Thus it was that the days passed without any literate and discreet female descending on Frog Farm or any rejuvenation appearing in Martha’s bonnet; and the unread letter lay—guarded by two china dogs—on the parlour mantelpiece awaiting the carrier. For it had been decided, after nightly discussions that were a change for Caleb from the Christadelphian curtain-lectures, to fall back on Jinny after all. She was to read it to Martha in Caleb’s careful absence, and was to be stopped if the improper seemed looming.
Alas, the best-laid schemes of mice and Marthas gang agley, and by the day that Jinny’s horn resounded along the raised road that led to the farm, the world was changed for Caleb and Martha. There was, in fact—for the first time in Jinny’s experience—neither of the twain to meet her as Methusalem ambled under the drooping witch-elms towards the twin doors.
It was a tilt-cart,—with two tall wheels, and although Jinny steered it and packed it and unpacked it, and scoured it and hitched Methusalem to it, its weather-beaten canvas blazoned in fading black letters the legend:
You gather that she operated under the shadow of a great name, greatest as being masculine. Self-standing careers for women had not yet dawned on the world. If the first faint cloud of feminism had appeared that very year in New York, no bigger than a man’s pants, the Bloomerites had but added to the gaiety of mankind, and in rural Essex, with the exception of dressmaking, wherein man appeared unnatural, women were the recognized practitioners only of witchcraft or fortune-telling or the concoction of philters; professions that were the peculiar province of crones scarcely to be considered sexed. Though women earned money by plaiting straw, they had husbands on the premises. Widows, of course, for whom there was no provision outside the Chipstone poorhouse, were allowed to maintain themselves more manfully than spinsters: but then they were “relicts” of the masculine, had served—so to speak—an apprenticeship under it. But the business of plying between Chipstone and Bradmarsh was a peculiarly male occupation, and even the venerable name of Daniel Quarles would not have sufficed to shield or install Jinny had she jumped into his place as abruptly as Nip was apt to jump into the cart.
No, Rome was not built in a day, nor could Jinny have become the carrier “all of an onplunge,” as Caleb would have put it. That would have shocked the manners and morals of Bradmarsh, both Little and Long, and upset the decorum of Chipstone. A gradual preparation had been necessary, a transition by which Jinny changed into the carrier as imperceptibly as she had ripened into the girl. At first the small “furriner”—the carried and not the carrier—reposing in the cart because, after smallpox had snatched away both her parents in the same week, her grandfather, who had imported her, had nowhere else to put her; playing in the great canvas-covered playground that held as many heights, depths, and obstacles as a steeplechase course; petted by every client for her helplessness before her helpfulness gave her a second lease of favour; bearing a literally larger and larger hand in “Gran’fer’s” transactions as he grew older and older; correcting with cautious tact his memories, his accounts, his muddled bookings and deliveries, in due course ousting the octogenarian even from his place on the driving-board and carrying him first by her side and then inside in his second childhood, just as he had carried her in her first—a stage in which his cackle with the customers carried on the continuity of the male tradition; leaving him at home on bad days—whether his own or Nature’s—and then altogether in the winter, and then altogether in the spring, and then altogether in the autumn, and finally—when he reached his nineties—altogether in the summer; Jinny the Carrier was—it will be seen—a shock so subtly prepared and so long discounted as to have been practically imperceptible. She might crack Daniel’s heavy whip, but nobody felt the flourish as other than vicarious, if not indeed a sort of play-acting evoking the pleasure a more sophisticated audience finds in Rosalind’s swashbucklings. Not that she made any brazen pretences to equality in lifting boxes; she sat with due feminine humility while male muscles swelled and contracted under her presiding smile and the rippling music of her thanks.
Here was, in fact, the prosaic purpose of the little horn slung at her side—her one apparent embellishment of the tradition: it summoned her slavish superiors so that she might be spared alighting and re-climbing with goods. In face of the accuracy of her operations, this display of helplessness probably helped to remove the sting of an otherwise intolerable feminine sufficiency: it was perhaps the secret of her popularity. Even with the most Lilliputian packets nobody expected Jinny to descend and knock at their doors—one blast and old and young tumbled over one another to greet the coming or speed the parting parcel. It was indeed as if a good fairy should condescend to do your marketing, a fairy in a straw bonnet (piquantly tied under the chin in a bow with drooping ends), a fairy whose brilliant smile and teeth and flowing ringlets could convert even an order for jalap into poetry, nay, induce in the eternal masculine a craving for more. In fine, so topsy-turvily had this snail-paced transition worked, so slowly had Jinny’s freedom broadened down from precedent to precedent, that when strangers expressed disapproval at these mannish courses, Little Bradmarsh was shocked, Long Bradmarsh surprised, and Chipstone scornful. Not that they were at all prepared to argue the question in the abstract. Their prejudice against carrying as a profession for women remained as rooted and unshaken as the critic’s. Women? Who was speaking of women? Jinny was Jinny—a being unique and irreplaceable, “bless her bonny fice.” It contributed to her unquestionability that the Quarleses had been carriers for a hundred years—and more.
Nor did Jinny, for her part, generalize on the other side or take any conscious interest in the emancipation of her sex. Her horn blew no challenge to the world. It did not even occur to her that she was doing anything out of the common—the tilt-cart had been her nursery, it was now her place of business. She had come into its foreground so unconsciously that it was not as a good fairy that she saw herself, nor even as an attractive asset of the Quarles concern, but as a busy toiler—driven from morning to night rather than driving—and handicapped not only by her household and garden work, her goats and poultry, but by a nonagenarian grandfather, shaky in health and immovable in opinion. Fortunately for her temper—and for the chastening of a tongue only too a-tingle with rustic wit—Jinny regarded the cantankerous patriarch as no more an object for back-talk than a suckling. It had become second nature to soothe and humour him; and she knew him as she knew the highways and byways in the dark or the snow: where to turn and where to go round, where to skirt a swamp and where to shave a ditch. By way of compensation there was his affection—as primitive as Nip’s or Methusalem’s—and evoking as primitive a response. For Jinny was none of your genteel heroines with ethereal emotions and complex aspirations.
It was not that Nature had not cast her for a poetic part—she was small and slender enough, and her light grey eyes behind dark lashes sufficiently subtilized her expression, and when she was hesitating between two words—not two opinions, for she always had one—her little mouth would purse itself enchantingly. There was gentility too about her toes. As her grandfather remarked with his archaic pronouns and plurals: “That has the smallest fitten I ever saw to a wench!” She certainly did not dress the part, for despite the witchery of the bonnet, her workaday skirt and stout shoes proclaimed the village girl, as her hands proclaimed the drudge who scoured and scrubbed and baked and dug and manured: indeed what with her own goats and her farmyard commissions, she was almost as familiar with the grosser aspects of animal life as that strangely romanticized modern figure, the hospital nurse. The delicate solicitude of Martha on her behalf was thus a pure morbidity, for in going to and fro like a weaver’s shuttle, Jinny could scarcely remain ignorant that women were as liable to offspring as any other females, though it seemed a part of Nature’s order that had no more to do with herself than the strange, hirsute growths on the masculine face—or for the matter of that on Miss Gentry’s.
Mr. Fallow, the old pastor of Little Bradmarsh, who, though despised and rejected of Dissent, required—being human—comestibles, candles, and shoe-strings from Chipstone, as well as the disposal of his honey and his smaller tithes, was among Jinny’s favourite clients, her original horror of Bradmarsh Church having been early modified by an accidental peep one weekday morning, which revealed its priest as its sole occupant. Yet, standing in his place in his white surplice, he was going through the service with such devout self-forgetfulness that the confused child wondered whether the Satan of worldliness had him so entirely gripped as she had been given to understand. She did not know that this very praying all to himself would have shocked Miss Gentry as savouring of the abhorred High Churchmanship. Indeed “little better than a Papist” the Chipstone curate had pronounced the harmless old widower.
He for his part had long admired the little carrier, and perceiving the fine shape of her calloused fingers, no less than the smallness of her sturdy shoes, and enjoying the tang of her tongue—for the cottage women, though nimbler than their lords, were not witty—he had indulged his antiquarian vein (and the abundant leisure due to the ravages of Dissent) by tracing for her a less plebeian and more Churchy pedigree. Foiled in the hope of connecting her with Francis Quarles of “Emblems” fame, he found in Norden’s list of the Ancient Halls of Essex a Spring Elm Manor appertaining to one Jonathan Quarles. The flockless pastor had even journeyed in quest of this Hall and found illogical confirmation in the fact of its continued existence, in all the pride of mullioned windows and lily-strewn if muddy moat, though with its private chapel turned into a stable and its piscina bricked over. Henceforward he saw in the exuberant vitality and imperious obstinacy of Daniel Quarles only an impoverished reincarnation of hard-living but ecclesiastically correct squiredom, while in Jinny, with her generous visits to the ailing and bed-ridden on her route, he elected to behold a re-embodied Lady Bountiful, pride of a feudal parish. What was prosaically certain, however, was that Jinny had not even the education of Bundock’s bunch of girls, the only school she had ever attended being the Peculiars’ Sunday-school held at a house adjoining the chapel in an interval between the services. Thither, as to the services—her grandfather being a Wesleyan—she had been convoyed regularly by Caleb, packed into a cart with as many of the Flynt boys as had not yet flown off.
