Thou barrein ground, whome winters wrath hath wasted,
Art made a myrrhour to behold my plight.
Spenser, “The Shepheards Calendar.”
Pitter-patter was the dominant note of the rest of the year. The prayer for rain had been only too successful, and the blackbirds whistled their thanksgiving over their worms. But humanity grumbled with its wonted ingratitude. There were warm and windy days, and cold and sparkling days, but the roads never quite dried up. The short cuts to Frog Farm became impassable for Bundock; in the coursing season the long-grassed marshlands clove to the spectators’ gaiters, and when the beagles were out, Jinny had the satisfaction of seeing Farmer Gale and breathless bumpkins floundering over sodden stubble-fields or ankle-deep in mud, what time baffled whippers-in piped plaintively, or jetted husky cries at their scattered pack. Glad as she was to eat of the leporine family, she detested sport for sport’s sake, even the fox-hunting, though her poultry-run had just been raided and a dog-fox had snarled fearlessly at Nip from the ditch. Once, when the hare, crossing her cart with the dogs at his very heels, cleared the broad ditch with a magnificent leap, Jinny clapped her hands as though at a Flippance melodrama.
Sport for life’s sake was another affair, and she looked back regretfully to the good old times described by her grandfather, when the farmer, having finished his day’s work, would go out rabbit-shooting to preserve his crop, or when the fox could be shot, snared, or even hooked, as a dangerous animal. Now, when poor old Uncle Lilliwhyte had found Jinny’s vulpine enemy dead in one of his gins, caught by a claw, that rising vet., Mr. Skindle, was called in to make a post-mortem examination, and it was only because he certified that the sacred animal had died of starvation, and not been poisoned, that the old woodman escaped the worst rigours of the unwritten law. As it was, his crime in setting the trap at all on land not his own, and his failing—through a new attack of rheumatism—to examine it before the fox died, almost resulted in his being officially driven from his derelict hut into the Chipstone poorhouse; a fate he only escaped by passionate asseverations that he had always been and till death would continue “upright,” by which he meant “independent.”
That was in one sense more than Jinny could call herself, for her store of barley or rye for her breadmaking was dangerously low, and she had come to depend a good deal on the food brought by this queer raven at prices more corresponding to his gratitude than to market value. She still peddled her goats’ milk for a trifle among her neighbours, the abundant blackberries gave her fruit (though she could not afford the sugar for jam), she had gathered nuts as industriously as a squirrel, she ensured jelly for her grandfather by making it out of her own apples, while by exchanging the bad apples with a neighbour who kept pigs, she got Methusalem some “green fodder” in the shape of tares. But it was an unceasing strain to keep things going in the old style, and Uncle Lilliwhyte’s spoils were more than welcome, for his activities varied from codling-fishing to eel-spearing, and from fowling on the saltings to collecting glass-wort for pickling. His rabbits and hares came with suspiciously injured legs, and Jinny seeing the bloody-blobbed eyes could only hope they had not been long in his wire loops. As she felt the long, warm, beautiful bodies, she had to tell herself how pernicious they were to the root-crops or the young apple-trees.
More legitimate spoils arrived when the old man was well enough to crawl to the nearest salt-marsh with his ancient fowling-piece, for, when the ebb bared the mud, countless sea-birds came to feed, and more than once a brace of mallards offered Jinny a vivid image of her inferiority to the rival carrier, so gorgeously shimmering was the male’s head, so drab the female’s. For while the driver of the Flynt Flyer had been blossoming out in the frock-coat he had first sported for the Flippance wedding, Jinny had been refraining even from her furbished-up gown, reserving it mentally for a last resource and feeling herself lucky that it was still unpawned. But one day when the vehicles met—for despite the heaviness of the going Jinny foolishly and extravagantly continued to plod her miry rounds—she caught Will looking down so compassionately at her spotting shoes that she straightway resolved to buy another pair at any sacrifice. Savage satisfaction at her defeat she could have borne, but this pity she would not brook. Better sell the goats, especially as Gran’fer would need a new flannel shirt for the winter. The animals were not very lucrative, and one out of the three would suffice to supply milk for herself and—by its bleat—her grandfather’s sense of stability. But she had reckoned insufficiently with this last: he admitted he had no great stomach for her goats’ cheese, and felt a middling need for flannel, but he clung to his nannies as though without them his world would fall to pieces. That her shoes were doing so, he did not remark.
In the end—though she shrank from the three golden balls on her own behalf—there was nothing for it but to pledge her wedding-frock under pretence it was a customer’s. But in her dread lest the pawnbroker should recognize the dress, the sharpness which extracted the utmost from him for her distressed clients was replaced by a diffident acceptance of barely enough for the shoes.
This discussion about her live stock, however, gave her an idea. She carted part of her poultry to and fro in a crate, and their clucking and fluttering gave an air of liveliness to the business and made even Will Flynt believe it had woke up again, especially as he saw the smart new shoes on the little feet, supplemented presently by a new winter bonnet, which, despite his experience with his own mother’s bonnet, he did not divine was merely an old one, whitened and remodelled by Miss Gentry.
Thus the equinoctial season found the little Carrier still upon her seat, defiant of competition and radiating prosperity from the crown of her bonnet to the sole of her shoe. Even the plainness of her skirt and shawl seemed only an adaptation to the weather. But she would have been better off by her log fire, making the local variety of Limerick lace with which she was on other days trying to eke out her infrequent sixpences. Though the rain abated towards the end of October, halcyon days and even hours alternated with hours and days of turbulent winds and hailstorms, and the sky would change in almost an instant from a keen blue, with every perspective standing out clear and sun-washed, to a lowering roof of clouds spitting hailstones, and a gentle wind would be succeeded by half a gale that stripped their flames from the poplars and sent the reddened beech-leaves whirling fantastically. In November these blasts grew more biting, Nip cowered in his basket within the cart, and the calves in the fields sheltered themselves behind the blown-down trunks of elms. Shivering, Jinny reminded herself that the real object of her rounds was the bi-weekly gorge at Mother Gander’s.
They were indeed more generous than ever, these midday meals, so relieved was Jinny’s hostess to find she had not really been baptized into Mr. Fallow’s church. Mrs. Mott even had the Gaffer’s beer-barrel replenished gratis. Not that she had any suspicion of the girl’s straits. Though parcels were no longer left at the bar for Jinny, the poor woman was too taken up with her own troubles to draw the deduction from that. Beneath her imposing blue silk bodice beat a wounded heart, and in Jinny’s society she found consolation for the lack of her husband’s.
For a quarrel had begun between the Motts which was destined to shake all Chipstone with its reverberations. Mr. Charles Mott had profanely refused to be “Peculiar” any longer. The endeavour to draw him to the Wednesday services had proved the last straw. To him religion and Sunday were synonyms, and he had been willing to concede the day to boredom. He was a sportsman and was ready to play fair. But his wife was not playing fair, he considered, when she pretended that ratting, coursing, and dicing remained reprehensible even on weekdays. Expostulatory elders had vainly pointed out to him that it was only the Churchman who made so much of Sunday and so little of every other day, and Deacon Mawhood had been compelled to order several goes of rum at “The Black Sheep” to find opportunities of explaining to its landlord that his cravat-pin and plethora of rings were an offence. Let him note how his admirable wife had given up her gold chain. “Well, I don’t want no chain,” Charley had retorted, and his cronies still acclaimed the repartee. He had, in fact, broken his chain and would not even go to the Sunday chapel.
“You and me have both got our cross to bear,” Deacon Mawhood sighed sympathetically to the distraught lady. “There’s saints among us as won’t even keep a cat or a bird because the thought of them may come ’twixt the soul and chapel. Oi sometimes suspicion it’s a failing in roighteousness to keep a husband or a wife—partic’lar when they riots on your hard-earned savings.”
The grievances which the poor hostess of “The Black Sheep”—now become a keeper of one—poured into Jinny’s ear, fully confirmed all the Spelling-Book had told her of the wickedness of man—its preoccupation with the male gender had left woman unimpugned. But it was more under Mr. Mawhood’s encouragement than Jinny’s that this female pillar of the chapel now sent the Bellman round Chipstone with his bell and his cocked hat and his old French cry, to inform all and sundry that she would not be responsible for her husband’s debts.
It was a procedure which scandalized Chipstone. Since the day when a neighbouring village had set up its “cage” for drunken men in the pound, with the other strayed beasts, no such blow had been dealt at the dignity of man. But Charley and his crew met it with derisory laughter. All Mrs. Mott’s property was his—or rather theirs: he could sell the lease of “The Black Sheep” over her head, if she did not behave herself. Nay, he could sell her very self at the market cross, the bolder maintained, not without citing precedent. By many the Bellman was blamed for compromising the dignity of his sex: by none so contemptuously as by Bundock. For the Crier, not taking his own announcement seriously, had embellished it with facetious gags that set the street roaring. “I wouldn’t say if they were funny,” complained Bundock. “Anybody can play on the word ‘Peculiar,’ and certainly peculiar it is to put your husband in the stocks, so to speak. I don’t deny Charley’s legs sometimes need that support. But what can you expect if you marry your pot-boy? You must take pot-luck. He, he, he!”
To which the bulk of Chipstone Christendom added that however prodigal the ex-potman, he did not waste so much money as his wife lavished on that ridiculous sect of hers. A hundred pounds for the bishop at his jubilee birthday, it was said with bated breath—“a noice fortune!” Really, Charley was only too long-suffering not to take his property, including his wife, more strictly in hand, and when it was learnt that lawyers’ letters were actually passing between the bedrooms of the parties there was general satisfaction. In short, public opinion was as outraged by Mrs. Mott’s treatment of her husband as by her original acquisition of him. The only difference was that Mr. Mott was now a martyr.
