The Mangle House (V)
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CHAPTER XX.

AN IMPORTANT CONSULTATION


THE day after Seth and Saul's visit to Wiskit Hill was Noyton Wakes, and the mills at which the Slagdenites found employment were stopped.  This, therefore, was Jesse Bentley's opportunity.  He was a loom tackler, and since the Sunday night of his painful interview with Milly his occupation had compelled him to put in overtime in order to have the holiday free.  During these three days the curious recollection that had come to him as he lay thinking in bed that sad Sabbath eve had been fermenting in his mind, and he had decided to employ his holiday in making careful inquiries and finding out what there was to know.  A visit to Wiskit Hill was also in his programme, for though he had sat down twice to write to the oboist begging him to set their minds at rest, and clear Milly of the vile aspersion that had been cast upon her, he had concluded that the business was too delicate to be committed to writing and to the accidents of the post.  Of one thing, however, he was resolved—whether he ever won Milly Scholes or not, he would clear her name and set her in her true character before the villagers and the world.  He did not say it to himself, but his resolution was undoubtedly strengthened by the hope that if she were vindicated, and could give herself to him with honour, he might succeed in winning her yet.

    The first thing he wanted was information, and, if possible, he must obtain it without giving any indication of his purpose or awakening any suspicions.  And so, as soon as breakfast was over, he strolled down to the gable-end, where the schoolmaster and one or two others were already assembled.  Saul, hugging his wonderful discovery of the night before to himself, and revelling in the possession of so important a secret, came to the village rendezvous, painting to his vivacious mind the triumph and glory of the moment when he and Seth would divulge what they knew, and confound Milly's enemies.  All the same, he had already dropped more than one mysterious hint when Jesse strolled up in his shirt sleeves, and but for a diversion which occurred presently there would very soon have been no tale left worth telling.

    Just as young Bentley dropped into a seat a burst of singing came from within the Mangle House.

    It was not a hymn or a Sunday-school melody, but a trilling, hilarious, triumphant snatch from an old and utterly earthly country song.

    The occupants of the bench looked at each other with raised eyebrows and incredulous stares, and as the singer rattled out the merry music, supported by the low rumbling of the mangle, Billy Whiffle shook his head, and, glowering scowlingly at the pear tree before him, remarked, "That wench 'ull sing in her grave, that's wot hoo'll dew!"

    "Hinnycense con sing onywheer," replied Saul, with a significant glance at the speaker, of which he hastily repented.

    "Hoo couldna sing 'o thatunce if hoo worn't hinnicent," cried Jesse stoutly.

    "Them az lives th' lungest 'ull see th' mooast, that's aw az Aw've getten to say" but the curiosity-challenging significance of Saul's first sentence faded away before he got to the end of the second, for Seth Pollit, with two small milk-cans in his hand, came out of the ginnel and up the fold.  He was walking with his head down, and what of his face could be seen was unusually grave, even for him.  He did not appear to notice that there was anybody at the gable-end, and was passing along towards home, when the song from the Mangle House burst forth again, more blithe and merry than ever.  Seth dropped his cans with a startled look that deepened gradually into horror; he stared at the house-end, stared at his friends, moved a little and stared at the cans at his feet, and then stood listening to the music with a long, solemn face, upon which indignation and loathing seemed to be struggling for mastery.

    The gable-end benchers had been astonished at the unusual frivolousness of the music from within, but the effect it was producing upon the notoriously imperturbable milkman was so remarkable that they were watching him with strained interest.  The singing ceased.  Seth stood for a moment or two still listening; then he heaved a prodigious sigh, picked up his cans, turned away as if to depart, and then, looking round at Saul and Jesse, he jerked his head in the direction of the farm, and marched stolidly off towards home.  Thus peremptorily yet mysteriously summoned, the two speedily overtook him; but he plodded on with hanging head and miserable face, and gave not the slightest sign that he was aware of their presence.  Leading the way down the yard, he opened the door of the shippon, and silently motioned them to be seated.  Then he went away to get rid of his cans, returned almost instantly, closed the door quietly behind him, locked, and even bolted it, and then turning to Saul with such a face as the other had never seen him wear before, he demanded, "When did he dee?"

    "Dee?  Whoa?'"

    "Owd Nat; he's deead, isn't he?"

    "Deead?  Nor him!  Dust think as hoo'd be pipin' aat loike yond an' him deead i' th' haase?  He's gerrin' better, mon."

    Seth, whose face was ashy pale, looked hard at his friend for a moment, and then stepping up to him, and touching his waistcoat to emphasise his words, he said, in thick, agitated voice, "Hoo's gooan off it!  It's druvven her cracked!"

    "Cracked?" cried the two amazedly.

    "He's deed i'th neet, and hoo's gooan mad!  Poor, poor wench!"

    "Mad?  It's thee as is mad; tha's bin wakesin' awready."

    "Saul," and Seth's lips were white and his voice hollow, "hast iver seen a sperit?"

    "Sperit?  Neaw, nor thee noather.  Wot's up wi' thi?"

    "Ger aat, Seth! ther' is noa sperits," chimed in Jesse.

    It was evident, however, that Seth was powerfully moved about something, and the two studied him with painful intensity.

    "Wot does it meean when yo' see folks' sperits afoor the'r' deead?"

    "It meeans a skinful o' whisky an'—,"

    But Saul, now as grimly earnest as the pale milkman, thrust Jesse aside, and rising to stand before his friend, he cried, as he fixed his eyes upon him, "It meeans deeath!"

    Seth, without for an instant moving his eyes from the face of his old companion, lifted a long, anxious sigh, and replied despairingly, "Then he is deead!  Aw seed his sperit las' neet."

    Jesse burst into a hard, unbelieving laugh, but it was checked midway, for the others were looking into each other's eyes intently, and Seth's face suddenly assumed a puzzled, baffled sort of expression, and he cried, in helpless bewilderment, "But Aw ne'er yerd of a boggart az loiked clippin' afoor!  He wur clippin' her an' clippin' her loike heigh-go-mad!"

    "Whoa wur?" and Saul's face was sickly, and his eyes almost bulging out of his head.

    "He wur!  Nat!  Aw seed it as sewer as Aw'm stonnin' i' this shippon."

    Saul stepped back and surveyed his evidently scared and serious friend with stupid perplexity; then he turned and glanced appealingly at Jesse, and, just as the latter was about to speak, he wheeled round to Seth, and cried, with anger and disgust, "Tha seed anuther of her scowbankin' felleys; that's wot tha seed."

    Solemnly raising his hand above his head, Seth reiterated, "If ever Aw see owt i' this wo'ld—" but once more his face became one pucker of mystification.  "But wod caps me, he didn't favvor th' owd chap az he is naa.  It wur loike he wur when him an' me wur mates, an' yung! "

    "W-o-t?" and with a great shout, and the light of a wonderful discovery in his face, Jesse Bentley unceremoniously thrust the schoolmaster aside, and standing before the agitated milkman, cried, "Howd on!  Howd on!  Thee answer me wun thing, an' Aw'll tell thi whoa tha's seen."

    Saul growled to the excited young lover to moind whoa tha'rt shuvin'," and Seth demanded to know, "Conna Aw believe mi own een?" but they were both eager enough to hear what elucidation Jesse had to offer."

    "Naa, then, yo' known as they pertends ta be weel off, dunna yo'?"

    "Well?"

    "An' yo' known as bi th' brass they mayn they mus' be weel off, dunna yo'?"

    Two tentative nods.

    "An' yo' known, whether onybody else does or not, as the'r' as poor as church mices?"

    "Well?"

    "An' Milly's starvin' an' pooin' her hert eawt ta get mooar brass, isn't hoo?"

    "Go on!"

    "Yo're owder nor me: wur owd Nat a grabber afoor they went i'th Mangle House?"

    Two decided shakes of the head.

    "Then ther' mus' be a screw loose sumwheer?"

    "Well?  Goo on, mon!"

    "Well, naa, then!  Wheer's their 'Siah?"

    But the sensation Jesse evidently expected his question to produce did not manifest itself.  There was something, in fact, very like an anti-climax for a moment, but after a series of scowls and frowns, in vain endeavour after recollection first and comprehension after, the two cronies looked at each other, and then at Jesse, and then at each other again, and at last Saul gasped out, in a voice of mingled amazement and conviction, "By gum, lad, tha's getten it!"

    "Getten it?  It's as plain as a poikestaff.  It coom to me i' hed las' Sunday neet, an' Aw've bin maulin' wi' it iver sin'.  But this sattles it."

    Seth was by no means clear, however; so many staggering things coming one after the other confused his mind and clogged the machinery of his brain, and so he asked dazedly, "Haa dust meean—sattles it?"

    "Well, owd Nat hed a son as they cawd 'Siah."

    "Ay, bud Aw'd cleean furgetten it."

    "Tha met weel; he's ne'er bin i' Slagdin az onybody knows on fur ten ye'r."

    The two stood blinking their eyes rapidly, and labouring to comprehend, whilst Jesse went on—

    "He wur sent away tew a boardin'-schoo' when he wur tor't eleven ye'r owd."

    "Nowt good enuff i' Slagdin," growled Saul, with professional jealousy.

    "An' he nobbut coom whoam a two-thri toimes, an' then he went a-clarkin' i' Manchester."

    "Nowt good cums o' proide an' boardin'-schoo's," muttered Saul.

    "That 'ull be eight ye'r sin', isn't it?"

    "Well?"

    "An' owd Nat wur allis talkin' abaat him an' braggin' wot a clivver chap he wur."

    "Ay, at fost."

    "At fost!  Han yo' yerd oather him or her name his name this seven ye'r?"

    "Hoo wur thinkin' ta mitch abaat uther chaps fur that," interjected the schoolmaster.

    "Thinkin'?  When prewd, up-lewkin' folk loike them hez a lad as they ne'er speiken abaat, wot does it meean?"

    "Ay," and the two elders sighed and shook their heads heavily.

    "Naa, Aw'm tellin' yo'!  Yo' con talk as yo'n a moind, but when aw comes to aw, yo'll see as them tew's scrattin' an' scrapin' an' starvin' ther innards ta keep him a gentlemon."

    Seth and Saul mused deeply for a while, and then Saul said, with curling lip, "He mus' be a snidey wastril!  An' has is it as he ne'er cums whoam?"

    "Haa dun we know as he ne'er cums whoam?  It wur him as Seth seed las' neet, or Aw'm a Dutchman!  An' moind yo'," and Jesse went red with resentment and some tenderer feeling, "aw th' nasty tales as hez bin towd abaat her bein' seen wi' chaps i'th loan an' places cums that rooad.  Cunfaand his brazzen face!  Aw wuish Aw hed him here."

    "If it wur him Aw seed, he's as straight loike his fayther as wun pey's loike anuther," said Seth, still overcome with astonishment, and by no means clear on some of the many points at issue.

    "He's no' loike her at ony rate," replied Jesse jealously.

    It was some time before he could get the others to see things as he saw them.  Seth had not yet entirely relinquished his notion about the apparition, and Saul was somewhat piqued to think that a young fellow so much their junior should have been the first to penetrate the mystery.  Besides, at best it was only a series of guesses, plausible though the young lover's earnestness made them look.

    There was a lengthy silence, the two cronies meditating with their heads down, and Jesse watching them with uneasy eagerness.  As neither of them seemed disposed to speak, he said at last, "Soa naa yo' know th' tale an' th' tale's mestur."

    To his surprise and disappointment, Seth asked glumly, "Wot dun we know?" and Saul clinched the question by inquiring a little jealously, "Haa match better aar we, naa we dun know?"

