The mistress of the British School stepped down from her school gate, and instead of turning to the left as usual, she turned to the right. Two women who were hastening home to scramble their husbands’ dinners together — it was five minutes to four — stopped to look at her. They stood gazing after her for a moment; then they glanced at each other with a woman’s little grimace.
To be sure, the retreating figure was ridiculous: small and thin, with a black straw hat, and a rusty cashmere dress hanging full all round the skirt. For so small and frail and rusty a creature to sail with slow, deliberate stride was also absurd. Hilda Rowbotham was less than thirty, so it was not years that set the measure of her pace; she had heart disease. Keeping her face, that was small with sickness, but not uncomely, firmly lifted and fronting ahead, the young woman sailed on past the market-place, like a black swan of mournful, disreputable plumage.
She turned into Berryman’s, the baker’s. The shop displayed bread and cakes, sacks of flour and oatmeal, flitches of bacon, hams, lard and sausages. The combination of scents was not unpleasing. Hilda Rowbotham stood for some minutes nervously tapping and pushing a large knife that lay on the counter, and looking at the tall, glittering brass scales. At last a morose man with sandy whiskers came down the step from the house-place.
“What is it?” he asked, not apologizing for his delay.
“Will you give me six-pennyworth of assorted cakes and pastries — and put in some macaroons, please?” she asked, in remarkably rapid and nervous speech. Her lips fluttered like two leaves in a wind, and her words crowded and rushed like a flock of sheep at a gate.
“We’ve got no macaroons,” said the man churlishly.
He had evidently caught that word. He stood waiting.
“Then I can’t have any, Mr Berryman. Now I do feel disappointed. I like those macaroons, you know, and it’s not often I treat myself. One gets so tired of trying to spoil oneself, don’t you think? It’s less profitable even than trying to spoil somebody else.” She laughed a quick little nervous laugh, putting her hand to her face.
“Then what’ll you have?” asked the man, without the ghost of an answering smile. He evidently had not followed, so he looked more glum than ever.
“Oh, anything you’ve got,” replied the schoolmistress, flushing slightly. The man moved slowly about, dropping the cakes from various dishes one by one into a paper bag.
“How’s that sister o’ yours getting on?” he asked, as if he were talking to the flour scoop.
“Whom do you mean?” snapped the schoolmistress.
“The youngest,” answered the stooping, pale-faced man, with a note of sarcasm.
“Emma! Oh, she’s very well, thank you!” The schoolmistress was very red, but she spoke with sharp, ironical defiance. The man grunted. Then he handed her the bag and watched her out of the shop without bidding her “Good afternoon”.
She had the whole length of the main street to traverse, a half-mile of slow-stepping torture, with shame flushing over her neck. But she carried her white bag with an appearance of steadfast unconcern. When she turned into the field she seemed to droop a little. The wide valley opened out from her, with the far woods withdrawing into twilight, and away in the centre the great pit streaming its white smoke and chuffing as the men were being turned up. A full, rose-coloured moon, like a flamingo flying low under the far, dusky east, drew out of the mist. It was beautiful, and it made her irritable sadness soften, diffuse.
Across the field, and she was at home. It was a new, substantial cottage, built with unstinted hand, such a house as an old miner could build himself out of his savings. In the rather small kitchen a woman of dark, saturnine complexion sat nursing a baby in a long white gown; a young woman of heavy, brutal cast stood at the table, cutting bread and butter. She had a downcast, humble mien that sat unnaturally on her, and was strangely irritating. She did not look round when her sister entered. Hilda put down the bag of cakes and left the room, not having spoken to Emma, nor to the baby, not to Mrs Carlin, who had come in to help for the afternoon.
Almost immediately the father entered from the yard with a dustpan full of coals. He was a large man, but he was going to pieces. As he passed through, he gripped the door with his free hand to steady himself, but turning, he lurched and swayed. He began putting the coals on the fire, piece by piece. One lump fell from his hand and smashed on the white hearth. Emma Rowbotham looked round, and began in a rough, loud voice of anger: “Look at you!” Then she consciously moderated her tones. “I’ll sweep it up in a minute — don’t you bother; you’ll only be going head first into the fire.”
Her father bent down nevertheless to clear up the mess he had made, saying, articulating his words loosely and slavering in his speech:
“The lousy bit of a thing, it slipped between my fingers like a fish.”