The insult to the male sex was especially resented by the tradesmen to whom the martyr stood so profitably indebted, and under their incitement a new ban might have been put on “The Black Sheep” but for the reluctance of Will Flynt, who, though second to none in reprobation, refused to shift the headquarters of his coach to the rival establishment. That would only be hurting Charley’s business, he pointed out, and indirectly themselves. The economic aspects of revenge had not occurred to these muddle-heads, and they were grateful to the coach-driver for the reminder. They did not know that his true motive for sticking to “The Black Sheep” was that Jinny was to be encountered in its courtyard on Tuesdays and Fridays. Nor was Jinny herself aware how profusely she was repaying Mrs. Mott for her meals.
As if this scandal among the “Peculiars” was not enough, Deacon Mawhood himself came into ill odour more literally. For in carrying out his agreement to clear the Gentry cottage of rats, he had committed the crime of which Uncle Lilliwhyte had been acquitted: he had operated by poison, to wit, and the stench of the dead vermin in their holes nearly crazed the excellent dressmaker, already sufficiently distracted by the silence of her bosom friend, Mrs. Flippance, swallowed up in Boulogne as in a grave. Miss Gentry, like Mother Gander, now wept on Jinny’s shoulder, though it had to be done outside the garden gate, and even there the wafts caught one. If it had not been for the prediction that she would be drowned, did she ever set foot on a boat, she would have been in Boulogne weeks ago with her darling, but, like a ghost, she could not cross water. Indeed she would already have been a ghost but for her strong smelling-salts, her decoction of scabious against infection, and the fumigation of the cottage. Jinny did not shrink from bearding her spiritual superior in his bar and giving Mr. Joshua Mawhood a taste of her tongue. If that was his notion of religion, he ought to be cast out of his chapel, and she would let Mrs. Mott know of what a hoggish “illusion” he had been guilty—(Illusion, Sham or Cheat—“The Universal Spelling-Book”).
But the Deacon, standing on the letter of his bond, was impermeable to reproach—nay, had a sense of righteousness, as having incidentally punished a distributor of tracts no less offensive than his dead rats. Not even the remonstrances of Mr. Fallow, who had arranged the compromise over Mrs. Mawhood’s dress, could bring the Deacon to a sense of sin, still less of compensation. “Her rats were eating the pears like hollamy,” he said, “and Oi’ve cleared cottage and orchard of ’em.” Mr. Fallow was so interested to know what “hollamy” was, that he went away with a diminished sense of failure. But neither dictionaries nor octogenarians could throw any light on its etymology. The most plausible conjecture he could reach was that it must be “hogmanay,” gifts made at the year’s end.
But if the Peculiar Faith was thus involved in scandal, Churchmanship did not fail to provide its quota of gossip to the months that ended a fateful year. It was not only that Miss Blanche of Foxearth Farm had collected the scalp of yet another suitor (and one who, as Bundock’s own eyes had witnessed at the Flippance wedding-feast, had been wantonly encouraged); it was that the minx, whose brother Barnaby went about in October saying Will Flynt was not good enough for her, became openly engaged in November to that obviously inferior specimen, Mr. Elijah Skindle. And old Giles Purley, tired of vagaries so incongruous in a churchwarden’s family, was, said Bundock’s father, imperiously hurrying on the match.
Although it was the postman who was the reference on the liberties permitted to Will at the wedding breakfast, it was his bedridden parent who became the leading authority on the new Blanche engagement. That was because Barnaby, disappointed of the wider life of the Tony Flip theatre, with no winter prospect but that of chopping down undergrowth and laying it out in long rows for hoops and hurdles, and receiving no consolation from Jinny when their vehicles passed, had discovered in the postman’s youngest sister a being even more beauteous, and, when he had to take the trap into Chipstone, never failed in devoted attendance on the sick-bed. It was thus that all the world knew that the Flippances had not written once from Boulogne, not even to send on the promised cheque for the wedding-breakfast.
But even Bundock’s father had not the true history of the engagement, constructing as he did from Barnaby’s chatter a facile version of a “better match”: how dear ’Lijah was coining money far quicker than Will with his petty fares and commissions, and fast ousting Jorrow, and with what elegant furniture he was fitting up the bridal bedchamber. Barnaby himself did not know that with the gradual vanishing of his sister’s theatrical and operatic hopes, Blanche, immeasurably more embittered and disillusioned than himself, had sought in vain to win back Will, and had thrown herself first strategically and then despairingly into the arms of Elijah, who, summoned professionally to the Farm, had found unhoped-for consolation for his lost Jinny. Tongues would have wagged still more joyously had it been known that Will for his part was trying to win back Jinny, who in her turn was as adamantine to him as he to Blanche. The two Carriers met not seldom on the miry, yellow-carpeted roads awhirl with flying leaves, or in the rainy courtyard of “The Black Sheep,” and for each the scene at once shifted to a sunny tangled fairyland where the wood-pigeon purred, and oak, elm, beech, and silver birch in ample leaf rose in a crescent, with crisp beech-nuts underfoot, and baby bracken. But not even Nip could effect any visible communication. Much more gracious was Jinny to Barnaby, as soon as she was relieved of his “passing” adoration.
The weather improved for a space in mid-November. There was a bite in the air and the sheep-bells tinkled keenly from the pastures. The morning hoar-frosts held till noon. A great red ball of sun and a pale yellow crescent moon would shine together in the heavens, early sunsets seen through bare branches seemed to fill them with a golden fruitage that changed slowly to lemon, and the haystacks rose magically through enchanted hazes. But the cold only made Jinny hungrier and the earth-beauty sadder. It was as if she had already forgotten the blessing of Methusalem’s return, and as if carrying was not after all the heart’s deepest dream—especially with nothing to carry.
It was a relief to be blocked occasionally by Master Peartree’s sheep, billowing along like a yellow Nile, and to exchange conversation with the shepherd, now at the most leisured moment of his year. Patiently she would hear how the sheep got ravenous in the high cold winds, why he was driving them out of yon danger-zone of rape and turnip, and how the only real anxiety between now and Christmas was that one might fall on its back, or the hunt frighten the ewes: for soon somehow he would be speaking of his next-wall neighbours in Frog Farm, and somehow the family would always narrow to Will. “A grumpy, runty lad,” he described him once. “Sometimes he goos about full o’ mum: other times you can yer him through the wall grizzlin’ and growlin’ like my ould dog, time my poor missus had her fust baiby. He’d ha’ torn the child to pieces,” he went on, diverging into an exposition of how sheep-dogs had to be trained to prepare for babies. But she cut it as short as she dared, inquiring, “But who’d he be jealous of?” “The baiby—Oi’m explainin’ to you!” he said. “No, I mean, who’s young Mr. Flynt jealous of?” she asked, wondering how Will could know that she had been shedding such gracious smiles on Barnaby. And when the shepherd replied “ ’Lijah Skindle, in course,” she winced perceptibly. But though the sting of the reply rankled, she was not so sure as the rest of the world that it was true.
The abundance of black sloes, they said, foretold a hard winter, and as the winter approached, Jinny’s outlook grew darker. Even to keep a roof over their heads was not easy with the thatch everywhere holed by starlings. Driblets came through the old man’s bedroom ceiling and were caught in a pail. And as for the walls, Daniel Quarles cursed the builder who had put in such bad mortar that “big birds came and picked the grit out o’ the lime.” The rain drove even through the closed lattices. To keep the living-room dry, he had made Jinny purchase putty, of which he daubed no less than three pounds over the rotting woodwork of the window. A stumpy piece of log he also nailed to the bottom of the window to block up the crevices, though he could do nothing with the top of the kitchen door through the little vine that grew over it, and which in some years yielded several pounds of small white grapes.
And if it was high time that her Hall should be patched up, Jinny often thought with commiseration of poor Uncle Lilliwhyte in his leaky hut throughout all these rains. Even from a selfish point of view, his health was a consideration. If he broke up, a main source of supply would disappear, and any day he might be at least temporarily paralysed by his rheumatism, and need provender instead of supplying it. A frail reed indeed to rely on, and Jinny began to wonder if she had been wise in training Nip so carefully not to hunt rabbits. With food and shelter thus alike insecure, Jinny, remembering the formula of her sect, resolved to “ask in faith.” Perhaps too conscious a resolution impaired the faith—at any rate Providence, even with an accessory at court in the shape of the Angel-Mother, proved stony, and the Angel-Mother herself appeared limited in her powers, however limitless her sympathy. She could not even make folks demand tambour lace. Jinny began to wonder if no terrestrial powers remained to be invoked in the old man’s behalf. What had become of all the children, whose names were recorded in the fly-leaf of his hereditary Bible, and only some of whom had their deaths chronicled? Cautiously she probed and pried into corners she had never dared approach before, instinctively feeling them full of cobwebs and grime. And her instinct was justified—each child had been more “obstropolus” than the others. One of the daughters was always “a slammacks” and had married beneath her, another—a beauty even fairer than Jinny’s mother—had, on the contrary, caught a London linen-draper on his holidays and looked down on her father, who would starve rather than eat a bit of her bread. One boy had “ ’listed,” another been beguiled into the Navy by that “dirty little Dap,” a third—a lanky youth nicknamed “Ladders”—had gone to London to see the coronation of King William, and had disappeared, while his devil-may-care younger brother had shot a rabbit at night and been transported to “Wan Demon’s Land,” a name that made Jinny shudder. This last was the only son of whose present locality he was even vaguely aware, though, oddly enough, the sailor son had once sent him word that, landing with a boat’s crew upon an island called “Wan Couver,” he had come upon “Ladders” in the service of the Hudson Bay Company, living in a stockaded fort called after the Queen, and surrounded by naked, painted Indians. But as none of these children were ever to dare cross their father’s doorstep again, there did not seem much help to be looked for from any quarter of the globe that might contain them. And Jinny was sorry she had not left the cobwebbed corners in their original mystery, for as the stories multiplied, the old man began to loom as a sort of sinister raven that drives out its own offspring, though gradually she came to see behind all the stories the same tale of a cast-iron religion against which the young generation broke itself. Or was it only a cast-iron obstinacy, she asked herself, after working out that the first at least of these family jars must have occurred before her grandfather’s oft-narrated encounter with John Wesley.
It was with a new astonishment that she learnt he had been careful to make his will, lest Blackwater Hall should fall into the hands of his youngest surviving rascal. “And who’ve you left it to?” she inquired innocently.
