The Mangle House (IV)
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CHAPTER XVII.

"DID I LOVE HONOUR LESS"


WHEN the black head and scowling, impish face of the schoolmaster's foster-daughter were withdrawn through the hedge, and Jesse was left to himself, he stood there with his chin on his chest, in dull, wondering perplexity.  For days he had been struggling with all sorts of strange and contradictory moods, and the message so oddly delivered to him did not improve matters.  That Milly was guilty of the things imputed to her he did not for a moment believe, but that there was something in her conduct much more than mere whimsicality seemed as clear as anything could be.  The injustice done her—for such he was convinced it was—roused a resentment deeper than any mere sympathy or sense of common fairness could have awakened, but that she had been just either to herself or him he could not admit.  It was hard to seem to desert her in her hour of need, but she had so peremptorily dismissed him on the night of the Stang riding, and was, according to report, so distant and "brazzened" about it, that he could not tell how he could possibly render her any assistance.  He had told himself again and again during the last few days that he would stand by her at whatever cost, and sink or swim with her fortunes; but the next moment he had found himself remembering that, if he braved his family and defied public opinion, he had no sort of assurance that it would make any difference as far as Milly was concerned, or that he would be any nearer winning her.  If she would give him the slightest gleam of hope he could laugh at other things, but she was so incomprehensible and so inconsistent even with herself that he had not a single substantial encouragement to cling to.  He loved peace and quietness, and was almost proud to be regarded as under petticoat government; but that, whilst he felt it would not have influenced him for a moment if he had had any hope of Milly, greatly confused the issue, and created uneasy, paralysing indecision.

    But this was anything but a heroic position to occupy, and the realisation of the fact annoyed and humbled him.  He was angry and ashamed of himself for his hesitation, but the difficulties presenting themselves whichever way he turned were considerable, and he certainly was not prepared to be fooled by Milly and ridiculed by the neighbours without any compensating advantage.  Sometimes he realised where his easy, unresisting manner was leading him with regard to Emma Cunliffe, and that deepened his feeling of cowardice; but, on the other hand, his engagement to her would be such a great delight to his mother and sisters, and—he could not help seeing—to Emma herself, that it appealed strongly to his easy, kindly disposition.  He had a strong man's indolent, non-resisting temper where women were concerned, was intensely though quietly devoted to his mother, loved above all things to please her, and hated domestic squabbling; and, had there been no Milly in the way, he might have allowed himself, as many another strong man has amazed his friends by doing, to be married by them, as the easiest and most comfortable policy for the moment.  But Milly's summons awakened feelings he had been trying with faint success to suppress, and hesitation and reasoning ceased with him.  He did not ask himself what she wanted—she did want, and that was more than sufficient; and he was absent and almost rude to his womenfolk, Emma included, without showing the slightest consciousness of it, or being in the least penitent when it was pointed out to him by Maria.  Emma seemed pensive and suddenly shy, Maria was tactful and managing, but he treated them all with heedless indifference, announced he was not going to chapel without a pang, and went back into the garden to pace about and chafe at the leaden-footed moments until the arrival of the time suggested by Tet.

    The service at the chapel had barely commenced when he raised his head over the top of the wall at the bottom of the Mangle House garden, and bobbed down again with a suppressed little cry.  Milly was yonder, seated at the back door, and dressed in a light grey dress he had never seen her wear before.  It was the dress she had obtained for use in her little ventures of public singing.  She had not observed his action, but sat looking thoughtfully down at her hands as they lay in her lap.

    He called himself a coward and a "ninnyhommer," but he could not help himself, and so he raised his head cautiously to the level of the coping of the wall and took another and longer look.  She had turned her head to listen for any sign that her patient needed her, and so he had a good view of her face.  He heaved a great, long, wondering sigh, like that of a miser at a heap of gold not his own.

    He had not seen her for days, but that was not sufficient to account for his surprise.  What was it?  This was another Milly—fairer, purer somehow, with a new indefinable dignity about her!—thinner, paler; but what had come to her eyes?  They were larger, deeper, and, yes, less restless and changeable.  All Jesse's soul went out to her; this was the spiritual transfiguration of suffering he had heard the preachers hint at now and then.  Oh, if it should be that they had all misjudged her, that behind that vivacious, saucy face, and arch, mocking manner there was a really sensitive and refined spirit, what a martyrdom her life must be, and what a brutal cruelty the stang riding was!  That cowardly David Brooks should pay for this if ――

    But Milly's father gave no sign of needing anything, and so, as she moved her head round towards him, Jesse had to duck, only instead of doing so he inadvertently raised himself, and she saw and beckoned to him.

    She did not move as he approached, or even raise her head, but when he got near he observed—he could scarcely believe his own happiness—an empty chair waiting for him at her side.  She smiled faintly, and motioned to him to be seated.  For lack of something to say, he remarked about the weather as he dropped down beside her; but she did not reply.  He stole a quick glance at her, and a sudden fear, a sense as of impending calamity, fell upon him.  His second look was a hungry, regretful search for some sign of the old Milly in that changed and chastened face.

    "Jesse, tha's bin a good friend ta me."

    He was surprised, and not exactly comforted; but as her meaning sank slowly into his mind, a sense of unutterable meanness and self-loathing came over him, and he looked shyly again for some hint of the old Milly—she of the glinting eyes and mirthful but sarcastic lip.  There was a pause, the leaves of the trees rustled softly, and through the branches came the distant hum of the chapel music.

    "Aw want ta thank thi fur—fur stonnin' up fur me that neet."

    There was something in her tones that terrified him, a ring of parting—of finality, and with a sudden impetuous impulse he cried, with protesting, indignant face, "It's nowt! it's nowt!  Aw wod ston' up for thi if tha'd gi' me th' chonce."

    "Tha wod, lad!"

    Why, great booby that he was, he was actually crying, and he grinned savagely to keep back the silly tears.

    "Dunna, woman! dunna!  Sauce me, caw me, clowt me, and Aw'll thank thi for't."  She was very still, and scarcely seemed to hear him, but when she spoke she drove what little capacity for amazement was left clean away.

    "Dunna mak' anuther mistak', lad.  Be sewer tha luvs Emma afoor tha weds her."

    "Awdunna!  Aw winna!  It's thee Aw want, but tha winna have me."