But the business itself forced reading and writing upon her, though when its sole responsibility devolved on her, and it was no longer necessary to confute the old man’s memory by the written word or figure, she found herself agreeably able to dispense with the learned arts.
Welcomed at lonely farmyards where fierce dogs sometimes broke their chains for the joy of licking her hand or of flying at Nip’s throat; not less welcome in village High Streets, where every other house would ply her fussily with orders that she took coolly and without a single note, her bosom knowledge of everybody’s business and her dramatic interpretation of any abnormal commission infusing life into her work that saved her from slips of memory; adored by all the swains and yokels who hauled her goods and chattels up and down, but radiating only a frosty sunshine in return, for none had ever been able to pass the ice-barrier that separated her private self from her professional geniality; jumping down herself only to give Christian burial to hapless moles, rats, shrews, leverets, and blood-stained feathers, or to glean for lonely old women or the numerous and impoverished Pennymole family the unconscious largesse of more careless drivers—turnips, lumps of coal, wisps of hay; chaffering with beaming shopkeepers on behalf of her clients, and hail-fellow-well-met with her fellow-carriers, encountered at cross-roads or “The Black Sheep”; Jinny pursued her unmaidenly career in fine weather or foul, sometimes wayworn, wind-whipped, rain-drenched, and with aching forehead, but more often with a vital joy that was not least keen when Methusalem—cloud-exhaling and clogged by snow that sometimes raised the road as high as the hedges—had to plough his way along a track hewn out by labourers, with here and there a siding cut in the glittering mass for carts to pass each other by. Those were days not devoid of danger: road, hedge, ditch, and field obliterated in one snowy expanse. Once Jinny’s cart had to be dug out like a crusted fossil of the Ice Age—and only the agonized howling of Nip had brought rescue.
It was the first time he had justified his air of managing the whole concern round which he barked and bounded and scurried as though Methusalem and Jinny were his minions. He had indeed commandeered them—jumping originally out of nowhere on to the tail-board—and however he strayed from the path of their duty in his numberless tangential excursions and expeditions, they knew he would never abandon them.
Like many other great characters Nip was a mongrel. His foundation was fox-terrier, and he had preserved the cleverness of the strain without its pluck. To strangers, indeed, he seemed a very David among dogs, attacking, as he sometimes did, canine Goliaths. But no dog is a hero to his mistress, and after he had adopted her, Jinny discovered that these resounding assaults on the bulkier were but bravado passages, based on his flair that the bigger dog was also the bigger coward. That was where his brains came in, as well as his baser breed. A sniff at a real fighter and Nip would evade combat, sauntering off with a nonchalant air. A splash of brown on his brainpan and about his ears, and a dab of black on his snout were—with his leathern collar—the sole touches of relief in his sleek whiteness. His head—beautifully poised and shaped—with its bright dark-brown eye, eloquently expressive and passing easily from love to greediness, from shyness to shame, invited many a pat from lovers of the soulful. Yet to hear him bolt a rabbit was to imagine a demon on the war-path: in a flash the cart would be left a furlong behind or athwart; his raucous staccato yells filled the meadows with echoes of blood-lust and revenge. But long experience had dulled Jinny’s solicitude for Bunny: never once was there a sign of a kill. Sometimes, indeed, when Nip was hunting a rat, the creature would run across the path under his very nose, but that nose, pushing eagerly for far-off game, never seemed able to readjust itself to what was under it. All the which maladroitness was probably artfulness, Nip scenting shrewdly that a successful sports-dog would have been hounded out. He knew well the foolish, treacherous heart of his mistress, who actually misled the hunt those autumn mornings that brought the high-mettled hares across their path with ears taut and every muscle tragically astrain. Up would come the beagles, with a long processional flutter of waving white tails, nosing forlornly and barking dismally, while he—panting to put them right—was tied paw and paw. How they set him quivering, those horn-tootlings of the gorgeous Master, though they did not go to his bowels as much as those staccato chivies that suggested that the green-and-white gentleman was one of themselves rather than a biped, or as those more elaborately contorted cries and rousing thong-cracks of the Whipper-in. A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind. And when all these hunters—four-footed or two-footed—including the draggletail of fat, breathless farmers and wheezing females, were remorselessly sent the wrong way by his brutal mistress, the poor dog could not refrain from wailing.
Even when the hare did not cross her path, her horn, imitating the professional toot, would allure and misguide the distant dogs. Nip’s own relatives, the foxhounds, more rarely came his way, but though his mistress’s sympathies with the quarry were less marked—her chickens being precious—Nip was still held in. But amid all his disgust the cunning dog remembered that his days of foraging for himself—before he had picked up Jinny—had not been rosy and replete: caterers like Jinny, he realized, did not grow on every cart, not to mention the cushioned basket from which he could bark at everything on the road, or within which, with a huge grunt of satisfaction, he could curl into an odorous dream.
A contrast in all save colour was the stolid Methusalem, though he too was of hybrid stock. While his hairy fetlocks proclaimed a kinship with the draught-breed of the shire, he lacked that gross spirit, and while his flying mane and tail flaunted an affinity with the fiery Arab, he was equally deficient in that high mettle. By what romantic episode he had come into being, whether through the wild oats of an Arabian ancestor, or the indiscretion of a mere circus-horse, or whether his tossing hair and tail were the heritage from a Shetland pony—as his moderate stature suggested—is not recorded in any stud-book. But it was impossible to see him without the word “steed” coming into the mind, and equally impossible to sit behind him without thinking of a plough-horse. “When Oi first see that rollin’ in the brook afore ’twas broke in,” Gaffer Quarles would relate, “Oi was minded of the posters of Mazeppa at the Fair, and christened that accordin’.” It was only when he discovered that this blonde beast was a whited sepulchre, that “Mazeppa” was exchanged for “Methusalem,” as though that antediluvian worthy had always been a doddering millenarian, and not at one time in the prime of his hundreds. The name had at least the effect of banishing expectation; his mere amble was an agreeable surprise. As a matter of fact Methusalem had still his Mazeppa moments. They came on Tuesday and Friday evenings when he was loosed from the shafts; at which moments he would roll on his back, kick up his heels and gallop madly round the goat-pasture to the alarm of the tethered browsers. And even at his professional pace he always kept his mane flying. One accomplishment, however, Methusalem had which no “Mazeppa” steed could have bettered, nay, which made a circus pedigree plausible. He could lift the latch of gates with his nose and walk through. It was a trick which Jinny, with her habit of not alighting, had fostered in him: if the gate did not swing to, she could usually close it with the butt-end of her whip—through the cart-rear at the worst—a procedure which, with her further habit of using short cuts and even private tracks like that at Bellropes Park, saved not a little time, and was some compensation for Methusalem’s general crawl.
If the local carrying business had grown indistinguishable from Jinny, it seemed no less bound up with her four-footed companions, whose ghostly figures, seen looming through the wintry dusk, sent a glow of warmth through the bleak countryside.
But to-day Jinny’s horn, Nip’s yap, and Methusalem’s pseudo-spirited pawing, were alike powerless to evoke the familiar forth-bustling of Caleb and Martha. Only cocks crowed and doves moaned, while from the river-slope came the lowing of cattle. Alarmed for the lonely and aged couple, Jinny jumped down and tapped at the door. Nobody replying, she lifted the latch and came from the joyous spring sunshine on a chill, silent piece of hall-way in which even the tall clock had stopped dead. She peeped perfunctorily into the musty parlour on her way to the kitchen—the lozenge-shaped motto: “When He giveth quietness, who then can make trouble?” seemed to have taken on a strange and solemn significance. But she knew that the kitchen was the likeliest lair, so not pausing to examine, the ominously unopened letter addressed to Mrs. Flynt which she espied on the mantelpiece, she pressed on to the rear. The kitchen, however, was still more desolate, not only of the couple, but of the habitual glow on the cavernous hearth. What wonder if Nip, who had followed her, set up an uncanny whining! She halloaed up the staircase, but that only aggravated the silence. She dashed next door to the shepherd’s section—similar solitude! With a feeling of lead at her heart she rushed back into the ironic sunshine and towards the orchard—now unbearably beautiful in its blossoming—and as she was approaching a remote corner that harboured the pigsty in which Martha’s pet sow carried on a lucrative maternity, she was half relieved to collide with Caleb who was moving houseward with haggard eyes and carpet slippers.
