As I have said, Strelley Mill lies at the north end of the long Nethermere valley. On the northern slopes lay its pasture and arable lands. The shaggy common, now closed, and the cultivated land was bounded on the east by the sharp dip of the brook course, a thread of woodland broadening into a spinney and ending at the upper pond; beyond this, on the east, rose the sharp, wild, grassy hillside, scattered with old trees, ruinous with the gaunt, ragged bones of old hedge-rows, grown into thorn trees. Along the rim of the hills, beginning in the north-west, were dark woodlands, which swept round east and south till they raced down in riot to the very edge of southern Nethermere, surrounding our house. From the eastern hill-crest, looking straight across, you could see the spire of Selsby church, and a few roofs, and the head-stocks of the pit.
So on three sides the farm was skirted by woods, the dens of rabbits, and the common held another warren.
Now the squire of the estate, head of an ancient, once even famous, but now decayed house, loved his rabbits. Unlike the family fortunes, the family tree flourished amazingly; Sherwood could show nothing comparable. Its ramifications were stupendous; it was more like a banyan than a British oak. How was the good squire to nourish himself and his lady, his name, his tradition, and his thirteen lusty branches on his meagre estates? An evil fortune discovered to him that he could sell each of his rabbits, those bits of furry vermin, for a shilling or thereabout in Nottingham; since which time the noble family subsisted by rabbits.
Farms were gnawed away; corn and sweet grass departed from the face of the hills; cattle grew lean, unable to eat the defiled herbage. Then the farm became the home of a keeper, and the country was silent, with no sound of cattle, no clink of horses, no barking of lusty dogs.
But the squire loved his rabbits. He defended them against the snares of the despairing farmer, protected them with gun and notices to quit. How he glowed with thankfulness as he saw the dishevelled hillside heave when the gnawing hosts moved on!
“Are they not quails and manna?” said he to his sporting guest, early one Monday morning, as the high meadow broke into life at the sound of his gun. “Quails and manna — in this wilderness?”
“They are, by Jove!” assented the sporting guest as he took another gun, while the saturnine keeper smiled grimly. Meanwhile, Strelley Mill began to suffer under this gangrene. It was the outpost in the wilderness. It was an understood thing that none of the squire’s tenants had a gun.
“Well,” said the squire to Mr Saxton, “you have the land for next to nothing — next to nothing — at a rent really absurd. Surely the little that the rabbits eat —”
“It’s not a little — come and look for yourself,” replied the farmer. The squire made a gesture of impatience.
“What do you want?” he inquired.
“Will you wire me off?” was the repeated request.
“Wire is — what does Halkett say — so much per yard — and it would come to — what did Halkett tell me now? — but a Harge sum. No, I can’t do it.”
“Well, I can’t live like this.”
“Have another glass of whisky? Yes, yes, I want another glass myself, and I can’t drink alone — so if I am to enjoy my glass — That’s it! Now surely you exaggerate a little. It’s not so bad.”
“I can’t go on like it, I’m sure.”
“Well, we’ll see about compensation — we’ll see. I’ll have a talk with Halkett, and I’ll come down and have a look at you. We all find a pinch somewhere — it’s nothing but humanity’s heritage.”
I was born in September, and love it best of all the months. There is no heat, no hurry, no thirst and weariness in corn harvest as there is in the hay. If the season is late, as is usual with us, then mid-September sees the corn still standing in stook. The mornings come slowly. The earth is like a woman married and fading; she does not leap up with a laugh for the first fresh kiss of dawn, but slowly, quietly, unexpectantly lies watching the waking of each new day. The blue mist, like memory in the eyes of a neglected wife, never goes from the wooded hill, and only at noon creeps from the near hedges. There is no bird to put a song in the throat of morning; only the crow’s voice speaks during the day. Perhaps there is the regular breathing hush of the scythe — even the fretful jar of the mowing-machine. But next day, in the morning, all is still again. The lying corn is wet, and when you have bound it, and lift the heavy sheaf to make the stook, the tresses of oats wreathe round each other and drop mournfully.
