That night the broad-shouldered child, Lilly Dogger, was up later than usual. An arrear of pots and saucepans to scour, along with customary knives and forks to clean, detained her.
“Bustle, you huzzy, will ye?” cried the harsh voice of old Mildred, who was adjusting the kettle on the kitchen fire, while in the scullery the brown-eyed little girl worked away at the knife-board. A mutton-fat, fixed in a tin sconce on the wall, so as to command both the kitchen and the scullery, economically lighted each, the old woman and her drudge, at her work,
“Yes’m, please,” she said, interrogatively, for the noise of her task prevented her hearing distinctly.
“Be alive, I say. It’s gone eleven, you slut; ye should a bin in your bed an hour,” screeched Mildred, and then relapsed into her customary grumble.
“Yes, Mrs. Tarnley, please’m,” answered the little girl, resuming with improved energy.
Drowsy enough was the girl. If there had been a minute’s respite from her task, I think she would have nodded.
“Be them things rubbed up or no, or do you mean to ’a done tonight, huzzy?” cried Mrs. Tarnley, this time so near as to startle her, for she had unawares put her wrinkled head into the scullery. “Stop that for tonight, I say. Leave ’em lay, ye’ll finish in the morning.”
“Shall I take down the fire, Mrs. Tarnley, ma’am, please?” asked Lilly Dogger, after a little pause.
“No, ye shan’t. What’s that ye see on the fire; have ye eyes in your head? Don’t ye see the kettle there? How do I know but your master’ll be home tonight, and want a cup o’ tea, or—law knows what?”
Mrs. Tarnley looked put about, as she phrased it, and in one of those special tempers which accompanied that state. So Lilly Dogger, eyeing her with wide open eyes, made her a frightened little courtesy.
“Why don’t ye get up betimes in the morning, huzzy, and then ye needn’t be mopin’ about half the night? All the colour’s washed out o’ your big, ugly, platter face, wi’ your laziness—as white as a turnip. When I was a girl, if I left my work over so, I’d ’a the broomstick across my back, I promise ye, and bread and water next day too good for my victuals; but now ye thinks ye can do as ye like, and all’s changed! An’ every upstart brat is as good as her betters. But don’t ye think ye’ll come it over me, lass, don’t ye. Look up there at the clock, will ye, or do ye want me to pull ye up by the ear—ten minutes past eleven—wi’ your dawdling, ye limb!”
The old woman whisked about, and putting her hand on a cupboard door, she turned round again before opening it, and said—
“Come on, will ye, and take your bread if you want it, and don’t ye stand gaping there, ye slut, as if I had nothing to do but attend upon you, with your impittence, I shouldn’t give ye that!”
She thumped a great lump of bread down on the kitchen table by which the girl was now standing.
“Not a bit, if I did right, and yell not be sittin’ up to eat that, mind ye; ye’ll take it wi’ ye to yer bed, young lady, and tumble in without delay, d’ye mind! For if I find ye out o’ bed when I go in to see all’s right, I’ll just gi’e ye that bowl o’ cold water over yer head. In wi’ ye, an’ get ye twixt the blankets before two minutes—get along.”
The girl knew that Mrs. Tarnley could strike as well as “jaw,” and seldom threatened in vain, so with eyes still fixed upon her, she took up her fragment of loaf, with a hasty courtesy, of which the old woman took no notice, and vanished frightened through a door that opened off the kitchen.
The old woman holding the candle over her head, soon peeped in as she had threatened.
Lilly Dogger lay close affecting to be asleep, though that feat in the time was impossible, and was afraid that the thump, thump of her heart, for she greatly feared Mrs. Tarnley, might be audible to that severe listener.
Out she went, however, without anything more, to the great relief of the girl.
Lilly Dogger lay awake, for fear is vigilant, and Mrs. Tarnley’s temper she knew was capricious as well as violent.
