Jellico’s Pack


Ellen Wood

First published in 1869.

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Jellico’s Pack.

1.

The shop was not at all in a good part of Evesham. The street was narrow and dirty, the shop the same. Over the door might be seen written “Tobias Jellico, Linen-draper and Huckster.” One Monday—which is market-day at Evesham, as the world knows—in going past it with Tod and little Hugh, the child trod on his bootlace and broke it, and we turned in to get another. It was a stuffy shop, filled with bundles as well as wares, and behind the counter stood Mr. Jellico himself, a good-looking, dark man of forty, with deep-set blue eyes, that seemed to meet at the nose, so close were they together.

The lace was a penny, he said, and Tod laid down sixpence. Jellico handed the sixpence to a younger man who was serving lower down, and began showing us all kinds of articles—neckties, handkerchiefs, fishing-lines, cigar-lights, for he seemed to deal in varieties. Hugh had put in his bootlace, but we could not get away.

“I tell you we don’t want anything of this,” said Tod, in his haughty way, for the persistent fellow had tired him out. “Give me my change.”

The other man brought the change wrapped up in paper, and we went on to the inn. Tod had ordered the pony to be put in the chaise, and it stood ready in the yard. Just then a white-haired, feeble old man came into the yard, and begged. Tod opened the paper of half-pence.

“The miserable cheat,” he called out. “If you’ll believe me, Johnny, that fellow has only given me fourpence in change. If I had time I’d go back to him. Sam, do you know anything of one Jellico, who keeps a fancy shop?” asked he of the ostler.

“A fancy shop, sir?” echoed Sam, considering.

“Sells calico and lucifer-matches.”

“Oh, I know Mr. Jellico!” broke forth Sam, his recollection coming to him. “He has got a cousin with him, sir.”

“No doubt. It was the cousin that cheated me. Mistakes are mistakes, and the best of us are liable to them; but if that was a mistake, I’ll eat the lot.”

“It’s as much of a leaving-shop as a draper’s, sir. Leastways, it’s said that women can take things in and borrow money on them.”

“Oh!” said Tod. “Borrow a shilling on a Dutch oven today, and pay two shillings tomorrow to get it out.”

“Anyway, Mr. Jellico does a fine trade, for he gives credit,” concluded Sam.

But the wrong change might have been a mistake.

In driving home, Tod pulled up at George Reed’s cottage. Every one must remember hearing where that was, and of Reed’s being put into prison by Major Parrifer. “Get down, Johnny,” said he, “and see if Reed’s there. He must have left work.”

I went up the path where Reed’s children were playing, and opened the cottage door. Mrs. Reed and two neighbours stood holding out something that looked like a gown-piece. With a start and a grab, Mrs. Reed caught the stuff, and hid it under her apron, and the two others looked round at me with scared faces.

“Reed here? No, sir,” she answered, in a sort of flurry. “He had to go over to Alcester after work. I don’t expect him home much afore ten to-night.”

I shut the door, thinking nothing. Reed was a handy man at many things, and Tod wanted him to help with some alteration in the pheasantry at the Manor. It was Tod who had set it up—a long, narrow place enclosed with green trellised work, and some gold and silver pheasants running about in it. The Squire had been against it at first, and told Tod he wouldn’t have workmen bothering about the place. So Tod got Reed to come in of an evening after his day’s work, and in a fortnight the thing was up. Now he wanted him again to alter it: he had found out it was too narrow. That was one of Tod’s failings. If he took a thing into his head it must be done off-hand. The Squire railed at him for his hot-headed impatience: but in point of fact he was of just the same impatient turn himself. Tod had been over to Bill Whitney’s and found their pheasantry was twice as wide as his.

“Confound Alcester,” cried Tod in his vexation, as he drove on home. “If Reed could have come up now and seen what it is I want done, he might have begun upon it tomorrow evening.”

“The pater says it is quite wide enough as it is, Tod.”

“You shut up, Johnny. If I pay Reed out of my own pocket, it’s nothing to anybody.”

On Tuesday he sent me to Reed’s again. It was a nice spring afternoon, but I’m not sure that I thanked him for giving me that walk. Especially when upon lifting the latch of the cottage door, I found it fastened. Down I sat on the low bench outside the open window to wait—where Cathy had sat many a time in the days gone by, making believe to nurse the children, and that foolish young Parrifer would be leaning against the pear-tree on the other side the path. I had to leave my message with Mrs. Reed; I supposed she had only stepped into a neighbour’s, and might be back directly, for the two little girls were playing at “shop” in the garden.