As I worked with my friend through the still mornings we talked endlessly. I would give him the gist of what I knew of chemistry, and botany, and psychology. Day after day I told him what the professors had told me; of life, of sex and its origins; of Schopenhauer and William James. We had been friends for years, and he was accustomed to my talk. But this autumn fruited the first crop of intimacy between us. I talked a great deal of poetry to him, and of rudimentary metaphysics. He was very good stuff. He had hardly a single dogma, save that of pleasing himself. Religion was nothing to him. So he heard all I had to say with an open mind, and understood the drift of things very rapidly, and quickly made these ideas part of himself.
We tramped down to dinner with only the clinging warmth of the sunshine for a coat. In this still, enfolding weather a quiet companionship is very grateful. Autumn creeps through everything. The little damsons in the pudding taste of September, and are fragrant with memory. The voices of those at table are softer and more reminiscent than at haytime.
Afternoon is all warm and golden. Oat sheaves are lighter; they whisper to each other as they freely embrace. The long, stout stubble tinkles as the foot brushes over it; the scent of the straw is sweet. When the poor, bleached sheaves are lifted out of the hedge, a spray of nodding wild raspberries is disclosed, with belated berries ready to drop; among the damp grass lush blackberries may be discovered. Then one notices that the last bell hangs from the ragged spire of foxglove. The talk is of people, an odd book; of one’s hopes — and the future; of Canada, where work is strenuous, but not life; where the plains are wide, and one is not lapped in a soft valley, like an apple that falls in a secluded orchard. The mist steals over the face of the warm afternoon. The tying-up is all finished, and it only remains to rear up the fallen bundles into shocks. The sun sinks into a golden glow in the west. The gold turns to red, the red darkens, like a fire burning low, the sun disappears behind the bank of milky mist, purple like the pale bloom on blue plums, and we put on our coats and go home.
In the evening, when the milking was finished, and all the things fed, then we went out to look at the snares. We wandered on across the stream and up the wild hillside. Our feet rattled through black patches of devil’s-bit scabius; we skirted a swim of thistle-down, which glistened when the moon touched it. We stumbled on through wet, coarse grass, over soft mole-hills and black rabbit-holes. The hills and woods cast shadows; the pools of mist in the valleys gathered the moonbeams in cold, shivery light.
We came to an old farm that stood on the level brow of the hill. The woods swept away from it, leaving a great clearing of what was once cultivated land. The handsome chimneys of the house, silhouetted against a light sky, drew my admiration. I noticed that there was no light or glow in any window, though the house had only the width of one room, and though the night was only at eight o’clock. We looked at the long, impressive front. Several of the windows had been bricked in, giving a pitiful impression of blindness; the places where the plaster had fallen off the walls showed blacker in the shadow. We pushed open the gate, and as we walked down the path, weeds and dead plants brushed our ankles. We looked in at a window. The room was lighted also by a window from the other side, through which the moonlight streamed on to the flagged floor, dirty, littered with paper, and wisps of straw. The hearth lay in the light, with all its distress of grey ashes, and piled cinders of burnt paper, and a child’s headless doll, charred and pitiful. On the border-line of shadow lay a round fur cap — a game-keeper’s cap. I blamed the moonlight for entering the desolate room; the darkness alone was decent and reticent. I hated the little roses on the illuminated piece of wallpaper, I hated that fireside.
With farmer’s instinct George turned to the outhouse. The cow-yard startled me. It was a forest of the tallest nettles I have ever seen — nettles far taller than my six feet. The air was soddened with the dank scent of nettles. As I followed George along the obscure brick path, I felt my flesh creep. But the buildings, when we entered them, were in splendid condition; they had been restored within a small number of years; they were well-timbered, neat, and cosy. Here and there we saw feathers, bits of animal wreckage, even the remnants of a cat, which we hastily examined by the light of a match. As we entered the stable there was an ugly noise, and three great rats half rushed at us and threatened us with their vicious teeth. I shuddered, and hurried back, stumbling over a bucket, rotten with rust, and so filled with weeds that I thought it part of the jungle. There was a silence made horrible by the faint noises that rats and flying bats give out. The place was bare of any vestige of corn or straw or hay, only choked with a growth of abnormal weeds. When I found myself free in the orchard I could not stop shivering. There were no apples to be seen overhead between us and the clear sky. Either the birds had caused them to fall, when the rabbits had devoured them, or someone had gathered the crop.
