The Mangle House (III)
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CHAPTER XI.

SETH'S PREMONITIONS


SLAGDEN walked on stilts—stiff, high stilts of pride and vainglorious self-satisfaction.  Amongst musical people in a musical district, lowly, despised Slagden had suddenly thrown up a musical phenomenon, and done it in a manner and at a time to fill the whole Aldershaw valley with noisy wonder.  The sudden emergency, the disappointment it might have produced, and the dramatic introduction of a local substitute for the distinguished stranger vocalist, had just that element of romantic unexpectedness most likely to appeal to the imaginations of such people, and Slagden buzzed from end to end with self-important boastings.  No one in the village, save perhaps old Nat Scholes or Saul, could have defined the word genius; but to most of them it meant extraordinary talent uncorrupted by technical culture, and this was what they had now discovered in Milly.  They would rather the heroine of this amazing coup had been any other girl, but to themselves the unpopularity of the mangle girl was an added element of interest and marvel.  The sermon, the "pieces," and even the collection, which—it had leaked out—was three pounds higher than the previous best on record for the afternoon service, failed to interest them; Milly and her wonderful solo absorbed all interest and conversation.

    There was only an attenuated, private-members' day sort of attendance at the gable-end, for all the authorities were "on hospitable thoughts intent," except, of course, the Scholeses.  Every Methodist who was worth the name had open house that day, and at every table the solo, and that alone, was discussed.  The minister and the lady vocalist from Aldershaw had gone with David Brooks to tea, his house being the "quality" home of the village.

    "It's a reg'ler corker, it's nowt else," exclaimed David, as he conducted them home to Mullet Fold.  He was helping the soloist over a stile as he spoke, and she shook her corkscrew curls and replied—

    "Yes, she did not do badly, did she?—considering.  She hasn't been in training long, I should judge."

    "Lung?  Hoo hasna bin a day as we know on."

    "I thought so!  Her execution—but never mind; she pleased the people.  A little goes a long way with village folk, and we mustn't be the first to criticise, must we?"

    The implied reflection on villagers piqued David, but the "we" appealed to his vanity, and so he smiled indulgently, and answered, "Hoo went through it tickle—but, like a bull at a gate-poast, didn't hoo?"

    "Ah, Mr. Brooks, the old adage, you know, 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.'  Between you and me, the technique was shocking."

    David did not know in the least what the high-flown word might mean, but the flattering assumption that he would know both the word and the thing captured him, and as he had, or thought he had, abundant reason for hating Milly, he had taken sides against her before they reached home.  As they were entering the fold, however, Dan Stott, the conductor, who was a little lame, overtook them.

    "Aw say, miss, yo'll no' be singin' ta-neet, Aw reacon?" and he rubbed his red face, and obviously expected that she would say no.

    "Oh yes, Mr. Stott.  I feel better now; it was only the heat, you know."

    "It 'ull be hotter to-neet, Aw'm feart."

    "Will it?  Well, I must make the best of it, but—"

    "Yond wench 'ud happen tak' it fur yo' if—"

    "Oh no, no! thank you.  I shouldn't like you to be disappointed altogether."

    "Well, if yo' donna feel gradely yo'll let me know i' time;" and then, dropping into a tone of hypocritical sympathy, he added, "Aw wodna arose [offer] at it, if Aw wur yo'—an' yo'n noa kashion."

    "Don't fluster yorsel' (in her temper she was slipping into the dialect).  I'll take my work, never fear;" and then, as she turned away, she added to David, "The sawney!  I'll take it now to spite him."

    There were several guests when they got inside, and the minister was just announcing that Milly's performance was the most remarkable effort, all things considered, that he had heard for some time.  David tossed his head, and was about to make a disparaging remark, when he was interrupted by the soloist, who, under new and polite influences, recovered her command of English, and went over to the enemy in a manner that perfectly amazed him.

    "Well, yes, it was really very good—for an haymatcheur."

    Poor David, deserted even by the person in whose interests he thought he was acting, was glad to take refuge behind the ham, and it was not until tea was over, and the men were smoking, that he found sympathetic listeners in his sister Tizzy and the lady who had so recently deserted him.  The latter had entirely mollified him by assuring Tizzy, in a whisper loud enough for him to hear, that she particularly admired auburn hair, and as she glanced at David as she spoke, and thus supplied him with a new and beautiful name for the hair about which he was always nervous, he became as gallant as ever, and having drawn her into the garden, gave her all particulars about the Scholeses, their nipping ways, their uppish stand-offishness, and the mysterious trafficking with the Pye Green pawnshop.  She listened with raised eyebrows and serious shocked looks and shakes of the head, and then remarked upon Milly's shabby appearance, particularising especially her boots, which she had espied, though supposed to be in a faint, when the mangle girl stepped over the bench to take her place.  The contradiction between the apparent poverty of the people they were discussing and their reputation for secret wealth provided matter for much speculation, and Tizzy suggested that as they were known to be friendly with Nancy o'th moor-edge, who, though a rival herbalist, was suspected of doing no little business in the way of illicit distillery, the explanation of the mystery might be found in secret drinking.  But the soloist shook her head very decidedly.  When a girl had such a reputation for flirting as Milly had, and at the same time was so suspiciously short of money, it pointed to one thing, and one thing only; and when David looked the question he was afraid to ask, she turned her head away and remarked to Tizzy that there were some things which no lady could speak about.  Both David and his sister knew perfectly well that there was not the slightest ground for the evil insinuation, but all the same he spent some part of that evening in company to which he was not accustomed, and it was freely whispered in Slagden next day—though only amongst the less scrupulous—that Milly had an indelible smirch upon her good name.

    The evening service was not more than an average success; for though the preacher was admitted to have excelled himself, and the collections for the day "topped" by eighteen shillings the best previous effort, the lady soloist made no particular impression; but whether this was because she really was out of sorts, or that her especial anxiety to excel defeated its own purpose, the general verdict was that she could not be reckoned in the same category with the wonderful Milly; and Dan Stott went about declaring that their own girl would soon be assisting at more "Sarmons" than her father had ever attended in his most popular days.  Milly herself did not appear at the evening service; in fact, nobody saw her again that day, except perhaps the all-privileged oboist.  She had vanished when the last hymn was being sung, and remained for the rest of the day shut up at home with her father.

    The visitors had to be regaled with light refreshments and started off on their homeward journeys before the villagers were at liberty to discuss the events of the day, and so the shadows were beginning to gather ere the gable-end council could assemble.  Presently, however, one after another, in shirt sleeves and with new churchwardens obtained to grace the great occasion, the village Solons began to gather round the pear tree, and it was characteristic of them that the very number and interest of the topics they had to discuss kept them silent, so that the bench was full and every root cavity about the old tree occupied before anybody ventured a remark worth recording.

    Peter Jump, though bursting to commence, glanced with stern surprise at Billy Whiffle when that worthy ventured to anticipate the proper opening of the debate; but when Saul Swindells at last strolled up, and unceremoniously squeezed himself in between the blacksmith and Seth Pollit, commencing, as he did so, his invariable prelude to all formal discussions, a tirade against tobacco and smokers, Peter felt that the supreme moment had arrived, and so, springing to his feet and standing before the schoolmaster, he cried, "Chokin' be blowed!  Wot dust think o'th Slagdin Nightingale?"

    "Slagdin Jinny Linn, tha meeans," corrected Billy Whiffle.

    "Sithi!" and Dan Stott sprang from the tree stump, and thrusting Peter aside that he might have full fling at Saul, shouted out, "When that wench brast off Aw wur fair flummaxed; but when hoo belled aat them theer top noates tha could ha' knockt me daan wi' th' thin end o' nothin'!"

    Grunts of endorsement greeted the announcement, but Dan was still staring at the schoolmaster; there was evidently something coming.  He had propped his head against the gable, and thrust his hands deep into his pockets in preparation for a weighty deliverance.  He clearly knew that he was going to utter a "staggerer," and was not inclined to spoil it by hurry.

    "Aw've bin expectin' this lung enuff."

    This impudent pretence to unique foresight, characteristic though it was of the man, was greeted by a chorus of indignantly ironical shouts.

    "Oh ay! tha larnt her that piece, didn't tha?" asked Dan, in scornful sarcasm.

    "Ger aat, Dan! he wrate it for her, mon!  That theer Andill's a foo' to him," sneered Billy Whiffle.

    Saul leaned indolently back, closed his eyes, and smiled indulgently, the picture of condescending, disdainful patience.

    "It 'ull cum aat sum day as he larnt Andill hissel'," scoffed Dan.

    "Ay, an' Jinny Linn an' aw," jibed another.

    "They'll be wantin' him i' Lundon to teich t' R'yal Family," added Billy.

    "A prophet is without honour in his own country," simpered Saul, with pious, forbearing smile.

    "Does tha meean to say as tha know'd as hoo could sing like yond?" and Peter fixed his sternest frown on the aggravatingly complacent schoolmaster.  But Saul was not to be caught by categorical Yeas and Nays; his face put on a far-away look, as though memory were bringing slowly back bygone scenes of sweet delight.

With a stiff, elocutionary sort of wave of the hand, he beat out—


"The dew was falling fast, and the stars began to blink,


Hay, has hoo us't pipe it aat!"

    "Blink! they did that! they seed thee!  Aw'm capt they didna turn into comets an' cut loike redshanks."

    But Saul, inflated with delicious musical reminiscence, waved his hand again—


"'A snow-white mountain lamb and a maiden at its side,
               A mai-den at its s-i-d-e!;'"


    The company received this exhibition of insufferable vanity with angry impatience: was the whole night to be taken up by this ridiculous rhodomontade?  But at this moment Seth Pollit, who, as usual, had not spoken, took his pipe out of his mouth and remarked, with immovable, cast-iron countenance, "Th' heigher a monkey climbs th' mooar he shows his tail."

    The roar of loud, relishing guffaws which followed this highly enjoyable sally seemed to do what no amount of round abuse could accomplish: Saul was on his mettle in a moment.

    "Did Aw tell thee seven ye'r sin' last Wis-Sunday as Aw'd fund a rippin' vice i'th schoo' or Aw didna?"

    The wooden-faced milkman had apparently not heard.

    "Hev Aw towd thee toime an' toime ageean as Slagdin 'ud brast aat a good un sum day wi' a grand musical projeny?"

    "Towd him!  He'd want a yed as big as a four-storey factory ta think of aw th' rubbitch tha talks," interposed Dan.

    But as things seemed to be drifting, and time was going fast, a knot of gossips plunged into discussion round the stump of the pear tree, and in a few minutes Milly and her amazing success were being discussed in three distinct groups.  For the time her oddities were forgotten; she had glorified Slagden in the presence of more strangers than were ever to be seen in the village at any other time, and the experience of feeling themselves famous, and of realising that a short-sighted and self-absorbed world had at last had convincing demonstration of the superiority of Slagden, loosened all tongues, fired all imaginations, and procured for Milly most uncommon popularity. In their most daring flights of anticipation, however, the gable-enders did not get beyond confident predictions of the sensation Milly would produce at local anniversaries and tea-parties; to them that was glory enough for any ordinary person.  But Saul was not the kind of person to be snubbed quietly, and so, waiting his opportunity, he dashed in at the first pause.  "Tay-parties!  A vice like that cumin' daan ta ham-sandwidges an' tew-fiddle concerts!  Ha' sum sense, will yo'?"

    "Tha'd hev her i' music haws and theaytres, Aw reacon," cried Peter, in his most scornful tones.

    Bump went the schoolmaster's head against the gable wall, down dived his hands into his pockets.  "Nay, Aw know nowt!  Aw've teiched yo' aw as yo' know, an' a deal mooar as yo'n forgetten.  But Aw know nowt!  Sitch is gratitude!"