Buzz, buzz: hum, hum. Why, those voices were in the kitchen! The lower part of the casement was level with the top of my head; I turned round and raised my eyes to look.

Well! surprises, it is said, are the lot of man. It was his face, unless my sight deceived itself. The same blue eyes that were in the shop at Evesham the day before, were inside Mrs. Reed’s kitchen now: Mr. Tobias Jellico’s. The place seemed to be crowded with women. He was smiling and talking to them in the most persuasive manner imaginable, his hands waving an accompaniment, on one of which glittered a ring with a yellow stone in it, a persuasive look on his rather well-featured face.

They were a great deal too agreeably engrossed to see me, and I looked on at leisure. A sort of pack, open, rested on the floor; the table was covered with all kinds of things for women’s dress; silks, cottons, ribbons, mantles; which Mrs. Reed and the others were leaning over and fingering.

“Silks ain’t for the like of us; I’d never have the cheek to put one on,” cried a voice that I knew at once for shrill Peggy Dickon’s. Next to her stood Ann Dovey, the blacksmith’s wife; who was very pretty, and vain accordingly.

“What kind o’ stuff d’ye call this, master?” Ann Dovey asked.

“That’s called laine,” answered Jellico. “It’s all pure wool.”

“It’s a’most as shiny as silk. I say, Mrs. Reed, d’ye think this ‘ud wear?”

“It would wear for ever,” put in Jellico. “Ten yards of it would make as good a gown as ever went on a lady’s back; and the cost is but two shillings a yard.”

“Two shillings! Let’s see—what ‘ud that come to? Why, twenty, wouldn’t it? My patience, I shouldn’t never dare to run up that score for one gownd.”

Jellico laughed pleasantly. “You take it, Mrs. Dovey. It just suits your bright cheeks. Pay me when you can, and how you can: sixpence a-week, or a shilling a-week, or two shillings, as you can make it easy. It’s like getting a gown for nothing.”

“So it is,” cried Ann Dovey, in a glow of delight. And by the tone, Mr. Jellico no doubt knew that she had as good as yielded to the temptation. He got out his yard measure.

“Ten yards?” said he.

“I’m a’most afeard. Will you promise, sir, not to bother me for the money faster than I can pay it?”

“You needn’t fear no bothering from me; only just keep up the trifle you’ve got to pay off weekly.”

He measured off the necessary length. “You’ll want some ribbon to trim it with, won’t you?” said he.

“Ribbin—well, I dun know. Dovey might say ribbin were too smart for me.”

“Not a bit on’t, Ann Dovey,” spoke up another woman—and she was our carter’s wife, Susan Potter. “It wouldn’t look nothing without some ribbin. That there narrer grass-green satin ‘ud be nice upon’t.”

“And that grass-green ribbon’s dirt cheap,” said Jellico. “You’d get four or five yards of it for a shilling or two. Won’t you be tempted now?” he added to Susan Potter. She laughed.

“Not with them things. I shouldn’t never hear the last on’t if Potter found out I went on tick for finery. He’s rough, sir, and might beat me. I’d like a check apron, and a yard o’ calico.”

“Perhaps I might take a apron or two, sir, if you made it easy,” said Mrs. Dickon.

“Of course I’ll make it easy; and a gown too if you’ll have it. Let me cut you off the fellow to this of Mrs. Dovey’s.”

Peggy Dickon shook her head. “It ain’t o’ no good asking me, Mr. Jellico. Ann Dovey can buy gownds; she haven’t got no children; I’ve a bushel on ’em. No; I don’t dare. I wish I might! Last year, up at Cookhill Wake, I see a sweet gownd, not unlike this, what had got green ribbins upon it,” added the woman longingly.

Being (I suppose) a kind of Mephistopheles in his line, Mr. Tobias Jellico accomplished his wish and cut off a gown against her judgment. He sold other gowns, and “ribbins,” and trumpery; the yard measure had nearly as little rest as the women’s tongues. Mrs. Reed’s turn to be served seemed to come last; after the manner of her betters, she yielded precedence to her guests.

“Now for me, sir,” she said. “You’ve done a good stroke o’ business here today, Mr. Jellico, and I hope you won’t objec’ to change that there gownd piece as I bought last Monday for some’at a trifle stronger. Me and some others have been a-looking at it, and we don’t think it’ll wear.”

“Oh, I’ll change it,” readily answered Jellico. “You should put a few more shillings on, Mrs. Reed: better have a good thing when you’re about it. It’s always cheaper in the end.”

“Well, I suppose it is,” she said. “But I’m a’most frightened at the score that’ll be running up.”

