"COUNTRY LIFE" Library of Fiction.
NORTH, SOUTH AND OVER THE SEA.
By M.E. FRANCIS (Mrs. Francis Blundell.)
with Illustrations by H.M. BROCK.
Some of these stories have already appeared in "The Cornhill Magazine," "Longmans' Magazine," and "Country Life," and are reprinted by kind permission of the Editors of these periodicals.
GOLDEN SALLY "TH' OWDEST MEMBER" THE CONQUEST OF RADICAL TED HEATHER IN HOLBORN SENTIMENT AND "FEELIN'"
THE ROMANCE OF BROTHER JOHN GILES IN LUCK "THE WOLD LOVE AND THE NOO" BLACKBIRD'S INSPIRATION THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND HIM
OVER THE SEA
ELLENEY IN ST. PATRICK'S WARD THE FLITTING OF THE OLD FOLKS "THE SPIDER AND THE GOUT" ROSEEN
The long warm day was drawing to its close; over the sandhills yonder the sun was sinking in a great glory of scarlet and purple and gold. The air was warm still, and yet full of those myriad indescribable essences that betoken the falling of the dew; and mingling with, yet without dominating them, was the sweet penetrating odour of newly-cut hay.
John Dickinson walked moodily along the lane that led first to his uncle's wheat-field, and then to the sandhills. He was a tall, strapping young fellow, broad of shoulder and sturdy of limb, with nevertheless something about him which betokened that he was not country bred. His face was not brown enough, his hands were not rough enough, the shirt sleeves, rolled up above his elbow, were not only cleaner than those of the ordinary rustic after a hard day, but displayed arms whereof the tell-tale whiteness proclaimed that they were little used to such exposure. These arms ached sorely now; all day long had John been assisting in "carrying," and the hours spent in forking the hay from the ground to the cart had put his new-found ardour for a country life to a severe test.
John had been born and brought up in Liverpool, having since he left school acted as assistant in his father's shop. But on the latter's death, his affairs were found to be so hopelessly involved that it was impossible for his family to carry on the business. Mrs. Wilson and her daughters had obtained employment in "town," and John had announced his intention of taking to farming. Having been more or less master in his father's small establishment he could not brook the idea of accepting a subordinate post in the same way of business; and, indeed, as his mother's brother, burly old Richard Waring of Thornleigh, had offered to take him into his household and teach him his work, there seemed to be no reason why he should not adopt the career which was more to his mind.
John had frequently made expeditions into the country before, and had spent many pleasant hours in the company of his aunt and uncle, and their buxom daughter Jinny; but he found a vast difference between these pleasure excursions and the steady routine to which he was now subjected. All the household were abed at nine, an arrangement to which John objected. As his aunt opined that it was "a sin an' a shame to burn good lamps i' summer time when days was long enough for onybody as was reasonable," he bought a supply of candles out of his own meagre store, and, being fond of reading, spent an hour or two with book or paper before retiring to rest. But the worst of this arrangement was that when, as it appeared to him, he had just settled comfortably to his first sleep, it was time to be astir again. His uncle thumped at his door, his aunt, from the bottom of the stairs, called out shrilly that if he wanted any breakfast he had best make haste, for she was "goin' to side the things in a twothree minutes." Jinny made sarcastic comments on his tardy appearance, and laughed at his heavy eyes. That was the worst of it—Jinny was always laughing at him; she "made little" of him on every possible occasion. His "town" speech, his "finicky" ways, his state of collapse at the end of the day, his awkwardness in handling unaccustomed tools, were to her never-failing sources of amusement. John set his teeth and made no sign of being wounded or annoyed, the sturdy spirit inherited from his mother's people forbidding him to cry out when he was hurt; but his spirits were at a low ebb, and to-day he had walked forth after tea with a heart as sore and heavy as those over-strained arms of his. Jinny had come out to the field with the "drinkin's," and her face looked so bewitching under the sun-bonnet, and her waist so tempting and trim beneath the crisp folds of her clean bed-gown, that John had made bold in cousinly fashion to encircle it with his arm, whereupon she had freed herself with an impatient twirl, remarking that she didn't want no counter-jumpers to be measurin' of her—a sally which had been regarded as exquisitely humorous by the bystanders. John's cheeks burned as he thought of it.
"She needn't be afraid—I'll not come nigh her again," he muttered vengefully.
He was skirting the wheat-field now, the tall, green ears stirring with a pleasant rustling sound; in some distant reeds a bunting was warbling, a belated lark was circling slowly downwards over his head. From the village yonder voices and laughter fell faintly on his ear, and all these mingled sounds served but to accentuate the prevailing impression of peace and stillness; as John strolled onwards, his heavy steps crushing out the aromatic perfume of the thyme which grew profusely along the path, he was insensibly soothed and calmed by the evening quietude.
Over the wooden railings now, and across the dewy pasture and up the tallest sandhill, from the top of which he could, as he knew, look down upon the sea. The waters would be ruddy and golden at this hour, but by day ran brown and sluggish enough over the mud banks of the Alt. On the other side of the shining expanse the houses of New Brighton would stand forth all flecked with gold, and farther still the very smoke of Liverpool would appear as a luminous yellow haze, and the masts and riggings of the ships lying at anchor would be turned into bars of gold. John knew these things by heart, but was never tired of gazing upon them, and as he climbed the hill his heart grew lighter and lighter; the salt, tart breeze that lifted his hair as he topped it gave new vigour to his tired limbs, and a sudden sense of exhilaration to his whole being. He stood at last with folded arms on the summit letting it sing past him, and gazing about him in vague delight. A golden world indeed; just what he had expected to find. A golden sea, a golden sky, the very sand and grasses at his feet appeared to be golden too.
Now, what was that? About twenty paces beneath him, on the seaward side of the dune, he caught a glimpse of another golden object, an unusual object, the nature of which he did not at once identify. He shaded his eyes with his hand, and presently began to laugh softly. That golden thing which had caught his eye was the uncovered head of a girl. She was seated in a hollow of the hill, and the tall star-grass and blossoming ragwort grew so freely at this spot that only her head was visible. All at once a hand was thrust out from behind the screen, and a sudden shower of gold fell downwards from that glittering crown. John laughed again as the girl began very composedly to comb her hair.
He came down the hill, stepping as lightly as he could, and paused in front of her quaint 'tiring-room. She looked up as his shadow fell across her, paused a moment with the comb poised in mid-air, and then calmly drew it through her yellow locks. What hair it was! It fell round her like a veil as she sat: it would reach almost to her knees, John thought, if she were standing. He looked at her with a kind of awe; for a moment the strange tales he had so often heard of mermaids and witches recurring to his mind. But he was reassured on a closer inspection of the girl and her attire. She wore a bed-gown and apron like Jinny's, but not, alas! so neat or clean; her stuff petticoat, too, was ragged and old, and the feet, which were stretched forth from under its folds, were brown and bare as the hands which so deftly wielded the comb.
John's eyes rested with intense disapproval on these shapely feet, and travelled slowly backwards over the ragged petticoat and the pink cotton jacket—which, instead of being neatly buttoned over at the neck, fell loosely open, disclosing the girl's throat, firm and round as a pillar—and so on till they reached her face; then suddenly drooped before the disconcerting gaze of another pair of eyes, very large and bright.
"I hope ye'll know me again," said the girl.
John looked up with a grin. "It'll be hard work if you keep your face covered up with all that hair," he said.
She gathered together the heavy yellow masses with both hands, twisted them up with astonishing speed and deftness, and let her arms fall upon her lap.
"Theer!" she said.
It was not a pretty face John at first decided; tanned as it was to the colour of ripe corn, and the eyes, such a light blue and with such blue whites, looking so strange in this setting. The cheeks, moreover, were not rosy like those of his cousin Jinny, nor rounded in their contours—the chin was too pointed; yet even as John looked a sudden dimple flashed there, and a smile, swift and mischievous, lit up the whole face. Then he did not feel quite so sure.
"What in the name of fortune are you doing here?" he asked abruptly, almost roughly, for the smile nettled him. "Can't you find some better place than this to do your dressing in?"
"If I didn't comb my hair i' th' sandhills I wouldn't comb it at all," she returned. "It's the on'y place I have to do onythin' in. Mony a time when th' owd lad is fuddled, me an' my Aunt Nancy sleep on 'em."
"Sleep out o' doors!" ejaculated John, much scandalised.
"Aye, oftener than not, I can tell you. Tisn't so very coomfortable when theer's snow about—though we mak' up a bit o' fire an' that; but it's reet enough this time o' year. Aye, I like to lay awake lookin' up at the stars, an' listenin' to the wayter yon. The rabbits coom dancin' round us, an' th' birds fly ower we'r 'eads when the leet cooms. It's gradely."
John slowly lowered himself down on the sand beside her, as if to endeavour to look on this strange aspect of life from her level. His respectable commercial soul was shocked, but he was nevertheless interested.
"My word!" he ejaculated; and then, after a pause, "What's your name, if I may ask?"
"Sally? It's a good enough name. What's th' other one?"
"I haven't got no other one as I ever heerd on. My uncle's Jim Whiteside, an' soom folks call'n me Sally Whiteside, an' then he gets mad an' says 'tisn't none o' my name. An' soom folks call'n me 'Cockle Sally.' Aye, that's what they call'n me mostly."
Dickinson looked at her disapprovingly. He had heard of the wild, disreputable "Cockle Folk" who roamed about the sandhills; who were worse than tramps in the opinion of respectable people, and who had, many of them, no fixed abode of any kind.
"Well," he remarked, "it's a pity. I could ha' wished ye'd ha' belonged to different folks. I don't hold with these cocklers. They're a rough lot, ar'n't they?"
The girl laughed.
"My Aunt Nancy says I'm as rough as ony mysel'. Would ye like soom cockles?" she asked, breaking off suddenly. "I'd fetch ye soom to-morrow if I've ony luck. They're chep enough—an' big ones. Wheer do ye live?"
"At Mr. Waring's farm," responded John, distantly; adding, more truthfully than politely, "I doubt you'd best keep away though. My aunt 'll be none too pleased if you come yonder."
"Aye, I knows her. Hoo buys mony a quart of me, an' then hoo chivies me out o' th' road. I'll coom. If you're not there, I'll coom to the field."
"Well, you might do that," agreed John, accommodatingly. "Some o' th' other chaps 'ud be glad enough to take a few of these cockles off you. 'Twould be a bit of a change wi' th' bread and cheese. We're goin' to cut the big meadow to the right as you go to the village. Come to the top of the hill, and I'll show it you."