    She turned to look at him calmly, easily, but with a strange, unmanning wistfulness that froze his heart.

    "Ther's noabry i' Slagdin fit fur thee bud her; hoo's good.  Goody threw and threw is Emma."

    "Huish, woman! huish!  Dust want me to curse her?  It's thee, Aw tell thi.  O Milly! Milly! wot's cum o'er thi, wench?"

    "Mi nowty, wicked hert hates her, bud Aw know, Aw know hoo's good, Jesse."

    For a moment it came over him that this was another of her tricks; she had always been wildest and most skittish when you expected her to be most troubled.  Was she playing a part?  He eyed her with dull suspicion, and as she turned her head and caught his look a smile—cutting, terrible, heart-breaking—curled about her cold white lips.

    "Ay, tha'rt capt, lad!  Aw'm capt at mysel'!"

    "Milly, wot is it?  Wot's up wi' thi?  Tha'rt killin' me, woman; tha'rt breikin my hert!"

    There was a rush of red to her face—a momentary struggle within—and then, rising and stepping before him, she cried, with blazing eyes and swelling neck,  "Emma?  Emma?  Hoo canna loike thi as mitch wi' aw her body an' sowl as Aw loike thi wi' my little finger."

    He sprang at her with a cry, caught her in his arms, strained her to his breast, and rained down on her hot, unresisting face a shower of passionate, tear-mingled kisses.  She did not struggle or resist, she seemed for a moment as eager as he; but when he dropped back into his chair, still holding her, he noticed that her face was changing to ashen grey; the new strange look he had seen in her for the first time that day was returning, and even whilst he was calling her by every tender name he could think of, she had slid from his arms, and was standing there and bending over him, like some anxious, mothering guardian angel.

    "Aw'm glad of it, lad," she said, putting her hands to her rumpled hair, and evidently alluding to what had just passed between them.  "Aw'm glad of it; it 'ull help me as lung as Aw live."

    He sprang up towards her again.  She did not speak, she did not move, but the quiet compelling dignity with which she looked at him overcame him, and he sank back into his seat with new, and this time resentful amazement.

    "An' neaw we mun part, lad."

    He rose in indignant protest, but she quelled him with a look.  "Goo thi ways, lad, an' may God in heaven bless thi!—an' her."

    He dropped his head into his hands and his elbows upon his knees; then, after a few moments of silence, he rose to his feet, and with a stern, solemn face he said, "Milly, God do so to me and more also if ought but death part thee and me."

    She swayed to and fro with a fresh spasm of emotion, but moved back slowly from him, and raised her eyes until they met his once more.

    "Ther's sum things wur nor death, Jesse; ther's disgrace."

    "Wot dew Aw care?  Aw loike it!  Aw glory in it!  Aw'd rayther have it wi' thee nor be baat it."

    She still drew away with almost imperceptible backward movement, lifting a long labouring breath as she did so, but never taking her eyes from him.  "Jesse, Aw'm a silly wench, an' Aw've hed a silly wench's dreeams o' weddin'.   Aw've dreeamed o' bein' a mon's pride an' glory an' queen, o' makin' him happy an' rich an' proud."

    "Tha will, wench!  Aw'st be th' prewdest—"

    "An' sin' Aw cum ta — ta loike thi, Aw dreeams ten times mooar.  O Jesse! mi lad, mi lad!  Aw loike thi too weel ta disgrace thi."

    For half an hour longer they struggled, he pleading, protesting, defying, she humble, patient, but marvellously strong and firm, and when at last they separated, without either kiss or word of parting, he went away to wrestle and brood, and pray as he had never prayed, in the fields, and she to sit at the side of her father's bed, with swimming eyes and bleeding heart—and sing.
                         .                            .                            .                            .

    Jesse's walk in the fields was a very long and troubled one, but he went home in the young moonlight with a cleared mind and a very decided purpose.  In the interview just closed it had been made as manifest to him as anything could well be that Milly had been sincere.

    The utterly surprising frankness with which she had avowed her love to him was so contrary to her usual coy reticence and the native shyness on all matters of deepest interest, so characteristic of all true Lancashire folk, that he might under some circumstances have suspected it, but there was simply no room at all for such an idea.  Neither could he entertain any longer the suggestions about her character which had been so rife in the village for some time.  He had no illusions about her decision; there was apparently no hope for him at all.  Milly was lost to him, and unless something happened which he could not anticipate at all, they must remain apart.  At the same time, he was conscious of a marked change in his manner of thinking of her.  She was farther off, certainly—apparently unattainable—but uplifted, idealised, transfigured, a sweet and holy thing to be thought of with reverence.  That he should ever have regarded her as merely an interesting variety of the ordinary Lancashire village girl seemed now incredible.  That she might never be his appeared to matter very little by the side of the fact that he had become hers.  For better or for worse, through ill report and good, through all life and for evermore, he was hers.  It was no new and sudden passion, no blind idolatry or enthralment, but a sort of reverent worship.

    For the first time he realised that his manhood was awake.  Mother, sisters, village opinion, counted for nothing.  Milly and Milly's interests became the one exclusive business of life.  He would not have been an Englishman if he had not found reasons for self-reproach in his meditations, and before he had been thinking long he had arrived at the disconcerting conclusion that this disappointment and trouble were directly connected with his refusal to preach, and were Providential chastenings for the grievous sin of disobeying the call of God.  This humbled him, and strengthened his desire to make atonement by devoting himself entirely to Milly's interests.  He needed no incitement to this, but, as soon as he arrived at this point, the question arose what to do and how to do it.  And here he was soon in deep water.

    That there was some mystery in Milly's life he could not any longer doubt, but how there could be such a thing he could not for a moment imagine.  She had been born, like himself, in Slagden, had lived all her life amongst its people, they knew every detail of her history, and her peculiarities had led them to discuss her oftener than most people; and yet the suggestions made about her were so obviously wide of the mark, that he could not entertain any one of them for a moment.  Besides, if he understood her at all, she would resent any prying, and the more cause there was for secrecy the more likely she would be to want to keep it to herself.  The position was disheartening, but he held firmly to his purpose of openly espousing her cause and doing everything in his power to help her; and as for the future, well, he would not have been a man had he not entertained some hope at least that happier chances might arise.  He would haunt that Mangle House like a shadow, and do every bit of the unpopular work of turning she would allow.  Chaff?  Well, in his present mood he would like nothing better than to be enduring something, and especially some injustice, for her sake.  That night when he got home, in a manner and with a quiet, unmistakable decision altogether new to him, he made it clear to his women-folk that there must be no more manoeuvring with Emma, and left it to Maria either to settle the matter herself, or stand out of the way, that he might set himself right with the butcher's pretty daughter.

