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Chapter II.: A HARVEST EVE. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 7.
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A HARVEST EVE.
Mary rightly believed that there was a chance for the corn on the low grounds, if rain should speedily fall. By the time that the horned sheep, of the western moors had cropped the last bite of juicy grass in the dells, they were gathered together by the shepherd to abide the storms which were gathering about the summits of Wharnside and Pennygant. While they stood trembling and bleating in the rising blasts, the cattle in the vales left the muddy pools, and turned towards the shelter of the stooping and rustling trees; and many a human eye was raised to the whirling mills, whose inactivity had wearied expectation so long.
Neither the wind, nor the rain which followed, pleased every body, any more than any other wind and rain. Havoc was made by the blasts in Mr. Fergusson's young plantations, where a thousand saplings stood, dry enough for firewood, ready to be snapped by the first visitation of a gust. Trees of loftier growth strewed the Abbey lawn, and afforded matter of lamentation to the elder members of Mr. Fergusson's family, and of entertainment to the children, who watched for hours the operations of the woodmen in removing the fallen ornaments of the estate. Every washerwoman within some miles who happened to be pursuing her vocation that day, had to mourn the disappearance of cap or handkerchief from the line or bush; and how many kitchen chimneys smoked, no chimney doctor near would have ventured to say. Meanwhile, the millers and their men bestirred themselves cheerily, as sailors do when the breeze freshens after a long calm; and careful housewifes dislodged all unclean insects from their water tubs. and swept out their spouts in preparation for the first droppings. As might have been expected, the rain came, not in droppings, but m sheets. No woollen coat, woven or unwoven, saved the shepherd and his sheep from being drenched to the skin. Every tree became a commodious shower-bath to the horse or cow beneath it. Many an infirmity was exposed in thatch or tile which had never before been suspected; and everybody looked gloomy in Anderson's farm, (except the ducks,) from the apprehension that the meagre crops would be laid, past recovery. On the first cessation of the storm, matters did appear sad enough: in the villages, eyery thing smutted, from the smoke of the furnaces being beaten down; in the country, all brown and muddy-looking till the waters had had time to retire into the ditches, and the verdure to show itself; and even then, the straggling oats and prostrate wheat presented but a small improvement on their former appearance. Landlords and tenants crossed each other's path while taking their rounds, but could not agree as to the probabilities of the approaching harvest. Mr. Fergusson hoped that a day or two would make a great difference in the appearance of the fields; while Anderson was certain that it was too late for the crops to revive under the gentlest rain, and that they would prove to have been utterly destroyed by the flood which had swept down from the hills. Neither could establish his point till harvest came.
Then each proved to be right. On the high grounds, the produce was, in truth, scarcely worth carrying away, while in the vales there was better work for the harvest wain. Even there, however, there were more gleaners than reapers; and the artisans who came forth in the evening to see what had been done, agreed with the disappointed Irish, who must travel farther in search of harvest work, that the total crop would indeed turn out to be far below the average.
The best of the harvest fields did not present the usual images of peace and contentment.
“Out, out, out!” cried Anderson, to a troop of boys and girls who had pressed in at his heels as he entered a field whence the sheaves were not yet carried. “How many times am I to have the trouble of turning you out, I wonder? Wait, can't ye, till the corn is carried?”
At the flourish of his stick, the intruders took flight, and jostled each other at the gate, in their hurry to get out; but they returned, one by one, keeping in his rear, like a spider watching a fly, till they could stoop down behind a shock, and filch from the sheaves at their leisure. Following the example of the children, a woman dropped in at the gate, another entered from a gap in the fence, at a moment when the farmer had his back turned, while the heads of two or three men appeared over the wall. It was plain that the tenth commandment was not in the thoughts of any present, unless in Anderson's own.
“Here again, you rogue!” he cried, lifting up a boy by the collar from a hiding-place between two sheaves. “You are the very boy I told twice to go to the field below. There is plenty of room for you there.”
“But there is no corn there, sir.”