“It’s easily wiped off,” answered the man, pleasantly. “Just a shilling or two weekly.”

There was more chaffering and talking; and after that came the chink of money. The women had each a book, and Jellico had his book, and they were compared with his, and made straight. As he came out with the pack on his back, he saw me sitting on the bench, and looked hard at me: whether he knew me again, I can’t say.

Just then Frank Stirling ran by, turning down Piefinch Lane. I went after him: the women’s tongues inside were working like so many steam-engines, and it was as well to let them run down before speaking to Mrs. Reed.

Half-way down Piefinch Lane on the left, there was a turning, called Piefinch Cut. It had grown into a street. All kinds of shops had been opened, dealing in small wares: and two public-houses. A pawnbroker from Alcester had opened a branch establishment here—which had set the world gaping more than they would at a wild-beast show. It was managed by a Mr. Figg. The three gilt balls stood out in the middle of the Cut; and the blacksmith’s forge, to which Stirling was bound, was next door. He wanted something done to a piece of iron. While we were standing amidst the sparks, who should go into the house the other side the way but Jellico and his pack!

“Yes, he should come into mine, he should, that fellow,” ironically observed John Dovey: who was a good-natured, dark-eyed little man, with a tolerable share of sense. “I’d be after trundling him out again, feet foremost.”

“Is he a travelling hawker?” asked Stirling.

“He’s a sight worse, sir,” answered Dovey. “If you buy wares off a hawker you must pay for ’em at the time: no money, no goods. But this fellow seduces the women to buy his things on tick, he does: Tuesday arter Tuesday he comes prowling into this here Cut, and does a roaring trade. His pack’ll walk out o’ that house a bit lighter nor it goes in. Stubbs’s wife lives over there; Tanken’s wife, she lives there; and there be others. If I hadn’t learnt that nobody gets no good by interfering atween men and their wives, I’d ha’ telled Stubbs and Tanken long ago what was going on.”

It had been on the tip of my tongue to say where I had just seen Jellico, and the trade he was doing. Remembering in time that Mrs. Dovey had been one of the larger purchasers, I kept the news in.

“His name’s Jellico,” continued Dovey, as he hammered away at Stirling’s iron. “He have got a fine shop somewhere over at Evesham. It’s twelve or fifteen months now, Master Johnny, since he took to come here. When first I see him I wondered where the deuce the hawker’s round could be, appearing in the Cut so quick and reg’lar; but I soon found he was no reg’lar hawker. Says I to my wife, ‘Don’t you go and have no dealings with that there pest, for I’ll not stand it, and I might be tempted to stop it summary.’ ‘All right, Jack,’ says she; ‘when I want things I’ll deal at the old shop at Alcester.’ But there’s other wives round about us doing strokes and strokes o’ trade with him; ‘tain’t all of ’em, Master Ludlow, as is so sensible as our Ann.”

Considering the stroke of trade I had just seen done by Ann Dovey, it was as well not to hear this.

“If he’s not a hawker, what is he?” asked Stirling, swaying himself on a beam in the roof; and I’m sure I did not know either.

“It’s a cursed system,” hotly returned John Dovey; “and I say that afore your faces, young gents. It may do for the towns, if they chooses to have it—that’s their business; but it don’t do for us. What do our women here want o’ fine shawls and gay gownds?—decking theirselves out as if they was so many Jezebels? But ‘tain’t that. Let ’em deck, if they’ve got no sense to see how ill it looks on their sun-freckled faces and hands hard wi’ work; it’s the ruin it brings. Just you move on t’other side, Master Ludlow, sir; you be right in the way o’ the sparks. There’s a iron pot over there as does for sitting on.”

“I’m all right, Dovey. Tell us about Jellico.”

Jellico’s system, to give Dovey’s explanation in brief, was this: He brought over a huge pack of goods every Tuesday afternoon in a pony-gig from his shop at Evesham. He put up the pony, and carried the pack on his round, tempting the women right and left to buy. Husbands away at work, and children at school, the field was open. He asked for no ready money down. The purchases were entered in a book, to be paid off by weekly instalments. The payments had to be kept up; Jellico saw to that. However short the household had to run of the weekly necessaries, Jellico’s money had to be ready for him. It was an awful tax, just as Dovey described it, and drifted into at first by the women without thought of ill. The debt in itself was bad enough; but the fear lest it should come to their husbands’ ears was almost worse. As Dovey described all this in his homely, but rather flowery language, it put me in mind of those pleasure-seekers that sail too far over a sunny sea in thoughtlessness, and suspect no danger till their vessel is right upon the breakers.