"Nay, I'll not go near field if they're all theer. I went once, an' farmer he said he'd set dog at me; an' th' lads began o' jokin' an' laughin' at me. Aye, I get mad wi' nobbut thinkin' on't."
She coloured as she spoke, and John's face clouded over, as though her indignation had infected him. In fact, he had too recently suffered from the rude jests and laughter of his fellow-labourers not to sympathise with Sally.
"I know them," he said bitterly, "and a rough lot they are. They leave me no peace; they give me plenty of their impudence too, if it's any comfort to you, Sally, to know that."
"Eh dear!" cried Sally in amazement. "Why, whatever can they find amiss wi' you?"
The blue eyes were upturned with such genuine and admiring astonishment that John could not but be touched and flattered. In this actual mood, moreover, when his spirit was still smarting from the remembrance of the manner in which scornful Jinny had turned him into a laughing-stock, Sally's respectful appreciation was doubly sweet to him.
"I'll bring ye th' cockles if ye'll coom up th' lane at dinner-time," she went on. "I'll stand near the white gate. Coom, I'll show ye."
She sprang up and began quickly to ascend the hill. Her figure had the erectness common to those accustomed to carry burdens on their heads, and also a grace and freedom of movement which impressed John with vague astonishment. As she turned upon the summit to point out the place of meeting, her face sparkling with animation, her eyes alight and eager, the golden coronet of hair radiant in the mellow glow, he gave a little gasp of amazement. The girl was beautiful! What a pity she should lead such a life!
"Yonder, see," she continued. "Aye—why do ye stare at me that way?"
"Sally," said practical, plain—spoken John, "I'm lookin' at you because I think you're real handsome, an' I think it's a terrible pity for ye to be traipsin' about like this. Why don't you leave your uncle and aunt and go to live with decent people—and put on shoes and stockings?" he added severely.
The girl gazed at him in amazement.
"Whatever put that i' your 'ead? Decent folks wouldn't have nought to say to me. I'd as soon go cocklin' as do onythin' else—an' I couldn't do wi' shoes an' stockin's."
"Didn't you ever go to school?"
"Nay, scarce at all. We was wonderful clever 'bout that. We shifted an' shifted an' gi'ed 'em all th' slip."
"Don't you go to church on Sundays?"
"Eh dear! I wonder what they'd say if me an' Aunt Nancy an' Uncle Jim was to go paddlin' in among all the fine folks—wi' bare feet an' all."
She laughed grimly.
"Will yo' coom yonder for the cockles?" she inquired presently.
John nodded, and, turning, she ran down the hill, fleet as a hare, and disappeared round its curved base.
John walked homewards thoughtfully, his own troubles quite forgotten in the consideration of Sally's lot. All that evening, and even during his work on the following morning, he pondered over it, and it was with a portentous face that he betook himself at noon to the trysting-place. So punctual was he that he stood there for some minutes before a musical cry of "Cockles! fine cockles!" came ringing down the lane, and presently Sally appeared, the basket poised upon her head throwing a deep shadow over her face, but the curves of her figure strongly defined by the brilliant summer sunlight. Halting by the gate she balanced her basket on the upper bar, and immediately measured out a quart by way of greeting.
"How much?" inquired business-like John.
"Ye may have 'em for nought; I've got plenty, see. They're fine ones, ar'n't they?"
"I'd sooner pay you for them. You want the money perhaps."
"Well, then," said Sally, and thrust out her brown palm.
"Sally," said John, seriously, "I've been thinking a deal about you. I think it is somethin' dreadful the way you are livin'—you so comely an' all. It's an awful thing to think you don't know anythin' and never go to church or that. Do you never say your prayers?"
Sally looked at him, and twisted open a cockle before replying.
"Nay, I dunnot. Aunt Nancy doesn't neither."
"Do you know who made you, Sally?"
"I larned at school, the on'y time I went, but I forget now."
"Well, Sally, I've been thinkin'—somebody ought to teach you. I could teach you myself of an evening if you'd come yonder to the big sandhill."
Sally looked reflective, but presently nodded.
"I will while I'm here," she said; "but we's be shiftin' afore aught's along—we're allus shiftin'. We have to be terrible careful not to get cotched for sleeping out. They're that sharp wi' us they won't let a body do naught, so we dursen't stay too long i' one place. But I'll coom, an' ye can teach me if ye've a mind. If ye dunnot see me when ye coom to th' top o' hill, jest call out 'Cockle Sally! Cockle Sally!' an' I'll coom."
"No; that's an ugly name," said John, who had been idly watching the play of the sunbeams on the little curling strands of hair which were lightly lifted by the summer breeze. "I could find you a better name than that, I think. You look like—"
"What do I look like?" inquired Sally.
John's glance once more travelled over her whole figure. The faded buff jacket, the not altogether immaculate apron of unbleached calico, were transfigured by the all-pervading sunshine; golden lights outlined the tanned face and hands; as for the hair, it was at that moment a very glory.
"I reckon I'd call you Golden Sally," he said with a laugh. "You look as if you were made of gold this morning, and I'll engage you're as good as gold," he added gallantly.
"Coom, that's too fine a name for me," cried Sally, well pleased, nevertheless, and smiling broadly.
"I'll christen you by it all the same," replied John, smiling too. "You must be good and mind what I tell you," he added with mock severity. "If you don't, I must find some other name for you."
Sally's long eyelashes suddenly drooped, and she drummed on the gate nervously.
"I'll do my best to please ye," she said. "I'll coom when ye call," she added after a pause.
Lifting up her basket, and balancing it once more on her head, she raised her downcast lids, and flashed a farewell smile at John as she turned away. In another moment she was speeding in the opposite direction.
John was vexed and disappointed that she should terminate the meeting so abruptly, but consoled himself with the reflection that he was free to assume the office of instructor that very evening if he chose.
The long, toilsome day seemed slow of passing, the company of the farmer and his men more tedious even than usual, but by way of compensation Jinny's sallies seemed to have lost their power to wound him. It was late when, the last waggon-load having been conveyed from the field and the evening meal disposed of, he found himself free to attend to Sally's education. He strode along the sandy lane and across the field at a very different pace to that of the previous evening, and was almost breathless when he found himself on the top of the tall dune, gazing about with anxious eyes. No golden head was to be seen amid the star-grass and ragwort this time; no graceful girl's figure was outlined against the evening sky. His heart sank, and it was in a disconsolate, uncertain voice that he called aloud:
"Golden Sally! Golden Sally!"
Then, starting up, as if by magic, from some unsuspected place of ambush, she came quickly towards him. Her face was blushing and eager, her hands outstretched; and John was somehow so glad to see her after the chill disappointment of the moment before, that he not only grasped the hands, but kissed the glowing cheek.
It would be difficult to say how much Sally learnt from her zealous young instructor—for zealous he was, sincere and earnest in his desire to improve her mind. But he taught her one thing very rapidly and completely—to love himself with all her undisciplined heart. After a time she made no secret of this devotion, and John was oddly abashed and disconcerted by her occasional outbursts of affection. He was much interested in Sally, very much attracted by her. Her worship of him was distinctly pleasant, if a little too demonstrative. Now and then he himself could not refrain from a tender word or a caress; but he was thoroughly convinced of her inferiority, and nothing could have been further from his thoughts than the wish to marry her.
Sally sometimes made him presents: bags of cockles, which, on leaving her, he not infrequently dropped into a ditch; a few flowers, procured he knew not how; and once she astonished him by producing, carefully wrapped up in paper, a very handsome silk handkerchief, with a curious pattern of sprigs and flowers.
"Why, Sally," he cried, "I scarcely like to take this. It's worth a deal of money I'm sure."
"It is," said Sally, with an odd look. "Aye, I am fain that ye like it. I wish I could find summat better to give ye. Theer's nought too good for ye."
John, much flattered, and moreover sufficiently of a dandy to rejoice in the possession of a handsome and unusual article of wearing apparel, thanked her warmly, and assured her that he would value it all the days of his life.
On the following Sunday he was tempted to wear it, and came down to breakfast much pleased with his appearance; but he was both astonished and alarmed at his aunt's demeanour on beholding it.
"Lor', John, wheerever did ye get yon 'andkerchief? Dear, now, I could swear it's the same as the one Mr. Lambert, of Saltfield, lost a five or six week ago. Mrs. Lambert towd me 'bout it when we drove yon on neighbourin' day. Eh, hoo was in a way! It's been i' th' family for years an' years; and hoo'd weshed it hersel' an' put it on th' hedge to dry, an' soombry coom an' whipped it off. Eh, I mind it well. Hoo'd often showed it me. Hoo thought a dale of it."
John coloured up to his temples, a horrible suspicion darting through his mind; but he was nevertheless determined to carry off the situation in a high-handed manner.
"This can't be hers, anyhow," he returned angrily, "seein' it's mine."
"Well, I could ha' sworn it were the same," retorted his aunt. "Such an old-fashioned thing too. It's strange ye should get one of the same pattern. How long have ye had it, John? Happen them as stole it sold it again."
John hated telling a lie, but conceived it advisable to tell one now.
"I've had this years an' years. My father gave it to me."
"Well, if he gave it you so long ago as that it can't be the same, I suppose, but it's wonderful like it. I wonder wheer he got it. It's a pity we can't ask him, but he's dead, as how 'tis, poor fellow! Coom, pull up an' tak' your breakfast."
John dutifully drew his chair to the table, but he felt as though every morsel choked him. His own falsehood, to begin with, stuck in his throat, while the thought of Sally's possible perfidy seemed to turn the wholesome farmhouse bread to sand in his mouth. Was it possible, could it be possible, that this love-token of hers was stolen? Had she dared to offer him that which it was a disgrace to possess If such were the case, of what avail was all his teaching? To what purpose had he stooped to associate so constantly with one so much beneath him?
Meanwhile the eyes of all the Waring family were fixed upon his luckless neckerchief in a manner which made him feel more and more uncomfortable; and he was fairly beside himself when, after church, his aunt informed him that she was thinking of axin' Margery Formby, who was Mrs. Lambert's sister, to step round after dinner and have a look at it, "It's so amazin' like the one Mr. Lambert lost, I reckon it 'ud be a kind o' comfort if hoo could tell Mrs. Lambert hoo needn't set sich store by it, as sich things is easy to be got."
"Well, aunt, I'm not goin' to stop in to have Margery Formby pokin' and pryin' at my things. I never see such queer folk in my life. 'Tisn't thought manners in other places to be passin' remarks an' askin' questions about a fellow's clothes."
"Well I never!" ejaculated Mrs. Waring, scarlet with indignation. "Upon my word, John, if it's thought manners in town to be givin' impudence to your own aunt ye'd best go back theer. It's not thought manners here, and what's more, we won't put up with it. Your uncle'll ha' summat to say, I'll warrant."
