The Mangle House (II).
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CHAPTER VI.

MILLY'S CROSS


"HAY dear!  Hay dear mi!  Whot?  It's as whot as six-in-a-bed!  Aw'm as weet as a dreawnt kitlin'!  Melt?  Ther'll be nowt left o' me bud me back cooamb and me clogs, if this goos on.  W-H-E-W!" and the rattling creature, round, red, and rosy, dropped upon the bench by the side of Fat Sarah and began to fan herself with a little bright-coloured silk handkerchief which she snatched from her short, creasy neck.  She was thirty-seven or eight, and a spinster; a person, in fact, of considerable importance in the village.  She had been for some time the managing spirit of all tea, wedding, and funeral parties, the teacher and natural leader of the young women in the Sunday school: a fussy, good-tempered, but somewhat domineering body.  She always treated Milly with studious respect, having in earlier days measured swords with her without any striking success.  That she, and not her meek sister Rachel, should come with the mangling was a circumstance sufficiently suspicious had Milly been in a condition to think about it.  She had enough to do, however, with herself at that moment, and was just feeling the return of self-command when Maria glanced at her and at once opened fire.  "Goodness, wench, wot ails thi?  Tha lewks loike as if tha'd seen a boggart!"

    Milly, limp, fainting, and sick at heart, was only too glad of the convenient weather as an excuse, and so, dropping into her part, she leaned languidly against the side of the tea-table, and, wiping the cold perspiration from her brow, replied, "Nay, Aw've seen nowt," and then—she could not have helped it if her life had been at stake—she gave her mouth a wry little twist and added, "Nobbut Davit theer."

    The little flash of the old manner, pitiful though it was, was really worth all it cost, for it allayed dawning suspicion and turned attention to the perspiring bondsman at the mangle, thus giving her time to recover.

    "Hay, Davit, is that thee?  Tha'rt loike th' Clap Haw boggart, tha keeps cumin' ageean;" and Maria had another rub at her steaming face and proceeded, "Ne'er moind, lad; there's noa shakkin' thee off, as Dicky Bob said to th' bum-bailee, tha sticks loike a midge in a traycle-pot."

    David looked thundery, and so Milly, anxious to get the conversation back to safer topics, found voice to say, "It's summat to see thee here, M'ria; tha hasna bin across th' step fur months."

    "Neaw, tha's bin ill off baat me, Aw'll bet;" and the little dumpling conferred a sarcastic dumpling wink on Fat Sarah, and went on addressing her neighbour, "Sumbry mun lewk efther things; aar Jess's gettin' better fish to fry."

    Milly was changing a roller, and so her face could not be seen, and though Maria watched her narrowly as she returned to the table she gathered nothing from that expressionless face.

    Tet, always nervous in the presence of her own sex, now broke a long silence, and brought herself back to the minds of those present by snarling, "Thee goo look! yore Jess knows a trick wo'th tew o' that."

    "Hello, pratty face!  Ay, he'd cum sittin' up wi' thee, Aw reacon, if he'd ony sense."

    "Well, it's mooar nor onybody's iver dun wi' thee, Fat-sides!"

    "Huish wi' yo'!" cried Milly faintly.  "Naa, M'ria, it's thy turn.  Davit wants be goin'."

    But the perspiring turner, penitent and curious, protested that it didn't matter, he could do his errand any time, and so Maria handed her basket to Milly, and sat down again to resume the conversation.

    "Ay, he'll know wot meyl cosses a paand afoor lung, aar Jesse will.  Bud it's better nor loike hoo's a gradely dacent wench."

    David stopped the creaking mangle to listen, Tet showed the stillness of keen attention, and Milly was filling her roller with nervous rapidity.

    "Whoa is he on wi' naa?" said Sarah, asking the question that was evidently expected of her.

    "Oh ay; tellin's knowin': but it's tan a great weight off aar moinds—he's sa sawft, aar Jesse is.  He met ha' made a bonny mess on it bud fur this."

    Everybody felt the cold insolence of Maria's unspoken hints, and even David was looking furtively at Milly and wondering why, with her powers of controversy, she endured it.  But women are always cruel to other women, and so Sarah's question was repeated, "Whoa is it?"

    "Ne'er moind whoar it is!  Yo'll know sewn enuff."

    And as Milly was a woman after all, and sorely stung, she could not help the poor little retort.  Dropping into blandest tones, she said kindly,

    "Ay, it's queer, isn't it, as th' yungest i'th fam'ly should goo off fost?"

    She was looking dreely through the window as she spoke, and all at once her face dropped, a shadow passed quickly by, a smart step was heard in the passage, and just as Maria was commencing her reply the oboist strode into the room.  The women looked up in shy surprise, Tet uttered an indescribable little cry, and the big man, who was carrying an old-fashioned book like a volume of music under his arm, and whose presence seemed to fill the apartment, came forward, and with an easy nod at the mistress of the house, took a seat on the opposite side of the fireplace to the schoolmaster's little housekeeper.

    The big man looked overpowering even in his week-day attire, for he wore that certain sign of gentility, a shirt front and collar on a week-day, and it was noticed when he began to fill his pipe that he had a ring on his little finger.  He reminded Maria, as she afterwards stated, of a "Noyton Wakes chep Jack."  He mentioned the weather, but as he addressed nobody in particular there was no reply.  He spoke banteringly to David about the value of the mangle as an aid to physical development, but as the mangler was almost sure he was "codding" him, he replied with an inarticulate grunt.

    Then he noticed Tet, and stared in rude surprise at her unusual physiognomical characteristics, until the little hunchback, pulling nervously at the front of her skirt, shrank farther back into her chair, and muttered something about "flusterin' scowbankers," to the instrumentalist's evident amusement.

    The atmosphere was getting quite electric, and Milly looked restive and miserable.  Then, as the others began to talk suddenly and with unnecessary loudness to each other, the stranger plucked at Milly's apron, and she leaned over from her roller-packing to listen.  They talked thus for some time, he tapping urgently upon the back of the book he had brought, and she shaking her head with pensive decision.  He was evidently persuading her to something to which she objected; he insisted, and she held out; and all at once she became conscious of an odd stillness, and, looking round, discovered that the mangle was standing, sundry baskets had disappeared, and David, Tet, and the rest were gone.

    Two hours later, when the gable-enders had all gone home and all the sounds of life in Slagden were still, Milly sat on the edge of the little stone table beside the Mangle House door, with the sweet peace of a perfect summer evening resting on her and a soft, cool breeze fanning her cheek.  But there was no peace in that fretted, fear-driven heart, for she was back in the occurrences of the evening and feeling once more the stabs and stings she had endured.  Her face was turned up the road in the direction taken by the oboist when he left her, but her thoughts were not of him.  Her aching limbs, her burning head, and her jangling nerves were forgotten, and she was fighting desperately against an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  Hers was a difficult problem, a fierce, terrible fight, and at the moment when sweet hope ought to have assisted her, she seemed to be staring at dead blank walls of insurmountable difficulty.  As she sat and mused, however, she became vaguely conscious that something was moving near her; there came the crackling of twigs and the soft fall of a foot, and then out of the corner of her eye she saw a little crooked figure coming stealthily along the hedge-side.  She was not startled, her thoughts were too far away for that; and she noticed these movements some little time before the sense of their singularity came upon her, and when it did she had already recognised the figure of Tet Swindells, who, with a shawl round her shoulders, a clog on one foot and a man's slipper on the other, came hastily forward and stood before her.

    "Tet! thee!  Wotiver's up?"

    But the little creature was evidently agitated, and stood away.  With flashing eyes and almost savage expression, she cried in thick, agitated voice, "Didn't he say Aw wur noice, gradely noice, when iverybody cawd me fow?"

    "Ay, well, bud—"

    "An' didn't he threeap 'em daan as Aw wur gradely when they said Aw wur maddlet?

    "He did, wench, an'—"

    "An' didn't he fotch me aat an' tak' me tew a noice beautiful whoam?"

    "Oh yi, bud—"

    "An' didn't he, when Aw wur badly, noss me, an' sell his blessed owd books to get that quality doctor fur me, an' sell his watch an' his black stick wi' silver on it as wur a presentiment tew him?"

    "He did, wench, an'—"

    "An' mun he be sowd up an' goo to th' bastile when tha'rt rowlin' i' brass?"