“Is anything the matter?” she gasped.
“Sow glad you’ve come. The missus keeps arxing for you. We’ve been up all night with her.”
“With your wife?”
He looked astonished. “Noa, Maria!”
Jinny’s full relief found vent in a peal of laughter.
“It’s no laughin’ matter—the missus wants ye to tell the wet to come at once.”
“But what’s the matter with her?” inquired Jinny, still unable to rise to his seriousness. “A snout-ache?”
“She’s a goner,” said Caleb solemnly. “We’ve reared up nine boys, but Maria’s been more trouble than the lot. The missus would bring her up by hand, and Oi always prophesied she wouldn’t live.”
Amusedly aware that Maria’s progeny had already exceeded sixty, Jinny offered to visit the patient.
“Do—that’ll comfort the missus and ye’ll know better what to tell Jorrow. Oi’ll hold your hoss. You know the way—behind the red may-tree.”
Jinny smiled again. The idea of Methusalem needing restraint amused her, but she did not dispel Caleb’s romantic illusion.
The sick sty was visible through a half-door that gave at once air and view, and over which Nip at once bounded on to the startled Martha’s back as she hung over the prostrate pig on its bed of dirty straw. Maria belonged to the Society of Large Black Pigs, and snuffed the world through a long, fine snout; but life had evidently lost its savour, for the poor sow was turning restlessly.
“Oh, Jinny!” moaned Martha. “She had thirteen last time, and I knew it was an unlucky number.”
“Nonsense!” quoth Jinny gaily. “Twelve would have been less lucky—at the price I got you!”
“Yes, dearie, but I’m not thinking of prices. She was a birthday present for my loneliness.”
“I know,” said Jinny gently.
“No, you don’t.” She wrung her hands. The self-possession Caleb had admired when the letter broke on their lives was no longer hers. “You’ve got lots of Brethren and Sisters, but I’ve got nobody to break bread with, no fraternal gatherings to go to, and even Flynt won’t be immersed, though he’s in his sixty-nine and we must all fall asleep some day. So it was a comfort to have Maria following me about everywhere like Nip does you, and I do believe she’s got more sense than the so-called Christians here, and would be the first to pray for the peace of Jerusalem with me if she could only speak. But now even Maria may be taken from me. You’ll send Jorrow at once, won’t you, dearie?”
“But what’s the matter with her?”
“Can’t you see? All night she kept rooting up the ground. Oh, I hope it isn’t fever.”
“Rubbish! Look at the skin of her ears. And she isn’t coughing at all. What’s she been overeating?”
“Nothing—only the grass Flynt has been cutting.”
“Why don’t you give her a dose of castor-oil?”
“She won’t take it. She knows we’ve covered it up—I told you she’s got as much brains as a Christian.”
“Let me try and get it down.”
“It is down. The piglets ate the mess up.”
“Oh dear!” laughed Jinny. “That will need Jorrow. Anything else, Mrs. Flynt?”
“I can’t think this morning. Ask Flynt.”
Caleb, however, proved equally distraught.
“There was summat extra special, Oi know,” he said, his red-shirted arm clinging heroically to Methusalem’s bridle, “for here’s the knot in my hankercher. But what it singafies Lord onny knows.”
“It wasn’t a new shirt?” she suggested slyly.
He shook his head. “Noa, noa; this keeps her colour as good as new. But the missus did make a talk about my Sunday neckercher.”
“I’ll get you a new one. Plain or speckled?”
“Oi leaves that to you, Jinny—you know more about stoylish things.”
On her winding and much-halting way to Chipstone, Jinny took advantage of the absence of the noble family and the complaisance of her customer, the lodge-keeper, to smuggle her plebeian vehicle through Bellropes Park, which was not only a mile shorter, but dodged the turnpike with its aproned harpy of a tollman; she loved the great avenues of oaks, and the shining lake, the game of swans, and the sense of historic splendour; and Nip, as if with a sense of stolen sweets, sniffed never more happily, though when they got within view of the water, he had to be summoned back to his headquarters-basket by a stern military note, a combat between himself and the swans not commending itself to his mistress. Some of these irascible Graces floated now on the margin, meticulously picking their tail-feathers, contorting their necks. But vastly more exciting were those of the flock far out on that spacious sparkle of brown water. They seemed to be going spring-mad and threshing the scintillating water with their wings, oaring themselves thus along, each one infecting the other, till the water itself seemed to be leaping in a shimmering frenzy of froth. Even the ducks reared up or stood on their heads in a sort of intoxication. And this sense of the joy and beauty of the spring communicated itself to the girl, not in jubilance, but in some exquisite wistfulness: some craving of the blood for mysterious adventure. Something seemed calling at once out of the past and out of the future. And then her thoughts wandered back to Frog Farm and the Flynts and the far-scattered youths with whom she had formerly ridden to Sunday-school, and suddenly by a flash from her subconsciousness she recognized the writing of the unopened letter on Martha’s mantelpiece: of the letter she had scarcely looked at. Surely, though the curves were bolder, it was the work of the very same male hand that had written on the fly-leaf of a Peculiar hymn-book the inspired quatrain—which she had admired from her childhood—beginning:
Steal not this book for fear of shame:
an admonition she thought peculiarly appropriate to the holy book it guarded. And with the memory of the fly-leaf surged up also the face—the long-forgotten, freckled face of the youngest and most headstrong of the Flynt boys: the Will, flouted as “Carrots,” but in her opinion the handsomest of the batch, who had always loomed over her with such grown-up if genial grandeur, and had given her his bull-roarer and threaded birds’ eggs for her before she had come to think their collection wicked. What a hullabaloo when the boy disappeared—he must have been hardly thirteen, she began computing—and she, the child of nine or so who could have comforted the distracted Martha, had dared say no word, because he had made her swear on that very hymn-book to keep his flight silent. Just as she was permeated by the solemnity of the book and the oath on it, he had thrown it away, she remembered, thrown it into the bushes from the wagon in which he was driving her home from chapel.
The details of that forgotten summer Sunday began to come back: most vividly of all, the boy struggling and sobbing when his buttons were cut off. He had been so proud of his new velvet jacket with its manifold rows of blue buttons, and lo! after Sunday-school his father had appeared with a somewhat crestfallen look and a pair of scissors, saying, “You don’t want all this flummery,” while Elder Mawhood—evidently the admonishing angel—had stood grimly by, intoning “Pride is abominable. Wanity must be rooted out.”
The boy had choked back his sobs, and apparently found solace in the evening hymns, and was further soothed by being allowed at his own request to drive the party home. It was felt—especially by Martha—some compensation for the buttons was due to him. Thus when the wagon had reached Swash End and the bulk of the Flynt family got off according to custom—mud and weather permitting—and walked up to Frog Farm, leaving Jinny to be driven round the long detour to her home at Blackwater Hall, she was left alone with Will.
It was then that, having asked her if she could keep a secret and being assured she could, he informed her to her admiring horror that the moment he had safely delivered her on the road by the Common, he would turn his horse’s head for Harwich, where (stabling the horse and wagon so that his parents might trace his intention) he would take ship as a cabin-boy or a stowaway for America, where he was sure to come across his brother Ben, and never would she see him again in Bradmarsh till he had made his fortune.
She could see him now, under a late sunset that was like his hair, with his flashing, freckled face, his blazing blue eyes, and his poor, defaced jacket, the thready stubs of the big buttons showing like scars. Their quaint dialogue came back vividly to her.
“Oh, Will, but can’t you make your fortune here?”
“No, thank you—no more chapel for me!”
“I know it’s hard—and you did look beautiful with the buttons—but isn’t it more beautiful to please God?”
“Rubbish! What does God care about my buttons?”
“He’s pleased, just as I like your giving me birds’ eggs.”
“But I didn’t give my buttons—they were snatched from me—through that, beastly old Mawhood.”
“But Elder Mawhood knows what God wants.”
“Let him cut off his own nose and not go smelling into everybody’s business. The other day he made poor old Sister Tarbox get riddy of her cat.”
“That was kindness, because it had to be shut up alone all Sunday while she was at chapel.”
“I believe it was only to make more rats for him to kill.”
“That’s not true, Will. You know Sister Tarbox is too poor to have her cottage cleared.”