“Why, who has the nat’ral right to it? Sidrach, in course, as ought to has had it ’stead o’ me, he bein’ the eldest. He’s been cut out o’ the wote, too, what goos with the property and what’s worth pounds and pounds.”
He was so convinced of the righteousness of this will, and appeared so genuinely fond of his brother, that Jinny was afraid to suggest the strong probability of Sidrach predeceasing him. Indeed Sidrach began now to play a larger and larger part in his thoughts, his mind reverted to the early days of the “owler,” and gradually the prosperity of those days shone again over the patriarch in “Babylon.” Sidrach now loomed as a star of hope, and Daniel spoke constantly of paying his long-projected visit to him at Chelmsford, designing apparently to drive the cart himself, and to inform his brother of the magnanimous bequest that was coming to him—a legacy that would suggest to Sidrach corresponding magnanimity in the living present. Afraid the Gaffer would actually set forth on this dangerous and visionary quest, Jinny did her best to discredit the notion of Sidrach’s opulence, and quoted “Rolling stones gather no moss,” but the Gaffer argued tenaciously that if his eldest brother had not been comfortably off, he would have come to seek the shelter of their roof-tree, or at least applied for their assistance, as he must be getting old, or at least (he modified it) too old to work. Jinny offered to write to Sidrach to inquire, but her grandfather could not find the ten-year-old letter inviting the visit. No, he would go over and find Sidrach instead, and Jinny was reduced to pointing out from day to day how unfavourable the weather was for the excursion. As the days grew shorter and shorter, the project, finding no opposition to nourish it, seemed to subside. Jinny was almost conscience-stricken when one Sunday after church Mr. Fallow showed her a paragraph in the Chelmsford Chronicle, stating that “another link with the past” had been broken by the death “last Monday from a fall downstairs” in the Chelmsford poorhouse of a centenarian named Sidrach Quarles, who claimed to be a hundred and five, and who was certainly well over the hundred, his recollections, which were a source of entertainment to all visitors, going back to the days when England was still ruled by a “furriner,” meaning thereby George II.
The shock Jinny received at this was more of life than of death. It made her realize she had never quite believed in Sidrach’s existence, and this sense of his substantiality almost swamped the minor fact of his decease. She saw no reason why he should not remain substantial. Now that she had perhaps been guilty of baulking her grandfather’s last chance of seeing his beloved brother, she did not feel equal to robbing him of his last hope of assistance. He might even agitate himself over making a fresh will, and it was far better to let Providence or the lawyer folk decide on his heir. No doubt when the dread necessity arose, the youngest son would be raked up from somewhere. But that dark moment still seemed far. The longer her grandfather lived, the more she had got used to the idea of his never dying. True, Sidrach had died, though his habit of living had been even more ingrained, but they did not take proper care of you in a workhouse, and besides he had died of an accident. She would keep Daniel from that fate, even as she would keep him from the poorhouse.
As she sat at his side by the fire that Sunday night, knitting him a muffler, her thoughts were playing so pitifully over poor old Sidrach in his bleak pauper’s grave, that she was not at all surprised when her grandfather announced with sudden decision that he would go to see Sidrach the very next day. With a chill at her heart as though a dead hand had been placed on it, she told him gently that it was nonsense and that he must wait now till the spring.
But he shook his head obstinately. “Don’t seem as ef Oi’ll last out till the spring.”
She laughed forcedly. “What an idea!”
“Not unless there’s an election and Oi can buy grub with my wote-money,” he explained. “And Oi ain’t heerd as Parlyment is considerin’ the likes of us.”
“You’ve always had plenty to eat!” she protested, colouring up.
“That ain’t enough in the larder when Oi looks, ne yet for Methusalem in the barn. Ye’ve got to have a store like the beer in my barrel. Where’s my flitch? Where’s my cheeses? Same as we’re snowbound, like the year Sidrach went away, where would Oi get my Chris’mus dinner? ’Tis a middlin’ long way to Babylon, but Oi’ll start with the daylight and be back between the lights, and ef Oi’m longer, why the moon’s arly. Oi’ll be proper pleased to see dear Sidrach again—he larnt me my letters and Oi’ll bring him back to live with us, now he’s gittin’ oldish. It ain’t good for a man to live alone, says the Book, and that’ll be good for us too, he bein’ as full o’ suvrans as a dog of fleas.”
“Nip isn’t full of fleas,” she said with mock anger, hoping to make a diversion. “Why, you scrub him yourself!”
But he went on, unheeding. “Daniel Quarles has allus been upright, and he’d sooner die than goo to his darter or the poorhouse.”
She thought miserably that the poorhouse was where he would have to go to find any traces of his beloved Sidrach, and she set herself by every device of logic or cajolery to discourage this revived dream of the journey. He might not even find Sidrach in such a big city, she now hinted, but he laughed at that. Everybody knew Sidrach, “a bonkka, hansum chap with a mosey face and a woice like the bull of Bashan and as strong too. Wery short work he’d ha’ made of Master Will. Carry him in, indeed! Carried him out—and with one hand—that’s what Sidrach would ha’ done! Why, he’s tall enough to light the street-lamps in Che’msford!”
These street-lamps, Jinny gathered, still figured in his mind as of oil, and she was able by dexterous draughts on his reminiscences to put off the evil day of his expedition. But whenever there was visible dearth at table, the thought of his rich brother, flared up again.
Could Blackwater Hall perhaps be sold, she thought desperately, and the money spent on his declining years. The thought was stimulated by a meeting of the Homage Court which came from railhead in the “Flynt Flyer,” and before which Miss Gentry’s landlady as a copyholder had to do “suit and service” in the Moot Hall to the Lords of the Manor.
But Jinny ascertained that Beacon Chimneys, a ramshackle place with much land, had been bought up recently by Farmer Gale for his new bride at fifty shillings an acre, farm and buildings thrown in; a rate at which Blackwater Hall would not even yield the forty shillings supposed to be its annual value as a voting concern—whereas the Gaffer’s view, cautiously extracted, ran: “Ef you spread suvrans all over my land, each touchin’ the tother, you pick up your pieces and Oi keep my land.” Moreover, Mr. Fallow, to whom she had broached the idea, reminded her feelingly that old people could not be moved. He was keenly interested, however, to learn that the tenure was an example of Borough English and hunted up the local Roll of Customs (7th Edward IV) proclaiming that “Time out of the Mind of Man” the “ould auncient Custom of the Bourow” had been for the heritage to go to the “youngest Sonne of the first wife.”
At heart Jinny was glad the idea of selling the Hall was impracticable: for what would have become of Methusalem and the business of “Daniel Quarles, Carrier”? To surrender before the “Flynt Flyer” would have been a bitter pill indeed.
When all but the last swallows had departed, and Christmas began to loom in the offing, the Sidrach obsession resurged, and there being a spell of bright, clear weather, the only way she could devise to stave off the expedition was to pretend to undertake it herself. This was the more necessary as she was not certain the scheme did not cover a crafty design to drive Methusalem back to the knacker’s for the five pounds. She would start very early and go, not to Chelmsford, but to “Brandy Hole Creek.” Instead of waiting her Christmas letter to Commander Dap, she would visit him personally. He was, after all, a relative and would not like to see his brother-in-law starve—of course she would accept nothing for herself. Already she had intended to skirt the subject at Christmas, but to ask assistance openly was painful, while if one was too reticent one might be misunderstood. In conversation one could feel one’s way.
So on a misty morning of late November, when the peewits were calling over the dark fields, she set out, the old man watching her off with a lantern.
“And do ye bring back Sidrach,” he called after her, “sow we can all live happy.”
For answer she blew her horn cheerily, feeling this was less a lie than speech. She would come back with help of some sort—that was certain. Whether she would confess that the help came from Commander Dap or would attribute it to Sidrach, or whether it would be wiser to come back with the discovery of Sidrach’s death, trusting to its staleness to blunt the blow and to the news of Dap’s assistance to overcome it, or whether it would be imprudent to mention Dap at all, not merely because it would be hard to explain how she had met the Commander of the Watch Vessel at Chelmsford, but because her grandfather in his inveterate venom against Dap was capable of refusing his favours—on all these distracting alternatives she hoped to make up her mind during the day. Here, too, she would perhaps have to feel her way. But she now miserably realized the wisdom of the Spelling-Book’s “writing-piece”: “Lying may be thought convenient and profitable because not so soon discovered; but pray remember, the Evil of it is perpetual: For it brings persons under everlasting Jealousy and Suspicion; for they are not to be believed when they speak the Truth, nor trusted, when perhaps they mean honestly.” She meant honestly enough, God knew, but into what a tangle she was getting. She consoled herself with the thought that anyhow there would be no pretending that day in her business—to spare Methusalem on so long a journey the empty boxes had been left at home.
Single drops oozed upon her as she started, but as the mist lifted, though it revealed sodden, blackened pastures on both sides of her route, the underlying betterness of the weather manifested itself, and soon under an arching blue Methusalem was almost trotting over withering bracken and fallen leaves in a world of browns and yellows, while an abnormally friendly robin perching on the cart-shaft, and the scarlet-berried bryony festooning the hedgerows, contributed with the gleaming holly-berries to colour her darkling mood. There was a certain refreshment, too, in going off by this new route, where she for her part was as unknown. It was odd how the mere turning her back on the Chipstone Road transformed everything. Even the path—though this was not so pleasant for Methusalem—had at first an upward tendency, and her mere passing evoked stares and comments. This surprised her in turn till she remembered Will’s disapprobation. She did not realize that the visible emptiness of the cart, with its implication that she was not plying, only driving it to some male headquarters, mitigated the sensation, and she congratulated herself there was no old client to observe the absence of cargo. In the first few miles she met no soul she knew except the taciturn lout who had once directed her to Master Peartree’s shearing-shed, and who was now preparing a feeding-ground for the flock, pulling out mangolds with a picker and hurling them over the hurdled field from a broken-pronged fork. The sheep had to go to this higher ground for fear of floods, he informed her in a burst of communicativeness, and it wasn’t half as eatable.