    "Huish! huish!  Cum here wi' thi; tha'll waken mi fayther;" and Milly rose hastily, caught the excited creature by the arm, and dragged her to her side upon the stone table.  It took some time to pacify her, and just when Milly thought she had succeeded, some impish freak came into her head; she grabbed fiercely at Milly's arm, and hissed into her ear, "He shanna be sowd up! he shanna!  If tha doesn't help uz, Aw'll tell wot tha goos to Pye Green fur—Aw know."

    Milly went cold as the stone on which she sat.  Her secret was known to a half-demented creature like this!  Then she calmed herself, put her arms confidingly round her odd companion, and slowly, by crooked, disjointed little fragments, drew out Tet's mournful story.

    "But, Tet," she expostulated, with miserable voice, "we're no' rich; we're as poor as yo'—an' poorer."

    Tet pulled herself away, held Milly at arm's length, reading her face as she did so with flashing eyes, and at last she said, in hopeless resignation, "Then wun on us mun wed him, an' Aw winna."

    Even then, with the sickening thought of this new danger added to her already unbearable burden, Milly could not help laughing at the grotesque absurdity of the suggestion; but she could see that her companion was in no trifling mood.  Their debt was only a little over three pounds, but it might as well have been three thousand.  Her head buzzed, her heart throbbed and trembled within her, and a great, unutterable longing to get away and end the hopeless battle came upon her.

    "That's it! tha mun wed him.  He's tew haases of his own beside aars, an' brass i'th penny bank, an' tha could twist him raand thi finger.  Aw'd wed him mysel' bud fur—summat."

    Milly did not inquire what the "summat" was.  She realised that Tet, by her very peculiarities, was no common difficulty, and so she braced herself, and coaxed and wheedled, and stroked poor Tet's coarse hair, and finally, with a pledge of secrecy, reluctantly given by the hunchback and vague, halting promises on Milly's part, they separated.  Milly saw her companion part of the way home, and then stood in the road until the click of a garden gate told her that her friend was safe.  She shuddered as she turned back towards home; the very paltriness of this last difficulty enabled her to measure more accurately the extent of her own helplessness.  Her secret, the dreadful, haunting nightmare of seven long years, was already partly guessed by at least two persons, and these two about equally dangerous.

    Oh, never was situation so excruciating as hers, and never was helplessness so utterly helpless.  She had energy, she had courage, she had trust in herself and trust in God, but to-night, beaten down, overwhelmed, almost beside herself, she pressed her temples with her hands and prayed for the light that would not come.  She held up her face to catch the cool breezes, and her wild eyes travelled to the distant stars.  "Shine on!" she cried hysterically, "shine on! an' wink an' blink an' dance!  Yo've no debts ta crush yo', no trubbles ta breik your heart: yo're happy, an' Him as made yo's happy, ay, far tew happy ta think o' me."  And then she dropped her arms, her eyes wandered sadly over the shadowy earth about her: a sudden shiver shook her frame, the great deep within her was broken up, a shower of relieving tears began to fall, and she faltered—

    "When Aw conna carry mi cross ony longer, Aw con dee on it—like HIM."

    As she moved with swimming eyes and shining face towards the Mangle House door, the cracked bell of the old Slagden church in the distance struck eleven.


 
CHAPTER VII.

DELICATE NEGOTIATIONS


NOW when David skipped on tiptoes out of the Mangle House, whilst Milly was whispering with the oboist, he carried with him a heart that was raging with the tortures of jealousy.  He had been softened and reduced to penitence by the effect produced upon Milly when he showed her that he had discovered her miserable secret, but the sight of the interloper and the gallingly familiar terms upon which he seemed to be with her, drove all relenting away, and made the dull fires of revenge glow hot within him.  Jesse Bentley, though recently the favoured candidate, was something like his equal, and it would be a fair fight between them; but this intruder, with his flaring dress, and his bouncing, overbearing manner, was just the sort of person to take the eye of village maidens.  Ah! by what stupid perversity was it that such girls always preferred an outsider?  But he would be revenged; nothing should stop him now; he hated the oboist, he hated Jesse, he hated—oh! how he hated the unscrupulous Milly! and as for those Swindellses, he had thought of passing the thing over, but now they should pay or smart.  But when the first spasms of his angry jealousy were over, they were succeeded by a sense of helplessness, of self-pity, and a longing for confidence and sympathy.  At first he had thought he would publish what he knew about Milly upon the housetops, and thus cover her with well-merited shame, but he had not reckoned with his own nature.  He was one of those persons who dearly love a secret for its own sake, and, like children reserving their tastiest bit of sweetmeat for occasional future licks, prefer their pleasures long drawn out.  He would play with the thing, as a cat with a mouse; he would drop equivocal remarks and mysterious hints, and ease his own smartings by feasting his eyes on the tantalised wonderings of others.  Jesse Bentley, for instance, was in the same boat as himself—why should he not share his secret?  Besides, nothing would ease his own feelings more than to watch the sufferings of some fellow-unfortunate.  Jesse and he had once been bosom friends, though now they were not even on speaking terms.  Yes, he would seek out Jesse at once.  His resolution was very firm and decided, and he saw his rival one way or other every day; but somehow, although they met during the next week several times, David did not even see his friend.

    Once he dodged down an entry in Switcher's Buildings to avoid a meeting, and yet, by processes of reasoning only possible to inconsistent humanity, he fully convinced himself that Jesse was purposely avoiding him.  One night they sat next but two to each other on the gable-end bench, and the departure of those between them left nothing but a gap to separate them; but David got up nervously and hurried away, though only, as he said to himself, because he was sure Jesse was about to do the same thing, and he wouldn't give him the chance.  Growing more restless and miserable every day, he determined, with adamantine resolution, that he would dally no longer, but make an opportunity if one would not come.  He was suffering, and it would be some little relief to see somebody else in the same condition.  Then he convinced himself that for some dark reason Jesse was dodging him, and this brought things to a climax.  That very night he saw young Bentley go round the fold corner and make down the road with a pair of clogs under his arm.  He was evidently going to "Skenning Tom's" to get them repaired.  David pulled his cap over his eyes in firmest resolution, and started after him.  Jesse was going very easily, but somehow—it must have been the weather—he could not overtake him.  Jesse turned round, and evidently saw him; David became suddenly intensely interested in the old milestone by the roadside.  Jesse resumed his walk in a sauntering sort of way, as though anxious to give the other an opportunity of overtaking him.  David was so disgusted that he turned and looked back towards the village as though more than half disposed to return.  No sooner had David resumed his pursuit than it was Jesse's turn to fall under the sudden fascination of something on the roadside.  If there had been a lane or even a stile, David would have taken it and abandoned the whole thing.  Jesse sat down on a stone heap and began to examine the clogs he was carrying, ostentatiously oblivious of the proximity of his rival.  David, caught in the toils, and unable to do anything but walk straight on, stuck his thumb into the arm-holes of his waistcoat, puckered his lips as for a soundless whistle, and began to search the sky for a lark that was filling the air with liquid music.  There were not ten yards between them now, but to Jesse the world contained nothing but clogs, and David had not yet discovered the feathery musician.

    The pursuer was approaching, was passing, had passed; in all the heavens there was not such a thing as a lark now.

    "Hello, Davit!"

    It was a real enough start that David gave, though the elaborate and expansive surprise with which he stopped and half turned round was perhaps not quite so successful.

    "Hello, Jesse!  That thee!  Haa tha feart me!"

    The dawn of a shy smile was Jesse's answer, and the clogs became interesting again.  They were some seven or eight yards apart, and David stood in the twisted attitude of a man who had been arrested by a strong surprise and had not recovered.  Why didn't the stupid Jesse say something to give him an excuse for standing at ease?  Jesse was in a world of clogs.  David scoured the sky for that lark once more, glanced up the road and down, and everywhere else, except where he wanted to, and at last he made a plunge, and said—

    "It wur Noyton Sarmons o' Sunday."

    "Ay."  (A seeming eternity of silence.)

    "An it 'ull be Billy Haases next."

    "Ay."

    David was standing on both feet now, and should have been at ease; but a maddening sense of conspicuousness was upon him, and he felt as if he stood alone amid vast and boundless reaches of space, with the eyes of a silent and gaping universe upon him.

    Jesse raised his head for the first time, and stole a sidelong glance.  David returned the look with interest, but neither spoke.

    Another awful, endless silence, and then in sheer desperation David hazarded, "Yond hobo wastril 'll be goin' to Billy Haases, Aw reacon."

    "Ay."

    Ay, ay, nothing but "Ay "—David could have choked him.

