PART I SHEPHERD'S HEY
PART II FIRST LOVE
PART III THE LITTLE SISTER
PART IV LAST LOVE
Though local names, both of places and people, have been used in this story, the author states that no reference is intended to any living person.
Three marshes spread across the triangle made by the Royal Military Canal and the coasts of Sussex and Kent. The Military Canal runs from Hythe to Rye, beside the Military Road; between it and the flat, white beaches of the Channel lie Romney Marsh, Dunge Marsh and Walland Marsh, from east to west. Walland Marsh is sectored by the Kent Ditch, which draws huge, straggling diagrams here, to preserve ancient rights of parishes and the monks of Canterbury. Dunge Marsh runs up into the apex of the triangle at Dunge Ness, and adds to itself twenty feet of shingle every year. Romney Marsh is the sixth continent and the eighth wonder of the world.
The three marshes are much alike; indeed to the foreigner they are all a single spread of green, slatted with watercourses. No river crosses them, for the Rother curves close under Rye Hill, though these marshes were made by its ancient mouth, when it was the River Limine and ran into the Channel at Old Romney. There are a few big watercourses—the New Sewer, the Yokes Sewer, the White Kemp Sewer—there are a few white roads, and a great many marsh villages—Brenzett, Ivychurch, Fairfield, Snargate, Snave—each little more than a church with a farmhouse or two. Here and there little deserted chapels lie out on the marsh, officeless since the days of the monks of Canterbury; and everywhere there are farms, with hundreds of sheep grazing on the thick pastures.
Little Ansdore Farm was on Walland Marsh, three miles from Rye, and about midway between the villages of Brodnyx and Pedlinge. It was a sea farm. There were no hop-gardens, as on the farms inland, no white-cowled oasts, and scarcely more than twelve acres under the plough. Three hundred acres of pasture spread round Ansdore, dappled over with the big Kent sheep—the road from Pedlinge to Brodnyx went through them, curling and looping and doubling to the demands of the dykes. Just beyond Pedlinge it turned northward and crossed the South Eastern Railway under the hills that used to be the coast of England, long ago when the sea flowed up over the marsh to the walls of Lympne and Rye; then in less than a mile it had crossed the line again, turning south; for some time it ran seawards, parallel with the Kent Ditch, then suddenly went off at right angles and ran straight to the throws where the Woolpack Inn watches the roads to Lydd and Appledore.
On a dim afternoon towards the middle of October in the year 1897, a funeral procession was turning off this road into the drive of Little Ansdore. The drive was thick with shingle, and the mourning coaches lurched and rolled in it, spoiling no doubt the decorum of their occupants. Anyhow, the first two to get out at the farmhouse door had lost a little of that dignity proper to funerals. A fine young woman of about twenty-three, dressed handsomely but without much fashion in black crape and silk, jumped out with a violence that sent her overplumed black hat to a rakish angle. In one black kid-gloved hand she grasped a handkerchief with a huge black border, in the other a Prayer Book, so could not give any help to the little girl of ten who stumbled out after her, with the result that the child fell flat on the doorstep and cut her chin. She immediately began to cry.
"Now be quiet, Ellen," said the elder roughly but not unkindly, as she helped her up, and stuffing the black-bordered handkerchief into her pocket, took out the everyday one which she kept for use. "There, wipe your eyes, and be a stout gal. Don't let all the company see you crying."
The last injunction evidently impressed Ellen, for she stopped at once. Her sister had wiped the grit and the little smear of blood off her chin, and stood in the doorway holding her hand while one by one the other carriages drew up and the occupants alighted. Not a word was spoken till they had all assembled, then the young woman said: "Please come in and have a cup of tea," and turning on her heel led the way to the dining-room.
"Joanna," said little Ellen in a loud whisper, "may I take off my hat?"
"No, that you mayn't."
"But the elastic's so tight—it's cutting my chin. Why mayn't I?"
"You can't till the funeral's over."
"It is over. They've put father in the ground."
"It isn't over till we've had tea, and you keep your hat on till it's over."
For answer Ellen tore off her pork-pie hat and threw it on the floor. Immediately Joanna had boxed her unprotected ears, and the head of the procession was involved in an ignominious scuffle. "You pick up that hat and put it on," said Joanna, "or you shan't have any nice tea." "You're a beast! You're a brute," cried Ellen, weeping loudly. Behind them stood two rows of respectable marsh-dwellers, gazing solemnly ahead as if the funeral service were still in progress. In their hearts they were thinking that it was just like Joanna Godden to have a terrification like this when folk were expected to be serious. In the end Joanna picked up Ellen's hat, crammed it down ruthlessly on her head, hind part before, and heaving her up under her arm carried her into the dining-room. The rest of the company followed, and were ushered into their places to the accompaniment of Ellen's shrieks, which they pretended not to hear.
"Mr. Pratt, will you take the end of the table?" said Joanna to the scared little clergyman, who would almost have preferred to sit under it rather than receive the honour which Miss Godden's respect for his cloth dictated. "Mr. Huxtable, will you sit by me?" Having thus settled her aristocracy she turned to her equals and allotted places to Vine of Birdskitchen, Furnese of Misleham, Southland of Yokes Court, and their wives. "Arthur Alce, you take my left," and a tall young man with red hair, red whiskers, and a face covered with freckles and tan, came sidling to her elbow.
In front of Joanna a servant-girl had just set down a huge black teapot, which had been stewing on the hob ever since the funeral party had been sighted crossing the railway line half a mile off. Round it were two concentric rings of teacups—good old Worcester china, except for a common three which had been added for number's sake, and which Joanna carefully bestowed upon herself, Ellen, and Arthur Alce. Ellen had stopped crying at the sight of the cakes and jam and pots of "relish" which stretched down the table in orderly lines, so the meal proceeded according to the decent conventions of silence. Nobody spoke, except to offer some eatable to somebody else. Joanna saw that no cup or plate was empty. She ought really to have delegated this duty to another, being presumably too closely wrapped in grief to think of anybody's appetite but her own, but Joanna never delegated anything, and her "A little more tea, Mrs. Vine?"—"Another of these cakes, Mr. Huxtable?"—"Just a little dash of relish, Mr. Pratt?" were constantly breaking the stillness, and calling attention to her as she sat behind the teapot, with her plumed hat still a little on one side.
She was emphatically what men call a "fine woman," with her firm, white neck, her broad shoulders, her deep bosom and strong waist; she was tall, too, with large, useful hands and feet. Her face was brown and slightly freckled, with a warm colour on the cheeks; the features were strong, but any impression of heaviness was at once dispelled by a pair of eager, living blue eyes. Big jet earrings dangled from her ears, being matched by the double chain of beads that hung over her crape-frilled bodice. Indeed, with her plumes, her earrings, her necklace, her frills, though all were of the decent and respectable black, she faintly shocked the opinion of Walland Marsh, otherwise disposed in pity to be lenient to Joanna Godden and her ways.
Owing to the absence of conversation, tea was not as long drawn-out as might have been expected from the appetites. Besides, everyone was in a hurry to be finished and hear the reading of old Thomas Godden's will. Already several interesting rumours were afloat, notably one that he had left Ansdore to Joanna only on condition that she married Arthur Alce within the year. "She's a mare that's never been praeaperly broken in, and she wants a strong hand to do it." Thus unchoicely Furnese of Misleham had expressed the wish that fathered such a thought.
So at the first possible moment after the last munch and loud swallow with which old Grandfather Vine, who was unfortunately the slowest as well as the largest eater, announced repletion, all the chairs were pushed back on the drugget and a row of properly impassive faces confronted Mr. Huxtable the lawyer as he took his stand by the window. Only Joanna remained sitting at the table, her warm blue eyes seeming to reflect the evening's light, her arm round little Ellen, who leaned against her lap.
The will was, after all, not so sensational as had been hoped. It opened piously, as might have been expected of Thomas Godden, who was as good an old man as ever met death walking in a cornfield unafraid. It went on to leave various small tokens of remembrance to those who had known him—a mourning ring to Mr. Vine, Mr. Furnese and Mr. Southland, his two volumes of Robertson's Sermons, and a book called "The Horse in Sickness and in Health," to Arthur Alce, which was a disappointment to those who had expected the bequest to be his daughter Joanna. There was fifty pounds for Mr. Samuel Huxtable of Huxtable, Vidler and Huxtable, Solicitors, Watchbell Street, Rye, five pounds each for those farm hands in his employment at the time of his death, with an extra ten pounds to "Nathan Stuppeny, my carter, on account of his faithful services both to me and to my father. And I give, devise and bequeath the residue of my property, comprising the freehold farm of Little Ansdore, in the parish of Pedlinge, Sussex, with all lands and live and dead stock pertaining thereto to my daughter Joanna Mary Godden. And I appoint the said Joanna Mary Godden sole executrix of this my will."
When the reading was over the company remained staring for a minute as decency required, then the door burst open and a big servant-girl brought in a tray set with glasses of whisky and water for the men and spaced wine for the women. These drink-offerings were received with a subdued hum of conversation—it was impossible to hear what was said or even to distinguish who was saying it, but a vague buzzing filled the room, as of imprisoned bees. In the midst of it Ellen's voice rose suddenly strident.
"Joanna, may I take off my hat now?"
Her sister looked doubtful. The funeral was not ceremonially complete till Grandfather Vine had done choking over his heel-taps, but Ellen had undoubtedly endured a good deal with remarkable patience—her virtue ought in justice to be rewarded. Also Joanna noticed for the first time that she was looking grotesque as well as uncomfortable, owing perhaps to the hat being still on hind part before. So the necessary dispensation was granted, and Ellen further refreshed by a sip of her sister's wine.
The guests now took their departure, each being given a memorial card of the deceased, with a fine black edge and the picture of an urn upon it. Ellen also was given one, at her urgent request, and ran off in excitement with the treasure. Joanna remained with Mr. Huxtable for a final interview.
"Well," he said, "I expect you'll want me to help you a bit, Miss Joanna."
Joanna had sat down again at the end of the table—big, tousled, over-dressed, alive. Huxtable surveyed her approvingly. "A damn fine woman," he said to himself, "she'll marry before long."