Passing a row of thatched, black-tarred cottages at a moment when the mothers were coming to the garden gates to speed their broods to school, she offered lifts till her space was packed with little ones. The old cart was now alive with youth and laughter, and the flocks of rooks from the elms were out-chattered. The road lay between great fields flanked by broad ditches, along which argosies of yellow leaves went sailing, and there were shooters with dogs, happy duck-ponds, old towers and steeples, black barns, gabled old houses with verge-boards over the windows, quaint inn-signs and mossy-tiled granges, and the ground kept humping itself and dropping more erratically than her home circuit, but never sufficiently to spoil the sublime flatness in which single figures stooping to turn over the soil showed like quadrupeds in a vast circle. She must needs go a bit out of her way to reach the school, which lay in a little town on the estuary, and it was a thrilling moment when from her seat she had her first far-off glimpse of the very waters that had beglamoured her childhood—outwardly it was only the gleam as of a white river with hazy land beyond, and on the hither side a few black huts looking almost like vessels; but over everything was wrapped a dreamy peace, which the clamour of the actual children could not penetrate, while in her nostrils—though it was surely too far off to be wafted to her—there arose the strange, salty, putrid odour of fenland, offensive and delectable. And as the road curved slowly towards the shore, all the charm and mystery of childhood seemed to be in those barges with the red-brown sails, those grassy knolls and unlovely mud-flats, in which rotting boats stuck half sunken.
Before she could deposit her charges in their classrooms some had dropped off and were looking for treasure in the flat, dyke-seamed fields. They had arrived too early for school, they explained. But she felt rewarded for carrying them to the waterside when she espied the long, low hull and great brown sail of Bidlake’s barge. With a blast of her horn she summoned the trio of females, but only the twins mounted to the deck to wave hands at her as the broad wherry came tacking and gliding past, the shaggy Ephraim explaining in an indecorous shout that the missus was to be “laid aside” again, and this time he was looking around for a nice quiet lodging on shore for her and the girls. How handsome Sophy and Sally were growing, she thought, how charmingly they had smiled, just as if she had never left off bringing them presents. What a comfort they were so grown up now; they should soon be fending for themselves.
After the barge was wafted away, she remained on the shore a few minutes, fascinated by the lattice-work reflection of the clouds on the water, which through their scudding over it against the stream seemed to be going in opposite directions at once. She did not know why this phenomenon was agitating the recesses of her being; but suddenly there flashed up from the obscure turmoil the lines of Miss Gentry in her sibylline mood:
When the Brad in opposite ways shall course,
Lo! Jinny’s husband shall come on a horse,
And Jinny shall then learn Passion’s force.
Of course this was not the Brad, nor was it really going two ways at once, and in any case who wanted a husband or Passion? Clucking so suddenly to Methusalem that his movement scattered some poultry pecking around him amid golden straw, she turned up through the High Street. At a fishmonger’s shop she got down and bought a pennyworth of bloaters for her grandfather’s supper, the man sliding them off a rod where they hung like blackened corpses from a gibbet. She was half minded to inspect the shop of the “Practical Tailor” next door, to see if she could not pick up something cheap and serviceable for the old man’s winter wear, but there was nothing in the little house-window, not even a roll of cloth, except illustrations of men’s clothing so ultra-fashionable and dear that she was frightened to go in. “Pacha D’Orsay Chesterfields, Codringtons, Sylphides, Peltoes, Zephyr Wrappers, etc., etc., every description of Winter Coat”—here was assuredly what he needed. But one pound five? Who was there behind the sea-wall that could rise to such prices? Possibly it was here that Mr. Flippance had got his wedding equipment. She returned sadly to her cart, not even noticing that all these fashionable pictures were simply cut out of the catalogue of the great Moses & Son, London.
The road now led again through great grass-lands under shimmering clouds floating in a spacious blue, and with gentle slopes and hillocks, though little streams had replaced the broad ditches. There were rabbits taking the air that showed white scuts at the approach of Nip. Far to the right she left the saltings with their grazing cattle, but she could still see them from her driving-board, and the marshes stretched, humped and brown and infinitely interstreaked, a mud-maze with purple herbage and motley sea-birds.
Then suddenly there was a thunder and clatter behind her, and she pulled her horse mechanically to the left to avoid a coach, not realizing till it slowed down that this was the “Flynt Flyer’s” day for the district. Her heart beat fast, almost painfully, and she went scarlet with the thought that Will would think she had come purposely on his track. Why, oh why, had she just chosen that day? There was no turning to be seen and desperately she steered Methusalem’s nose towards a farm-gate, prepared to trespass, but it proved to be only a “lift” for wagons, opened by raising the rail from its slots, a feat which Methusalem’s nose could not achieve. She leaped down and tried to pull it up herself, but her fingers were trembling, and in an instant Will was at her side, hat gracefully in hand, the rail lifted up, and the gate held aside for her passing. Blushing still more furiously under the gaze of the coach passengers, she led Methusalem through, and as she passed she said with a sweet smile: “Thank you.”
This was all the audience heard or saw, but what was really said and substantially understood by both principals was:
Will: “Oh, my dear Jinny, how pretty and kissable you look in that becoming new bonnet, and isn’t it silly to be trying to compete with me along this road, when, though you get business from goodness knows who, you can’t even keep your old customers on your own route? You haven’t got the tiniest parcel, I see, nor any hope of one. Really you would do better to accept my offer of a partnership, or better still to get off the roads altogether, for the winter is going to be a hard one, and perhaps if we dropped our silly sullen silence and began to find out each other’s good points again, who knows but what we might come to another sort of partnership? Anyhow I am delighted to open this lift for you, but what the devil you are going to do in a field just being ploughed is what I shall watch with amusement.”
Jinny: “You perfectly unbearable Mr. Flynt! How mean of you to come spying into my empty cart! If you want to know, I am not out on business to-day at all, it’s a little friendly call I am making on the farmer. I haven’t, like you, to work all the week round to scrape together enough to feed my horses. Two days a week keeps me in luxury—ay, and Gran’fer too. And don’t pretend to be so gay and happy—I know what a grumpy, runty chap you are at home, and how you’re still hankering after that Blanche Jones who has thrown you away like an old shoe. Or if it’s my refusal to be partners with you that’s rankling, and you are even thinking after all of a closer partnership, then all I can say is, you must be the village idiot if you fancy I’ll put up with Blanche’s leavings. Don’t imagine that silly old coach with the silly wanty-hook and skewers painted on it is very attractive to me. Why, if you were to come to me in a coach of gold like the Lord Mayor of London, with six milk-white steeds spruced up with flowers and ribbons like Methusalem on May Day, and say: ‘I love you, Jinny, come and sit in silks and diamonds on my box-seat,’ I should up with my horn and blow a blast of scorn, for I hate and despise you, and how dare you come ogling me before all the coach?”
And still retaining her sweet smile, Jinny gazed at the shirt-sleeved ploughmen, who though vaguely astonished at the invasion of their field, continued their stolid operations. Jinny arrested her cart to watch with equal stolidity the white whirls and long lines of fluttering gulls that followed the slow-moving ploughs, with such a twittering and circling and looking so beautiful over the reddish earth and under the blue sky. There was beauty, too, she felt, in the youth who from his white basket sprinkled seeds with a graceful motion, and when he smiled at her, she did not hesitate to remark in her sweetest tone on the rainy autumn, spinning out the hygrometric conversation till Will felt it almost a flirtation. Fuming and fumbling with the top rail, he took as much time as possible to readjust it in its slots. But in this game of patience he knew he must be beaten: however amusedly he might pretend to watch her pretences, his passengers would compel him to go on, and so, in no amused state of mind, at a moment when the gulls as by a magic clearance disappeared to a bird, he followed their example. When the whirlwind of his passing had died in the distance, Jinny came back again through the lift, with the feeling that Methusalem must think her a fool, and wondering if he were not right.
Soon after, she fell in with a carter who was going her way with sacks of flour for his master, and as they jogged along, conversing pleasantly, after the failure of his attempt to chaff and flirt, she was surprised to learn that he had till recently plied as a carrier on this very road, but had been ousted by the “Flynt Flyer.” It had never occurred to her that there were other victims, but as he went on to denounce Will, she found herself defending the rights of competition and pointing out the service the coach rendered to the neighbourhood, and the carter fell back upon another grievance about which he was even more embittered. On one of his last journeys a man he had carried from the Creek had got off without paying, and he had foolishly let him go, thinking he was “a Brandy Hole chap” and would be returning by the same vehicle. But he had vanished from his ken. “Oi thought he was a Brandy Hole chap,” he kept repeating plaintively.
She was glad to shed him at “The Jolly Bargee,” a small inn with a sanded tap-room and no visible taps, where, amid a company she saw already gathered over frothing mugs, he would doubtless bewail the competition of the coach and the trickery of the fare he had taken for “a Brandy Hole chap.”
Noon was tolling from the square church-tower when Jinny espied again her treasured picture of it, rising from a harmony of golden ricks and lichen-spotted tiles, just as on that happy, enchanted day when she had journeyed to the funeral of her mother’s Aunt Susannah. How quickly one came—she thought with pleased astonishment—free of the detours and delays of custom, or the pretence thereof! There would be ample time to visit the grave of her father and mother before going on to the Watch Vessel, especially as it was thus on her way. But, remembering with a sad smile the dispute as to whether her grandfather could go to his sister’s funeral in his cart, she took care to draw up her shabby vehicle in a nook beyond the lych-gate. Nip had vanished—like the “Brandy Hole chap”—she found; probably he was also at “The Jolly Bargee.” Leaving Methusalem to his well-earned if not well-filled nose-bag, she returned to the gate.