John heard no more, for, seeing that the good woman was working herself up into a most unchristian fury, and being, moreover, in no mood to meet the astonished queries of Margery Formby, he went quickly out of the room and out of the house, resolved to extract an explanation from Sally without delay.
Very bitter and angry was his mood, far more bitter and angry than on the evening when he had first beheld her. That which he had originally dismissed as an unjust suspicion had now grown to be almost certainty; and he waited doggedly the word which must confirm it. His blood boiled within him as he thought of Sally's effrontery. It was an insult, an unpardonable impertinence; one which he was, indeed, resolved never to pardon. He would make her confess, and then he would have done with her for ever.
Had his temper been less wrathful he might have been touched at the joyful alacrity with which she sprang to meet him. It had needed no call to bring her to his side; some instinct seemed to have warned her of his coming, and she had caught sight of him while still a long way off and hastened towards him as he approached. She uttered a little cry of joy as her eyes fell upon her gift.
"Eh! ye've got it on! It looks gradely."
"It looks gradely, does it?" returned John grimly. "I've a word or two to say to you about this, Sally? Where did you get this? Is this the handkerchief that was stolen from Mr. Lambert of Saltfield?"
Sally looked back at him quite unabashed, and began to laugh.
"Think o' your guessin'!" she cried. "Well, doesn't it suit ye a dale better nor yon ugly owd chap?"
John turned quite pale; then, with an oath and a sudden fierce gesture, tore the handkerchief from his neck and threw it on the ground.
"How dare you?" he cried, turning on Sally with flashing eyes. "How dare you look me in the face after treating me like this? Insultin' me—makin' a laughin' stock of me—"
He stopped, stammering with rage. The angry colour had now returned to his face; it was Sally who was pale. She stared at him aghast, and presently began to sob like a frightened child.
"I'm sure I dunno whatever I've done to mak' ye so mad," she cried brokenly. "I did but look to please ye."
"Please me!" cried John, stamping his foot. "How could it please me for you to give me a thing that no respectable man ought to touch—a thing as was stolen? I was a fool to think it could have been honestly come by; but when you gave it me, looking so innocent, I never guessed you'd gone and picked it off a hedge."
"I didna," sobbed Sally. "I took it out of Aunt Nancy's bundle. Hoo'll be soom mad when hoo finds out, and hoo'll thrash me for 't. Hoo reckoned to pop it as soon as we'd getten a bit further away fro' Saltfield."
John turned quite sick. This gift of Sally's had, then, been doubly stolen. He had been wearing an adornment which had been stolen from a thief! Words failed him, but he looked at Sally as though he could slay her.
"Dunnot be so mad," she pleaded, laying her hand upon his arm. "I didn't think to vex ye. I nobbut looked about for the best I could find. They flowers ye didn't seem to set mich store by, and I could on'y get a twothree now and again when theer was nobry about."
He shook her off with an angry laugh. "So the flowers were stolen, too! Now, look you, Sally, I'm goin' to have an end o' this. You may pick up yon handkerchief and take yourself off. I'll have no more to say to you after this. I'll have nothing to say to a thief. Don't you ever think to come botherin' me again, for I'll have no more to do wi' you."
She stood looking at him stupidly for a minute or two, and then, to his great annoyance and discomfiture, flung her arms round his neck, sobbing out inarticulate words of entreaty and remonstrance. She didn't think to vex him, she didn't think it was any harm.
He shook her off roughly and impatiently. Sally had evidently no sense of decency or even decorum. "Get out of my sight," he cried fiercely, "or if it comes to that I can go myself. I've done with you, I tell you—ye needn't come after me no more."
She had been looking at him piteously, the big tears standing in those strange blue eyes of hers, and on her tanned cheeks; but now a curious sullen expression came over her face. Stooping and picking up the handkerchief, she tore at it fiercely, first with her hands and subsequently with her teeth. A kind of angry curiosity caused John to delay his departure.
"You've no right to make away with Mr. Lambert's handkerchief," he cried. "If I did what was right I'd give notice to the police."
"Well, why dunnot ye?" she retorted with a fierceness which startled him. "Ye can if ye've a mind."
And she walked away slowly, still plucking at the handkerchief.
* * * * *
A year later, on just such another Sunday afternoon, John stood on the same spot with a woman by his side—the woman was Jinny, and Jinny was his wife. Many things had happened since John had parted in wrath and bitterness from the girl whom he had once called "Golden Sally." His demeanour towards his aunt on the momentous morning alluded to had led to a violent quarrel with her and her husband, which had had unexpected results, for Jinny had taken his part—Jinny who was the idol of her parents and the pivot on which the whole establishment turned. John's whilom indifference had led first to pique on Jinny's part and then to interest. John, perturbed of spirit and sore of heart, had been grateful for her favour. The attachment which poor Sally had for a time diverted was soon re-established, and before six months had passed the young couple were courting in due form.
Farmer Waring was at first a little annoyed, but consoled himself with the reflection that blood was thicker than water. He had no son of his own; it would be pleasant to keep Jinny still at the farm with a husband whom he could "gaffer" and break in to his own ways; so, by and by, consent was given, and John Dickinson was treated with great respect by all at the farm, and already assumed the airs of a master. As for Sally, he had never set eyes on her since the moment of their parting. It had once come to his ears that she and her aunt were in prison for sleeping out of doors, and, shortly after their release, she had apparently "shifted" with the rest of her family. John thought of her as little as possible, for the mere recollection of the manner in which he had been duped, and, as he conceived it, disgraced, filled him with disgust.
There was certainly no memory of her in his mind now as he climbed the hill with Jinny on his arm. They had only been married a few days, and his attitude towards her was still that of a lover. They sat down on the summit of the hill, and John put his arm round Jinny's waist. After the manner of their kind they did not talk much, but were vaguely content with one another and their surroundings. Jinny had some sweets in her pocket, and crunched one occasionally. John did not care for sweets, but was thinking of having a pipe by and bye. The larks were singing, and the little sandpipers fluttering about them, uttering their curious call.
"Here's soombry comin'," remarked Jinny all at once, between two sucks of a lemon drop.
John looked round without removing his arm. He gave a start, however, as his eyes fell on the figure which was rapidly advancing towards them along the irregular crest of the hill. Half unconsciously he released Jinny, and turned over a little on the sand to avoid meeting the direct gaze of the new-comer.
"It's nobbut wan o' they cocklers. You've no need to mind," remarked Jinny a little petulantly. She had thought John's arm in the right place.
John made no answer. He did not dare to raise his eyes, but his ears were strained to catch the swift patter of the approaching bare feet. If Sally should recognise him—if, of course she must—if she should speak, what irreparable mischief might not be made in a few moments!
The steps came nearer; there was a pause, Dickinson's heart beating so loudly that he feared his wife must hear it. He did not raise his eyes, but from beneath their drooped lids he caught sight of Sally's well-known skirt. He made no sign, however, and after what seemed an interminable time the skirt brushed past, actually touching him, and the soft pat pat sounded a little farther off. Even then John did not raise his eyes, but continued to draw patterns on the sand with his forefinger. The silence seemed to him unbearable, and yet he did not dare to break it. He could hear Jinny crunching her sugar-plums with irritating persistency. Why did she not speak?
At last she edged round on the sand, and he felt that she was looking at him.
"What's the matter wi' you?" she cried peevishly. "You're as dull as dull. Can't you say summat?"
John rolled round, squinting up at the pouting, blooming face. "There's not much to say, is there? What's the good of talkin' if you're 'appy?"
"I'm glad to hear you're 'appy, I'm sure," retorted Jinny somewhat mollified. "I can't say as you look it, though," she added.
Words did not readily occur to John, but he made the best answer that was possible under the circumstances. Throwing out his arm he drew Jinny's face down to his and kissed it.
"Now do you believe I'm 'appy," he said.
"Well, if you ar'n't you ought to be," said Jinny coquettishly. "Did you see that cocklin' wench, Jack?"
"Her as went by just now?" inquired John indifferently. "Nay, I didn't take much notice."
"Hoo was a funny-lookin' lass," pursued Jinny. "A bit silly, I think. Hoo stood an' hoo stared at us same as if we was wild beasts or summat."
"Perhaps she wanted us to buy some of her cockles," remarked John, hurriedly volunteering the first explanation that came into his head.
"Eh! very like hoo did. My word, I wish I'd thought on axin' her to let us 'ave a quart—I'm rale fond o' cockles. Could we run arter her, think ye, Jack?"
This was the very last thing which John wished to do, and in order to divert Jinny's mind, he hastily proposed that they should hunt for cockles themselves.
"Nay," she returned, "I'll not go seechin' for cockles—I've got my weddin' dress on, see, an' my new boots an' all."
"Well, then, I will," cried John eagerly. "I need but to kick off my boots an' socks, an' turn up my trousers, an' paddle down yon by the river; there are plenty hereabouts, I know."
"Tide's comin' in—you'd best be careful," screamed Jinny as he bounded barefoot down the slope; but he was already out of earshot.
There sat Jinny on the sunny, wind-swept hill-top; her silk skirt carefully tucked up, and the embroidered frill of her starched white petticoat just resting on her sturdy, well-shod feet. One plump hand, in its tight kid glove, toying with her posy of roses and "old man," the other absently tapping John's discarded foot-gear. Her eyes followed the movements of the lithe young form that wandered hither and thither on the sandy expanse below; her lips were parted in a smile of idle content. All at once a shadow fell across her, and, looking up, she beheld the strange cockle girl standing beside her with folded arms. Jinny stared at her for a moment in astonishment from under the brim of her fine befeathered hat:
"Have ye got any cockles to-day?" she inquired at length.
"Nay, I haven't," responded the girl rudely; "an' if I had you shouldn't ha' none."
"My word!" exclaimed Jinny angrily, "ye might as well keep a civil tongue i' your 'ead. I don't want none o' your cockles, as it jest falls out—my 'usband's gone to get me some."
"Your 'usband," repeated the girl, clapping her hands together in what Jinny thought a very odd and uncalled-for way. "Your 'usband!"
Jinny felt very uncomfortable; the girl's demeanour was so strange that she began to think she had been drinking. Hastily collecting John's socks and boots she scrambled to her feet.
"He's gone cocklin', has he?" inquired Sally, fixing those queer blue eyes of hers on the wife's face with an extraordinary expression; "an' you're takkin' care o's shoon till he cooms back? Ha! ha!—happen he'll ne'er coom back."