    "Better?  Why, hoo's cleart, isn't hoo?  If nobbut yond Wiskit Hill wastril—" But he was interrupted by a couple of exclamations, and his companions, glad to be able to match his revelations, gave him the details of their interview with the oboist's wife.  Jesse's first reply was a most fervent "Thank God!" and then, quick to see the significance of the new facts, he cried, "Pawverty ageean, yo' seen! pawverty ageean!" and then turning fiercely upon Saul, he went on, "Dunna thee cum na mooar wi' thi foine sarmons abaat pawverty bein' a blessin' i' disguise; it's bin killin' hur an' ruinin' hur an' suckin' hur sowl away.  Oh, hang that wastril of a brother!  Aw wuish Aw hed him here."

    Waiting until Jesse's outburst had spent itself, Saul repeated his question, "Wot better aar we fur knowin'—if we dun know?  Wot difference will it mak'?"

    "If it is as tha says, hoo'd be wur off tin iver if hoo know'd we jaloused it," added Seth.  Jesse made an impatient gesture, but as the question sank into his mind, his face fell, and he sighed broodingly.

    "Hay, wot a mixed-up lumber it is!" he cried helplessly; and then, with petulant desperation, he went on, "But Aw'st feight it aat!  Aw'st clear her name, an' show aw th' wo'ld as hoo's th' grandest wench as iver walked upa shoe-leather!  Aw will, sa help me God!"

    "Ay, lad, tha'rt reet, lad; an' ther's tew owd sawftyeds here as 'ull help thi.  Bud tak' thi toime; mooar hurry less speed, tha knows."

    There was unwonted kindness and sympathy in Seth's tone as he said this, and Jesse, who had got to the shippon door, was touched by it.  He hesitated, staring hard into the open, with his back to them.  Suddenly he turned round, and stepping up to his friends, but looking particularly at Seth, he asked huskily, " Dust think it's a judgment on me?"

    "Wot fur?"

    "Fur no' preichin'?"

    "Nor it, mon; it 'ull aw cum reet, tha'll see."

    Jesse, still struggling with some deep emotion, shook his head.  "Yo' durn't know aw as Aw know;" and then, with a painful smile, he added, "By th, Mon, Aw'm loike Paul wi' th' Jews.  Aw could caant misel' cursed fur Milly;" and, averting his face, he moved quickly to the door and was gone.  He did not go far, however, before his reflections arrested him, and he took the first turn to the left into Grey Mare Lane, that he might collect his thoughts and decide upon some course of action.

    It was a matter of profound thankfulness to him that Milly's intercourse with the oboist had been so satisfactorily explained, and he was quite in sympathy with Seth and Saul's idea of keeping the matter secret until the Brookses had brought things to a head and Milly had been publicly vindicated, though he did not conceal from himself that any hour some communication from the oboist might make their plan unnecessary.  But if the Wiskit Hill man kept away, as was probable, unless applied to by the opposite party, or moved by some other motive, the defeated persecutors of Milly would only be the more chagrined and malignant, and there were other suspicious circumstances about the mangle girl upon which they might immediately fasten.

    A sense of disappointment crept over him as he turned these things over.  What better was he, after all, for his grand discovery, even if it should prove that his surmises were correct?  The policy of concealment so long pursued by the Scholeses would probably be continued; Milly knew as well as he did that people thought them well off, and took no pains to correct the impression, even though it had earned for them the unpalatable reputation of miserliness.  It was plain, therefore, that she wanted them to think so, and what prospect was there of this proceeding of hers coming to an end?  The first thing, therefore, was to make sure of the facts, and find out all about Josiah Scholes.  He couldn't be dead—they would have heard of that; but he had dropped out of recollection as effectually as though he had never lived, and this could not have been unless the Scholeses had wished it and connived at it.  And the fact that they had done so made it clear that there must be something to conceal.  If he began to make open inquiries, he might be simply springing a mine upon Milly, and probing into things she was sacrificing everything to hide.  She was not taking all these pains, suffering as she suffered and struggling as she struggled, for a mere whim.  And then, again, if there was nothing behind this secrecy of theirs, and they really were in deep poverty, she had the easiest way possible out of it, for she could marry any day she liked.  David Brooks was very well off, according to Slagden standards, and he himself had good wages and better prospects, besides nearly two hundred pounds in hard cash in the bank.

    And they were not the only ones; he could name at least two others who would give their very ears for a smile from her.  No! there was a secret and very serious drain upon the resources of the mangle people, one that was sapping Milly's strength and spoiling her womanhood, one that had driven her to shifts and tricks and glaring inconsistencies, until he himself was not sure he knew her real nature, and one that had smirched her reputation on its most delicate point and bade fair to break her heart.  She could have got rid of mere poverty any day by marrying, but there was something, evidently, that made marriage impossible.  Ah! now he came to think of it, that explained the tantalising contradictoriness of her conduct towards him.  She did like him: had she not under temporary impulse so given way as to show him marks of tender favour she had shown to no other?  Her heart was his, but she could not—But here he checked himself.  That was not the reason she had given only as short a time ago as Sunday night!  She had talked as though there was nothing in the way but the disgrace she had suffered, and that would soon be put right now.  His heart began to riot within him: why, there was nothing in the way!  He might now, according to the conditions she had laid down, resume his suit.

    The next moment, however, a rush of mad jealousy rose within him; if there was nothing in the way but the Stang-riding incident, and the mangle people had no monetary or other difficulty, who was the stranger Milly had kissed in the moonlight only the very night before, unless Seth had been dreaming?  He heaved a long, troubled sigh.  No!  Milly might be mysterious and incomprehensible, but the village verdict, that she was a heartless and unscrupulous flirt, no longer had any weight with him.  His theory about a ne'er-do-weel brother seemed to meet the facts better than anything else he could think of, and to be satisfied on that head seemed his first duty.  At this point, however, the scene painted by Seth came back to him again: the milkman had depicted Milly as clinging round the neck of the stranger and kissing him with passionate eagerness.  How could she do that if he were a "wastril"?  Well, the thing was beyond him, only he must do something.  This he would do: he would see Milly again—go and turn for her, in fact—he could contrive to hint to her that her vindication was certain and near, and then from her manner he would be able to judge what hope there was for himself.  If she would give him the slightest encouragement, ten thousand times as many mysteries and difficulties about her should not deter him; and if she did not encourage him, he would be no farther off, but would know better how to proceed.  With this resolution he turned round in the lane, and made straight for the Mangle House.


 
CHAPTER XXI.

A NEW MILLY


N
EVER in his life had Jesse Bentley been so utterly amazed as he was when he visited the Mangle House that day.  Among the unwritten laws of the Slagden social code was one which had reference to the front door of the Scholeses.  Being the entrance to a place of resort and business, it usually stood open winter and summer, and when it was closed the villagers understood that Milly and her father were at meals or that the mistress was "fettlin' up."  When Jesse, therefore, emerged from the end of Grey Mare Lane and found the Mangle House door shut, he glanced at his watch, and discovered it was dinner-time, and so made home for his own food.  Over the meal he received two pieces of information, both supplied by his elder sister, Maria.  She did not communicate her information directly to him, for they were barely on speaking terms just then, but flung them snarlingly at her mother, who heard them with dropped eyes and fidgety, embarrassed manner.  One was that Milly Scholes had at least three engagements to sing at public functions in the near future, all presumably obtained by the influence of the oboist, and the other that Emma Cunliffe was ill and the doctor was attending her. Neither piece of news was encouraging, but the latter gave him serious concern, and sent him down the back garden, where he spent a very unhappy half-hour.  That he had nothing really to blame himself for he was perfectly well aware, but the strict theological school in which he had been trained had taught him to be exceedingly suspicious of himself and of all arguments for personal exculpation.  He had a very grave face and a heavy, accusing conscience, therefore, when about two o'clock he presented himself at Milly's residence.  As he approached, he heard singing, and somehow it smote him with uneasy fears very much in harmony with his present depressed and apprehensive condition.  It was as high, bright, and joyous as the strains he had heard earlier in the day, but so utterly out of harmony with what he knew of Milly's circumstances that it filled him with vague but deep uneasiness.


"'In darkest shades if Thou appear,
         My dawning is be—'


Hay, Jesse! tha'rt just i' toime!  Aw wur just wuishin' fur sum dacent yung felley to gi' me a turn; my arms is welly droppin' off."

    As he stood there in the inner doorway, in dull wonder and growing fear, she held the handle of the mangle invitingly, as of old, and with her old seductive look, but when he took it she did not remove her hand, but allowed him to touch and even cover it with his own; and when at length she did draw it away, she brushed the lapel of his coat with a grateful little tap that was almost a caress, and then, whisking suddenly round, burst out again in tones high and wild, but blended here and there with curiously pathetic little notes —


"Thou art my soul's bright morning star,
         And Thou my rising sun."


    For the moment her back was toward him, but she sang eagerly, excitedly, and as she turned again to the light he saw that in her face which sent a chill to his soul.  She was thinner and paler and more weary-looking than ever he had seen her; her eyes had those dark rings round about them which are so eloquent of suffering, and looked faded and dim, as though she had wept the very fountains dry.  Her limbs, heavy and drooping, seemed to have a sort of unnatural, spasmodic activity in them, as though they were moved by galvanic wires, and her usually graceful movements were eccentric and angular.  This was the result of his first glance, but the second revealed something else.  Through the dim, dull eyes streamed floods of melting, glowing light, wondrous in itself, but through such mediums and in such a haggard face terrible to behold—at least to him.

    He had read somewhere that the insane had a strange, unnatural glare in their eyes—the infallible sign of their unhappy condition; and it appeared to him that if ever he had seen such a light in human optics, he saw it now.  Old Nat, up and dressed for the first time since his stroke, was sleeping, with the unnatural heaviness characteristic of his disorder, on one side of the fireplace, and Tet Swindells, with one leg tucked under her and the other swinging nervously over the chair-seat, was on the other side; but Jesse saw neither the one nor the other—he had eyes for nothing but the woman folding clothes so deftly within a couple of yards of him, and trilling like an inspired lark, whilst her eyes blazed like stars


"Thou art my soul's bright morning star,
         And Thou my rising— "


    But here she broke off, to look eagerly through the window, and then burst out—

    "Hay! isn't it a beautiful day? isn't it a luvly wo'ld?  Isn't God good?  Jesse, Jesse, isn't God good?"

    Jesse, with sinking heart and disturbed, anxious look, said, "Ay."

    "Ay?" and she was at his side in a moment, her eyes swimming with tears and her voice thick with suppressed excitement.  "He is good!  Good! good!  Say it! say it, Jesse God is good."

    "God is good," repeated Jesse, wishing in his soul that she would not look and speak like that.

    "His mercy endureth for ever."

    "His mercy endureth for ever."

    "Sorrow may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning."

    With distressed eyes and long, solemn face, he repeated, "Sorrow may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning:'

    "An' this is mornin'! this is mornin'!" went on the wild creature, looking at the scared mangler without heeding in the least his miserable expression.

    "He brought me out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst my bands in sunder;" and then, making a little movement towards him, as though she were going to embrace him, she turned away, and burst out again—


"Thou art my soul's bright morning star,
         And Thou my rising sun!"


    "Milly, Milly! wotiver's up wi' thi?"

    "Up?  God's up, an' heaven's up, an' reet's up, an' Aw'm up!  Hay, Jesse, lad, would't loike me ta preich thi a sarmon?"

    "Aw'd loike thi ta sit daan an' quieten thisel'.  Heighi!"

    "Hoo's bin a that rooad aw mornin'," said Tet in a thick whisper, and nodding to the distressed young fellow with her most terrible scowl.

    "Huish? me huish?  Aw'll ne'er be quiet namooar as long as Aw'm wik.  Aw've walked aat of a tunnil, Aw've cum aat of a coil-pit, Aw've risen aat of a grave.  He took me out of a horrible pit and the miry clay.  He did, He did, an' Aw'll niver be quiet na mooar!"

    But even as she spoke some change began to appear; she went paler, if that were possible, and unaccountable tremors shook her body.  In another moment she would have fallen, but as he sprang forward she suddenly recovered, a shower of hot tears burst from her eyes, and she sank quietly and with a new shyness into a seat.