    "He's gerrin' desprit thick wi' Milly, isn't he?"  Another weary, lamentable "Ay."

    "Aw conna see wot he sees in her, con thaa?"

    David took a couple of steps nearer as he spoke, but the only answer was a muffled groan and a despairing shake of the head.

    "Hoo's noather nice-favort nor nice-spokken; th' felley as gets her 'll catch a tartar."

    No answer at all this time.

    David eyed Jesse with chafing wrath, and wished the clogs he was once more studying were at the bottom of the sea.  And then, with a sudden inspiration, he made a dash forward, as though he would fall upon the speechless one, pulled up just in front of him, and, stretching out his arm, he cried, "Sithi, Jesse, if that wench went on her bended knees to me naa, Aw wouldna lewk at her."

    He seemed to be about to drop down confidingly at Jesse's feet, but with sudden return of shyness he edged off, and took refuge on the next stone heap instead.  There was only a narrow gutter between them.

    "Wot's he want comin' takkin' th' pick o'th bunch fur?  Let's tew him, Jesse!"

    Jesse found his tongue at last.  With a long melancholy sigh and a mournful stare at the opposite hills, he shook his head and lamented, "Aw conna understood Milly one little bit."

    "Understood?  Neaw, bur Aw con!"  And then, the last frail barrier of diffidence vanishing, David strode across the gutter, and, dropping at Jesse's side, he put his hand confidentially on the other's sleeve, and continued, "Sithi, Jesse! if tha know'd wot Aw know, tha'd pizen her."

    Jesse turned upon his companion a sorrowful, protesting look, but the ice having been broken, David began to pour into reluctant ears the whole miserable story of his discovery about Milly.  "Jesse," he cried, as the other rose to resume his journey, "Aw wodna touch th' dasateful little hypocryte wi' th' end o' my finger!  An' as fur yond tootlin' player, Aw'll feight tin Aw dee afoor he'st have her!"

    Jesse seemed to be getting uneasy, even resentful; but David, now in full cry, accompanied him to the clog shop, talking savagely as they went.  When the errand had been discharged, they strolled back up the road, David still pouring into the other's ears all his grievances, not omitting the ill-treatment he had received at the hands of Saul Swindells, and finishing up with a very significant threat as to how he intended to revenge this latter.  They were approaching the gable-end by this time, and the sight of these old rivals walking and talking together caused several pairs of eyes to open in amazement, and almost before they had run the gauntlet and were out of hearing, Peter Jump, with his back to the pear tree and his face drawn into a pious whine, sent Saul Swindells into a roar, and twisted Seth Pollit's face into an agonised grin, as he "lined out" in exaggerated preacher-like intonation—

    "Come on, my pardners in distress."

    About the same time next evening, little Tet Swindells was seated in the old lattice porch picking off gooseberry stalks, and congratulating herself that so many days had passed without any sign of David Brooks' wrath.

    "Is Saul in, Tet?"

    Tet started, brushed down the front of her short skirt to hide the poor thin legs she never forgot, and then, bridling up severely, she answered—

    "Neaw, he isna.  Stop wheer tha art; Aw'm bi mysel'."

    Jesse looked disappointed, but amused.

    "Tha'rt no' feart o' me, woman, sure-li?"

    "Tha'rt no bet-ter nor t' rest.  Noa dacent woman's safe wi' noan on yo' naa-a-days."

    The thought of any man having amorous feeling towards this deformed and ugly little creature would have amused most people, but Jesse felt a tear in his heart.  He knew, however, that this was the subject of all others upon which she liked to talk, and so he said, "Well, yo' womin shouldna be sa desprit pratty; has con we help it?"

    There was not a trace of either vanity or suspicion on Tet's face; to her this was the very simplest matter of course.

    "Help it?  Yo'll ha' ta help it!  Ther' wouldna be sa mitch kussin' an' cuddlin' if they wur aw loike me!"

    Jesse felt morally certain of this, though Tet sat there and smoothed her dress again as disdainfully as though she had been a court beauty.

    "Why, Tet, tha'll niver get a felley if tha goes on loike that!"

    "Get?  Will ony felley get me, that's th' p'int?  Hay dear!  Aw'st ha' sum wark wi' 'em afoor they'll aw be said;" and then she added, with a sigh of sublime resignation, "But sumbry mun rawl wi' 'em, Aw reacon."

    Jesse glanced up and down the road, and then, with an inquiring look, he asked, "Mun Aw cum in an' wait tin he cums back?"

    Tet was on her feet in an instant.  "Cum, if tha dar'!  Dust want awth' villige clatterin' abaat us, an' Milly scrattin' mi een aat, tew?"

    "Bud Aw've cum of a harrand, let me sit me daan."

    "Stop wheer tha art!  Yo' men's sa forrat.  Let seein' content thee fur wunce;" and as she sat sedately down and arranged her troublesome skirt, it looked as though the unmanageable eye were winking wickedly at the demure modesty of the other side of her face.

    "Tet, hast iver yerd Saul grumblin' abaat me?"

    "Wot's he getten to dew wi' it?  Aw'st manidge baat him, if chaps cums i' cart-looads."

    "Aw dunna mean that.  Has he ne'er mentioned abaat me owin' him summat?"

    "Neaw!  Doesta?" and that demonstrative eye began to blink rapidly, whilst a hungry eagerness rose into the face.  "Doesta?  Then tha'd bet-ter be payin'; we wanten it!  Haa mitch is it?"

    "Abaat four paand, Aw dar' say."

    "Jesse!  J-e-s-s-e!" and then she dashed at the gate, caught him by the coat, jerked him into the garden path, and forced him down on the porch seat.  "Thaa doesna mean as tha's cum to pay?  Tha con pay me;" and she held out her hand with an eagerness that sent pangs of pity into Jesse's soul.  Jesse pretended to hesitate, studying admiringly the little hand, which was, oddly enough, of exquisite shape.

    "Aw'd sewner pay thee nor him, if tha'll promise summat."

    "Wot is it?  Aw'll promise owt;" and the eager creature was pinching his arm tightly.

    "As tha keeps it tin he says Aw owe it tew him; if he's ne'er mentioned it, he's happen furgetten; it 'ud be just loike him!"

    "Tha'rt sartin tha owes it?" and there was a trace of rising suspicion in her anxious voice.

    "Oh ay!  Beside, Aw'st ne'er be able ta pay wot Aw owe to my owd schoolmestur."

    She was watching him with an intent scrutiny that was embarrassing, but when she put out her hand hesitatingly, he counted the money into it with unnecessary deliberateness, that he might study again that one beautiful feature of this odds and ends of a body.

    But, even when he had finished, the arm was still stretched out, and her eyes were riveted hungrily on the coins.  She moved her hand to feel the weight of the money, glanced misgivingly at Jesse again, and at length, with face radiant, beaming, and almost beautiful, she looked towards the smiling evening sky, and burst out in thrilling musical tones, "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit doth rejoice in God, my Saviour; for He hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden;" and then, breaking suddenly off, and snatching shyly at the amazed Jesse's arm, she began to shower on his coat sleeves a succession of passionate, grateful kisses, as though she never intended to stop.

    Ten minutes later, as Jesse was leaving, she stood at the garden gate and bade him a cheery good-night.  When he had gone a few yards down the road, however, she called him back, and upon his return she looked at him seriously for a moment or two, and then said, in almost solemn tones, "God bless thi, lad!  Tha's dun mooar nor tha knows ta-neet;" and then, with, if possible, deeper seriousness, "Dunna fret abaat Milly; tha's bin good ta me, an'—an' there's as good fish i'th say as iver wur cotched."

    As Jesse went down the road towards home he flung his face skywards and cried, "O Lord! wot does Ta meean?  A sweet woman's soul in a flay-boggart body!  Tha does sum rum things sumtoimes, Tha does fur sewer."


 
CHAPTER VIII.