Jinny turned very red and walked indignantly away; most certainly the girl was either mad or drunk. "Happen he'll ne'er coom back," indeed! Such impudence! Jinny did not quite like being left alone with her in that solitary place, and partly on this account, partly to disprove her ridiculous assertion, bent her steps towards the shore, calling loudly to her husband to return.
But a fresh breeze was blowing, and the waves were leaping shoreward with unusual haste and energy; her voice did not reach him, and he wandered still further away from her, stooping ever and anon to examine the sand. He had crossed the river some time before, and was now pacing the opposite shore. The muddy waters of this little tidal river had been shallow enough for him to wade through not half-an-hour previously, but were now rising rapidly. He would find his return difficult if not dangerous, and the difficulty and danger were increasing every moment. When Jinny realised this, which she did suddenly, she forgot all about her silk dress and her new boots, and ran frantically towards the water's edge, screaming with all her might; and at last John heard, and began to walk placidly towards the spot where he had originally crossed. The mud banks were out of sight now, and a broad belt of water was spreading rapidly on the other side. It was advancing rapidly also at his rear; soon the stretch of shore, half sand, half mud, on which he stood, would be entirely submerged.
"John! John! coom ower at once!" screamed Jinny, as he paused, looking about him.
"I'm in a fix," he called out. The breeze, which had baffled her endeavours to make herself heard, bore, nevertheless, his words to her. She beckoned and gesticulated, continuing her useless entreaties the while. John laid down his handkerchief full of cockles and began to roll up his trousers higher. Jinny fairly danced with impatience. He made a step or two forward—the water was up to his knees; he walked on, plunging deeper at every step.
Suddenly Jinny uttered an even wilder and more piercing scream—John had disappeared from her sight, and, for a moment, the only trace of him which was evident was his hat rolling and tossing on the brown wavelets. But, before she had time to reiterate the anguished cry, he reappeared, pale and drenched, on the opposite bank.
"Run lass," he cried, "run quick an' fetch a rope, else I'll be drowned. I can't get across the river—the water's nigh ower my head as 'tis, an' my feet keep sinkin' into the mud."
Almost before he had ceased speaking Jinny had turned and was staggering with trembling limbs towards the sandhills. How should she get help in time? There was no habitation within a mile at least, and the water was rising moment by moment. It would be better for him to make a bold dash for safety now. Surely he could get across where he had crossed before, by those brown stepping-stones.
What Jinny took for stepping-stones were in reality the remains of a submerged forest, and no doubt, if John could have discovered their whereabouts, would have afforded him a tolerably secure footing, but they were indistinguishable now beneath the brown, swirling waters. Oh! he would be drowned!—he would be drowned! The yielding sand crumbling beneath Jinny's feet rendered her faltering progress even more slow. She paused hesitating, ran distractedly backwards a few paces; then, as John imperatively waved his arms, plunged forward again and toiled up the slope. All at once her distracted eyes met those of the girl from whom she had fled a little while before, the cockling girl, who was seated very composedly on an out-jutting point of the sandhill, whence she must have had a good view of John and his recent struggle. Jinny, panting upwards, cast a desperate glance upon her.
"For God's sake help me! My 'usband 'll be drowned before my e'en. Wheer can we get help? Will ye run one way an' I'll tak' t' other?"
Sally looked down at the convulsed face. "I'm not goin' to run noways," she retorted. "Run yoursel'; I'm not goin' to be sent o' your arrands."
"But he'll be drowned!" gasped poor Jinny.
"He'll be a fool if he drowns then," retorted the girl with a sneer. "He can get across easy enough if he finds th' reet place."
"Oh, thank God for that!" cried Jinny with momentary hope. "Will ye show me wheer's th' reet place, quick, for the wayter's coomin' in awful fast. It's down by th' steppin'-stones yon, isn't it?"
"Aye," replied the girl, 'it's down theer; ye'd best go an' look for 'em."
"Eh dear! won't ye show me?" cried Jinny wringing her hands. "I'll gi'e you all as I 'ave i' th' world. My watch, see—an' I've money i' th' box a' whoam—I'll gi'e you everythin'. Eh, do run down wi' me now, else it'll be too late."
"I want noan o' your brass an' stuff," cried Sally violently. "He's nought to me—let him drown if he can't save hissel'. He's yourn an' not mine. Ye'd best see to him."
"Eh, you wicked, wicked wench!" sobbed Jinny. "'Owever can ye find it i' your 'eart—but I'll waste no more time on you."
She clambered on, and soon was flying down the slope on the farther side. How long she ran she could not tell—it seemed to her a century since she had left the shore behind. Her brain reeled, her heart throbbed to suffocation—the terrible thought was ever present to her mind: "At this moment perhaps he is drowning—I may find him dead when I go back." Her very desperation lent her speed, and, moreover, fortune favoured her quest, for it was in reality only a very few minutes after her parting with Sally that she came upon a loving couple seated by the road-side. The man was a fisherman well known to Jinny. How she explained and what she promised she never quite knew, but, in an inconceivably short space of time they were speeding back together, the man preceding her with long, swinging strides. There was no time to lose in looking for a rope—he thought he knew a place where he could get Mr. Dickinson across; if not available, he himself could swim.
But, lo and behold! when they reached the summit of the hill and were about to plunge downwards to the shore, an unlooked-for sight met their eyes. There, on the hither side of the river stood John, alive and well, though plastered with mud from head to foot, and by his side was Sally, with her drenched raiment clinging to her, and the water dripping from the loosened strands of her long hair.
"Seems soombry else has had the savin' of him," cried the fisherman, astonished and perhaps a little disappointed; Mrs. Dickinson had promised such wonderful things.
Jinny, speechless with joy, ran down the slope and flung herself upon her husband. His face was pale and all astir with emotion.
"Jinny," he said, when at length she allowed him to speak—"Jinny, she saved me."
Jinny turned to Sally. "Eh, how can I ever thank you," she cried brokenly. "You saved my 'usband arter all. I don't know how to thank you."
Sally looked round with a fierce light in her eyes. "Ye needn't thank me—I didn't save him for you."
"I'm sure," said John, in a voice husky with emotion, "I don't know what to say mysel'—it is more than I could have expected, that you should risk your life for my sake."
"'Twasn't for your sake neither then," said Sally still fiercely.
"Then, in the name of fortune! why did you do it?" he ejaculated.
"I did it—for mysel'," said Sally.
She turned away, the water dripping from her at every step, and bounded up the slope with the erect carriage and springing gait which John remembered of old.
The fisherman retired somewhat disconsolately, and husband and wife, still palpitating, walked slowly away together; while "Golden Sally," once more standing aloft on her sandy pinnacle, wrung the moisture out of her yellow hair.
"TH' OWDEST MEMBER"
Doctor Craddock rode slowly along the grassy track which led from Thornleigh to Little Upton, and as he rode he smiled to himself. Though he had been settled for more than a dozen years in this quiet corner of Lancashire, his Southern mind had not yet become accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of his North Country patients. He had just been to see old Robert Wainwright, who was suffering from an acute attack of gout in his right foot, and who was, in consequence, unapproachable in every sense of the word, answering the Doctor's questions only by an unintelligible growl or an impatient jerk of the head. Moreover, on being informed that he must not expect to set foot to the ground for several days more, he had emitted a kind of incredulous roar, and had announced his opinion that his medical adviser was a gradely fool. Poor Mrs. Wainwright had subsequently apologised for her lord's shortness of temper, explaining in deprecating tones that he was apt to be took that way sometimes; adding that he had been moiderin ever sin' mornin' about Club Day.
"He reckons he's th' owdest member, ye know. Him an' Martin Tyrer, of Little Upton, is mich of an age, an' they'n walked same number of times—they're a bit jealous one o' th' t'other an' our Gaffer reckons if he bides awhoam, owd Martin 'ull be castin' up at him, an' sayin' he's beat him."
"There'll be no Club meeting for Tyrer, either, to-morrow," Doctor Craddock said; "he's laid up with a bad attack of bronchitis."
"Eh, is he?" exclaimed Mrs. Wainwright, with such visible satisfaction that the Doctor smiled now as he recalled it; she had barely patience to escort him to the door, and before he mounted his horse, he heard her joyfully informing her Gaffer that owd Martin Tyrer had getten th' 'titus, and she hoped that now he'd be satisfied and give ower frettin' hissel'.
"I shall have an equally warm reception here, I suppose," said the Doctor to himself, as he dismounted before Tyrer's door, "but, whatever happens, the old man must not think of going out to-morrow. It would be serious if he caught fresh cold."
Martin Tyrer was sitting, almost upright, in his bed, supported by many pillows, for when he lay down, as his wife explained to the Doctor, he fair choked. He was an immensely tall and stout man, with a large red face, and a stolid lack-lustre eye, which he brought solemnly to bear upon the Doctor as he entered the room.
"Well," said Craddock, "how are you to-day, Tyrer? Better, I hope."
Tyrer rolled his eyes in the direction of his wife, apparently as an intimation that she was to answer for him.
"Noan so well," said Mrs. Tyrer lugubriously, proceeding thereupon to give accurate, not to say harrowing, particulars of her master's symptoms; Tyrer, meanwhile, suffering his glance to wander from one to the other, and occasionally nodding or shaking his head. It was not until she paused from want of breath that he put in his word.
"I mun get up to-morrow," he remarked, apparently addressing no one in particular.
"If you do you'll make an end of yourself, my friend," returned the Doctor decidedly. "You stay where you are, and go on with your gruel and poultices—by-the-bye you needn't make those poultices quite so thick, Mrs. Tyrer—and I'll come and see you on Wednesday. You mustn't think of getting up. If you go out in this east wind, it will be the death of you. Really you people are mad about your Club Day—you should have seen old Robert Wainwright, when I told him just now that it would be quite impossible for him to go out."
"He's not goin' to walk!" cried husband and wife together, their faces lighting up much as Mrs. Wainwright's had done.
"He'd be very much astonished if he were to try," said Doctor Craddock; "he can't so much as put his foot to the ground."
"Coom," said Mrs. Tyrer, looking encouragingly at her spouse, "that's one thing as should mak' thee feel a bit 'appier. He were takkin' on terrible, ye know," she explained, "thinkin' Robert 'ud be crowin' ower him at not bein' able to walk. He's allus agate o' saucin our mester is yon—he reckons he's th' owdest member o' th' Club, an' my 'usband he's turned seventy, an' he's walked fifty-two times. Ah, fifty-two times it were last Club Day, weren't it, Martin?"
"It were," agreed Martin, endorsing the statement with a nod; "but Robert, he says he's walked fifty-two times, too, an' he's seventy-one last Lady-day, an' so he reckons he's th' owdest member, an' he's ever an' allus throwin' it i' my face."