“Corn or no corn, there you shall go to be made an example of for pilfering from my sheaves. Here, Hoggets, take this lad down to the Lane field, and give him a good whipping in sight of them all.”
“O, no, no! Mercy, mercy!” cried the boy. “Mother said I should have no supper,— father said he would beat me, if I did not make a good gleaning. I won't go, I tell you; I won't. O, sir, don't let him beat me! Ask father! I Won't go.”
Mary Kay came up to intercede. The boy was her nephew; and she could assure Mr. Anderson that John was told to go home at his peril without an apron full of corn.
“Then let his parents answer for his flogging, as they ought to do, for driving the boy to steal,” said the farmer. “I am not to be encroached upon because they choose to be harsh with their boy; and I tell you, mistress, this pilfering must be put a stop to. This very season, when the crop is scanty enough at the best, I am losing more than I ever did before by foul gleaning. Let the boy's parents be answerable for the flogging he shall have. Hoggets, take him away.”
“Had you not better send Hoggets to flog the boy's father and mother?” Mary inquired. “that would be more just, I think.”
“O, do, sir, do!” entreated John; “and I will show him the way.”
“I dare say you would: and this aunt of yours would find some excuse next for their not being flogged.”
“I won't promise but I might,” said Mary; “for they may have something to say about what has driven them to covet your corn. It is not the going without one supper, but the being supperless eyery night. Instead of a beating, once and away, such as they promised the poor lad, it is the scourge of want, sir, for week after week, and month after month.”
“I am very sorry to hear it; and if they come and ask in a proper way, they may chance to get some help from me. But, as to countenancing my property being taken because they are poor, it would be a sin for their boy's sake, and for the sake of all the boys that would follow his example. So off with him!”
Mary was far from wishing to defend the act of pilfering from sheaves, and equally far from supposing that her brother and sister thought of any such mode of fulfilling their command when it was delivered to their boy. Mr. Anderson might be perfectly sure that Kay and his wife would not come and ask, in the “proper way” he alluded to, for what they were wearing themselves out in struggling to earn, and as for the boy, she believed she could answer for him that the being deprived of what he had gathered, or, at most, a private beating, would avail to make him observe other commands in endeavouring to fulfil those of his parents. Anderson still thought differently; and, perceiving at the moment half a dozen little beads peeping from behind so many shocks, was confirmed in his opinion that the boy must be flogged. Hoggets accordingly whipped up the little lad, slung him, screaming and writhing, over his shoulder, and disappeared behind the wall, while the farmer hunted out the other culprits, and sent them, for a punishment, to see their companion flogged in the field. Mary first detained them to see her restore John's hand-fulls of corn to the sheaves, and then went down to do the best she could for her poor little nephew in his agony.
She presently overtook him, and found that his agony was now of a more mixed character than she had expected. He was alternating between hope and fear. The quivering nostril and short sob told what his terror had been, while his raised eye, and efforts to compose himself, testified to his trust that he had found a deliverer. Two young ladies on horseback were talking with Hoggets, and looking compassionately on the culprit, while Hoggets touched his hat eyery instant, and had already lowered the boy from his disgraceful elevation. The Miss Fergussons only asked him to delay till they had overtaken Mr. Anderson, and endeavoured to procure pardon; and Hoggets thought it was not for him to resist the wishes of the ladies.
The whole matter was argued over again, and the farmer strongly urged with the plea that corn was more tempting to the poor than eyer before,— the quartern being now one shilling and eight-pence. The farmer thought that the stronger the temptation, the more exemplary should be the punishment. If he could supply eyery bread-eater near him with abundance of corn, so as to obviate the temptation, he would gladly do so, as he held prevention to be better than punishment; but, as he had not this in his power, the best thing he could do was to discourage compliance with temptation. In this case, however, as the boy had been a good deal punished by exposure, and by being off and on in his expectations of being flogged, enough was done for example, and John might run home as fast as he liked.