“There haven’t been no blow-ups yet to speak of,” said the blacksmith. “But they be coming. I could just put my finger upon half-a-dozen women at this blessed minute what’s wearing theirselves to shadders with the trouble. They come here to Figg’s in the dusk o’ evening wi’ things hid under their aprons. The longer Jellico lets it go on, the worse it gets, for they will be tempted, the she-creatures, buying made flowers for their best bonnets today, and ribbuns for their Sunday caps tomorrow. If Jellico lets ’em, that is. He knows pretty sure where he may trust and where he mayn’t. ‘Tain’t he as will let his pocket suffer in the long run. He knows another thing—that the further he staves off any big noise the profitabler it’ll be for him. Once let that come, and Master Jellico might get hunted out o’ the Cut, and his pack and its finery kicked to shreds.”

“But why are the women such simpletons, Dovey?” asked Frank Stirling.

“You might as well ask why folks eats and drinks, sir,” retorted Dovey, his begrimed eyes lighted with the flame. “A love o’ their faces is just born with the women, and it goes with ’em to the grave. Set a parcel o’ finery before ’em and the best’ll find their eyes a-longing, and their mouths a-watering. It’s said Eve used to do up her hair looking into a clear pool.”

“Putting it in that light, Dovey, I wonder all the women here don’t go in for Mr. Jellico’s temptations.”

“Some on ’em has better sense; and some has husbands what’s up to the thing, and keeps the reins tight in their own hands,” complacently answered the unconscious Dovey.

“Up to the thing!” repeated Stirling; “I should think all the men are up to it, if Jellico is here so constantly.”

“No, sir, they’re not. Most of ’em are at work when he comes. They may know some’at about him, but the women contrives to deceive ’em, and they suspects nothing. The fellow with the pack don’t concern them or their folk at home, as they supposes, an’ so they never bothers theirselves about him or his doings. I’d like to drop a hint to some of ’em to go home unexpected some Tuesday afternoon; but maybe it’s best let alone.”

“I suppose your wife is one of the sensible ones, Dovey?” And I kept my countenance as I said it.

“She daredn’t be nothing else, Master Johnny. I be a trifle loud if I’m put out. Not she,” emphatically added Dovey, his strong, bared arm dealing a heavy blow on the anvil, and sending up a whole cloud of sparks. “I’d never get put in jail for her, as she knows; I’d shave her hair off first. Run up a score with that there Jellico? No, she’d not be such a idiot as that. You should hear how she goes on again her neighbours that does run it, and the names she calls ’em.”

Poor John Dovey! Where ignorance is bliss——

“Why, if I thought my wife could hoodwink me as some of ’em does their men, I’d never hold up my head of one while, for shame; no, not in my own forge,” continued Dovey. “Ann’s temper’s a bit trying sometimes, and wants keeping in order; but she’d be above deceit o’ that paltry sort. She don’t need to act it, neither; I give her a whole ten shillings t’other day, and she went and laid it out at Alcester.”

No doubt. Any amount of shillings would soon be sacrificed to Ann’s vanity.

“How much longer is that thing going to take, Dovey?” interposed Stirling.

“Just about two minutes, sir. ’Twere a cranky—— There he goes.”

The break in Dovey’s answer was caused by the appearance of Jellico. He came out, shouldering his pack. The blacksmith looked after him down the Cut, and saw him turn in elsewhere.

“I thought ’twas where he was going,” said he; “‘tain’t often he passes that there dwelling. Other houses seem to have their days, turn and turn about; but that ’un gets him constant.”

“It’s where Bird’s wife lives, is it not, Dovey?”

“It’s where she lives, fast enough, sir. And Bird, he be safe at his over-looking work, five miles off, without fear of his popping in home to hinder the dealing and chaffering. But she’d better mind—though Bird do get a’most three pound a-week, he have got means for every sixpence of it, with his peck o’ childern, six young ‘uns of her’n, and six of his first wife’s, and no more’n one on ’em yet able to earn a penny-piece. If Bird thought she was running up a score with Jellico, he’d give her two black eyes as soon as look at her.”

“Bird’s wife never seems to have any good clothes at all; she looks as if she hadn’t a decent gown to her back,” said Frank.

“What she buys is mostly things for the little ‘uns: shimmys and pinafores, and that,” replied Dovey. “Letty Bird’s one o’ them that’s more improvidenter than a body of any sense ‘ud believe, Master Stirling; she never has a coin by the Wednesday night, she hasn’t. The little ‘uns ‘ud be a-rolling naked in the gutter, but for what she gets on tick off Jellico; and Bird, seeing ’em naked, might beat her for that. That don’t mend the system; the score’s a-being run up, and it’ll bring trouble sometime as sure as a gun. Beside that, if there was no Jellico to serve her with his poison, she’d have to save enough for decent clothes. Don’t you see how the thing works, sir?”