    When he went to bed, however, the various experiences of the day came back to him, and Milly's relations with the oboist gave him a very bad half-hour.  Then he began to go carefully over Milly's history and the various incidents he could recollect in her very commonplace history—their life at the farm, Mrs. Scholes's death, the sudden and unexpected selling up of the stock and implements, and the retirement of father and schoolgirl daughter to the Mangle House.  The stock must have fetched several hundreds of pounds, and unless they were in debt, which was against all he had ever known of them, the money thus realised, together with their income from the mangle and herb shop, should have kept them in more than comfort.  And yet they seemed poor!  Even now that her father was helpless, Milly made no effort to get assistance, and was working harder than ever.  Well, after all, the village verdict that miserliness was at the bottom of it all seemed the only reasonable one, but that it harmonised either with what he knew of Milly or the character and spirit of old Nat he could not for a moment admit.  There could be no secret leakage of their resources; they had no poor relations—no relations at all, in fact, except very distant ones in another part of the county.  Milly was an only child— But here came a pause, a frown, and he suddenly sat up in bed with an exclamation of amazement, a long-forgotten face slowly developed itself before his mind, and he cried, with a little gasp of bewilderment, "Wot on earth's cum of him?"


 
CHAPTER XVIII.

THE SUPER'S DILEMMA


THE Superintendent of the Aldershaw Circuit was in a quandary.  "The Slagden Scandal Case," as he was beginning to call it, seemed likely to give him considerable trouble, for he could not get anybody of any account in the Circuit to take it seriously.  A strict, conscientious man, and something of a martinet, he could not bear irregularities, and the undisguised contempt for law and order which he seemed to see in the ecclesiastical procedure of Slagden had fretted his righteous soul, whilst the easy indulgence with which the most influential people about him listened to and laughed at the odd stories which were circulated in the Circuit about the village stirred his bile.  The Circuit, he was convinced, was not a little responsible for the very unsatisfactory condition of things which he lamented so much; for it made a pet of the place, and could not be induced to take it seriously.  Nobody pretended to understand the financial arrangements of the Slagden Society, and when he hinted that they seemed to him to be suspiciously like the process known as "robbing Peter to pay Paul," they did not seem to be surprised, and certainly not much concerned. "It's only Slagden," or "Poor old Slagden," or "That's Slagden to a T," was all he could get by way of comment; and when he had tried his first fall with the Society, and succeeded, they did not seem anything like as grateful as they ought to have been, and seemed astonished that he should think it necessary to take such trouble.

    The fact was, he was one of those careful, law-loving, but somewhat limited souls, who pride themselves on being diplomatic.  The case now in hand, however, was beset with more than common difficulty, and if only he could have got his officials to see the importance of putting things on a regular basis, he would have gone into the matter with confidence and hope.  But the thing was complicated.  He had not been in the Circuit long before he discovered that old Nat Scholes, Milly's father, held a very high and secure place in public esteem.  He seemed to be better known in the Circuit than he was in his own village, as is often the case with popular lay preachers.  The rank and file of the members, from one end of the Aldershaw valley to the other, spoke of the old man in glowing terms, and the Methodist dignitaries held him in the highest esteem.  Of his daughter, people seemed to know next to nothing, many of them never having heard of her existence, and one or two insisting that it was a son Nat had, and not a daughter.

    The case, therefore, was beset with difficulties, and the fact—first communicated to him at the time he received his information about the Stang riding—that old Scholes had been smitten down with a paralytic seizure did not help matters, for it seemed to indicate that the veteran local preacher was taking his daughter's disgrace very hardly.  Such a scandal would have to be dealt with, of course, but it seemed cruel to have to do it whilst the old gentleman was suffering.  The Super had expected to get something to guide him when he came in his colleague's place to preach, and at the Brookses', where he always went for tea, he certainly heard more than enough to justify his serious conclusions.  But the action of the Slagden officials, as detailed in a previous chapter, disconcerted him altogether, and prepared him for obstruction, if not defiance.  He had his duty to perform, however, and the honour of the Church to protect; some action must be taken at once, but when he asked himself where he ought to commence and how he ought to proceed, the answer was not forthcoming.  Old Scholes was ill, however, and must be attended to, and in discharging that duty he might get some information, or at least an opportunity of personally studying the cause of all this unpleasantness.  Two anonymous letters received by Monday morning's post, and each containing strongly worded animadversions upon Milly and pointed hints that official favouritism was suspected and would be exposed, constrained him to immediate action, and about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, on the day after Milly's interview with Jesse in the garden, he presented himself at the Mangle House door.

    He had resolved, as he walked up from the Pye Green station, to be perfectly impartial, as became his position; but a girl who had smirched her father's honoured name, given him a shock that disabled him for life, and brought scandal on the Church, was not the sort of creature to receive any weak-kneed encouragement from him.

    "Could I see Mr. Scholes?" he asked, as Milly opened the door.  He would ordinarily have added "Miss," but he could not be too civil until he knew more.  Besides, this self-possessed young person had no trace of discomposure or shame about her; she seemed pleased rather than otherwise to see him.

    "Will you come in, sir?"  Milly was advanced enough to use ordinary English with such important persons as superintendent ministers.  "You've had a long walk, sir.  Will you take a pot of dandelion beer?"

    She was drawing the liquor as she spoke—perhaps she was of the wily sort.  Yes, he had heard, now he thought of it, what a wonderful tongue she had; but he was not to be caught that way.

    "No, thank you.  I want to see your father."

    With true Lancashire hospitality, she ignored his refusal, and placed the foaming pot, flanked by a small plate of oatcake, at his elbow.  It was very warm weather, and the froth-topped pot looked exceedingly tempting to a man who had climbed a two-mile hill; but he could not compromise himself, so he turned his head away and asked curtly, "Is your father well enough to be seen?"

    Milly hesitated, and seemed to be debating the point.  "I think so, sir, as you have kindly come so far.  But may I ask a favour?"