“Well, let him look after his rats and cats—not me.”
“An elder must do his duty.”
“I hate elders and deacons and hymn-books. Yah! I’m done with religion, thank God.”
“Oh, Will, you mustn’t speak like that!”
“Fancy stewing in chapel in weather like this!”
“Isn’t this just the weather to thank God for?”
“No—it’s all silliness.”
“Yes, it is! You ask Brother Bundock—I don’t mean old Mr. Bundock. I asked him once who wrote our hymn-book and he said, ‘’Twixt you and I, the village idiot!’ ”
“You are talking wickedly, Will”—there were tears in the voice now. “You mustn’t run away, that’s more wicked.”
“Oh—I was an idiot myself to tell you. You are going to peach on me, I suppose.”
“Tell your grandfather about my running away.”
“Not if you don’t do it.”
“But I shall do it! And you promised to keep the secret. To tell would be more wicked than me.”
“I won’t tell, but you mustn’t go.”
“I must. Swear not to betray me. Kiss my hymn-book.”
It was with some soothed sense of restored sanctities that she had pressed her lips to the holy cover—she still remembered its smell and taste, salted with a tear of her own—but what a fresh and mightier shock, that throwing of the book into the bushes!
“Stop! Stop!” She heard the little girl’s horror-struck cry over the years; remembered how, as he laughed and drove on furiously with her, the phrase “drive like the devil” had come to her mind, charged for the first time with meaning.
Wilful boy had had his way: he had escaped from England and even—despite his diabolism—by the aid of the ninepence she had insisted on bringing down from her money-box while he waited trustfully outside her grandfather’s domain. But she had not responded in kind to the lordly kiss he had blown her as he drove off to America.
“Good-bye, little Jinny!”
“Good-bye, Will. Say your prayers!”
“Then I shall pray for you!”
When the hue and cry was out, and bellmen were busy with his carroty head and velvet jacket with the buttons cut off, little Jinny had also gone a-hunting—but for the outraged hymn-book. It lay now still hidden in a drawer—the one secret of her life—unmentioned even when by the bulky clue of the horse and cart the fugitive had been traced, as he designed.
Yes, she must disinter this hymn-book of his from its hiding-place, compare the inscription—she knew by now the rhyme was not original—with her memory of Martha’s letter. What was its postmark, she wondered. Well, she would find that out, indeed the whole contents, on her return to Frog Farm. Perhaps he was coming back—his fortune already made. And the revived sense of his wickedness was mixed with a sense of her own soon-forgotten resolve—or threat—to pray for him, and was blurred in some strange emotion, in which the glamorous freshness of child-feeling mingled with a leaping of the heart that was like the spring-joy of the swans.
But Jorrow could not make the journey that day to that remote farm. There were more important animals more expensively endangered and more easily accessible. Old sows were so fussy, and to judge by the symptoms it was a mere case for castor-oil. But precisely because Jinny had herself recommended this drug-of-all-work she felt unconvinced: it seemed a mere glib formula for being “riddy” of her. There was another resource, Elijah Skindle, who, having settled in Chipstone only five years ago, practised only among parvenus like himself. It was not because he was a “furriner,” nor even because he had started as a knacker and still had a nondescript status, that Jinny shrank from calling him in now: she had more than once deposited damaged dogs with him or deported them mended. But she objected to the appraising gaze he fixed upon her on these occasions, though to be sure her objection to these jaunts was not so strong as Nip’s, who, seeing in every canine co-occupant of the cart a possible supplanter, bristled and whined and barked till the rival was safely discharged. But, on her way home, overcoming her repugnance—for Martha’s sake, if not Maria’s or duty’s—she stopped her cart outside his pretentious black gauze blind and blew a rousing blast. A tall, black-eyed, grey-haired woman, issuing from the office door with a broom, who appeared to be Mr. Skindle’s mother, informed her that ’Lijah was “full up”: however, he could be found at the kennels if Jinny insisted on seeing him. She pointed vaguely to a field behind the house, visible through an unpaved alley yawning between the sober Skindle window and its flamboyant neighbour, the chemist’s. But it was in vain that Jinny clucked to Methusalem to thread the alley. The beast refused absolutely.
Alighting with some dim understanding of his instinct, she walked to the field-gate over which a horse was gazing at her. Lifting the latch, she wandered among other happily scampering horses in search of the kennels, finding at first only a barn-like structure, a glance through whose doors at the flagstoned paving that sloped to a centre turned her sick. For a pyramid of horses’ feet was the least repulsive indication, though even the homely skewers so agreeable to Squibs took on a sinister hue. The spectacle, however, served to make the kennels, when at last discovered, a lesser horror. But it was the first time she had seen dogs so far gone in distemper, and these rheumy-eyed skeletons, each chained in its niche, sullied the springtide and haunted her for days. She caught up Nip, who had come to heel, as though he too might pine suddenly into skin and bone. Nip himself, it must be confessed, regarded these shadows of his species with indifference, if not with satisfaction, as negligible competitors.
Elijah Skindle, discovered on his knees in the act of feeding a pathetic poodle, was as unstrung by the sight of Jinny as Jinny by the sight of the dogs. His black cutty pipe fell from his lips and he nearly stuck the dog’s spoon into his own open mouth. But mastering himself, and without raising his cap or his pipe or changing his attitude, he gasped out: “Hullo! Nip ill?”
Jinny replied curtly—for there was a familiarity that repelled her in his calling Nip by his right name—, “No, a sow at Frog Farm—Little Bradmarsh, you know.”
His heart leapt. Frog Farm meant an old inhabitant, local prejudice was then beginning to melt at last! But, “Rather out of my radius,” he said with pretended indifference. “Besides,” as he reached for his pipe, “my nag’s gone lame.”
“I could give you a lift,” said Jinny, outwitted for once, since it never struck her that this was precisely what Elijah had fished for and why he had lamed his beast. The spoon trembled in his hand, but he replied grumblingly, “But then I should have to come at once.”
“I’m afraid so,” said Jinny.
Mr. Skindle rose and brushed his knees. “Anything to oblige a lady,” he said.
“It isn’t me, it’s Maria,” said Jinny icily.
But Jinny was not altogether outmanœuvred, for while Mr. Skindle was getting his case of utensils, she filled up the rest of her seat—it was a stuffed seat covered with sacking—by means of a peculiarly precious parcel, needing a vigilant eye: no new device this, but her habitual protection against bores or adorers, and Skindle, she feared, was both. This swain-chaser or maid-protector was kept in a corner of the cart ready for emergencies, being an elongated package of stones, marked “Fragile.” The stones had to be jagged and uncouth or Nip would have squatted on it and roused suspicion. This was the only parcel she lifted herself, and it figured in her own mind as “The Scarecrow.”
And so, despite Mr. Skindle’s offer to nurse it on his knees, she put him behind her—not as a Satan, for his seductiveness was small. He had, it is true, a good styside manner, and his slim figure, outlined by a trimly cut pepper-and-salt suit, effused a sense of vitality. But his straw-coloured moustache, which was not without its female votaries, was for Jinny more of a puzzle than a decoration, for she could not reconcile its flowingness with the desolating baldness that any shifting of his cap revealed. His cranium was, in fact, like the advertisement of a hair-restorer in the picture preceding the application thereof. As fixed a feature of his face as the grey cap which concealed his calvity was the black cutty pipe stuck in his stained teeth, nor had Jinny ever seen him without a large pearl horseshoe pin in his tie.
“Please don’t smoke,” she said, as he climbed in by the tail-board, “Gran’fer would smell it.”
“And why shouldn’t he?”
“He’s a Wesleyan.”
“Oh!” He laughed without comprehension, a shade scoffingly.
“And the smell might get into people’s parcels,” she added.
Bestowing himself under the tilt as well as he could on a box, grazed at his side by a ledge he considered too narrow to sit on, and threatened with decapitation through a plank holding the smaller parcels that ran athwart the cart just above his head, Mr. Skindle gazed up over this shelf at the glorious view of the back of Jinny’s bonnet and feasted his eyes on her graceful dorsal curves and the more variegated motions of her driving arm, not to mention the succession of lovely rural backgrounds made for her figure by the arch of the awning. And his ill-humour melted, and though his pipe grew cold his heart began to glow. But Jinny took no more notice of him than if he had been himself a box. No wonder he began to feel closed and corded up, bursting though he knew himself to be with soul-riches. For a full mile, his extinct pipe in his teeth, he heard only the monotonous snap of Methusalem’s hoofs as if everything along the road was snapping in a frost. The unjaded steed had actually started off at almost a trot, and as the Gaffer explained once, “a hoss what has long lopes knocks his fitten together.” Then—as if to mark how completely her passenger was forgotten—one of her grandfather’s songs began to steal from her lips. It was not “High Barbary” nor “Admiral Benbow,” nor yet his favourite “Oi’m seventeen come Sunday,” which the nonagenarian sang daily with growing conviction. It was—and Nip would have been the first to be surprised, had he understood it—the old English air:
The hunt is up, the hunt is up, and it is wellnigh day,
And Harry our King has gone huntynge, to bring the deer to bay.