"I'm sure I'm much obliged to you, Mr. Huxtable," said Joanna, "there's many a little thing I'd like to talk over with you."
"Well, now's your time, young lady. I shan't have to be home for an hour or two yet. The first thing is, I suppose, for me to find you a bailiff for this farm."
"No, thank you kindly. I'll manage that."
"What! Do you know of a man?"
"No—I mean I'll manage the farm."
"You! My dear Miss Joanna ..."
"Well, why not? I've been bred up to it from a child. I used to do everything with poor father."
As she said the last word her brightness became for a moment dimmed, and tears swam into her eyes for the first time since she had taken the ceremonial handkerchief away from them. But the next minute she lighted up again.
"He showed me a lot—he showed me everything. I could do it much better than a man who doesn't know our ways."
"But—" the lawyer hesitated, "but it isn't just a question of knowledge, Miss Joanna; it's a question of—how shall I put it?—well, of authority. A woman is always at a disadvantage when she has to command men."
"I'd like to see the man I couldn't make mind me."
Huxtable grinned. "Oh, I've no doubt whatever that you could get yourself obeyed; but the position—the whole thing—you'd find it a great strain, and people aren't as a rule particularly helpful to a woman they see doing what they call a man's job."
"I don't want anyone's help. I know my own business and my poor father's ways. That's enough for me."
"Did your father ever say anything to you about this?"
"Oh no—he being only fifty-one and never thinking he'd be took for a long while yet. But I know it's what he'd have wanted, or why did he trouble to show me everything? And always talked to me about things as free as he did to Fuller and Stuppeny."
"He would want you to do the best for yourself—he wouldn't want you to take up a heavy burden just for his sake."
"Oh, it ain't just for his sake, it's for my own. I don't want a strange man messing around, and Ansdore's mine, and I'm proud of it."
Huxtable rubbed his large nose, from either side of which his sharp eyes looked disapprovingly at Joanna. He admired her, but she maddened him by refusing to see the obvious side of her femininity.
"Most young women of your age have other things to think of besides farming. There's your sister, and then—don't tell me that you won't soon be thinking of getting married."
"Well, and if I do, it'll be time enough then to settle about the farm. As for Ellen, I don't see what difference she makes, except that I must see to things for her sake as well as mine. It wouldn't help her much if I handed over this place to a man who'd muddle it all up and maybe bring us to the Auctioneer's. I've known ... I've seen ... they had a bailiff in at Becket's House and he lost them three fields of lucerne the first season, and got the fluke into their sheep. Why, even Sir Harry Trevor's taken to managing things himself at North Farthing after the way he saw they were doing with, that old Lambarde, and what he can do I can do, seeing I wasn't brought up in a London square."
As Joanna's volubility grew, her voice rose, not shrilly as with most women, but taking on a warm, hoarse note—her words seemed to be flung out hot as coals from a fire. Mr. Huxtable grimaced. "She's a virago," he thought to himself. He put up his hand suavely to induce silence, but the eruption went on.
"I know all the men, too. They'd do for me what they wouldn't do for a stranger. And if they won't, I know how to settle 'em. I've been bursting with ideas about farming all my life. Poor Father said only a week before he was taken 'Pity you ain't a man, Joanna, with some of the notions you've got.' Well, maybe it's a pity and maybe it isn't, but what I've got to do now is to act up proper and manage what is mine, and what you and other folks have got to do is not to meddle with me."
"Come, come, my dear young lady, nobody's going to meddle with you. You surely don't call it 'meddling' for your father's lawyer, an old man who's known you all your life, to offer you a few words of advice. You must go your own way, and if it doesn't turn out as satisfactorily as you expect, you can always change it."
"Reckon I can," said Joanna, "but I shan't have to. Won't you take another whisky, Mr. Huxtable?"
The lawyer accepted. Joanna Godden's temper might be bad, but her whisky was good. He wondered if the one would make up for the other to Arthur Alce or whoever had married her by this time next year.
Mr. Huxtable was not alone in his condemnation of Joanna's choice. The whole neighbourhood disapproved of it. The joint parishes of Brodnyx and Pedlinge had made up their minds that Joanna Godden would now be compelled to marry Arthur Alce and settle down to mind her own business instead of what was obviously a man's; and here she was, still at large and her business more a man's than ever.
"She's a mare that's never been praeaperly broken in, and she wants a strong man to do it," said Furnese at the Woolpack. He had repeated this celebrated remark so often that it had almost acquired the status of a proverb. For three nights Joanna had been the chief topic of conversation in the Woolpack bar. If Arthur Alce appeared a silence would fall on the company, to be broken at last by some remark on the price of wool or the Rye United's last match. Everybody was sorry for Alce, everybody thought that Thomas Godden had treated him badly by not making his daughter marry him as a condition of her inheritance.
"Three times he's asked her, as I know for certain," said Vennal, the tenant of Beggar's Bush.
"No, it's four," said Prickett, Joanna's neighbour at Great Ansdore, "there was that time coming back from the Wild Beast Show."
"I was counting that," said Vennal; "that and the one that Mr. Vine's looker heard at Lydd market, and then that time in the house."
"How do you know he asked her in the house?—that makes five."
"I don't get that—once indoors and twice out, that's three."
"Well, anyways, whether it's three or four or five, he's asked her quite enough. It's time he had her now."
"He won't get her. She'll fly higher'n him now she's got Ansdore. She'll be after young Edward Huxtable, or maybe Parson himself, him having neglected to keep himself married."
"Ha! Ha! It ud be valiant to see her married to liddle Parson—she'd forget herself and pick him up under her arm, same as she picks up her sister. But anyways I don't think she'll get much by flying high. It's all fine enough to talk of her having Ansdore, but whosumdever wants Ansdore ull have to take Joanna Godden with it, and it isn't every man who'd care to do that."
"Surelye. She's a mare that's never bin praeaperly broken in. D'you remember the time she came prancing into church with a bustle stuck on behind, and everyone staring and fidgeting so as pore Mus' Pratt lost his place in the Prayers and jumped all the way from the Belief to the Royal Family?"
"And that time as she hit Job Piper over the head wud a bunch of osiers just because he'd told her he knew more about thatching than she did."
"Surelye, and knocked his hat off into the dyke, and then bought him a new one, with a lining to it."
"And there was that time when—"
Several more anecdotes to the point were contributed by the various patrons of the bar, before the conversation, having described a full circle, returned to its original starting point, and then set off again with its vitality apparently undiminished. It was more than a week before the summons of Mr. Gain, of Botolph's Bridge, for driving his gig without a light ousted Joanna from her central glory in the Woolpack's discussions.
At Ansdore itself the interest naturally lasted longer. Joanna's dependents whether in yard or kitchen were resentfully engrossed in the new conditions.
"So Joanna's going to run our farm for us, is she?" said the head man, old Stuppeny, "that'll be valiant, wud some of the notions she has. She'll have our plaeace sold up in a twelve-month, surelye. Well, well, it's time maybe as I went elsewheres—I've bin long enough at this job."
Old Stuppeny had made this remark at intervals for the last sixty years, indeed ever since the day he had first come as a tow-headed boy to scare sparrows from the fields of Joanna's grandfather; so no one gave it the attention that should have been its due. Other people aired their grievances instead.
"I woean't stand her meddling wud me and my sheep," said Fuller, the shepherd.
"It's her sheep, come to that," said Martha Tilden the chicken-girl.
Fuller dealt her a consuming glance out of his eyes, which the long distances of the marsh had made keen as the sea wind.
"She doean't know nothing about sheep, and I've been a looker after sheep since times when you and her was in your cradles, so I woean't taeake sass from neither of you."
"She'll meddle wud you, Martha, just as she'll meddle wud the rest of us," said Broadhurst, the cowman.
"She's meddled wud me for years—I'm used to it. It's you men what's going to have your time now. Ha! Ha! I'll be pleased watching it."
Martha's short, brightly-coloured face seemed ready to break in two as she laughed with her mouth wide open.
"When she's had a terrification wud me and said things as she's sorry for, she'll give me a gownd of hers or a fine hat. Sometimes I think as I make more out of her tempers than I do out of my good work what she pays me wages for."
"Well, if I wur a decent maid I'd be ashamed to wear any of her outlandish gowns or hats. The colours she chooses! Sometimes when I see her walking through a field near the lambing time, I'm scared for my ewes, thinking they'll drop their lambs out of fright. I can't help being thankful as she's in black now for this season, though maybe I shudn't ought to say it, seeing as we've lost a good maeaster, and one as we'll all be tediously regretting in a week or two if we aeun't now. You take my word, Martha—next time she gives you a gownd, you give it back to her and say as you don't wear such things, being a respectable woman. It aeun't right, starting you like that on bad ways."
There was only one house in the joint parishes where Joanna had any honourable mention, and that was North Farthing House on the other side of the Kent Ditch. Here lived Sir Harry Trevor, the second holder of a title won in banking enterprises, and lately fallen to low estate. The reason could perhaps be seen on his good-looking face, with its sensual, humorous mouth, roving eyes, and lurking air of unfulfilled, undefeated youth. The taverns of the Three Marshes had combined to give him a sensational past, and further said that his two sons had forced him to settle at Brodnyx with a view to preserving what was left of his morals and their inheritance. The elder was in Holy Orders, and belonged to a small community working in the East End of London; he seldom came to North Farthing House. The younger, Martin, who had some definite job in the city, was home for a few days that October. It was to him his father said:
"I can't help admiring that girl Joanna Godden for her pluck. Old Godden died suddenly two weeks ago, and now she's given out that she'll run the farm herself, instead of putting in a bailiff. Of course the neighbours disapprove, they've got very strict notions round here as to woman's sphere and all that sort of thing."
"Godden? Which farm's that?"
"Little Ansdore—just across the Ditch, in Pedlinge parish. It's a big place, and I like her for taking it on."
"And for any other reason?"
"Lord, no! She isn't at all the sort of woman I admire—a great big strapping wench, the kind this marsh breeds twelve to the acre, like the sheep. Has it ever struck you, Martin, that the women on Romney Marsh, in comparison with the women one's used to and likes, are the same as the Kent sheep in comparison with Southdowns—admirably hardy and suited to the district and all that, but a bit tough and coarse-flavoured?"