"Eh, sich a to-do as he mak's about it you'd never believe," put in the wife, "he'll never let our Gaffer tak' a bit o' credit to hissel'—eh, it's terrible how he goes on! I b'lieve if he were fair deein' he'd get up an' walk sooner nor let poor Martin ha' th' satisfaction o' sayin' he'd walked once oftener nor him. An' th' folks has getten to laugh at 'em both, an' to set 'em on, one agin th' t'other. At th' dinner yonder, at th' Thornleigh Arms, soombry 'll allus get up an' call for th' 'ealth o' th' owdest member, an' then th' two owd lads 'ull get agate o' bargin' one another, an' Upton folks 'ull be backin' up Martin, an' th' Thornleigh folks 'ull be backin' up Robert, an' they mak' sich a din, they say as nobry can hear theirsel's speak."
The Doctor laughed loud and long. "Well, it must be a drawn battle this year," he said; "certainly Wainwright will not be able to go to the Club meeting unless he hops on one leg."
With a cheery nod he withdrew, chuckling all the way downstairs; Mrs. Tyrer duly escorted him to the door, and then climbed slowly up again, every step creaking beneath her weight. When she entered the sick room she found her husband drumming on the sheets with his fingers, and staring in front of him with a somewhat peculiar expression.
"Well," she cried, letting her ponderous person sink into the old-fashioned elbow chair that stood by the bedside, "owd Robert, yon, 'ull ha' to keep quiet for once! He'll noan be castin' up at thee this year as how 'tis."
Martin rolled his head from side to side, but said nothing.
"Ye'll be able to start fresh next Club Day," resumed his spouse cheerily. "Happen th' gout 'ull mak' an end on poor owd Robert first, though."
Martin looked at her with a startled air. "Happen it will," he assented doubtfully; "ah, it 'ud ha' been a fine thing if I could ha' stolen a march on th' owd lad this time! I never got the chance before, but theer he lays yon, fast by the leg! If I could ha' made shift to walk this year he could never ha' cotched me up—eh, I'd ha' had a gradely laugh at him."
"Well, well, ye'll happen ha' th' best on't another time," said Mrs. Tyrer soothingly. "Happen he'll noan be able to walk no more next year nor this—happen he'll noan be here! Dunnot thou go frettin' thysel' this road; nobry knows what's goin' to come about i' this world."
Martin's eyes travelled slowly from the ceiling to her face with a puzzled, discontented gaze.
"If th' owd lad dees afore next year it 'ull spile everything—'twouldn't be no satisfaction to walk oftener nor him if he were dead."
"Well, dunnot thou go frettin' thysel' as how 'tis," repeated his missus with a vague attempt at consolation.
Meanwhile old Wainwright had somewhat calmed down since his wife had imparted to him the welcome tidings that his rival had unwillingly "paired" with him for the morrow's festivities. He ceased roaring at his sons and daughters and throwing his bandages at his wife's head; it must be stated that he never employed any more dangerous missile even in moments of supreme irritation. Robert Wainwright's bark was on all occasions worse than his bite, and though recently his bark had been very loud indeed, no one in the little household was in the least scared by it. This evening, however, "our Tom" and "our Bob," who had of late satisfied themselves with screwing their bullet heads and a small portion of their persons round the angle of the door, walked boldly in, and cheerfully inquired how feyther felt hissel'; while "our Annie" and "our Polly" actually helped their mother to "straighten" the bed, and ventured to draw the sheet lightly over feyther's afflicted toe. The Gaffer, moreover, consented to swallow a basin of gruel with just a dash of spirits in it to take away the sickliness of it. Doctor Craddock had forbidden all stimulants, but, as Mrs. Wainwright remarked, "a little taste like that, just to make the gruel slip down, couldn't coom amiss." It certainly did not seem to come amiss to Robert, who grew quite jovial as he scraped the basin, and commiserated "owd Martin Tyrer, yon," with genuine sympathy.
"Poor owd lad! To think of his being laid up just when Club Day cooms! Eh, he will be takken to. Ye mind how he allus got agate o' boastin' about bein' th' owdest member o' th' Club? an' he nobbut seventy! Eh, I 'ad to get vexed wi' him soomtimes—he would have 't ye know, as 'twere him as were th' owdest, an' he'd get up, when th' folks had called for me—eh, I could scarce stand it!"
"He'll be soom mad," cried our Tom, chuckling.
"Nay, thou munnot mak' game o' th' poor owd chap's misfortun'," said his father with a tolerant air as he handed the empty basin to Annie. "It's bad enough for him to be layin' theer wi'out havin' folks crowin' ower him."
Tom, much abashed, grinned sheepishly, and old Robert continued, after a pause, still evidently in high good-humour:—
"Well, wheer's thy cornet? Thou should be practisin' i'stead o' standin' about findin' fault wi' thy neighbours."
Tom, who was a member of the Thornleigh band, had secretly resolved to retire presently to the cartshed that he might prepare for the labours of the morrow without being overheard. He was rejoiced, however, to find that he might pursue his musical avocations in the house without causing the old father chagrin or irritation.
"Mun I practise a bit i' th' kitchen?" he inquired joyfully.
Old Wainwright consented, and presently the somewhat husky tones of Tom's cornet resounded through the house.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, though the unseasonable east wind still blew pitilessly keen. The Wainwright's house was only divided from the main road by a little patch of garden, and old Robert's bedroom window looked out upon the street. Beside this window he insisted on establishing himself, being half carried thither by his two stalwart sons, whose stout necks he encircled with either arm, while he hopped with his sound leg across the floor; Mrs. Wainwright supported the injured limb in front and Annie and Polly brought up the rear carrying pillows and blankets. Thus, by the united exertions of the whole family, old Bob was safely deposited in his straight-backed arm-chair, a good deal redder in the face and shorter in the temper than before the transit, but otherwise none the worse. Polly pushed forward a chair under the limb which her mother was still embracing. The pillows were put at feyther's back, the blankets over his knee, his pipe and screw of 'baccy being placed handy on the window-sill; then Tom and Bob withdrew to assume their Sunday suits in preparation for the day, while Mrs. Wainwright and her daughters made the bed and tidied the room. Presently the girls slipped away, and, after pausing for a moment, hands on hips to make sure that her Gaffer was coomfortable, Mrs. Wainwright remarked that she'd better be seeing to things downstairs a bit, for they lasses 'ud be sure to be off arter the Club as soon as her back was turned.
"If thou wants me, thou'll shout for me, wunnot thou?" she asked, turning just at the door.
"I'll not want for aught," returned Bob gruffly. "I don't want no doin' for, I'm out o' th' road up here, an' ye're fain enough, all on ye'! Thou can be off arter th' Club thysel' if thou's a mind to."
With many protests Mrs. Wainwright withdrew, and her husband, left to himself, proceeded to relieve his feelings by tossing his pillows over the back of the chair, and extricating his suffering limb from the blankets.
"I'm welly smoored," he remarked indignantly, half aloud, "welly smoored I am. They reckon I'm a babby to be croodled and cossetted this gate. I'll be that nesh afore they'n done, I'll be fit for nought when I get about again."
Leaning forward, and supporting himself on one leg, he threw open the window. The air, fresh and invigorating if keen as a knife, circled round the room, lifting his thick white hair, and making the prints on the wall flap and rustle.
"That wakkens me up a bit," cried Bob; "does me good, that does. Our missus may barge as hoo likes, I'll keep it oppen."
He could hear voices and hurrying feet in the road below; people were beginning to assemble at the church; by-and-by the whole procession, headed by the band, would go marching down the street and in at the park gates to be refreshed and complimented at Thornleigh Hall; then it would take its way across the fields to Upton, turning the big banner so that the arms of the Squire of that place would be most en evidence when they halted for similar entertainment before the door of his mansion. Thence, through Upton village along the lane to the Thornleigh Arms; then the dinner—mirth and jollity lasting till evening. Old Bob, with knotted hands clasping the wooden arms of his high-backed chair, saw it all in fancy, his memory conjuring up each detail of the well-known scenes. He could see the grassy fields and the hedges white with bloom; he could smell the fragrance of the trampled earth; he could feel the sunshine and the brisk air; and then the warmth, the brightness, the good cheer at the Thornleigh Arms—his mouth watered at the thought of them. Would any one miss the oldest member, and drink his health? Well, this time at least, old Martin would not be there to dispute the honour.... Now he could hear the gate of his little garden swing open and then bang; the lads were starting. Bob, leaning on his elbow, craned his neck forward to see them. A certain expression of gratified parental pride stole over his face as he took note of the brave appearance presented by young Bob, who with his be-ribboned hat placed a little aslant on his curly locks, his Sunday suit brushed till not a speck of dust rested on its glossy surface, and his white staff held jauntily in his sunburnt hand, was indeed the picture of a comely young holiday-maker. When the father glanced at "our Tom," however, his face darkened. There was Tom with his ill-fastened shoelaces trailing, his smart bandsman's coat buttoned awry over a pair of trousers which were neither his Sunday best, nor the white-piped blue ones which formed part of his uniform as musician—these were a shabby, shiny, pair of worn broad-cloth usually kept for wet Sundays and Saturday expeditions to town; a suit, in fact, which had long been considered by no means presentable.
"Slovenly chap," growled the father with great irritation, "my word, if I were near enough I'd larn thee to put on the reet mak' o' clooes of a Club Day! I'd holler now, an' mak' thee coom back an' change 'em, if our missus wasna so nigh, but if hoo chanced to look an' see me at th' window, hoo'd be bargin' me for opening it.... Ha, th' owd lass has called him back hersel'. Reet! hoo'll noan let him mak' sich a boggart of hissel'—hoo'll fettle him up afore he goes."
He chuckled to himself, as Tom was hauled back, sheepish and sulky, and pushed into the house by the womankind; presently emerging in full bandsman's dress, tied shoe-laces—in every way as spick and span as father or mother could desire. Brandishing his instrument, he ran clattering down the street to overtake his brother, only just in time apparently, for, a minute or two after he had disappeared, the distant sounds of music could be heard.
"They're coomin'," said Bob, drawing a long breath, and rubbing his withered hands together. His eyes grew suddenly very round and red, and he felt a queer choking in his throat. Yes, they were coming; he could distinguish the tune now, and the tramp, tramp of many feet. Bob again leaned forward, thrusting his head almost through the window in his anxiety to see and hear. The missus and the lasses standing at the gate were too intent on watching and listening to notice him. Now they were rounding the corner—a brave sight; the big banner with its gay streamers held well aloft, the stewards with their white wands also decorated with ribbon; the fine old Thornleigh Arms were to the front this time, and the Thornleigh folk too—there they came rolling along, every man happy and merry, and here was "th' owdest member," who had walked his fifty-two times, laid by the heels in his solitary upper chamber! His big, old, gnarled hands shook as they rested on the sill, his underlip trembled and drooped like a child's, babyish tears gathered in his eyes.