“Oh, I see,” carelessly answered Stirling. “D’ye call the pack’s wares poison, Dovey?”

“Yes, I do,” said Dovey, stoutly, as he handed Frank his iron. “They’ll poison the peace o’ many a household in this here Cut. You two young gents just look out else, and see.”

We came away with the iron. At the end of Piefinch Lane, Frank Stirling took the road to the Court, and I turned into Reed’s. The wife was by herself then, giving the children their early tea.

“Reed shall come up to the Manor as soon as he gets home, sir,” she said, in answer to Tod’s message.

“I was here before this afternoon, Mrs. Reed, and couldn’t get in. You were too busy to hear me at the door.”

The knife halted in the bread she was cutting, and she glanced up for a moment; but seemed to think nothing, and finished the slice.

“I’ve been very busy, Master Ludlow. I’m sorry you’ve had to come twice, sir.”

“Busy enough, I should say, with Jellico’s pack emptied on the table, and you and the rest buying up at steam pace.”

The words were out of my lips before I saw her startled gesture of caution, pointing to the children: it was plain they were not to know anything about Jellico. She had an honest face, but it turned scarlet.

“Do you think it is a good plan, Mrs. Reed, to get things upon trust, and have to make up money for them weekly?” I could not help saying to her as she came to the door.

“I’m beginning to doubt whether it is, sir.”

“If Reed thought he had a debt hanging over him, that might fall at any moment——”

“For the love of mercy, sir, don’t say nothing to Reed!” came the startled interruption. “You won’t, will you, Master Johnny?”

“Not I. Don’t fear. But if I were you, Mrs. Reed, for my own sake I should cut all connection with Jellico. Better deal at a fair shop.”

She nodded her head as I went through the gate; but her face had now turned to a sickly whiteness that spoke of terror. Was the woman so deep in the dangerous books already?

Reed came up in the evening, and Tod showed him what he wanted done. As the man was measuring the trellis-work, Hannah happened to pass. She asked him how he was getting on.

“Amongst the middlings,” answered Reed, shortly. “I was a bit put out just now.”

“What by?” asked Hannah, who said anything she chose before me without the smallest ceremony: and Tod had gone away.

“As I was coming up here, Ingram stops me, and asks if I couldn’t let him have the bit of money I owed him. I stared at the man: what money was I likely to owe him——”

“Ingram the cow-keeper?” interrupted Hannah.

“Ingram the cow-keeper. So, talking a bit, I found there was a matter of six shillings due to him for the children’s milk: it was ever so long since my wife had paid. Back I went to her at once to know the reason why—and it was that made me late in coming up here, Master Johnny.”

“I suppose he had sold her skim milk for new, and she thought she’d make him wait for his money,” returned Hannah.

“All she said to me was that she didn’t think it had been running so long; Ingram had said to me that she always told him she was short of money and couldn’t pay,” answered Reed. “Anyway, I don’t think she’ll let it run on again. It put me out, though. I’d rather go off into the workhouse, or die of starvation, than I’d let it be said in the place my wife didn’t pay as she went on.”

I saw through the difficulty, and should have liked to give Reed a hint touching Jellico.

Now it was rather strange that, all in two days, Jellico and the mischief he was working should be thus brought before me in three or four ways, considering that I had never in my life before heard of the man. But it chanced to be so. I don’t want to say anything about the man personally, good or bad; the mischief lay in the system. That Jellico sold his goods at a nice rate for dearness, and used persuasion with the women to buy them, was as plain as the sun at noonday; but in these respects he was no worse than are many other people in trade. He went to the houses in turn, and the women met him; it might be several weeks before the meeting was held at Mrs. Reed’s again. Ann Dovey could not enjoy the hospitality of receiving him at hers, as her husband’s work lay at home. But she was a constant visitor to the other places.

And the time went on; and Mr. Jellico’s trade flourished. But we heard nothing more about it at Dyke Manor, and I naturally forgot it.

2.

“Just six shillings on it, Mr. Figg! That’s all I want today, but I can’t do without that.”

That so well-conducted and tidy a woman as George Reed’s wife should be in what the Cut called familiarly the “pawnshop,” would have surprised every one not in the secret. But she it was. Mr. Figg, a little man with weak eyes and a few scattered locks of light hair, turned over the offered loan with his finger and thumb. A grey gown of some kind of woollen stuff.