Through the door she heard the incessant croak of the old woman’s voice, as she grumbled and scolded in soliloquy, poking here and there about the kitchen. The girl lay awake, listening vaguely in the dark, and watching the one bright spot on the whitewashed wall at the foot of her bed, which Mrs. Tarnley’s candle in the kitchen transmitted through the keyhole. It flitted and glided, now hither, now thither, now up, now down, like a white butterfly in a garden, silently indicating the movements of the old woman, and illustrating the clatter of her clumsy old shoes.
In a little while the door opened again, and the old woman entered, having left her candle on the dresser outside.
Mrs. Tarnley listened for a while, and you may be sure Lilly Dogger lay still. Then the old woman in a hard whisper asked, “Are you awake?” and listened.
“Are ye awake, lass?” she repeated, and receiving no answer she came close to the bed, by way of tucking in the coverlet, in reality to listen.
So she stood in silence by the bed for a minute, and then very quickly withdrew and closed the door.
Then Lilly Dogger heard her make some arrangements in the kitchen, and move, as she rightly concluded, a table which she placed against her door.
Then the white butterfly having made a sudden sweep round the side wall, hovered no longer on Lilly Dogger’s, darkened walls, and old Mildred Tarnley and her candle glided out of the kitchen.
The girl had grown curious, and she got up and peeped, and found that a clumsy little kitchen table had been placed against her door, which opened outward.
Through the keyhole she also saw that Mildred had not taken down the fire. On the contrary, she had trimmed and poked it, and a kettle was simmering on the back.
She did not believe that Mrs. Tarnley expected the arrival of her master, for she had said early in the day that she thought he would come next evening. Lilly Dogger was persuaded that Mrs. Tarnley was on the look out for some one else, and guarding that fact with a very jealous secrecy.
She went again to her bed; wondering she listened for the sounds of her return, and looked for the little patch of light on the whitewashed wall; but that fluttering evidence of Mrs. Tarnley’s candle did not reappear before the tired little girl fell asleep.
She was wakened in a little time by Mrs. Tarnley’s somewhat noisy return. She was grumbling bitterly to herself, poking the fire, and pitching the fire-irons and other hardware about with angry recklessness.
The girl turned over, and notwithstanding all Mildred’s noisy soliloquy was soon asleep again.
Again she awoke—I suppose recalled to consciousness by some noise in the kitchen. The little white light was in full play on the wall at the foot of her bed, and Mrs. Tarnley was talking fluently in an undertone. Then came a silence, during which the old Dutch clock struck one.
Lilly Dogger’s eyes were wide open now, and her ears erect. She heard no one answer the old woman, who resumed her talk in a minute; and now she seemed careful to make no avoidable noise—speaking low, and when she moved about the kitchen treading softly, and moving anything she had to stir gently. Altogether she was now taking as much care not to disturb as she had shown carelessness upon the subject before.
Lilly Dogger again slipped out of bed, and peeped through the keyhole. But she could not see Mrs. Tarnley nor her companion, if she had one.
Old Mildred was talking on, not in her grumbling interrupted soliloquy, but in the equable style of one spinning a long narrative. This hum was relieved now and then by the gentle clink of a teacup, or the jingle of a spoon.
If Mrs. Tarnley was drinking her tea alone at this hour of night and talking so to herself, she was doing that she had never done before, thought the curious little girl; and she must be a-going mad. From this latter apprehension, however, she was relieved by hearing some one cough. It was not Mrs. Tarnley, who suspended her story, however. But there was an unmistakable difference of tone in this cough, and old Mildred said more distinctly something about a cure for a cough which she recommended.
Then came an answer in an odd drawling voice. The words she could not hear, but there could no longer be any doubt as to the presence of a stranger in the kitchen.
Lilly Dogger was rather frightened, she did not quite know why, and listened without power to form a conjecture. It was plain that the person who enjoyed old Mildred’s hospitality was not her master, nor her mistress, nor old Dulcibella Crane.
As she listened, and wondered, and speculated sleep overtook her once more, and she quite forgot the dialogue, and the kitchen, and Mildred Tarnley’s tea, and went off upon her own adventures in the wild land of dreams.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57