But what was this? The lads were pulling up, the big banner halted right opposite his door, just as if it had been the Squire's—with a sudden crash the band stopped short, and somebody called out loudly:—
"Three cheers for th' owdest member!" And thereupon ensued lusty "Hip, hip, hurras," long kept up with vigour and enthusiasm by the Thornleigh members, while the Upton folk, standing aloof and silent, eyed each other askance and seemed rather glum.
Poor old Bob! His wrinkled rubicund face was a study as he leaned forth, nodding to his cronies, and shouting at intervals, "Thank'ee lads, thank'ee."
Mrs. Wainwright was too proud and jubilant to scold him for his temerity, and stood smiling at her gate, calling to the neighbours to "Jest see our Gaffer! Theer, he's gone an' oppened window all hissel', an's lookin' out same's ony on us."
At last the procession moved on again, the band—at least that portion of it which hailed from Thornleigh playing "He's a Jolly Good Fellow," while the Upton musicians tried to drown the efforts of their comrades by striking up "See the Conquering Hero Comes."
The meaning of this last was presently made clear to Old Bob Wainwright, whose triumph was of but short duration, for lo! beneath his window, the second part of the procession suddenly halted, and there in the middle of the Upton folk, stood his rival, Martin Tyrer! Much enveloped, indeed, in wraps and comforters, rather pale as to complexion, very hoarse as to voice, but nevertheless no other than Martin Tyrer himself. Bob's face fell, and he stared vacantly forth without attempting to move.
"Well," cried Tyrer huskily, but triumphantly, "thou'rt theer, art thou, owd brid? I'm fain th' lads gave thee a cheer to keep thy sperrits up—we'se drink thy health jest now. I've cotched thee at last thou sees! This here's fifty-three times as I've walked. Fifty-three times!" raising his voice to a bellow—"I'm th' owdest member, now, as how 'tis. Good-day to thee, Robert, I hope thou'lt be about wick an' hearty this time next year—thou'lt be second owdest member, an' we'se be fain to see thee among us."
With a cheer and a roar of laughter the party moved on, Martin, turning after a few steps, to hold up all five fingers of one hand, and three of the other, intending thereby, according to an arithmetical system of his own, to denote the number of fifty-three. Bob quite understood the exasperating allusion, and grew, if possible, redder in the face than before, though, for the moment, his surprise, anger, and humiliation left him absolutely dumb.
His family had a bad time of it during all the remainder of that day: bandages were flying, pillows were pitched aside, food was spurned and upset, and plates were broken. The choice language, however, which usually accompanied these tokens of displeasure was not heard to-day. Since the insult which had followed so close upon the heels of the old man's triumph, he had continued vengefully mute.
The lads came home at nightfall, not quite perhaps as hilarious as usual after a Club Day dinner, but with their tongues sufficiently loosened by Jack Orme's good beer to make them less cautious and more garrulous than was their custom when within earshot of their father. Old Bob, sitting up in bed and clutching wrathfully at the blankets, heard them relate how they had been told that Martin Tyrer was that set on walking that day, that though his missus had locked up his hat and boots, he had managed to give her the slip, and had run across the road and had got Tom Lupton's Sunday hat off him and also his best boots. Mrs. Tyrer was in an awful to-do, and had come to fetch him at the Thornleigh Arms. The doctor said it would be the death of her Gaffer, she declared—but old Martin wouldn't go. He had stayed till the very end, drinking healths with everybody, and boasting and bragging he had beaten Bob Wainwright, and he was th' owdest member now. At this point of the narrative Bob senior overturned his gruel—which till now he had respected on account of the flavouring—and kicked so hard at the bed-clothes that he hurt his gouty foot, and uttered a roar of rage and pain which caused his sons to lower their voices to a discreet whisper.
Next morning news came that Martin Tyrer had been taken very bad, and that the doctor had a poor opinion of him. When Doctor Craddock, indeed, called later in the day to see Bob Wainwright, he confirmed the report with a sigh and a shake of the head:
"I am afraid the poor old fellow has done for himself," he said gravely. "It is astonishing how obstinate some of these people are. I am glad that you at least have had more sense, Wainwright"—turning with a smile to Bob.
"I sh'd ha' gone if I could ha' getten foot to th' ground," returned Bob, glowering at him.
"Well, well, luckily for you you couldn't, though it might not have been quite so serious with you. But Tyrer was very ill indeed when he went, and now naturally he is very much worse."
"Raly, it looks like a judgment," observed Mrs. Wainwright, with an air of pious regret, "soom people might say it was, ye know, Doctor. Martin, he's been goin' on awful to my husband—that set up he were—"
"Howd thy din!" interposed Bob, wrathfully; whereupon Mrs. Wainwright retired outside the door, waiting to pursue the conversation till the doctor should be ready to go downstairs.
When, a day or two after, Martin Tyrer died, Mrs. Wainwright received the tidings with the same mournful satisfaction. It was what she had looked for, she remarked; she "couldn't but feel that Martin was callin' down a judgment on hissel! Well, it was to be 'oped that th' A'mighty wouldn't be 'ard with him, not but what he was 'ard enough, Martin was, wi' other folks. A body would ha' thought that when he see the Gaffer laid up in's chamber on Club Day he wouldn't 'ave 'ad it in's 'eart to go castin' up at him, same's he did." But Mrs. Wainwright would say no more, Martin Tyrer was gone, poor man, an' it did not become her to judge him. Upon which she proceeded to say a great deal more, in exactly the same strain, until her Gaffer hammered on the floor with his stick, and requested her to stop that.
The whole family were much astonished on receiving invitations to Martin Tyrer's funeral. They had, indeed, heard that Mrs. Tyrer was going to give him a very nice burying—that all Upton folks were going and a good many from Thornleigh too—it was to be "summat gradely" every one said. It was the kind of festivity which, as a rule, the Wainwrights much appreciated, but on this occasion they were rather affronted at being bidden to assist, and both the young men declared stoutly that they'd noan go if they knew it.
"Why not?" growled feyther from his big chair in the corner. (He was now well enough to hobble down stairs.) "You yoong chaps thinks too mich o' yoursels—I'm goin' as how 'tis."
Mrs. Wainwright positively gasped. "Gaffer, thou'll noan think o' sich a thing—thou as couldn't so mich as walk on Tuesday! I'm sure thou needn't be puttin' thysel' out for Martin Tyrer!"
"I'm goin' as how 'tis," repeated Bob gloomily; he had been very gloomy all these days. "I'm goin' to foller Martin Tyrer to his long home, if I ha' to hop," he added sternly. "Him an' me has walked together for fifty-two year, an' I'll walk at Martin Tyrer's buryin'! Theer now, my mind's made up."
Young Bob and Tom stared at each other, then they remarked, unwillingly, that if he went of course they would go too; upon which old Bob returned that they might please theirsel's—he was going.
When Doctor Craddock was told of this decision, he said that now Robert was so much better it might not do him any harm, adding that he thought it showed very good feeling on his part. Mrs. Wainwright was much elated at the compliment, but Robert himself received it in stony silence. When the report circulated round the village every one was touched and edified. Wasn't it beautiful, people said, and who'd have thought Robert Wainwright had that much feeling! He had a wonderful good heart, Robert had—he wasn't one to say much, but he felt the more. Mrs. Wainwright went about shaking her head and casting up her eyes. She had begun by being exasperated at this sudden determination, but finding how very much other folks admired and respected her Robert for it, she had gradually become infected by the general enthusiasm; and, indeed, when she hunted out and carefully brushed her husband's Sunday clothes, she murmured tearfully to her daughters that "Feyther was a'most too good for this warld," and that "it 'ud be mich"—with a sniff—"if they weren't gettin' ready blacks to weer for him next!"
"It mak's me go all of a shake," the good woman added. "Eh, I cannot tell ye! It seems onnatural-like. Yer Feyther's noan like 'issel'. To think of his takkin' on that gate about owd Martin Tyrer; mony a one 'ud be fain enough as he were out o' the road!"
Meanwhile Robert himself certainly did not say much, as the neighbours observed; in fact, he said nothing at all. When his friends came and stared at him after the manner of their kind, and made remarks to each other or to Mrs. Wainwright about how strange it was that he should be that taken to about Martin Tyrer—though some of them added, sympathetically, that he would be like to miss him, he would, when all was said and done; him and Martin had walked together such a many years—"rale cronies ye know for all their fallin's out"—Robert would stare at them and heave a deep sigh; occasionally he would take his pipe out of his mouth as though about to make a remark, but invariably put it in again without uttering a syllable. Then his friends would go away, shaking their heads and sighing, after pausing to impart to Mrs. Wainwright their conviction that her Gaffer was failing.
When the day of Martin's funeral came Robert was, with the assistance of his wife and daughters, attired in his best "blacks"; he himself saw to his foot-gear, having possessed himself of a pair of shears with which he cut a large piece out of the top of one boot. Mrs. Wainwright had been tearful enough with sentimental foreboding all the morning, and, when she saw the irreparable damage wrought by Feyther's ruthless hands, she began to cry in good earnest.
"I knowed as summat was boun' to happen," she groaned; "dear o' me, seventeen-an'-six, no less—an' the soles scarce soiled! Eh, Gaffer!—it's downright flyin' i' th' face o' Providence to be so wasteful."
Gaffer, meanwhile, purple in the face with suppressed anguish, had forced his foot into the mutilated boot, and now silently and frowningly pointed to his hat.
The Wainwrights started early, for, though many neighbours had offered to give Bob a lift, the old man had insisted on walking all the way. It was a very painful pilgrimage, but he set his teeth and leaned hard on his stick, and hobbled along dauntlessly, though every now and then his injured foot would give a twinge which made him snarl to himself and stagger.
They arrived just as the mourning procession was setting forth from the widow's door. Bob had counted upon being refreshed by a short rest and a glass of "summat"; but there was no time for that now, so he merely wiped his face, drew a deep breath, and fell into line. The Upton folk were surprised and gratified by his presence; many of them nodded to him in a friendly way, and a few came up and spoke to him. One or two told him they considered it "rale 'andsome" of him to come. Bob nodded back, and said nothing.
He stood by, solemnly, while the final sad rites were being performed, and lingered even after all was over. At last, however, he heaved a deep sigh and turned to go. Mrs. Wainwright tenderly supported his left elbow and cast a tragic glance round.