    The minister looked at her sharply and drew himself up a little  "What is it?"

    "He is not in a fit state to discuss a—a painful matters."

    "I'm sorry he has these painful matters, but he needs my sympathy all the more, and—"

    "I had rather you wouldn't, sir, if you please."

    "I had rather there had been no cause, my girl.  Where shall I find him?" and he rose to his feet with a stern face.  She moved into his way, but without speaking, whilst a dull blush began to mount to her cheeks.

    "I suppose you mean the—the Stang riding, sir?"

    "I do; I'm sorry for your father, sorry in my heart."

    He did not see that she was choking, and that her finger-nails were being driven deep into the palms of her hands.  "You cannot see him, sir, unless you promise not to mention—that."

    He looked at her hard enough now; she was certainly no ordinary girl, and he could easily believe some of the singular things he had heard about her.  Her manner was respectfulness itself, but there was not the slightest doubt that she meant what she said.  He was trying to look her down, but he might as well have stared at a statue.

    "Very well; let me see him."

    Being Monday morning, the mangle had not yet commenced its weekly labours, but Milly, having ushered him into the sickroom, left him.

    The furniture was somewhat scanty, and looked as though it had belonged to a much bigger house.  Everything was spotlessly clean, and the invalid looked so neat and well-cared-for that he had difficulty in convincing himself that his visit had not been expected.  Good or bad, the girl was a most assiduous nurse.  But then, after what she had done, she had need.  The Super was an exceptionally good sick visitor, and Nat looked so comfortable, cheerful, and even saintly, that he stayed longer than he intended, and returned to Milly in a very perplexed and undecided condition.

    Nat had only alluded to his daughter once during the interview, but there was such perfect trust, such proud, grateful love in the reference, that the minister concluded that he did not know about the disgrace that had come.  And yet, was not this the very cause of his breakdown?  Really, it was very perplexing.  Milly was ready with another offer of refreshment when he returned to her, and this time it was a dainty little glass of some home-made wine.  He hesitated for a moment; perhaps if he sat down and drank it, and chatted a little, she would talk, as all women did, and he would get some inkling to all this mystery.  He took the proffered glass, therefore, with a short "Thank you," and subsided into a seat.

    "What do you think of father, sir?"

    "Very ill, very ill!  It must have been a great blow."

    Milly closed her eyes for a moment, and then asked, "But he will get better?"

    "I hope so, I hope so; but in these cases the physical trouble is often the least serious of the complications."

    She sighed.  Would it be wise to speak a word to her for her good?  Whilst he was debating the question, she asked, "Might I ask another favour from you, sir? "

    He was on his guard again in an instant.  "What is it?"

    She stood away from the table against which she had been leaning, and revealed a pile of substantially bound books.  "These are preachers' books.  Could you tell me where I could sell them?"

    He stepped towards the table and glanced at them—a good set of "Matthew Henry" complete.  "These are your father's books?"

    "Yes, sir, but he'll never need them again."

    There was that husky, choking sound in her voice again, and this time he noticed it, but mistook the cause.

    "Does he know you are selling them?"

    "No, sir."

    He had begun to thaw at these mute signs of poverty, but his suspicions all came rushing back.  "But if your father is the man I take him for, these volumes will be precious to him."

    "They are, sir."  Her head had dropped.  Ah! she was afraid to look him in the face.

    "And will you take advantage of his helplessness to sell the things he loves?"

    Her head was still hanging down.  He was glad he had stayed now; he was getting at her.  There was a struggle going on within her; his words had gone home.  Suddenly she raised herself, stood there before him, not a convicted sinner, but an angry, outraged queen.  Her bosom heaved, her lips went white, and her eyes were red and gemmed with starry tears.

    "Sir, you are my minister, a man of God.  I must tell you now what I have never told to mortal man.  I sell his books to save his life, to get him a crust of bread."

    The Super stared stupidly.  This was not acting; this was no loose, giddy, frivolous girl!  If there was wickedness here, it was of no common sort.  Was he standing, as ministers so often have to do, on the edge of a terrible domestic tragedy?

    "I'm very sorry," he murmured in a softer tone.  "Perhaps I can sell the books."

    "Never mind, sir.  I can manage some other way;" and she threw an old cloth over the volumes.

    "Yes, yes; I will.  You need the money, and your father must not be pinched."

    "The Lord will provide, sir.  He knows."

    The minister hesitated, feeling uncomfortable and somewhat ashamed.  Perhaps there was some mistake.  At any rate he could not leave matters where they were now, and so, after a long awkward pause, he said, "I'm sorry for this disg—er—a—trouble of yours—very sorry.  Er—w—would you like to say anything to me about it?"

    "N—o, no, sir."

    "But I might be able to help you.  I must do something in the matter, you know.  I cannot leave it where it is."

    No answer; she seemed to be thinking of something else.  Presently, however, she replied, "Only do it quickly, sir—before my father gets about again."

    "But, my dear young woman, it is more serious than you imagine; think of your soul!"

    "Spare him, sir, and do what you like with me."

    He was a little annoyed, partly with himself and partly with her.  "But you do not see how serious it is.  I would help you for your father's sake—if you would allow me."

    She was looking at him sideways and very studiously; he felt an uncomfortable sense that the tables were being turned and that she was reckoning him up.

    There was a little twitch in one corner of that expressive-looking mouth.  Surely the jade was not mocking him?

    "There is one thing you can do for me, sir."

    "What is that?"

    "You can forget what I told you about our poverty—and let us alone."

    His anger was rising, but he was a good man and tender withal, and so, by no means sure of his ground, he said, "No, no! you must let me assist you; I'll buy the books myself.  Your secret is safe with me, but I wish you would confide in me about the other matter."  He regretted that last sentence as soon as it was out.  It might be interpreted as a condonation of her offence.  As he spoke, however, he stepped towards the table and took up a volume.  "I will take this with me and send for the rest; leave the price to me."

    But there was a change in Milly.  She was clasping her hands together, and her eyes were dilating wildly as she watched him taking the book.  She had the manner of a cat watching the abstraction of its last kitten.

    He tucked the bulky tome under his arm and took up his hat and stick.  Milly's eyes followed him with that fearful, suspicious look with which a patient follows a dentist when he is collecting his instruments.