    They belonged to a class which is shy and clumsy in the ministry of tenderness, and so, whilst Tet put her bony arm round her friend's neck, and pressing cheek to cheek began to mutter cooing, soothing words, poor Jesse, in mute helplessness, was feeling stupid and miserable about his own lack of resourcefulness, and anxious and fearful about the distraught girl.  Tet scowlingly motioned to him over Milly's shoulder to let her alone, and for the next few minutes he paced uncertainly about the floor, wondering what all these alarming signs might mean, and struggling with the most terrible apprehensions about his sweetheart's condition.  Tet bade him open the back door for more air, and gathering from the energy and mysteriousness of her gesticulations that she wished him out of the way for a short time, he strolled out into the back garden.  At the end of a quarter of an hour Tet came to recall him, but shook her head and put her finger on her lip to impress upon him the necessity of silence.  When he re-entered the room, however, Milly had resumed her place at the table and was filling the roller she had left unfinished; whilst old Nat, now awake, was sitting up, evidently unconscious that anything unusual had happened. 

    For the next twenty minutes the mangle girl never opened her lips except to speak to her father, but her manner seemed to show that she was, outwardly at least, herself again.  Helpless though he felt himself, Jesse's heart bled for the girl who had suffered so terribly, and the deeps of his strong, simple nature were stirred as he asked himself what this disturbing outburst might mean.  As he brooded and absent-mindedly lugged away at the mangle handle, his eyes followed her about yearningly, and the love of his heart burnt hot within him.  Presently, however, he perceived signs of another change.  Her voice when she spoke to her father was steady and more natural, her manner became easier and less spasmodic, and her limbs had some of the old grace in their movements.  Free enough with her words, Milly had always been distant even to haughtiness in the matter of personal familiarities, and was credited with much more than her due proportion of dislike for those outward manifestations of affection which make up so large a part of the mystic language of love.  But now, though she did not speak, and carefully avoided meeting his eyes, she never came to the mangle without giving to him one or more of those apparently accidental little touches on hand, arm, or shoulder which mean so little to ordinary people and so much to those in love.  Then she did a wonderful thing—for her.

    As the back door was still open, and there was a slight draught in the room, she picked his cap from the bench inside the door where he had thrown it, and stepping into the way of the mangle handle, so that he was compelled to stop, she drew his cap upon his head from the back forwards, with her own head slightly averted.  For one short minute she held the peak in her hand, and raising her eyes to his, looked into them steadily without blink or blush, and then turned away with a soft, shy smile.  For such another look Jesse would have given the dearest thing on earth.  He had never known until that moment how much two grey eyes could say in a single instant of time.  Wildness?  What he would have called had he been familiar with the term—hysteria?  There was nothing in these speaking orbs but love and trust and lowly triumph, and the passion she had bidden him smother only a day or two ago now flamed up within him, and he blushed like a shy schoolgirl.  His heart began to beat until it pained him, and he ground away at that old mangle as though afraid that if he stopped the blissful dream might vanish.

    What a tongue-tied, cold-hearted clown he was!  Any other man, though ten old Nats had been present and ten scowling Tets, would have had her in his arms; but he simply clung to the handle of the old machine with a dull desperation, and did not dare even to look at her.  When at length he did venture to raise his eyes, there was still another change in his inscrutable mistress.  She was more herself than ever, more restful and collected, and she had taken to looking absently through the window, as she often did, he remembered.  Then something of the old light of mischief began to gleam out of the corners of her eyes, and that curious teasing, downward droop he knew so well appeared once more in the angles of her mouth.  By this time, however, his thoughts were harking back to the commencement of these astounding experiences; he could scarcely believe that it was only about an hour since he had been listening to the bitter sneers of his sister.  What did it all mean?  What unheard-of thing had happened?  But he observed that Milly was watching him sideways and very dreely, and as his eyes met hers she turned away, and brought a start and a gasp from him, as she quietly remarked to Tet—

    "Tet, dust know as Jesse is goin't be marrit?"

    Three short, sharp cries of amazement from three persons, and then Jesse, with the blood rushing to his head, cried, "Milly! art mad?"

    Her face was demure enough, but her eyes, which she tried to hide, were brimming with mischief, and though she ignored his question, she replied, in answer to Tet's ejaculation, "Wed!  Wed!  Ay, wed! an' sewn tew!  Aw'll back he's neer towd thi!"

    "Towd me?  Neaw!" gasped Tet.

    "Neaw, an' he's ne'er towd me noather; but it is sa.  Lewk at him colourin' theer an' hangin' his yed daan."

    "For God's sake, woman, ha' mercy!" and Jesse, uncertain whether she was mad or madly cruel, let go the handle of the mangle and stood glaring at her with something of dread in his face.

    "Whoa the ferrups is he weddin'?" cried Tet, scarcely less agitated than Jesse himself.

    "Ax him thisel'; he's theer.  Hoo's goin't be dressed i' whoite an' a lung fall on."

    But Tet saw more from under that flickering left eyelid of hers than Jesse did, and so she asked with an eagerness not quite as genuine as her former manner, "Whoar is it?  Emma?"

    The question seemed unexpected, and evidently suggested a new idea; for Milly, still avoiding his perplexed and anxious face, did not answer directly, but said, "Hoo'll ax uz to th' weddin', if he winna.  Hay, hoo'll lewk weel i' weddin' faldals, Emma will."  But, though she kept up the same bantering tone, she spoke a little absently, as though her thoughts were wandering somewhat.

    "Milly, art tha mad, or am Aw?"

    Jesse was standing rooted to the spot, and no more able to move than to fly, and as she glanced round and noted the anguish in his face her look changed; a soft, caressing light stole into her eyes; she sighed a little; and then, as the old light flashed back suddenly into her face, she turned consideringly to Tet, and said, in low tones, "Sithi, Tet, when Aw throw misel' at his yed he winna have me—Naa, then! my fayther's watchin' thi."

    Old Nat certainly was watching with all the eyes in his head, and Tet Swindells drew her other leg up under her, and sat hugging herself and blinking both eyes at express speed.  But Jesse was bold enough at last, and a moment later he was hugging the half-hysterical Milly to his breast, and positively sobbing in the passion of his joy.  She did not resist; the little strength she had seemed suddenly to have left her, and she leaned limp and wan on his breast, a smile of painful joy upon her lips, and a soft, tear-dimmed light in her eyes.  Old Nat sat on the settle staring about him with rolling, wide-opened eyes, and struggling pathetically with his inability to articulate, whilst Tet's eyes and mouth expressed every kind of emotion of which they were capable, as she looked here and there and everywhere except at the happy couple.

    If all the joy of all the people who were keeping up Noyton Wakes that day could be gathered up into one quivering heart, Jesse told himself, that heart would not contain one tithe of the joy that was swelling within his breast.  The stang riding!  The Scholeses' perplexing poverty!  That mysterious stranger of the night before, who had reaped the rich harvest of Milly's lips before himself!  What cared he?  Milly was his, let the world say and prove what it liked.  She might herself be and do what she chose, she was his, once for all and for ever his, and he was absolutely content.

    "This is a rum sooart of a wakesin', this is," grumbled Tet, after waiting for nearly half an hour in the vain hope that the silly couple would remember that they were not alone.

    "Wakes?  Hay, my days, we'll have a wakes.  We'll ha' th' grandist wakes ta-day as iver wur i' Slagdin, wench;" and Milly sprang up and began to fly about the house like a wild thing.  She snatched Tet from her seat, spun her across the floor in three steps of a whirling dance, flew at her father, pulled his nightcap right, and dabbed a flying kiss on the end of his nose; whisked the kettle from the hob to the rack-and-hook, dashed with the poker at the dim fire, in total disregard of the white hearth, ordered Jesse to bring coals, asked Tet what she would like for a "gradely wakes tay," and then, tossing a two-shilling-piece to her as heedlessly as though it had been a penny, sent her off for crumpets, muffins, new-laid eggs, and—oh! unheard-of extravagance—marmalade.  It is not always easy to sympathise with a joy you don't in the least understand, but as old Nat seemed to know something that made him beam in his gentle, dignified way, Jesse, infected by the prevalent gladness, was quite content to take things on trust for the moment, and so he and Tet, eager, though in very different ways, to believe the very best, yielded themselves to the magic influence of Milly's happiness, and there gathered at the Mangle House table that day four of the happiest souls on earth.

    "Th' manglin's no' gerrin' on varry fast," said Jesse, with a delighted grin, as he crammed the buttered crumpets into his mouth.

    "Manglin'!" and Milly whisked round to the old machine and gazed musingly at it for a moment.  Then she rose, hastily unscrewed the handle and hung it on a nail against the opposite wall, and then, slipping the nut into her pocket, she cried, addressing the mangle, "Aw've a good moind, Aw've a good moind, sithi! never ta let thee turn anuther rowler-full.  Hay, bless thi! tha's bin a friend ta me i' my trubble, an' tha'st have a share o' my happiness."

    She was as good as her word for that day, at least; and but for the unusual gaiety of her manner and his own impatience to get some explanation, Jesse would have been perfectly happy.  The days were beginning to "take in a little, and as this was old Nat's first day out of bed, he soon tired, and had to be put to rest.  Tet also took her departure, after a brief whispered interview with the mistress of the house, and then, down there in that old back garden, Jesse listened to such a tale as he had never neither heard or read before.  He stared, he exclaimed, he thanked God in one breath and almost swore in the next; he laughed, but the tears came rushing at the same moment, and almost choked him; and when at last she finished, and he realised all she had been and done and suffered, he turned a struggling face up to the twilight and cried, through blinding tears, "O Lord, Aw'll preich my yed off naa, if Tha wants me."

    It began to feel a little chilly, and Milly arose to go indoors; but the night was so calm, and his heart so full, that he begged her to fetch a shawl and give him a little more time.

    When she returned with her wrap, they began to walk up and down the narrow, overgrown path.  There was not much talk, and every now and again the happy voices of villagers returning from the Wakes were heard.  The silence grew longer: Milly was thinking, and Jesse was too happy for speech.  She glanced up at him now and again as they wandered about, and her face, which had been serious all the evening, seemed to be recovering some of its archness.

    "Ther's nobbut wun thing as trubbles me naa," she murmured, as they moved along.

    "Wot's that, wench?"

    "We conna have iverything, an' God's bin wunderful good; but Aw should ha' loiked it."

    "Tha'st hev it if it con be gotten. Wot is it?"

    Milly thought a little, her face excessively sober, and her manner pensive.  "Aw'm afeart tha wodna dew it if Aw axed thi."

    "Me?  Aw'd jump o'er a four-storey factory if tha wanted me.  Wot is it?"

    She was listening attentively, lifted a little sigh of gentle resignation, and then said, with a slow shake of the head, "Tha wodna!  Aw know tha wodna."

    "Wot is it, woman?  Aw tell thi Aw'd dew owt!  Aat wi' it!"

    She was still considering, with her head down, and had pulled up to poke a weed out of the edge of the path with her clog.  Then she looked up, her countenance as solemn as a judge's.  There came a little quizzical curl into the corner of her mouth, and she said demurely, "Tha couldn't merry tew on uz, could ta, lad?"

    She darted away as soon as she had got her question out, but he soon caught her, and holding her by the arm, he shook her playfully and cried, "Aw'st hev a foine seet mooar nor Aw con manidge wi' thee; bud who's t'other?"

    "Emma.  Hay, lad, hoo's a bonny, bonny wench, an' as good as hoo's pratty.  It spoils my happiness ta think of her."

    This was said with deep and genuine earnestness, and Jesse, laughing and yet puzzled, cried, "Aw conna commit bigamy, woman.  Wot's th' use o' talkin'?"