“This,” said George bitterly, “is what the mill will come to.”
“After your time,” I said.
“My time — my time. I shall never have a time. And I shouldn’t be surprised if Father’s time isn’t short — with rabbits and one thing and another. As it is, we depend on the milk-round, and on the carting which I do for the council. You can’t call it farming. We’re a miserable mixture of farmer, milkman, greengrocer, and carting contractor. It’s a shabby business.”
“You have to live,” I retorted.
“Yes — but it’s rotten. And Father won’t move — and he won’t change his methods.”
“Well — what about you?”
“Me! What should I change for? — I’m comfortable at home. As for my future, it can look after itself, so long as nobody depends on me.”
“Laissez-faire,” said I, smiling.
“This is no laissez-faire,” he replied, glancing round. “This is pulling the nipple out of your lips, and letting the milk run away sour. Look there!”
Through the thin wall of moonlit mist that slid over the hillside we could see an army of rabbits bunched up, or hopping a few paces forward, feeding.
We set off at a swinging pace down the hill, scattering the hosts. As we approached the fence that bounded the Mill fields, he exclaimed, “Hullo!” and hurried forward. I followed him, and observed the dark figure of a man rise from the hedge. It was a game-keeper. He pretended to be examining his gun. As we came up he greeted us with a calm “Good evenin’!”
George replied by investigating the little gap in the hedge. “I’ll trouble you for that snare,” he said.
“Will yer?” answered Annable, a broad, burly, black-faced fellow. “And I should like ter know what you’re doin’ on th’ wrong side th’ ‘edge?”
“You can see what we’re doing — hand over my snare — and the rabbit,” said George angrily.
“What rabbit?” said Annable, turning sarcastically to me. “You know well enough — an’ you can hand it over — or —” George replied.
“Or what? Spit it out! The sound won’t kill me —” the man grinned with contempt.
“Hand over here!” said George, stepping up to the man in a rage.
“Now don’t!” said the keeper, standing stock-still, and looking unmovedly at the proximity of George:
“You’d better get off home — both you an’ ’im. You’ll get neither snare nor rabbit — see!”
“We will see!” said George, and he made a sudden move to get hold of the man’s coat. Instantly he went staggering back with a heavy blow under the left ear.
“Damn brute!” I ejaculated, bruising my knuckles against the fellow’s jaw. Then I too found myself sitting dazedly on the grass, watching the great skirts of his velveteens flinging round him as if he had been a demon, as he strode away. I got up, pressing my chest where I had been struck. George was lying in the hedge-bottom. I turned him over, and rubbed his temples, and shook the drenched grass on his face. He opened his eyes and looked at me, dazed. Then he drew his breath quickly, and put his hand to his head.
“He — he nearly stunned me,” he said.
“The devil!” I answered.
“I wasn’t ready.”
“Did he knock me down?”
“Ay — me too.”
He was silent for some time, sitting limply. Then he pressed his hand against the back of his head, saying, “My head does sing!!” He tried to get up, but failed. “Good God — being knocked into this state by a damned keeper!”
“Come on,” I said, “let’s see if we can’t get indoors.”
“No!” he said quickly, “we needn’t tell them — don’t let them know.”
I sat thinking of the pain in my own chest, and wishing I could remember hearing Annable’s jaw smash, and wishing that my knuckles were more bruised than they were — though that was bad enough. I got up, and helped George to rise. He swayed, almost pulling me over. But in a while he could walk unevenly.
“Am I,” he said, “covered with clay and stuff?”
“Not much,” I replied, troubled by the shame and confusion with which he spoke.
“Get it off,” he said, standing still to be cleaned.
I did my best. Then we walked about the fields for a time, gloomy, silent, and sore.
Suddenly, as we went by the pond-side, we were startled by great, swishing black shadows that swept just above our heads. The swans were flying up for shelter, now that a cold wind had begun to fret Nethermere. They swung down on to the glassy millpond, shaking the moonlight in flecks across the deep shadows; the night rang with the clacking of their wings on the water; the stillness and calm were broken; the moonlight was furrowed and scattered, and broken. The swans, as they sailed into shadow, were dim, haunting spectres; the wind found us shivering.