The monkey-trees and weeping willows were unchanged, though in the path leading to the church-porch there was an avenue of young rose-bushes which she did not remember, and screened by them, to the right, a freshly dug grave which made her shudder. She hastened towards the crumbling tower—still more crumbled now—which her memory connected with the sacred spot. The blackberry-bushes still swathed it, though they were now stripped of their fruit, and in its shadow she found again, not without surprise, the familiar stone, the object of so much whimsical wrangling. Still Roger Boldero lay “safely neaped in Christ.” She was almost certain that her grandfather had sent a couple of pounds to Commander Dap to have the stone changed, since the inscription, it appeared, could not well be emended otherwise. Yes, surely he had ordered that “neaped” should be turned into “asleep,” for she remembered counting the letters and rejoicing to find them the same in number. But on the whole she was pleased the word had not been changed: her Angel-Mother had wanted it, she remembered, in memory of her happiness with Roger Boldero. As she stood there, musing on these two, feeling her mother’s soft cheek against hers and recalling that smoke-reeking, hairier, burlier, yet somehow more shadowy figure, many pictures flashed and waned, and most vividly of all came the vision of her grandfather’s strong shoulder supporting the coffin, and the kindly old Commander leading her off stealthily to this very spot, and she heard the death-bell tolling again with its long solemn pauses.
And then suddenly with a queer little thrill she awoke to the fact that the death-bell was tolling, that a company in black was bearing a coffin. She moved farther behind the tower, she was not in black, and felt almost an interloper. Presently there came from the rose-bushes the sonorous voice of a clergyman intoning the great words. She did not want to be delayed further, nor did she want to pass by the grief-stricken group, which consisted—she saw as she peeped from her hiding-place—of half a dozen men and women, all elderly and all weeping: with a small band of sailors in the background, whose left arms bore black silk handkerchiefs tied in a bow. She looked around for another way out of the churchyard, and finding a side gate escaped almost happily, jumped on her cart, and drove off towards the shore, thinking pleasantly of the genial little Dap and the dinner she would not be too late for; a meal which now, after this long drive, began to seem the paramount consideration.
The village rose russet from the trees, and she curved round exquisite corners of white cottages with Christmas roses in their gardens, and presently she came out by the grass-covered sea-wall. She hardly saw the sordidness of the shore—-the litter of pigs, poultry, boats, sheds, barrels—so great a seascape burst upon her, broken by a long narrow island, that added subtle shades and hazes to the far-spreading shimmer and fantasy, the water glinting and moving, dotted with red-sailed smacks and barges. Even the slimy posts that stuck up from it near the shore had a romantic air, being young tree-trunks that still stretched odd limbs.
But all this glory faded into nothingness when, catching sight of the Watch Vessel moored on the “hard” of gravel, at the place where she had first patted Methusalem, she saw that the flag was at half-mast. She scarcely needed to make the inquiry: the flag, the funeral, the nautical handkerchiefs, all rushed into a black unity. Dear old Commander Dap was dead.
A perverse imp kept telling her that the funeral meats would be unusually abundant. But she had no heart to board the Watch Vessel, to encounter these unknown fellow-mourners. She wanted to mourn in solitude. And her quest had failed. The last hope for her grandfather had been extinguished—Dap had followed Sidrach—and the best thing to do was to get home as quickly as poor Methusalem could manage it. He should rest, not here where she might meet the returning Daps and perhaps be recognized through Daniel Quarles’s cart, but when they got to “The Jolly Bargee,” where she must have a bit of bread and cheese brought out to her. Yet she could not tear herself away from this squalid, sublime waterside, and driving along the cart-route behind the sea-wall to a safe distance, she got out near a little wooden pier and walked on the rough earth of the sea-wall, which was luxuriant with pigweed and sea-beet, strewn with wisps of hay and straw from passing carts, and covered with dead little white-shelled crabs. There was something akin to her mood in the pleasant pain of the acrid mud-smell.
At “The Jolly Bargee” she was jarred by the slow easy laughter from the tap-room—the trickery of the “Brandy Hole chap” was still under facetious debate. Before her set face, the gorged Nip, rejoining her at the inn-door with conscious drooping tail, turned on his back and grovelled guiltily: but she ignored his abasement, and having gulped down her snack of bread and cheese—an unwelcome and unforeseen expense—drove on with the same brooding air. She was dazed by the wonder and pathos of the little Commander’s death, the whole genial breathing mass become as insensitive as his glass eye: would he get that back at the Resurrection, she pondered, or would there be his original eye? Thence she passed to the thought of the dead Sidrach, the large handsome man of a hundred and five, strong as a bull of Bashan, whom she was supposed to be visiting, and she wondered dully what report of him she should bring back to her grandfather. Abandoning herself as usual to Methusalem’s guidance in this deep brooding, she discovered after an hour or so that in his ignorance of these roads he had gone miles out of their way, down Smugglers’ Lane, and when after half an hour of readjustment she had got on the right homeward road, her own subconscious gravitation to the waterside took her back to it. And while she gave Methusalem a rest here, the white moon and the early November sunset began to brood over the mud-flats, transfiguring them with strange scintillant gold, and Jinny felt a divine lesson in the transfiguration, and the solemn voice of the clergyman echoed in her ears: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Doubtless the Commander was already in communion with the Angel-Mother.
The problem of Sidrach was still unsolved when the feeding-field she had seen preparing in the morning loomed again on her vision like a reminder of the urgency of that question. She envied Master Peartree’s sheep munching so imperturbably in their hurdles while she had been going through all these emotions and perplexities. With their black noses and feet they looked, she thought, as though they had been drinking from a pool of ink, and her thoughts wandered again from her problem, and she let Methusalem drink from a pool of water. Though it was only four o’clock, the moon had turned a pale ochre and was shining full and high in the heavens, its continents clearly showing. There was no sound save the chewing of the sheep, the gulping of her horse, the wistful tinkling of a wether’s bell, and from afar the fainter clanging of a cow-bell. Even Nip, feeling unforgiven, was subdued. Life was beautiful after all, she felt, as she watched the great splashes of sunset below the moon, the glimmering rose-tint on the horizon, the glint upon the pool, the tangle of magical gold in the branches. Somehow a way would be opened for her through this network of mendacity.
But by the time she got to her door, the Common was covered again with a grey mist, just oozing rain, and Blackwater Hall was a place of shrouded terrors. No light was showing through the shutters or through the chinks in door or window, and she had a sudden clammy intuition that her grandfather had solved her problem for her by the simple process of dying like Sidrach and the Commander. Silent and weird lay thatch and whitewash under the moon. She hammered at the house-door and then at the shutters, her heart getting colder and colder.
She tried the door again, then hearing Nip barking mysteriously from within, she went round to the kitchen-door. To her joy and amazement it was wide open, and a ray of moonlight resting on a little pool of beer on the brick floor showed that the tap of the beer-barrel which was kept there was dribbling. Even in that anxious moment her economical instinct prevailed, and as she was tightening the tap, there permeated through the living-room door a heavenly snore—no lesser adjective could convey the relief it brought. With a bound she was up the couple of stone steps and, unlatching the door, she sent a faint blue glimmer from the kitchen into the shuttered darkness, that was relieved only by the flicker of an expiring lamp and a last spark from a dying log. In that dim discord of lights she saw her grandfather’s head on the thumb-holed tray, his hair and beard a dull grey spread, dividing a darker jug from two beery glasses. The absence of his Bible-pillow seemed symbolic of his degradation.
Who had been with him? she wondered. What boon companion had tempted him from his habitual moderation? She could not imagine. She shook him to awaken him, and lifted up his head. But it fell back in a stupor, and under the draught from the kitchen-door the lamp-flicker went out. She groped about, replenishing the lamp and trying to light it with a spill from the fire, but the greying log only charred the paper. She fumbled in vain among the china shepherdesses on the mantelpiece for her flint and the iron and steel gauntlet, and going out to get her lighting-up matches from her cart, she overturned the other arm-chair that stood in a novel situation at the table—probably the guest had drawn it up there. But the noise left the Gaffer’s snore unweakened. Well, at any rate he had solved her problem—at least for the moment—she thought bitterly, as she groped her way back to the glimmering grate. But even the chemical matches would not light, whether by friction or when placed on the charred log: evidently the long damp had impaired them, and they even snapped under her fingers. How lucky it was one need not rely on such new-fangled gewgaws, she thought when—by a happy inspiration—she found the solid steel and stone with the tinder-box in the Gaffer’s pockets; and soon the lamp was lit and the fire glowing ruddily under the bellows. Then she made herself some kettle-broth (hot water with bread soaked in it), which, sipped before the fire, was almost as cheering as the blazing logs, and resisting the temptation to cook one of the bloaters, she fed the still subdued Nip from the bread.
When he was cosily couched in his basket, and with a last summoning of her spent energies, she had rubbed down Methusalem, she tried to fold her third charge, but the old man still snored steadily, and when she sought again to raise his head from the tray, he swore inarticulately in his sleep, and she was too worn out to persist or even to remove the tray and glasses. She wanted to sleep herself, after all these emotions and the long day in the air, and her cracked mirror showed her a drawn face that yawned and closed weary eyes against itself. But it now occurred to her that she could not get to bed with Gran’fer in the room, she must sleep in an arm-chair or on the settle, or stretched on the floor with the cushion for pillow. But the floor through her early start was unswept, the settle was too narrow, and the chair soon got so hard that after a last attempt to rouse the sleeper, she put an old cloak over his shoulders, a stout log on the fire, turned out the lamp—setting her shadow leaping monstrously—and dragged herself up the dark, fusty staircase to his room, where she let herself fall dressed on his bed. She did not dare get between the sheets, for fear he might wake up in the night and come up to bed. Lying there, muttering the prayers she was too tired to kneel for, she had an underthought that Providence was giving her a hint: assuredly in the coming winter nights she must leave him in the room that was warmed all day by the fire, exchanging bedrooms, though not for the reason he had once suggested—a reason that made her last conscious thought a shame-faced memory. But her next thought was one of pleasant wonder—sunshine splashing the whitewashed sloping walls through the undrawn blind of a little lattice. What was this strange spacious room? How came she there in her clothes? Then memory resurged, and feeling she had slept dangerously long, she sprang up, unhooked the casement, and drew a deep breath of fresh air, as she gazed on this unfamiliar morning view of the Common and the hoar-frosted fields, dazzling her eye with floating colour-specks from the sun that cut redly through the foliage of a fir-tree. Particularly she relished the silver rim of the Brad now descried on the horizon. It made her feel sickish to descend from that space and freshness to the dark, airless, shuttered room with its musty, beery smell and its all-pervading snore. Swiftly she threw open the shutters and the casement, and let the light and air stream in.