    He was discussing with himself whether he ought to shake hands with her, and she was staring at the book he carried with hungry, frightened eyes.  He made a stiff bow.  "Good morning, Miss Scholes.  I will send the money."

    But she had sprung at his arm, snatched the book from his grasp, and was hugging it passionately to her breast.  "Aw winna!  Aw winna!  They're aw gone bud these.  O God, forgive me!  It 'ud breik his heart."

    Standing there in sore amazement, the minister felt his eyes going wet.  This woman confounded him.  Good or bad, she was certainly very extraordinary.  Had they who had given him the information upon which he was acting committed a blunder?  Her last action, if he understood it, was exactly to his mind; a girl who felt thus towards her father was not quite lost.

    "Yes, yes, miss; keep the books;" and he began to fumble in his pocket for his purse.  She was watching him, the volume still hugged tight to her heart, and as he held out a sovereign in his hands their eyes met.

    "God bless you, sir.  We may have to come even to that, but not yet, sir;" and then, in a fit of confused stammering, she added, "You've been good to come here, and I'll ask you when I must."

    He went away very sad, and more perplexed than he had been about anything for a very long time.  A woman would do strange, mad things for love of a man, and this might be some unusually peculiar love affair; but if there was anything seriously wrong with Milly Scholes, all his experience and knowledge of human nature went for nothing.

    Then he began to take in the wider aspects of the case.  This perhaps accounted for the strange conduct of the officials when he summoned them last week.  They would know all the facts of the case, and had lived in the village all their days.  Perhaps he ought to have consulted them beforehand, perhaps he had better see some of them now.  Seth's milk-farm was nearest, but he was not very well pleased with the Pollits, and he certainly did not want another interview with Mrs. Seth.  Ah, there was the blacksmith's hammer!  He would call upon Brother Jump.  But then a sense of restraint fell upon him; he could not betray Milly, and he was conscious that this odd girl had obtained some sort of influence over him.  He must be careful.  But Peter, voluble enough as a rule, proved taciturn and most mysteriously suspicious.  He would not follow his visitor's lead at all, but insisted upon discussing a chronic Slagden grievance about the paucity of ministerial appointments; and when the minister, craftily taking him unawares, plumped out the direct question as to whether there was any truth in the charges laid against Milly, he answered gruffly, "Ther' met be—an' ther' met not," and at once enveloped himself in noise and anvil sparks.

    The cleric watched the formation of the horseshoe with most flattering interest, and then went on to admit that there might be something in what he said about the Slagden proportion of appointments.

    Suddenly, however, he asked, "Do you think, Brother Jump, that the Scholeses are poor?"

    Away went Peter's hammer and tongs; he evidently took the question as a reflection upon Slagden, and was mightily indignant.

    "Naa lewk here, Mestur Super.  Arr yo' a sensuble felley, or arr yo' not?"

    The Super, half amused, half astonished, hoped that he was.

    "Well, then, does tew an' tew mak' fower?"

    "I believe they do; but—"

    "Howd on! lest have noa shufflin' wark abaat this 'ere;" and he limped up to his visitor, and, beating out his question on the palm of his hand, he demanded, "Can yo' tell me has mitch yarbs cosses?"

    "Herbs?  Why, nothing, I suppose, except for gathering; but—"

    "Well, then, wun wik with t'other they sell'n a paand a wik wo'th—wi' pumaytum.  Is that poor?"

    "No, no; but—"

    "Han yo' iver bin i'th manglin' trade?"

    "I?  Oh dear no!  I—"

    "Well, then, yo' known nowt abaat it, dun yo'?"

    "I fear not."

    "Well, Aw dew.  My Aunt Nancy Ellen made sixteen shillen a wik wi' that varry mangle, an' Milly mak's mooar."

    The Super's face dropped; the matter got more perplexing at every step.  But Peter, now at full trot, plunged along afresh.

    "Naa, yo' Supers is rare hands at figgurin'?"

    "So, so."

    "So, so!  Why, arna yo' caantin' c'lections aw day o'er—partly wot?"

    "Well?"

    "Well, haa witch is three hundred an' seventeen paand three shillen, at foive per cent. per hannum?"

    "Nearly sixteen pounds; but what has that to do with the question?"

    "Ta dew?  That's wot ther stock fotched when they left t' farm, an' it's makkin' interest yet.  Aw seed owd Nat goo i'th bank th' varry day as he put it in, an' Aw've seen Milly cumin' aat mooar nor wunce."

    The Super was walking in deeps that had no bottom.  He stared at Peter, stared at the cow's-horn handle of the bellows, and lifted a long wondering sigh.  Peter's evidence seemed conclusive enough, but it was impossible to think that Milly had been deceiving him.

    The blacksmith was watching the effect of his arguments with growing satisfaction, and presently, leaning hard upon his stronger leg, he shook his head with a broad, appreciative grin, and cried, "Hay, he's an owd brid, Nat is!"

    "You must be mistaken, Brother Jump.  Look how poorly she dresses and how hard she has to work.  They appear to me to be very poor."

    Peter eyed the minister with the complacency of superior knowledge.  "Ay, yo' thinkin' sa, that's they fawseniss.  See yo', mestur,"—and he limped nearer, emphasised each word with a pat on the shoulder, and went on,—"Owd Nat 'll dee wo'th thaasands!  Hay, he's a stockin' as long as mi arm sumwhere."

    And the minister strolled back to Pye Green station more bewildered than ever.


 
CHAPTER XIX.

A VISIT TO WISKIT HILL


THE milkman was meditating, to be exact, meditating, bassooning, and, to judge by the doleful and discordant mixture of sounds that came from his darling instrument, his dubitations were of a most melancholy character.  He did not for one moment believe in the dishonour of Milly Scholes; it is probable that he would have stood up for her in face of the strongest evidence that could have been produced.  At the same time, he did not attempt to conceal from himself that there was some awkward mystery about the Mangle House and its occupants, and this in spite of the fact that they had spent their lives in the village and lived openly amongst the natives.  Of himself, he would have left the matter for time to unravel, but, unfortunately, others were not of his mind.  He had heard that very day that the Super had visited the Mangle House during the forenoon, and the minister had not left Slagden half an hour when Seth heard all the details of the wonderful way in which Peter the blacksmith had "fair flummaxed" the cleric.  During the dinner-hour his wife had informed him that Maria Bentley had packed up her class-book to send to the minister, as an expression of her own and her members' sentiments on the local scandal, and Billy Whiffle, under pressure from the Brookses' faction, had taken a similar resolution with regard to his position as Society steward.  Saul, for all his pragmatic obstinacy, would, he was sure, follow his lead and do what was possible for Milly.  But they would be almost alone in the village, and to take a stand in opposition to the others would mean almost certain disruption amongst them.  He found himself arguing more than once that Milly evidently cared very little what people thought, and that, therefore, it was ill-advised to split the Society for such a matter; but, to his own surprise, he found himself, these prudential considerations notwithstanding, stiffening into defiance of the popular clamour and to an uncompromising support of the ill-used girl.