“Don’t — you won’t say anything?” he asked as I was leaving him.
“Nothing at all — not to anybody?”
About the end of September, our countryside was alarmed by the harrying of sheep by strange dogs. One morning, the squire, going the round of his fields as was his custom, to his grief and horror found two of his sheep torn and dead in the hedge-bottom, and the rest huddled in a corner swaying about in terror, smeared with blood. The squire did not recover his spirits for days.
There was a report of two grey wolvish dogs. The squire’s keeper had heard yelping in the fields of Dr Collins of the Abbey, about dawn. Three sheep lay soaked in blood when the labourer went to tend the flocks.
Then the farmers took alarm. Lord, of the White House farm, intended to put his sheep in pen, with his dogs in charge. It was Saturday, however, and the lads ran off to the little travelling theatre that had halted at Westwold. While they sat open-mouthed in the theatre, gloriously nicknamed the “Blood-Tub”, watching heroes die with much writhing and heaving, and struggling up to say a word, and collapsing without having said it, six of their silly sheep were slaughtered in the field. At every house it was inquired’ of the dog; nowhere had one been loose.
Mr Saxton had some thirty sheep on the Common. George determined that the easiest thing was for him to sleep out with them. He built a shelter of hurdles interlaced with brushwood, and in the sunny afternoon we collected piles of bracken, browning to the ruddy winter-brown now. He slept there for a week, but that week aged his mother like a year. She was out in the cold morning twilight watching, with her apron over her head, for his approach. She did not rest with the thought of him out on the Common.
Therefore, on Saturday night he brought down his rugs, and took up Gyp to watch in his stead. For some time we sat looking at the stars over the dark hills. Now and then a sheep coughed, or a rabbit rustled beneath the brambles, and Gyp whined. The mist crept over the grose-bushes, and the webs on the brambles were white — the devil throws his net over the blackberries as soon as September’s back is turned, they say.
“I saw two fellows go by with bags and nets,” said George, as we sat looking out of his little shelter.
“Poachers,” said I. “Did you speak to them?”
“No — they didn’t see me. I was dropping asleep when a rabbit rushed under the blanket, all of a shiver, and a whippet dog after it. I gave the whippet a punch in the neck, and he yelped off. The rabbit stopped with me quite a long time — then it went.”
“How did you feel?”
“I didn’t care. I don’t care much what happens just now. Father could get along without me, and Mother has the children. I think I shall emigrate.”
“Why didn’t you before?”
“Oh, I don’t know. There are a lot of little comforts and interests at home that one would miss. Besides, you feel somebody in your own countryside, and you’re nothing in a foreign part, I expect.”
“But you’re going?”
“What is there to stop here for? The valley is all running wild and unprofitable. You’ve no freedom for thinking of what the other folks think of you, and everything round you keeps the same, and so you can’t change yourself — because everything you look at brings up the same old feeling, and stops you from feeling fresh things. And what is there that’s worth anything? — What’s worth having in my life?”
“I thought,” said I, “your comfort was worth having.”
He sat still and did not answer.
“What’s shaken you out of your nest?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve not felt the same since that row with Annable. And Lettie said to me, ‘Here, you can’t live as you like — in any way or circumstance. You’re like a bit out of those coloured marble mosaics in the hall, you have to fit in your own set, fit into your own pattern, because you’re put there from the first. But you don’t want to be like a fixed bit of a mosaic — you want to fuse into life, and melt and mix with the rest of folk, to have some things burned out of you —’ She was downright serious.”
“Well, you need not believe her. When did you see her?”
“She came down on Wednesday, when I was getting the apples in the morning. She climbed a tree with me, and there was a wind, that was why I was getting all the apples, and it rocked us, me right up at the top, she sitting half-way down holding the basket. I asked her didn’t she think that free kind of life was the best, and that was how she answered me.”
“You should have contradicted her.”
“It seemed true. I never thought of it being wrong, in fact.”
“Come — that sounds bad.”
“No — I thought she looked down on us — on our way of life. I thought she meant I was like a toad in a hole.”
“You should have shown her different.”
“How could I when I could see no different?”
“It strikes me you’re in love.”