    She was a little in advance of him on the path, and did not at once reply.  Her absent manner made him doubt whether she had heard.  Presently she cried, "Conna tha foind her a gradely noice yung felley, an' let's have a double-barrilled weddin'?"

    Jesse looked at her in wondering delight.  Hay, wench, tha thinks of iverybody but thisel';" and then, with a sudden flash, he continued, "Haa'd your 'Siah dew?"

    Milly opened her eyes and stared at him until he had to turn his head away, so hard was she thinking.

    "Tha's hit it tew a toucher!  A double wed-din' loike that 'ud fill mi cup to th' brim."

    And Jesse, thinking most of the heroic girl before him and the story he had heard that night, said earnestly, "If tha wants it, wench, tha'll get it.  Tha's drunk sa mitch o' th' cup o' sorrow, thi cup o' jye mun be full to th' lid."


 
CHAPTER XXII.

WOBBLING BILLY


WHILST the events narrated in the last chapter were transacting themselves at the Mangle House, David Brooks and his party were taking decisive steps to bring Milly before a church court and procure her expulsion from membership.  And here David was learning a very shrewd lesson as to the eccentricity and inconsistency of human nature.  The riding of the stang had been the high-water mark of prejudice and indignation against the Mangle House girl and her married sweetheart, and it appeared to David that the whole village was united in emphatic condemnation of the incomprehensible woman who had so shockingly sullied the honour of the Methodist Church.  Saul Swindells and old Seth stood out, but they were never like anybody else, and of course Jesse Bentley had very sufficient reasons for his attitude, although David heard nothing but astonishment expressed that Jesse should still believe in Milly, for was he not the person of all others who ought to have felt injured?  If he was willing to support and defend Milly, as seemed certain, it only went to show that he was a weak-spirited simpleton, willing to take other people's cast-offs, and therefore beneath consideration.

    Then came the oboist's assault.  That irate instrumentalist had come over from Wiskit Hill, called him out of the house into the yard, had taken him by the scruff of the neck and kicked and "clouted" him until David bellowed for assistance, and had to be rescued by his mother and sister.  In the disgrace of this thrashing, however, David had one consolation.  An attack of this kind was the very thing to appeal to the sympathies of his neighbours, and henceforth all the women at any rate would be on his side.  Never did he show more complete ignorance of female nature, and never did he experience so complete and unpleasant a surprise.  His male supporters took not the slightest pains to conceal their contempt of him, and when he turned to the women his astonishment deepened into dismay.  The "wenches" curled their lips and tittered as he passed them, and when he sought explanations, they turned their faces up the fold in pretended alarm, and cried, "Run, Davit!  Heigh thi!  Th' Wiskit Hill felley's cumin'!" and then turned their backs upon him and deliberately walked away.  He thought he was sure of Mrs. Seth Pollit, but when he had told her the tale of his humiliation, and bared his arm to show a big blue-and-black bruise, she bent down over it, scrutinised it anxiously for a moment, and then said, in tones of mock-motherly sympathy, "Poor little felley!  Mun Aw kiss it better?"

    This was bad enough, but when he returned home and poured out the tale of his woes to his women-folk, his own sister Tizzy turned round upon him with scornful eyes and called him a "snifterin' Bessy-bab" who couldn't stand up for himself.

    David was too astounded to reply, and when he recovered himself he could only conclude that something had gone seriously wrong with the world.  Maria Bentley, Jesse's blustering sister, however, was still faithful to him, and affected great indignation at the conduct of the others.  Maria was just suffering from her defeat in the matter of Emma Cunliffe, and so was ripe for any sort of mischievous action.  She enlarged with great indignation on the cowardliness of the oboist's appeal to force, and insisted that nothing short of legal proceedings would meet the case; and though David did not seem very anxious to take up her suggestion, he was glad enough of her help, and so she set to work to rally his supporters and arrange the plan of campaign.  She would never be able to "howd up mi yed i' Slagdin" until that disgraceful Milly had been turned out of the Society.

    David held the post of Sunday-school librarian, and must at once resign to the superintendent minister, and state his reasons.  She would do the same in her position as female leader, and Billy Whiffle must send in his books as Society steward.  Then she bethought her of another expedient, and got up a petition, or round robin, to the minister, insisting on the instant removal of Milly Scholes from membership, and expressing a strong sense of the evil which that misguided young woman had done to the Church.

    Three resignations and a petition would surely stiffen the back of the most weak and timeserving minister, and, think what he might, he would be compelled to take summary action.  The undisguised contempt which his cowardly endurance of the oboist's chastisement had brought upon him rankled deeply, and stirred David's dull soul as nothing else had done, and he lusted after full and complete revenge.  Notwithstanding these feelings, however, it is doubtful whether he would have done anything notable but for the energetic efforts of the pushful Maria.  She brought him the petition, signed for the most part in her own handwriting, handed in at the same time her own class-book, with an accompanying letter, and finally suggested that David and Billy Whiffle should take advantage of the Wakes holiday and wait upon the superintendent minister.  Billy's support was important—essential, in fact—and so, when he returned from work on the evening before the Wakes, David washed and re-dressed himself, and presently made his way to the steward's house.  All day long in the mill where he worked he had been telling such Slagdenites as he came across that they would "yer summat" in a day or two, and on his way home he had thrown out hints to every group of villagers he had passed of an approaching crisis, which he called a "ter'ble shindy."  But the unbelieving jeers with which his prophecies had been received daunted him somewhat, and he had to take a long walk in the fields before he could muster up courage to approach Billy's dwelling.  The steward was one of David's tenants, and a little behind in his rent, in consequence of a period of slackness and a consequent change of masters.  David therefore felt that he had an additional claim on the official's support. Billy was a garrulous and fussy sort of fellow, with a pouncing, emphatic manner, which his actual character scarcely justified.

    "Hello, Davit!  Cum in wi' thi!  Sithi!  Aw wur just sayin' to aar Tilly—worn't Aw, Tilly? —Aw wur just sayin' if Aw'd a thaasand paand Aw'd spend ivery bodle on it i' lawin' yond Wiskit Hill wastril.  Worn't Aw sayin' that this varry minit, Tilly?"

    "Thaa wur, lad."

    "Law!  Aw'd ram a Cooart o' Queen's Bench warrant intew him.  Aw'd hev him i'th New Bailey afoor he wur a day owder."

    "Well, but—" began David.

    "Well, but—Dunna talk ta me, Davit Brooks!  If tha doesn't mak' him dance loike a foo' at a brunfoire, Aw've dun wi' thi!"

    "Dunna fret tha fat, Billy; but it's t'other mon as—"

    "T'other?  Th' Super, tha meeans?  Ne'er thi moind him.  Aw'm steward here, am nor Aw?  Thee leeav' him ta me.  Aw'll bring that mon afoor his betters, Aw con tell thi.  Aw'll mak' it a Conference job for him.  Ay, lad, sit thi daan.  Tilly, reich that cher, an' gi' me mi poipe."

    Accepting the proffered seat, David propped his elbow on the table and began to mop his brow with his handkerchief, whilst Billy marched about the hearthrug, and filled his pipe with a bouncing, truculent air that boded ill for the enemies of David.

    David continued his face-mopping for some little time, and then, just as the excited and belligerent steward was applying a "spell" to his pipe, the young man ventured, "Well, Aw'm thinkin' o' goin' to th' Super ta-morn."

    "Tha art?  That's summat loike!  An' donna thee goo wi' thi tail between thi legs.  Tha mun ston' up tew him, mon.  Ne'er moind his hector-in'; tha mun bullock him, if he cums ony of his lip wi' thi.  Hay, Aw wuish Aw wur goin' wi' thi!  Aw'd com' his yore fur him!  Yo' yung chaps is sa freetened."

    "That's wot Aw've cum ta ax thi abaat."

    "Me? me?  Ta-morn?" and Billy's face suddenly became blank with alarm.

    "Ay; tha said tha wod, tha knows."

    Billy stared helplessly at his visitor, with dropped jaw and suddenly confused manner.  "Hay, wot a pity!  Aw conna goo ta-morn, chuseheaw."

    "Why not?  It's th' Wakes, tha knows."

    "Ay, ay.  Hay, wot a pity!" and Billy's eyes rolled round in evident search for some excuse.  "Aw—Aw—Aw'm goin' t' build a new pig-hoile i'th morn, an' Aw've getten th' mortar mixed.  Nay, sithi! it's better fur thi ta goo by thisel'; if Aw goo, Aw'st brast aat on him, an' ger i' sum lumber, that's wot Aw'st dew, Aw'm that razzored."

    "Aw'll cum an' help thi wi' th' coit, an' we can goo efther."

    "Ay, ay, fur sewer; bu—bud Aw hev to goo ta Billy Haases efther."

    Now, David would have been only too glad to find some insuperable hindrance for himself, but being now committed to it, the idea of going alone seemed peculiarly dreadful to him.  "Well, wilt goo at neet?  Aw'll borra Jim Tidy's trap, an' we con drive."

    "Bud—bud—"  Billy seemed quite agitated, but whether with disappointment that he was not able to accompany his friend, or fear lest David should over-persuade him, it would be difficult to say.  "Aw'm stoppin' to mi tay; Aw'st no' be whoam till dark.  Besoide, them parsons is niver in of a neet, tha knows."

    Tilly, sympathising with her husband's dilemma, but dreadfully afraid of him vexing their landlord, brought David a drink of herb beer.

    David, however, could not be satisfied; the prospect of going alone was simply terrifying, and so, pushing the pot testily away, he cried, "Bud Aw conna goo bi misel', an' it's thy wark, tha knows."

    "Me?  Hay, bless thi, mon, he doesn't cur a button-top fur me; it's thee an' yore folk as he's feart on."

    With troubled face David stared a while at his wriggling friend, and then asked sullenly, "Wilt goo o' Setterday?"

    "Setterday?" and Billy, now fairly in a corner, grew desperate and a little angry.  "We conna wait till then, mon.  Away wi' thi, an' ger it dun wi'.  He's as quiet as an owd sheep; tha's nowt ta be feart on."

    "Bud tha said just naa he wur highty-tighty."

    "Ay, wi' sum folk!  He'll be as reet as a rubbin'-stoan wi' thi.  Isn't he fur turnin' hur aat hissel', mon?"

    "Haa dust know?"

    "Aw know.  Off wi' thi!  Th' chap's as quiet as a pot-doll, an' he thinks a seet o' yore folk."

    But at this moment the door opened, and to David's great relief Maria Bentley came fussing in.  Billy looked anxiously round, as though searching for some way of escape; but David was too quick for him, and Maria, guessing something of the position of affairs, and judging shrewdly that young Brooks would never venture to beard the Super alone, began at once her attack upon the halting and shifty steward, and chased him from one point of refuge to another, until poor Billy scarcely knew whereunto he must fly.  To make matters worse, Maria found that she had to bear the brunt of the conflict alone, and that even if she succeeded with Billy she would still have David to deal with.  In this situation she offered to accompany them, and to her intense indignation discovered that they would either of them go alone rather than face such an alternative.  At length, with the assistance of Billy's wife, she got the matter arranged, though David, as he went away, did not appear anything like as satisfied as he ought to have done, and the worthy steward guarded his consent with so many strict conditions that his young companion protested that he might just as well stay at home.

    Billy overslept himself next morning, at least so he said; for when David, looking as miserable as though he were going to have his teeth drawn, called to look up his friend, Billy had only just got out of bed, and when he did begin to prepare for the journey probably took longer time over his toilet than he had ever done in his life.  Consequently they missed the train they had selected, and it looked as though they would not even catch the next.  On the journey down to Noyton Station Billy's manner changed entirely; he became spasmodically jocose, rallied David on looking "as sayrious as a cowd chizil," and alluded to the minister they were going to interview in the most flippant and slighting manner.  As they left Aldershaw Station, however, he changed his tune again, and for several moments never uttered a word.  Suddenly he pulled up, his face portentously elongated, and his eyes standing out with fear.