    "Naa, then, art ready?  Wot wi' th' poipe, an' wot wi' that squawkin' machine, tha'll blow thi brains aat sum day."

    The speaker was Saul Swindells, who wore his everyday trousers, his second-best coat, and his best Sunday top-hat, and carried a heavy-knobbed stick in his hand, evidently prepared for a journey.

    "Sum folk hasna brains to blow aat.  Wheer't goin'?"

    "Wheer thaa goin', tha meeans?"

    "Well, wheer am Aw goin', then?"

    "Tha'rt goin' ta Wiskit Hill, fur sewer."

    Seth stared at his visitor with dull astonishment for a full half-minute, and then, as what Saul didn't say sank into his mind along with what he did say, he dropped his eyes and gazed thoughtfully at his bassoon.  The very idea now suggested had occurred to himself more than once of late, and the fact that Saul had been moved in the same direction was a sort of Providential leading for him.  To have agreed at once, however, would have been to violate all precedents, and so he continued his study of the bassoon, and presently replied, "Tha gets sum o'th fantastikist noations as iver coom intew a mortal's yed, thaa does: art goin' aw th' way ta Wiskit Hill ta ger a good puncin'?"

    All the same, he began to put up his instrument.

    "Aw'm goin' ta Wiskit Hill, an' tha'rt goin' ta tak' th' puncin', if ther' is ony."

    "Ay, it doesna tak' mitch gumption ta bring trubble upa uther folk.  Tha'rt th' copp'st hand Aw know at that sooart a wark."

    But as he replied he put down the lid of the bin in which his precious instrument had been carefully stowed away, and commenced to button his coat.  Without another word, Saul led the way into the road, and in a few moments they were marching through the breast-high wheat, the schoolmaster leading the way with hat tilted far behind his head and knob-stick under his arm, and Seth, hands in pockets and head sunk between elevated shoulders, following after.  For a little while they trudged along in moody silence, except that Seth grunted and groaned as though every step gave him pain.  There were harvesters in a field near, and sharp reports every now and again told of grouse-shooters on the moor they were approaching.  Apparently the cronies neither saw the one nor heard the other.

    "This is a gradely foo's harrand, this is," grumbled Seth, as he mounted the moor stile.

    "That's why Aw browt thee," was the snarling retort.

    "Aw'll bet a boadle he'll no' be awhoam," was the next complaint; and to this the pedagogue scorned to reply.

    "Wee'st lewk bonny beagles gooin' seven mile fur nowt."

    "It's no' seven; it's six."

    "It's seven, if it's a yard!"

    "It's six!"

    "Seven!"

    "Six!"

    "It tak's a schoo' mestur fur gradely thick-yeddedniss."

    "The'r' nowt wheer milkmen cums."

    A few minutes of grumpy jog-trotting across the heather, and then Seth pulled up.

    "Wot art gooin' t' dew if he's nor awhoam?"

    "Aw'm gooin' t' 'plough wi' his heifer,' loike th' Philistines."

    Seth stared at his companion in pitying amazement.

    "An' tha'rt gooin' seven moile ta ax a woman if her husban's gradely?"

    Saul was momentarily staggered, and so, in his confusion, he fell back upon the old dispute.  "It's no' seven, Aw tell thi; it's six."

    "Dust need t' walk seven moile of a swelterin' neet ta get thi yure poo'd?  That's schoomestur sense daan to th' graand."

    "Aw'm gooin' t' get to th' bottom o' this lumber, chuse wot tha says.  Art cumin' on, or tha artna?"

    For answer, Seth surveyed his friend from head to foot with calculating deliberateness, and then turned disgustedly round and stalked off homewards.  Saul watched him with lofty scorn, and when he had travelled about thirty yards he called out, "Duffin' ageean! tha couldna face an owd sheep if it hed a petticoat on."

    Seth stalked grimly on.

    "Run, mon!  Heigh thi!  Th' boggarts is efther thi!"

    Holding sternly on his course, Seth had now got a hundred yards off.  Saul, forgetting his scorn in genuine alarm, put his hand to his mouth and bawled in tones tremulous with anxiety, "Aw'll goo bi misel'!  Aw'll spile th' job, Aw will!"

    Seth, moved perhaps by the implied surrender, wheeled suddenly round and marched stolidly back to his man, who was struggling hard to keep the gleam of triumph out of his face.  The milkman passed him by as though he had not existed, and so led the way in surly silence until they came in sight of their destination.

    Seth had not spoken a word for over twenty minutes, but strode doggedly on, with his head projecting before him and his shoulders almost level with his ears.  At the stile entering the village lane he switched round.

    "Aw reacon tha'rt gooin' ta dew th' talkin'?"

    "Aw'st pleease misel'."

    "If tha pleeases thisel' tha goon bi thisel'."

    Saul, to whom speech was a necessity of life, looked blank enough; but Seth had evidently made up his mind, for he proceeded, "Thee put thi motty in, an' th' job's dun ony minit."

    "Tew yeds is better nor wun."

    "Is tew brokken yeds better nor wun?  Thee shut thi maath an' save thi noddle, moind that naa; " and, turning round, he led the way down the hill.

    Saul must have been playing a part, for, as Seth proceeded, the schoolmaster made grimaces behind his back and winked to himself victoriously.  Accosting the first person they met, the milkman ascertained that the oboist lived in a little white climber-covered cottage that stood end on to the road a little farther down, and so, glancing round with a warning look at Saul, he approached the house to reconnoitre, dropping as he did so into the lounging, easy manner of a strolling sight-seer.