"I see that farming has already enlarged and refined your stock of similes. I hope you aren't getting tired of it."
"No, not exactly. I'm interested in the place now I manage it without that dolt Lambarde, and Hythe isn't too far for the phaeton if I want to See Life. Besides, I haven't quite got over the thrill of not being in debt and disgrace"—he threw Martin a glance which might have come from a rebellious son to a censorious father. "But sometimes I wish there was less Moated Grange about it all. Damn it, I'm always alone here! Except when you or your reverend brother come down to see how I'm behaving."
"Why don't you marry again?"
"I don't want to marry. Besides, whom the devil should I marry round here? There's mighty few people of our own class about, and those there are seem to have no daughters under forty."
Martin looked at him quizzically.
"Oh yes, you young beast—I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that forty's just the right age for me. You're reminding me that I'm a trifle passe myself and ought to marry something sere and yellow. But I tell you I don't feel any older than twenty-five—never have, it's my affliction—while you've never been younger than forty in all your life. It's you who ought to marry middle-age"—and he grimaced at Martin.
Joanna rather enjoyed being the centre of discussion. She had none of the modest shrinking from being talked about which might have affected some young women. She was glad when Martha Tilden or another of the girls brought her any overheard scraps. "Oh, that's what they say, is it?" and she would laugh a big jolly laugh like a boy's.
So far she had enjoyed being "Maeaster" of Little Ansdore. It meant a lot of work and a lot of thought and a lot of talking and interference, but Joanna shrank from none of these things. She was healthy and vigorous and intelligent, and was, moreover, quite unhampered by any diffidence about teaching their work to people who had been busy at it before she was born.
Still it was scarcely more than a fortnight since she had taken on the government, and time had probably much to show her yet. She had a moment of depression one morning, rising early as she always must, and pulling aside the flowered curtain that covered her window. The prospect was certainly not one to cheer; even in sunshine the horizons of the marsh were discouraging with their gospel of universal flatness, and this morning the sun was not yet up, and a pale mist was drifting through the willows, thick and congealed above the watercourses, thinner on the grazing lands between them, so that one could see the dim shapes of the sheep moving through it. Even in clear weather only one other dwelling was visible from Little Ansdore, and that was its fellow of Great Ansdore, about half a mile away seawards. The sight of it never failed to make Joanna contemptuous—for Great Ansdore had but fifty acres of land compared with the three hundred of its Little neighbour. Its Greatness was merely a matter of name and tradition, and had only one material aspect in the presentation to the living of Brodnyx-with-Pedlinge, which had been with Great Ansdore since the passing of the monks of Canterbury.
To-day Great Ansdore was only a patch of grey rather denser than its surroundings, and failed to inspire Joanna with her usual sense of gloating. Her eyes were almost sad as she stared out at it, her chin propped on her hands. The window was shut, as every window in every farm and cottage on the marsh was shut at night, though the ague was now little more than a name on the lips of grandfathers. Therefore the room in which two people had slept was rather stuffy, though this in itself would hardly account for Joanna's heaviness, since it was what she naturally expected a bedroom to be in the morning. Such vague sorrow was perplexing and disturbing to her practical emotions; she hurriedly attributed it to "poor father," and the propriety of the sentiment allowed her the relief of a few tears.
Turning back into the room she unbuttoned her turkey-red dressing-gown, preparatory to the business of washing and dressing. Then her eye fell on Ellen still asleep in her little iron bedstead in the corner, and a glow of tenderness passed like a lamp over her face. She went across to where her sister slept, and laid her face for a moment beside hers on the pillow. Ellen's breath came regularly from parted lips—she looked adorable cuddled there, with her red cheeks, like an apple in snow. Joanna, unable to resist the temptation, kissed her and woke her.
"Hullo, Jo—what time is it?" mumbled Ellen sleepily.
"Not time to get up yet. I'm not dressed."
She sat on the edge of the bed, stooping over her sister, and her big rough plaits dangled in the child's face.
"Hullo, Jo—hullo, old Jo," continued the drowsy murmur.
"Go to sleep, you bad girl," said Joanna, forgetting that she herself had roused her.
Ellen was not wide enough awake to have any conflicting views on the subject, and she nestled down again with a deep sigh. For the next ten minutes the room was full of small sounds—the splashing of cold water in the basin, the shuffle of coarse linen, the click of fastening stays, the rhythmic swish of a hair brush. Then came two silent minutes, while Joanna knelt with closed eyes and folded hands beside her big, tumbled bed, and said the prayers that her mother had taught her eighteen years ago—word for word as she had said them when she was five, even to the "make me a good girl" at the end. Then she jumped up briskly and tore the sheet off the bed, throwing it with the pillows on the floor, so that Grace Wickens the servant should have no chance of making the bed without stripping it, as was the way of her kind.
Grace was not up yet, of course. Joanna hit her door a resounding thump as she passed it on her way to the kitchen. Here the dead ashes had been raked out overnight, and the fire laid according to custom. She lit the fire and put the kettle on to boil; she did not consider it beneath her to perform these menial offices. She knew that every hand was needed for the early morning work of a farm. By the time she had finished both Grace and Martha were in the room, yawning and rubbing their eyes.
"That'll burn up nicely now," said Joanna, surveying the fire. "You'd better put the fish-kettle on too, in case Broadhurst wants hot water for a mash. Bring me out a cup of tea as soon as you can get it ready—I'll be somewhere in the yard."
She put on an old coat of her father's over her black dress, and went out, her nailed boots clattering on the cobble-stones. The men were up—they should have been up an hour now—but no sounds of activity came from the barns. The yard was in stillness, a little mist floating against the walls, and the pervading greyness of the morning seemed to be lit up by the huge blotches of yellow lichen that covered the slated roofs of barns and dwelling—the roofs were all new, having only for a year or two superseded the old roofs of osier thatch, but that queer golden rust had almost hidden their substance, covering them as it covered everything that was left exposed to the salt-thick marsh air.
Joanna stood in the middle of the yard looking keenly round her like a cat, then like a cat she pounced. The interior of the latest built barn was dimly lit by a couple of windows under the roof—the light was just enough to show inside the doorway five motionless figures, seated about on the root-pile and the root-slicing machine. They were Joanna's five farm-men, apparently wrapped in a trance, from which her voice unpleasantly awoke them.
"Here, you—what d'you think you're doing?"
The five figures stiffened with perceptible indignation, but they did not rise from their sitting posture as their mistress advanced—or rather swooped—into their midst. Joanna did not expect this. She paid a man fifteen shillings a week for his labour and made no impossible demands of his prejudices and private habits.
"I've been up an hour," she said, looking round on them, "and here I find all of you sitting like a lot of sacks."
"It's two hours since I've bin out o' my warm bed," said old Stuppeny reproachfully.
"You'd be as much use in it as out, if this is how you spend your time. No one's been to the pigs yet, and it wants but half an hour to milking."
"We wur setting around for Grace Wickens to bring us out our tea," said Broadhurst.
"You thought maybe she wouldn't know her way across the yard if you was on the other side of it? The tea ain't ready yet—I tell you I haven't had any. It's a fine sight to see a lot of strong, upstanding men lolling around waiting for a cup of tea."
The scorn in Joanna's voice was withering, and a resentful grumble arose, amidst which old Stuppeny's dedication of himself to a new sphere was hoarsely discernible. However the men scrambled to their feet and tramped off in various directions; Joanna stopped Fuller, the shepherd, as he went by.
"You'll be taking the wethers to Lydd this morning?"
"How many are you taking?"
"Maybe two score."
"You can take the lot. It'll save us their grazing money this winter, and we can start fattening the tegs in the spring."
"There's but two score wethers fit for market."
"How d'you mean?"
"The others aeun't fatted praeaperly."
"Nonsense—you know we never give 'em cake or turnips, so what does it matter?"
"They aeun't fit."
"I tell you they'll do well enough. I don't expect to get such prices for them as for that lot you've kept down in the New Innings, but they won't fetch much under, for I declare they're good meat. If we keep them over the winter we'll have to send them inland and pay no end for their grazing—and then maybe the price of mutton ull go down in the Spring."
"It ud be a fool's job to taeake them."
"You say that because you don't want to have to fetch them up from the Salt Innings. I tell you you're getting lazy, Fuller."
"My old maeaster never called me that."
"Well, you work as well for me as you did for him, and I won't call you lazy, neither."
She gave him a conciliatory grin, but Fuller had been too deeply wounded for such easy balm. He turned and walked away, a whole speech written in the rebellious hunch of his shoulders.
"You'll get them beasts," she called after him.
"Surelye"—came in a protesting drawl. Then "Yup!—Yup!" to the two sheep dogs couched on the doorstep.
What with supervising the work and herding slackers, getting her breakfast and packing off Ellen to the little school she went to at Rye, Joanna found all too soon that the market hour was upon her. It did not strike her to shirk this part of a farmer's duty—she would drive into Rye and into Lydd and into Romney as her father had always driven, inspecting beasts and watching prices. Soon after ten o'clock she ran upstairs to make herself splendid, as the occasion required.
By this time the morning had lifted itself out of the mist. Great sheets of blue covered the sky and were mirrored in the dykes—there was a soft golden glow about the marsh, for the vivid green of the pastures was filmed over with the brown of the withering seed-grasses, and the big clumps of trees that protected every dwelling were richly toned to rust through scales of flame. Already there were signs that the day would be hot, and Joanna sighed to think that approaching winter had demanded that her new best black should be made of thick materials. She hated black, too, and grimaced at her sombre frills, which the mourning brooch and chain of jet beads could only embellish, never lighten. But she would as soon have thought of jumping out of the window as of discarding her mourning a day before the traditions of the Marsh decreed. She decided not to wear her brooch and chain—the chain might swing and catch in the beasts' horns as she inspected them, besides her values demanded that she should be slightly more splendid in church than at market, so her ornaments were reserved as a crowning decoration, all except her mourning ring made of a lock of her father's hair.
It was the first time she had been to market since his death, and she knew that folks would stare, so she might as well give them something to stare at. Outside the front door, in the drive, old Stuppeny was holding the head of Foxy, her mare, harnessed to the neat trap that Thomas Godden had bought early the same year.