    "Why, mon, he'll happen tak' 'em!"

    "Tak' wot?"

    "Tak' th' bewks!  He'll happen ler uz resign, an' then wheer shall we be?"

    "Well, isn't that wot tha's cum fur?"

    "Bud Aw'st be aat of office, lumpyed!  Aw'st be shunted!"

    David, who was secretly quite as much perturbed as his companion, saw that the expedition threatened to break down even now unless something were done, and so, crying earnestly, "Ger aat wi' thi! he dar'na!" he took his friend by the arm and began to drag him slowly along.  Billy's feet seemed suddenly to have become lead, and he hung back more and more every yard they went.  When they reached the manse gate he made a sudden bolt, and the domestic cleaning the upstairs window beheld two men, evidently from the country, chasing down the street at the top of their speed, the younger one shouting after the other, and threatening all sorts of direful penalties.  Having recaptured his supporter, David dragged him back to the gate, and then there arose another fierce debate as to who should lead the way.  At last David, holding his man firmly by the coat-sleeve, rang the door-bell, and then, waiting for the moment when the handle was turned, he skipped deftly behind Billy, and left him to face things out.

    "Is th' mestur in, yung woman?" and Billy, though his voice was unnaturally loud and defiant, glanced up at the servant in mortal fear.

    "Yes, sir; step in.  What name?"

    "Wot?"

    "Hoo wants ta know thi name," cried David, giving him a poke forward.

    "Name?  Billy Whiffle.  He knows me weel enuff; we're fro' Slagdin."

    A moment later they were conducted upstairs, where they found the minister seated at his desk with the skeleton of the new Circuit plan before him.  The usual greetings having been exchanged, the Super retired to an easy-chair and waited for his visitors to introduce their business.

    The two sat on the outermost edge of their chairs and stared hard at the ceiling, David struggling with the miserable consciousness that perspiration was forming in a huge globule on the end of his nose, which he daren't for the life of him touch, and Billy mutely promising his Maker that if he ever got out of that study he would never, never meddle with any such business again.

    The minister guessed something of their errand, but as he was generally entertained when in Slagden at the Brookses', and Billy was the village official with whom he had most to do, he felt that it was only polite to suppose that they might be making a social call, and so he waited, whilst the impetuous little clock on the mantelpiece tore away at its noisy work, as though in a tremendous hurry to overtake something.

    "Beautiful morning, gentlemen."

    David tardily admitted that it was, and turned to see why Billy had left him to answer.  That worthy was pulling a long, dubious face at the ceiling, as though doubtful whether even so much ought to be admitted at this stage of the proceedings.

    "Anything fresh at Slagden?" inquired the minister.

    David turned a scowling face towards his companion, but the steward, motionless as a statue, kept his eyes sternly fixed on the moulding in the far corner of the study, and drew down the corners of his mouth to express weary and pitiful contempt for the world and all that was in it.  The Super waited in placid patience, into which a slight feeling of contempt began to creep as he glanced from one to the other of his wooden visitors.  At a second glance his eye caught David's, and so, boiling over with indignation at Billy, and full of his great mission, the younger man blurted out, "Billy's cum ta resign, sir."

    "Resign?" cried the minister, in mild surprise but Billy, his face a shade paler and very much longer, kept his eyes on the moulding, and replied, "He's cum ta resign, an' Aw've cum ta—ta—bring him."

    "Ay, an' thee an' aw!  Tha said tha wod!  Noan o' thi shufflin' wark, naa!" and David glared fiercely at his companion, entirely ignoring the presence of their pastor.

    Now, the Super had recently found reason to regret having changed old Seth Pollit for the pusillanimous Billy, and so, not the least disturbed at the terrible announcements just made, he asked quietly, "What has caused you to think of resigning, Mr. Whiffle?"

    "Aw dunna!  Aw winna!  Aw wur nob-but—"

    But David had lost all patience, and so he burst in, "It's abaat yond Milly Scholes; hoo's ruinin' th' S'ciety."

    "Well, but if there is trouble that is a reason for everybody standing to the guns, and not throwing up like a lot of schoolboys."

    "Aw didna!  Aw didna!" and then, turning fiercely upon his friend, Billy cried indignantly, "Aw winna resign, chuze wot tha says."

    "Well, well, Mr. Whiffle, don't excite yourself.  Sit down, and let us hear all about it."

    "It's yond Milly Scholes, sir.  We conna stand it.  She's splittin' th' church an' drivin' aw dacent folk away," said David.

    "Aw shud ne'er resignt' bud for him," whined Billy, with a doleful wag of his head.

    It took some time to get the case stated, and when David had finished a highly-coloured story, the Super replied, "Yes, but we must proceed in order.  Who brings the charge, Mr. Steward?"

    "Charge?" interjected David, now eager enough.  "We know it!  We aw know it!"

    "Yes, yes; but somebody must prefer a charge—her leader or the steward."

    "Me? me?  Nay, Aw've nowt ageean her, th' brazzened little besom!"

    Hiding a smile behind his hand, the minister proceeded, "You see, gentlemen, we have to be careful of each other's characters.  Our duty is to protect each other, and believe the best of each other."

    "If hoo isna turn't aat, wee'st aw leeav', an' yo'll ha' ta preich ta pew-backs, that's wot wee'st dew;" and David looked savagely at the minister.

    "Yes, but even then we cannot do wrong, you know.  All you say may be perfectly true, but we cannot proceed on mere hearsay.  But come now, tell me the story your own way, and let us see where we are."

    His tone was quiet and persuasive, and so, with this encouragement, the two deputies commenced, and for the next ten minutes they assisted each other in detailing Milly's manifold transgressions, culminating, of course, in the iniquity which had provoked the scandalous stang riding.

    The minister looked serious, and was certainly very attentive; but when they had exhausted their charges he nonplussed them by asking, "But why all this talk of resigning?"

    "We wanten her thrut eawt, an' we'll hev her thrut eawt," cried David doggedly.

    "But how will resigning help you?"

    The Slagden deputation looked helpless and confused, and the longer they stared at each other the more foolish they felt.

    "Would your resignation make any difference to Miss Scholes?  Would it be any proof of her guilt?"

    "It 'ud show which soide we wur on, wodn't it?"

    "But you are Christian men; you are on the side of justice, are you not?"

    "An' this is justice; hoo's disgraced uz aw, hesn't hoo?"

    "Perhaps so.  But what if it should turn out you have disgraced yourselves?  And if you resign, you know—"

    There was another long silence, and at last Billy, turning and glaring indignantly at his companion, cried, "Tha's browt me on a bonny foo's harand, tha has;" and as the younger man was about to retort in kind, the minister broke in, "No, no, gentlemen; you were quite right in reporting this to me.  But this talk of resignation is—well, if you'll excuse me saying so—a little silly, isn't it?  I will arrange for a leaders' meeting next week, and you, Mr. Whiffle—"

    "Me?  Nay, no' me!  Aw've dun wi' this dirty job, Aw hev!" and then, with another fierce look at David, he went on, "Aw should ne'er ha' bin i' this lumber bud fur thee.  If hoo wodna ha' thi, hoo wodna ha' thi, an' that's aw abaat it."

    The Super's eyes twinkled; he was getting new light.  So David was a rejected lover, was he?  Then he smiled to himself, and went on, "I'll write you to-day, Mr. Whiffle, and fix the time for the meeting.  Only you must have the charges ready—and the witnesses."

    Billy began an indignant refusal, but catching David's eye, he wobbled again, and subsided into an indistinct mumble.

    They now rose to depart, and David, in complete forgetfulness of the carefully prepared petition in his pocket, sulkily followed his companion down the stairs; and when they had gone the cleric stood musing for a moment or two in the hall, and then, as he returned to his study, he said to himself, "If I have many more Slagdenites to see me, I shall be that girl's friend in spite of myself."

    That night, though Billy had refused to return with his colleague, and stayed in Aldershaw all day, it was reported at the gable-end that the minister was coming the following week to expel Milly Scholes from the Society.


 
CHAPTER XXIII.

THE GREAT TRIAL


THAT same Wakes day which brought such happiness to Jesse Bentley, and provided an opportunity for Billy Whiffle and David Brooks to visit the Superintendent, was also one of great activity on the part of Maria Bentley.  Having made sure that her fellow-conspirators had actually started on their errand, she commenced forthwith to excite as much interest and secure as much sympathy for her side as was possible.  The young folk had for the most part gone off on various short excursions, but the elders were at home, and to these she turned with solemn face and much well-simulated concern.  She was profoundly sorry for old Nat Scholes: for such a man to have reached his time of life, and now to have so great a trial, was terrible indeed, and he was "sitch a grand owd preicher an' sich a saint—the craytur!"  "Hay dear! it's ter'ble wark havin' childer.  Aw'm thankful to Goodniss Aw ne'er hed noan.  Yo' tew an' tile an' moile for 'em, an' then, when they shud bring yo' sum cumfurt, they just breiken yur herts," she said to old Sam Dodge and his wife, who had their own reasons for sighing and shaking their heads at her sympathetic words.

    "Ay, Aw dar' say yo're capt at me, bud Aw conna help it," she replied to those who manifested surprise at this most uncommon concern of hers about the old herbalist, for whom she had not had a good word for many a long month.  "Aw've nor allis seen hee to hee wi' Nat, but trubble's trubble, an' this 'ull finish him.  Mi hert bleeds fur him—the impident besom hur!"

    But in her wanderings from house to house Maria encountered an unexpected difficulty: the villagers had an incurable dislike to outside interference in their affairs, and the dread of this was in some cases even stronger than their indignation against Milly.  Many an unsatisfactory church member had been quietly put away in Slagden without all this to-do, and if they were to have ministers and other strangers prying into their doings, they preferred that the offender should go unpunished.  This induced Maria to "fiddle on another string," as she put it.  They knew how high Slagden stood in the esteem of the Circuit, and how "weel thowt on" it was.  Were they to lose their good name for ever and involve themselves in Milly's disgrace by appearing to condone her disgraceful conduct?  They must clear themselves; they must show people that though they would not tolerate any one interfering in their affairs, they knew what was expected of them, and could do their duty with the best.  But even this change of tune did not bring her the success she sought; the villagers knew her, especially the chapel people, and though always glad enough to hear her tit-bits of gossip, they were not at all pleased at the prospect of a formal inquiry and all the unsavoury notoriety it would bring.

    And so Maria had to ransack her brain and recall every forgotten grievance the Slagdenites had against the mangle people.  She was not by any means as well received as she expected even then, but her success was perhaps greater than she supposed; and a feeling of dull, angry resentment against Milly burned in many a village breast that night.  When she had worked her way round to the house of David Brooks, however, she found a reception which amply atoned for the coolness she had received elsewhere; and when, as they sat over early tea, David returned with the information that a leaders' meeting was to be held the following week, Maria would have felt rewarded for all her pains and her zeal for the purity of the Church but for a little misgiving that David's manner was not as confident as his words.  Just on the edge of dark the other member of the deputation returned, and Maria's drooping spirits were immediately revived.  Billy was magnificent—satisfactory from every point of view.  He gratified her woman's craving for details to the full, and described almost to weariness every small incident of the expedition.  He enlarged with injured scorn on the cowardly pusillanimity of David and the shifty slipperiness of the Super, and made it abundantly clear that but for his own uncompromising firmness and intrepid courage the thing would never have been accomplished.  To encourage him, and thus get every atom of his story, Maria complimented him with mendacious extravagance, and he threw up his head and stalked about on the sanded floor basking in the admiring light of two wondering women's eyes.  The arrival of a brief note next morning, fixing the meeting for the following Monday, completed Billy's triumph.  Every Methodist with any pretensions to respectability in Slagden had a peep at that note, and was asked to admit that at last they had a steward in Slagden who could "bring th' nobs daan to they nawpins."