TET TURNS THE TABLES


WHEN Jesse left Tet, after he had so greatly relieved her mind, she stood watching him go down the road until he turned the gable-end corner, and then, with a face upon which the intense spiritual emotion of their interview had given way to one of almost giddy triumph, she gripped the shaky old gate and shook it delightedly, spun round on her heels and kicked out her spindle legs in a wild impish dance, and finally, with a hasty pretence of spitting on the coins for luck, she tossed them into the air and caught them again.  She did things in jerky fits, except when she was playing a part, which was fairly often, and it was quite characteristic of her therefore that she should check herself suddenly and stand still, blinking her eccentric eye at a rose bush which she did not see.  Then she made a dart at the gate, scurried down the road at the top of her speed, and presently stood at the Mangle House back door, calling for Milly.  The summons had to be handed from one impatient customer to another before it reached its proper destination, but as soon as the mangling girl appeared she dashed at her, grabbed her by the "brat," and cried in tragic whispers, "Thaa con pleaas thisel' abaat weddin' Davit; Aw've getten th' brass," and then, with a series of short emphatic nods, she turned to leave.  Another thought struck her, however, as she went along the house-side, and whisking back, she called her friend again, and added patronisingly, "Thaa con hev him if tha wants, tha knows; Aw'm nor settin' my cap at him.  Ay," she added, as the situation defined itself before her mind, "tha'd be aar landlady then!  By gow, Milly, Aw'll put in a word fur thi, if tha loikes."

    That a word of hers would be more than sufficient to decide so momentous a question Tet obviously did not doubt for a moment, and though Milly laughingly told her to please herself, she went back turning this new idea over in her mind most soberly.  Before she reached home, however, her thoughts had reverted to her own affairs, and she gradually slowed down until she came to a standstill in the road.  For a while she scrutinised the macadam severely, her good eye blinking rapidly and the lid of the other labouring with comic pertinacity to keep up with it.  Suddenly she raised her head, plunged her long arm into an apparently bottomless pocket, drew out a halfpenny, and darting at a group of children playing on the roadside, committed the one reckless extravagance of her life by paying the coin to a small boy to take a message to David Brooks.

    David received the summons at the gable-end, and for the moment treated it with lofty contempt.  But he was feeling just then a sudden and most alarming loss of popularity; for the very people who had been so glad to receive his whispered secret about Milly's journeys to Pye Green now treated him with coolness, and the village magnates, the fountain of local courtesy, ignored him altogether.  Saul Swindells, the chief talker, was mum enough, and for the best of reasons, but even he showed a negligence which was almost defiance, and so altogether David was feeling very much out in the cold.  But Tet's message reminded him of her curious and most unusual conciliatoriness on the night when he had fired his first shot at Milly; generally she was the touchiest of all his acquaintances, but that night she had been palpably afraid of him, and afraid of anything being said or done that might anger him.  She was uneasy, it appeared, and had no doubt sent for him to beg a little more grace in the matter of the overdue rent.  He would show her!  The more the gable-enders cut and flouted him the more would he take it out of her.  And so he began to lounge up the road, hardening himself as he went to have none of her "conifogling ways," and in fact nothing but hard cash.

    Tet, when he reached the gate, sat sewing in the doorway; for once she even forgot her short skirts, and leaned against the far corner of the lattice porch with a humble, appeasing smile on her face.

    "Well, what dust want?" he demanded in tones of uncompromising gruffness.

    Tet went on with her stitching, and at length, glancing up with a deprecatory look, she said, "Well, Aw dunna loike t' tell thi gradely—tha'll no' be vexed, Davit?"

    "Aat wi' it!  Wot is it?"

    Tet took it very leisurely, and had the air of one who feared she might be naming an offensive topic.  "Aw dunna loike tell thi, lad, but Aw con see nowt else fur it."

    "Well? "

    "Tha munna tak' on, lad; we aw hev aar bits o' trubbles, as they say."

    "Goo on wi' thi: let's have it!"

    "Aw've bin thinkin' abaat it fur a great while naa, bud Aw couldna bring mi mind tew it."

    Angry impatience and rising curiosity were struggling within him, together with a dubious sense of being defrauded; this was not the manner of one afraid of being turned out of house and home, and so he cried petulantly, "If tha's owt ta say, aat wi' it!"

    "Ay, well, then—tha winna be vexed, Davit?"

    David uttered something very expressive under his breath, and turned round to leave her.  Nothing disturbed her, however; pensive but bland, she watched him departing, and so, after a step or two, he did as she was perfectly certain he would, he stopped, and turned round.  "Aw'll gi' thi wun mooar chance: art goin' tell me what tha wants or artna?"

    He had evidently forgotten the rent he was so determined to have.

    She dropped her head in apparent bashfulness, looked at him from under her damaged eyelid misgivingly, and then, with a wheedling leer, she faltered out, "Aw want to gi' thi a month's noatice, Davit.  We're flittin'."

    If she had announced the certainty of immediate Judgment he could not have been more dumfounded; it was the very last thing under heaven he would have expected.  Saul had occupied that narrow, odd-looking house for thirty years, and it was public knowledge that nothing but death would ever move him out of it.  David had come to hector a defaulting tenant, and here he was placed all at once on the other side of the counter, so to speak.

    "Bud! bud," he gasped, "yo' owe a lot o' rent!"

    As though that were the merest trifle, she leaned back lazily, and said, like a person suddenly reminded of a slight oversight—

    "Oh ay!  Aw dar' say we dew!  Haa mitch is it, lad, an' Aw'll pay thi?" and sliding her hand down her skirt for that same endless pocket, she languidly produced four sovereigns and a few smaller coins and began to sort them, repeating as she did so her inquiry as to the exact amount.

    The sight of the gold astonished David more than ever; he could have sworn that the Swindellses never had anything like that amount at any one time.  But Tet had the manner of one to whom even larger sums were trifles.

    And then he was a man of business after all; the schoolmaster could have his choice of half a dozen suitable houses in the village if, as appeared, he really was not inseparably attached to this particular tenement.  Besides, he already had two empty houses on his hands, and uncertain and small though the schoolmaster's rent was, it was better than the other alternative—nothing.  At any rate, he had better proceed cautiously, and so, chafing at this totally unexpected and most tantalising turning of the tables, he cried, "Flittin'?  Wot fur?  Aw've ne'er bothert yo' abaat th' rent!"

    Tet's queer eyelid was flickering ominously; she held her head on one side and answered mendaciously, "It's no' that, lad."

    "Wot, then?  Aw'm no' raisin' th' rent!"

    "Hay, lad, Aw wodna live i' this haase rent free, it's that damp."

    "Damp?  It's tan yo' a foine while to foind that aat."

    "It's goan that rooad wi' neglect, tha knows.  Hay, mon, it's awful!" and she spoke in a carefully regulated voice, as though David were the last person in the world to be responsible for such a state of things.

    David subdued himself with difficulty to a tone a little nearer friendliness, and began to ask for particulars.  Tet indicated faults, necessary repairs and whitewashings, etc., in a tone of languid interest, as though, having decided to leave, it was now a matter of no particular concern to her; and then becoming, as she talked, very confidential, she asked his opinion about a house very much nearer the school and newer, and one which had been empty for so long that the rent had been twice reduced.  David, as she knew quite well, was aware that it could now be had for a little less per year than the Swindellses were paying.  To get her away from so dangerous a topic he asked permission to inspect the premises, and the air of negligent indifference with which Tet showed him scaly whitewash, crumbling, discoloured plaster, and paintless fixtures was a sight to see.  The longer they talked the more concerned and propitiatory the erstwhile stern landlord became, and when, after promising all she desired, and suggesting additional repairs himself, he was only too glad to get away, he took care not to allude to the outstanding debt, and avoided reference to anything that might remind her of it; whilst they owed him something they were the less likely, if contented, to depart.

    When he was safely out of sight Tet executed another wild dance in the garden walk, and then committed the unheard-of extravagance of stopping the passing tripe seller and purchasing two whole trotters for Saul's supper.
                        .                             .                             .                             .

    "Seth."

    "Bazoo—zooo—"

    "S-e-t-h!"

    "Bazoo—zoo—zoo—zoo."

    "Seth Pollit, dust yer me?"

    The music stopped, but the long slender lip of the instrument was still in the player's mouth, and he only turned his near eye towards the half-door of the shippon and waited.  Having a masterful, talkative, painfully tidy wife, Seth had turned his shippon into library, smoke, and music room; and on wet or cold nights it was also the Parliament House of the gable-enders.  You could have large premises for small rents in Slagden, and so the milkman's cow-house provided ample accommodation for his "beasts," and still left the whole of one side of the building for other purposes.  A channel ran down the middle of the shippon [cowhouse], and on the other side of this Seth had arranged old chairs, milk-stools, bins, and shelves for farriery purposes, his bassoon being kept in the driest and least worm-eaten of the bins.  Seth was the village philosopher, and had the characteristics and disabilities common to that small but illustrious class.  He was taciturn, his reputation depending mostly upon what he did not say—an indubitable philosophic trait.  The utter expressionlessness of his wooden face contributed that air of mystery without which no great sage maintains his reputation, and to complete the comparison he was henpecked; and though Saul Swindells had probably never heard of Xantippe and Socrates, he did not fail upon occasion to remind the gable-enders of Ahab and Jezebel, and John Wesley and Mrs. Vazeille, as instances of the common fate of all great minds in the matter of matrimony.