    The cottage was almost buried behind high hedges, only there was a little gate at the corner.  Seth, looking everywhere but straight before him, sauntered towards the gate, and then started back and tried vainly to reassume his suddenly dropped manner; for there, within five yards of him, sat a comely, round woman of about forty, who was knitting in the open doorway.  He was too late to save himself, and so, to cover his retreat, he called out, as he glanced ostentatiously round, "Good evenin', missis!  Wot place is this, naa?"

    But Saul was a local preacher, and Mrs. Rawlings, the oboist's wife, recognised him at once.  She also guessed that his companion was another Slagdenite, and suspected their errand, and so disconcerted the crafty Seth by replying, "Ger aat wi' yo'!  Yo' known as this is Wiskit Hill as weel as Aw dew, an' Sam Rawlin's lives here, if yo' wanten him."

    But Seth had recovered; his wooden face became as blank as a wall, and he appeared so absorbed in the floral decorations of the cottage that it seemed doubtful whether he had heard the last remark.  He had sidled up alongside Saul, and was pointing out some particularly fine climbing roses at the house corner.  "Them jockeys is th' Proide o' Preston, arna they, missis?" and his manner was intended to convey that he was simply a flower fancier out for a stroll.

    "Aw dar' say they arr; bud conna yo' cum no furder?"

    Thus invited, the two lounged in through the gate, still absorbed in floriculture.

    "Aar Sam's nor in, if it's him yo' wanten, bud happen Aw'st dew?"

    As she spoke she indicated a garden seat, and the two accepting clumsily the proffered accommodation, sat down, Seth still commenting to Saul on the fine condition of the roses.

    Mrs. Rawlings watched them with amusement lurking in the corners of eyes and mouth, and presently she volunteered, "Aar Sam's no' cumin' a-playin' to Slagdin no mooar."

    To Seth's utter disgust, the irrepressible schoolmaster blurted out, "It 'ud ha' bin a foine seet bet-ter if he'd ne'er cum at aw."

    It was no use.  All the intricate and subtle scheme of cross-questioning which Seth had arranged as he came along must now go by the board; the stupid, plunging Saul had spoilt everything, and the discomfited milkman relieved himself by a prodigious groan.

    "Ay, that's wot folk gets fur helpin' other folk.  Aw towd him has it 'ud be."

    Seth emitted another groan; and Saul, with dolorous shake of the head, replied, "Aw'm sorry fur yo', missis; Aw am, fur sewer."

    "Sorry fur me?  Wot fur?"

    Saul's answer was another and longer groan, but Seth was perspiring with suppressed agitation.  This woman evidently knew nothing about what had taken place at Slagden, and what a sorry thing it was to make her wretched!

    "Well, ah ―" Saul was commencing, when Seth drove his elbow into his side, and assuming his most wooden expression, rose to his feet, and remarked, "Well, Aw think we'll be goin' a bit furer."

    "Nay, nay! yo'n hed nowt yet!  Sit yo' daan, an' Aw'll bring yo' sum drink;" and as she hastened to the scullery Seth shook his fist fiercely at his companion and whispered, "If tha speiks anuther wod Aw'll chuck th' job."

    "Chuck it!  Tha allis does when tha's mulled it.  Tha shap's loike a flea in a glue-pot."

    But their hostess was returning, and Saul became interested in the man-and-woman weather-box over the dresser, whilst Seth stared before him into vacancy with his blankest look.

    "Yo'n cum abaat yond wench an' th' Stang ridin', so aat wi' it;" and Mrs. Rawlings set pots of foaming treacle beer before them.

    The cronies gave guilty little starts, and, sitting up, stole long significant glances at each other, and it would have been impossible to decide which of their faces looked most miserable.

    "Ther's mooar foo's i' Slagdin nor i' aw Englanshire besoide."

    Saul was firing up, but his companion checked him, and remarked conciliatorily, "Well, wench, we wur nobbut feart ―"

    "Feart?  Ay, yo' wur feart of a quiet chap loike aar Sam runnin' off wi' a young wench,—Aw sh'd clog ageean if he did,—that's wot folk getten fur doin' a good turn."

    "Good turn?  It's a hill turn he's dun uz, Aw con tell thi, an' thee an' aw if— Aw'st speik, chuse wot tha says;" and Saul sprang away, and glared defiance at his friend.

    "Ay, he walks six moile weet an' foine ta play fur yo', an' just 'cause he helps a poor wench ta mak' a liven, yo' pay him wi' lyin' an' backbitin'."

    Seth was dazed—this thing was getting utterly beyond him; but he rose up, elbowed back the blustering schoolmaster, and, assuming command, replied, "Missis, we wur fain ta hev him fur a player reet enuff, bud a chap wi a noice, quiet-lewkin' woife loike yo' shouldna goo maulin' wi' young snickets o' wenches."

    "Hey, wot a lung tail aar cat's getten!  Yo' numyeds!  Naa, sit yo' daan, an' Aw'll straighten it aat fur yo'.  Why, mon, Aw did it misel'."

    Dropping back wonderingly into their seats, the two cronies stared at her amazedly.

    "Aw wur o'er at New Babylon Sarmons i'th spring,—aar Sam wur playin' theer,—an' a wench az wur shabby dressed coom an' set bi mi soide.  Aw ne'er gawmed nowt abaat hur till th' singin' started, an', seeyo', Aw ne'er yerd nowt loike that wench's vice i' aw mi born days.  Why, yo' bermyeds, ther' isn't a vice loike it i' Lankashire!  Well, Aw yerd her aw th' efthernoon,—Aw couldna hearken to nowt else,—an' when we wur hevin' uz tay Aw towd aar Sam.

    "Well, th' lumpyed furgeet aw abaat it, bud a toathre wik efter it wur aar Sarmons, an' Dan Stott coom fro' Slagdin ta help.  Well, he geet thick wi' aar Sam, an' axed him t' cum a-playin' ta Slagdin; an' he did.  Th' fost toime he wur theer yo' hed a new chune az noabry knew.  Well, aar Sam hed ta stop i' parts, an' when he wur restin' he yerd a vice i'th congrigation, an' at last he spotted it, an' then he rec'llected wot Aw'd towd him, an' hoo wur shabby drest, an' soa he says to hissel', he says, 'That's hur,' an' when they wur loosin' he went up an' spok' tew hur."

    Saul was devouring every word, and Seth was shaking his head and groaning.