    And whilst Slagden was thus exciting itself about the coming meeting and the circumstances connected with it, the painfully anxious Superintendent was worrying himself a good deal about the same thing.  He could not conceal from himself that the men who had waited upon him might be right, in spite of their clumsy and clownish way of going about things; and, on the other hand, if Milly was the girl they said she was, he was altogether out of it as a judge of character—a conclusion he was not very willing to admit.  It was only a passing episode in village life, and yet it troubled him more than greater matters might have done; and this discovery only contributed to his deeper annoyance.  Then he remembered that one of his colleagues was a Lancashire man, and might be able to throw some light on the point, and so he went off for a consultation.  But No. 2 was as bad as the lay officials of the Circuit: he laughed at his story of Billy's and David's visit, and declared that the only serious thing about the affair was that he was allowing himself to be troubled about it.  He assured his superior that there was nothing that need distress him, and, when he saw he was not succeeding in relieving the other's mind, offered to undertake the affair himself.  But the Super was the Super, and a man of order, with a high sense of the dignity and responsibility of his office, and so he went away, scolding himself for his old propensity of making too much of trifles.

    On his way home he called at the large house next to the bank, which was the residence of the manager.  That functionary was a leading Methodist, and though he had only occupied his present position about two years, he had recently, on the demise of the Circuit steward, been appointed his successor.  The Super found his chief officer in his private room, enveloped in smoke and lolling in an easy-chair.  He was a fair, burly man of great size, the picture of easy comfort.  He had small twinkling eyes and plenty of healthy colour, but the cut of his square chin belied his otherwise complacent expression.  In response to a lazy, though very warm welcome, the minister dropped into a chair with a little sigh.

    "Hello! sighing?  What's amiss, sir?  Here, have a cigar, and 'drive dull care away.'"

    The minister, as his friend well knew, was a strong anti-tobacconist, and shook his head with a gesture of playful disgust.

    "No, thanks.  I'm all right, only a little annoyance in one of the country places—Slagden, in fact."

    The Circuit steward yawned.  Oh, never bother about that; always something in this weary world, and you teetotal, anti-smoking fellows are such a serious lot.  Nothing like a good cigar for making you philosophical.  What is it now?" and he leaned back in his chair, the picture of lazy unconcern.

    "Some scandal about old Scholes's daughter—but you won't know him—before your time."

    "Slagden?  Old Scholes?  Now, where have I heard that name?  Nathaniel Scholes, is it?" and the manager manifested sudden interest.

    "I believe the name is Nathaniel.  He used to be a popular local preacher.  His daughter seems a flighty sort of creature—but it is no use troubling you with it."

    At the same time, the minister could not help noticing that the manager had become exceedingly attentive all at once, and was letting his cigar go out.

    "Well, but I'm interested; I know— But go on.  Put your feet on that stool, and tell me all about it, please."

    The Super's only complaint against his favourite officer was that he never took things seriously enough, and made jokes about even the gravest matters.  Encouraged, therefore, by a soberness which he attributed to kindly interest in himself, he told all he knew about the case in hand, and enlarged somewhat on difficulties with which it seemed to be beset.  He was disappointed, however, to discover that after the first few minutes his friend was not listening.  He had attended eagerly enough whilst he was explaining all about the Scholeses and the charges against Milly; but when he entered into his own perplexities the manager seemed to go off into musings of his own, and was obviously not following.  There was a long pause.  The Super had begun to wish he had never spoken; this was a busy man, though the soul of easy kindness, and it was but natural that he should take little interest in such pettifogging affairs.  But all at once the other asked, "And when do you say the meeting is to be?"

    "On Monday next, and I hope I shall be able to get done with it then."

    The manager had another fit of meditation, during which he took a small diary out of his pocket and consulted it.  "Mr. Super, I should like to go with you to Slagden, if I may."

    "You?  Nonsense!  I really couldn't bother you with such a thing."

    "I suppose you mean that I have no locus standi?"

    "Oh, as to that, you are Circuit steward, and nobody would object; but, Mr. Cartwright, it isn't worth your while, it isn't really.  It would only waste your time—and—and annoy you."

    "Then I'll go with you; I may even be able to help you.  Come down here for a cup of tea, and we'll drive over."

    The minister, surprised and puzzled, continued his protests; but the manager, expressing a strong curiosity to see "th' chapil i'th ginnel," as the Slagden sanctuary was often called, insisted on having his way, and so it was arranged as he had suggested.

    Never had the gable-end Parliament so many and such protracted sittings as during the days between Noyton Wakes and the ever-memorable night when Milly Scholes was tried for her sins.

    The bench against the house-end was filled every evening, and those uncomfortable opposition seats in the old pear-tree's naked roots were fully occupied.  The debates, interminable and windy, were nevertheless very unsatisfactory.  Billy Whiffle, in a state of chronic elation, told the story of the visit to the Super every night for the benefit of some fresh listener, and by Sunday the additional embellishments rendered the story barely recognisable to those who had heard the first bald outline.  David Brooks appeared a less and less heroic figure every time the story was rehearsed, but he was so anxious to keep Billy in his present state of mind that it was only at some unusually outrageous piece of exaggeration, and when the tale told most cruelly against himself, that he ventured to demur; and even then, when Billy produced that pièce de résistance, the Super's mandate for the meeting, he was fain to take refuge in silence.

    Peter Jump, the blacksmith, achieved undesirable distinction by propounding a novel and altogether unpopular explanation of the case.  Milly was more to be pitied than blamed.  All musicians were known to be "fawse" and "gallous" where women were concerned, and the oboist had simply collogued Milly into flirtation by his own overpowering fascinations; but as this was a reflection on his class, Dan Stott the choirmaster repudiated it with the utmost scorn, and thus much of the time for debate was occupied in what was to most of the senators mere frivolous by-play.  What puzzled some of the more silent and reflective was that those two doughty old champions, Seth and Saul, although most exemplary in their attendance, took no part whatever in the deliberations, Saul contenting himself with looks of owlish wisdom and an "I-could-a-tale-unfold" sort of expression, supplemented by sudden and utterly inexplicable bursts of laughter, whilst Seth sat in stolid silence, consuming most alarming quantities of tobacco, and listening to all that was said with his old wooden, expressionless look.  Another perplexing circumstance was the manner and conduct of Milly during these portentous days.  In the daytime, mangle or no mangle, she was almost always singing.  One night she went off to sing at the Pye Green harvest festival, and came home in a cab; and this staggering story was capped next day by the information that she had taken her father out that very afternoon for a drive, a mere pleasure trip, and had paid the landlord of the "Dog and Gun" three-and-sixpence for the hire of the conveyance.  Behind the former of these stories there was a suggestion so dark that even the baser spirits dared not hint at it, and had to be content with rolling their eyes round at each other with looks significant of unutterable things.  That she had got poor weak-minded Jesse Bentley into her clutches once more was only too evident, for that infatuated young man walked boldly to the Mangle House before the very eyes of the assembled Parliament every night, and sometimes had not returned when the sittings were adjourned.

To an extra sitting, got together apparently by mere instinct immediately after the Sunday morning service, Billy Whiffle, with gaping mouth and bulging eyes, brought two fresh pieces of information.  The first was that Milly Scholes had put a whole half-crown into the collection-box that morning, and the other that the third minister, who had occupied the pulpit, had brought word that Billy was to have all the witnesses ready, but keep them in another room, not too far away from the one in which the meeting should be held.  The commission spoilt Billy's dinner, and his tea also, for that matter; but late that night he was able to inform the gable-enders that he had got Maria Bentley, David and Tizzy Brooks, and a youth from Weaver's Yard to give evidence, but had failed altogether with Emma Cunliffe, who, though the most injured person in the village, according to Maria, peremptorily refused to have anything to do with what she was inconsiderate enough to call the "persecution" of the mangle girl.  At noon on Monday Billy deemed the occasion of such exceptional importance that he had "knocked off" for the day, and afterwards most fervently wished he hadn't; for what with visits from such of the neighbours as were at home and brought new suggestions, intermittent badgerings from "owd Grunt," the deaf chapel-keeper, who insisted upon knowing which vestry he must get ready for the meeting, and the doleful lamentations of Billy's wife, who had forebodings, the poor official was worried almost to death; his own increasing nervous agitation making difficulties of things that would not have disturbed him for a moment under happier circumstances.  All afternoon he snapped and snarled at his wife, and when Maria Bentley came round about four o'clock to give him a sort of final priming, he fell upon her fiercely as the author of all his troubles, ordered her out of the house in one breath and implored her not to desert him in this extremity in the next.

    On his way from school Saul Swindells called to intimate, with a look of profoundest mystery, that Milly would be defended by counsel—i.e., himself; and as the schoolmaster was not in his blustering, but in his quiet mood, Billy's very soul quaked within him, and he wished both David Brooks and Maria Bentley at the bottom of the sea.

    Then he began to show signs of illness, and heard his wife declare that he should not go out of the house that night for anybody, with considerable relief.  "Tha knows best, wench," he murmured piteously.  "Aw'm allis reet when Aw tak' noatice o' thee; Aw've said sa hunderds o' toimes."

    A rumour, traced to Tet Swindells, that Milly had no intention of answering the charge preferred against her, gave the suffering steward temporary relief; but when the witnesses, according to his own strict injunctions, began to assemble at his house, Billy's physical affliction took a more serious turn, and he commenced to writhe and groan, with one hand on his stomach and the other on his brow, pacing restlessly about the sanded floor the while, and rejecting Maria's encouraging words with weary shakes of the head.

    In spite of the fact that his cottage was now filled with curious neighbours, he dropped into his chair in complete collapse when some one brought the information that the minister had arrived, accompanied by the senior Circuit steward.  The administration of aniseed and hot balm wine relieved him somewhat, but just as he was commencing an argument with the persistent and remorseless Maria, that it wanted seventeen minutes to the time of the meeting, the door opened, and "owd Grunt" bawled out in the deaf man's loud manner, "Th' minister wants thi, Billy."  The terrified official made a sudden dart for the staircase, ascended to his bedroom in two or three strides, banged and bolted the door, and was heard protesting plaintively from within that he "chucked th' job," and wouldn't be steward another minute for "aw th' brass i' Aldershaw Bank."  It took fully ten minutes and much coaxing through the keyhole before David could induce his henchman to open the door, and when at last he was induced to start for the chapel, he walked thitherwards with Maria on one side and young Brooks on the other, with a group of half-grown girls and boys bringing up the rear.  As he was thus conducted along, looking like a criminal going to execution, he was heard to protest that no power upon earth should induce him to remain any longer in his official position.

    Old Grunt, with characteristic perversity, had selected the minister's vestry, the smallest and most inconvenient room on the premises, for the meeting, and this meant that the witnesses would have to wait in the chapel until called upon.  As the chapel-keeper was too deaf to be argued with, the minister had already taken his place at the vestry-table and was waiting the arrival of his colleagues.  Peter Jump, as Poor steward, was also there, and Jacob o' th' Donkey-croft, who had succeeded old Scholes, as leader of an almost extinct class which usually held its meetings at the leader's house.  The Circuit steward, who with the aid of a lamp had been inspecting the curious old chapel, now sat on the preacher's right, with a sort of anticipatory twinkle in his eye.  Billy was the only person in Slagden whom he knew, and when that worthy was conducted into the room by a young man and a perspiring female, he rose and held out his hand.  Billy took the proffered palm very shyly, and in answer to an inquiry about his health, observed that it was "rayther dampish," which, though evidently intended as a comment upon the weather, exactly described his own condition.

    Maria Bentley, in virtue of her office as leader, had a place in the meeting, and now claimed it for the first time by sinking into a seat by the wall side, whilst Billy's male sponsor retired into the chapel.