    I do not know that there is anything particularly philosophical in a bassoon, but all great sages have their foibles, and if the other immortal ones got as much comfort out of theirs as Seth appeared to do out of his, they were very well worth the having.  Into this cherished instrument Seth could blow opinions which would have raised domestic whirlwinds if suggested in the bosom of his family.  He constantly suspected himself of frivolous and vainglorious tendencies, though nobody else perceived them, and when he became aware of the accumulation of heady gases, he made haste to let himself down by blowing the dangerous vapours into his bassoon, whilst occasional fits of depression were disposed of in the same way.  But the other excellences of the instrument were as nothing in comparison with its unique value as a mental winnowing-machine; and when its owner got "mixed" and confused about any matter, the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff was to have a good long interview with the bassoon.  On the night upon which David had his talk with Tet, Seth, having several knotty points to settle, had sought clearness and comfort where he never failed to find it, and was moodily blowing his reflections into his beloved idol.  He had been responsible for the placing of Jesse Bentley's name upon the plan, he was also the leader of the young women's Society class in Slagden, and signs had recently appeared which gave him serious uneasiness.  The voice that had interrupted his harmonious musings was that of his wife, who, accompanied by Maria Bentley, stood looking askance at him over the half-door of the shippon.

    "Stop that squawkin' din, wilta?"

    The musician's eye rolled round in signification that he heard, but his lips were already groping for the mouthpiece of the instrument again.

    "Seth, tha'll gi' them beeasts rinderpest wi' that racket; their tails is whackerin' this varry minit."  This from Maria; but Seth's eyes were stealing down the stem of the bassoon again.

    "M'ria Bentley, he'll stop them beeasts milkin' sum day, as sewer as Aw'm a livin' woman!"

    "Bazoo—zaa—zoo—zee!"

    "Drat the plaguy thing! wilt stop it?"

    "Seth, huish, mon, an' hearken: ther's sum-mat up."

    "Hay, wench, he'd blow that skriking thing if Aw wur deead i' my bed!  T' cause o' God!  Wot's he care abaat T' cause?"

    Seth rolled both eyes round to indicate that he was prepared to hear.

    "Dust know as aw th' young women's goin' t' leeav th' class, Seth?"

    "Wot's he care?  He'd sit bletherin' theer if aw th' villige wur backslidin', loike that felley i'th Bible as fiddlet when Lunnon wur brunnin'," added Mrs. Pollit disgustedly.  Seth's eyes were wistfully caressing the bassoon again.

    "They sayn as they'll no' cum to th' class no mooar tin hoo's turnt aat."

    "Hoo owt bin turnt aat lung sin', the impident powsement, an' hoo wod ha' bin if hoo'd a hed a leeder as wur wo'th owt."

    "An aw th' wenches i'th singin' pew says as the'r' no' goin' in if yond Wiskit Hill gawpy comes ony mooar."

    "Hoo's a shameless hussy, an' he's a hafflin' scowbanker, that's wot they are."

    "Pop shop! an' then cumin' an' sittin' wi' dacent folk!  Aw'll show her!"

    "Bazoo—zi—zee—zoo."

    The two women had both of them much experience in detecting such slight signs as the wooden-faced milkman gave of his state of mind, but that crazy instrument baffled them utterly.

    "Hoo's breikin' aar Jesse's hert."

    "Hoo's bringin' scandal upo' th church."

    There was a pause; both women eyed him indignantly, and at last, poking the mouthpiece at his lips and missing, he remarked slowly, "Aw know wur nor that abaat hur."

    "Eh?  Wot?  Wot dust say?"

    The two were now leaning eagerly over the half-door, but the player did not answer.

    "Goo on, bad-bobbin; wot dust know?"

    "Bazoo—"

    "Hoo's hed five felleys sin' Kessmus, dust know that?"

    "Wur nor that!"

    "Hay, goddniss heavens, hear thi, M'ria!  Tell uz, mon! tell uz!"

    Seth was evidently interested in some flaw in the keys of his instrument.

    "Hoo goos poppin' things ta Pye Green, dust know that?"

    "Wur nor that!"

    The two gossips lifted scandalised hands and gazed amazedly at each other.

    "Aat wi' it, mon!  Wot is it?"

    "Goo on, Seth! heigh thi!  Wot dust know?"

    "Aw know"—but as they leaned intently over the door with greedy ears he stopped, and felt the bent mouthpiece with his lips again, and then, glancing slyly at them, he continued, "Aw know—Aw know as hoo isna woman enough ta backbite her neighbours―――Bazoozoo—zow—zeeezaaa!"

    The utterly unexpected nature of this retort, together with the stolid imperturbability of the man who uttered it, struck the gossips dumb for the moment, and when at last, drawing long sighing breaths, they raised themselves up from the door edge, each avoided the eye of the other, and stood there abashed and speechless.  The milkman's wife was the first to find her tongue.  "M'ria Bentley, hev Aw towd thee monny a toime as ther's woss sooarts a husban's nor them as welts they woives?"

    "Tha has, wench!"

    "An' hast seen it fur thisel' to-neet?"

    "Aw hev, wench!"

    "An' will tha let thisel' be tan in bi a dooliss wastril as Aw've bin?"

    "Aw'll niver think of a felley no mooar, as lung as my name's M'ria."

    And as they turned away with noses in the air, and chagrin and defeat on their faces, there came out of the shippon a long, jeering, unbelieving Bazooo—zoo—zee—twee—!


 
CHAPTER IX.

AN INNOCENT SPIDER AND A RECKLESS FLY


NOW the disclosures made by David Brooks to his rival produced, as David might have expected, the very opposite effect to the one intended, and Jesse carried away from the interview a heart full of wondering pity for Milly and her old father.  How they could be poor, or at any rate as poor as the facts detailed seemed to indicate, was as great a mystery to him as to the rest of the villagers, and the more he reflected upon it the more perplexing the thing appeared.  The uppermost feeling, however, was one of concern, and the more he thought the more determined he became to assist them; and so the next day he framed quite a number of little schemes for their relief, well knowing how careful he would need to be lest they should be led to suspect him.  He did not lose sight, however, of the fact, that in helping them, if he could do it cleverly enough, he would be furthering his own purposes and strengthening his position with Milly.  The thought of the aggressive oboist nearly stopped him once or twice, and certainly roused the devil of jealousy within him.  If he thought much on those lines he would do nothing, and so he resolved to leave that question for later discussion.

    His first task was to render the relief to Tet and her foster-father, described in a previous chapter, and on his way from the schoolmaster's he called at the Mangle House to arrange for his first preaching lesson.  Alas! two minutes after, with face red with sullen resignation, he was doggedly turning the mangle, glancing about here and there and everywhere to avoid the nods and winks with which the female customers were conveying to each other their keen appreciation of the neat way in which the resourceful Milly had captured him.  Jesse was disgusted; keen disappointment and a humiliating sense that he had been fooled and made an object of ridicule made him burn inwardly with savage resentment.  If Milly had a spark of true delicacy in her, she would not expose him to be made a laughing-stock of like this.  The use he made of his eyes also added fuel to the fire within; for in searching about for something upon which to fix his gaze, so as to seem not to see the others, his eyes alighted upon something propped carefully in the corner next the fireplace.  It was a new umbrella of painful smartness, dark green in colour, with glaring brass tips at the ends of the whalebone ribs, and an obtrusively striking buck-horn handle.  Such an article could only belong to the dandified oboist, and the manifest care with which the wretched thing was being preserved told its own exasperating tale.

    Jesse was furious, and the fires of jealousy grew hotter and hotter within him.  To watch Milly as she moved about her work and to study the expressive changes on her mobile face had always been ample compensation for any amount of either chaff or hard turning; but now, the sight of her sent cruel stabs of rage into his soul, whilst the whisperings and suggestive coughings of the women galled him past endurance.  A few moody, undecided turns of the handle, one last desperate fling at it, a savage kick at an empty clothes-basket, and Jesse, with tossed-up head and flashing eyes, stalked out of the Mangle House, followed by a chorus of exclamations and a volley of relishful, hilarious laughs.  He spent that night tossing about in bed and grinding his teeth, and next day, after much mental wrestling, he returned his "plan" to the superintendent of the circuit, accompanied by a note in which he declared that nothing would induce him to continue the work to which he was supposed to have been called.