    "Tha knows has to spell bull-scatter [braggadocio] at ony rate, owd buckstick," was the retort.

    Ignoring as utterly beneath him such unseemly personalities, Saul pointed his nose to the stars, and remarked, with elaborate pretence of indifference, "Afoor monny moor Sarmon days, yond wench 'all be singin' i'th new Chrystill Palace, if Aw know owt."

    The older men looked as if they thought this not at all improbable, but the younger ones had unbelieving faces.

    "They tell me as they get as mitch as a sovrin a day fur singin' i' Lundon," remarked Joe Peech.

    "John Dichfilt, Jack o' Sam's lad, 's gerrin' tew paand ten a wik fur playin' th' bass fiddle," added another.

    "Cht! cht!  Tit—tit—tit!"

    This was from Saul, marvelling with wondering pity at such utter lack of accurate information.  It was a palpable challenge, but as nobody took it up he raised his voice and remarked, in a manner intended to conclude the matter once for all, "If Milly Scholes gets a penny i' Lundon, hoo'll get twenty paand a wik!"

    The debaters were in a sceptical frame of mind as far as Saul's statements were concerned, and whilst two or three made jibing replies, the rest turned away and began to discuss the probable effect of Milly's coming popularity upon her habits of dress.  The circumstances of the Mangle House people being thus introduced, they were soon back upon old ground, and the interest began to flag.  It being now about dark, first one and then another lounged yawningly off home, and at length there was nobody left but the two old adversaries, Seth and Saul.  Saul, with the fear of Tet's sharp tongue before his mind, would probably have departed too, but the fact that Seth had charged his pipe again was significant, and so he waited.  The air began to grow damp; there were a few stars in the heavens, though they were small and distant as yet; bats began to bob clumsily in and out between the gable-end and the pear tree, and the occasional hoot of an owl in High Knowle plantation could be heard.  Seth smoked moodily on, and Saul, measuring the importance of what was coming by the time it took to get to it, waited in what was for him most wonderful patience.  The air grew cooler, the light in the "Dog and Gun" kitchen was extinguished, an eerie stillness fell upon them, and Seth's pipe had gone out; but he did not speak.  Saul could hear the very ticking of the watch in his companion's fob, and the hooting of the owl sounded strangely near.

    "Aw've a ter'ble lowniss on me ta-neet."

    At last! and here was a splendid opening for the schoolmaster's favourite doctrine, that tobacco was the sure breeder of nervous disorders and low spirits.  But it was difficult to get Seth going, and so dreadfully easy to stop him when he had started, that Saul had to nip his elbows into his sides to keep himself quiet.

    Seth pulled broodily at his cold pipe, sighed again, and then, shaking his head solemnly, he remarked, "Ther's summat cumin', lad!  Aw've bin feelin aw th' day one o' them—what does th' preicher caw em?—insentiments, tha knows."

    "Per sentiments, tha meeans."

    Seth shook his head in doleful assent, and then lapsed into lugubrious silence.  It was no use; Saul was boiling over with it, and it was impossible to struggle longer.  "Three aance o' thick twist a wik 'ud mak th' fowt pump melancholy."

    Another dismal shake of the head was the only response, and Saul realised that there was only one safe method with such a man in such a mood, and so he lapsed into silence.

    "Me insoide's as heavy as a cowd berm dumplin'."

    Saul waited patiently.

    "When Aw caanted th' folk at aar table they' wur just thirteen."

    Saul's lip began to curl, and he had to put a severe restraint upon himself.

    "When Aw wur fotchin' th' beeasts whoam, tew pynots [magpies] flew across th' loan."

    ("Oh, would he never come to the real point?")

    "Aw know'd haa it 'ud be when aar Martha bruk th' weather-glass wi' her rawlin' wark."

    Another pause, but Saul knew perfectly well this was not the end.

    "Aw felt that leetsome this mornin', Aw met ha' known summat desprit wur cumin'.  Hay dear!  Hay dear mi!"

    There was a pathetic quaver in Seth's voice which was very unusual—a sign that caused Saul's own spirits to sink, and all desire to talk went from him.  It appeared as though the milkman would never resume, but presently, in a voice steady at first, but gradually breaking until it became almost a wail, he stammered, "Aw could ston' it if ivvery caa we hed run dry, Aw could ston' it if aar Martha talked hersel' black i'th face; bud, Saul, owd lad, Saul! if owt cums to aar blessed S'ciety, it 'ud breik mi hert! "

    There was a long brooding silence, Saul dying with fierce anxiety for details, and Seth apparently too overcome to proceed.

    The schoolmaster choked down great lumps of sympathy, glanced again and again at Seth's pipe, and then—oh, tell it not to his fellow-anti-tobacconists—he put out his right arm, leaned over and groped into Seth's capacious side-pocket, pulled out and struck a match, and then patiently held it to his companion's pipe bowl, until clouds of smoke enveloped his head, and he had to relinquish his task in a fit of coughing.

    But this supreme sacrifice of principle to friendship had its reward, for the comforted milkman presently commenced a tale of hints and rumours and signs that sent the schoolmaster home to toss about in bed the whole night through, for the wooden-faced milkman was not the only man in the village to whom the Church of God was more than life itself.


 
CHAPTER XII.

THE RIDING OF THE STANG


SETH'S dismal forebodings notwithstanding, things went on in Slagden much as usual after the ever-memorable "Sarmons."  Milly's success was boasted of in all the valley mills where the Slagdenites found employment, and every opinion gathered from outsiders was canvassed to weariness in the gable-end Parliament.  In their present mood the villagers would have forgiven the Mangle House people all the past, and have made as much of them as they ever permitted themselves to make of any local person; but the Scholeses kept up the same distant indifference, and either were, or pretended to be, unconscious of the sensation which Milly's impromptu debut had made.  This, of course, could only be the perversity of pride, and when about the middle of the week it came out that Milly had declined an invitation to join the choir, the old feeling of resentment and suspicion began to creep back.

    Jesse Bentley, who had not been altogether pleased by the way in which his meddlesome sister had manipulated both him and Emma Cunliffe, and who was on the other hand somewhat flattered by the evident fondness of the pretty little creature for him, was in a very mixed state of mind, and had acted accordingly.  In the week between the Sunday when Emma was almost forced upon him and the great "Sarmons" day he had avoided the butcher's charming daughter, and made two attempts to obtain an interview with Milly; but the only result had been that he had done penance on both occasions at the mangle, and made another outrageous speculation in pomatum.  Milly was much the same, as far as he could observe, in her manner towards him, but as she seldom went abroad, and was always busiest when he was at liberty in the evenings, things remained between them as they were.  Jesse was trying to convince himself that she had only herself to blame for his defection, and that she and Providence were forcing him into the arms of the tempting Emma.

    The solo episode was as great an amazement to him as to the rest of the villagers, but his first emotion of wondering pride was chastened almost immediately by the remembrance that the hated oboist had played so conspicuous a part in the affair, and knew so much more about her than he did.  Both these emotions, however, were soon swallowed up in a great rush of remorse and sympathy.  To him, as he listened to her, she was a pleading, reproachful sermon; her shabby dress amid that assemblage of village fashion, her white face, her great hungry, weary eyes, moved his very soul, and there, with his watchful mother on one side, and his equally vigilant elder sister on the other, he dropped his elbows upon his knees and his head in his hands and groaned aloud.  Nothing should prevent him having it out with Milly that night; and so, making a convenience of politeness, he gave up his seat for the evening service to a guest, and joined the company in the chapel yard.  But Milly did not appear, and when he was sure that she was not inside, he handed his collection-money to a friend, and went away to spy in the Mangle House garden.  But in this also he was disappointed, and his only grain of comfort was that, though the oboist called after the service, he stayed but a very few minutes, and went away alone.  He watched the house and garden until dark, watched until he saw Milly letting down her bedroom window blind, and then went sadly home, to listen absentmindedly to motherly and sisterly scoldings about his absence.  Maria meanwhile had guessed something of his state of mind, and taking the rather disappointed Emma in hand, pretended to be keeping her out of Jesse's way.

    "Bless thi, wench, uz women hes to tak' cur of aarsel's.  Ther's nowt loike howdin' off a bit; if a woman nobbut lewks at 'em, they thinken hoo's efter 'em."

    "Bud, Maria, Aw'm nor efter noabry," protested the blushing Emma.

    "Of course tha artna, nor me noather; bud they aw thinken we aar: thee shew 'em, wench, as Aw dew;" and in spite of the fact that there were guests at Emma's house, she dragged the poor girl into the fold cottage, where, as she served supper, she whispered mysterious little communications to her visitors, which moved them to look scrutinisingly at Emma, and then back at herself with congratulatory smiles.

    Some days after the "Sarmons," the knowing ones of the village perceived, or imagined they perceived, a change in Milly Scholes; her skin, the only drawback to an otherwise perfect face, was growing clearer, she did not look quite so tired and anxious, and those who encountered her in wars of words reported her to be "in rare fettle wi' her tongue."  It was nothing very remarkable, however, and nobody would have thought much about it but for the fact that in the middle of the following week it was announced that she was going to sing at the opening of the new Co-operative Hall at Aldershaw on the following Saturday.  The information, first traced to the oboist, was confirmed on Friday, when the Aldershaw Chronicle was delivered in the village, for there sure enough was the name of Miss Amelia Scholes immediately under those of his worship the Mayor and the Hon Mrs. Penteland, wife of the sitting Member.  The last train from Aldershaw only came as far as Pye Green Junction, some three miles from Slagden, but half a dozen young folk from the village attended the ceremony, and next morning, Sunday though it was, the chapel yard buzzed with eloquent descriptions of Milly's success of the previous night, to which was added that the singer had appeared in a brand new dress of some pearl-coloured material, and a "posy as big as her yed."  This was news enough surely for one day, but when Saul and Seth strolled after afternoon school to the gable-end they received the story with a significant embellishment, to the effect that both dress and bouquet were the gift of the man with the oboe.  David Brooks was standing against the pear-tree trunk as the announcement was made, and seeing the effect it produced, he was unable to resist the temptation to cap it, and so he stepped up to Dan Stott, the conductor, and said, "Ay, Aw went o'er to Wiskit Hill yesterday, an' yur baancin' oboist's a marrit mon."

    Now Wiskit Hill, though only a little more than three miles from Slagden as the crow flies, was nearly five by road, and as the footpath across the moor was only available in the fine weather, there was little connection between the two places.  The moorland village was entirely agricultural, and belonged to another Methodist circuit.  When it wanted to communicate with the outer world it did not come towards the Aldershaw valley, but went in the opposite direction.  Remote and isolated under ordinary circumstances, there was little to bring it into connection with Slagden, and this had been one of the elements of surprise and speculation in the coming of the oboist; only his violent attachment to Milly seemed a sufficient explanation.  As a matter of fact Dan Stott had been to the Wiskit Hill "Sarmons," which were very early in the year, and having met the oboist there, got into conversation with him about musical instruments, the upshot being that Dan had "borrowed" the player.  He had come, as we know, and the rest was attributable to the notorious colloging ways of the mangle girl.

    But for his "carryings on" with Milly the chapel people might have regarded him as an acquisition, for even the most prejudiced could not but admit that his playing helped the music.  There was something about his manner, however, that irritated them, and the fact that Milly seemed to prefer him to village-born young fellows increased the prejudice against him.  As we have already seen, there were those who for their own private reasons were ready to believe the worst about him.  It will readily be imagined, therefore, with what open-eyed astonishment the bulk of those present at the gable-end received David's statement.  Saul stood back to survey the scandalmonger from head to foot; then he took a long severe glance around upon the company, and at last, facing his man with stern, wrathful countenance, he cried, "Theer! tha's getten it aat at last!  Goo wesh thi dirty maath aat, thaa tan-tatlin' blether-skite!"