As he spoke he went tilting towards the fire. The dark-browed woman cried out: he put his hand on the hot stove to save himself: Emma swung round and dragged him off.
“Didn’t I tell you!” she cried roughly. “Now, have you burnt yourself?”
She held tight hold of the big man, and pushed him into his chair.
“What’s the matter?” cried a sharp voice from the other room. The speaker appeared, a hard well-favoured woman of twenty-eight. “Emma, don’t speak like that to father.” Then, in a tone not so cold, but just as sharp: “Now, father, what have you been doing?”
Emma withdrew to her table sullenly.
“It’s nöwt,” said the old man, vainly protesting. “It’s nöwt, at a’. Get on wi’ what you’re doin’.”
“I’m afraid ‘e’s burnt ‘is ‘and,” said the black-browed woman, speaking of him with a kind of hard pity, as if he were a cumbersome child. Bertha took the old man’s hand and looked at it, making a quick tut-tutting noise of impatience.
“Emma, get that zinc ointment — and some white rag,” she commanded sharply. The younger sister put down her loaf with the knife in it, and went. To a sensitive observer, this obedience was more intolerable than the most hateful discord. The dark woman bent over the baby and made silent, gentle movements of motherliness to it. The little one smiled and moved on her lap. It continued to move and twist.
“I believe this child’s hungry,” she said. “How long is it since he had anything?”
“Just afore dinner,” said Emma dully.
“Good gracious!” exclaimed Bertha. “You needn’t starve the child now you’ve got it. Once every two hours it ought to be fed, as I’ve told you; and now it’s three. Take him, poor little mite — I’ll cut the bread.” She bent and looked at the bonny baby. She could not help herself: she smiled, and pressed its cheek with her finger, and nodded to it, making little noises. Then she turned and took the loaf from her sister. The woman rose and gave the child to its mother. Emma bent over the little sucking mite. She hated it when she looked at it, and saw it as a symbol, but when she felt it, her love was like fire in her blood.
“I should think ‘e canna be comin’,” said the father uneasily, looking up at the clock.
“Nonsense, father — the clock’s fast! It’s but half-past four! Don’t fidget!” Bertha continued to cut the bread and butter.
“Open a tin of pears,” she said to the woman, in a much milder tone. Then she went into the next room. As soon as she was gone, the old man said again: “I should ha’e thought he’d ‘a’ been ’ere by now, if he means comin’.”
Emma, engrossed, did not answer. The father had ceased to consider her, since she had become humbled.
“‘E’ll come —‘e’ll come!” assured the stranger.
A few minutes later Bertha hurried into the kitchen, taking off her apron. The dog barked furiously. She opened the door, commanded the dog to silence, and said: “He will be quiet now, Mr Kendal.”
“Thank you,” said a sonorous voice, and there was the sound of a bicycle being propped against a wall. A clergyman entered, a big-boned, thin, ugly man of nervous manner. He went straight to the father.
“Ah — how are you?” he asked musically, peering down on the great frame of the miner, ruined by locomotor ataxy.
His voice was full of gentleness, but he seemed as if he could not see distinctly, could not get things clear.
“Have you hurt you hand?” he said comfortingly, seeing the white rag.
“It wor nöwt but a pestered bit o’ coal as dropped, an’ I put my hand on th’ hub. I thought tha worna commin’.”
The familiar ‘tha’, and the reproach, were unconscious retaliation on the old man’s part. The minister smiled, half wistfully, half indulgently. He was full of vague tenderness. Then he turned to the young mother, who flushed sullenly because her dishonoured breast was uncovered.
“How are YOU?” he asked, very softly and gently, as if she were ill and he were mindful of her.
“I’m all right,” she replied, awkwardly taking his hand without rising, hiding her face and the anger that rose in her.
“Yes — yes”— he peered down at the baby, which sucked with distended mouth upon the firm breast. “Yes, yes.” He seemed lost in a dim musing.
Coming to, he shook hands unseeingly with the woman.
Presently they all went into the next room, the minister hesitating to help his crippled old deacon.
“I can go by myself, thank yer,” testily replied the father.
Soon all were seated. Everybody was separated in feeling and isolated at table. High tea was spread in the middle kitchen, a large, ugly room kept for special occasions.