    The rest of that week was spent by the miserable fellow in making and abandoning all sorts of foolish schemes for his future.  Again and again he formed the savage purpose of waylaying and fighting the oboist, then he thought of emigrating, or at least of leaving the village wherein he was born, for ever, and thus getting rid of all the torments and worries that come of women and their ways; and finally he resolved to marry the first decent girl that came to hand.  The last idea not only continued longest with him, but returned again and again with a persistency which encouraged the thought that it was inspired.  It was with him all Saturday, and he wandered in the smiling fields resolving and re-resolving that that was the thing he would do.  Up to this time, however, he had never discussed with himself who the favoured lady should be—that was a detail which could be settled any time; but on Sunday morning in the chapel, he sat in his pew, and, heedless alike of sermon and preacher, painted harrowing pictures to himself of the amazement and consternation of the Scholeses when he marched past the Mangle House some fine morning, on his way to Slagden church, with a blushing bride on his arm.

    At home, however, not all the solicitous attentions of his women-folk could make him even civil, and he accepted unusual Sunday dainties with ungracious grunts, and answered all remarks addressed to him in curtest monosyllables.  It seemed to him that they were wanting to pry into his secret thoughts, and one moment he was wishing that his sisters would go out and give him a chance of speaking to his mother, and the next he was wondering how long it would be before he could decently go off to Sunday school.  His mother watched him furtively, and he saw every glance and counted it an additional grievance; everybody was against him, and life was a torment and a snare.  Then his fairly healthy conscience smote him; what a base ingrate and a mean-spirited, spoilt baby he was! But it was not his fault, after all, it was hers: and he glowered at the slumberous fire, and vowed and vowed again to serve her out.

    "It's toime t' be goin', Jesse; and if tha will ha' sugared crumpits to thi tay tha mun cum back an' tooast 'em thisel'."

    The delicacy named was Jesse's special weakness, Sunday was not Sunday without them; and this was his mother's characteristic way of conveying to him that his fancies had not been forgotten.  But he only gave his head a sulky toss and replied, "Eight 'em yoursel'."

    "Me?  For shame o' thi impident face!  Dust want me t' have cramp o'th stomach aw neet?  Tha's noa mooar feelin' nor a gate-pooast."

    Jesse made a surly reply and stalked off; but his mother knew that she had touched a tender point, and that silent penitence would bring him back to her when school was over.  Front doors were mostly used on the Sabbath, but Jesse, looking somewhat humbled and propitiatory, came in at the back when he returned.

    "Oh, tha'rt theer!  Well, pike forrat an' see as tha tooasts yond crumpits gradely; they war aw covert wi' ess [ashes] last toime."

    Jesse was in no mood for conversation, and, removing his hat as he went, he strode forward into the front room.  As he opened the inner door he pulled up with amazement, and a look of foolish embarrassment appeared on his face; for there, in one of the stiffest and most uncomfortably stylish of their best chairs, sat Emma Cunliffe.  Remembering in a flash his recent conversation with his mother, it did not need a second thought to show him that this was a palpable "plant," at least as far as the old lady was concerned.  But his heart was sore and lonely, and the bright little woman in the chair was ravishingly pretty, and so, glad of anything to divert his sombre thoughts, he exclaimed, "Hello, Emma! is that yo'?"

    The visitor, who was one of those susceptible creatures who alternate between shyness and equally excessive over-confidence, fidgeted and shrank back in her chair, answering confusedly, "Ay."

    She had brown hair and eyes, a clean rose-and-white complexion, dainty little dimples, rich lips, and white regular teeth, whilst her dress was of that popular colour which Jesse, with the rest of "mere men," called "puce."  She wore a beautiful cameo brooch, not quite so large as was then the fashion, and a pair of elastic-sided block-fronted boots, which set off becomingly her tiny little feet.  Jesse, who had vowed scores of times during the last four days never to look on a woman again, felt his sore heart warm, and as there seemed a sort of providential inevitableness in their meeting, and he was in a drifting, sympathy-seeking frame of mind, and here found it waiting for him in its most attractive shape, he was not the man to despise his good fortune.  They did not shake hands—for that was a sign of stiffest formalism in Slagden—but Jesse stood with his back to the sleepy fire, and glanced her over from the masses of her wavy hair to the tips of her dainty boots, and felt that here if anywhere was an excuse for the recklessness he had been contemplating.  He had not sought this temptation, Providence had put it directly in his way, and if he did yield to it, well, that was its own lookout and not his.  For some time neither of them spoke, but presently Jesse made a discovery, and plunged with nervous haste into conversation.

    "Why, Emma, dunna sit up o' that stiff chur; sit here an' be comfortable, woman;" and he pulled forward his mother's favourite rocker.  Emma shrank back and timidly declared that she was "aw reet."  Jesse became fussy and insistent, but in a fidgety, overdone way.  Emma would apparently have been glad to shrink through the chair-back, and refused to move.  He brought the chair forward and pressed her.  She shook her pretty head and blushed violently.  He insisted, and took her tremulously by the arm; Emma put her hands up and begged to be let alone.  But somehow—one never knows how such odd things come about—she rose to her feet as she spoke.  Jesse drew her one way, she pulled or seemed to pull desperately the other, and just at that moment there was the click of a latch, and Maria's shrill voice cried, "Naa, then, yo' tew!  Be dacent!  Noan o' your Tummas-an'-Mary wark here!  Aw'm shawmt fur thee, Emma."

    Emma began a confused and indignant protest, and was so absorbed in it that she did not observe, of course, that Jesse was gently pulling her into the rocker, and when she did find out where she was, well, perhaps it was the safest place after all, when there was a bold young fellow about.  Maria had closed the inner door again, and there was a sudden and dreadful silence.  Then Jesse, looking shyly round, noticed the crumpets waiting to be toasted, and a long fork lying at the side of the plate, and so, after immemorial Slagden custom, he removed his best coat, carefully examined the fork, and commenced operations.  The fire required considerable poking to make it "fit," and Emma watched him with that superior, smiling look with which women usually contemplate masculine domestic performances.  Having properly "fettlet" the fire, and got the crumpet on the fork-end in front of it, Jesse had a fit of musing, and Emma watching him, and beginning to feel more at ease, moved herself a little; the chair gave a creak, Jesse started, and jerked his head round, the crumpet was shaken, and fell into the ashes on the hearthstone, and Emma started forward with a little cry to rescue it.  Jesse ducked on the same business at precisely the same moment, two hands gripped the frail and cindery dainty, two burning cheeks brushed each other; there was a laugh, a protest, and—well—well! in another minute they were crowding each other before that fire, and doing their best to ensure further mischief to that unfortunate little cake.

    Then Maria bustled in, and packed Jesse off into the garden for "sallit," and when he had procured and washed the vegetable, and brought it into the parlour, the rest were all seated at table, and the only vacant place was that next to Emma.

    "Naa, then, forrat! let th' wench a-be, wilta?" and the crafty Maria shook her Sunday curls at the blushing visitor, and added, "Dunna ler him thrutch thi, wench; theeas felleys is impident!  The'r' nowt else!"

    As a matter of fact poor Jesse had done nothing more dreadful than move his chair the least bit possible to get to the table at all, but, of course, after that he could not put it farther away, and as Emma blushed furiously and looked almost painfully self-conscious, old Mrs. Bentley chimed in encouragingly, "Ne'er heed aar M'ria, wench; it's a case o' sour grapes wi' hur, isn't it?"

    Jesse, genuinely distressed at the embarrassingly personal turn the conversation had taken, made haste to relieve the situation by introducing the interesting topic of the approaching anniversary, now only a week away.  One or two novelties were promised for the great event, and these provided topics which kept them on safe ground, though the provoking Maria would persist in nodding and shaking her curls whenever Jesse agreed with Emma or Emma with him.  Tea over, the hymns for the coming celebration had to be tried, and as Emma possessed a table piano, the only instrument of its kind in the village, she was, of course, a musical authority, and it really was remarkable how often her choice with regard to particular tunes coincided with that of Jesse.  Then it was suddenly discovered that it was chapel-time, and there was great scurry and haste, and many exclamations about the wonderful way in which the time had passed.