"I doubt it's been too mich for him," she sobbed—she always sobbed at funerals, being a very feeling woman, but on this occasion she surpassed herself, some of the Upton folk indeed thought it was scarce decent. Young Bob and Tom began to blubber too; Polly remarked to Annie that "Feyther'd go next for sure." Friends and neighbours gathered round with long faces and sympathetic murmurs. Robert Wainwright, however, pushed them aside and hobbled forward a few paces without speaking; then he suddenly halted and jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"Well," he said with a chuckle, "he walked on Club Day—ah, he did—but I've walked to his buryin', so I reckon I've cotched him up. I wonder who's th' owdest member now!"
THE CONQUEST OF RADICAL TED
It was Saturday afternoon, and Ted Wharton and Joe Lovelady had left off work early, as was their custom on that day of the week. They were now betaking themselves with solemn satisfaction to the "Thornleigh Arms," where a certain portion of their weekly wage would presently transfer itself from their own pockets to that of its jovial landlord. Joe Lovelady was a great, soft, lumbering fellow, who was considered rather a nonentity in Thornleigh; but Ted Wharton was a very different person. He was the village Radical—an adventurous spirit who, not content with spelling out his newspaper conscientiously on Sunday, was wont to produce, even on week-day afternoons, sundry small, ill-printed sheets, from which he would read out revolutionary sentiments the like of which had never before been heard in Thornleigh. For the most part his neighbours considered it extremely foolish of Ted to be "weerin' his brass on sich like," when a ha'porth of twist would have been so much more satisfactory. They cared nothing at all about Home Rule, and did not see that the labour question in any way bore upon their own case. What they wanted to know was when Government was going to raise the price of wheat, and what was the use of growing 'taters when it wasn't worth while carting them to Liverpool?
But Ted was not only the village Radical: he was also the village wag, with a reputation for humour which rendered him enormously popular. He was about thirty-five years old; a small man with sandy hair, a serious, not to say solemn, expression of countenance, and twinkling light grey eyes, which he had a trick of blinking when about to perpetrate a joke. His trousers were a little too short, his coat-sleeves—when he wore a coat—a little too long. On ordinary occasions his hat was tilted to the back of his head, and when in a jocular humour he cocked it knowingly over one eye. Probably these peculiarities, coupled with a certain dry method of enunciating, added largely to Ted's renown.
As they walked briskly along this hot summer's afternoon, the two men did not take the trouble to converse with each other. Joe, indeed, was at all times a taciturn person, and Ted was probably reserving himself for the delectation of the cronies whom he expected to meet at the "Thornleigh Arms." When he had caught up Joe on the road he had volunteered that he was steppin' up yonder, and Joe had replied that that was reet, jerking his head forward at the same time as an indication that he was steppin' up yonder too; thenceforth they had, as a matter of course, proceeded together, Ted walking a pace or two in advance and whistling to himself.
The village was now left behind, and on one side of the road, behind the dusty hedge, some colts were keeping step with them, occasionally starting and floundering forward after the manner of their kind, and then wheeling and coming slowly back with foolish heads extended and ears pricked, all ready for another bounce if either of the pedestrians raised his hand or kicked a stone out of his path. To their left the corn stood tall and yellow, almost ready for the harvest. Now they approached some woods, familiarly known as "the Mosses," from the peaty nature of the soil. A few weeks before the thick undergrowth of rhododendrons had been ablaze with clustering purple blossoms, and many wild flowers grew now on the borders of the deep ditch which surrounded them. These woods lay cornerwise with the main road, a sandy lane following the angle they described. On the grassy border of this lane a flock of geese were tranquilly basking, and, as Ted approached, a vigilant and pugnacious gander rushed towards him, flapping its wings and extending its long neck with portentous hisses. Ted had been carrying his coat over his arm for the sake of coolness, and now, whether because he thought it would be a humorous thing to do, or because he was secretly a little terrified at the rapid advance of the bellicose gander, he struck with it at the luckless bird with such force that he stretched it on the sod.
"Hello!" cried Ted, stopping short, astonished and perturbed at his sudden victory, "I b'lieve I've done for th' owd chap."
"My word," commented Joe, "if thou has thou'll be like to hear on it! That theer's Margaret Hep.'s gander; hoo thinks the world on't, hoo does."
Ted was meanwhile bending over his prostrate foe, which, to his relief, was not absolutely dead, though it was gasping and turning up its eyes in rather a ghastly manner. He took it up in his arms, still enfolded in his coat.
"It's wick still, as how 'tis," he remarked. "Eh! how it's kickin' out with they ugly yaller legs! Now then, owd lad, what mun we do wi'it, think'st thou? Mun I finish it off an' carry it wi' me to Jack Orme's for a marlock? Eh! the lads 'ud laugh if they see me coomin' in wi' it! I'll tell 'em I'd brought 'em a Crestmas dinner in July. My word, it's tough enough! I reckon it 'ud want keepin'; it wouldn't be ready mich afore Crestmas!"
Joe's wits, at no time very nimble, required some time to take in this audacious proposal, and he was just beginning the preliminary deprecating roll of the head, which he intended to precede a remark to the effect that Margaret 'ud happen have summat to say about that, when the angular figure of Miss Heptonstall herself appeared at the corner of the lane. She paused a moment aghast at the sight of the struggling gander, still enveloped in Ted's coat, and then, with extended hands and wildly-flapping drapery, hastened towards him—her aspect being not unlike that assumed by the unfortunate biped in question when he had first advanced to the attack.
"Victoria!" she gasped, when she at last halted beside the men. "Eh! whatever's getten Victoria?"
"Do ye mean this 'ere?" questioned Ted, hoisting the gander a little higher up under his arm. "Well, I cannot think whatever coom to the poor thing. Joe and me was goin' our ways along to Orme's when we heerd it give a kind of skrike out, and we looked round, and it were staggerin' along same as if it were fuddled, ye know, and all at once it give another skrike an' tumbled down aside o' th' road. Didn't it, Joe?"
Joe again rolled a deprecatory eye at his crony and cleared his throat, but did not otherwise commit himself.
"It mun ha' been a fit or soom sich thing," continued Ted, cocking his hat over his eye and glancing waggishly at Lovelady. "When Joe see it, says he, 'My word, there'll be a pretty to do! This is Margaret Hep.'s gander,' says Joe—no, I think he said, 'Miss Heptonstall's gander.' Didn't thou, Joe? Joe's allus so respectful and civil-spoke, pertic'larly when it's a lady as he's a-talking about."
Joe grinned and began to look jocular too. His friend's last assertion pleased him better than the wild flights of a little time before.
"That's it," said Joe. "Ho, ho! Reet!"
"He'd never go for to call ony lady out o' their name," pursued Ted, placing his hat yet a little more aslant; "never did that in's life. He's quite a lady's mon, Joe is. Haw! haw!"
"Coom!" said Joe, grinning still more broadly.
At this juncture the invalid gander made a frantic struggle, and, freeing one wing from Ted's encircling coat, began to flap it wildly.
"Ye've no need to stan' grinnin' an' makkin' merry theer when th' poor dumb thing's goin' to dee, as like as not," cried Margaret indignantly. "Hand him over to me this minute—theer, my beauty, theer—missus'll see to thee."
"Well, an' ye ought to be very thankful to me," asserted Ted; "didn't I pick him out o' th' road, an' put my own coat o'er him an' fondle him mich same's if he was a babby? Why, he 'ud noan be wick now if it hadn't ha' been for me. Theer, my boy, howd up! Theer, we'se tuck in thy wing for thee, and cover thee up warm an' gradely—'tisn't everybody as 'ud be dressin' up a gander i' their own clooes. Do you know what 'ud do this 'ere bird rale good? Just a drop o' sperrits to warm his in'ards for him—that's what he wants. See here, I'll carry him awhoam for ye, and ye mun jest fotch him a glass o' whisky, and in a two three minutes he'll be as merry as a layrock."
Margaret looked doubtfully at him.
"Do ye raly think it 'ud do the poor thing good?" she asked dolefully.
"I'm sure on't," returned Ted, firmly pinioning the gander's struggling legs, and setting off at a brisk pace towards Margaret's cottage. "Theer's nought as is wick as wouldn't feel the benefit of a drop o' sperrits now an' again."
Joe considered this a very proper sentiment, and gave a grunt by way of endorsing it; he, too, followed Ted and the gander, being as much amused at the transaction as it was in his nature to be at anything.
Margaret kept pace with Ted, every now and then uttering lamentations over her favourite.
"He were as good a gander as a body need wish for; wonderful good breed he were, an' as knowin'! Eh, dear, I never wanted for coompany when Victoria were theer."
"Victoria!" ejaculated Ted, stopping short and facing her; "why, that's a female name!"
"It's the Queen's name," rejoined Margaret, with a certain melancholy triumph.
"I thought it had been a gander; it is a gander, surely?"
"Oh, it's a gander reet 'nough. But I thought it were a goose to begin wi'. It were the biggest o' th' clutch, an' the prattiest, an' so I called it Victoria, an' it geet to know th' name, an' to coom when I called it—eh, it 'ud coom runnin' up an' croodle down aside o' me, turnin' its yead o' one side that knowin'! Eh, dear, theer never was sich a bird. An' when it were upgrown, an' turned out to be a gander, I 'adn't it i' my 'eart to change th' name, seein' as it had getten to know it so well, an' arter all, seein' as it's th' head of all th' fowls i' my place, it doesn't seem to coom amiss. Canon, he wanted me to call it Prince Consort, or else Albert Edward, but it didn't seem natural like, an' I've allus been used to call my white drake Albert Edward; and Prince Consort, he's th' owd rooster."
"Well," said Ted, hoisting up the gander again under his arm, and chuckling as he walked forward, "well, that beats all! I never heerd sich a tale i' my life. Coom, Victoria, howd up, owd lad; we'se soon be theer now. An' so th' owd rooster is Prince Consort? An' the drake's th' Prince o' Wales? Ho, ho! Have ye getten any more royalties yonder?"
"I've used up pretty near all th' royal fam'ly," replied Margaret, with a recurrence of her former dolorous pride; "it's the only mark o' respect as I can show my sovering. Every time Her Gracious Majesty gets a new grandchild or great-grandchild, Canon, he cooms an' says, 'Margaret, have you any more chickens as wants names?' An' soomtimes the one christening 'ull do for a whole brood; they royal childer has sich a mony names, ye know."
Ted sneered and looked immensely superior; the loyalty of this benighted woman filled his Radical mind with as much contempt as amusement. He was about to utter some scathing remark, when his attention was diverted by their arrival at Margaret's cottage.