"Hullo, Stuppeny—you ain't coming along like that!" and Joanna's eye swept fiercely up and down his manure-caked trousers.
"I never knew as I wur coming along anywheres, Miss Joanna."
"You're coming along of me to the market. Surely you don't expect a lady to drive by herself?"
Old Stuppeny muttered something unintelligible.
"You go and put on your black coat," continued Joanna.
"My Sunday coat!" shrieked Stuppeny.
"Yes—quick! I can't wait here all day."
"But I can't put on my good coat wudout cleaning myself, and it'll taeake me the best part o' the marnun to do that."
Joanna saw the reasonableness of his objection.
"Oh, well, you can leave it this once, but another time you remember and look decent. To-day it'll do if you go into the kitchen and ask Grace to take a brush to your trousers—and listen here!" she called after him as he shambled off—"if she's making cocoa you can ask her to give you a cup."
Grace evidently was making cocoa—a habit she had whenever her mistress's back was turned—for Stuppeny did not return for nearly a quarter of an hour. He looked slightly more presentable as he climbed into the back of the trap. It struck Joanna that she might be able to get him a suit of livery secondhand.
"There isn't much he's good for on the farm now at his age, so he may as well be the one to come along of me. Broadhurst or Luck ud look a bit smarter, but it ud be hard to spare them.... Stuppeny ud look different in a livery coat with brass buttons.... I'll look around for one if I've time this afternoon."
It was nearly seven miles from Ansdore to Lydd, passing the Woolpack, and the ragged gable of Midley Chapel—a reproachful ruin among the reeds of the Wheelsgate Sewer. Foxy went smartly, but every now and then they had to slow down as they overtook and passed flocks of sheep and cattle being herded along the road by drovers and shepherds in dusty boots, and dogs with red, lolling tongues. It was after midday when the big elm wood which had been their horizon for the last two miles suddenly turned, as if by an enchanter's wand, into a fair-sized town of red roofs and walls, with a great church tower raking above the trees.
Joanna drove straight to the Crown, where Thomas Godden had "put up" every market day for twenty years. She ordered her dinner—boiled beef and carrots, and jam roll—and walked into the crowded coffee room, where farmers from every corner of the three marshes were already at work with knife and fork. Some of them knew her by sight and stared, others knew her by acquaintance and greeted her, while Arthur Alce jumped out of his chair, dropping his knife and sweeping his neighbour's bread off the table. He was a little shocked and alarmed to see Joanna the only woman in the room; he suggested that she should have her dinner in the landlady's parlour—"you'd be quieter like, in there."
"I don't want to be quiet, thank you," said Joanna.
She felt thankful that none of the few empty chairs was next Alce's—she could never abide his fussing. She sat down between Cobb of Slinches and a farmer from Snargate way, and opened the conversation pleasantly on the subject of liver fluke in sheep.
When she had brought her meal to a close with a cup of tea, she found Alce waiting for her in the hotel entrance.
"I never thought you'd come to market, Joanna."
"And why not, pray?"
The correct answer was—"Because you don't know enough about beasts," but Alce had the sense to find a substitute.
"Because it ain't safe or seemly for a woman to come alone and deal with men."
"And why not, again? Are all you men going to swindle me if you get the chance?"
Joanna's laugh always had a disintegrating effect on Alce, with its loud warm tones and its revelation of her pretty teeth—which were so white and even, except the small pointed canines. When she laughed she opened her mouth wide and threw back her head on her short white neck. Alce gropingly put out a hairy hand towards her, which was his nearest approach to a caress. Joanna flicked it away.
"Now a-done do, Arthur Alce"—dropping in her merriment into the lower idiom of the Marsh—"a-done do with your croaking and your stroking both. Let me go my own ways, for I know 'em better than you can."
"But these chaps—I don't like it—maybe, seeing you like this amongst them, they'll get bold with you."
"Not they! How can you mention such a thing? There was Mr. Cobb and Mr. Godfrey at dinner, talking to me as respectful as churchwardens, all about liver fluke and then by way of rot in the oats, passing on natural and civil to the Isle of Wight disease in potatoes—if you see anything bold in that ... well then you're an old woman as sure as I ain't."
A repetition of her laugh completed his disruption, and he found himself there on the steps of the Crown begging her to let him take over her market day discussions as her husband and deputy.
"Why should you go talking to farmers about Isle of Wight disease and liver fluke, when you might be talking to their wives about making puddings and stuffing mattresses and such-like women's subjects."
"I talk about them too," said Joanna, "and I can't see as I'd be any better for talking of nothing else."
What Alce had meant to convey to her was that he would much rather hear her discussing the ailments of her children than of her potatoes, but he was far too delicate-minded to state this. He only looked at her sadly.
Joanna had not even troubled to refuse his proposal—any more than a mother troubles to give a definite and reasoned refusal to the child who asks for the moon. Finding him silent, and feeling rather sorry for him, she suggested that he should come round with her to the shops and carry some of her parcels.
She went first of all to a firm of house-painters, for she meant to brighten up Ansdore. She disliked seeing the place with no colour or ornament save that which the marsh wind gave it of gold and rust. She would have the eaves and the pipes painted a nice green, such as would show up well at a distance. There was plenty of money, so why should everything be drab? Alce discouraged her as well as he was able—it was the wrong time of year for painting, and the old paint was still quite good. Joanna treated his objections as she had treated his proposal—with good-humoured, almost tender, indifference. She let him make his moan at the house-painter's, then carelessly bore him on to the furnishers', where she bought brightly-flowered stuff for new curtains. Then he stood by while at an outfitter's she inspected coats for Stuppeny, and finally bought one of a fine mulberry colour with brass buttons all down the front.
She now returned to the market-place, and sought out two farmers from the Iden district, with whom she made arrangements for the winter keep of her lambs. Owing to the scanty and salt pastures of winter, it had always been the custom on the marsh to send the young sheep for grazing on upland farms, and fetch them back in the spring as tegs. Joanna disposed of her young flock between Relf of Baron's Grange and Noakes of Mockbeggar, then, still accompanied by Alce, strolled down to inspect the wethers she had brought to the market.
On her way she met the farmer of Picknye Bush.
"Good day, Miss Godden—I've just come from buying some tegs of yourn."
"My looker's settled with you, has he?"
"He said he had the power to sell as he thought proper—otherways I was going to ask for you."
An angry flush drowned the freckles on Joanna's cheek.
"That's Fuller, the obstinate, thick-headed old man...."
Bates's round face fell a little.
"I'm sorry if there's bin any mistaeake. After all, I aeun't got the beasts yet—thirty shillings a head is the price he asked and I paid. I call it a fair price, seeing the time of year and the state of the meat market But if your looker's bin presuming and you aeun't pleased, then I woean't call it a deal."
"I'm pleased enough to sell you my beasts, and thirty shillings is a fairish price. But I won't have Fuller fixing things up over my head like this, and I'll tell him so. How many of 'em did you buy, Mr. Bates?"
"I bought the lot—two score."
Joanna made a choking sound. Without another word, she turned and walked off in the direction of the hurdles where her sheep were penned, Bates and Alce following her after one disconcerted look at each other. Fuller stood beside the wethers, his two shaggy dogs couched at his feet—he started when he suddenly saw his mistress burst through the crowd, her black feathers nodding above her angry face.
"Fuller!" she shouted, so loud that those who were standing near turned round to see—"How many wether-tegs have you brought to Lydd?"
"How many did I tell you to bring?"
"The others wurn't fit, surelye."
"But didn't I tell you to bring them?"
"You did, but they wurn't fit."
"I said you were to bring them, no matter if you thought 'em fit or not."
"They wurn't fit to be sold as meat."
"I tell you they were."
"No one shall say as Tom Fuller doean't bring fit meat to market."
"You're an obstinate old fool. I tell you they were first-class meat."
Men were pressing round, farmers and graziers and butchers, drawn by the spectacle of Joanna Godden at war with her looker in the middle of Lydd market. Alce touched her arm appealingly—
"Come away, Joanna," he murmured.
She flung round at him.
"Keep dear—leave me to settle my own man."
There was a titter in the crowd.
"I know bad meat from good, surelye," continued Fuller, feeling that popular sentiment was on his side—"I should ought to, seeing as I wur your father's looker before you wur your father's daughter."
"You were my father's looker, but after this you shan't be looker of mine. Since you won't mind what I say or take orders from me, you can leave my service this day month."
There was a horror-stricken silence in the crowd—even the lowest journeyman butcher realized the solemnity of the occasion.
"You understand me?" said Joanna.
"Yes, ma'am," came from Fuller in a crushed voice.
By the same evening the news was all over Lydd market, by the next it was all over the Three Marshes. Everyone was repeating to everyone else how Joanna Godden of Little Ansdore had got shut of her looker after twenty-eight years' service, and her father not been dead a month. "Enough to make him rise out of his grave," said the Marsh.
The actual reasons for the turning away were variously given—"Just because he spuck up and told her as her pore father wudn't hold wud her goings on," was the doctrine promulgated by the Woolpack; but the general council sitting in the bar of the Crown decreed that the trouble had arisen out of Fuller's spirited refusal to sell some lambs that had tic. Other pronouncements were that she had sassed Fuller because he knew more about sheep than she did—or that Fuller had sassed her for the same reason—that it wasn't Joanna who had dismissed him, but he who had been regretfully obliged to give notice, owing to her meddling—that all the hands at Ansdore were leaving on account of her temper.
"He'll never get another plaeace agaeun, will pore old Fuller—he'll end in the Union and be an everlasting shame to her."
There was almost a feeling of disappointment when it became known that Fuller—who was only forty-two, having started his career at an early age—had been given a most satisfactory job at Arpinge Farm inland, and something like consternation when it was further said and confirmed by Fuller himself that Joanna had given him an excellent character.
"She'll never get another looker," became the changed burden of the Marsh.
But here again prophecy failed, for hardly had Joanna's advertisement appeared simultaneously in the Rye Observer and the Kentish Express than she had half a dozen applications from likely men. Martha Tilden brought the news to Godfrey's Stores, the general shop in Brodnyx.