    As a rule Jesse went to chapel by himself, but, of course, when they had a visitor, it was the least he could do to show his manners by attending upon and waiting for the ladies.  As he paced hat in hand about the room, waiting impatiently, as men have had to do from the commencement of things apparently, he overheard an altercation upstairs; Maria's voice being raised in urgent persuasion, and Emma replying in timid, wavering deprecation.  With characteristic Slagden shyness, Jesse led the way down the ginnel and into the old sanctuary; he had become self-conscious again in the presence of so many fellow-worshippers, and was a little impatient to get to his seat.  The women pulled up at the door for another whispered debate, Maria looking urgent, and Emma embarrassed.  A signal from his masterful sister set him going again, and, fully determined not to stop, he passed into the building, and stalked without pausing to his seat at the end of the pew.  And as he turned round to seat himself he discovered that Emma was being almost forced into the pew after him by his sister.

    Now when a young lady went to sit in the pew with a young man's family, it was a sort of public notice in Slagden that all preliminary negotiations had been satisfactorily accomplished, and that a marriage might be reckoned upon at no very distant date.  Poor Jesse, blushing to the ears and distressed beyond measure for the shrinking girl at his side, fumblingly put away his hat, and resolved to do his utmost to soften the position for her.  The pew was supposed to hold five, but there was a pillar in the corner near the door, and so, as this was the day of expansive crinolines, the accommodation was somewhat circumscribed, and though Emma shrank away into the narrowest possible space, they were certainly very close together.

    But for the whispering behind them his considerate manner would have been a great relief to the nervous little beauty at his side, and as the aggressive fussiness of Maria made her feel that Jesse was her only friend, she almost unconsciously leaned towards him.  There was a hymn-book short, and they "looked on" together.  As they went to prayer, he pushed the only hassock in the pew towards her, and during the next hymn shyly slipped into her hand those infallible Slagden chapel composers—peppermints.  There was one Bible too few also, and when Maria ostentatiously handed her one, what could she do but timidly hold out one side of it that Jesse might follow the reading too?  This brought their heads perilously close together, sending a thrill through him and a blush to her already burning cheek.

    Jesse's feelings were of a distressingly mixed character; she was certainly a sweet, dainty, confiding little thing; any other fellow in the village would have been bursting with pride to have her so near to him, and he made no doubt whatever that several old flames of hers were watching him enviously.  Why shouldn't he be happy?  Why ashamed of a sweet little creature like this?  He had not sought her, Providence had deliberately thrust her in his way.  Why should he not accept the inevitable, and be happy?  It would be flying in the face of fortune to resist, and wouldn't Milly Scholes be mad?  The lesson was finished, Emma withdrew the Bible with a shaky hand, Jesse nerved himself to sit up and for the first time look his fellow-worshippers in the face.  But, as he did so, he saw in all the gathering nothing but the great sad eyes and sadder face of Milly Scholes, looking steadily, wonderingly at him! and darkness complete and awful fell once more upon his soul.


 
CHAPTER X.

THE "SARMONS"


THE great "Sarmons" Sunday dawned in Slagden still and quiet, and the nightcapped heads that appeared at various bedroom windows soon after daybreak lingered longer than was absolutely necessary over the inspection of the weather; for the trilling larks, the high, feathery clouds, and the already warm soft air proclaimed, as certainly as meteorological signs could say anything, that there was not the slightest need for apprehension.  For many years now it had always been fine on this greatest day of the year, and it would have been difficult to convince the average Slagdenite that the invariable sunshine was not a direct sign of special Providential favour.  About six o'clock the banging of cottage doors and the thumping of pokers against firebacks announced awakening life, and in a short time the landlord of the "Dog and Gun," which only had a six-days' licence, was seen, after a preliminary survey of the weather, setting up a long tresselled table in the open space before his house, whilst Seth Pollit, the milkman, was doing a similar thing in his big barn, and everybody who had stabling accommodation was transferring cows, horses, and even donkeys to the fields or to other temporary accommodation, to make room for the animals and vehicles of the expected visitors.

    Presently there was a darting of half-dressed girls with hair in curl-papers, new-looking chenille or fancy beaded nets, and bobbing crinolines from back door to back door, whilst the folds and yards became redolent of hair-oil, pomatum, and frying bacon.  Small groups of boys, miserable in stiff new clothes and stiffer collars, forgathered in fold corners, enviously eyeing each other's finery, and outbidding each other in extravagant and, for the most part, purely imaginary statements about the cost of the wonderful garments they had assumed that morning.  Here and there and everywhere there came through open doors sounds of domestic altercations between flurried mothers and impatient or disappointed children; the colour of new ties, the tightness of collars, and the cut of new coats providing painful topics for wrangling.

    Presently the landlord of the "Dog and Gun" was seen stalking across the road and down the fold, carrying that great and yet mysterious bag containing the world-famous double bass, which only saw daylight on this and similar local celebrations.  Then came Seth Pollit and his bassoon, followed by less distinguished persons carrying viols, fiddles, a clarionet, and sundry other instruments; whilst the gable-end Parliament began to assemble and discuss the probable amount of the collection.

    After an interval Happy Sam and his inseparable colleague, Joe Peech, came to the outer end of the ginnel and began to unroll from its many and various wrappings the gorgeous though now slightly faded Sunday-school banner.  This was the signal for a clamorous conflict, developing in more than one case to something very near to a free fight, between the bigger lads, for the proud honour of being cord-holders on the great occasion, a dispute which was only settled after much "haggling" by the interference of the already over-worried superintendents.  Meanwhile young men were exploring their own and other people's gardens for buttonholes, and young women hovered about house doors afflicted with torturing consciousness of the newness of their dresses, nervously "letting I dare not wait upon I would," and protesting indignantly if a proud mother or an unceremonious brother "picked" them mischievously into the open air and under the scrutiny of the curious and sarcastic lookers-on.

    There was a procession round the village before morning "address," and children of all sizes and ages began to gather as starting-time drew near, some in the chapel yard and some in the fold and ginnel.  The sudden appearance of two top hats, representing opposite extremes of fashion, and each betraying in the excessive shininess of its appearance the recent application of cold tea and velvet pad, was the signal for falling in, and big children came lugging their protesting and tear-stained brothers and sisters by the arm, teachers began to bustle about and shout confusing and contradictory orders, young women came sedately down the ginnel trying to look as though new bonnets were the last things they should ever think about, and young fellows tugging, when observed, at treacherous neckties, haunted most evidently by the fear of their getting awry or coming loose, nervously chaffed each other about the respective sizes of their buttonholes or the precise curl of the brim of their billycocks.

    All at once the silence of death fell upon the scene, and, as if by magic, that struggling medley of young humanity became a long sinuous procession, and began to file down the ginnel, only to discover, as they emerged, that the school banner had already reached the end of the fold, and that between it and the young women's class there had fallen into rank, from who could tell where, fifty or sixty high hats of all sizes and ages.  There was probably not a shape in hats or a cut in coats, from the early years of the century to the very latest fashion, that was not represented in that procession.  Wide brims and brims that were mere rims, bell-shaped and "long-sleeved," chimneypots and bell-toppers, all were there; and an assortment of black coats, from Nat Scholes' sage-green cut-away to the newest and glossiest superfine frock, that would have completely equipped the nineteenth-century section of a sartorial museum.  Silently, sedately, with most obvious self-consciousness, they filed out, as though a wondering world were looking on.

    Poor souls!  As a matter of fact, except a group of renegades, who no longer possessed such signs of respectability as "walking" clothes, and who shyly propped themselves against the table outside the "Dog and Gun," and a thin line of miscellaneous spectators down the side of the old road, there was nobody at all to behold all this pride and glory.  I beg pardon.  In almost every cottage door stood a perspiring and already exhausted mother, still en deshabille, and as little Tommy in his new velveteen suit and monster posy, or Jane in her gay frock or gayer hat, moved proudly past, there was a sudden glistening of motherly eyes, a sudden uplifting of weary faces, and the work and worry of many days seemed all too little for the sweet reward of that proud moment.

    The procession over, there was the address to "scholars, teachers, and friends," as the little poster on the pear-tree stump informed the world.  This was given by an old Slagden boy, whose unfailing contribution of two guineas to the collection was rhetorical climax, forcible enough surely for anybody; at any rate it was entirely satisfactory to the Sunday-school treasurer.

    But that was not all: the man who gave the address was now an Alderman of a distant Lancashire borough, who, it was hinted in gable-end discussions, might become a Jah Pee "ony minit."