“How many times have this here gownd been brought here, Mrs. Reed?” asked he.

“I haven’t counted ’em,” she sighed. “Why? What’s that got to do with it?”

“‘Cause it’s a proof as it must be getting the worse for wear,” was the answer, given disparagingly.

“It’s just as good as it was the day I had it out o’ Jellico’s pack,” said Mrs. Reed, sadly subdued, as of late she had always seemed.

Mr. Figg held up the gown to the light, seeking for the parts in it most likely to be worn. “Look here,” said he. “What d’ye call that?”

There was a little fraying certainly in places. Mrs. Reed had eyes and could see it. She did not answer.

“It don’t stand to reason as a gownd will wear for ever and show no marks. You puts this here gownd in of a Wednesday morning, or so, and gets it out of a Saturday night to wear Sundays. Wear and tear is wear and tear.”

Mrs. Reed could not deny the accusation. All the available articles her home contained; that is, the few her husband was not likely to observe the absence of; together with as much of her own wardrobe as she could by any shift do without, were already on a visit to Mr. Figg; which visit, according to the present look-out, promised to be permanent. This gown was obliged to be taken out periodically. Had she not appeared decent on Sundays, her husband would have demanded the reason why.

“You’ve gave me six shillings on it before,” she argued.

“Can’t again. Don’t mind lending five; next week it’ll be but four. It wasn’t never worth more nor ten new,” added Mr. Figg loudly, to drown remonstrances.

“Why, I gave Jellico double that for it! Where’s the use of you running things down?”

As Jellico was in one sense a friend of Mr. Figg’s—for he was certainly the cause of three parts of his pledges being brought to him—the pawnbroker let the question pass. Mrs. Reed went home with her five shillings, her eyes taking quite a wild look of distress and glancing cornerwise on all sides, as if she feared an ambush.

It had not been a favourable year; weather had been bad, strikes were prevalent, money was dear, labour scarce. Men were ready to snatch the work out of each other’s hands; some were quite unemployed, others less than they used to be. Of course the homes in Piefinch Cut, and similar small homes not in the Cut, went on short-commons. And if the women had been scarcely able to get on before and stave off exposure, any one may see that that was a feat impracticable now. One of them, Hester Reed, thought the doubt and difficulty and remorse and dread would kill her.

Dread of her husband’s discovering the truth, and dread of his being called upon to answer for the debt. Unable to keep up her weekly interest and payments to Mr. Jellico for some time now, the main debt had only accumulated. She owed him two pounds nineteen shillings. And two pounds nineteen shillings to a labourer’s wife seems as a wide gulf that can never be bridged over while life shall last. Besides this, she had been obliged to go into debt at the general shop; that had added itself up now to eight-and-twenty shillings, and the shop was threatening procedure. There were other little odds and ends of liabilities less urgent, a few shillings in all. To those not acquainted with the simple living of a rural district, this may not sound so very overwhelming: those who are, know what it means, and how awful was the strait to which Mrs. Reed (with other wives) had reduced herself.

She had grown so thin as hardly to be able to keep her clothes upon her. Sleeping and waking, a dead wall crowded with figures, as a huge sum, seemed to be before her eyes. Lately she had taken to dreaming of hanging feet downwards over a precipice, held up only by the grasp of her hands on the edge. Nearly always she awoke with the horror: and it would seem to her that it was worse to wake up to life and its cares, than to fall down to death and be at rest from them. Her husband, perceiving that she appeared very ill, told her she had better speak to Dr. Duffham.

Carrying home the five shillings in her hand, Mrs. Reed sat down in her kitchen and wiped her face, damp with pallor. She had begun to ask—not so much what the ending would be, but how soon it would come. With the five shillings in her hand she must find food and necessaries until Saturday night; there was no more credit to be had. And this was only Wednesday morning. With credit stopped and supplies stopped, her husband would naturally make inquiries, and all must come out. Hester Reed wondered whether she should die of the shame—if she had to stay and face it. Three of the shillings must be paid that afternoon to Ingram the milkman; he would not be quiet any longer: and the woman cast her aching eyes round her room, and saw nothing that it was possible to take away and raise money on.

She had the potatoes on the fire when the children ran in, little toddling things, from school. Some rashers of bacon lay on the table ready to be toasted. Reed, earning pretty good wages, had been accustomed to live well: with careful management he knew they might do so still. Little did he suspect the state things had got into.

“Tatty dere, mov’er,” began the eldest, who was extremely backward in speaking.