“That will not be very fast,” Mary observed, “since he is to be beaten at the end of his walk for bringing his mother's apron home empty. I have heard say, sir, by one that knows well, that our people are treated like this boy; brought low for want of food, driven to skulk and pilfer for it, and then disgraced and punished. But there is this difference, that you cannot prevent the want, and, in the case of the people, it might be prevented.”
“Chatham put that into your head, I suppose. It is just like one of his sayings. But I wish he would not make the worst of matters, as if any thing ailed the nation more than there has been ever since people herded together with mischief-makers among them here and there.”
Miss Fergusson hoped that there had not always been, and would not always be, such proceedings as some which were going on now. The coppice field had been green and smooth as velvet the evening before, and this morning at daybreak it was brown and trampled. The skulkers and meditators of violence had been there; and the records of her father's justice-room would show that the disgrace and punishment spoken of by Mary were fast following the destitution which is the cause of crime. She hoped Mr. Anderson did not suppose that this was the natural state in which people will always live, while congregating for the sake of the advantages of society.
Anderson hoped that men would grow wiser in time than to set up midnight drills as a remedy for the distress which always occurs from time to time; and then Mr. Fergusson would have less disagreeable justice-work to do. The ladies believed that the shortest way to obviate the folly would be to obviate the distress; and, as they moved on, were recommended to pray for a better harvest than had this year blessed the land.
John had stolen away in advance of their horses. Finding that they were proceeding to join their brothers, who had been grouse-shooting in the moors since daybreak, it occurred to the poor boy that by following in the track of the gentlemen, he might chance to pick up something which would serve as a propitiation at home for his failure in the article of corn. It was possible that a wounded bird or two might have been left by the sportsmen, and that those who could not purchase bread might sup off game:—no uncommon occurrence in a country where the tenants of a preserve are better fed than the inhabitants of a village. Halt resolving to try his fortune on the other side the hills, and never to face his parents again unless he could find a black cock, John plunged into the moors, keeping the ladies in view from a distance, as a sort of guide to the track that the sportsmen had been pursuing. He had not speed of foot to sustain, for any length of time, his share of the race. The riding party disappeared in the dusk; no living thing crossed his path, but many inanimate ones put on the appearance of a fluttering bird to deceive the agitated and hungry boy; and the breeze which stirred them did not cool his brow. He could nowhere find a pool of water from which he might drink. His legs bent under him; and at the thought of how far they must yet carry him before he could reach, shelter, north, south, east, or west, he began to cry.
Tears do not flow long when they may flow freely. It is the presence of restraint, or the interruption of thought, causing the painful idea to recur, which renders it difficult for a child to stop a fit of crying. John had no such restraint, and was subject to no further interruption than the silent appearance of light after light in the village below, and the survey of an occasional sheep, which came noiselessly to look at him and walk away again. By the time that the dew began to make itself felt upon his face, he was yawning instead of crying; and he rose from the turf as much from a desire to be moving again as from any anxiety as to what was to become of him this night. A manifold bleat resounded as he erected himself, and a score or two of sheep ran over one another as he moved from his resting place, giving hope that the shepherd was at no great distance. It was not long before he was seen through the grey twilight, moving on a slope a little to the west: and, to John's delight he turned out to be an acquaintance, Bill Hookey, who lived close by the Kays till he went upon the moors in Wilkins the grazier's service.
“How late are you going to be out, Will?” was John's first question.
“As late as it be before it is early,” replied Will. “Yon's my sleeping place, and I am going to turn in when I have made out what is doing on the river there. Look farther down,— below the forge, boy. They are quiet enough this minute, or the wind is lulled. When it blows again, you may chance to hear what I heard.”
“But about sleeping,” said John. “I am mortally tired, and I've a great way to go home. Can't you give me a corner in your hut till morning?”
“Why, I doubt there will be scarce room, for I promised two of my ewes that they should have shelter to-night; and this lamb is too tender, you see, to be left to itself. I don't see how they can let you be served.”
John promised to let the ewes have the first choice of a snug corner, and to be content with any space they might leave him, explaining that he wanted to be abroad early to glean, and that it would save him a long walk to sleep on this side Anderson's fields, instead of a mile to the east of them. He said nothing at present about his hunger, lest it should prove an objection to his abiding in Will's company. The objection came spontaneously, however, into the mind of the prudent Will.