    And what if it was the same address every year, spiced by the same venerable witticisms?  Was not the man himself the best of all practical sermons?  Had not the youth of Slagden the opportunity of gazing for one solid hour upon the Slagden boy who was now an Alderman and prospective Justice of the Peace, reminding them, as it so forcibly did, of what they might some day become?  That was discourse forcible enough for anybody, even if the good man never spoke a word.  Besides, it was worth while going all the way to Slagden once a year to see the careless, "off-hand" way in which Saul Swindells saluted the great man by his Christian name, and familiarly alluded afterwards to this high civic dignitary as "Little Tommy o' Peter's." 

    But the procession and the address were after all mere preliminaries, the real interest of the day centred in the afternoon and evening preaching services.  Not that the preacher mattered much, or his sermon either, they did well if they got off without a distinct snub; the great things were, of course, the music and the "pieces."  The chapel was as full as it could hold by two o'clock, and long before half-past, such vestries as opened into the chapel, the chapel yard, and the burial-ground behind were all full of eager worshippers, some of whom had no share in the services until it came to the collection.  Every window and door was wide open, and the heat was already stifling.  The chapel was a barn externally, with odd-looking rounded ends, but inside you saw the value of these last, for there was a corpulent gallery at the front end, and a comparatively large singing "loft" behind the pulpit.  On occasions such as this the tall box which usually held the preacher was almost buried by the "stage," and upon this there were packed between sixty and seventy girls, all wearing white frocks and posies, many of the former having been loaned for the great celebration.  When the girls stood up, the preacher seemed to be lost in a sort of well, and, except from the top of the gallery, it was easier to hear than to see him.  The particular anniversary I am describing had been looked forward to with very mixed feelings, and was ever after remembered as the high-water mark of all Slagden "Sarmons" days.

    An important and very questionable innovation was to be introduced.  For some time the anniversaries in the Aldershaw valley had been characterised by certain disquieting novelties, and particularly that most questionable practice of the singing of solos.  Slagden, representative of ancient, and of course superior ways, had so far held out.  But Slagden players assisted at other anniversaries, and had, of course, by this means become infected with the popular craze, overflowing, in fact, with praise of the success of the new departure.  At first they were not only not listened to, but were treated to scornful contempt, and informed if that was what they went abroad for they had better stop at home.  After many gable-end wranglings, however, and much private searching of hearts, the authorities had at last yielded to popular clamour so far as to allow—as an experiment only, and for one year—the introduction of the ungodly performance.  Anxious to propitiate the conservatives, Billy Whiffle and the others who had charge of the arrangements had engaged the young lady from Aldershaw whom they heard sing at the Pye Green "Sarmons," and she was to give a sacred solo at each of the services.

    The preacher was a minister from a neighbouring circuit, and being of the same stature as Zaccheus, he was almost lost in the circle of white-frocked, curly-headed girls about him.  The first hymn, which was sung to old "Lyngham," gave good earnest of what was to follow, and the perspiring instrumentalists put in an elaborate improvised accompaniment, which, of course, made the rival players from Billy Houses and Noyton green with envy.  After the prayer there was a prolonged and painfully deliberate tuning of instruments, and presently "How beautiful upon the mountains" was rendered as only Slagden could give it.

    Whilst the lesson was being read there was a fuss and a rustle in the singing- gallery, and all eyes were turned thitherward to behold the advent of the famous soloist, who was much too great a genius to pay attention to such a commonplace detail as punctuality.  She sat during the next hymn, had a glass of water handed to her, and displayed what had never been seen in Slagden chapel during the hundred years of its existence—a fan!  Faces fell, puckers of stern displeasure appeared on venerable faces, and one and another turned to look with painful glances of significance at each other.  Did she think that dear old chapel, opened by the great Samuel Bradburn, was a concert hall or a theatre?  Then came the "pieces," delivered in that peculiar intonation which was the exclusive monopoly of Saul Swindells' pupils; but though mothers and fathers and grandparents telegraphed congratulatory nods at each other as the performers resumed their seats, the unregenerate looked a little bored and impatient; they were eager for the next item, the grand solo.  A doggerel recitation, which the preacher announced had been composed for the occasion by a local poet, was the concluding item of the "pieces," and whilst strangers frowned in perplexed endeavours to think who the author might be, every true Slagdenite looked knowing and mysterious, and Saul Swindells ostentatiously closed his eyes and composed his strong features into an expression of becoming modesty.

    The effusion turned out to be a particularly pointed and candid appeal for the collection, and when the triumphant reciter resumed her seat, the preacher announced that "Miss Lavinia Barlow, of Aldershaw," would now sing a solo.

    There was a rustle all over the chapel; the men sat eagerly forward and propped their chins on the book-shelves before them, whilst the women sat as far back as they could, and commenced to fan themselves rapidly with their pocket-handkerchiefs.  After much twanging of fiddle-strings and various excited whispers in the singing-gallery, a sharp tap from the conductor's wand was heard, and away went the orchestra to immortalise itself.  But the congregation was watching the singer: congregation glanced round to see if all the windows were really open, groped sideways for her copy of the music, laid it absently on her knee, took another look round, rose slowly to her feet, and immediately dropped back with suddenly whitened face.  A sharp little cry from the trebles sitting near her, a murmur of pitiful alarm, and a cry for more air and water; and the singer leaned softly over towards one of her female companions, and dropped her head on the other's shoulder in a half-faint.  There was a long breathless silence, a chorus of whispered counsels amongst the players, a gentle self-pitying shake of the head from the soloist, and Dan Stott, the conductor, with red scared face, was leaning over the gallery front and exhorting the minister in a stage whisper to go on with his sermon, when the oboist, who sat on the second row back, rose to his full height, and leaning over Billy Whiffle's shoulder, stared hard under the opposite gallery and shouted, "Thee cum an' tak' it, Milly!"

    The little preacher, who had risen to announce his text, looked round at the daring interrupter; everybody sitting in front who could do so turned round and stared hard at the Scholeses' pew, where Milly was holding down her head and blushing furiously at this unexpected challenge.  To the utter scandalising of all who knew anything about Slagden affairs, Milly rose and began to struggle her way out of the pew and down the overcrowded aisle; whilst men and women whisked round and stared at each other in dumfounded indignation.  Milly Scholes! why, nobody in that chapel had ever heard her sing a note!  As she struggled her way towards the vestry, through which alone she could reach the gallery above, the sentiments of the worshippers found vent in angry exclamations; three or four, amongst whom was Maria Bentley, rose from their seats in noisy demonstration, and prepared to leave the chapel, as all the protest they could make against so utterly scandalous a proceeding.  When the white-faced, trembling girl reached the seat near the soloist, the landlord of the "Dog and Gun" flung his double bass away from him in noisy disgust, and clambered, with as much row as he could make, down the steps.  Meanwhile angry whispering altercations were going on between the irrepressible oboist and the conductor, the congregation holding its breath and watching with strained interest.

    "Aw'll no' stond it!  Aw'll no' stond it!" shouted the fiery landlord, who, having failed to get out through the vestry, was now struggling amongst the crowded worshippers for the front door.

    But at that moment Seth Pollit gave the trembling Milly a nudge with the end of his instrument, the soloist also was seen to signal faintly to her, two or three instruments reluctantly struck up the accompaniment, and the next instant the first ringing notes of Handel's sublime "I know that my Redeemer liveth" were ringing through the chapel.

    The congregation sat like stones, open-mouthed and wonder-struck.  She was singing to untutored ears but to people who were instinctively musical, and in a moment or two everybody was listening spellbound, and mine host of the "Dog and Gun" had stopped a couple of yards from the door and was gaping up at the singer in sheer stupefied amazement.

    Milly looked shabbier than ever: the same old blue frock, the same hot winter hat, and the same threadbare jacket, with which they were all only too familiar.  But her voice was a revelation—full, rich, ringing!  There was not much evidence of musical culture, and many signs of extreme trepidation, but every bar, almost every note, seemed to grip her audience more firmly.  As she proceeded, men and women not daring to turn their heads rolled their eyes round to see how their neighbours were taking it, and when, flushed and tremulous, the thin, worn-looking figure sank back into its seat, a great sigh passed over that hot, excited crowd.  The oboist stood up and glared triumphantly around, Seth Pollit touched Milly on the shoulder and bestowed upon her a portentous wink of encyclopaedic significance, whilst the landlord sprang forward upon a bench in the aisle, and with shining face and glistening eyes held up two half-crowns to the minister, shouting, "Here, mon! mak' th' collection; ne'er moind thi sarmon."



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