"There she is, setting in her chair, talking to a young chap what's come from Botolph's Bridge, and there's three more waiting in the passage—she told Grace to give them each a cup of cocoa when she was making it. And what d'you think? Their looker's come over from Old Honeychild, asking for the place, though he was sitting in the Crown at Lydd only yesterday, as Sam Broadhurst told me, saying as it was a shame to get shut of Fuller like that, and as how Joanna deserved never to see another looker again in her life."
"Which of the lot d'you think she'll take?" asked Godfrey.
"I dunno. How should I say? Peter Relf from Old Honeychild is a stout feller, and one of the other men told me he'd got a character that made him blush, it was that fine and flowery. But you never know with Joanna Godden—maybe she'd sooner have a looker as knew nothing, and then she could teach him. Ha! Ha!"
Meanwhile Joanna sat very erect in her kitchen chair, interviewing the young chap from Botolph's Bridge.
"You've only got a year's character from Mr. Gain?"
"Yes, missus ..." a long pause during which some mental process took place clumsily behind this low, sunburnt forehead ... "but I've got these."
He handed Joanna one or two dirty scraps of paper on which were written "characters" from earlier employers.
Joanna read them. None was for longer than two years, but they all spoke well of the young man before her.
"Then you've never been on the Marsh before you came to Botolph's Bridge?"
"Sheep on the Marsh is very different from sheep inland."
"I know, missus."
"But you think you're up to the job."
Joanna stared at him critically. He was a fine young fellow—slightly bowed already though he had given his age as twenty-five, for the earth begins her work early in a man's frame, and has power over the green tree as well as the dry. But this stoop did not conceal his height and strength and breadth, and somehow his bigness, combined with his simplicity, his slow thought and slow tongue, appealed to Joanna, stirred something within her that was almost tender. She handed him back his dirty "characters."
"Well, I must think it over. I've some other men to see, but I'll write you a line to Botolph's Bridge and tell you how I fix. You go now and ask Grace Wickens, my gal, to give you a cup of hot cocoa."
Young Socknersh went, stooping his shock-head still lower as he passed under the worn oak lintel of the kitchen door. Joanna interviewed the shepherd from Honeychild, a man from Slinches, another from Anvil Green inland, and one from Chilleye, on Pevensey marsh beyond Marlingate. She settled with none, but told each that she would write. She spent the evening thinking them over.
No doubt Peter Relf from Honeychild was the best man—the oldest and most experienced—but on the other hand he wanted the most money, and probably also his own way. After the disastrous precedent of Fuller, Joanna wasn't going to have another looker who thought he knew better than she did. Now, Dick Socknersh, he would mind her properly, she felt sure.... Day from Slinches had the longest "character"—fifteen years man and boy; but that would only mean that he was set in their ways and wouldn't take to hers—she wasn't going to start fattening her sheep with turnips, coarsening the meat, not to please anyone.... Now, Socknersh, having never been longer than two years in a place wouldn't have got fixed in any bad habits.... As for Jenkins and Taylor, they weren't any good—just common Southdown men—she might as well write off to them at once. Her choice lay between Relf and Day and Socknersh. She knew that she meant to have Socknersh—he was not the best shepherd, but she liked him the best, and he would mind her properly and take to her ways ... for a moment he seemed to stand before her, with his head stooping among the rafters, his great shoulders shutting out the window, his curious, brown, childlike eyes fixed upon her face. Day was a scrubby little fellow, and Relf had warts all over his hands.... But she wasn't choosing Socknersh for his looks; she was choosing him because he would work for her the best, not being set up with "notions." Of course she liked him the best, too, but it would be more satisfactory from every practical point of view to work with a man she liked than with a man she did not like—Joanna liked a man to look a man, and she did not mind if he was a bit of a child too.... Yes, she would engage Socknersh; his "characters," though short, were most satisfactory—he was "good with sheep and lambs," she could remember—"hard-working"—"patient".... She wrote to Botolph's Bridge that evening, and engaged him to come to her at the end of the week.
Nothing happened to make her regret her choice. Socknersh proved, as she had expected, a humble, hard-working creature, who never disputed her orders, indeed who sometimes turned to her for direction and advice. Stimulated by his deference, she became even more of an oracle than she had hitherto professed. She looked up "The Sheep" in her father's "Farmer's Encyclopaedia" of the year 1861, and also read one or two more books upon his shelves. From these she discovered that there was more in sheep breeding than was covered by the lore of the Three Marshes, and her mind began to plunge adventurously among Southdowns and Leicesters, Black-faced, Blue-faced, and Cumberland sheep. She saw Ansdore famous as a great sheep-breeding centre, with many thousands of pounds coming annually to its mistress from meat and wool.
She confided some of these ideas to Arthur Alce and a few neighbouring farmers. One and all discouraged her, and she told herself angrily that the yeomen were jealous—as for Alce, it was just his usual silliness. She found that she had a more appreciative listener in Dick Socknersh. He received all her plans with deep respect, and sometimes an admiring "Surelye, missus," would come from his lips that parted more readily for food than for speech. Joanna found that she enjoyed seeking him out in the barn, or turning off the road to where he stood leaning on his crook with his dog against his legs.
"You'd never believe the lot there is in sheep-keeping, Socknersh; and the wonders you can do if you have knowledge and information. Now the folks around here, they're middling sensible, but they ain't what you'd call clever. They're stuck in their ways, as you might say. Now if you open your mind properly, you can learn a lot of things out of books. My poor father had some wonderful books upon his shelves, that are mine to read now, and you'd be surprised at the lot I've learned out of 'em, even though I've been sheep-raising all my life."
"Now I'll tell you something about sheep-raising that has never been done here, all the hundreds of years there's been sheep on the Marsh. And that's the proper crossing of sheep. My book tells me that there's been useful new breeds started that way and lots of money made. Now, would you believe it, they've never tried crossing down here on the Marsh, except just once or twice with Southdowns?—And that's silly, seeing as the Southdown is a smaller sheep than ours, and I don't see any sense in bringing down our fine big sheep that can stand all waters and weathers. If I was to cross 'em, I'd sooner cross 'em with rams bigger than themselves. I know they say that small joints of mutton are all the style nowadays, but I like a fine big animal—besides, think of the fleeces."
Socknersh apparently thought of them so profoundly that he was choked of utterance, but Joanna could tell that he was going to speak by the restless moving of his eyes under their strangely long dark lashes, and by the little husky sounds he made in his throat. She stood watching him with a smile on her face.
"Well, Socknersh—you were going to say ..."
"I wur going to say, missus, as my maeaster up at Garlinge Green, whur I wur afore I took to the Marsh at Botolph's Bridge—my maeaster, Mus' Pebsham, had a valiant set of Spanish ship, as big as liddle cattle; you shud ought to have seen them."
"Did he do any crossing with 'em?"
"No, missus—leastways not whiles I wur up at the Green."
Joanna stared through the thick red sunset to the horizon. Marvellous plans were forming in her head—part, they seemed, of the fiery shapes that the clouds had raised in the west beyond Rye hill. Those clouds walked forth as flocks of sheep—huge sheep under mountainous fleeces, the wonder of the Marsh and the glory of Ansdore....
She hesitated whether she should share with him her new inspiration. It would be good to hear him say "Surelye, missus" in that admiring, husky voice. He was the only one of her farm-hands who, she felt, had any deference towards her—any real loyalty, though he was the last come.
"Socknersh, d'you think your master up at Garlinge would let me hire one or two rams to cross with my ewes?—I might go up and have a look at them. I don't know as I've ever seen a Spanish sheep.... Garlinge is up by Court-at-Street, ain't it?"
"Yes, missus. 'Tis an unaccountable way from here."
"I'd write first. What d'you think of the notion, Socknersh? Don't you think that a cross between a Spanish sheep and a Kent sheep ud be an uncommon fine animal?"
That night Joanna dreamed that giant sheep as big as bullocks were being herded on the Marsh by a giant shepherd.
Spring brought a blooming to Ansdore as well as to the Marsh. Joanna had postponed, after all, her house-painting till the winter months of rotting sea mists were over. But in April the ladders striped her house-front, and soon her windows and doors began to start luridly out of their surroundings of mellowed tiles and brick. After much deliberation she had chosen yellow for her colour, tastefully picked out with green. She had always been partial to yellow—it was a colour that "showed up" well, and she was also influenced by the fact that there was no other yellow-piped dwelling on the Marsh.
Her neighbours disapproved of her choice for the same reasons that had induced her to make it. They were shocked by the fact that you could see her front door from half a mile off on the Brodnyx Road; it was just like Joanna Godden to choose a colour that shrieked across the landscape instead of merging itself unobtrusively into it. But there was a still worse shock in store for public opinion, and that was when she decided to repaint her waggons as well as her house.
Hitherto there had been only one shape and colour of waggon on the Marsh—a plain low-sided trough of deep sea-blue. The name was always painted in white on a small black wooden square attached to the side. Thomas Godden's waggons had been no departure from this rule. It was left to his daughter to flout tradition, and by some obscure process of local reasoning, bring discredit to her dead father by painting her waggons yellow instead of blue. The evil went deeper than mere colour. Joanna was a travelled woman, having once been to the Isle of Wight, and it suddenly struck her that, since she was repainting, she might give her three waggons the high gondola-shaped fronts that she had admired in the neighbourhood of Shanklin and Ventnor. These she further beautified with a rich, scrolled design, and her name in large, ornate lettering—"Joanna Godden. Little Ansdore. Walland Marsh"—so that her waggons went forth upon the roads very much as the old men o' war of King Edward's fleet had sailed over that same country when it was fathoms deep under the seas of Rye Bay.... With their towering, decorated poops they were more like mad galleys of a bygone age than sober waggons of a nineteenth century farm.
Her improvements gave her a sense of adventurous satisfaction—her house with its yellow window frames and doors, with its new curtains of swaggering design—her high-pooped waggons—the coat with the brass buttons that old Stuppeny wore when he drove behind her to market—her dreams of giant sheep upon her innings—all appealed to something fundamental in her which was big and boastful. She even liked the gossip with which she was surrounded, the looks that were turned upon her when she drove into Rye or Lydd or New Romney—the "there goes Joanna Godden" of folk she passed. She had no acute sense of their disapproval; if she became aware of it she would only repeat to herself that she would "show 'em the style"—which she certainly did.