    "Ay, an' wesh thi dirty little sowl tew," added Seth,—"if tha hes one."

    Opinion was clearly divided; but as those in sympathy with David were either young or of no particular account, and others dare not show their real thoughts in the presence of such stern rulers, the two elders carried the day, and David was glad to slink off down the fold, though with fires of rage burning within him.

    But this was too fine an opportunity to be lost: as he watched the retreating form, the pulpit afflatus descended upon the schoolmaster, and so, glancing round to claim general attention, he announced, "A felley as gets his noase put aat i' courtin owt be as fain as t' chap as missed his train when ther' wur a collision, an' a felley as conna tak' his luck loike a men, but goos yowlin' an' lyin' abaat him as licked him, owt to marry a widder an' be henpecked aw his days."  With which piece of crooked philosophy Saul cocked his nose into the air and stalked off home to tea, leaving the rest to discuss as they pleased this last and most unsavoury bit of gossip.  On the Tuesday following, the heavy rain of the morning having cleared the way for a soft fragrant evening, Billy Whiffle, Seth, and the schoolmaster had the gable-end to themselves, and sat placidly discussing recent events.  Billy seemed absent-minded and unaccountably nervous, and Seth was still in the doldrums, and sighed and shook his head again and again.  The village was unusually quiet for the hour, and the groaning and creaking of the mangle could be heard distinctly.  Except two or three women on their way to the Mangle House there was not a soul in sight, and when two youths emerged from the stable of the "Dog and Gun" and crossed the road slantwise towards the end of the lane leading down to Weaver's Yard, Billy shot apprehensive glances at his companions and burst into abrupt and rapid talk.  Then Jim Gratrix, Fat Sarah's son, hurried by with something under his coat, and he was followed by two boys looking very sly and sheepish, and bearing bundles suspiciously like old clothes.  Billy talked more rapidly and disconnectedly than ever.  Then three or four of what Saul would have called "th' scum" slunk out of the public-house and went down the road, and these too turned into Weaver's Yard Lane.  Saul had commenced a long rigmarole story about the way he had "dress't knots off" a brother local who had preached a particularly lame sermon: Billy had the air of a man who was listening to—something else.

    Some time passed; all seemed quiet and peaceful, and Saul was still droning away at his yarn, droning when Billy noticed a pole coming up the old road, though he was seated too low to be able to see the person who carried it.  Making a pretence of standing up to stretch himself, Billy saw that the person with the pole was Tommy Rodney, the clogger's apprentice, and he was accompanied by a shorter youth, wearing an old tin can for a hat.  Both these, when they came to the lane end, turned hastily down the yard.  A minute later a sound like that produced by a badly blown cow's horn broke the stillness, and Billy breathed a sigh of thankfulness when he observed that neither of his cronies noticed it.  The sound was repeated at intervals, each recurrence being a signal for Billy to give a little gasp and then endeavour to conceal it.  He now noticed children and grownup people hurrying down the ginnel into the chapel yard, from whence by a sort of back alley they could reach Weaver's Yard.  The locality in question was the lowest quarter of Slagden and the dwelling-place of the Slagden neer-do-weels, and Billy, putting this and that together, became exceedingly alarmed.  Then there was an intermittent clattering of clogs in the distance, and a medley of shouts and attempts at cheering.  Saul lifted his head with a look of inquiry, but contented himself with the observation that "Th' days is takkin' in."  The sounds grew louder and more frequent, and Billy was in a fever of anxiety.  A strange quiet fell all at once upon them, the rumbling of the mangle in the house behind had ceased for the night, and the distant sounds had apparently dropped.  Three women with clothes-baskets came round the corner and stopped for a moment to chat.

    Billy was straining his ears for other sounds.  As the baskets moved away Seth turned to remark upon the stillness of the evening, and Billy began an oddly confused speculation that the people were gone to the moors for whimberry.  A sudden burst of horns and clanking cans brought him hastily to his feet, and standing before the others so that they could not see straight before them, he suddenly remembered a litter of young pigs of special breed which he had, and began eagerly to press them to inspect the wonderful stock.  All unconscious of what was forward, and without considering how unusual an hour it was for the inspection of animals, Saul and his friend allowed themselves to be led off, and not a moment too soon; for as they disappeared down the chapel ginnel there came trooping out of the lane end, farther down the road, a shouting, rollicking little crowd, with tin cans, old frying-pans, and superannuated trays for drums, and cow's horns, triangles, and partially disabled fiddles for musical instruments.  In the midst of the rabble, mounted upon two poles, were two figures, male and female, and all the "wastrils" of the village followed after in mock procession.  Some were waving red cotton handkerchiefs on sticks, some were singing snatches of old comic songs, and others were trying to obtain possession of the extemporary musical instruments borne by companions.

    It detracted somewhat from the success of the demonstration that there were no houses on the road where they merged into the highway except Seth Pollit's little farm, and that stood back so far that it might as well not have been there.  As the shouting crowd, with its clanging drums and groaning horns, proceeded, however, women, big girls and boys, and even men came running from all points of the compass, whilst every loafer in the "Dog and Gun," together with the servants and grinning landlord, came out to see the fun.  Some of the spectators cheered, others began to cry shame, women darted in and out of the procession in vain endeavour to capture children and drive them home, and bigger children amused themselves by dodging into the way of the pursuers and so impeding them; but these in most cases were fallen upon fiercely, and quickly blended their voices with all the other discordances in loud protest against boxed ears and slapped shoulders.

    As they came forward some of the spectators began to clamour to each other for explanations, the noise increasing every moment, and the confusion becoming more and more unmanageable.  The horns blared, the cans clashed, and the figures on the poles swayed to and fro in imminent danger of upsetting altogether.  It was scarcely light enough to distinguish the figures, and the imitations had not been very artistically done, but as the procession came near the fold end certain peculiarities in the female's dress, and a rude imitation of a musical instrument in the man's hands, cleared away all doubt, and as the mob, now passing the fold, wheeled round in the road right opposite the Mangle House with a sudden deafening crescendo from the players, Milly Scholes, with startled wonder in her face, flung the door open to realise in one terrible glance that her neighbours were offering to her the last and lowest dishonour a Lancashire woman of those days could suffer, "The Riding of the Stang."


 
CHAPTER XIII.

JESSE TO THE RESCUE


ONLY once in her short life had Milly witnessed one of these old-fashioned and now happily obsolete demonstrations, but the sight had left an indelible impression on her mind, and she stood in the doorway for a moment paralysed with sudden overwhelming horror.  The easily recognised effigy of the oboist had revealed to her in a flash the sinister significance of what was taking place, and she felt every inch of her weary body tingle with the blush of burning shame.  For the moment her heart stood still, and she could have dropped where she was.  Then there came the rush of a great indignation, and she turned to face the jeering mob: there was the whiz of a missile, and a heavy thud! thud! on the door behind her, as clods and cabbage-stalks flew past her head and fell to the floor.  Quick as lightning she sprang back, flung open the door again, and darting out and closing it, drew in the shutter of the mangle-room window.  Then came a crash and a shiver of glass, a stone had gone into the herb shop, and with a heart-breaking cry she slammed the door, shot the bolts, and dashed into the other room to protect her father.  Outside was a perfect bedlam: the battery of clods was still pelting at the door, horns blowing, tins beating, and fiddles scraping, and the sounds from these all mixed with shouts, protests, scoldings, and coarse laughter, until a raucous voice roared out some instruction, a cracked bell began to ring, and Abe Smiley, an ale-house sot and a wife-beater, was raised on high and began to bellow for order.  The effigies were brought forward at his command, the middle of the road was cleared, and the uplifted ringleader, after ringing his wretched bell again, gave out, in whining imitation of a preacher, "Hymn seventy-twelve!"—


        "Ring a ding dong,
         Come list to my song,
 An' sattle me this if yo' con
         What to dew wi' a woman,
         A brazzen-face rum un,
 As is courtin' an owd marrit mon!"


    There was more of this wretched doggerel, but it was much too coarse to be inserted here.  As the orator read on he got confused by the bad light and the increasing tumult about him, and so gave a signal to the effigy-bearers.  There was a shout and a cheer, the carriers made a dash at the Mangle House with the evident purpose of knocking the panels of the door in with the end of their poles.  One terrible thunge had been given, and they had retreated for a second rush, when suddenly springing from no one knew where, came a little crooked figure, which in two agile bounds sprang before the door and shrieked out, with streaming hair and uplifted clenched fist, "Do, if yo' dar', yo' tipsy wastrils!  Th' fost as cums here 'ull get wot he'll ne'er forget, Aw'll tell yo'!"

    There was a pause, a sudden silence, a burst of curses, another signal, and the effigies, rocking and shaking until they were nearly upset, were rushed forward towards the door.  Tet flung her hands out with a scream of defiance, there was the cry of a man's voice from the gable-end, a sudden rush, a scurry of struggling youth, and just as the battering-ram with its shaking freight was coming down upon poor Tet, it was flung rudely aside, the carriers went sprawling into the dust, the crowd rolled back in panic, and Jesse Bentley stood on the doorstep, putting Tet behind him to screen her, and glaring defiance at the angry demonstrators.  Jesse was neither tall nor particularly strong, but there was a look of cool determination on his face which had its influence upon the crowd, and the surging, only half-serious mob drew back and stared.

    "Smoor him!" shouted a voice.

    "Knock him through th' dur!" cried a second.

    "Touch him if yo' dar'!" screamed Tet, shaking her fist from behind him.

    There was a push from the back of the crowd, the rear cheered, the drums beat a sharp ran-tan!  Jesse, with set teeth and flashing eyes, struck out right and left, and cleared a ring before him; the pole-bearers coming forward with their effigies, sprang back to avoid his fist, those behind pushed again, and in a second, figures, poles, and bearers came tumbling down upon the brave defender and nearly buried him.  With a wriggle and a tug, Jesse rose again above the limp and ruined dummies, set his foot upon them, and struck out right and left; whilst the crowd, making a mad rush, that would have trampled both him and his crippled companion under foot, were suddenly arrested by a pair of gesticulating, breathless figures, who, puffing and panting, sprang into the turmoil and cried, "Shame on yo'!  Shame o' yur faces" at the top of their voices.

    It was all over then; the authority of the two elders was beyond calculation greater than anything they could do, and half satisfied with their demonstration, and half intimidated with the gathering number of respectables, the rioters began sullenly to give way, and presently stood in little knots on the other side of the road, contenting themselves with beating on their drums and raising pandemonium with their discordant instruments.  Several of the more peaceable of the spectators were now gathered round Saul Swindells, who was pouring out unheard-of denunciations upon the breakers of the peace, and threatening direful vengeance if they did not at once disperse.  The demonstrators, at first inclined to abandon their enterprise, now began to fling back defiance at the objurgatory Saul, and preparations were already being made for a renewal of the attack, when a little dark figure darted across the open space towards a remote corner where some dim forms could be seen; there was a sharp cry, an amazed shout, an infuriated scream, and Tet was seen dragging David Brooks forward by the hair, and giving vicious little punctuatory lugs as she screamed out her opinions of him.

     Nothing is so whimsical as a crowd, and the first little gasps of alarm for the sufferer were soon lost in loud roars of laughter, whilst here and there somebody cried, "Go it, Tet!"  David, with his head down, was striking out wildly at the agile, scolding little woman, and a ring was formed round the struggling pair.  Saul, however, broke in upon them and rescued his strange foster-child, and the spectators began to threaten David what they would do if he hurt her.  Some of the onlookers were scandalised by the attack, and began to rebuke the excited Tet; but the rioters, delighted with the accuracy with which she had "spotted," and the pluck with which she had chastised the real but secret instigator of the Stang riding, cheered, and eventually thrust themselves between David and the little termagant when he would have turned upon her to strike her.  Then some one suggested the burning of the effigies, and a rush was made to recover possession of them; but as a fire could not be kindled in the highway, especially in the presence of so many supporters of law and order, the figures were carried off to an opening on the roadside, just opposite the milk farm, and a little above the lane end which led to Weaver's Yard.  The drawing off of the rabble with their blaring instruments left the others to themselves, several women and a man or two gathering round Tet, whilst Billy Whiffle and Seth were giving David a "piece of their minds"; for Tet's action had opened their eyes, and pointed out the real author of this disgraceful disturbance.