The chill draught and the noise she made seemed to rouse the Gaffer at last, for as she was returning from the kitchen with some kindlings for the fire in her apron, he opened his eyes with a start and stared at her.
She was taken aback: she had not yet prepared her story. Indeed the waking in the big attic and the puzzle of his condition had driven her own problem out of her head.
“Sidrach?” she murmured. Should she out with his death and be done with it?
“Ay, he got riled ’cause Oi wouldn’t let him smoke. Where’s he got to?”
It was now her turn to stare at him. “Nonsense, Gran’fer,” she said gently, “that’s a dream you’ve been having.”
“Mebbe.” He blinked in the sunlight, mystified. Suddenly his face darkened. “Why do ye tell me lies agen? There’s his tumbler!”
He pointed to one of the beery glasses she had left still standing. Commonplace as the glass looked with its lees, she was glad he had not pointed at it the evening before in the weird moonlight with her brain full of the poor dead Dap.
“Don’t tell me!” she said in a voice she tried in vain to make stern. “It wasn’t Sidrach that was drinking with you. Who was it?”
“It was Sidrach, Oi’m tellin’ ye,” he protested. “Oi put out his beer with his tumbler and his chair to be ready soon as ye brought him back, he bein’ a rare one for his liquor. But the hours passed slow as a funeral crawl, it got owl-light and you not back, ne yet a rumble of your cart upon the road, so at last molloncholy-like Oi lights the lamp and makes a roaring fire and drinks by myself, and then Oi locks and bolts up and stoops down to put on another log, and when Oi looks up, there he sets in his chair in his best Sunday smock, all clean and white.”
She thrilled again.
“But how could he get in, if you’d locked up?”
“That’s what Oi says to him. ‘Good Lord, Sidrach,’ Oi says, ‘how did you get here?’ ‘Come in the coach from Che’msford,’ says he. ‘The coach,’ says Oi, wexed, ‘ye didn’t want to back up the jackanips what’s come competitioning here, and Jinny gone to fetch ye, too. But how did ye get through the door?’ Oi says. ‘You draw me some beer, Danny,’ says he. ‘For Oi count ye’ve finished the jug.’ So Oi goos to the kitchen with the jug, and there sure enough stands the door wide open—happen Oi hadn’t shut it good tightly—and there passin’ along the road by the Common Oi catches sight of the coach, lookin’ all black in the dusk and glidin’ away wery quiet, same as ashamed to be in our cart-racks. ‘You pirate thief,’ Oi says, shakin’ my fist at the driver, ‘ye’ll never come into this house save on your hands and knees.’ But when Oi goos back with my jug brimmin’ over, Sidrach warn’t there. ‘Sidrach!’ Oi calls, ‘Sidrach!’ No answer. Oi goos about beat out and crazy ’twixt here and the kitchen and then the clock strikes, and that remembers me to look in the tother room, and there Oi hears him chucklin’ to hisself in one of they big empty boxes ye left at home this marnin’. ‘Out ye come,’ says Oi, laughin’ too, for he was allus up to his pranks, was Sid. ‘And Oi’m proper glad to see you, old chap,’ Oi says. With that he comes out of his box, with a little o’ the dust on his white smock, and he hugs and coases me—wery cowld his hands and face was from the long jarney—and Oi drinks his health and he drinks mine, and we clinks they glasses together and has rare sport gammickin’ of the times when Oi was in my twenties and he taken me to see the cock-fightin’ and that old Christmas Day his dog won the silver spoon in the bear-baitin’ at ‘The Black Sheep,’ and Oi told him as Annie were free now but seein’ as he was come to stay, Oi dedn’t want nobody else and he needn’t be afeared he’d be tarned out ef Oi died, bein’ as Oi’d left the house to him by will and testament. ‘Little Danny,’ says he, ‘you’re a forthright brother, but no fear o’ the poorhouse for neither on us, for Oi was born with that silver spoon in my mouth, and Oi’ve got a stockin’ chock-full o’ gold,’ and he shows me it, hunderds of spade guineas, each with the head of Gearge III, fit to warm the cockles of your heart, and we clinked glasses agen and sang three-times-three, merry as grigs, and then the devil possesses him to pull out his pipe and baccar. ‘No, ye don’t,’ says Oi, ‘not for all the gold in Babylon,’ and Oi runs to pocket the flint and steel on the mantelpiece, and to block out the fire, and he laughs and howds his pipe over the lamp and draws like a demon. Oi rushes to the lamp and tarns it out and then back to the fire, but aldoe that give a goodish light, Sidrach, he warn’t there no more.” He was almost blubbering.
“But how did he look?” said Jinny, whose kindlings had long since slid from her apron.
“A hansum bonkka man, Oi keep tellin’ ye. Ain’t ye seen him nowhere? Where’s he got to? Just there he sat singin’ with his great old woice:
‘Two bony Frenchmen and one Portugee,
One jolly Englishman can lick all three.’ ”
The quavering melody ended with a big sneeze, and Jinny, fearing the brothers would indeed be reunited, rushed to close the window and light the fire. Though she felt confusedly that her grandfather, waiting for Sidrach, and drinking too freely in his melancholy, had probably dreamed it all, she was not sure that he had not really seen Sidrach’s ghost. How else would the flint and steel have got into his pocket? In any case she was reminded that her secret was not safe. In concealing a death one forgot to reckon with the ghost, and Sidrach’s might at any time divulge it suddenly to his brother, even if the present visitation was only a dream. Dap’s ghost, too, was another possibility that must be taken into account. “I’ll tell you where Sidrach’s got to,” she said desperately, as a yellow flame leapt up, “he’s got to heaven.”
“To heaven?” repeated the old man vaguely.
“To heaven!” she said inexorably. “He hasn’t been in Chelmsford for weeks. He was very old, you see, a hundred and five.”
The Gaffer began to tremble. “Ye don’t really mean Sidrach’s gone to heaven?”
She nodded her head sadly. “He fell down,” she explained.
“Fell down to heaven?” he asked dazedly.
“His body fell downstairs—his soul went up to God.”
“Then he come downstairs agen last night, dear Sidrach,” he said solemnly; “he come to have a glass and a gammick with his little brother.”
Jinny was not prepared to deny it, and though the idea jarred, it was after all difficult to see snoring senectitude with the poetry attaching to Angel-Mothers. She removed the dirty glasses silently.
“And where’s his stockin’ o’ gold?” he inquired suddenly. “Why didn’t ye bring back that?”
“There wasn’t any,” she said gently. “He died poorish.”
“They’ve stole it,” he cried. “They’ve robbed me. ’Twas me he meant it for.”
“No, no—all he left was used up in the funeral.”
“Ay, they ain’t satisfied with carts nowadays,” he commented bitterly. “Like that doddy little Dap. Did you goo to the churchyard to see the grave?”
“Yes,” she replied unflinchingly, sustained by the verbal accuracy. “I’ve got you a bloater for breakfast,” she added cheerfully.
“That’s the cowld chill he caught as a cad, gatherin’ eggs on the ma’shes,” he said musingly. “Ague they calls it—never got over it. And tramped with his pack-horses in all weathers. And rollin’ about here and there and everywheres. ‘You’ll never make old bones, Sid,’ Oi says to him.”
“A hundred and five is pretty old, Gran’fer,” Jinny reminded him. “King David only says seventy, that’s exactly one and a half lives your brother had.”
“Give me the Book,” he said brokenly.
With trembling hands she brought the great Family Bible he had inherited with the house. But his object seemed to be neither verification of the text nor prayerful reading, for he next asked for pen and ink, and then having ascertained the exact date of Sidrach’s death, he adjusted his spectacles and chronicled it with a quavering quill opposite Sidrach’s birth-date.
“He’s gone to heaven,” he said. “That’s more than some folks’ll do—even on their hands and knees. Do ye warm my beer for me this marnin’, dearie, for Oi fare to be cowld and lonely in my innards, and Oi’d fain smoke a pipe myself, same as Oi hadn’t promised the old man o’ God.”
The year ended gloomily for Jinny. December was cold. In the mornings the fields looked almost snowy with hoar-frost, but the actual snow did not come till near Christmas. Her grandfather refused to be moved from his bedroom—one was safer from thieves up there, he now urged—so a fire upstairs every evening was added to her work. But the monotony of existence and of the struggle therefor was broken by two letters and an episode, albeit all interconnected.
Both letters were from Toby, the naval gunner, Dap’s eldest son, and the one for her grandfather was enclosed in hers, as Toby was not sure the old gentleman was still alive, one of his sisters having heard that there was a piece in the paper about his death at the age of a hundred and five. He had only found her own address after the funeral, he wrote, a packet of letters from her having come to hand in the clearing up. For although his poor father with his last breath had asked that his telescope be given to little Jinny Boldero as a token of love and remembrance, he had died without telling them where to send it. It would now be forwarded in due course. For two months he had borne much pain with Christian resignation, she learnt with sorrow and respect. The other letter, addressed “Mr. Daniel Quarles,” she had no option but to hand over, but did so with anxiety, for she had not yet broken the news of Dap’s death, and whether he received it with regret or with unchristian satisfaction, it would assuredly agitate him. As she watched him open it, she saw a piece of paper flutter from it, and she caught it in its fall.
“That’s mine!” he cried, snatching it from her fingers. “Pay the person naimed——” he read out dazedly. “What’s that?”
“That must be a money order,” she explained, though with no less surprise.
“A money order?” he repeated.
“You’ve seen post-office orders, surely,” she said, not realizing that they had only become common a decade ago with the introduction of penny postage, and that nobody—not even his children—had ever sent him one before. “ ’Tis a way of sending money—you can send as much as two pounds for threepence. How much is yours for?”