Arthur Alce was very much upset by the gossip about Joanna.
"All you've done since you started running Ansdore is to get yourself talked about," he said sadly.
"Well, I don't mind that."
"No, but you should ought to. A woman should ought to be modest and timid and not paint her house so's it shows up five mile off—first your house, and then your waggons—it'll be your face next."
"Arthur Alce, you're very rude, and till you learn to be civil you can keep out of my house—the same as you can see five mile off."
Alce, who really felt bitter and miserable, took her at her word and kept away for nearly a fortnight. Joanna was not sorry, for he had been highly disapproving on the matter of the Spanish sheep, and she was anxious to carry out her plan in his absence. A letter to Garlinge Green had revealed the fact that Socknersh's late master had removed to a farm near Northampton; he still bred Spanish sheep, but the risk of Joanna's venture was increased by the high price she would have to pay for railway transport as well as in fees. However, once she had set her heart on anything, she would let nothing stand in her way. Socknersh was inclined to be aghast at all the money the affair would cost, but Joanna soon talked him into an agreeable "Surelye."
"We'll get it all back," she told him. "Our lambs ull be the biggest at market, and ull fetch the biggest prices too."
It pleased Joanna to talk of Socknersh and herself as "we," though she would bitterly have resented any idea of joint responsibility in the days of Fuller. The rites of lambing and shearing had not dimmed her faith in the high priest she had chosen for Ansdore's most sacred mysteries. Socknersh was a man who was automatically "good with sheep." The scared and trembling ewes seemed to see in him a kind of affinity with themselves, and lay still under his big, brown, quiet hands. He had not much "head," but he had that queer inward kinship with animals which is sometimes found in intensely simple natures, and Joanna felt equal to managing the "head" part of the business for both. It pleased her to think that the looker—who is always the principal man on a farm such as Ansdore, where sheep-rearing is the main business—deferred to her openly, before the other hands, spoke to her with drawling respect, and for ever followed her with his humble eyes.
She liked to feel those eyes upon her. All his strength and bigness, all his manhood, huge and unaware, seemed to lie deep in them like a monster coiled up under the sea. When he looked at her he seemed to lose that heavy dumbness, that inarticulate stupidity which occasionally stirred and vexed even her good disposition; his mouth might still be shut, but his eyes were fluent—they told her not only of his manhood but of her womanhood besides.
Socknersh lived alone in the looker's cottage which had always belonged to Ansdore. It stood away on the Kent Innings, on the very brink of the Ditch, which here gave a great loop, to allow a peninsula of Sussex to claim its rights against the Kentish monks. It was a lonely little cottage, all rusted over with lichen, and sometimes Joanna felt sorry for Socknersh away there by himself beside the Ditch. She sent him over a flock mattress and a woollen blanket, in case the old ague-spectre of the Marsh still haunted that desolate corner of water and reeds.
Towards the end of that autumn, Joanna and Ellen Godden came out of their mourning. As was usual on such occasions, they chose a Sunday for their first appearance in colours. Half mourning was not worn on the Marsh, so there was no interval of grey and violet between Joanna's hearse-like costume of crape and nodding feathers and the tan-coloured gown in which she astonished the twin parishes of Brodnyx and Pedlinge on the first Sunday in November. Her hat was of sage green and contained a bird unknown to natural history. From her ears swung huge jade earrings, in succession to the jet ones that had dangled against her neck on Sundays for a year—she must have bought them, for everyone knew that her mother, Mary Godden, had left but one pair.
Altogether the sight of Joanna was so breathless, that a great many people never noticed Ellen, or at best only saw her hat as it went past the tops of their pews. Joanna realized this, and being anxious that no one should miss the sight of Ellen's new magenta pelisse with facings of silver braid, she made her stand on the seat while the psalms were sung.
The morning service was in Brodnyx church—in the evening it would be at Pedlinge. Brodnyx had so far escaped the restorer, and the pews were huge wooden boxes, sometimes fitted with a table in the middle, while Sir Harry Trevor's, which he never occupied, except when his sons were at home, was further provided with a stove—all the heating there was in the three aisles. There was also a two-decker pulpit at the east end and over the dim little altar hung an escutcheon of Royal George—the lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown amid much scroll-work.
Like most churches on the Marsh it was much too big for its parish, and if the entire population of Brodnyx and Pedlinge had flocked into it, it would not have been full. This made Joanna and Ellen all the more conspicuous—they were alone in their great horse-box of a pew, except for many prayer books and hassocks—There were as many hassocks in Brodnyx church as there were sheep on the Brodnyx innings. Joanna, as usual, behaved very devoutly, and did not look about her. She had an immense respect for the Church, and always followed the service word for word in her huge calf-bound prayer book, expecting Ellen to do the same—an expectation which involved an immense amount of scuffling and angry whispering in their pew.
However, though her eyes were on her book, she was proudly conscious that everyone else's eyes were on her. Even the rector must have seen her—as indeed from his elevated position on the bottom deck of the pulpit he could scarcely help doing—and his distraction was marked by occasional stutters and the intrusion of an evening Collect. He was a nervous, deprecating little man, terribly scared of his flock, and ruefully conscious of his own shortcomings and the shortcomings of his church. Visiting priests had told him that Brodnyx church was a disgrace, with its false stresses of pew and pulpit and the lion and the unicorn dancing above the throne of the King of kings. They said he ought to have it restored. They did not trouble about where the money was to come from, but Mr. Pratt knew he could not get it out of his congregation, who did not like to have things changed from the manner of their fathers—indeed there had been complaints when he had dislodged the owls that had nested under the gallery from an immemorial rector's day.
The service came to an end with the singing of a hymn to an accompaniment of grunts and wheezes from an ancient harmonium and the dropping of pennies and threepenny bits into a wooden plate. Then the congregation hurried out to the civilities of the churchyard.
From outside, Brodnyx Church looked still more Georgian and abandoned. Its three aisles were without ornament or architecture; there was no tower, but beside it stood a peculiar and unexplained erection, shaped like a pagoda, in three tiers of black and battered tar-boarding. It had a slight cant towards the church, and suggested nothing so much as a disreputable Victorian widow, in tippet, mantle and crinoline, seeking the support of a stone wall after a carouse.
In the churchyard, among the graves, the congregation assembled and talked of or to Joanna. It was noticeable that the women judged her more kindly than the men.
"She can't help her taste," said Mrs. Vine, "and she's a kind-hearted thing."
"If you ask me," said Mrs. Prickett, "her taste ain't so bad, if only she'd have things a bit quieter. But she's like a child with her yallers and greens."
"She's more like an organist's monkey," said her husband. "What ud I do if I ever saw you tricked out like that, Mrs. Prickett?"
"Oh, I'd never wear such clothes, master, as you know well. But then I'm a different looking sort of woman. I wouldn't go so far as to say them bright colours don't suit Joanna Godden."
"I never thought much of her looks."
"Nor of her looker—he! he!" joined in Furnese with a glance in Joanna's direction.
She was talking to Dick Socknersh, who had been to church with the other hands that could be spared from the farm. She asked him if he had liked the sermon, and then told him to get off home quickly and give the tegs their swill.
"Reckon he don't know a teg from a tup," said Furnese.
"Oh, surelye, Mr. Furnese, he aeun't a bad looker. Jim Harmer said he wur just about wonderful with the ewes at the shearing."
"Maybe—but he'd three sway-backed lambs at Rye market on Thursday."
"Three. 'Twas a shame."
"But Joanna told me he was such a fine, wonderful man with the sheep—as he got 'em to market about half as tired and twice as quick as Fuller used to in his day."
"Ah, but then she's unaccountable set on young Socknersh. He lets her do what she likes with her sheep, and he's a stout figure of a man, too. Joanna Godden always was partial to stout-looking men."
"But she'd never be such a fool as to git sweet on her looker."
"Well, that's wot they're saying at the Woolpack."
"The Woolpack! Did you ever hear of such a talk-hole as you men get into when you're away from us! They say some unaccountable fine things at the Woolpack. I tell you, Joanna ain't such a fool as to get sweet on Dick Socknersh."
"She's been fool enough to cross Spanish sheep with her own. Three rams she had sent all the way from furrin parts by Northampton. I tell you, after that, she'd be fool enough for anything."
"Maybe she'll do well by it."
"Maybe she'll do well by marrying Dick Socknersh. I tell you, you doean't know naeun about it, missus. Whosumdever heard of such an outlandish, heathen, foolish notion?"
On the whole Joanna was delighted with the success of her appearance. She walked home with Mrs. Southland and Maggie Furnese, bridling a little under their glances, while she discussed servants, and food-prices, and a new way of pickling eggs.
She parted from them at Ansdore, and she and Ellen went in to their Sunday's dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. After this the day would proceed according to the well-laid ceremonial that Joanna loved. Little Ellen, with a pinafore tied over her Sabbath splendours, would go into the kitchen to sit with the maids—get into their laps, turn over their picture Bibles, examine their one or two trinkets and strings of beads which they always brought into the kitchen on Sunday. Meanwhile Joanna would sit in state in the parlour, her feet on a footstool, on her lap a volume of Spurgeon's sermons. In the old days it had always been her father who read sermons, but now he was dead she had taken over this part of his duties with the rest, and if the afternoon generally ended in sleep, sleep was a necessary part of a well-kept Sabbath day.
When Christmas came that year, Joanna was inspired to celebrate it with a party. The Christmas before she had been in mourning, but in her father's day it had been usual to invite a few respectable farmers to a respectable revel, beginning with high tea, then proceeding through whist to a hot supper. Joanna would have failed in her duty to "poor father" if she had not maintained this custom, and she would have failed in consistency with herself if she had not improved upon it—embellished it with one or two ornate touches, which lifted it out of its prosaic rut of similarity to a dozen entertainments given at a dozen farms, and made it a rather wonderful and terrible occasion to most dwellers on the Marsh.
