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
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,
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
The pursuer was approaching, was passing, had passed; in all
the heavens there was not such a thing as a lark now.
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."
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
Another awful, endless silence, and then in sheer desperation
David hazarded, "Yond hobo wastril 'll be goin' to Billy Haases, Aw
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
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
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
"Why, Tet, tha'll niver get a felley if tha goes on loike
"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
"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
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."
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
"Well, what dust want?" he demanded in tones of
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."
"Tha munna tak' on, lad; we aw hev aar bits o' trubbles, as
"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
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
"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
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? 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 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
"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!"
"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
"Dust know as aw th' young women's goin' t' leeav th' class,
"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
"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!"
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?"
"Hoo's hed five felleys sin' Kessmus, dust know that?"
"Wur nor that!"
"Hay, goddniss heavens, hear thi, M'ria! Tell uz, mon!
Seth was evidently interested in some flaw in the keys of his
"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'll niver think of a felley no mooar, as lung as my name's
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—!
AN INNOCENT SPIDER AND A RECKLESS FLY
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
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
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
"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
"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]
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."