Perhaps it was the influence of her horn; perhaps she was an artist who could enjoy in song what she could not suffer in life. Or perhaps she loved the lilt of the old song and never thought of the meaning, or only of the bravery of the spectacle and the gay coming of the dawn. For, all untrained as she was, she vibrated peculiarly to music, and one of the wonderful moments of her young life was when she first heard a hymn sung in parts at the Sunday-school; to her ear, accustomed only to the solo quavering of the Gaffer, was revealed harmony; a starry new universe and a blood-tickling enchantment in one.
Almost at the first outbreak of the hunting song Nip appeared at a run, and with two bounds he established himself in his mistress’s lap—invidiously enough in Elijah’s eyes. For that silvery little voice, rippling along the lonely road with the unconscious joyance of a blackbird’s, completed the spell which the spring landscape—seen in that series of pictures framed by the arch of the tilt—was weaving on the doomed veterinary surgeon.
There were sheep, big and little, lying in the wide fields and great, newly ploughed spaces of red, freshly turned earth—for the first time Elijah felt the scarecrows as a degradation of all this primeval beauty. Apple-trees flowered in the cottage gardens and in the hedges was early May-blossom, and on the brinks primroses, anemones, and even a few precocious bluebells rioted in an intoxicating fertility of beauty. Larks rose palpitating with song, bumble-bees boomed, butterflies flittered, and ever and anon came the haunting cry of the cuckoo. And when Jinny’s voice soared up too, Elijah Skindle’s heart seemed melting down his spine.
“That’s a lucky dog of yours,” he said desperately, when the music ceased.
“That’s what I thought at your place,” she replied through the back of her head.
“Not had distemper yet?”
He saw her shoulders shudder. There was an awkward silence.
“You know I’d gladly look after him gratis,” he blundered on, “and you too.” Then, in a horrible consciousness of the pathological implication, he awaited the lash of her tongue.
But she must have been abstracted. For she only said politely: “Thanks very much. But I always go to Jorrow’s.”
Yes, he reflected bitterly, and always went there for other people unless Skindle’s was expressly stipulated.
But they were now approaching the first village after Chipstone, and the outside world intruded on the idyll. A dozen times he vaulted up and down to prevent interloping young men—sometimes armed with nosegays—receiving parcels too proximately; and he had a proud and malicious pleasure in their disconcerted unspoken surmise as to his privileged situation. The small coin of conversation appertaining to these deliveries Jinny did not refuse him, and every cluck she gave to Methusalem, every ripple of laughter on her busy way, deepened the spell. The unexpected faces; the quaint cottage interiors; the cheerful-smiling women in high green aprons who received stay-laces or bobbins, sugar or tea-packets, in bare dough-powdered or soap-frothed arms; the panting figures that tolled after the cart with forgotten bundles; the dogs—the fiercer in their barrels and boxes, the milder waving free and friendly tails; the quaint commissions and monitions, the salutations and farewells—“I’ll remember the twopence,” “And tell my brother, won’t you, about the christening,” “I don’t want any more of her puddings, they put the miller’s eye out”—all this fascinating bustle and chatter, spiced with friendly laughter, seemed to belong to an enchanted earth of which gaiety was the ground-note, not animal groaning. The windings of her horn completed his sense of fairyland.
In the remoter woodland regions he was possessed alternately with a disapprobation of her recklessness in trusting herself thus alone with a male, far from help, and a surprise at his own passivity in so provoking and romantic a situation. Of course he was going to behave like the gentleman he was, but why was she so irritatingly sure of it? Did she think he wasn’t flesh and blood? She might at least show some consciousness of his chivalry!
But his resentment at her professional nonchalance only served to confirm his long-standing suspicion that here at last was the girl for him: that he was choosing well if not wisely. Doubtless Chipstone and his mother would say he was marrying too much beneath him. But look at the farmers’ daughters—what lumps beside her! He admitted, of course, that the Blanche of Foxearth Farm to whom his mother mainly aspired was an exception, but then this Purley minx was hopelessly out of reach, stuck up on her pedestal of beauty, conceit, and culture, and throwing over even her affianced wooers. As for his neighbour, the chemist’s girl—what could his mother see in her except that annuity which would not even survive her, and she not looking particularly strong! No, with the present satisfactory amount of sheep-rot, glanders, and distemper he could afford to please himself. And if Jinny couldn’t play the piano like the land-surveyor’s widow, why one must content oneself with the horn, pending initiation into the higher life. Together they would work up the business. With Jinny’s connexion—though of course she must give up carrying and become a lady—there would surely be a trail of sick beasts in her wake: Jorrow would soon be out-distanced. They would live away from his office; that could all be turned into dog-hospital.
Such were the kennels in the air built by the enamoured Elijah as he sat on boxes or hampers or panted under their weight in his officious deliveries: an officiousness which drove out of her head the keg of oil destined for Uckford Manor.
“Oh, dear!” she murmured suddenly, a mile later.
Forcing the explanation from her, he cried joyfully, “Let’s go back.”
Jinny shook her head. “No time,” she said, and flicked at Methusalem.
“But I don’t mind being late.”
“I’m not thinking of you—but of the pig.”
“Bother the pig.”
“Is that the way you study your patients?”
“I’ve got better things to study.” He could only say it to her back, but he threw enough intensity into it to come out on the other side of her.
“Indeed!” The back seemed impenetrable. “You going into another business?”
“Why ever should I when I’m getting on so famously—ten pound a week, if a penny.” It was an opportunity made to his hand. “I know,” he went on, as the back remained rigid, “that folks pretend it’s not as high-class as real doctoring, but believe me it needs more brains.”
“Stands to reason. A human being can tell you what he feels and where the pain lays, but with a dumb beast you’ve got only your own sense and skill to go on: it’s us vets that should really be at the top of the profession.”
“But sick babies are dumb too,” Jinny reminded him.
“Sick babies have talking mammas,” he replied genteelly.
Jinny did not imitate them, and silence fell again, tempered by Methusalem’s snappings. Really, it was very awkward, Elijah felt, thus proposing to a girl behind her back. But he struggled gallantly. “Take stomach staggers now—if those horses you saw waiting to be killed this evening had been treated in time——!”
“The horses in your field?” cried Jinny, shocked. “But they looked so lively.”
“They’re all like that,” he explained. “Once out of harness they get a bit jaunty again, but they’re worth more dead than alive.”
“It’s dreadful killing off a horse that has served one!” Jinny burst out. “Just for a few shillings!”
“A few shillings? Why there’s horses over two-fifty pounds! Flesh, I mean,” he explained, with a chuckle. “Not to mention the skin, hair and bones. Why, there’s eighty pounds of intestines for sausage-skins!”
“Oh, do hold your tongue!” cried Jinny, feeling sick again.
“Yes, and what about his tongue!” retorted Elijah triumphantly. “It ain’t only Frenchies that get that. And his tail waving for funerals! And his hoofs in your own shoe-buttons!”
Jinny felt indeed as though hoofs had descended on her feet, and she could almost have sacrificed Methusalem’s high-waving tail to adorn her passenger’s obsequies.
“My neighbour, the chemist—he buys the blood!” continued the ghoulish Elijah. “He makes it into——”
But just here at a cross-road Jinny’s horn signalled to a smart young man in a velvet waistcoat, who was driving a trap, and brought him to a standstill. Would Barnaby deliver a keg of oil at Uckford Manor if he was passing that way?
That Manor was, it transpired, the one goal and purpose of Barnaby’s journey.
Jinny—well aware young Purley was homeward bound for Foxearth Farm—gave him a radiant smile, and Elijah threw him the keg and a furious look, a reliable fellow-feeling informing him that the velvety liar was going at least two miles out of his way. Downright dishonest he felt it, seeing that neither the young man’s time nor his trap was his own, but belonged to his father, the hurdle-maker. But what could you expect of Blanche’s brother? Let Jinny beware of the family fickleness, let her lean on a less showy but manlier breast.
“I wonder you don’t arrange your things village by village instead of letting ’em lay all over the vehicle,” he observed as she drove on.
“I shan’t forget where to drop you,” came the answer over her cold shoulder.