Hilda appeared last, and the clumsy, raw-boned clergyman rose to meet her. He was afraid of this family, the well-to-do old collier, and the brutal, self-willed children. But Hilda was queen among them. She was the clever one, and had been to college. She felt responsible for the keeping up of a high standard of conduct in all the members of the family. There WAS a difference between the Rowbothams and the common collier folk. Woodbine Cottage was a superior house to most — and was built in pride by the old man. She, Hilda, was a college-trained schoolmistress; she meant to keep up the prestige of her house in spite of blows.
She had put on a dress of green voile for this special occasion. But she was very thin; her neck protruded painfully. The clergyman, however, greeted her almost with reverence, and, with some assumption of dignity, she sat down before the tray. At the far end of the table sat the broken, massive frame of her father. Next to him was the youngest daughter, nursing the restless baby. The minister sat between Hilda and Bertha, hulking his bony frame uncomfortably.
There was a great spread on the table, of tinned fruits and tinned salmon, ham and cakes. Miss Rowbotham kept a keen eye on everything: she felt the importance of the occasion. The young mother who had given rise to all this solemnity ate in sulky discomfort, snatching sullen little smiles at her child, smiles which came, in spite of her, when she felt its little limbs stirring vigorously on her lap. Bertha, sharp and abrupt, was chiefly concerned with the baby. She scorned her sister, and treated her like dirt. But the infant was a streak of light to her. Miss Rowbotham concerned herself with the function and the conversation. Her hands fluttered; she talked in little volleys exceedingly nervous. Towards the end of the meal, there came a pause. The old man wiped his mouth with his red handkerchief, then, his blue eyes going fixed and staring, he began to speak, in a loose, slobbering fashion, charging his words at the clergyman.
“Well, mester — we’n axed you to come her ter christen this childt, an’ you’n come, an’ I’m sure we’re very thankful. I can’t see lettin’ the poor blessed childt miss baptizing, an’ they aren’t for goin’ to church wi’t —” He seemed to lapse into a muse. “So,” he resumed, “we’v axed you to come here to do the job. I’m not sayin’ as it’s not ‘ard on us, it is. I’m breakin’ up, an’ mother’s gone. I don’t like leavin’ a girl o’ mine in a situation like ‘ers is, but what the Lord’s done, He’s done, an’ it’s no matter murmuring. . . . There’s one thing to be thankful for, an’ we ARE thankful for it: they never need know the want of bread.”
Miss Rowbotham, the lady of the family, sat very stiff and pained during this discourse. She was sensitive to so many things that she was bewildered. She felt her young sister’s shame, then a kind of swift protecting love for the baby, a feeling that included the mother; she was at a loss before her father’s religious sentiment, and she felt and resented bitterly the mark upon the family, against which the common folk could lift their fingers. Still she winced from the sound of her father’s words. It was a painful ordeal.
“It is hard for you,” began the clergyman in his soft, lingering, unworldly voice. “It is hard for you today, but the Lord gives comfort in His time. A man child is born unto us, therefore let us rejoice and be glad. If sin has entered in among us, let us purify out hearts before the Lord . . . .”
He went on with his discourse. The young mother lifted the whimpering infant, till its face was hid in her loose hair. She was hurt, and a little glowering anger shone in her face. But nevertheless her fingers clasped the body of the child beautifully. She was stupefied with anger against this emotion let loose on her account.
Miss Bertha rose and went to the little kitchen, returning with water in a china bowl. She placed it there among the tea-things.
“Well, we’re all ready,” said the old man, and the clergyman began to read the service. Miss Bertha was godmother, the two men godfathers. The old man sat with bent head. The scene became impressive. At last Miss Bertha took the child and put it in the arms of the clergyman. He, big and ugly, shone with a kind of unreal love. He had never mixed with life, and women were all unliving, Biblical things to him. When he asked for the name, the old man lifted his head fiercely. “Joseph William, after me,” he said, almost out of breath.
“Joseph William, I baptize thee . . . .” resounded the strange, full, chanting voice of the clergyman. The baby was quite still.
“Let us pray!” It came with relief to them all. They knelt before their chairs, all but the young mother, who bent and hid herself over her baby. The clergyman began his hesitating, struggling prayer.