    Never since that dreadful Sunday in the time of the "Reform," when Seth and Saul, armed one with a flail and the other with a pikel, defended the old chapel from those who would have taken unlawful possession of it, had slumberous old Slagden been so excited as on this occasion; and when the younger folk, attracted by the fire, made for the lane end, the elders and the females left together about the Mangle House gathered in scandalised little knots, and poured into each other's ears various and conflicting versions of the incident and its causes.  Tet, still panting and haggard, experienced the most unusual sensation of being admired and flattered by her own sex—a change of treatment so extraordinary that it produced, as we shall see presently, remarkable effects upon the mind of the deformed girl; whilst David had now gathered round him another group more in sympathy than the last, and was pouring out his grievances in sulky, wrathful language.

    In the meantime Maria Bentley and the shy Emma were going from group to group in search of Jesse, who was not to be found anywhere.  The fact was, when the distraction caused by Tet's impetuous attack upon David occurred, Jesse had turned his attention to the inmates of the Mangle House, and by knocking, softly at first, but with increasing force when there was no response, and loud whispered calls through the keyhole, he had endeavoured to get into communication with Milly—but all his efforts were in vain.  Then he remembered the back door, and cautiously crept round.  Here for five minutes he stood rattling the sneck, tapping at the door, and whispering through the keyhole imploring little calls to Milly to open, or at least speak to him.  For any answer he got, the house might as well have been empty.

    Jesse grew anxious; he did not know the details of what had occurred, but he had trodden on pieces of glass near the front door, and he had been told that Milly was on the step when some of the spectators had arrived on the scene, and he was filled with all sorts of apprehensions as to what might have happened.  Like every other Slagdenite, he had always been very suspicious of the oboist, and had heard all the discreditable suggestions which had been made about the two.  That very night Maria had told his quiet sister, Rachel, in his hearing, and with the evident purpose of informing him rather than the other, that the Wiskit Hill man was married, and he had felt at the moment so sore at Milly's ill-treatment of him, and so anxious to justify himself to his own conscience for his recent flirtations with Emma, that he thought he believed the wretched stories.  But now, with Milly in disgrace and perhaps injured, he knew that he never had believed them, and that if even they had been true Milly was, and always henceforth would be, more than any other person on earth to him.

    "Milly!  M-i-l-l-y!" he called again, and then, jamming his ear to the keyhole, he held his breath and listened.  There was the distant shouting of the effigy-burners, a murmur of voices at the gable-end, but not a sound of any kind from within.  They couldn't be both injured.  Milly was just the person to decline to explain, and refuse meddlesome offers of sympathy; but the thought of how her silence would be interpreted in the village excited him, and, with a fretful, protesting sort of sigh, he stood back and gazed helplessly at the inexorable door.

    There was a soft rubbing sound, like the sliding of a window sash, and a voice, that thrilled him as he recognised it, called "Jesse!"

    He sprang eagerly at the window, but it was only an inch or two open, and when he tried to push it he felt that it was being firmly held.

    "Milly, is that thee?  Dunna be feart; they're gone.  Let me cum in."  As he spoke he gave another tug at the sash, but it did not move, and he could neither see nor feel the hand that held it."

    "Jesse!"

    "Ay, Aw'm here.  Let me in, wench.  Art hurt?"

    There was a pause and a little long-drawn sigh; she was evidently not many feet away from him, and he pulled again at the window.

    "Jesse, dust believe this—this—ere—?"

    "Believe—er—a— Aw dunna know—Neaw!"

    But before he could get his hesitating denial out, the window had been closed, and dark though it was, he saw the narrow little blind fall to the glass again.

    "Milly, dunna goo!  Aw dunna!  Aw dunna believe!"

    There was no response, and he was calling himself every opprobrious name he could think of.  Then he sprang at the window and shook and tugged at it, but the only answer he got was the soft screwing in of the cotter.  He put his face to the glass and pleaded, he threatened to burst in the window, he put his shoulder to the door and tried to force his way in, but all in vain; and as he dare not make too much noise, for fear of attracting the notice of the gable-end gossips, he at last retreated in self-accusing despair down the old garden, and, climbing the wall at the bottom, crept round as quietly as possible into the road, to wait and watch in secret for any opportunity of helping, or any sign that help was not required.

    Down the road the bonfire was dying down, and the rioters were already dispersing, but at the gable-end a group of villagers were still discussing the situation.  The active perpetrators of the outrage were ignored, they had acted after their kind; but David Brooks was universally condemned, and Tet, basking in the unusual sunshine of popularity, was regarded as the executor of the public vengeance.  About Milly, opinion was divided; and in this situation all the peculiarities of her character and conduct were sifted as evidence, confirmatory or otherwise, of the innuendo which was the immediate cause of the demonstration.  Seth and Saul, muttering together, painted in sympathetic colours the dishonour done to the "S'ciety," for such a thing as the riding of the Stang for a "joined member" had never been heard of before.  Billy Whiffle, a constitutional wobbler, wouldn't have believed it of Milly; and when Seth and Saul turned fiercely upon him, he made haste to add, "An' Aw con hardings believe it yet."

    Dan Stott, burdened with the responsibility of having introduced the oboist to Slagden, was anxious to find some one with whom to divide the unhappy distinction, and so he hinted that Milly had never been like any other wench, and the blacksmith added, "It's an owd sayin' an' a true un, wheer ther's smook ther's feire."

    "Reet or rung, they'n browt it on thersel's wi' they cluseniss; they'n lived i' that haase eight ye'r, an' noabry knows yet why they coom theer;" and Billy looked quite injured and defiant.

    "An' hur fayther's that respected up an' daan th' villige 'ull ne'er get o'er this," said Dan solemnly.

    "Wee'st be a disgrace to th' Circuit."

    "Th' pappers 'ull aw be full o' this."

    But Saul had listened as long as he could, "Yo' ninny hommers!  Yo' blethering numyeds!  Why, if Aw thowt—" But the hand which the schoolmaster had lifted to give due emphasis to what he was going to say stopped in mid air, and Saul, with the dawn of a vast amazement on his face, gaped at his companions in complete motionless bewilderment; for at that instant there came through the soft night air, in full, rich, but tremulous tones, evidently proceeding from the barred and bolted cottage behind them


"I'm a pilgrim and a stranger,
     Rough and thorny is the road,
 Often in the midst of danger,
     But it leads to God;
 Clouds and darkness oft oppress me,
     Great and many are my foes,
 Anxious cares and thoughts distress me,
     But my Father knows."


    They did not need to catch the words, the song was a favourite at the time; but there, in that still air, and after those turbulent scenes, it rose and fell, strange, thrilling, almost weird, like the song of some wandering spirit, and as man after man with amazed, struggling looks turned from the group to wipe away a tear, Saul, standing there with arm still uplifted and face struggling with every possible phase of strong emotion, cried at last, with shaking, choking voice, "Aw wodna believe it naa, if it wur proved to me; neaw if it wur proved a million times o'er."

    And, as he finished, another voice, that of Jesse Bentley, came from across the road in startling, passionate protest, "Neaw, nor me noather, Saul."


 
CHAPTER XIV.

ANOTHER WORM THAT TURNED


THE milkman's wife was a woman of much tribulation.  Tied to a hard-hearted, utterly heedless man, she recognised that she was appointed to be made perfect through suffering, and if the number and intensity of her trials counted for anything she must have attained already a very advanced state of Christian maturity.  Married people were supposed to reduce the burdens of life by dividing them, but, as she had remarked scores of times, she had never known an hour's peace since the fatal day when, with unsuspecting innocence, she gave her hand to the helpless but utterly hardened seller of milk.  Household cares were enough, surely, for any ordinary woman, but in her case they had been combined with all the worries and anxieties connected with the business.  Not a cow could be bought or sold, or a calf reared, or an unsatisfactory customer brought to book, unless she attended to it herself; her husband, instead of being an assistance, was the greatest burden of all.  His mind was as wooden as his face, and but for her constant, but thankless, watchfulness they would have been "i'th bastile" long ago.  She had commenced her married life like so many other poor innocent young girls, with the confidence that she could "mak' summat on him"; but when a man listens to wifely admonitions with a face "as simple as a hayp'oth o' traycle in a weshin' mug," and as "dateliss as a rubbin' pooast"; when the only response is a low-hummed, indistinguishable tune; when a man coolly pulls out his pipe when you are talking to him "as sayrious as a cowd chizil," and falls back inevitably on a squawking buzzer of a bassoon; what can even "the quietest wench as iver wur made" do, but regard herself as an ill-used, prematurely worn-out, matrimonial martyr?

    Their business was conducted on ancient and highly respectable principles: none of your custom-coddling carrying of milk round in a cart; the villagers were expected to come for their milk, and to be thankful they could get it then.  But even here Seth's contrary "fawseniss" came out, for there were certain customers, and these not large or important consumers either, but mere old women on the parish and such like, to whom he persisted in carrying the milk, and the worst of it was that, though endowed with very special financial gifts and a good memory, she never could reckon up these particular accounts, the explanations he gave being of such a confusing nature that she could make neither "end, side, nor middle of them."  As a self-respecting wife she had met for years in her husband's class, but after a time he fell into the singular habit of not replying to her very full and unctuous experiences, and one night, after she had been describing herself as "coming out of great tribulation" and "washing her robes," this cold-blooded husband had shown his utter lack of sympathy and total unfitness as a spiritual guide by remarking, after a series of mysterious grunts, "Ay, them roabes o' thine tak's a seet o' weshin'; they must ha' bin in a bonny pickle when tha started."  There was nothing for it after this but to transfer herself to Saul's class, but here she soon discovered that she had got "out of the frying-pan into the fire," and so had lapsed into a mere "payin'" member.  Even these heavy troubles might have been endured, only the poor, suffering, persecuted soul got no sympathy.  The giddy, short-sighted world, as represented by the villagers, thought there was nobody like Seth Pollit; every old woman brought her troubles to him, and every man in perplexity consulted him, whilst she, the patient, suffering wife, was treated as a person of no account at all!

    But the worm will turn, and when nothing she could say or do induced him to take sides against Milly Scholes, she concluded that he was as much "bewitched" by the mangle girl as the most susceptible young fellow in the neighbourhood.  The time for sterner measures had come.  She had watched the riding of the stang from the middle of the farmyard with a certain grim satisfaction, but when the demonstrators came and set fire to the effigies nearly opposite the farm gate, near enough, at any rate, for sparks to blow upon the new and as yet unthatched haystack, and there was no Seth at hand to take the proper precautions, she felt that patience would be criminal to herself, and resolved gloomily to let him see "wot sooart of a markit he's browt his pigs tew."  She had seated herself two or three times and tried to knit, but the activity of her mind communicated itself to her body, and she remembered first one little job and then another that required her attention; to say nothing of the nervous little excursions she had to make every five minutes or so to see that nothing was happening to the stack.  It was getting late, but there were no signs of Seth, and her indignation rose moment by moment.