He laughed at the idea, saying, “No, but it is rotten to find that there isn’t a sine thing you have to be proud of.”
“This is a new tune for you.”
He pulled the grass moodily.
“And when do you think of going?”
“Oh — I don’t know — I’ve said nothing to Mother. Not yet — at any rate, not till spring.”
“Not till something has happened,” said I.
“What?” he asked.
“I don’t know what can happen — unless the squire turns us out.”
“No?” I said.
He did not speak.
“You should make things happen,” said I.
“Don’t make me feel a worse fool, Cyril,” he replied despairingly.
Gyp whined and jumped, tugging her chain to follow us. The grey blurs among the blackness of the bushes were resting sheep. A chill, dim mist crept along the ground.
“But, for all that, Cyril,” he said, “to have her laugh at you across the table; to hear her sing as she moved about, before you are washed at night, when the fire’s warm, and you’re tired; to have her sit by you on the hearth-seat, close and soft . . . ”
“In Spain,” I said. “In Spain.”
He took no notice, but turned suddenly, laughing.
“Do you know, when I was stooking up, lifting the sheaves, it felt like having your arm round a girl. It was quite a sudden sensation.”
“You’d better take care,” said I, “you’ll mesh yourself in the silk of dreams, and then —”
He laughed, not having heard my words.
“The time seems to go like lightning — thinking,” he confessed —“I seem to sweep the mornings up in a handful.”
“Oh Lord!” said I. “Why don’t you scheme for getting what you want, instead of dreaming fulfilments?”
“Well,” he replied. “If it was a fine dream, wouldn’t you want to go on dreaming?” And with that he finished, and I went home.
I sat at my window looking out, trying to get things straight. Mist rose, and wreathed round Nethermere, like ghosts meeting and embracing sadly. I thought of the time when my friend should not follow the harrow on our own snug valley side, and when Lettie’s room next mine should be closed to hide its emptiness, not its joy. My heart clung passionately to the hollow which held us all; how could I bear that it should be desolate! I wondered what Lettie would do.
In the morning I was up early, when daybreak came with a shiver through the woods. I went out, while the moon still shone sickly in the west. The world shrank from the morning. It was then that the last of the summer things died. The wood was dark — and smelt damp and heavy with autumn. On the paths the leaves lay clogged.
As I came near the farm I heard the yelling of dogs. Running, I reached the Common, and saw the sheep huddled and scattered in groups; something leaped round them. George burst into sight pursuing. Directly, there was the bang, bang of a gun. I picked up a heavy piece of sandstone and ran forward. Three sheep scattered wildly before me. In the dim light I saw their grey shadows move among the gorse bushes. Then a dog leaped, and I flung my stone with all my might. I hit. There came a high-pitched howling yelp of pain; I saw the brute make off, and went after him, dodging the prickly bushes, leaping the trailing brambles. The gunshots rang out again, and I heard the men shouting with excitement. My dog was out of sight, but I followed still, slanting down the hill. In a field ahead I saw someone running. Leaping the low hedge, I pursued, and overtook Emily, who was hurrying as fast as she could through the wet grass. There was another gunshot and great shouting. Emily glanced round, saw me, and started.
“It’s gone to the quarries,” she panted. We walked on, without saying a word. Skirting the spinney, we followed the brook course, and came at last to the quarry fence. The old excavations were filled now with trees. The steep walls, twenty feet deep in places, were packed with loose stones, and trailed with hanging brambles. We climbed down the steep bank of the brook, and entered the quarries by the bed of the stream. Under the groves of ash and oak a pale primrose still lingered, glimmering wanly beside the hidden water. Emily found a smear of blood on a beautiful trail of yellow convolvulus. We followed the tracks on to the open, where the brook flowed on the hard rock bed, and the stony floor of the quarry was only a tangle of gorse and bramble and honeysuckle.
“Take a good stone,” said I, and we pressed on, where the grove in the great excavation darkened again, and the brook slid secretly under the arms of the bushes and the hair of the long grass. We beat the cover almost to the road. I thought the brute had escaped, and I pulled a bunch of mountain-ash berries, and stood tapping them against my knee. I was startled by a snarl and a little scream. Running forward, I came upon one of the old, horse-shoe lime-kilns that stood at the head of the quarry. There, in the mouth of one of the kilns, Emily was kneeling on the dog, her hands buried in the hair of its throat, pushing back its head. The little jerks of the brute’s body were the spasms of death; already the eyes were turning inward, and the upper lip was drawn from the teeth by pain.