    The Circuit steward sat back in his chair and prepared himself for entertainment.  A shuffling footstep, heard above Billy's whisperings to the minister, announced a new-comer, and Seth Pollit, dragging his feet listlessly after him, strolled into the room, wearing the most wooden and stupid look.  "Another character," said the steward to himself with relish, and he was just moving in his chair so as to be able to study the milkman, when his attention was diverted by another arrival.  This was a tall, strong-featured man, of haughty mien, and dressed in funeral black.  He carried in one hand an antique silk hat, which he held out ostentatiously before him, and which had most obviously been polished for the occasion.  The new-comer had on a portentously high collar, encircled by a many-folded ministerial necktie, over which the wearer surveyed the company with severe condescension.  He had a long quill pen behind his ear, a small unspillable bottle of ink hung with a tape to the button of his waistcoat, a roll of foolscap paper in his hand, and a large book with several of the pages turned carefully down, under his arm.  He surveyed the shrinking Billy with withering disdain, saluted the minister with cold non-committal formality, responded to his introduction to the Circuit steward with a long sweeping bow and a wave of his shiny hat, and took a seat next the milkman.  The manager-steward metaphorically hugged himself; he had often heard tales about Saul Swindells, but evidently the half had not been told.  Unlike his companion, the minister seemed depressed, and responded with mild deprecatory surprise to the steward's glance of suppressed mirth.

    The meeting was now fully constituted, every person having a legal right to a seat being present, and the Super arose to open the proceedings with prayer.  One person did not derive much profit from the exercise, for the visiting Circuit steward discovered in a moment or two that there were either a good many witnesses waiting in the chapel, or that several who were not witnesses had joined the others; for the larger building, with its one smoky-chimneyed lamp, made an excellent whispering gallery, where several sibilant conversations were being carried on at the same time.  Another and nearer sound causing him to open his eyes and turn his head, he was just in time to discover two faces flattened against the panes of the little high window, the sudden disappearance of which revealed for a moment the capped tops of a number of heads.  The villagers were evidently intent on having some share in the proceedings.  The devotions over, the minister, without resuming his seat, was proceeding to announce the business and suggest the best method of action, when a strong, harsh voice rang out from the far corner of the room, and Saul Swindells, drawn up to his full height and wearing a pair of formidable-looking spectacles, was heard demanding order.  "I rise to a pint of horder, Mestur Cheermon."

    "Well, Brother Swindells?"

    "Is this meeting constitutionally constituated, sir?"

    "I believe so; why not?"

    "Chapter an' voss, sir, chapter an' voss;" and Saul held up and shook a large volume.

    Whilst the minister puckered his brow to comprehend the meaning of the inquiry, Saul, obviously conscious that every eye was upon him, held his book at the proper seeing distance and glared at it in his fiercest manner.

    "I'm afraid I don't quite understand you,"—began the minister.

    "The law, sir, the legal dockyments; them as hinvokes the law should ston' by it, sir.  Wot saith the Scripture, leastways Grindrod?"

    The minister immediately named page and section, and scored heavily, the assembled leaders glancing with congratulatory nods at each other, whilst Seth Pollit, who sat next to his old companion, emitted a dismal groan.  Saul was everlastingly thrusting Grindrod down their throats, but for once he had met his match.

    The "counsel for the defence" looked a little dashed, but as this was not by any means the only arrow in his quiver, he cleared his voice noisily, held the book a little farther away, and went on, "Ha-hem!  Secondly, as it were, hez the person or persons charged with the offence been duly notified of the meetin', with a list of the charges?"

    "She has; I sent them to her myself through the post."

    Saul was evidently not expecting this, and was consequently nonplussed.  He stared hard at the chairman, fumbled with the pages of his book, took a confused and abashed glance round the room, and then, turning suddenly to Seth, and dropping into the vernacular, he cried, "Ger up, mon, an' aat wi' it!"

    The Circuit steward's chair creaked as he shook his sides in silent laughter.  The door of the chapel had opened a little, and a row of noses was visible in the aperture, whilst every pane of glass in the window had a face flattened against it.

    "No, no," interposed the chairman, "we must proceed in order.  We must remember, friends, that the character of a fellow-Christian is in our hands on one side, and the honour of our Church on the other.  Let us proceed with deliberation.  Brother Jump will perhaps take notes, as Brother—er—Whif—er—Parkinson is otherwise engaged; he has undertaken to prefer the charges."

    "Me!  Well, that's a licker.  Aw've nowt ageean th' wench, not me!" and Billy shrank away from the table and spread out his hands in helpless protest.  The minister glanced despairingly at his companion, who was biting his lip fiercely to keep back the laughter that brimmed in his eyes.

    "Then I must do it myself;" and, after detailing the various items of the accusation, he mentioned that the Society steward had insisted on the expulsion of the offending member, and would now tell them why he had done so.

    "If he doesna, ther's plenty as will; Aw will.  If that dirty powsement stops i' th' S'ciety, Aw goo aat, an' theer's my bewk!" and Maria Bentley, hot and angry, flung her class register upon the table, and stood glaring, arms akimbo, at the chair.  A sound of subdued applause came from the chapel, and as this made the minister aware for the first time that there were unlicensed spectators, he ordered the door to be closed.

    "Let us proceed in order.  What you say, Sister Bentley, may be perfectly true, but, you see, it is not evidence.  Here are certain definite charges, and we are here to have them proved or—or otherwise.  Have you yourself seen anything in the conduct of Miss Scholes that was inconsistent with her position as a member amongst us?"

    Maria had "seen nowt else," and began another tirade, until the minister had to stop her and insist on definite evidence.  Then Billy Whiffle, with a nervous glance at the chapel door, whispered something to the chairman, and eventually the witnesses were called in one by one and heard, whilst Saul, who should have been listening to them and cross-examining, was carrying on a fierce whispered argument with Seth in the corner of the room.

    Item after item of information was detailed, and the case began to look very black indeed against Milly, her enemies becoming more confident and elated every moment.

    "But, my dear friends," protested the chairman, "there is nothing here to justify these very serious charges.  Miss Scholes may have been indiscreet—"

    "Nay, hoo hasna!"  This was a new voice in the debate, and Seth, the speaker, who scorned to take any note of the stories told by his fellow-villagers, but who was roused at the remark, innocent though it was, of the preacher, rose to his feet, shuffled towards the table, and shouted, in what was to him unprecedented excitement, "Hoo's noather indiscreet, as yo' cawn it, nor nowt else; hoo's th' dacentist an' th' consistentist member i' this S'ciety, an' Aw con prewve it!"

    The vestry door was pushed open an inch or two.  Billy Whiffle and Maria Bentley were both on their feet and speaking at once, but the minister made them sit down, and then bade Seth proceed.

    "Perceed?  Perceed yursel'! ther's been ta mitch perceedin' i' this business;" and Seth, almost beyond himself with indignation, plunged on: "Th' wench geet thick wi' yon chap 'cause he did wot we owt ta ha' dun, an' helped her ta mak' a bit o' brass an' feed her deein' fayther!  The'r' poor—desprit poor, an' hoo's foughten wi' it an' foughten wi' it loike a blessed little queen, an' this is wot hoo's getten for it!  O friends! friends!"—and here his voice was broken by a choking sob,—"O friends!  Aw wur niver shawmed o' my birthplace tin ta-neet! bud Aw'm shawmed fur it naa—shawmed to mi varry soul!"

    A dead silence fell on the company, the minister staring at Seth without seeing him, and blinking his eyes as though to keep something back, whilst the visitor blew his nose with unnecessary loudness.

    "Goo on, mon! that's nobbut th' intryduction; give 'em th' sarmon!" and Saul was leaning forward, his chin over the chair before him, and his face glowing with enthusiasm.  Thus admonished and full of a congenial theme, Seth dashed into the tale of his and Saul's visit to Wiskit Hill and all the circumstances connected with it.  He pointed out that though the oboist had gone frequently to the Mangle House, Milly's father must always have been present at their interviews, whilst the various stories told by the witnesses about the two having been seen "walking out" all referred to one, and that the first, interview the two had had together; and they knew themselves that Milly had come out as a singer, which was the fairest confirmation of the story they could have.

    His tale, and the confirmatory evidence at which he only hinted, carried the impress of simple truth upon it, and when he finished with another pathetic reference to the thing about which every villager was sensitive — namely, poverty—even Maria Bentley realised that the case was lost, for that night at any rate; for though his testimony might be something short of conclusiveness by itself, his character was so high, and his words usually so few, that when, as now, he spoke his mind, there was nobody in Slagden at any rate bold enough to gainsay him.

    As he shuffled back to his seat, however, opposition sprang up from a totally new quarter; for Peter Jump the blacksmith, raising his head from his writing, suddenly declared that "that pawverty tale winna wesh, at ony rate; they'n tew paand a wik cumin' in if they'n a penny;" and before the minister could interpose, the crestfallen Maria blurted out, "If it isna chappin' wi' wed men it's hypocrisy, an' that's wur!  Nat Scholes is th' richest mon i' Slagdin.  It's no' pawverty; it's lyin', that's wot it is!"  The chairman raised his hand to check her, and, when she had done, the hitherto silent Circuit steward rose suddenly to his feet, remarking, amid stares of stupid amazement, "I think I can throw a little light upon that—if you will allow me."

    The minister demurred, doubting whether such evidence was admissible; but Saul bawled out, "Go on, brother!" and the others murmured eager assent.

    "I don't in the least wonder at the remarks that have been made about the poverty of the Scholeses," he began, "and let me say at once that, mysterious as it may appear to you, it is all true.  Now that I know both sides of the matter, I marvel that they have not starved themselves to death."

    Peter Jump began to shake his head, Maria had a sceptical sneer on her lips, but the rest were only too eager for him to proceed.

    "And now let me tell my side of the story.  About nine years ago, when I was at the head office in Manchester, a country youth came in as junior clerk.  He was a nice lad, though rather shy, and soon got into favour.  He proved smart and painstaking, and we all prophesied for him a successful career.  Presently, however, a number of provoking defalcations began to be discovered, and after much careful investigation they were traced to this new-comer.  We all refused to believe it.  But the evidence seemed irresistible, and so he was carpeted, and lost all the sympathy he had previously gained, by braving it out and denying everything.

    "Well, it doesn't do a bank any good when these things occur, and so it was decided to give him every chance and encouragement to confess, or at any rate replace the money—altogether some six hundred pounds.  We could not see that he could have done it by himself, and we wanted to reach his confederates.  The old manager talked to him very kindly, but he stuck to his innocence in spite of everything, and all persuasion was in vain.  Then we sent for his old father, and when I saw him—for it was my duty to receive him and conduct him to the manager—my heart sank within me.  I could see that he was a man of high character, though a countryman, and that he had got his deathblow.  The meeting between father and son will live in my memory to my dying day.  The father proved as stubborn as the boy, but when the evidence was shown to him, he—well, he fainted and dropped on the office floor.  When he came round, he went on his knees to the manager and pleaded in a way that would have melted a heart of marble.

    "Well, to make a long story short, it was agreed at last that the lad should not be prosecuted, but that they should pay back the deficiency.  The old fellow had no ready money, or very little, but he made such an impression on my chiefs that they consented that if he could pay the half at once he should be allowed to replace the rest by instalments.  Well, the half was paid, I learnt recently, by the sale of the old man's farm stock and implements and, in fact, all he had.  The boy, I found, was making a shifty sort of living selling papers in Manchester.  In time, of course, the thing went out of my mind, until I was appointed manager at Aldershaw, and then I found that a shabbily dressed female, looking half starved and very much frightened, came regularly to the bank to pay another instalment of that very debt.  I guessed how hardly it was got, for she brought it in small money, shillings and even sixpences, paying as a rule about five pounds a month.  Well—" But at this moment several choky voices cried out gaspingly, "Whoa wur it?  Whoa wur it?"

    "Gentlemen," said the minister, with misty eyes, "let the speaker finish."