    She nearly fell over Bob the sheepdog, and gave him a spiteful kick; he was so much like his master in his stolid, immovable ways.  She raked the fire, scrutinised the clock again, stood still every now and again to listen for a slow shuffling footstep that never came, and finally demanded from the dog what he thought about "yond rumgumpious mestur o' thoine."  But Bob was as "dateliss" as his master.  Half-past ten, a quarter to eleven: the voices in the distant road had died down, and the fire was smouldering out.  The clock gave a struggling, spasmodic warning, as though afraid to hint at the actual time, whilst the dog got up and whined to be let out—he, too, preferred leaving her.  Her mind was made up at last; there should be no more "shilly-shally wark"; the heedless Seth should find out that even the poor despised worm of a wife could turn.  She got up and bolted the door, drew the cotters of the window and fastened them, lighted a candle, and with her sharp features set into sorrowful but relentless purpose, mounted the creaking stairs to bed.

    For a person so absolutely decided she acted somewhat oddly when she reached her room, pausing every moment to listen for a click of the yard gate.  The room was flooded with silver moonlight, and as this softened somewhat the eerie feeling which night always brings with it, she became firmer every moment, and began to prepare in earnest for rest.  The clock below, after many preliminary buzzings, struck reluctantly out eleven slow strokes, as though quite aware what a reflection its announcement was upon the master of the house.  She blew out the useless candle, stood once more to listen, deliberately drew on her spotless nightcap, and got into bed.  Not a sound could she hear but the ticking of the clock below, and there was soon nothing of her visible but the point of her long thin nose.  Soft self-pity began to steal over her; she was a neglected, overburdened sufferer, for whom nobody cared, and a little tear struggled out of the corner of her eye.

    A quiet, dreamy feeling crept over her, and—it must have been the heavy griefs that crushed her—she was dozing, when suddenly she sat bolt upright and listened.  Yes, it was the gate at last; and the shuffling feet she had heard so often.  He came as though it had been the middle of the afternoon.  She held her breath, something as near to a smile as she ever permitted passed over her face, she took her sharp elbows in opposite palms and hugged them.  Seth was now to find out that there was an end even to her downtrodden meekness.  He was on the back-door step, was trying the latch; Martha hugged herself in grim, sardonic triumph.  There was a pause, a step or two on the flags, a thud! thud! on the window; he was knocking at the panes with the clothes-prop.  She could have laughed out; this was better even than she had expected.  The knocking ceased, the steps receded, there was the sound of a voice and the rattle of a chain; he was fastening the dog up.  Then he tried the door again—ah! drat the wretch, he was actually humming "What must it be to be there?"  Another experiment with the prop, and if he only had not hummed that tune she might have relented.  The prop failing, he tried coughing—loud challenging coughs, only there were queer quavers in them as though he were laughing.  Another pause, and then a long peculiar whistle with three odd and significant crotchets in the middle of it.

    Martha's face softened; an old farmyard, and certain sly corners therein, came floating back to her mind—the home where she was born and from which she had been married.  She saw again a wall-faced but delightfully impudent and persistent young lover.  It was the old courting call that she had not heard for many a long year, and she listened as to enchanting melody.  For that sweet sound she forgot everything, forgot even that Seth was on the wrong side of the door.  Oh, to hear it just once more! but there was nothing now but the sound of retreating footsteps.  Why, he was going! locked out of his own house!  Startled and amazed, she nipped her elbows to her sides and strained her ears. Dead silence.  He had gone; he had left her; she had gone too far with her naggling ways at last.  "Seth! Seth!" she cried, and was just springing out of bed when the still air trembled with a distant quavering "Zoo—zoo—zoo—zoo!"  In an instant she had shot her feet to the bottom of the bed, lugged the bedclothes over her head, leaving a scornful nose pointed towards the bed-hangings to show the disgust and wrath she felt.  She never had intended to keep him out, only to frighten him; but now—she listened again, and heard nothing but the buzz of that crazy instrument.  That bassoon should be burnt if she lived until morning!  Then she realised that he would probably blow that wretched thing all night, for he forgot time, and wife, and everything else, when once he got the mouth of that plaguy instrument between his lips.  No, that she wouldn't! she would stay where she was, if he played until doomsday!

    The music was still groaning away; yes, she would get up for decency's sake, she would let him in; but, when he did come inside, she would give him—but the music had ceased, and she sat up to listen.  She heard Seth's footsteps in the yard, and at the same instant the outer gate clicked and there was a sound of light clogs.  The clogs were not his: who was coming at this hour?  A voice, a woman's voice!  Lawk a massy! and Martha could not have moved to save her life.  There was talk, low murmuring talk, of people who were trying to avoid being heard.  Martha's heart stood still, and then began to bump up into her very ears.  The female was protesting, Seth was reassuring and comforting.  Heavens! was she to stand this?  They began to move away; footsteps could be heard going down the yard.  She jumped to the floor.  Oh for a window on that side of the house!  She darted here and there for wrappings, sprang down the stairs, fumbled and lost precious seconds with the fastenings, darted down the yard past the shippon, and looked.  Not a sign, not a creature, male or female, could she see.

    "Seth! Seth she cried; but there was no answer.  She started forward to the gate, but her knees shook under her and she was compelled to stop, whilst remorse and severest self-condemnation swept over her spirit.  The pettish, spoilt-childishness in her was all gone now, and she welcomed the blessed little suggestion that somebody had fetched her husband to a sick horse or cow with almost desperate gratitude.  Yes! that explained everything; Seth had known that he was likely to be called up as local emergency farrier, and that was why he had not hurried home.  Her grievances were gone, all her injuries forgotten as though they had never been; he would be returning soon and need refreshment, and so, activity being so sweet an escape from terrible fear, she was soon blowing up the fire and fussing about the house, that he might have hot coffee and oatcake on his return.  If only it had been a man that had fetched her husband; for a woman to do it was not usual, but still there were precedents for it, and she hugged them to her sore, self-angry heart.

    The coffee was ready, the oatcake on the table, and as she knelt toasting at the fire the old whistle came back to her, and a great penitent tear splashed unheeded upon the bright fender.  The cheese ready, she sat down and began to speculate who it was likely to have been who had fetched Seth.  The slow minutes dragged along, half-hour after half-hour passed away, the first streaks of dawn began to show themselves, and in spite of herself she was dozing over the fire, when she started up at the sound of distant wheels.  But the conveyance did not turn in at the yard; it passed, it was going farther, and she ran to the door and held it open as she listened.  The trap had stopped; she snatched up an old horse-rug, skipped lightly down the yard and up towards the gate.  One moment she stood gaping through the dusky light, and then prejudice, jealousy, anger, all came rushing back in a torrent, as she caught sight of her husband leaving a conveyance and entering that dishonoured Mangle House.

    There were half a dozen simple, natural explanations of this procedure which in another mood would have occurred to her, but she had ceased to be able to think candidly where Milly Scholes was concerned, and that Seth should be giving sympathy and assistance to the girl upon whom the village had so recently passed emphatic sentence was intolerable to her.  It was all Milly; not content with robbing other girls of their sweethearts, frustrating pretty little family matrimonial arrangements, and setting the village youths by the ears, she must needs come between her and her husband.  She would never have thought of locking him out, he would have been in bed by her side, and she would have heard all about the reasons for this midnight summons but for that "powsement."  For half an hour she paced about the kitchen, conjuring up all sorts of grievances, and enlarging them; all the more so perhaps, that at bottom she knew there was nothing seriously wrong.  Presently she heard the gate again; Seth was coming home.  She moved toward the door, hesitated, her hand on the latch; but he did not come.  He turned in at the shippon, and she heard him talking to the cows.  She would go to bed!—no, she would catch him red-handed; he would have some fine tale concocted if she waited until morning.  And so, quietly turning the key and stealing out, she came upon that wooden, imperturbable man, the raised lid of the bin in one hand and the hateful bassoon in the other.  The lid fell with a bang, the instrument slid to the floor, and he looked round with a guilty start.  Grim and stern, she stretched out a hand and demanded, "Gi' me that stable keigh."

    "Hay, wench, wotiver art doin' up at this—Drat my sawft yed, Aw ne'er towd thi, did Aw?"

    "Gi'—me—that—keigh!"

    "Aw ne'er thowt at it, Aw wur that flummaxed.  Go i'th haase, wench; heigh thi!"

    "Aw've bin i' this haase fur th' last toime; Aw'm goin' whoam."

    "Oh ay!  Aw'm sorry Aw've browt thi aat o' thi warm bed (no mention of the locking out).  Go back to bed, an' Aw'll bring thi a sooap a tay."

    "Tha con tak' thi sups a tay to brazzened-faced wenches: if tha doesn't gi' me that keigh, Aw'll start an' walk it."

    To her secret but utter amazement, he fumbled in his side-pocket, and handed the key across the door.

    She let it drop to the ground, and stood there staring at him with stony visage and sudden fainting mind.  She had threatened to return to her father's about once a quarter for eighteen years, but he had never taken her at her word before.  With arms folded and face set, she surveyed him, unconscious of the fact that it was impossible to look dignified in her present habiliments.  Seth realised it, however, and as he glanced slyly down towards the bassoon his mouth began to draw to one side in that grotesque facial contortion which passed with him for a smile.

    At last he raised his head, and said, "Th' trap 'ull want weshin'; go i'th haase an' get summat ta eight, w'oll Aw swill it a bit."

    Stiff, stony, and contemptuous, she eyed him over, and then said, in slow, weighty tones, "Seth Pollit, tha's a hert like a weather millstone."  She probably meant "nether," but her Scripture quotations were generally more faithful to sound than sense.

    Blank, wooden, and expressionless was the face he turned up to her, his mouth began to contract sideways again, his eyes gleamed with sly fun, and in a soft, soothing voice he replied, "Ne'er moind, wench; my yed's sawft enuff."

    There could be no answer to a remark like this; it was one of her own most frequent statements.  But the situation was fast becoming ridiculous, and so, to save her dignity and bring him back to seriousness, she drew herself up again, and demanded, "Art goin t' tell me wot this disgraceful aw-neet-wark meeans?"

    He eyed her again slyly, gave his mouth one more crooked twist, and then, in tones of sudden but fervent admiration, he cried, "Hay, wench, tha art a ripper i' them rags; tha lewks as prewd as a dog wi' a tin tail."

    "Seth, tha'd mak' gam o'th Almighty Hissel'.  Wheer'st bin aw neet?"

    "Aw've bin ta Noyt'n, fotchin' th' doctor."

    "Whoa fur?"

    "Owd Nat Scholes; he's had a stroak."

    There was a long painful silence; she glanced uneasily up and down the yard, with a long-drawn, contrite sigh.  Not yet entirely conquered, however, she asked, "Is he bad?"

    "Th' doctor shakes his yed, an' Milly's cryin' her een aat."

    She stood a long time musing; she looked hard at Seth, harder at the cows, hardest of all at vacancy, and at last, with subdued voice and strange choky strugglings, she cried, with delightful womanly inconsistency, "That cums o' that scand'lous stang riding; they owt be locked up, the herd-herted wastrils!  Cum i'th haase an' ha' sum brekfus;" and she turned round and sedately led the way.

    Seth glanced around the shippon, bestowed a long expressive wink upon the bassoon, chuckled under his breath, and followed her indoors.


 
CHAPTER XV.

PRELIMINARY SKIRMISHES


NOTHING ever disturbed the slumberous quiet of Slagden during the early parts of the day, but the stang riding and its sequel came as near to doing so as anything ever did.  Generally you might pass along the high road in the fore or afternoon without seeing a soul or hearing anything but the occasional clang! clang! of Peter Jump's hammer.  The men and young women were at work in the valley mills and did not come home to dinner.  "Schooltime" gave a little temporary appearance of life, but beyond that there was little to disturb the sleepy calm.  The stang riding, however, made a difference; women stood at cottage doors with arms folded in "brats," and exchanged views on the situation, and all the morning there was a little knot of men lounging about the smithy.  Maria Bentley and Tizzy Brooks, who, as sisters of the rivals, had been for some time at daggers drawn, became sudden and violent friends, and the pretty Emma Cunliffe spent all the forenoon at Jesse's house; whilst that inveterate stay-at-home, Martha Pollit, made two separate visits to the same cottage, joining as loudly as any one in denunciations of Milly, but running off into noisy but very vague declarations of what the Mangle House girl "desarved," when she was invited to co-operate in definite measures of persecution.