Overlaid memories of his late eighties struggled to the surface. “Oh, ay,” he said, not answering her. “That was a blow for the carriers—that and the penny post. Folks began to write to the shops; dedn’t matter so much here, but the Che’msford carriers complained bitter as the tradesmen sent out their own carts with the goods.”
“But how much is it for?” repeated Jinny impatiently.
He studied it afresh, holding it away from her like a dog with its paw on a bone. “Three pound!” he announced with rapturous defiance. “Ye took away my foiver. But this be for the person naimed on the enwelope, and that’s Daniel Quarles.”
“But what’s it for?” she asked.
“It’s for me,” he said conclusively, and was going up to his room like a magpie with its treasure.
“Yes, but read the letter,” she urged.
He consented to sit down and study it. “Good God!” he blubbered soon. “Poor Dap’s dead.”
“Dead?” echoed Jinny mendaciously.
“You read it for yourself, dearie. An awful pity, a man in the prime of life. ’Tis from his boy in the Navy as he ast to send me three pounds what he owed me. That was wunnerful honest of him, to remember, seein’ as Oi don’t, aldoe Oi count the Lord put it into his heart, knowin’ Oi wanted money terrible bad. But Oi allus felt he was a good chap underneath: ’twarn’t his fault he had a glass eye. That made him look at the nose, like, and git frownin’ and quarrelsome. Three pound! That’s a good nest-egg.”
“Yes,” said Jinny, glad the death was passing off so peacefully, “and he’s sending me his telescope.”
“He don’t say that,” he said, peering at the letter again.
She turned red. “I had a line too—didn’t you notice yours had no stamp? I’ll change your order for you at the post office,” she went on hurriedly. Mentally she had worked out that two of the pounds represented the price of the new gravestone the Commander had never purchased, and the third his idea of interest for all these years. Doubtless he had been too tactful to send them back in his lifetime. Anyhow she agreed with her grandfather that it was really all the Lord’s doing, for nothing could be timelier. Even her poultry was now being steadily sacrificed, and this great sum would get her beautifully over Christmas and New Year and start that with a handsome balance in hand. But she had counted without her grandfather.
“No, you don’t!” The Gaffer’s hand closed grimly on the precious paper. “That’s a nest-egg, Oi’m tellin’ ye.”
“But what are you going to do with it?” she inquired in distress.
“That’s for Annie.”
“Mr. Skindle’s mother! But he’s rich as rich.”
“He don’t never buy her nawthen. He come here and told me sow out of his own mouth, the hunks. Oi had to pay for her packet o’ hairpins.”
“Well, anyhow she’ll have her Christmas dinner, and that’s more than you’re sure of,” she risked threatening.
“You’ve got the telescope, hain’t ye?” he urged uneasily.
“I can’t sell that. That’s for remembrance.”
“Ye can remember him without a telescope. And ef he had his faults, ’tain’t for you to remember ’em, seein’ as ye’d never a-bin here at all ef he’d done his duty by Emma and King Gearge. But Oi reckon he couldn’t see everythink with that glass eye, and Oi ought to ha’ carried silks and brandy myself ’stead o’ parcels and culch. Did, Oi’d a-got a stockin’ like Sidrach’s and not had to deny myself bite and sup for your sake.” And he hobbled stairwards, the post-office order clutched in his skeleton claw. “Do ye write to Dap’s buoy-oy and thank him for payin’ his dues, and say as Oi hope he won’t put no fooleries on his father’s stone, and he’d best copy what Oi had put on your father’s and mother’s.”
Jinny duly wrote, if not in these terms. But when the telescope came, she felt anything but thankful. For, welcome as it was in itself, it came by the coach. She had been too distraught to foresee this, though she recognized that it was the natural way. And apart from the sting to her own pride, it agitated her grandfather profoundly. He had been nodding at the hearth, but the clamour of the coach aroused him, and ere she could get to the door he had sprung up with an oath.
“Don’t let him over my doorstep!” he cried, pursuing her. “He’s got to come in on his hands and knees.” He jostled her aside and seized the bolt, but his hand trembled so, he could not shoot it.
“How can he crawl in, if you bolt the door?” she said tactfully.
He was staggered: the possibility of the opposition obstinacy relaxing had never even occurred to him. Recovering, he urged that the enemy would try to rush over the sill.
“No fear, Gran’fer. He’ll never cross our threshold unless you carry him in!”
She spoke with unconscious admiration of Will’s tenacity. Indeed the image of the young man crawling to her grandfather or even to herself would have been repellent, had it been really conceivable.
“Carry him in!” the Gaffer laughed explosively, and that burst of derision made him almost good-humoured. He let himself be pushed gently towards the inner room, while Jinny, with her pulse at gallop, opened the door.
The tension and friction of nerves proved sheer waste. The long narrow parcel was brought to the door by the hobbledehoy guard, and the driver remained, imperturbably important, on his box, looking almost as massive as an old stager in his new, caped greatcoat and coloured muffler, though the face under the broad-brimmed festively sprigged hat was very different from the mottled malt-soused visages of the coaching breed. It seemed but an idle glance that Jinny cast at it, or at the Christmas congestion of the coach, overflowing with passengers and literal Christmas boxes, and with hares pendent even from the driver’s seat. Nevertheless, as ever when they met, long invisible messages passed between Jinny and Will, and not all her defiance could disguise her humiliation at this second triumph of the coach, coming as it did when the fortunes of the cart were at their blackest. For the Gaffer refused sullenly to part with his piece of paper—she did not even know where he had hidden it—and with Uncle Lilliwhyte too poorly to forage for her, she was almost tempted to apply for the Christmas doles that were by ancient bequest more abundant at Mr. Fallow’s church than applicants for them. But her instinct of “uprightness” saved her: better that the last of her poultry should be sacrificed for the sacred repletions of the season. She did indeed dally with the notion of keeping Christmas not with, but from, her grandfather—possibly his failing memory might for once prove an advantage—but she had a feeling that apart from the profanity of ignoring it, the festival was too ingrained in the natural order to be overlooked, for did not Christmas mark the pause in the year, when with the crops in the ground and the little wheat-blades safely tucked under the snow, and the beer brewed and the pigs killed and salted, the whole world rests and draws happy frosted breath? No, the old man’s instinct would surely trip her up, if she tried to run Christmas as an ordinary day.
She might, of course, as he had originally suggested, sell or at least pawn her telescope, but even if she could have brought herself to that, she could not have got it away from him, for he had annexed it from the first moment and sat peering out of it from the vantage-point of his bedroom lattice. He was at his spy-glass the moment he woke, enchanted when he could descry people or incidents far-off—it was as if his long seclusion from the outer world was over—and he would call out like a child and tell Jinny what he had seen. Sometimes it was Master Peartree and his dog, sometimes Bidlake ferrying on the Brad or a couple seeking warmth in a cold lane; now a woodman cutting holly branches with his billhook, anon Bundock bowed by his bag or Mott with his fishing-rod, and once he cried out he could see Annie coming out of Beacon Chimneys, though Jinny suspected that the tall figure with the “wunnerful fine buzzom” was really Farmer Gale’s new wife. Particularly protected did her grandfather now feel against thieves, whose stealthy advent he would henceforward detect from afar. Delighted as she was in her turn with the new toy that kept him happy even on a reduced diet, she had to keep his fire going all day now, and to be up and down closing the window through which he would stick the telescope. Sometimes he directed his tube heaven-ward, though not for astronomical purposes. “Happen Oi’ll see Sidrach coming down for a gossip,” he said.
Just before Christmas he informed her he had decided that the right thing to do with the nest-egg was to purchase Sidrach a gravestone with it, and he instructed her to write a letter of inquiry to Babylon. But although this seemed to her a more logical use of it than he knew, she disregarded his instruction. The nest-egg was too precious. The time might come when he would ask for bread, and was she to give him a stone?
Neglected on the coast in favour of New Year, Christmas was celebrated in the inland valley of the Brad with the conventional accessories, and every Christmas the mummers had been wont to attend on the Master of Blackwater Hall; as well as the waits. Jinny with no coin to offer to either, the last of her poultry doomed for the Christmas dinner, and Uncle Lilliwhyte also on her hands, had this year to beg both companies to refrain, alleging her grandfather was too ill. The weather was seasonable, the robin hopped as picturesquely on the snow as on the Christmas card Jinny had enclosed with her thanksgiving letter to Gunner Dap. The cottage, prankt with its holly and mistletoe, had a fairylike air—everything was perfect, even to the Christmas pudding. But only Nip and Methusalem were happy. To the Gaffer the breach of an immemorial tradition gave a troubling sense of void.
“Where’s the waits? Where’s Father Chris’mus? Where’s St. Gearge?” he kept saying peevishly. Jinny put him off with vague replies or none. Once he alarmed her by asking suddenly: “Where’s the Doctor?” She was reassured when he began spouting:
“Oi carry a bottle of alicampane.”
He passed on to imagine himself as St. George, and seizing the poker for a sword declaimed vigorously, if imperfectly:
“Oi’ll fight the Russian Bear, he shall not fly,
Oi’ll cut him down or else Oi’ll die.”
“Ain’t we a-gooin’ to see the mummers?” he inquired angrily as Christmas Day waned.
“Perhaps they are ill or it’s too cold,” she suggested feebly.
“But they’re gooin’ around to other folk!” he protested. “Oi seen ’em through my glass!”
“Well, then you have seen them,” she said still more feebly. Inwardly she wondered if he had detected herself, on her way to church, carrying off some Christmas dinner to Uncle Lilliwhyte’s hut. The telescope was a new terror added to life.
She had wanted to invite the prop of her larder to take his Christmas dinner with them, but her grandfather refused violently to sit down with such a “ragamuffin.” His sense of caste was acute, and as Jinny’s sense of smell was equally acute, she would not have persisted, even had renewed rheumatism not confined the ancient to his hut.