“Tatty dere” meant “Cathy’s there;” and the mother looked up from the bacon. Cathy Parrifer (though nobody called her by her new name, but Cathy Reed still) stood at the outer gate, in tatters as usual, talking to some man who had a paper in his hand. Mrs. Reed’s heart leaped into her mouth: she lived in dread of everything. A stranger approaching the place turned her sick. And now the terror, whose shadow had been so long looming, was come in reality. Catherine came bounding up the garden to tell the tale: the man, standing at the gate, was waiting to see her father come home to dinner to serve him with a summons for the county court. Mrs. Reed knew at once what it was for: the eight-and-twenty shillings owing at the general shop. Her face grew white as she sank into a chair.

“Couldn’t you get him to leave the paper with me, Cathy?” she whispered, insane ideas of getting up the money somehow floating into her brain.

“He won’t,” answered Cathy. “He means to give that to father personally, he says, if he stays till night.”

Just as many another has felt, in some apparently insurmountable obstacle, that seemed to be turning their hair grey in the little space of time that you can peel an apple, felt Mrs. Reed. Light seemed to be closing, shame and misery and blackness to be opening. Her hands seemed powerless to put the bacon into the Dutch oven.

But there ensued a respite. A very short one, but still a respite. While the summons-server was loitering outside, Reed came in through the back-garden, having got over the stile in Piefinch Lane. It was not often he chose that way; accident caused him to do it today. Mrs. Reed, really not knowing what she did or said, told Cathy there’d be a morsel of dinner for her if she liked to stop and eat it. As Cathy was not in the luck of such offers every day, she remained: and in her good-nature talked and laughed to divert any suspicion.

But the man at the gate began to smell a rat; perhaps the bacon as well. Dinner-hour almost over, and no George Reed had come home! He suddenly thought of the back-entrance, and walked up the front-path to see. Paper in hand, he gave a thump at the house-door. Reed was about to leave then: and he went down the path by the man’s side, opening the paper. Mrs. Reed, more like a ghost than a woman, took a glance through the window.

“I can’t face it, Catherine. When I’m gone, you’d better come home here and do what you can for the children. Tell him all; it’s of no good trying to hide it any longer.”

She took her worn old shawl from a press and put her bonnet on; and then stooped to kiss her children, saying good-bye with a burst of grief.

“But where are you going?” cried the wondering Cathy.

“Anywhere. If I am tempted to do anything desperate, Cathy, tell father not to think too bad of me, as he might if I was living.”

She escaped by the back-door. Catherine let her go, uncertain what to be at for the best. Her father was striding back to the house up the garden-path, and the storm was coming. As a preliminary van-guard, Cathy snatched up the youngest girl and held her on her lap. The summons-server was calling after Reed, apparently giving some instructions, and that took up another minute or two; but he came in at last.

Cathy told as much of the truth as she dared; her father was too angry for her to venture on all. In his passion he said his wife might go and be hanged. Cathy answered that she had as good as said it was something of that she meant to go and do.

But talking and acting are two things; and when it came to be put to the test, Hester Reed found herself no more capable of entering upon any desperate course than the rest of us are. And, just as I had been brought in accidentally to see the beginning, so was I accidentally brought in at the ending.

We were at home again for the holidays, and I had been over for an afternoon to the Stirlings’. Events in this world happen very strangely. Upon setting out to walk back in the cool of the late summer’s evening, I took the way by Dyke Brook instead of either of the two ordinary roads. Why I chose it I did not know then; I do not now; I never shall know. When fairly launched into the fields, I asked myself why on earth I had come that way, for it was the loneliest to be found in the two counties.

Turning sharp round the dark clump of trees by Dyke Brook (which just there is wide enough for a pond and as deep as one), I came upon somebody in a shabby grey straw bonnet, standing on its brink and looking down into the water.

“Halloa, Mrs. Reed! Is that you?”

Before I forget the woe-stricken face she turned upon me, the start she gave, I must lose memory. Down she sat on the stump of a tree, and burst into sobs.

“What is it?” I asked, standing before her.

“Master Johnny, I’ve been for hours round it, round and round, wanting the courage to throw myself in; and I haven’t done it.”

“Just tell me all about the trouble,” I said, from the opposite stump, upon which I took my seat.

And she did tell me. Alone there for so many hours, battling with herself and Death (it’s not wrong to say so), my coming seemed to unlock all the gates of reticence, and she disclosed to me what I’ve written above.