    By noon feminine opinion in the village had got itself crystallised: old Nat's spotless character, his wonderful skill with "yarbs," and, above all, his extraordinary sermons, were canvassed, and admiration and sympathy were lavished upon him; whilst the blame of all that had occurred, Nat's illness included, was laid upon Milly's shoulders, and she was finally condemned as "ta bad to brun."  The few men, too, who were left in the village at this part of the day seemed as much disturbed as the women: Peter the blacksmith did practically nothing in the way of work, Seth called twice at the schoolhouse—a most extraordinary proceeding—and Saul returned his visits during dinner-hour.  All afternoon, Martha, the milkman's wife, was tormented with that interminable "Zoo—zoo—zoo" of the bassoon.  Never since they lost all their cows in the rinderpest had she known her husband resort to the comforting instrument so early in the day.  She could not get a word out of him during "baggin'"; he seemed in a "ter'ble hurry" over his milking, and by five o'clock he was sitting and smoking at the gable-end in evident impatience for the councillors to arrive.  Peter and Saul joined him almost immediately, and the state of the latter's mind may be inferred from the fact that though he sat between the others and they were both smoking thick twist at a furious rate he did not make a single remark about tobacco, and did not even cough.

    "Whoa's cumin' naa?" asked Peter, staring lazily down the road, and anxious for something to set them talking.

    His companions followed his eyes in abstracted indifference, and Saul drawled out, "It lewks loike a scotchman [travelling draper]."

    "Ger aat, mon! them jockeys doesna cum abaat as lat' as this: the'r' feert o'th husban's catchin' em," replied Peter, still watching the approaching stranger.

    "Wheer's his pack?" asked Seth conclusively.

    The new-comer still lounged along, glancing inquiringly up the lane that led to Weaver's fold and through the milkhouse gate as he passed.  "It's happen wun o' them—them—tha knows—naturologists or summat—goin' on th' moor fur yarbs."

    "Naturalists, tha meeans.  Naa, he's no' gawmliss-lewkin' enuff fur them; an' wheer's his blew specs?"

    But the stranger was too near for candid criticism, and, as he seemed disposed to approach, each man became a stony sphinx, and stared before him at the pear tree in profound abstraction.

    "Good afternoon!  Could you tell me where Mr. Pawkinson lives?"

    "Parkyson?  Parkyson?" and the three looked inquiringly at each other; and at length Peter, with sudden inspiration, replied, "Yo'n cum ta fur, mestur; Jeff Parkyson lives this end o' Noyt'n; he keeps a tradin'-hoile fur pidgins."

    "It is a Mr. William Pawkyson I want."

    Peter looked at Saul, and Saul at Peter; they both turned inquiringly to the laconic milkman, and all three shook their heads.

    "He's a Methodist official of some sort."

    Another inquiring exchange of looks, another solemn and most decided shaking of heads, and then, as a gleam of recollection shot into Seth's eyes, he opened his mouth to speak, checked himself, and then, assuming his most impenetrably wooden look, he asked suspiciously, "Wot dun yo' want him fur?"

    "There's a Rutchart Parkyson at Billy Haases," interposed Saul; but Seth stopped him by a dig in the ribs and cried, "Shur up wi' thi! he meeans Billy Whiffle;" and then, turning to the stranger, he went on, "He's at his wark; he'll no' be whoam fur abaat an heaur."

    Now whenever Seth departed from his usual taciturnity and claimed a leading part in the conversation, it was an indubitable sign that there was something forward, and so the two smokers retired into mere spectatorship, leaning back and adjusting their pipes in their mouths in anticipation of something interesting.

    "Mr. Pawkinson is the chief official amongst the Methodists here, I understand?" said the stranger, looking calculatingly from one to the other of the cronies, and evidently speculating whether it might be safe to open his business to them.

    "Ay, he's wun on 'em, an' ther's tew mooar here;" and Seth vaguely indicated his companions, who sat staring before them in stern efforts after a modesty of becoming seriousness.

    "Oh, indeed!  Well, a—a—" and the visitor drew out a pocket-book and took a step or two nearer as he spoke.  "You've had an extraordinary occurrence here, I understand?"

    He addressed himself to Saul and the blacksmith, but they knew better than reply, and Seth, dropping into a sad, regretful tone, made answer, "We han that; it's a ter'ble job for us.  He wur a grand owd saint."

    "He?—er—I—I thought it was a young woman!"

    Dull, vague surprise was all Seth showed; another long shake of the head, and then a groaning repetition, "A grand owd saint!" punctuated by sympathetic groans from his supporters.

    "But it was a young woman, wasn't it?  They don't do that sort of thing to old men."

    "Yung felley," and the milkman's voice expressed profoundest commiseration, "yo're a stranger abaat here."

    "I'm a representative of the press—the Aldershaw Chronicle, you know—and I understood you had some sort of a—er—a—riot about here?"

    Peter's foot, tucked far under the bench, gave Seth's clog a sharp kick, and a similar signal came from the other side of him.  Neither, however, were noticed by the reporter.

    Seth's face was as blank as a paving-stone, and so Saul leaned over and explained, "He says he's a newspaper felley."

    "Oh ay!  Well, Aw'm fain to see yo'.  Ay, this is summat fur th' papper sureli.  See as yo' put it in gradely.  They think summat o'th owd chap, Aw con tell yo', daan i'th Aldershaw valley."

    "Yes, yes!  But what about the other matter—the disturbance, you know?" and the pressman began to get out his notebook.

    "Disturbance?" and Seth stared blankly first at the stranger and then at his companions, and the latter, understanding perfectly what was required of them, put on looks of mingled amazement and indignation.  Seth was still studying dazedly the end of the reporter's pencil, but at last, after a prodigious effort of memory, he turned to his friends, and in tones of profoundest pity for the reporter's gullibility he remarked, "He meeans that bit of a marlock th' lads hed las' neet."

    Saul and Peter apparently could not recall the circumstance, but when at length they succeeded, they burst into amused, protesting laughs, as though to say that nobody could convince them that the stranger had come all the way from Aldershaw after a trifle of that kind.

    But the reporter was a little piqued and suspicious, and wanted to show them that he was not quite so green as they supposed, but already knew too much to be hoodwinked.  And so he asked, "She's some sort of a singer, isn't she?"

    "Singer?  His dowter?  Hoo is that! ther's nowt loike her i' this countryside.  Poor wench! hoo's ter'ble ill off abaat it—an' so are we;" and Seth's solemn, anxious manner would have impressed the most callous.  The pressman decided to give them rope; he could at any rate let them talk, and quietly bring them round to the topic he was interested in; and so for the next ten minutes Nat Scholes was receiving such a character as Slagden had never before given to one of its own.  His wonderful preaching, his unique skill with "yarbs," and his high personal worth were so impressed upon the astute stenographer that he became interested in spite of himself.  Pursuing his plan of leading them on, he asked presently—

    "What is the nature of his accident?"

    "Accident?  Ger aat wi' yo'!  He's hed a fit."

    "A fit?" and the man of letters was writing rapidly.

    "Ay, a parylistic fit—see as tha spells it gradely."

    The stranger smiled, but advanced his next question with careful skill.

    "Brought on by this excitement, I suppose?"

    Seth apparently did not hear; he was revolving some important matter in his mind, and presently, after turning his pipe about in his mouth, he took it out, and with a face as innocent and inquiring as it was possible to make so expressionless a visage, he asked humbly, "They tell me as this 'ere parylism's browt on wi' th' brain brastin', when th' knowlidge-box gets to full.  Yo'n ne'er hed nowt o'th soort, Aw reacon?"

    The reporter glared hard at his questioner, but it was impossible to get angry with that humble, lamb-like face, and so he swallowed his chagrin and tried again.  It was of no use, however; the more he fenced the farther he seemed to get away from the point upon which he was so anxious to obtain information.  He half closed his book, glanced around for any more likely informers, and was just turning away, when Peter drawled out, "If they starten a puttin' childer-wark loike that i'th papper, Aw know wun felley as 'ull give o'er takkin' it in;" and Saul, who was bursting for an innings, interjected, "Put that soort a babby-tales i'th news, an' that papper's busted."

    The pertinacious newsman was not by any means convinced, but as the workpeople were now beginning to pass on their return from the mills and stared curiously at him, he put his book into his breast-pocket and turned disappointedly away.  Billy Whiffle was amongst the starers, but the two cronies gave no more sign that they knew him than if he had not been there.  The conspirators watched the departing stranger with unmoved faces, and he certainly gave them reason enough—for he seemed in two minds whether to try some more likely source of information; and when he noticed, in passing, the charred remains of last night's fire he stood for a full minute wavering at the entrance to Weaver's Yard, but finally, admonished by a glance at his watch, he proceeded down the road.

    That night all Slagden knew that a newspaper man had been to the village to inquire about the stang riding, and therefore when, late on Friday evening, the Aldershaw Chronicle came into the village, it was eagerly snatched at and carefully scrutinised.  Alas for petty scandal-mongering!  There was a long account of a "serious illness of a popular lay preacher," together with highly eulogistic notes about his character and preaching fame, but the only reference to Milly was a sentence at the end, to the effect that "Mr. Scholes, thanks to the assiduous attention of his devoted daughter—the young lady whose singing made such a sensation at the recent opening of the Aldershaw Co-operative Hall—was now out of immediate danger."

    This disappointment, perplexing though it was, lost most of its edge in the presence of a much more exciting piece of information, namely, that the oboist had been over to the village and "welly shakken th' life aat o' Davit Brooks," and that David had gone to a lawyer with the intention of taking out a summons for assault against his assailant.

    The night but one after the stang riding was the week-night service.  The youngest of the three ministers was appointed, but just before five o'clock Maria Bentley came breathlessly to her friend, Martha Pollit, with the information that the "Shuper" had arrived and gone down to Hullet Fold to have tea with the Brookses; and as Seth came in at that moment for the milk-measures he heard the announcement.  Information of this spicy nature was lost upon him, and Martha got no satisfaction out of purveying it.  But Seth spent a full half-hour after he had served the milk with his bassoon, and, to judge by the doleful, lugubrious notes produced, either player or instrument must have been in a very bad way.

    The Rev. Henry Harmsworth had the reputation of being a martinet, and, though he was now only finishing his first year in the Circuit, he had already acquired an uncomfortable notoriety for strict enforcement of rule.  He had corrected several abuses too long tolerated by easy-going predecessors, and rescued more than one "trust" from legal embarrassment.  The Circuit, therefore, was divided about him, for whilst some rejoiced in the improvements he had made, others were inclined to decry him as a meddler.  About one thing, however, the Circuit had been unanimous; for whenever he had mentioned little Slagden there had been a sort of indulgent grin, and he had been earnestly advised to "let sleeping dogs lie."

    On their part, our Slagden friends had so far treated him with studious respect, and even when on the previous Christmas he had broken through an old institution and insisted on Seth, the seventeen-year-old steward, coming out of office, they had not shown any particular resentment.  They had, however, as Saul phrased it, "tan th' length of his foot," and adopted the attitude of armed neutrality.

    There was always a good attendance at the week-evening service, but on this occasion there were more present than usual, and when his reverence, glancing significantly around at the goodly array of officials present, announced that there would be a leaders' meeting at the close, he expected that there would be a full complement.

    Billy Whiffle followed him into the vestry, rubbing his hands in evident satisfaction with the sermon just delivered.

    "Excellent congregation, Mr. Steward; we should have a full meeting."