The day after Christmas that year was Friday, and after the comparative festivity of the holiday it required no small force of will to go round uselessly in the north wind, when one day a week would have more than sufficed for such odd commissions as still came her way. The snow had fallen thicker in the night, and robins, starlings, finches, blackbirds, little blue-tits (pick-cheeses she called them), and other breakfastless birds had all been tapping at her window for crumbs. But the remains of the feast made a good meal for her grandfather and he was in the best of humours, praising the acting of the mummers, which he did not now remember he had not seen this Christmas, and remarking upon the “wunnerful fine woice” of old Ravens’ grandson among the waits. Apparently his memories of other years had fused together into an illusion concerning the day before. As Jinny set out, she found herself wishing he would forget his quarrel with Will. Not, of course, that she could forget hers!
There were grey snow-clouds in the sky, and as she ploughed past the sheepfolds, scarring the purity of the road with her cart-tracks, she beheld patriarchal sheep, standing almost silent with round, snow-white beards: only a green shoot peeped here and there from the speckless white expanse. Methusalem’s muffled footsteps gave her a sense of dream, and, when the wind was not in her face, she watched her breath rising white in the air with some strange sense of exhaling her soul. But beneath this mystic daze went an undercurrent of wonder as to how she could meet the New Year.
Returned from her round—and she was glad, having shown herself and got her meal, to creep home under cover of the early darkness—she half expected to find the Gaffer as ill as she had feigned, but though he was still peering out into the night, there was no sign he was in the grip of the cold; on the contrary he seemed to have found fresh strength and brightness, whether from the nest-egg or this renewed ocular intercourse with his world. “Oi seen you all along the road,” he chuckled. In this new mood she was easily able to persuade him to exchange a goat for Methusalem’s provender. He would not part with his three pounds, but they gave him a sense of security, almost of gaiety. Indeed their existence made as wonderful a difference to herself as to him. Hidden away though the money order was, she felt the old man would be forced to produce it if ever hunger got too keen, and so the knowledge of it sustained her as the proximity of a boat sustains a swimmer. It was scarcely a paradox that without its assistance she could not have got through the first month of the New Year. For January brought the “hard winter” foretold by the sloes. Outwardly it was a bright world enough, with children skating on the ponds and ditches: indeed the frost brought out a veritable flamboyance of colour in the animal creation, and at one of her moments of despair when she had humbled herself in vain to offer lace to the new Mrs. Gale, Jinny was redeemed by the motley pomp of the cocks shining on the farmyard straw, and the glowing hues of the calves that bestrode it with them, all overbrooded by the ancient mellow thatch. Her heart sang again with the row of chaffinches perched on the white stone wall, and looking at the trees silhouetted so gracefully against the sky, she decided that winter bareness was almost more beautiful than summer opulence.
But she changed her mind when she watched—with a new sympathy born of fellow-anxiety—the struggle for food among the birds. Coots had flocked in from the coast to add to the competition of land-species, and frozen little forms or bloody half-feathered fragments, but especially dead starlings with lovely shades of green and purple, pathetically imponderable when picked up, all skin and feather—sometimes decapitated by sparrow-hawks—abounded on the hard white roads. As she began to feel the same grim menace brooding over her grandfather and herself, that social unrest which reached even Bradmarsh in faint vibrations began to take possession of her, and she arrived at a revolutionary notion which would have horrified Farmer Gale far more than her outrageous demand for a law that nobody should be paid less than ten shillings a week. She actually maintained that every man should be pensioned off by the parish on reaching the age of ninety! But the view found no sympathy in an age of individualism, to which the poorhouse was the supreme humiliation. Even Uncle Lilliwhyte, who was now on the mend again—though too weak to fend for anybody but himself—told her to her surprise that every man ought to put by for a rainy day. It was this slavish sluggishness of the poor that was the real stumbling-block to reform, she thought, though remembering Uncle Lilliwhyte’s leaky habitation, she treasured up his reply as a humorous example of the gap between precept and practice.
Even more unsympathetic was Mrs. Mott’s attitude. She scoffed at the idea that every man should be pensioned off at ninety. “Poisoned off at twenty,” was her emendation.
“Well, you do your best,” Jinny laughed.
Mrs. Mott’s blue silk bodice crackled. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t you sell them liquor?”
“It’s good liquor,” said Mrs. Mott, flushing.
“I was only joking. But joking apart, it doesn’t do them much good.” And Jinny thought of how even her grandfather had fuddled himself, with or without ghostly assistance.
“If I gave up my bar,” said Mrs. Mott hotly, “who would pay the rent of our chapel?”
“Well, but the chapel got along before you joined,” Jinny reminded her mildly.
“Heaping up debt!” shrilled Mrs. Mott, with flashing eyes.
“Then what’s the good of poisoning off the men?” argued Jinny, smiling. “Where would your bar be without them?”
“Women could learn to drink,” said Mrs. Mott fiercely, “and smoke too.”
But the latter accomplishment seemed so comically impossible to Jinny—who had never seen Polly over her cigar and milk—that she burst out laughing at the image of it, and her laughter made Mrs. Mott fiercer, and that lady said for two pins she’d wear pink pantaloons like the Bloomerites. As Jinny did not offer the pins, but laughed even more merrily at the new picture presented to her imagination, relations with Mrs. Mott became strained, and when at their next meeting Jinny sensibly remarked that if the law really gave Mr. Mott his wife’s possessions, it was useless going to it, all that lady’s indomitable spirit turned against her whilom confidante. “You take his part like everybody else,” she cried bitterly. “But don’t think I haven’t seen him ogling you!”
“Do you mean I’ve ogled him?” said Jinny, incensed.
“I don’t say that, but you can’t dislike his admiration—why else are you on his side?”
“I am not on his side—I detest him.”
Mrs. Mott flew off at a tangent. “Then you ought to be grateful to me for protecting you against him.”
Jinny was now as indignant as her hostess. “How have you protected me?”
“Haven’t I kept you always out of his way?”
“Oh, is that why you’ve had me in the kitchen?”
Jinny felt at once chilled and inflamed. “It’s not true,” she cried recklessly. “When I first came to the kitchen, Mr. Mott was still in love with you, and I only went there because you didn’t like to show yourself.”
Such reminders are unforgivable, and Jinny would probably never again have enjoyed Mrs. Mott’s hospitality, even had she not then and there shaken it off. It was only with an effort she could prevent herself declaring that Mrs. Mott would have to carry her into the kitchen before she entered it again. But when she got out in the cold air, she felt suddenly as foolish as Will and her grandfather had been. With starvation bearing down on Blackwater Hall like some grim iceberg, the loss of two full meals a week was a disaster. She was not even sure that the courtyard as well as the kitchen would not be closed to her, for Mrs. Mott seemed a woman without measure, whether in her religion, her affections, her politics, or her quarrels. Possibly, however, the poor lady overlooked her use of it, for the cart continued to draw up there with its air of immemorial and invincible custom. But if Jinny thus still kept up appearances, it was with a heart that grew daily heavier.
In looking back on this grim period, Jinny always regarded the crawling up of the wounded hedgehog as marking the zero-point in her fortunes. It was actually crawling over her doorstep like Will in her grandfather’s imagination. What enemy had bitten off its neck-bristles she never knew—she could only hope it was not Nip—but catching sight of the dark, ugly gash, she hastened to get a clean rag as well as some crumbs and goat-milk. The poor creature allowed the wound to be dressed, and seemed to nose among the crumbs, but it neither ate nor drank. She packed it in straw in a little box and placed it in a warm corner of the kitchen, instructing Nip sternly that it was tabu.
“Caught a pig?” said the Gaffer with satisfaction, stumbling into the middle of this lesson in the higher ethics. “That’s a wunnerful piece o’ luck, a change from rabbits, too.”
“You wouldn’t eat it?” she cried in horror.
“Why, what else?” he asked in surprise.
“There’s bread and there’s jelly,” she said, misunderstanding, “and perhaps Uncle Lilliwhyte will be round with something—he’s about again.”
“There ain’t nawthen better than hedgehog,” the Gaffer said decisively. “And ’tis years since Oi tasted one. Sidrach doted on ’em roasted, used to catch ’em in the ditch-brambles.”
“But we’ve got to cure this, not kill it,” she protested.
“Ye don’t cure pigs that size,” he laughed happily.
For once Jinny failed to appreciate a joke. “It threw itself on our protection,” she insisted. “We can’t take advantage of it like that. Besides, it’s been bitten and might be unhealthy.”
But he was contumacious, and it was only on her undertaking to get him a chicken for his dinner that he consented to forgo the dainty in hand.
To acquire this in the absence of coin involved the barter of the remaining goats in a large and complex transaction with Miss Gentry’s landlady, and although this set Jinny and Methusalem up for weeks, yet since it meant the exhaustion of her last reserves, the wounded hedgehog became to happier memory a sort of symbol of desperation. True, there were still the telescope and the money order, but one could not easily lay one’s hand on them—they bristled even more fiercely than the poor hedgehog.
All Jinny’s care of that confiding beast proved wasted. In vain she renewed the dressing on its neck, in vain Nip and her grandfather were kept off. The third morning it was found on its back, more helpless than Uncle Lilliwhyte, with its hind paws close together but its front paws held up apart, as though crying for mercy. Its nose and paws came up dark brown on the lighter spines around, the eyes were closed and almost invisible, buried like the ears amid the bristles. The rag still adorned its neck.
Jinny gave her poor little patient a decent burial and a few tears. “ ’Tain’t no use cryin’ over spilt milk,” the Gaffer taunted her. “Ye’ve gone and wasted good food, and Oi count the Lord’ll think twice afore He sends ye a present agen.”
The Gaffer was mistaken. Little Bradmarsh was about to flow, if not with milk and honey, with hares and rabbits and horses and sheep and haystacks and potatoes and mangolds and even chairs, step-ladders, fences, gates, watering-pots, casks, boxes, hurdles, hen-coops, and wheelbarrows. For after January had ended in a crescendo of rain, wind, sleet and the heaviest snowfall in his memory, came a diminuendo movement of sleet, thaw, and rain, though the wind raged unabated, and after that—the Deluge!
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