Just then heavy footsteps were heard coming up the path, ceasing at the window. The young mother, glancing up, saw her brother, black in his pit dirt, grinning in through the panes. His red mouth curved in a sneer; his fair hair shone above his blackened skin. He caught the eye of his sister and grinned. Then his black face disappeared. He had gone on into the kitchen. The girl with the child sat still and anger filled her heart. She herself hated now the praying clergyman and the whole emotional business; she hated her brother bitterly. In anger and bondage she sat and listened.
Suddenly her father began to pray. His familiar, loud, rambling voice made her shut herself up and become even insentient. Folks said his mind was weakening. She believed it to be true, and kept herself always disconnected from him.
“We ask Thee, Lord,” the old man cried, “to look after this childt. Fatherless he is. But what does the earthly father matter before Thee? The childt is Thine, he is Thy childt. Lord, what father has a man but Thee? Lord, when a man says he is a father, he is wrong from the first word. For Thou art the Father, Lord. Lord, take away from us the conceit that our children are ours. Lord, Thou art Father of this childt as is fatherless here. O God, Thou bring him up. For I have stood between Thee and my children; I’ve had MY way with them, Lord; I’ve stood between Thee and my children; I’ve cut ’em off from Thee because they were mine. And they’ve grown twisted, because of me. Who is their father, Lord, but Thee? But I put myself in the way, they’ve been plants under a stone, because of me. Lord, if it hadn’t been for me, they might ha’ been trees in the sunshine. Let me own it, Lord, I’ve done ’em mischief. It could ha’ been better if they’d never known no father. No man is a father, Lord: only Thou art. They can never grow beyond Thee, but I hampered them. Lift ’em up again, and undo what I’ve done to my children. And let this young childt be like a willow tree beside the waters, with no father but Thee, O God. Aye an’ I wish it had been so with my children, that they’d had no father but Thee. For I’ve been like a stone upon them, and they rise up and curse me in their wickedness. But let me go, an’ lift Thou them up, Lord . . .”
The minister, unaware of the feelings of a father, knelt in trouble, hearing without understanding the special language of fatherhood. Miss Rowbotham alone felt and understood a little. Her heart began to flutter; she was in pain. The two younger daughters kneeled unhearing, stiffened and impervious. Bertha was thinking of the baby; and the younger mother thought of the father of her child, whom she hated. There was a clatter in the scullery. There the youngest son made as much noise as he could, pouring out the water for his wash, muttering in deep anger:
“Blortin’, slaverin’ old fool!”
And while the praying of his father continued, his heart was burning with rage. On the table was a paper bag. He picked it up and read, “John Berryman — Bread, Pastries, etc.” Then he grinned with a grimace. The father of the baby was baker’s man at Berryman’s. The prayer went on in the middle kitchen. Laurie Rowbotham gathered together the mouth of the bag, inflated it, and burst it with his fist. There was a loud report. He grinned to himself. But he writhed at the same time with shame and fear of his father.
The father broke off from his prayer; the party shuffled to their feet. The young mother went into the scullery.
“What art doin’, fool?” she said.
The collier youth tipped the baby under the chin, singing:
“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can . . . .”
The mother snatched the child away. “Shut thy mouth,” she said, the colour coming into her cheek.
“Prick it and stick it and mark it with P,
And put it i’ th’ oven for baby an’ me . . . .”
He grinned, showing a grimy, and jeering and unpleasant red mouth and white teeth.
“I s’ll gi’e thee a dab ower th’ mouth,” said the mother of the baby grimly. He began to sing again, and she struck out at him.
“Now what’s to do?” said the father, staggering in.
The youth began to sing again. His sister stood sullen and furious.
“Why, does THAT upset you?” asked the eldest Miss Rowbotham, sharply, of Emma the mother. “Good gracious, it hasn’t improved your temper.”
Miss Bertha came in, and took the bonny baby.
The father sat big and unheeding in his chair, his eyes vacant, his physique wrecked. He let them do as they would, he fell to pieces. And yet some power, involuntary, like a curse, remained in him. The very ruin of him was like a lodestone that held them in its control. The wreck of him still dominated the house, in his dissolution even he compelled their being. They had never lived; his life, his will had always been upon them and contained them. They were only half-individuals.
The day after the christening he staggered in at the doorway declaring, in a loud voice, with joy in life still: “The daisies light up the earth, they clap their hands in multitudes, in praise of the morning.” And his daughters shrank, sullen.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57