    Billy, who was evidently not so confident, rubbed his hands together again, smiled apologetically, and ventured, "It's a busy part o'th ye'r, mestur, harvistin' an' sick loike."

    "Yes, but they are here, and they cannot do any work at this hour."

    Billy listened carefully, smiled again, and then, with a long, clinging, hand-washing operation, he remarked, studiously avoiding his superior's eye, "Ne'er heed; yo'll be here ageean in a fortnit."

    "But the business is important; it cannot wait.  You—you have no reason to think they will not come?"

    "Neaw! neaw!" cried Billy hastily; "they met cum, yo' know, they met."

    "Might?  Why not?  You seem doubtful.  Why shouldn't they come?"

    "Ay, sartinly, whey not? they'n happen furgetten."

    Billy's helpless, propitiatory manner excited the minister's suspicion.

    "Forgotten?  Rubbish!  You don't mean to say—" but as he spoke he flung open the door into the chapel, and his jaw dropped.  The building was empty; there was not a soul to be seen.  He strode to the side door and looked out.  No, there was nobody coming round that way!

    "Mr. Whiffle,"—even the Super did not know Billy's real name,—"what is the meaning of it?"

    Billy, the picture of flurried guiltiness, wrung his hands, glanced round the room in anxious search for some answer, and suddenly, as his face lighted up with the flash of a blessed inspiration, he cried, "It's th' sarmon!  It's nowt else!  That sarmon's knocked th' meetin' clean aat o' ther yeds!"

    The Super glanced Billy over with strong suspicion; but the dawn of a smile stole into the corners of his mouth in spite of himself, as he looked into the other's convinced, emphatic face.

    "Will Brother Pollit have gone home, think you?"

    "Ay—if he hasna stopped at th' gable-end."

    The Super knew enough about the gable-end to dislike it, and so, without even saying Goodnight, he stalked off, intent upon unearthing the disloyal officials.

    As he passed the pear tree he held down his head, but glanced up from under his frowning brows, and so discovered that the truants were not there.

    The front door of the milkhouse faced the road, though at some little distance from it.  It was approached through a wicket gate from the fold, and was only used by strangers.  When the minister knocked at it, Martha herself answered the summons, and knew her visitor at once.  She had, however, a grudge, or, to speak correctly, several grudges against the Super.  He had put her husband out of office after he had held it all those years, he had never as yet called upon her, and always went to the Brookses' for his meals.  Here, then, was her opportunity.  In reply to his inquiry after Seth, she eyed him over critically and very deliberately, and then, in her most distant tones, informed him, "He's nor in: dun yo' want a bolus?"

    "Er—a—no; I wanted to speak to him."

    "Well, he's nor in; he's aat sumwheer.  Is it owt pertic'lar?"

    She kept him standing at the door, and gave not the slightest sign of recognition, in spite of his professional garb.

    "You don't appear to know me, Mrs. Pollit."

    "Know ya?  Neaw,—yo're no' th' insurance felley, are you?"

    "My name is Harmsworth, ma'am."

    "Harmswo'th?  Harmswo'th?  Oh, yo'll be th' Noyt'n hoss doctor, happen?"

    "I'm the Wesleyan minister, ma'am,"—this in his stiffest manner.

    "Hay, goodniss!  Cum in!  Wot am Aw thinkin' abaat?  Bud Aw us't t' know aw th' ministers afoor yo' coom.  Yo'n ne'er bin here afoor, hau yo'?"

    The minister swallowed the reproof as best he could, and replied, "Thank you, I'll not come in.  Where could I find your good husband?"

    "Hay! to think as Aw didna know yo', an' yo'n bin here twelve munths!  Cum in, an' Aw'll goo seek him."

    But at this moment Peter Jump was seen going round the shippon end, and so, with a shrewd suspicion that if he followed he might find his quarry, the minister hurried away through the little side gate, and presently stood at the shippon door.

    He was not disappointed.  The blacksmith was just squatting down upon a milk stool, with Seth on one side and Dan Stott on the other, whilst Saul stood in the middle of the floor with a good-sized volume open in his hand.

    "Gentlemen, what is the meaning of this?  I called a leaders' meeting."

    Saul, who was speaking, had not heard the Super's approach, and so he turned with a little start, and beheld his ecclesiastical superior leaning over the half-door.  For the moment he was embarrassed, but recovering quickly, and accepting the gage of battle, he spread open the book upon his palm, placed a long finger on one of the paragraphs, and with thick-knitted brows and argumentative inclination of the head he demanded, "Wot Aw want ta know, Mester Shuper, is this: Is this 'ere constitutional?"

    The minister prided himself on his knowledge of and attachment to the law, and so he drew himself up and asked, with no little stiffness, "What do you mean, sir?"

    "Is that 'ere according to Cocker, leastways Grindrod?" and Saul glanced proudly round upon his companions to invite them to observe how he would "floor" the cleric.

    "I'm the best judge of what is legal, Brother Swindells; but what are you referring to?"

    "Aw'm talkin' abaat Grindrod's Cumpendium; theer it is, lock, stock, an' barril.  Naa wheer arr yo'?" and the schoolmaster turned from the minister to his colleagues with a glance of conscious triumph.

    (Grindrod's Compendium was in those days the standard authority on Methodist law and procedure.)

    "What has Grindrod to do with your absence from the leaders' meeting?"

    "Dew?  Wur that theer meetin' gin aat o' Sunday, or wor it not?"

    "How could it be?  The circumstances had not arisen."

    "Well, then, wheer's yor law? wheer's yor legalism? wheer's yor constitutionality? that's wot Aw want ta know?" and the last great word so inflated Saul that he took a step towards the minister that was almost menacing.

    The minister drew himself up again, and as he glanced at the wooden faces of Saul's supporters it struck him that this extraordinary zeal for law was simply obstruction.  Most villagers loved gossip and scandal.  What was there behind this inconsistent action?

    "Well, brethren, I think you might have trusted your Superintendent.  I will call a legal meeting for next week.  Good evening!"

    The four conspirators listened to his retreating footsteps until they died away, and then Peter and Dan turned to each other with broad though somewhat sheepish grins.  Saul, blown up with the consciousness of a wonderful victory, glanced round upon them and cried, "Theer! ther's wun mon goan whoam wi' his tail between his legs."

    Peter looked at Dan and Dan at Peter, and then they both stole apprehensive glances at the stolid Seth.  That worthy had apparently nothing to say, but pulled moodily at his pipe.

    Just as Dan was wondering what the next move would be, Seth turned his eyes up to the still inflated Saul, and surveying him deliberately from head to foot, he remarked, in tones of crushing reproof, "Afoor Aw'd talked to mi betters as tha's talked to yond mon, Aw'd cut mi impident tungue aat."


 
CHAPTER XVI.

MILLY AND TET


AND whilst Slagden was excited from end to end, as it had seldom been in its modest history, Milly was passing through the most painful possible experiences.  She had thought some fortnight ago that her cup of trouble was full to the brim—that any change must of necessity be for the better; and lo! there had come upon her an overwhelming succession of disasters, by the side of which her former trials seemed as nothing.  But the result was not collapse, as she would have prophesied, but astounded bewilderment.  Saturated with the simple faith of Slagden Methodism, the relentless vindictiveness of Providence amazed her; the interpretation put upon her intercourse with the oboist amazed her more: but the most astonishing marvel of all was the effect these heavy sorrows had upon herself.  The least introspective of persons, she suddenly found herself so perplexed with herself that she could think of nothing else.

    Cry?  She was never farther from it, apparently, in her life; she wanted to laugh, to sing.  Alas! poor soul, had she known it, that was the most terrible sign of all.  She seemed to take a sort of desperate delight in counting over the number and realising the completeness of the disasters that had overtaken her.  Something of the old heaviness came upon her.  She attended to her stricken father, moved his helpless limb, and watched his harrowing, pathetic efforts to articulate.  But alone in the mangling-room again, a laugh, first bitter, then wildly hilarious, then defiant, broke from her, and in the midst of these frightening, incomprehensible impulses she clenched her hands, turned a frenzied face to the joists, and cried passionately, "Tha'll ha' ta bless me naa!  Tha'll ha' ta bless me; fur ther's noa mooar ill Tha con dew me."

    When she became quieter, this perilous condition absorbed her completely.  What could it all mean?  Why was she like this?  She was not—she was not going mad?  But in these moments the frequent necessities of her father were veritable godsends to her.  What education she possessed had been acquired in the easy sunny days when they had lived at the old farm, and, though better equipped than most girls of her acquaintance, she did not know enough to understand the significance of her condition; and, happily for her, the villagers had no alternative but to bring their mangling to her.  Herbs, also, were required, and these things, together with the constant needs of her father, kept her hands fully occupied.

    A perceptible change also was coming over her appearance.  Her skin became clear, her eyes bright, and her manner so lively that the hearts of the villagers hardened towards her as they watched her.  Never had she been so smart in repartee, never so bantering in speech and independent as in these days, so full of peril to her overwrought brain and heart.  Nobody came to turn for her, and she retorted by announcing that until her father was better everybody must turn for themselves, or provide their own deputy.  Maria Bentley and her friends were scandalised, and called her a "shameliss brazzenface," and even those disposed to show her sympathy, for her father's sake, sadly shook their heads.

    Little by little the various occurrences connected with the stang riding reached her, together with village comments thereupon; but she only laughed a mirthless laugh, and seemed the more determined to brave things out.  Some things that were true, and many more that were not, were told over the mangling about the relationships existing between Jesse Bentley and Emma, and nothing surprised the garrulous gossips more than the hearty goodwill with which she always alluded to her rival.  They did not know, slow-witted as they were, that she spent half the following night fighting down the demon of jealousy, and the other half in tortured wonderings as to what Jesse would be thinking about her.  To her infinite relief, the inquiries made about her father's condition were distantly civil, for there was nothing she dreaded so much as that some one she really respected should break her utterly down.  It would only take a little—a very, very little; only a small word with the true ring of sympathy in it, and she was certain she would collapse.  That word, however, was not spoken, and the only person who visited her, save mangling customers, was little Tet.  Tet came on the Sunday afternoon, when the village was at its quietest, and Old Nat in one of his long heavy sleeps.  Milly sat in the passage, with the door open because of the heat, and to be within hearing of her father's voice.  There was mystery, importance, and ostentatious resignation in the cripple's manner, and, without a word of salutation or inquiry after Milly's patient, she squatted in the doorway, propped her back against the jamb, pulled down her short skirts, and heaved a sigh which was a most unmistakable challenge.

    Except for a nervous, pathetic little attempt to swallow, Milly did not appear to have noticed her.

    Another lugubrious groan, with a quick glint from under the pendulous eyelid; but Milly gave no response.

    "It's cum ta summat at last.  Tha's made a bonny mess on it."

    Even yet the mangle girl, whose head was a little on one side, had not curiosity enough to ask the implied question or repel the implied charge.

    "That cums o' helpin' yore neighbours; it sarves me reet."

    The wicked-looking eyelid was nearly closed, but now it began to flicker a little, for Milly had given the first sign by slowly raising her head.

    "Aw'm sorry fur thee—an' Emma; bud yo'n browt it on yursel's."

    A slow, reluctant little smile was her reward but Milly did not speak.

    "Ne'er moind, wench; tha'st be mi bridesmaid."

    "Wot art talkin' abaat, Tet?"  This in Milly's most weary tones.

    "Aw'm talkin' abaat yond gawmliss chap o' thoine.  Aw'st ha' ta wed him naa."

    A little gleam of fun relieved Milly's wintry smile now, in spite of her heavy personal preoccupation.

    "Wed him?  Wot fur?"

    "Wot fur?  Didn't he save mi loife at th' Stang riding?  They allis han ta wed 'em when they sav'n they loives."

    "Whoa says sa?"