Then silence fell more painfully than ever, and the monotonous tick-tack of Methusalem maddened his conscious ear. The monstrous possibility began to loom up that Jinny’s affections were pre-engaged to some one of these numerous young men. His eye fell upon a coil of rope hung round a loose hoop of the tilt, and morbid thoughts of using it—whether on the young men or himself was not clear—floated vaguely in his usually serene soul. Presently he noted other coils on other ribs, and their plurality suggested it was for the young men, not himself, that rope was appropriate. What else were they there for, he wondered dully? Yes, let her fiancés go hang: engagements could always be broken off—nothing venture, nothing have!
To nerve himself for the great question he took advantage of the pause at Long Bradmarsh while Methusalem was drinking at the trough of “The King of Prussia.” But this imitation of Methusalem on a stronger fluid was fatal, for in Jinny’s persistent silence, the animal’s tick-tacks now grew soothing: he settled himself more comfortably on the emptier floor of the cart, with his head on a soft bundle, and watched the nape of Jinny’s neck till it faded into a great white sea of floating ice. He was struggling in it for hours, but at last the cold waves passed over his head, and Jinny, turning to throw out a parcel, saw that his cap had fallen off in his writhings, leaving his baldness almost indecently glaring.
So deep was he in his daymare that he was quite unaware of Jinny’s colloquy with another male whom her horn had hailed as they passed over the bridge to Little Bradmarsh. Not that there was anything in Ephraim Bidlake to excite apprehension, for he was a stalwart Peculiar, safely married, and residing with his family and two twin-nieces of his wife’s—Sophy and Sally—on board the billyboy whose great boomless black sail Jinny had espied darkening the water with its shadow. Bidlake’s barge was a cross between a Norfolk wherry and a ferry-boat, and plied up and down the Brad, loading at the wharves with its half-lowered mast for crane, or carrying man and cattle across the bridgeless sections when it had nothing better to do. There was not much money coming in at the best, and it was often Jinny’s privilege to eke out the barge’s larder under pretence of presents for the motherless Sophy and Sally, so tragically fathered. For Ephraim Bidlake, a shaggy giant with doglike eyes, had brought the “little furriners” from Hampshire when their mother died after their father—Mrs. Bidlake’s brother—had been transported to Botany Bay for burning a rick in some old agricultural riot against the introduction of machinery. The blot on their scutcheon had been concealed from the new neighbourhood, but had been gradually confided by Mrs. Bidlake to Jinny with protestations of her brother’s innocence—had he not been made a constable in the very convict ship? By degrees, too, she had conveyed to the girl a vivid picture of the trial and deportation. For the devoted sister had walked the bulk of the way to Winchester, in the hope of proving his innocence by collecting testimonies to his character, and had joined the mob of weeping women who hung round the gaol gates night and day, or crowded the court, only to witness the sanctimonious cruelty of the bewigged judges, and the tragic exodus of the damned in the prison coach, guarded by a file of soldiers, to lie in the hulks at Southampton till they were shipped to savage Australia, there to be assigned to brutal stockowners. It was an experience which had cost Mrs. Bidlake dear; her next child had been stillborn, and to this day she had never reared but one more infant, and that a still delicate one. But for the comfort of the Peculiar faith it would have been a cheerless household. She was now again brought to bed: it was to inquire about her that Jinny had hailed the barge, and very sad she was to learn from Brother Bidlake—when he had punted within earshot—that the new baby had succumbed after a few hours, though the “missus,” thank God, was recovering and the twins were “wunnerful good and helpful.” She was not sorry, however, that the undoctored infant had departed with a precipitation which rendered an inquest unlikely, for inquests were the bane of the Brotherhood.
It was twilight when Methusalem drew up again before the twin doors. This time Caleb did not fail.
“Sow glad you ain’t brought the wet!”
“But I have—he’s snoring inside,” Jinny called down.
“Lord!” said Caleb, taking another look. “Oi did see his head, but by this owl-light Oi thought ’twas a cheese.”
Jinny’s laugh rippled out and Elijah Skindle started up and sneezed. He looked round dazedly for his cap.
“We’ve arrived?” he asked shamefacedly, clapping it on.
“Yes,” said Jinny, “but the pig’s all right. I fear you’ve had a wasted journey.” She jumped down.
“Wasted?” He sat up ardently. “Don’t say wasted.”
“A good nap is a comfort,” she agreed.
“I may have dozed off—your singing rocked me to sleep, I reckon. But all the while I’ve been trying to tell you——” His voice broke.
“I know,” she said softly. “I heard you.”
“Did I talk in my sleep?” he asked innocently.
“Through your nose.”
He winced as at a blow on it. “That’s—that’s nature,” he stammered: “I don’t suppose even females are free from snoring.”
“Maria isn’t,” observed Jinny, patting Methusalem.
Martha hurried out happily, with a piece of sugar for the same favoured beast.
“Maria’s been walking with me!” she cried rapturously.
“And eating hearty,” added Caleb. “If you ask me, she was drunk.”
“Oh, Flynt!” cried Martha. “Aren’t you ashamed to speak like that about your own pig; and before strangers?”
“But that rolled and kicked last night same as a sow Oi seen once that swallowed a thick wine. Happen Maria got swillin’ at old Peartree’s beer-barrel!”
“How could she do that?” Jinny protested.
“Turned on the tap like a Christian. Same as your Methusalem opens our gate.”
Elijah picked up his pipe and his cap and scrambled down. “Appears to me I’ve been brought here under false pretences.”
“We’ll pay you all the same,” said Caleb with dignity.
“But how am I to get back to Chipstone?” He had followed Maria in reckless abandonment, and now came the prose of life with its questions.
“If we’re going to pay the gentleman,” put in Martha, “he may as well have a look at Maria.”
Mr. Skindle agreed it was as well to make a possible future patient’s acquaintance, but repeated his inquiry.
“There’s Shanks’s mare,” said Jinny blandly.
Caleb pointed towards the brook. “It’s onny seven miles by Swash End through Plashy Walk.”
“Plashy Hall has a dog,” objected Elijah.
“Well, you’re used to dogs,” said Jinny.
“My instrument-case is too heavy. You’ll have to give me a lift to your house.”
“With pleasure,” she said. “But Blackwater Hall is still farther from Chipstone.”
“Anyhow I can get a trap from the village,” he said firmly.
“No, you can’t, and even if you walk to Long Bradmarsh it’s a toss-up if you’ll get anything at ‘The King of Prussia.’ ”
“Well, take me as far as the bridge—I’ll pay extra.”
“I can’t guarantee Methusalem will go back.”
“That’s all right,” he said cheerfully. “Horses know I stand no nonsense. And now, Uncle, as soon as I’ve lit my pipe, I’ll be ready for the pig. Got a match?”
To his disgust, Caleb produced a lucifer and a phial of sulphuric acid for dipping it in. The now well-established friction matches—that boon to the idle and extravagant—had not yet reached Frog Farm, where even flint and steel had been dispossessed but slowly. But the relit pipe was comforting.
“Wait a moment, Mr. Flynt,” said Jinny, tendering a packet as he started convoying the vet. “Your neckerchief!”
“Neckerchief!” cried Martha. “And what about my new bonnet?”
“ ’Twas only to be cleaned,” Caleb reminded her. “And by the same token, mother, don’t forget we settled the wet was to read the letter.”
Elijah raised his eyebrows.
“Ah, yes—I’ll get it.” And Martha hurried within.
“You see, Jinny,” Caleb explained, “the missus got a letter from Cousin Caroline, and we thought the gentleman here could make one job of it with the pig.”
“But why can’t I read it?”
“You ain’t married.”
“No more is Mr. Skindle.” Elijah flushed furiously.
“Noa—but ef it’s too—too womanish, Oi’ll arx him kindly to break it to me, sow Oi can break it to the missus when he’s gone.”
“Is this the letter?” asked Jinny, as Martha reappeared with it.
“That’s her—came all of an onplunge,” he repeated.
“But that’s not from your Cousin Caroline!” said Jinny, with a thrill of excitement as she took it.
“Noa?” gasped Caleb, as if the world was tumbling about his ears. Then he smiled. “You’re making game—you ain’t opened her yet.”
“But who else is it from?” cried Martha, catching her excitement.
“Can’t you see? It’s from Will.”
“Will!” Martha gave a great cry, and clutched at the letter. “My baby Will!”
Caleb scratched his head. “Now which would be Will?”
“Will was the freckled, good-looking one,” said Jinny.
“Oh, Jinny,” said Martha. “They were all good-looking—took after Flynt. Dear heart, you can’t ha’ forgotten our tot after all that flurry. ’Tis only seven or eight years since he——”
“Ay, ay,” cried Caleb. “Him what mowed the cat’s whiskers.”