“God knows I never thought to bring it to such a pass as this,” she sobbed. “I went into it without any sense of doing harm. One day, when I happened to be at Miles Dickon’s, Jellico came in with his pack, and I was tempted to buy some ribbon. I said he might come and show me his things the next week, and he did, and I bought a gownd and a shawl. I know now how wrong and blind I was: but it seemed so easy, just to pay a shilling or two a-week; like having the things for nothing. And from that time it went on; a’most every Tuesday I took some trifle of him, maybe a bit o’ print for the little ones, or holland for pinafores; and I gave Cathy a cotton gownd, for she hadn’t one to her back. I didn’t buy as some of ’em did, for the sake of show and bedeckings, but useful things, Master Johnny,” she added, sobbing bitterly. “And this has come of it! and I wish I was at rest in that there blessed water.”

“Now, Mrs. Reed! Do you suppose you would be at rest?”

“Heaven have mercy on me! It’s the thought o’ the sin, and of what might come after, that makes me hold back from it.”

Looking at her, shading her eyes with her hand, her elbow on her lap, and her face one of the saddest for despair I ever saw, I thought of the strange contrasts there are in the world. For the want of about five pounds this woman was seeking to end her life; some have done as much for five-and-twenty thousand.

“I’ve not a friend in the whole world that could help me,” she said. “But it’s not that, Master Johnny; it’s the shame on me for having brought things to such a pass. If the Lord would but be pleased to take me, and save me from the sin of lifting a hand against my own life!”

“Look here, Mrs. Reed. As to what you call the shame, I suppose we all have to go in for some sort or another of that kind of thing as we jog along. As you are not taken, and don’t seem likely to be taken, I should look on that as an intimation that you must live and make the best of things.”

“Live! how, sir? I can’t never show myself at home. Reed, he’ll have to go to jail; the law will put him there. I’d not face the world, sir, knowing it was all for my thoughtless debts.”

Could I help her? Ought I to help her? If I went to old Brandon and begged to have five pounds, why, old Brandon in the end would give it me, after he had gone on rather hotly for an hour. If I did not help her, and any harm came to her, what should I——

“You promise me never to think about pools again, Mrs. Reed, except in the way of eels, and I’ll promise to see you through this.”

She looked up, more helpless than before. “There ain’t nothing to be done for me, Master Johnny. There’s the shame, and the talkin’ o’ the neighbours——”

“Yes, you need mind that. Why, the neighbours are all in the same boat!”

“And there’s Reed, sir; he’d never forgive me. He’d——”

Of all cries, she interrupted herself with about the worst: something she saw behind me had frightened her. In another moment she had darted to the pond, and Reed was holding her back from it.

“Be thee a born fool?” roared Reed. “Dost think thee’st not done enough harm as it is, but thee must want to cap it by putting theeself in there? That would mend it, that would!”

She released herself from him, and slipped on the grass, Reed standing between her and the pond. But he seemed to think better of it, and stepped aside.

“Jump in, an’ thee likes to,” said he, continuing to speak in the familiar home manner. “I once see a woman ducked in the Severn for pocket-picking, at Worcester races, and she came out all the cooler and better for’t.”

“I never thought to bring trouble on you or anybody, George,” she sobbed. “It seems to have come on and on, like a great monster growing bigger and bigger as you look at him, till I couldn’t get away from it.”

“Couldn’t or wouldn’t, which d’ye mean?” retorted Reed. “Why you women were ever created to bother us, hangs me. I hope you’ll find you can keep the children when I and a dozen more of us are in jail. ‘Twon’t be my first visit there.”

“Look here, Reed; I’ve promised to set it right for her. Don’t worry over it.”

“I’ll not accept help from anybody; not even from you, Master Johnny. What she has done she must abide by.”

“The bargain’s made, Reed; you can’t break it if you would. Perhaps a great trouble may come to me some time in my life that I may be glad to be helped out of. Mrs. Reed will get the money tomorrow, only she need not tell the parish where she found it.”

“Oh, George, let it be so!” she implored through her tears. “If Master Johnny’s good enough to do this, let him. I might save up by little and little to repay him in time. If you went to jail through me!—I’d rather die!”

“Will you let it be a lesson to you—and keep out of Jellico’s clutches in future?” he asked, sternly.

“It’s a lesson that’ll last me to the end of my days,” she said, with a shiver. “Please God, you let Master Johnny get me out o’ this trouble, I’ll not fall into another like it.”

“Then come along home to the children,” said he, his voice softening a little. “And leave that pond and your folly behind you.”

I was, of course, obliged to tell the whole to Mr. Brandon and the Squire, and they both pitched into me as fiercely as tongues could pitch. But neither of them was really angry; I saw that. As to the five pounds, I only wish as much relief could be oftener given with as little money.

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