Throwing open the little wicket-gate which divided her premises from the lane, she pressed forward, and unlocked her door. Ted followed her into the kitchen, while Joe stood without, craning forward his neck to see what was going on in the interior of the cottage, and drawing the back of his hand across his lips when he saw Miss Heptonstall produce a small bottle of whisky.
"He looks a dale livelier now," remarked Ted, uncloaking the gander and setting it on its legs on Margaret's immaculate table. "Whoa, steady theer," as the bird began to struggle in his grasp, flapping uneasy wings, and making a sickly attempt at a hiss.
Margaret, who had been about to uncork the bottle, paused, surveying Victoria with her head on one side.
"Theer dunnot seem to be mich amiss, do theer?" she remarked; "it seems a'most a pity to be givin' it sperrits. It'll upset it again as like as not."
"Theer mun ha' been summat amiss i' th' first place, though," returned Wharton, with a judicial air, "else it wouldn't ha' been took bad same as it were. If I was you, Miss Heptonstall, I'd give it a drop to strengthen its in'ards a bit."
"Ah," agreed Joe from the doorway.
Ted fumbled in his pocket and produced a large red cotton handkerchief, which he carefully spread on the table beneath the gander.
"It 'ud be a pity to let this here table get dirty," he observed, looking admiringly at its spotless surface. Margaret eyed him with more favour than she had hitherto displayed; then, smiling sourly, began to pour out the contents of her little black bottle.
"Fill up, Miss Heptonstall, fill up!" cried Ted, energetically; "eh, if you dunnot gi' it no more nor that, Victoria met jest as well be a bantam. He'll noan as mich as wet that great yaller beak of his wi' that drop."
Margaret smiled no more, but she filled up the glass. Joe, in the doorway, cleared his throat reflectively. Ted, again encircling the gander with his arm, forced open its beak.
"Now then," he whispered eagerly, "fotch a spoon, Miss Hep. Coom, owd bird, this'll fettle thee up, an' no mistake."
But whether Victoria's struggles were more lively than he had anticipated, or whether Ted purposely relaxed his hold, certain it was that the gander, with a scream of fury, backed out of his grasp and fluttered on to the floor; proceeding to waddle with great speed and evident indignation across the kitchen into the yard without.
"He's teetotal," said Ted, gazing at Margaret with a twinkle in his eye. "I met ha' knowed he'd be, seein' as he's bin brought up so careful, an' took to water nateral fro' th' first."
Miss Heptonstall had been about to restore the liquor to its bottle, but she now hesitated, looking towards Ted with a grim smile; his style of humour tickled her. Seized with a sudden fit of generosity, she extended the glass to him.
"You're noan teetotal, I'll be bound," she observed. "Theer! Sup it up."
"Your 'ealth!" said Ted, nodding towards her, much elated. Joe again cleared his throat tentatively, but Margaret ruthlessly corked the bottle, and, assuming her usual frosty air, remarked with somewhat scant politeness that it was time for her to be setting about her business, and there was no need for other folks to be waiting.
Thereupon the "other folks" were constrained to depart, Ted being still jubilant and Joe very glum.
"Well," began the former, as soon as they had advanced some paces, "t' folks up yon 'ull laugh fit to split when they hear this tale! Th' owd lady is a dacent sort o' body when all's said an' done. Hoo behaved uncommon 'andsome to me."
"Ah," returned Joe with surly sarcasm, "uncommon 'andsome. Hoo gave thee th' gander's leavin's, didn't hoo? Ho, ho! gander's leavin's."
Joe so seldom made a joke that he was quite astonished at himself, and after three or four repetitions of the same, with much wagging of the head, and a few knowing jerks of his thumb over his shoulder, apparently to accentuate the point of the jest, he became quite good-humoured again, and the pair walked on in amicable silence, each preparing to astonish his cronies with the recital of his own prowess.
The Thornleigh Arms was a snug old-fashioned hostelry standing a little back from the high-road. An air of homely jollity and comfort seemed to pervade the place; the ruddy afternoon sun lit up the small-paned windows with as cheerful a glow as that which in winter was reflected from the roaring fire piled by old Jack half up the wide chimney; the very Thornleigh lion of the imposing sign seemed to lean confidentially on his toe and to grin affably, as though to assure the passers-by of the good cheer within.
Ted and Joe found the usual Saturday customers already there, and presently shouts of laughter made the very rafters ring as he recounted his adventures with Margaret Heptonstall and her gander; his companion meanwhile sipping his beer with an air of suppressed importance. By-and-by he, too, would add his quota to the evening's entertainment, but he would wait till the culminating point of Ted's story was reached, and the company was, so to speak, ripe for it.
"Me an' Miss Hep. is meeterly thick now, I tell ye," summed up Ted at the conclusion of his tale. "Hoo thinks a dale o' me, if hoo doesn't think mich o' menfolk in general."
"Hoo gived Ted the gander's leavin's," put in Joe, seizing his opportunity, and bringing out his joke with a great shout and a vigorous nudge to his nearest neighbour. "Th' owd lad needn't be that set up—hoo give him nought but the gander's leavin's, when all's said an' done."
"Hoo didn't give thee a drop as how 'tis," retorted Ted. "Poor Joe were stood i' th' doorway, ye know, an' he sighed an' licked his lips, th' poor chap, but he didn't get nought. Miss Hep. didn't fancy nobody but me."
"Thou'll be for coortin' her next," suggested somebody humorously.
"Nay, nay," said an odd little short man with comically uplifted eyebrows. "'T wouldn't be no use coortin' Margaret Heptonstall. Eh, I remember when our missus reckoned hoo were deein' an' took a notion to mak' up a match between Margaret an' me—"
The rest of his narrative was drowned in a roar of laughter. Every one knew that story.
"Hoo wouldn't ha' noan o' thee, would hoo Tom?" cried one.
"Thy missus couldn't bear the notion of havin' all they dumb things about as Margaret sets sich store by?" queried another.
"Nay, 'twas me as couldn't bear the notion of her," rejoined Tom stoutly. "I'd be hard put-to to do wi' onybody at arter our Betty. Hoo's wick an' 'earty, an' I dunnot want nobry; but if I did have to pick a second missus, it shouldn't be Margaret Hep."
"Hoo's reg'lar set in her ways, isn't hoo?" put in old Jack. "Ah, hoo's reg'lar cut out for a single life, Marg'ret is. I reckon nobody'll want to coort her at this time o' day, an' if onybody did, hoo'd send him packin'."
"I haven't tried my hand yet, ye see," remarked Ted, looking round for applause. "If I was to get agate o' coortin' Margaret Hep., hoo'd be fain enough."
There was general laughter at this statement, which nearly every one present hastened to deny. All agreed that were Ted to urge his pretensions he would be very soon sent to the right-about.
"Well, then," cried Ted when the uproar had somewhat subsided, "I'll bet you a nine-gallon cask of owd Jack's best to a five-shillin' bit that Margaret Hep. an' me 'ull be shouted before the month's out."
The din at this point reached such a height that Mrs. Jack hastened in from the back premises to inquire what was to-do, and Ted himself was obliged to hammer on the table with his knuckles before he could make himself heard.
"Well," he resumed, "I've said it, an' I'll stick to it. You'll see, Margaret an' me 'ull be keeping coompany afore aught's long, an' Canon 'ull be shoutin' us at th' end o' th' month."
"Mon, you're noan goin' to wed sich an owd, tough, dried-up body as yon, for sure?" cried comfortable Mrs. Orme incredulously. "Ye mun be a good ten or fifteen year younger nor her."
"I didn't say we'd go as fur as wedlock," explained Ted, with a wicked leer. "I said we'd be shouted. Eh, theer's mony a slip 'twixt cup an' lip, ye know. Margaret an' me 'ull happen fall out afore weddin' day cooms; but once Canon shouts us ye mun down wi' your five shillin's."
"Ah, th' marlock 'ull be cheap enough at five shillin'," cried some jovial spirit. "My word, I would laugh to hear the names called! I reckon Canon hisself 'ud scarce keep a straight face."
"Nay, but think of th' poor wench," cried Jack, with an explosion of mirth. "Ted, it's rale cruel o' thee to play an innicent trustin' lass sich a trick."
"I reckon Margaret Hep. can take care of herself," put in Mrs. Jack. "Hoo can keep her e'en oppen as weel's onybody. I don't know but what it 'ull be Ted as 'ull ha' to pay for th' nine-gallon cask. Ye'd best be savin' up your brass, Ted, for we wunnot give no credit for 't."
With this professional sally she retired. Thomas Alty, remarking in an undertone that his Betty would be coming to look for him if he didn't make haste home, withdrew also, after a good-humoured nod to the friend who had treated him; for, as Mrs. Alty invariably impounded Tom's wage, it was only when he met with a crony in a generous humour that he visited the Thornleigh Arms.
It was not till considerably later that Ted betook himself homewards; the plan which he had at first proposed out of a mere spirit of bravado having now, owing to the gibes of Jack and the rest, become a fixed resolution.
On the following afternoon, just at the time when young Thornleigh went a-coortin', and elderly Thornleigh took off its boots and coat, or put a clean white handkerchief over its cap, the better to enjoy its Sabbath snooze in the ingle-nook, Ted Wharton cocked his hat over his eye, put a posy in his coat, and set off to call on Margaret Heptonstall. He found that damsel engaged in neither of the avocations already stated, but, with her Sunday gown pinned behind her, and her week-day sun-bonnet hanging limply over her face, feeding her numerous family in the middle of her yard.
"Good day to ye, Miss Heptonstall," remarked Ted, approaching with a jaunty air, "I thought I'd just call round to ax how Victoria finds hissel this morning."
"Mich the same as us'al, thank ye," replied Miss Hep. with a starched air. "Get out o' the road, Alice," addressing an adventurous pullet. "Thou'rt allus runnin' under a body's feet. Chuck! chuck! chuck! Coom G'arge, coom Adylaide, coom Maud! Now then, Alexandra! Chuck! chuck! coom lovies! That theer vicious Frederick has been a-chivying of you till you're freetened to death, you are."
Ted stood by with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, smiling to himself.
"Yon's gradely chickens," he remarked presently. "Ye never eat 'em do ye? 'Twouldn't be respectful, I shouldn't think."
Margaret vouchsafed no reply. Ted resumed, with bitter sarcasm.
"H'm, mich the same as their r'yal namesakes, I reckon—kept for show an' no manner o' use to nobry."
Margaret hastily scattered the remainder of the grain in her apron, and whisked round.
"Howd your din," she cried angrily, "or else tak' yoursel' off. I'll noan stand by an' hear sich talk i' my place."