The men talked on the most peculiar subjects: there was a bitter discussion as to whether London is or is not a seaport—the matter was thrashed out with heat; then an embryo artist set the room ablaze by declaring there were only three colours, red, yellow, and blue, and the rest were not colours, they were mixtures: this amounted almost to atheism and one man asked the artist to dare to declare that his brown breeches were not a colour, which the artist did, and almost had to fight for it; next they came to strength, and George won a bet of five shillings, by lifting a piano; then they settled down, and talked sex, sotto voce, one man giving startling accounts of Japanese and Chinese prostitutes in Liverpool. After this the talk split up: a farmer began to counsel George how to manage the farm attached to the Inn, another bargained with him about horses, and argued about cattle, a tailor advised him thickly to speculate, and unfolded a fine secret by which a man might make money, if he had the go to do it—so on, till eleven o'clock. Then Bill came and called "time!" and the place was empty, and the room shivered as a little fresh air came in between the foul tobacco smoke, and the smell of drink, and foul breath.
We were both affected by the whisky we had drunk. I was ashamed to find that when I put out my hand to take my glass, or to strike a match, I missed my mark, and fumbled; my hands seemed hardly to belong to me, and my feet were not much more sure. Yet I was acutely conscious of every change in myself and in him; it seemed as if I could make my body drunk, but could never intoxicate my mind, which roused itself and kept the sharpest guard. George was frankly half drunk: his eyelids sloped over his eyes and his speech was thick; when he put out his hand he knocked over his glass, and the stuff was spilled all over the table; he only laughed. I, too, felt a great prompting to giggle on every occasion, and I marvelled at myself.
Meg came into the room when all the men had gone.
"Come on, my duck," he said, waving his arm with the generous flourish of a tipsy man. "Come an' sit 'ere."
"Shan't you come in th' kitchen?" she asked, looking round on the tables where pots and glasses stood in little pools of liquor, and where spent matches and tobacco-ash littered the white wood.
"No—what for?—come an' sit 'ere!"—he was reluctant to get on his feet; I knew it and laughed inwardly; I also laughed to hear his thick speech, and his words which seemed to slur against his cheeks.
She went and sat by him, having moved the little table with its spilled liquor.
"They've been tellin' me how to get rich," he said, nodding his head and laughing, showing his teeth, "An' I'm goin' ter show 'em. You see, Meg, you see—I'm goin' ter show 'em I can be as good as them, you see."
"Why," said she, indulgent, "what are you going to do?"
"You wait a bit an' see—they don't know yet what I can do—they don't know—you don't know—none of you know."
"An' what shall you do when we're rich, George?"
"Do?—I shall do what I like. I can make as good a show as anybody else, can't I?"—he put his face very near to hers, and nodded at her, but she did not turn away.—"Yes—I'll see what it's like to have my fling. We've been too cautious, our family has—an' I have; we're frightened of ourselves, to do anything. I'm goin' to do what I like, my duck, now—I don't care—— I don't care—that!"—he brought his hand down heavily on the table nearest him, and broke a glass. Bill looked in to see what was happening.
"But you won't do anything that's not right, George!"
"No—I don't want to hurt nobody—but I don't care—that!"
"You're too good-hearted to do anybody any harm."
"I believe I am. You know me a bit, you do, Meg—you don't think I'm a fool now, do you?"
"I'm sure I don't—who does?"
"No—you don't—I know you don't. Gi'e me a kiss—thou'rt a little beauty, thou art—like a ripe plum! I could set my teeth in thee, thou'rt that nice—full o' red juice"—he playfully pretended to bite her. She laughed, and gently pushed him away.
"Tha likest me, doesna ta?" he asked softly.
"What do you want to know for?" she replied, with a tender archness.
"But tha does—say now, tha does."
"I should a' thought you'd a' known, without telling."
"Nay, but I want to hear thee."
"Go on," she said, and she kissed him.
"But what should you do if I went to Canada and left you?"
"Ah—you wouldn't do that."
"But I might—and what then?"
"Oh, I don't know what I should do. But you wouldn't do it, I know you wouldn't—you couldn't." He quickly put his arms round her and kissed her, moved by the trembling surety of her tone:
"No, I wouldna—I'd niver leave thee—tha'd be as miserable as sin, shouldna ta, my duck?"
"Yes," she murmured.
"Ah," he said, "tha'rt a warm little thing—tha loves me, eh?"
"Yes," she murmured, and he pressed her to him, and kissed her, and held her close.
"We'll be married soon, my bird—are ter glad?—in a bit—tha'rt glad, aren't ta?"
She looked up at him as if he were noble. Her love for him was so generous that it beautified him.
He had to walk his bicycle home, being unable to ride; his shins, I know, were a good deal barked by the pedals.