“Good Lord, Emily! But he is dead!” I exclaimed.
“Has he hurt you?” I drew her away. She shuddered violently, and seemed to feel a horror of herself.
“No — no,” she said, looking at herself, with blood all on her skirt, where she had knelt on the wound which I had given the dog, and pressed the broken rib into the chest. There was a trickle of blood on her arm.
“Did he bite you?” I asked, anxious.
“No — oh no — I just peeped in, And he jumped. But he had no strength, and I hit him back with my stone, and I lost my balance, and fell on him.”
“Let me wash your arm.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “isn’t it horrible! Oh, I think it is so awful.”
“What?” said I, busy bathing her arm in the cold water of the brook.
“This — this whole brutal affair.”
“It ought to be cauterised,” said I, looking at a score on her arm from the dog’s tooth.
“That scratch — that’s nothing! Can you get that off my skirt — I feel hateful to myself.”
I washed her skirt with my handkerchief as well as I could, saying:
“Let me just sear it for you; we can go to the Kennels. Do — you ought — I don’t feel safe otherwise.”
“Really,” she said, glancing up at me, a smile coming into her fine dark eyes.
“Yes — come along.”
“Ha, ha!” she laughed. “You look so serious.”
I took her arm and drew her away. She linked her arm in mine and leaned on me.
“It is just like Lorna Doone,” she said as if she enjoyed it. “But you will let me do it,” said I, referring to the cauterising.
“You make me; but I shall feel — ugh, I daren’t think of it. Get me some of those berries.”
I plucked a few bunches of guelder-rose fruits, transparent, ruby berries. She stroked them softly against her lips and cheek, caressing them. Then she murmured to herself:
“I have always wanted to put red berries in my hair.”
The shawl she had been wearing was thrown across her shoulders, and her head was bare, and her black hair, soft and short and ecstatic, tumbled wildly into loose light curls. She thrust the stalks of the berries under her combs. Her hair was not heavy or long enough to have held them. Then, with the ruby bunches glowing through the black mist of curls, she looked up at me, brightly, with wide eyes. I looked at her, and felt the smile winning into her eyes. Then I turned and dragged a trail of golden-leaved convolvulus from the hedge, and I twisted it into a coronet for her.
“There!” said I, “you’re crowned.”
She put back her head, and the low laughter shook in her throat.
“What!” she asked, putting all the courage and recklessness she had into the question, and in her soul trembling.
“Not Chloe, not Bacchante. You have always got your soul in your eyes, such an earnest, troublesome soul.”
The laughter faded at once, and her great seriousness looked out again at me, pleading.
“You are like Burne-Jones’s damsels. Troublesome shadows are always crowding across your eyes, and you cherish them. You think the flesh of the apple is nothing, nothing. You only care for the eternal pips. Why don’t you snatch your apple and eat it, and throw the core away?”
She looked at me sadly, not understanding, but believing that I in my wisdom spoke truth, as she always believed when I lost her in a maze of words. She stooped down, and the chaplet fell from her hair, and only one bunch of berries remained. The ground around us was strewn with the four-lipped burrs of beechnuts, and the quaint little nut-pyramids were scattered among the ruddy fallen leaves. Emily gathered a few nuts.
“I love beechnuts,” she said, “but they make me long for my childhood again till I could almost cry out. To go out for beechnuts before breakfast; to thread them for necklaces before supper — to be the envy of the others at school next day! There was as much pleasure in a beech necklace then as there is in the whole autumn now — and no sadness. There are no more unmixed joys after you have grown up.” She kept her face to the ground as she spoke, and she continued to gather the fruits.
“Do you find any with nuts in?” I asked.
“Not many — here — here are two, three. You have them. No — I don’t care about them.”