To begin with, the invitations were not delivered, according to custom, verbally in the churchyard after Morning Prayer on Sunday—they were written on cards, as Mrs. Saville of Dungemarsh Court wrote them, and distributed through the unwonted and expensive medium of the post. When their recipients had done exclaiming over the waste of a penny stamp, they were further astonished to see the word "Music" written in the corner—Joanna had stuck very closely to her Dungemarsh Court model. What could the music be? Was the Brodnyx Brass Band going to play? Or had Joanna hired Miss Patty Southland, who gave music lessons on the Marsh?
She had done neither of these things. When her visitors assembled, stuffed into her two parlours, while the eatables were spread in a kitchen metamorphosed with decorations of crinkled paper, they found, buttressed into a corner by the freshly tuned piano, the Rye Quartet, consisting of the piano-tuner himself, his wife, who played the 'cello, and his two daughters with fiddles and white pique frocks. At first the music was rather an embarrassment, for while it played eating and conversation were alike suspended, and the guests stood with open mouths and cooling cups of tea till Mr. Plummer's final chords released their tongues and filled their mouths with awkward simultaneousness. However, after a time the general awe abated, and soon the Rye Quartet was swamped in a terrific noise of tongues and mastication.
Everyone was staring at Joanna's dress, for it was Low—quite four inches of her skin must have shown between its top most frill and the base of her sturdy throat. The sleeves stopped short at the elbow, showing a very soft, white forearm, in contrast with brown, roughened hands. Altogether it was a daring display, and one or two of the Miss Vines and Southlands and Furneses wondered "how Joanna could do it."
Proudly conscious of the eyes fixed upon her, she moved—or rather, it must be confessed, squeezed—about among her guests. She had put on new manners with her new clothes, and was full of a rather mincing civility.
"Pray, Mrs. Cobb, may I get you another cup of tea?"—"Just one more piece of cake, Mr. Alce?"—"Oh, please, Miss Prickett—just a leetle bit of ham."
Ellen followed her sister about, pulling at her skirt. She was dressed in white, and her hair was crimped, and tied with pink ribbons. At eight o'clock she was ordered up to bed and there was a great uproar, before, striking out in all directions, she was carried upstairs under Joanna's stalwart arm. The Rye Quartet tactfully started playing to drown her screams, which continued for some time in the room overhead.
The party did not break up till eleven, having spent five hours standing squeezed like herrings under the Ansdore beams, eating and drinking and talking, to the strains of "The Blue Danube" and "See Me Dance the Polka." Local opinion was a little bewildered by the entertainment—it had been splendid, no doubt, and high-class to an overwhelming degree, but it had been distinctly uncomfortable, even tiresome, and a great many people were upset by eating too much, since the refreshments had been served untiringly from six to eleven, while others had not had enough, being nervous of eating their food so far from a table, and clinging throughout the evening to their first helpings.
To Joanna, however, the evening was an uncriticized success, and she was inspired to repeat it on a humbler scale for the benefit of her servants. She knew that at big houses there was often a servants' ball at Christmas, and though she had at present no definite ambition to push herself into the Manor Class, she was anxious that Ansdore should have every pomp and that things should be "done proper." The mere solid comfort of prosperity was not enough for her—she wanted the glitter and glamour of it as well, she wanted her neighbours not only to realize it but to exclaim about it.
Thus inspired she asked Prickett, Vine, Furnese and other yeomen and tenants of the Marsh to send their hands, men and maids, to Ansdore, for dancing and supper on New Year's Eve. She found this celebration even more thrilling than the earlier one. Somehow these humbler preparations filled more of her time and thought than when she had prepared to entertain her peers. She would not wear her low dress, of course, but she would have her pink one "done up"—a fall of lace and some beads sewn on, for she must look her best. She saw herself opening the ball with Dick Socknersh, her hand in his, his clumsy arm round her waist.... Of course old Stuppeny was technically the head man at Ansdore, but he was too old to dance—she would see he had plenty to eat and drink instead—she would take the floor with Dick Socknersh, and all eyes would be fixed upon her.
They certainly were, except when they dropped for a wink at a neighbour. Joanna waltzing with Socknersh to the trills of Mr. Elphick, the Brodnyx schoolmaster, seated at the tinkling, ancient Collard, Joanna in her pink gown, close fitting to her waist and then abnormally bunchy, with her hair piled high and twisted with a strand of ribbon, with her face flushed, her lips parted and her eyes bright, was a sight from which no man and few women could turn their eyes. Her vitality and happiness seemed to shine from her skin, almost to light up the dark and heavy figure of Socknersh in his Sunday blacks, as he staggered and stumbled, for he could not dance. His big hand pawed at her silken waist, while the other held hers crumpled in it—his hair was greased with butter, and his skin with the sweat of his endeavour as he turned her round.
That was the only time Joanna danced that night. For the rest of the evening she went about among her guests, seeing that all were well fed and had partners. As time went on, gradually her brightness dimmed, and her eyes became almost anxious as she searched among the dancers. Each time she looked she seemed to see the same thing, and each time she saw it, it was as if a fresh veil dropped over her eyes.
At last, towards the end of the evening, she went up again to Socknersh.
"Would you like me to dance this polka with you that's coming?"
"Thank you, missus—I'd be honoured, missus—but I'm promised to Martha Tilden."
"Martha!—You've danced with her nearly all the evening."
"She's bin middling kind to me, missus, showing me the steps and hops."
"Oh, well, since you've promised you must pay."
She turned her back on him, then suddenly smarted at her own pettishness.
"You've the makings of a good dancer in you, if you'll learn," she said over her shoulder. "I'm glad Martha's teaching you."
Lambing was always late upon the Marsh. The wan film of the winter grasses had faded off the April green before the innings became noisy with bleating, and the new-born lambs could match their whiteness with the first flowering of the blackthorn.
It was always an anxious time—though the Marsh ewes were hardy—and sleepless for shepherds, who from the windows of their lonely lambing huts watched the yellow spring-dazzle of the stars grow pale night after night. They were bad hours to be awake, those hours of the April dawn, for in them, the shepherds said, a strange call came down from the country inland, straying scents of moss and primroses reaching out towards the salt sea, calling men away from the wind-stung levels and the tides and watercourses, to where the little inland farms sleep in the sheltered hollows among the hop-bines, and the sunrise is warm with the scent of hidden flowers.
Dick Socknersh began to look wan and large-eyed under the strain—he looked more haggard than the shepherd of Yokes Court or the shepherd of Birdskitchen, though they kept fast and vigil as long as he. His mistress, too, had a fagged, sorrowful air, and soon it became known all over the Three Marshes that Ansdore's lambing that year had been a gigantic failure.
"It's her own fault," said Prickett at the Woolpack, "and serve her right for getting shut of old Fuller, and then getting stuck on this furrin heathen notion of Spanish sheep. Anyone could have told her as the lambs ud be too big and the ewes could never drop them safe—she might have known it herself, surelye."
"It's her looker that should ought to have known better," said Furnese. "Joanna Godden's a woman, fur all her man's ways, and you can't expect her to have praeaper know wud sheep."
"I wonder if she'll get shut of him after this," said Vine.
"Not she! She don't see through him yet."
"She'll never see through him," said Prickett solemnly. "The only kind of man a woman ever sees through is the kind she don't like to look at."
Joanna certainly did not "see through" Dick Socknersh. She knew that she was chiefly to blame for the tragedy of her lambing, and when her reason told her that her looker should have discouraged instead of obeyed and abetted her, she rather angrily tossed the thought aside. Socknersh had the sense to realize that she knew more about sheep than he, and he had not understood that in this matter she was walking out of her knowledge into experiment. No one could have known that the scheme would turn out so badly—the Spanish rams had not been so big after all, only a little bigger than her ewes ... if anyone should have foreseen trouble it was the Northampton farmer who knew the size of Spanish lambs at birth, and from his Kentish experience must also have some knowledge of Romney Marsh sheep.
But though she succeeded in getting all the guilt off her looker and some of it off herself, she was nevertheless stricken by the greatness of the tragedy. It was not only the financial losses in which she was involved, or the derision of her neighbours, or the fulfilment of their prophecy—or even the fall of her own pride and the shattering of that dream in which the giant sheep walked—there was also an element of almost savage pity for the animals whom her daring had betrayed. Those dead ewes, too stupid to mate themselves profitably and now the victims of the farm-socialism that had experimented with them.... At first she ordered Socknersh to save the ewes even at the cost of the lambs, then when in the little looker's hut she saw a ewe despairingly lick the fleece of its dead lamb, an even deeper grief and pity smote her, and she burst suddenly and stormily into tears.
Sinking on her knees on the dirty floor, she covered her face, and rocked herself to and fro. Socknersh sat on his three-legged stool, staring at her in silence. His forehead crumpled slightly and his mouth twitched, as the slow processes of his thought shook him. The air was thick with the fumes of his brazier, from which an angry red glow fell on Joanna as she knelt and wept.
When the first sharpness of death had passed from Ansdore, Joanna's sanguine nature, her hopeful bumptiousness, revived. Her pity for the dead lambs and her fellow-feeling of compassion for the ewes would prevent her ever dreaming of a new experiment, but already she was dreaming of a partial justification of the old one—her cross-bred lambs would grow so big both in size and price that they would, even in their diminished numbers pay for her daring and proclaim its success to those who jeered and doubted.
Certainly those lambs which had survived their birth now promised well. They were bigger than the purebred Kent lambs, and seemed hardy enough. Joanna watched them grow, and broke away from Marsh tradition to the extent of giving them cake—she was afraid they might turn bony.
As the summer advanced she pointed them out triumphantly to one or two farmers. They were fine animals, she said, and justified her experiment, though she would never repeat it on account of the cost; she did not expect to do more than cover her expenses.
"You'll be lucky if you do that," said Prickett rather brutally, "they look middling poor in wool."
Joanna was not discouraged, nor even offended, for she interpreted all Prickett's remarks in the light of Great Ansdore's jealousy of Little Ansdore.
Later on Martha Tilden told her that they were saying much the same at the Woolpack.
"I don't care what they say at the Woolpack," cried Joanna, "and what business have you to know what they say there? I don't like my gals hanging around pubs."
"I didn't hang araeound, ma'am. 'Twas Socknersh toeald me."
"Socknersh had no business to tell you—it's no concern of yours."