    "Well, three weeks ago a strange thing happened.  An old servant of the bank in town fell down a grid as he was going home from some not very sober party, and was so seriously injured that his life was despaired of.  He sent for me, and there on his dying bed unfolded to me the cunning and wicked scheme by which for years he had defrauded the bank.  He had taken the money for which the youth had been dismissed, and much more.  Well, gentlemen, I set to work at once to find the injured youth—now, of course, a man.  I found that the money had almost all been repaid by the father and sister, and that they were struggling in the direst poverty to discharge the liability they had incurred.  That old man was Mr. Nathaniel Scholes, and that bl—bl—blessed daughter was the young woman you have been trying here to-night."

    Amid the intensest silence the manager dropped into his chair, the minister covered his face with his hands, and sniffs and suppressed sobs began to be heard.  Then there was a struggling groan, a shuffle of feet, and Maria Bentley, fighting as for breath, and clenching her hands and nipping her eyes together, fought down presently an emotion that was choking her, and gasped out, "May God forgive a wicked woman!"

    Half an hour later Milly sat with quiet, downcast look in her father's chair at the Mangle House, Jesse Bentley on one side and her long-absent brother Josiah on the other, whilst the minister and the Circuit steward and all the best-known Slagdenites filled the room.  The preacher made a little speech, strangely confused and inconsequent for so practised a speaker.  But Milly held down her head.  Confessions, apologies, explanations, and glowing eulogies were offered to the new heroine, but she seemed as though she did not hear.

    Maria Bentley, shrinking in a new shame into the back corner, called across the room that she was not fit to black her clogs, and Dan Stott gave her a little nip on the arm and declared that "Jinny Linn wur a foo' to her"; but still the mangle girl had nothing to say.  One or two of the little groups started tentative conversations, but it was not a success; everybody was waiting for and watching the chief figure in the scene, wondering why she did not raise her head and talk.  Presently, however, she lifted her eyes suffused with moist tears and soft, gracious light, and fixed them on the Circuit plan hanging on the opposite wall.  Everybody followed her glance; she could not read it at that distance, but she seemed to see some wondrous beauty and interest in it.  Then she flushed a little, tender tears began to steal down her cheeks, she fought with some rising emotion for a moment, and then, with a blush and a tender smile, she said, "Mi muther wur rare an' fain when his name wur at th' top o' th' plan," and then suddenly dropping her voice almost into a whisper, she continued, "Bud it's ta'n a bit o' keepin' theer."


 
CHAPTER XXIV.

A DOUBLE WEDDING


WHEN the Super came to think over the matter afterwards, he was not quite sure that the spirit and motive of Milly's struggle were as beautiful and commendable as they had appeared on the night of the leaders' meeting.  It seemed to him that her pride in her father's high reputation and his place on the Circuit plan was a little strained, whilst the struggles she had made and the sorrows she had borne, rather than divulge their dreadful secret, were things not without alloy.  He could not help feeling that if she had allowed her circumstances to be known she might have escaped some of her bitterest trials, and have received the assistance which she so richly deserved.

    But the Slagdenites had no such misgivings, and would probably not have understood if he had described them; it would have been worse than useless, in fact, for him to have explained.  They understood Milly perfectly, and to them her conduct was simply ideal.  It would have been waste of breath to have argued that her brother's disgrace did not in the least affect her father's name, and equally useless to point out that the pride that struggled to conceal poverty might easily be pushed to extremes.  To them it was the highest virtue and the purest religion.  Poverty is the poor man's devil, and living as the villagers did in hard times and a decaying hamlet, haunted ever by the shadow of the grim demon, they entered deeply into old Nat's and his daughter's feelings, and had nothing for them but glowing admiration.  They measured exactly the degree of horror with which the sometime farmer contemplated the possibility of sullying a name that had become so precious and fragrant, and comprehended perfectly why, in spite of his innocence, the well-nigh forgotten son had kept carefully away from the village until the day when he could look his neighbours in the face.  They appreciated all that it must have cost the Scholeses to so effectually conceal the great dishonour, and the pride that made them endure in silence suspicion, misrepresentation, and so flagrant a disgrace as the stang riding, rather than admit a poverty which could only be explained by the laying bare of their terrible secret.

    Little by little the details came out.  The long-absent Josiah, whose very occasional visits to his relatives were always made after dark, and had given rise to some of the suspicions for which Milly had suffered so keenly, had barely kept himself in his precarious news vending; but when his innocence was made clear, though he was now too old to be taken back, unless he very much wished it, the bank people made such reparation as they could by a substantial monetary compensation.  The money paid by Milly and her father, with interest at the rate of five per cent., was placed to Nat's account at the bank, and the undisguised joy of the villagers was complete when it was known that the old herbalist would end his days as a capitalist.

    A feeling the Slagdenites could not have explained made them oddly shy of Milly, but they more than made up for it by the way in which they lionised Josiah.  David Brooks was the only one of the persecutors of Milly who kept aloof, but popular opinion was too strong for him, and when the oboist came over from Wiskit Hill, and, after a clumsy apology for the assault, presented David with a nonsuch piccolo as an atonement, there was nothing for it but to fall into line with the rest; and so, when it was known that Milly had sold the mangle and her goodwill, together with the stock of herbs, to old "Nan o' th' moor-edge" previous to her marriage, he sent his sister Tizzy to ask Maria Bentley to request the happy Jesse to explain to Milly that she could have one of his empty houses on her own terms.

    In the happy days that followed, Milly grew fairer every hour under the eyes of the proud and rejoicing villagers.  Her flesh returned as by magic, and her graceful limbs became rounded and youthful once more; whilst the new dresses she procured somewhere helped to make her the prettiest figure save one in Slagden.  She was only too proud to be second to pretty Emma Cunliffe, and as there were already signs that sooner or later her heart's desire would be realised in the union of the village beauty with her brother Josiah, Milly was more than content.

    The autumn that followed that unusually dry summer proved damp and humid, and Slagden, boasting only the most primitive sanitary arrangements, fell a victim to the prevalent fever, little Tet Swindells being one of the first to go down.  Unhappily, however, Tet did not recover like the rest; her disorder was of the kind called "Slow," and in Tet's case, at least, it amply justified its name.  More than once she was pronounced out of danger, but she never attempted to rise from her bed, and there was always a subsequent relapse.

    Milly's wedding-day was fixed at last, and Slagden prepared to do fitting honour to the great occasion.  The "chapel i'th ginnel" was not licensed; for, sturdy Nonconformists though the villagers were, they would not have deemed themselves properly married anywhere but at the parish church.  That noble old building was decorated for the ceremony, and though autumn flowers were not so easy to obtain a generation ago as they are now, it was the secret ambition of the chapel people to make the display a little more brilliant than that on the marriage of the vicar's niece, which took place in flowery June.

    The Super, who for all his moralising scruples took care to tell Milly's story wherever he went in the Circuit, sent a beautifully bound copy of Wesley's Hymns, and the Circuit steward from the bank a piece of silver-plate, much too grand for the modest aspirations of bride and bridegroom, but which the Slagdenites inspected with gloating eyes.

    The day dawned as brightly as though it had been midsummer, and though in the early morning there had been the first nip of frost, everybody declared that the day was "made fo' th' job."

    Without arrangement, but in obedience to a common instinct, the village senators gave the gable-end a wide berth that morning, and the Mangle House and its precincts were given up entirely to women.  The ceremony was fixed for half-past eleven in the forenoon, but a little after nine a message came to the bride from little Tet, and Milly, to everybody's astonishment, began to dress at once, and sent word to the happy but nervous groom that he must hurry up.  About half-past ten a little group of women began to make their way to the church to get good seats, and, as they passed the schoolmaster's cottage, their voices dropped almost to whispers, for it was known that Tet was much worse.

    And then appeared a most extraordinary spectacle; for a little before eleven the bride and bridegroom were seen on the old road, dressed in every bit of their wedding finery, and walking arm in arm towards the schoolmaster's house.  The Slagden women were scandalised, but it was no use arguing with Milly Scholes, and they had to content themselves with staring after the gay couple, and then devoting themselves to an inspection of the bridesmaid and the wedding gifts.

    Meanwhile the bride and her future husband had reached Saul's residence, and were mutely conducted upstairs into the sickroom.

    Poor Tet, worn almost to a skeleton, sat bolstered up in bed, evidently expecting her visitors.  Her haggard little face seemed to have worn almost away, leaving nothing but two immense black eyes, one of which was partly veiled by a drooping lid.  The inconsiderate bride, reckless of crumpled frills and everything else, flung her arms round her little friend and burst into tears.  Tet, leaning her face against the glowing cheeks of her friend, lifted a long, contented sigh, and received the impetuous kisses almost as eagerly as they were given.  In the midst of these tender exchanges, however, the sufferer's strength seemed suddenly to fail, and Milly put her gently back on the pillow and watched her intently.  Presently those great eyes opened, and Milly, to awaken a momentary interest, stepped back to fulfil a promise and show herself and her clothes.  But poor Tet was too far gone: she tried to look, but her eyes were glazing, and even when Jesse, with a pathetic droop in the corner of his mouth, went and stood by his sweetheart's side in all his grand livery, the sufferer gave no sign.  A terrible fear came into Milly's face, but she dare not move, and a deathly silence fell upon them.  The two, with poor old Saul stifling his sobs behind them, watched the sick one for some moments, and as she gave no sign of life and her eyes were fixed, the bride was stepping, with white face, up to the bedside, when a faint, husky whisper of a voice startled her by saying, "Aw allis towd thi sa, didn't Aw?"

    "Towd me wot, luv?  What?" cried the choking Milly.

    "As Aw should be marrit afoor thi; an' Aw shall, Aw sh—" and with a convulsive shiver and a last fling of her wan arms, she cried, "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh!" and as Milly snatched at and held the thin but pretty hands, Tet's soul passed to its bridal, and there was peace.

    They were a very grave couple that stood that day at the altar—the death-chamber had cast its shadow upon them; but to Milly, listening to the solemn words of the service, the memory of the recent parting had given a new meaning and significance to the act she was performing.  She could not but be thankful that her crippled little friend had escaped a world she was not equal to, and she felt that the scene in which she had just participated consecrated the ceremony in the church as nothing else could have done.  She made the responses in tremulous but deeply earnest tones, and as she walked down the aisle the spectators missed the bright blushes of the happy bride, and saw in their place the face of a nun coming from her everlasting bridal, or a saint just fresh from a vision of God.

    Tet's death cast a sort of gloom over the festivities also, and the usually sparkling bride sat like one in a dream, and answered only when spoken to.  The breakfast was held in the long room of the "Dog and Gun," the landlord absolutely refusing to take denial; and, besides, there was no room but the Sunday school that was available.  The visitors divining something of Milly's mood, thought it best to let her alone, and did their best to please her by showing special honour to old Nat.  The old man, however, was absent too, and his partial loss of speech—now, alas! likely to be permanent—made him the less anxious for conversation.  It was difficult, therefore, to entertain him, and the courteous guests were somewhat at a loss to know what to do.  At the close of the meal some attempt was made at "toasts," and a number of more or less appropriate speeches were made.  Old Nat, though he listened eagerly, did not utter a word.  Suddenly, however, the old man looked round for his inseparable sticks, and began slowly to totter towards his daughter.  Every eye was turned towards him, and every tongue still, as Seth Pollit went and took the old man's hand.  Slowly he hobbled down the long row of guests, struggling painfully with his lack of locomotory powers, and suppressing with difficulty some inward emotion.  He stopped behind his daughter, placed his hands on the shoulders of the happy pair, paused a moment in evident prayer, and then said—

    "The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace."

    It seemed as though he had done, and heads had dropped as in prayer were being raised, when he took his hand from Jesse, and placing it with the other, on the head now, and not on the shoulder, of his daughter, he went on in husky, struggling tones—

    "The Lord deal kindly with thee, as thou halt dealt with the dead—and with me."





THE END



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