I stripped one of its horny brown coat and gave it to her. She opened her mouth slightly to take it, looking up into my eyes. Some people, instead of bringing with them clouds of glory, trail clouds of sorrow; they are born with “the gift of Sorrow”; “Sorrows,” they proclaim, “alone are real. The veiled grey angels of sorrow work out slowly the beautiful shapes. Sorrow is beauty, and the supreme blessedness.” You read it in their eyes, and in the tones of their voices. Emily had the gift of sorrow. It fascinated me, but it drove me to rebellion.
We followed the soft, smooth-bitten turf road under the old beeches. The hillside fell away, dishevelled with thistles and coarse grass. Soon we were in sight of the Kennels, the red old Kennels which had been the scene of so much animation in the time of Lord Byron. They were empty now, overgrown with weeds. The barred windows of the cottages were grey with dust; there was no need now to protect the windows from cattle, dog or man. One of the three houses was inhabited. Clear water trickled through a wooden runnel into a great stone trough outside near the door.
“Come here,” said I to Emily. “Let me fasten the back of your dress.”
“Is it undone?” she asked, looking quickly over her shoulder, and blushing.
As I was engaged in my task, a girl came out of the cottage with a black kettle and a tea-cup. She was so surprised to see me thus occupied that she forgot her own duty, and stood open-mouthed.
“S’r Ann! S’r Ann,” called a voice from inside. “Are ter goin’ ter come in an’ shut that door?”
Sarah Ann hastily poured a few cupfuls of water into the kettle, then she put down both utensils and stood holding her bare arms to warm them. Her chief garment consisted of a skirt with grey bodice and red flannel skirt, very much torn. Her black hair hung in wild tails on to her shoulders.
“We must go in here,” said I, approaching the girl. She, however, hastily seized the kettle and ran indoors with an “Oh, Mother —!”
A woman came to the door. One breast was bare, and hung over her blouse, which, like a dressing-jacket, fell loose over her skirt. Her fading, red-brown hair was all frowsy from the bed. In the folds of her skirt clung a swarthy urchin with a shockingly short shirt. He stared at us with big black eyes, the only portion of his face undecorated with egg and jam. The woman’s blue eyes questioned us languidly. I told her our errand.
“Come in-come in,” she said, “but dunna look at th’ ’ouse. Th’ childers not been long up. Go in, Billy, wi’ nowt on!”
We entered, taking the forgotten kettle lid. The kitchen was large, but scantily furnished save, indeed, for children. The eldest, a girl of twelve or so, was standing toasting a piece of bacon with one hand, and holding back her night-dress in the other. As the toast hand got scorched, she transferred the bacon to the other, gave the hot fingers a lick to cool them, and then held back her night-dress again. Her auburn hair hung in heavy coils down her gown. A boy sat on the steel fender, catching the dropping fat on a piece of bread. “One, two, three, four, five, six drops,” and he quickly bit off the tasty corner, and resumed the task with the other hand. When we entered he tried to draw his shirt over his knees, which caused the fat to fall wasted. A fat baby, evidently laid down from the breast, lay kicking on the squab, purple in the face, while another lad was pushing bread and butter into its mouth. The mother swept to the sofa, poked out the bread and butter, pushed her finger into the baby’s throat, lifted the child up, punched its back, and was highly relieved when it began to yell. Then she administered a few sound spanks to the naked buttocks of the crammer. He began to howl, but stopped suddenly on seeing us laughing. On the sack-cloth which served as hearth-rug sat a beautiful child washing the face of a wooden doll with tea, and wiping it on her night-gown. At the table, an infant in a high chair sat sucking a piece of bacon, till the grease ran down his swarthy arms, oozing through his fingers. An old lad stood in the big armchair, whose back was hung with a calf-skin, and was industriously pouring the dregs of the tea-cups into a basin of milk. The mother whisked away the milk, and made a rush for the urchin, the baby hanging over her arm the while.
“I could half kill thee,” she said, but he had slid under the table — and sat serenely unconcerned.
“Could you”— I asked when the mother had put her bonny baby again to her breast —“could you lend me a knitting-needle?”
“Our S’r Ann, wheer’s thy knittin’-needles?” asked the woman, wincing at the same time, and putting her hand to the mouth of the sucking child. Catching my eye, she said:
“You wouldn’t credit how he bites. ‘E’s nobbut two teeth, but they like six needles.” She drew her brows together and pursed her lips, saying to the child, “Naughty lad, naughty lad! Tha’ shanna hae it, no, not if ter bites thy mother like that.”