“No, dear heart, that was Ben.”
“To be sure. Ben’s the barber in New York—or some such place.”
“No, Caleb. That’s Isaac.”
“Isaac? Then Will ’ud be the one what married the coffee-coloured lady.”
“I told you the other day that was Christopher.”
“Ay, him in Australia.”
“Africa surely,” put in Elijah, puffing at his pipe with superior amusement.
“They furrin places be much of a muchness,” said Caleb. “And my buoy-oys were as like as a baker’s dozen.”
“There were girls in the batch,” corrected Martha. “But how you can forget that dreadful Sunday night, you who snipped the darling’s buttons——!”
“If I don’t see the pig soon,” interrupted Elijah, losing patience, “the light’ll be gone altogether.”
“Oi’ll git a lantern,” said Caleb placidly. “Oi often used to set and wonder how they lads knowed theirselves, the one from the ’tother. Well, the Lord bless ’em all, says Oi, wherever they goo, and whichever they be.”
“So you see,” said Jinny, with a faint blush hardly visible by owl-light, “there’s no need to waste Mr. Skindle’s time over the letter.”
“No more there ain’t!” said Caleb dazedly. “Come along, sir!”
But Martha still clung strangely to the letter she had snatched back. “You mustn’t strain your eyes, Jinny,” she said. “I’ll light the lamp. And you’ll take a cup of tea first. You must be tired out.”
“But I can see quite well,” said Jinny. Indeed the sky, despite the risen moon, remained blue, and splashes of dying sunset burned magically through the yet empty branches of the quiet trees. There was a great sense of space and peace and beauty: a subtle waft from the stacks; the note of the thrush was full of evening restfulness. Jinny took the letter from the reluctant Martha.
“He must be back in England!” she cried. “Look at the stamp.”
Martha staggered against the cart. “It’s very good of God,” she said simply.
Her emotion communicated itself to Jinny. Through misty eyes the girl watched a solitary heron winging on high through the great spaces, its legs sticking out like a tail.
“Ah, dearie,” said Martha, recovering herself, “never forget, to say your prayers.”
“I don’t,” said Jinny with equal simplicity. But she remembered with fresh remorse that she had forgotten those for the runaway.
“Ever since I was a little girl,” said Martha, “I’ve wanted to please God. But of late, Jinny, I fear I’ve wanted Him to please me.”
“Well, now He has,” said Jinny. “You’ll have Will as well as Maria,” and plucking out a hairpin she inserted it to rip open the loose wafer-closed envelope.
“Stop!” cried Martha. “Suppose it’s bad news.”
“Nonsense, Mrs. Flynt! Look how firm the writing is.”
“Firm—yes, he always was firm—even before he drove off with the cart. Don’t you remember that night—no, ’twas before your grandfather fetched you to these parts—he wasn’t seven, but that pig-headed he sulked in the wood all night—roosted up a tree like a bird, and never a move or a word when we came halloaing with torches!”
“Well, he’s not hiding now, for the postmark’s London and——”
“No, don’t open it yet, Jinny—suppose he should be married like Christopher!”
Jinny laughed uneasily. “Two black daughters-in-law aren’t very likely. Much more likely she’ll be blonde.”
“No, he can’t be married,” said Martha on reflection. “He never could abide girls. I don’t mean you, dearie; you scarcely had your second teeth, had you?”
Jinny began to rip the envelope. “We shall soon see.”
But Martha snatched away the letter again. “I’m sure you’ll spoil your pretty eyes,” she persisted. “Day-stars, Will called ’em once.”
Jinny laughed still more uneasily. “Then I ought to be able to read by ’em. But I’ll light my night-star.” And she moved towards the cart-lamp.
“It isn’t your lighting-up time yet, is it? You don’t want to be wasteful.”
“Well, come in and light me a candle a moment.”
“You seem in a great hurry to read it!” said Martha fretfully.
“Me?” Jinny flushed furiously. “I thought you’d want to hear what he says.”
“Don’t I know what he says? That he is in England again and coming to see his old mother? Isn’t that enough for one night?”
“It’s a great deal, certainly. But suppose—he wants something.”
“Ah, that’s true!” Martha was visibly perplexed. She did not herself understand the suddenly awakened jealous instinct that resented Jinny’s superior acquaintance with Will’s handwriting, that was subconsciously urging her to hug this letter to her bosom and not share its sacred contents with a girl she at last—especially after Bundock’s recent innuendo—realized as grown-up, and who seemed, moreover, to be claiming a co-proprietorship. And so it was difficult for her to frame an objection satisfactory to her conscious intelligence. But the letter was now in her possession, and that was a strong asset for her subconsciousness.
“ ’Tis a pity to tear open such a beautiful envelope,” she said. “You have your cup o’ tea. I’ll steam it over the kettle.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t time for tea, especially having to take Mr. Skindle a bit back,” said Jinny, almost as mystified as Martha herself. “I’m late already, and Gran’fer will be roaring for his supper. I must read it now or never.”
“If it was anything unpleasant,” wavered Martha, “Flynt would be very upset. And after sitting up all night with Maria—no, he must have a good sleep—better put it off till the morning.”
“To-morrow, I won’t be here. No, not till next Friday.”
“But I’ve got to go to-morrow to Miss Gentry and she can read it.”
“Oh!” said Jinny.
“Yes, Flynt wants to have my bonnet cleaned—vanity and waste, I call it.”
“But won’t that tire you—such a long walk? Why can’t I take the bonnet to-night? I’ll be passing her house.”
“We haven’t finished talking it over yet, Flynt and me,” parried Martha. “I might be having a new bonnet, you see, dearie.”
“Well, of course, it’s just as you wish. But suppose it rains to-morrow.”
“Rains?” repeated Martha, feeling—she knew not why—like an animal at bay. Then she drew a great breath of relief. Footsteps and voices were borne towards them. “Caleb!” she cried joyfully, “Will’s in London—he’s coming to see his old mother.”
“Good buoy-oy!” cried Caleb jovially. It was only what he had expected the letter would say, but at heart he shrank from the change—he had finally equated himself to the dual solitude, and the home-coming prodigal loomed as menacing as Cousin Caroline.
“Good boy?” echoed Martha. “I should think he is—never cared for girls. And still unmarried.”
“There’s a chance for you, Jinny,” chaffed Caleb.
“Oh, how can you talk such nonsense!” Jinny was furiously angry. “Basket, Nip,” she called sharply, and climbed up to her seat almost as swiftly as he leapt into his.
“Are you coming, Mr. Skindle?” In her abstraction and to busy herself about something, she automatically removed the parcel of stones from the driving-seat.
“In a jiffy.” Elijah did not bound as obediently as Nip—he could not lose the chance to pontificate before her. “Not at all so well as you think, Mrs. Flynt. We experts can see what even the breeder can’t. Keep her upon corn and peas—give her just soft stuff.” And he vaulted not ungracefully to Jinny’s side.
“Thank you, sir,” said Martha, impressed. “Have you paid him?” she inquired of Caleb in a formidable whisper.
“Dedn’t Oi say Oi’d pay him for nawthen?” he answered still more audibly.
“Well, take off your hat for good-bye.”
“But Oi ain’t inside,” said the obstinate, if confused, Caleb.
Jinny cracked her whip fiercely, and Methusalem joyously turned his nose for home.
“Good night, Jinny. Thank’ee for reading Cousin Caroline’s letter,” Caleb called after the receding vehicle.
It was symptomatic of Jinny’s new mood that she scarcely noticed that Mr. Skindle now shared her sacking. Her mind was wandering again over the ground covered by the Sunday-school wagon, and certain birds’ eggs, losing their later cloud of guiltiness, lay suffused with childhood’s holy light. Methusalem went unguided through quiet ways. The large, low moon, a pink clown’s face, peered through leafless elms and gradually grew golden. To the right of the winding road rooks cawed persistently, and once a small flight flew towards the cart; to the left more melodious birds whistled slow, high notes, or thrilled and gurgled plaintively, or scurried off, startled, as the cart passed. One kept on crying “Quick, quick, quick,” with a metallic sound as of shears snipping the grass, but Methusalem was not to be hurried. There was time to admire wherever a thatched cottage made a picturesque point or a pond mirrored the dying sunset; time to savour the subtle balm, where hayricks stood at the far margin of fields. Sometimes a little pig would run round terrified and finally squeeze itself under the fence, or a big gander would stand and hiss. Sometimes the road narrowed to a Gothic nave, but for the most part there was nothing but a far-diffused sense of keen air and great flat spaces, the dark blue circle of sky with rolling white clouds, the large green fields with their distant border of thin trees; a view unclosed and unbounded save by the horizon, though impalpably veiling itself as they journeyed.