Martha put her hand over her mouth to hide a grin, but Joanna could see it in her eyes and the dimples of her cheeks.
A sudden anger seized her.
"I won't have you gossiping with Socknersh, neither—you keep away from my men. I've often wondered why the place looks in proper need of scrubbing, and now I know. You can do your work or you can pack off. I won't have you fooling around with my men."
"I doean't fool araeound wud your men," cried Martha indignantly. She was going to add "I leave that to you," but she thought better of it, because for several reasons she wanted to keep her place.
Joanna flounced off, and went to find Socknersh at the shearing. In the shelter of some hurdles he and one or two travelling shearers were busy with the ewes' fleeces. She noticed that the animal Socknersh was working on lay quiet between his feet, while the other men held theirs with difficulty and many struggles. The July sunshine seemed to hold the scene as it held the Marsh in a steep of shining stillness. The silence was broken by many small sounds—the clip of the shears, the panting of the waiting sheep and of the dogs that guarded them, and every now and then the sudden scraping scuttle of the released victim as it sprang up from the shearer's feet and dashed off to where the shorn sheep huddled naked and ashamed together. Joanna watched for a moment without speaking; then suddenly she broke out:
"Socknersh, I hear it's said that the new lambs ull be poor in wool."
"They're saying it, missus, but it aeun't true."
"I don't care if it's true or not. You shouldn't ought to tell my gal Martha such things before you tell me."
Socknersh's eyes opened wide, and the other men looked up from their work.
"Seemingly," continued Joanna, "everyone on this farm hears everything before I do, and it ain't right. Next time you hear a lot of tedious gossip, Dick Socknersh, you come and tell me, and don't waste it on the gals, making them idle."
She went away, her eyes bright with anger, and then suddenly her heart smote her. Suppose Socknersh took offence and gave notice. She had rebuked him publicly before the hired shearers—it was enough to make any man turn. But what should she do if he went?—He must not go. She would never get anyone like him. She almost turned and went back, but had enough sense to stop—a public apology would only make a worse scandal of a public rebuke. She must wait and see him alone ... the next minute she knew further that she must not apologize, and the minute after she knew further still—almost further than she could bear—that in denying herself an apology she was denying herself a luxury, that she wanted to apologize, to kneel at Socknersh's clay-caked feet and beg his forgiveness, to humble herself before him by her penitence so that he could exalt her by his pardon....
"Good sakes! Whatever's the matter with me?" thought Joanna.
Her apology took the discreet form of a side of bacon, and Socknersh did not give notice—had evidently never thought of it. Of course the shearers spread the story of Joanna's outburst when they went on to Slinches and Birdskitchen and other farms, but no one was surprised that the shepherd stayed on.
"He'd never be such a fool as to give up being looker a day before she makes him master," said Cobb of Slinches.
"And when he's master," said Mrs. Cobb, "he'll get his own back for her sassing him before Harmer and his men."
A few weeks later Socknersh brought the first of the cross-bred lambs to market at Rye, and Joanna's wonderful sheep-breeding scheme was finally sealed a failure. The lambs were not only poor in wool, but coarse in meat, and the butchers would not deal, small mutton being the fashion. Altogether they fetched lower prices than the Kent lambs, and the rumour of Ansdore's losses mounted to over four hundred pounds.
Rumour was not very wide of the fact—what with hiring fees, railway expenses, the loss of ewes and lambs at the lambing, and the extra diet and care which panic had undertaken for the survivors, the venture had put about two hundred and sixty pounds on the debit side of Joanna's accounts. She was able to meet her losses—her father had died with a comfortable balance in Lewes Old Bank, and she had always paid ready money, so was without any encumbrance of debt—but Ansdore was bound to feel the blow, which had shorn it of its fleece of pleasant profits. Joanna was for the first time confronted by the need for economy, and she hated economy with all the lavish, colour-loving powers of her nature. Even now she would not bend herself to retrenchment—not a man less in the yard, not a girl less in the kitchen, as her neighbours had expected.
But the failure of the cross-bred lambs did not end the tale of Ansdore's misadventures. There was a lot of dipping for sheep-scab on the Marsh that August, and it soon became known that several of Joanna Godden's sheep and lambs had died after the second dip.
"That's her valiant Socknersh again," said Prickett—"guv 'em a double arsenic dip. Good sakes! That woman had better be quick and marry him before he does any more harm as her looker."
"There's more than he gives a double arsenic dip, surelye."
"Surelye—but they mixes the can a bit. Broadhurst says as Socknersh's second dip was as strong as his first."
The feeling about Socknersh's incapacity reached such a point that more than one warning was given Joanna for her father's sake, and one at least for her own, from Arthur Alce.
"I shouldn't say it, Joanna, if it wasn't true, but a man who puts a sheep into poison-wash twice in a fortnight isn't fit to be anyone's looker."
"But we were dipping for sheep-scab—that takes something stronger than Keatings."
"Yes, but the point is, d'you see, that you give 'em the first dip in arsenic stuff, and the next shouldn't ought to be poison at all—there's a lot of good safe dips on the market, that ull do very well for a second wash."
"Socknersh knows his business."
"He don't—that's why I'm speaking. Fuller ud never have done what he's done. He's lost you a dozen prime sheep on the top of all your other losses."
The reference was unfortunate. Joanna's cheekbones darkened ominously.
"It's all very well for you to talk, Arthur Alce, for you think no one can run Ansdore except yourself who'll never get the chance. It's well known around, in spite of what you say, that Socknersh is valiant with sheep—no one can handle 'em as he can; at the shearing Harmer and his men were full of it—how the ewes ud keep quiet for him as for nobody else—and 'twas the same at the lambing. It wasn't his fault that the lambs died, but because that chap at Northampton never told us what he should ought.... I tell you, I've never had anyone like him for handling sheep—they're quite different with him from what they were with that rude old Fuller, barking after 'em like a dog along the Brodnyx road and bringing 'em up to Rye all raggled and draggled and dusty as mops ... he knows how to manage sheep—he's like one of themselves."
"That's just about it—he's like another sheep, so they ain't scared of him, but he can do no more for 'em than another sheep could, neither. He's ignorant—he's got no sense nor know, or he'd never have let you breed with them Spanishes, or given 'em a poisonous double-dip—and he's always having sway-backs up at market, too, and tic and hoose and fluke.... Oh, Joanna, if you're any bit wise you'll get shut of him before he messes you all up. And you know what folks say—they say you'd have got shut of him months agone if you hadn't been so unaccountable set on him, so as they say—yes, they say one day you'll marry him and make him master of Ansdore."
Alce's face flamed as red as his whiskers and nearly as red as Joanna's cheeks. For a moment she faced him speechless, her mouth open.
"Oh, that's what they say, is it!" she broke out at last. "They say I'd marry Dick Socknersh, who looks after my sheep, and who's like a sheep himself. They think I'd marry a man who's got no more'n two words on his tongue and half that number of ideas in his head—who can't think without its giving him a headache—who comes of no class of people—his father and mother were hedge people up at Anvil Green—who gets eighteen bob a week as my looker—who—"
"Don't get so vrothered, Joanna. I'm only telling you what folk say, and if you'll stop and think you'll see they've got some reason. Your looker's done things that no farmer on this Marsh ud put up with a month, and yet you keep him on, you with all your fine ideas about farming and running Ansdore as your poor father ud have had it ... and then he's a well set-up young man too, nice-looking and stout as I won't deny, and you're a young woman that I'd say was nice-looking too, and it's only natural folks should talk when they see a pretty woman hanging on to a handsome chap in spite of his having half bust her."
"He hasn't half bust me, nor a quarter, neither—and I ain't hanging on to him, as you're elegant enough to say. I keep him as my looker because he's valiant with the sheep and manages 'em as if born to it, and because he minds what I say and doesn't sass me back or meddle, as some I could name. As for being set on him, I'm not so far below myself as all that. You must think unaccountable low of me, Arthur Alce, if you figure I'd get sweet on a man who's courting my chicken-gal, which is what Dick Socknersh is doing."
"Courting Martha Tilden?"
"Yes, my chicken-gal. And you think I'd look at him!—I!... You must think middling low of me, Arthur Alce ... a man who's courting my chicken-gal."
"I'd always thought as Martha Tilden—but you must know best. Well, if he's courting her I hope as he'll marry her soon and show folks they're wrong about him and you."
"They should ought to be ashamed of themselves to need showing. I look at a man who's courting my chicken-gal!—I never! I tell you what I'll do—I'll raise his wages, so as he can marry her at once—my chicken-gal—and so as folk ull know that I'm satisfied with him as my looker."
And Joanna marched off up the drive, where this conversation had taken place.
She raised Socknersh's wages to twenty shillings the next day, and it was not due to any wordy flow of his gratitude that the name of Martha Tilden was not mentioned between them. "Better leave it," thought Joanna to herself, "after all, I'm not sure—and she's a slut. I'd sooner he married a cleaner, steadier sort of gal."
Grace Wickens had already departed, her cocoa-making tendencies having lately passed into mania—and her successor was an older woman, a widow, who had fallen on evil days. She was a woman of few words, and Joanna wondered a little when one afternoon she said to her rather anxiously: "I'd lik to speak to you, ma'am—in private, if you please."
They went into the larder and Mrs. Tolhurst began:
"I hardly lik to say it to you, Miss Joanna, being a single spinster ..."
This was a bad beginning, for Joanna flamed at once at the implication that her spinsterhood put her at any disadvantage as a woman of the world.
"Don't talk nonsense, Mrs. Tolhurst; I may be unwed as yet, but I'm none of your Misses."
"No, ma'am—well, it's about this Martha Tilden—"
"What about her?"
"Only, ma'am, that she's six months gone."
There was no chair in the larder, or Joanna would have fallen into it—instead she staggered back against the shelves, with a great rattle of crockery. Her face was as white as her own plates, and for a moment she could not speak.
"I made bold to tell you, Miss Joanna, for all the neighbourhood's beginning to talk—and the gal getting near her time and all.... I thought maybe you'd have noticed.... Don't be in such a terrification about it, Miss Joanna.... I'm sorry I told you—maybe I shud ought to have spuck to the gal fust ..."