The family interest was now divided between us and the private concerns in process when we entered — save, however, that the bacon-sucker had sucked on stolidly, immovable, all the time.
“Our Sam, wheer’s my knittin’, tha’s ‘ad it?” cried S’r Ann after a little search.
“‘A ‘e na,” replied Sam from under the table.
“Yes, tha’ ‘as,” said the mother, giving a blind prod under the table with her foot.
“‘A ‘e na then!” persisted Sam.
The mother suggested various possible places of discovery, and at last the knitting was found at the back of the table drawer, among forks and old wooden skewers.
“I ‘an ter tell yer wheer ivrythink is,” said the mother in mild reproach. S’r Ann, however, gave no heed to her parent. Her heart was torn for her knitting, the fruit of her labours; it was a red woollen cuff for the winter; a corkscrew was bored through the web, and the ball of red wool was bristling with skewers.
“It’s a’ thee, our Sam,” she wailed. “I know it’s a’ thee an’ thy A. B. C.”
Samuel, under the table, croaked out in a voice of fierce monotony:
“P. is for Porkypine, whose bristles so strong Kill the bold lion by pricking ‘is tongue.”
The mother began to shake with quiet laughter.
“His father learnt him that — made it all up,” she whispered proudly to us — and to him.
“Tell us what ‘B’ is, Sam.”
“Shonna,” grunted Sam.
“Go on, there’s a duckie; an’ I’ll ma’ ‘e a treacle-puddin’.”
“Today?” asked S’r Ann eagerly.
“Go on, Sam, my duck,” persisted the mother.
“Tha’ ‘as na got no treacle,” said Sam conclusively.
The needle was in the fire; the children stood about watching. “Will you do it yourself?” I asked Emily.
“I!” she exclaimed, with wide eyes of astonishment, and she shook her head emphatically.
“Then I must.” I took out the needle, holding it in my handkerchief. I took her hand and examined the wound. But when she saw the hot glow of the needle, she snatched away her hand, and looked into my eyes, laughing in a half-hysterical fear and shame. I was very serious, very insistent. She yielded me her hand again, biting her lips in imagination of the pain, and looking at me. While my eyes were looking into hers she had courage; when I was forced to pay attention to my cauterising, she glanced down, and with a sharp “Ah!” ending in a little laugh, she put her hands behind her, and looked again up at me with wide brown eyes, all quivering with apprehension, and a little shame, and a laughter that held much pleading.
One of the children began to cry.
“It is no good,” said I, throwing the fast cooling needle on to the hearth.
I gave the girls all the pennies I had — then I offered Sam, who had crept out of the shelter of the table, a sixpence.
“Shonna a’e that,” he said, turning from the small coin.
“Well — I have no more pennies, so nothing will be your share.”
I gave the other boy a rickety knife I had in my pocket. Sam looked fiercely at me. Eager for revenge, he picked up the “porkypine quill” by the hot end. He dropped it with a shout of rage, and, seizing a cup off the table, flung it at the fortunate Jack. It smashed against the fireplace. The mother grabbed at Sam, but he was gone. A girl, a little girl, wailed, “Oh, that’s my rosey mug — my rosey mug.” We fled from the scene of confusion. Emily had already noticed it. Her thoughts were of herself, and of me.
“I am an awful coward,” said she humbly.
“But I can’t help it —” She looked beseechingly. “Never mind,” said I.
“All my flesh seems to jump from it. You don’t know how I feel.”
“Well — never mind.”
“I couldn’t help it, not for my life.”
“I wonder,” said I, “if anything could possibly disturb that young bacon-sucker? He didn’t even look round at the smash.”
“No,” said she, biting the tip of her finger moodily.
Further conversation was interrupted by howls from the rear. Looking round we saw Sam careering after us over the close-bitten turf, howling scorn and derision at us. “Rabbit-tail, rabbit-tail,” he cried, his bare little legs twinkling, and his Hittle shirt fluttering in the cold morning air. Fortunately, at Hast he trod on a thistle or a thorn, for when we looked round again to see why he was silent, he was capering on one leg, holding his wounded foot in his hands.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52