Elijah Skindle’s mood had changed no less than Jinny’s. Though he now sat in the coveted proximity to her, and could propose to her profile instead of her nape—and her bonnet was of the narrow-flanked pattern, condemned by the more prudish of her sex, that left the profile visible—he was subtly conscious that he was really farther from her than before. Even when the delivery of the few remaining parcels necessitated a slight thawing on Jinny’s part, the whole spirit seemed to have gone out of the adventure. It was grown tasteless as a thrice-warmed dish. The very horn had lost its thrill. Even if he found a vehicle at “The King of Prussia,” he was thinking, it would be an expensive trip: they might charge him all Caleb’s half-crown. He found himself morbidly counting the coils of cord—there were five in all, he made out. And when the rooks he called crows sailed towards him, they gave a still more sable hue to his thoughts. He counted them, too, remembering how his peasant mother—now installed as his woman-of-all-work—used to curtsy to a solitary magpie, and the rhyme she taught him about the crows: “One’s unlucky, two lucky, three is health, four is wealth, five is sickness, and six is death.” Odd that matrimony was not mentioned, unless it was included in “two.” There were certainly five crows, he thought dismally—a sinister coincidence with the coils of cord. Then, cheering up, he interpreted the omened sickness as that of the local live-stock, a sickness greater than Jorrow could cope with, and he reflected that after all Jinny’s was a hard and toilsome life and her frigidity was perhaps due to its never occurring to her that he was willing to raise her to his status. Perhaps she thought he was just itching to take liberties. Well, he could understand her coyness: other men might indeed exploit such a chance; but he, he assured himself again, was a gentleman.
“That’s a slow couple,” he said, boldly breaking the long silence.
“Seems to me they fly as fast as the other rooks,” said Jinny.
“I mean the Flynts,” he said.
“Oh!” said Jinny.
There was resentment in her tone. She had not liked his calling Caleb “Uncle,” understanding well the urban contempt that lurked in declaring oneself a rustic’s nephew, and feeling, too, that however slow in the uptake Caleb might be, his wealth of homely crafts, knacks, instincts, life-wisdom, and nature-knowledge gave him a richer and deeper quality than this pert townsman. But Elijah persisted in his urban appraisal.
“No go in them!”
“Dear old turtles!” sighed Jinny. “But so long as they go at the same pace——!”
“Ah!” he said eagerly. “You believe in like to like?”
“Well, fancy a turtle married to a hare!”
“But a pair of hares now—?” He seized his opportunity. “You and me, eh?”
“Speak for yourself, Mr.—Bunny!”
“I’m paying you a compliment, Jinny, classing you with me for smartness. There isn’t a girl from Bradmarsh to Chipstone that can hold a candle to you. So that’s why, seeing a man must marry somebody sometime, and looking around as becomes a man who’s getting a bit—a bit——”
“Bald?” prompted Jinny blandly.
“And what does that matter?” he said, too intent now to be fobbed off by raillery. “The point is that with the practice and position I’m getting now, it would be a good lift for you.”
“I thought I was giving you a lift,” said Jinny icily.
“So you were—so you are—in that sense. But I didn’t need even that. My nag wasn’t really lame. I only made an excuse to talk this over. See?”
“A very lame excuse,” flashed Jinny.
“There was never any way of talking to you—you always so busy with parcels and me with patients. I’m not one of your flirting kind with fancy waistcoats, I want to settle down, and I’ve taken a favour to you.”
Even Jinny’s ready tongue had no repartee to this massive complacency. She could only articulate: “Have you, now?”
“Yes, I have. And I’d like to see you driving of a Sunday in my smart trap. Come, what do you say?”
“Thank you,” she said coldly. “I’d rather stay in my old cart.”
“But it’s such a shame—you so spruce and spry—tied to this ramshackle cart, when you might be adorning a higher sphere and sitting in my parlour instead of being at everybody’s beck and call.”’
He had chosen precisely the worst form of appeal. Confronted with this picture of parlour-stodginess, her rôle of Jinny the Carrier—Jinny the pet and friend-in-need of the countryside—seemed infinitely dear and desirable. And what subtly added to her anger was some dim presentiment in herself of other forces coming into her life, forces threatening to emerge from their picture-past, and to trouble the placid current of her career. Like Caleb she shrank from change. To shuttle for ever ’twixt Bradmarsh and Chipstone; with her grandfather, Nip, Methusalem, all immortal and unchanging as herself—this was all she asked of heaven: this and not too much rain and wind.
“You want me to sit in your parlour?” she cried in white revolt.
He took off his cap and bowed gallantly: “In silks and satins.” Then suddenly realizing his baldness, he clapped it on again.
“And give up my work!” There was an ominous light in Jinny’s eyes. But love is blind! Even the bats now beginning to swoop in the dusk could see more clearly than Elijah.
“I promise you you shan’t do a stroke!” said the fatuous young man. “As the wife of a veterinary surgeon, you’d be a lady.”
“And what would become of Gran’fer?”
“He’d have warm corduroys and plenty of gruel in the Chipstone poorhouse.”
“You heartless knacker! Get off my cart. Whoa! Methusalem, whoa!”
“How you fly at a man! I’ve already got my mother living with me, and she and your grandfather wouldn’t get on, being of a different class. But I’d be willing to pay his rent and get a woman to look after him.”
“Nobody shall look after him but me. And his business—who is to look after that?”
“Don’t worry. Some other carrier’ll crop up.”
“There isn’t going to be any other carrier here but Daniel Quarles, understand that.”
“Well, if you think you’ll find anybody to marry your grandfather——” he said sullenly.
“Who wants to marry? I shall never give up the road.”
“If you’re so fond of driving, there’s always my trap.”
“No good setting traps for me. I’ll hang in a cage in no man’s parlour. I must fly about in the woods like now—free!”
“Birds in the woods are sometimes hungry,” her wooer reminded her. “Suppose your business falls off—or things go to famine prices like five or six years ago. The gallon loaf ain’t always a shilling. Ten years ago I remember flour was two and ten the stone, and that only seconds, and tea was five shillings. With me you’d be sure of the fat of the land always—there’s no difference with me ’twixt Sundays and weekdays.”
“Oh, it’s a stuffed bird you want for your parlour.”
“Rubbish, I’ve got six stuffed birds in my parlour—in the loveliest glass cases!”
“But they don’t sing!” And Jinny burst mockingly into a song that had hitherto been a mere tune to her:
“I’ll be no submissive wife,
No, not I——”
He lost his temper. “Oh, you needn’t make such a fuss over yourself. I dare say I can find plenty of wives—with my connexion.”
“Among pigs?” she said sweetly. She jumped down and began to light the lamp. “This is your getting-out place.”
“It’s nothing of the sort—I go on to the bridge.”
“Impossible. My horse is lame.”
“I know all about that.” And snatching up the reins she had dropped, “Gee-up!” he called suddenly.
But Methusalem knew better.
“You’ll never get home that way,” said Jinny, smiling.
“Then how the hell——?” he began furiously.
“Shanks’s mare,” she reminded him again. “That’s not lame.”
He gave her a long, nasty look as though meditating the law of the stronger. But he tried pleading first.
“By the time I walk home, my mother’ll have locked up; thinking I’m sitting up with a patient.”
“There’s the poorhouse!”
He winced. “You’ve got to carry me,” he said sullenly, “or I’ll have the law on you.”
“There’s no law to make me carry aught save goods.” And she sang on carelessly:
“Should a humdrum husband say,
That at home I ought to stay——”
The little voice, rippling through those demure lips, wellnigh stung him to close her mouth with the masterful gag of kisses, but a remnant of sanity warned him not to spoil a fine animal practice by a scandal. Besides Jinny had her whip, and what was still more formidable, her horn.
“I’ll be even with you for this!” And jumping down, he strode off furiously.
“Hullo! Mr. Skindle! Hullo!”
“Keep away from me!” It was at once an appeal and a warning.
“Don’t you want your case of instruments? Not that you’ll be in time to kill those poor horses to-night.”
With an unsmothered oath he turned back and clambered into the interior, upsetting Nip’s basket in his fury; the result of which neglect to let sleeping dogs lie was that the unsagacious animal mounted growling guard over the instrument-case, as before a burglar.
“You’d best get it for me,” he said sullenly. “And by the way, how much do I owe you?”
“Never mind,” she said blandly, handing him his burden. “You promised to be even with me.”
“The little vixen!” he thought, as he trudged towards a farm where he remembered doctoring a horse. “She ought to be put in the ducking-pond! What a lucky escape!”
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