    "Bud, my stars, worn't hoo huffy wi' him!  He met ha' bin dirt bi th' way hoo lewked at him."

    The cronies glanced at each other; that was just Milly Scholes.

    "Bud aar Sam, az Aw towd yo', is fair crazy abaat singin', soa he up an' he says, 'Lewk here, young woman,' he says, 'ther's a fortin i' that vice o' thoine.'  An' that browt her tew her cake an' milk, Aw con tell yo'!  Hoo wur as fain as a sawft lad wi' a buttycake, an' talked as oily as th' insoide of a cart-wheel.  Well, aar Sam fund aat az hoo knew mooar abaat music nor he did, an' he towd hur ta goo on, an' lent her sum pieces, an' then yore Sarmons cum raand, an' yo' known wot happened then."

    Saul turned and glared at the milkman with a fierce "I-told-you-so" sort of look, and Seth, with a weary shake of his head, said, "Hay, wench! he'd ha' saved a seet o' bother if he'd oppened his maath."

    "Hoo wodna let him; an' yo' ne'er axed him."

    Saul began to feel than he was in a tight place, and knowing what to expect from Seth for bringing him on such an errand, he wanted to find some scapegoat, and so he remarked, with overdone conviction, "That wench's proide 'ull ruin her sum day!"

    "Uther folkses' lyin' tungues hez ruin't her, if Aw know owt," retorted the milkman sternly.  As though to finish poor Saul off utterly, Mrs. Rawlings added, "Aar Sam says az that's just th' wun thing hoo's short on—consate."

    In the terrible pause that followed Saul felt himself sinking lower and lower in his own and his companions' estimation, and so, with a desperate attempt at self-recovery, he cried, "We mun hev aw this writ daan upa papper."

    Seth gave a sniff of ineffable scorn, and so, as an alternative suggestion, the suffering pedagogue went on, "Yore Sam mun cum to th' leeaders' meetin' an' give his affidavit."

    "He'll dew that fast enuff; he's feart o' this lumber stoppin' her singin' jobs."

    "Singin' or noa singin', hur charicter mun be cleart.  If he winna cum, he'll ha' ta be subpeeneyed or habyus corpus't be Act o' Parlyment."

    Saul thought this so fine a deliverance that he ventured to glance round, though a little fearfully, at his companion: this at least ought to conciliate him.  Mrs. Rawlings also was watching the milkman's wooden countenance with curious interest.  Seth rose deliberately, cleared his throat, glanced round the room, and then, buttoning his coat and preparing to make a departure, he looked at their hostess and remarked, with withering scorn, "Missis, yo'n seen tew gradely Slagden foo's to-neet, an' Aw dunna know which on 'ems th' biggest;" and without a glance at his guilty-looking friend, he stalked down the garden path and up the hill towards the Slagden footpath.

    The walk home was pleasanter than might have been anticipated, for the sweet thought that Milly's character had been cleared of the most serious charge against her speedily overcame Seth's ill-humour, and so, long before they reached Slagden, they were talking as freely as ever.  Saul, passing at a bound from dejection to triumphant confidence, was loud in his denunciation of the shortsightedness and prejudice of those who had so rashly concluded that Milly was guilty, and louder still in his condemnation of the jealousy and spitefulness of the Brookses, her chief detractors.  Then he put together bit after bit of evidence to show that the action of David and his sympathisers was only part of a crafty scheme of which Seth's removal from office was a move; and finally he constructed an elaborate plan for the total discomfiture of the Super, and the Brookses, and all disturbers of the peace of the Church.  They must lie low, keep what they had learnt to themselves, let the opposition mature their plans and make their investigations; and investigation at the supreme moment they would produce the oboist, and overwhelm the prosecution with confusion and shame.

    Seth trudged at his companion's side with raised shoulders and blank face, responding only with mysterious grunts; but when at last the schoolmaster paused for breath, he wheeled round and demanded sternly―

    "Will that put loife into her fayther's deead arm?  Will it put brass into her pocket an' meyt into her stomach?  That's wot Aw want to know."

    Dashed by this unexpected damper, Saul stalked moodily on for some moments, and then, having become suddenly almost as doleful as his friend, he remarked, "Aar Tet says as hoo's gan Jesse Bentley th' bullit."

    "He's gan it hur, mooar liker.  Dust think a young chap loike him wants a wench as is th' talk o'th countryside?" and Seth, whose voice had given way, dashed an angry tear from his eye and plunged on again.

    But the mercurial Saul was not to be depressed; they had made a great discovery and relieved their minds of a grave anxiety, and he was not going to allow Seth's pessimism to spoil his joy.  Once more, therefore, he began to rejoice over their recent experiences, and was waxing warm and eloquent, when Seth wheeled round again and said, "Sithi! th' end, soide, an' middle of this lumber is this: they're poor.  They'n twice as mitch a wik cumin' in as tha hez, and hoo's killin' hersel' an' gerrin' i' aw this lumber to pay ther rooad.  Naa if thaa con straighten that aat, tha'll dew sum good; bud tha's gettin' thi wark set, Aw con tell thi."

    There, amid the rustling corn and the soft, changing moonlight, the two old stalwarts stood staring hard into each other's face.  Not a word was spoken for several seconds.  Then anxiety for the peace of the Church that was more than life to them, and sturdy resolution to vindicate an injured girl, moving mightily within them, Saul nodded to Seth, and Seth made a slow brooding signal in return.  Two hands that never met in the way of ordinary intercourse silently gripped each other, and the solemn, wordless compact was made.

    They parted presently, for Saul took a nearer cut home, and Seth plodded on by himself, his thoughts so entirely occupying his mind that he had reached the stile next to the "Dog and Gun," and nearly opposite the Mangle House, before he realised where he was.  It was very still, but the fast moving clouds overhead played hide-and-seek with the moon and gave momentary periods of darkness.  Just as he approached the stile the moon had one of its brief triumphs, and flooded everything with silver light.  Seth pulled up with a gasp, stood staring before him like one stunned, and then, with an amazed glance around, as though calling all nature to behold this staggering phenomenon, he stepped back and groaned, whilst his heart beat almost into his ears, for there, in the Mangle House door, stood a tall young fellow, of towny dress, straining Milly Scholes to his heart, and covering her upturned face with passionate tears.



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