    "Th' bewks; it's allis that rooad i' th' tale-bewks.  It's me density [destiny], tha knows."

    Milly was trying not to smile.  "Ne'er moind, wench; he'll happen, ne'er bother."

    "Bother?  Haa con he help it?  It's his density tew."

    After a moment's weary, unwilling effort to think, Milly sighed out, "Aw used think Jesse 'ud be my destiny."

    "Ay, they aw dun at fost, an' then th' reet un bobs up loike a rotten aat of a grid hoile, an' then wheer are they?"

    Milly's head was leaning against the door.  She mused with a wan, fast-fading smile, and then, with an air of gentle reproach, she said, "Aw didn't think as tha'd ha' tan him off me, Tet."

    "Me! me!  Dust think Aw want th' gawpy?  Naa lewk here, Milly.  Did thaa goo aw wimbly-wambly an eawt o' flunters fost toime as tha clappt thi een on him?"

    Milly had known Jesse all her rememberable life, and so, with a despondent shake of the head, she answered, "Neaw."

    "Did he catch thi on his chest when tha wur jumpin' aat of a runnin'-away carriage, or poo thi aat of a brunnin' haase, or owt o' that?"

    "Neaw."

    "An' did he iver poo thi aat big lodge bi thi bussle, when tha wur draanin' at th' deead o' neet?"

    "Neaw."

    "Neaw?  Well, then, has con he be thy density?  Ha' sum sense, woman!"

    Milly's smile faded again as quickly as it had come, and she was evidently musing sorrowfully.  "Bud they sen as he's gooin' wi' Emma, tha knows."

    "Ay, hoo's th' rivvle [rival], tha knows; bud he sav't mi loife, an' Aw'm his density, an' he'll cum tew his cake an' milk at th' lung length.  They aw dun."

    "An' wot does t'others dew when th' destiny turns up, loike?"

    "Oh, they draan thersel's, or goo off it, or get wed ta sumbry else, or sum lumber;" and Tet announced the unhappy fate of the unsuccessful ladies of fiction with the utmost cheerfulness.

    Milly's faint interest in the subject was already fading, however, and she was examining the hands on her lap with a far-off, dreamy look.

    "Tet, dust think as Jesse loikes her?"

    "Whoa?  Emma?  Hoo loikes him;" and then, another thought striking her, she went on reflectively, inclining her head, "Naa, Milly, dust caw Emma good lewkin?"

    "Hay ay; hoo's pratty, Emma is;" and Milly lifted a long quivering sigh.

    "As noise as me?"

    Milly wanted to laugh, but a glance at the screwed-up, crouching bundle of anatomical odds and ends, which was poor Tet's apology for a body, made the tears come, and so, to escape the thoughts that rose, she took up the conversation again.

    "Well, that's different, tha knows.  Hoo's leet, and tha'rt dark."

    "Ay, hoo's rayther weshed-aat, isn't hoo?  They sen as hoo sups aligar an' weshes her face i' meyl-wayter ta mak' her lewk whoite.  Sich floppery wark!"

    Silence fell on them.  Milly was struggling with a question she felt she ought not to ask.

    "Hast—hast—seen 'em togather?"

    "Me?  Hay neaw.  Yo' han ta keep aat o' th' rooad o' yore densities, tha knows; bud they allis turn up when they'n let ther bant off."

    Milly heaved another sigh, half playful, half real.  "Hay dear! wot wi' thee an' wot wi' Emma, ther's noa chonce fur poor me."

    She had been humouring her queer little visitor, in the vague hope of getting some information; but her heart was sick and despairing, and something of her mood must have crept into her voice, for Tet opened her good eye and fixed it searchingly upon her, whilst the lid of the other flipped at a frantic rate.  It was another Tet, therefore, with another and much more sympathetic voice, that next spoke: "Milly, tha'rt no' breikin' thi hert o'er a felley—thee?"

    Milly was too full to reply.  It was the last and lowest humiliation of her present painful position that, from sheer lonely misery, she had to bare her heart to such an one as Tet.  The little hunchback was scowling hideously, her demonstrative eyelid beating like a bee's wing, whilst she ransacked her brain for tale-book precedents for such a situation as presented itself to her.

    "Dunna be sawft, woman.  Aw wodna breik mi hert fur th' best men as iver walked upa tew legs."

    It was roughly said, and came from the queerest of all queer sources; but it was sympathy, and Milly had not had a word or felt a touch of sympathy for many a day, and in spite of pride and scorn of herself, the dull, hard defiance which had been her last entrenchment for days broke utterly down, and tears—tears of precious healing value to her, had she known it—began to drop like rain on her white apron.

    She remained thus for several minutes, Tet watching her with her ugliest frown.

    "Tet, tha doesna believe wot—wot they sen abaat me, dust?"

    "Do Aw heck!"

    The cripple was screwing mouth and eyes and nose about in a most grotesque manner, and found it impossible to say more.  Presently Milly went on: "Aw wur tryin' ta save his name, and Aw've lost mi own—an' wur."  The remark was incomprehensible to her companion, and she began to rub her hands in her hair impatiently.  That Milly should have any trouble that could for a moment compete with the possible loss of a sweetheart was to her unthinkable, and so she watched her friend with growing restlessness, tugged at her hair, wrinkled her face, and at last, with a dreadful scowl, she belied, out of pure sympathy, the deepest conviction of her mind by hinting, "Density happen mak's mistak's sumtoimes—loike other folk."  It was a great effort, and Tet would have taken it back the moment it was out; but Milly did not seem even to hear, and when she spoke it was on another and vastly less important aspect of the case, in Tet's judgment.

    "Does Jesse believe it, dust think?"

    Resentment at unappreciated sacrifice surged in Tet's soul.  Why was the stupid creature harping on that?  But she was watching as she thought, and certain disconcerting emotions within her made her face more repulsive than ever.  Then she took a plunge; her friend needed comfort, and must have it, at whatever sacrifice.

    "Milly, he doesna believe a word on it, nor t'others noather."

    The effect of her simple words amazed her.  Milly sprang at her fiercely, a new wild gleam in her eyes, and her mouth awork with struggling eagerness.  "T'others?  Wot t'others?  Is ther' onybody? is ther' a single soul i' Slagdin as believes in me?  O Tet! Tet! dunna lie to me!"

    Tet thought with a pang about her hinted perjury concerning destiny, but here was a stranded soul, and her heart was too much for her fancies, and so she cried indignantly, "Ger aat wi' thi, Milly!  They aw believe in thi—aw as matters owt."

    "Does Seth Pollit?"

    "Ay!"

    "An' Saul?"

    "Ay; an' Pee Jump an' Billy."

    Tet boggled a little at the last names, but she could not discriminate when Milly was drinking in her words as though they were honey, and so they came forth with perhaps unnecessary emphasis.  She had scarcely got the words out of her mouth, however, when there was a rush, she was seized by the arms and pinned against the doorposts so that she could not stir, whilst Milly, staring wildly into her face, cried, "Tha'rt lyin', Tet! tha'rt lyin'!  Oh, fur God's sake, dunna desave me!"

    Scared, indignant, and full suddenly of a terrible suspicion, Tet wriggled and twisted and gasped out, "Donna, wench; it's God's trewth, it is! it is!"  But Milly was not satisfied; she still held her arms, and cried, through blazing eyes and white, quivering lips, "Say it ageean.  Does Seth?"

    "Ay!"

    "An' Jesse?"

    "Ay, Jesse!  Whey, woman, didn't he feight fur thi?"

    There was a pause; the fingers nipping Tet's arm so tightly relaxed, the anguish faded slowly out of Milly's eyes; there was a flush, a gasp, and a burst of tears; and as she fell on her knees, and dropped her head into the other's lap, she sobbed, "Forgive me! forgive me, O God!  Thou'rt good, Thou'rt good, Thou'rt good!"

    And then as Tet, in mute, instinctive sympathy, stroked the ruffled hair and the soft white neck, she went on: "Tak' it aw, Lord; tak' iverything; tak' Jesse; but spare my fayther's name."

    Passion like this was utterly beyond Tet, and she patted the thick coils of hair and toyed with the tiny white ears, muttering confused objurgations on "density," intermixed with cooing consolations.

    The minutes went slowly by, the Sunday school had "loosed" and the voices of children could be heard in the fold.  Milly's sobs had ceased, but she was still on her knees, and was softly whispering, with her face in the cripple's lap.  Tet knew that her friend was at prayer.

    After several long minutes, in which Tet held herself still with a fine instinctive reverence, Milly raised her head, looked with steady, sorrowful eyes into the rugged, darkened face above her, and then, with a sudden yearning impulse, she threw her arms round her friend's neck, and Tet thrilled through and through with a deep wondering delight, which was the beginning of deathless affection, for her cheek was burning with the imprint of the first woman's kiss she had ever known.

    Milly was calm now, almost serene.  Tet looked at her with a new interest.  She was thinner, calmer, whiter, and her eyes were large and haunting, and it was borne in upon the hunchback's unaccountable mind with all the force of a discovery that Milly was beautiful.  The increasing sounds of life in the village warned them both of household duties, and as Tet, who had not spoken for several moments, nodded a wordless farewell and was leaving, Milly called her back.

    "Tetie, wilt try an' see Jesse fur me afoor neet?"

    Tet started and frowned; it was contrary to all her "destiny" principles thus to go into the lover's way, but she was under some strange new spell, and so she nodded shortly.

    "Tell him Aw want to speik to him i' th' gardin to-neet."

    "To-neet?"

    "Ay; Aw mun dew it while Aw con."

    "Mun Aw tell him sacrit loike?"

    "Any way, soa as tha tells him."

    "Afoor his folk, an' that?"

    "Ay, if tha loikes."

    Tet's face was one great note of exclamation.  There was no room in her brain for further amazement, and so, with a puzzled sigh, she nodded in a docile way quite new to her, and vanished round the house corner.

    But Saul Swindells had to wait for his tea that night.  His housekeeper had more important business on hand, and business that was much more to her mind; it reminded her of things in the tale-books.

    Half an hour later Jesse Bentley went down the back garden for the usual supply of Sunday "sallit," his mind occupied with recent occurrences.  He had stooped down to gather the greens, with his thoughts wandering off and his face grave.

    "Jesse!"

    He sprang at a bound across the bed, and, wheeling round, gazed everywhere in vain search for the speaker.

    "Aw'm here, lumpyed.  Wot art gawpin' at?"

    "Whe—whe—well, Aw be bothert—Tet!"

    The hunchback lay on her stomach in the hedge bottom, her shoulders between two rough stems, and her black head protruding out of the hawthorn.

    "Dunna stop' wackerin' theer, as if Aw wur a boggart!  Cum here; Aw want thi."

    When he had drawn near enough, she nodded her head as well as her inelegant and uncomfortable position would allow, and said, "Cum on, mon! tha'rt ta slow ta goo tew a funeral.  Dust know as hoo wants thi?"

    "Whoa wants me?"

    "Whoa?  Well, no' me, Aw con tell thi.  Aw wodna ha' thi thrut efter me, an' noan sick loike."

    "Whoa wants me?"

    "Milly! tha'rt to goo daan th' gardin to-neet.  An' see as tha behaves thisel'."

    Jesse could scarcely believe his ears.  "Tha'rt no' kiddin' me, Tet?"

    "Thee goo an' see; hoo sent me hersel'.  Aw'd ha' seen thi at Jericho afoor Aw'd ha' sent fur thi."

    "Is hoo aw reet?"

    "Hoo wod be but for meytherin' wi' chaps—an', Jesse?"

    "Well?"

    "Hoo's ta good fur thee."

    "Dust think sa?"

    "Neaw, Aw dunna think sa; Aw know—an', Jesse?"

    "Wot?"

    "If tha doesn't talk noice tew her, Aw'll scratch thi een aat."



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