“I hope you've your supper with you, lad, or you'll fare hardly here.”
“O, never mind supper,” said John, brushing his sleeve across his eyes. “I have gone without often enough lately.”
“Like many a one besides. Well, if you don't mind supper, so much the better for you. I have left but a scanty one for myself I was so mortal hungry at dinner time; and there is no more bread and milk in the jar than the lamb will want.”
“Can't I get some fresh sweet grass for the lamb that will do as well? Do let me! Pretty creature! I should like to feed it.”
The offer was scornfully declined, and he was told that he might help any of the older lambs to graze, but that he must, at his peril, touch this particularly precious, newly-dropped lamb. John was more disposed to graze on his own account than to assist any creature in eating what he could not share. It next occurred to him to propose a bargain. He thought it promised to be a cold night. Will agreed that it might be middlingly so. John had his mother's stout apron with him, and Will should be welcome to it to wrap the lamb in, if John might have some of the lamb's bread and milk. Will had, however, a provokingly comfortable woollen wrapper, one end of which was always at the service of the pet lamb for the time being. While the next mode of attack was being devised, the soft pacing of horses' feet on the turf, and the occasional striking of a hoof against a flint, were heard; and Will, offering an obeisance which was lost in the darkness, made bold to inquire what sport the gentlemen had had on the moors.
“Excellent sport, if we had bagged as many as we brought down,” answered one of the youths: “but thieves seem to be as plentiful as furzebushes hereabouts. There were so many loiterers about our steps that our dogs could not move quick enough when we brought down more than one bird at a time.”
“There will be a savoury supper or two eaten to-night by those who sport without pulling a trigger,” observed the other Mr. Fergusson. “But they are welcome to my share of the powder and shot they have helped themselves to.”
John's heart swelled at the thoughts of how he should like to be a sportsman after this fashion, especially as the gentleman declared that he should have been welcome.
The ladies had paused to listen to another such sound from afar as Will had described. Many of the twinkling lights from the village had disappeared, and there seemed to be a great bustle below the forge, displayed as often as the big bellows exerted themselves to throw out a peculiarly vivid flame to light up the banks of the river. Will was of opinion that the people were in a hurry for their corn, and unwilling to await Kirkland's time for opening his granaries, and unlading his lighters. There had been talk,— as he had overheard on the moors,—of going down the river to where the lighters took in their cargoes, and demanding the distribution of the corn upon the spot. Probably this was what was now being done at Kirkland's, instead of a few miles nearer the river's mouth.
“It is time we were off, if that be the case,” cried one of the gentlemen. “Kirkland must not be borne down in this manner, for the people's sake any more than for his own. Come, Charles. The girls will be safe enough with Jackson. Let us run down to the village. Here, little boy! You know Anderson's? You know Mr. Anderson himself?”
John hung down his head, and acknowledged that he knew Mr. Anderson.
“Well, here is a shilling for you. Run to Mr. Anderson, and beg him from me to come down, with his steadiest men, if he has any, to Kirkland's premises, as fast as possible. Off with you! What are you waiting for?”
“If he should be gone already, sir?”
“Why, then, go and call your father, if your father is not an ass, like the rest of the people hereabouts.”
John heard one of the young ladies check her brother for his expression, reminding him that nothing makes the ears grow so fast as the having an empty stomach; and the boy pondered for a moment whether his father's ears had lengthened since the time when the family had become subject to hunger. His hand involuntarily went up to the side of his own head; and then came the speculation whether he should offer Will a high price for the lamb's bread and milk on the spot, or wait to change his shilling at Mrs. Skipper's counter. A sharp rebuke from his employer for his delay sent him bounding down the slope, calling up his courage to face the farmer, and consoling himself with thoughts of real white bread, dispensed under Mrs. Skipper's bright smile.
Alas! Mrs. Skipper had no bright smile, this evening, even for John; much less for any one who had not so decided an opinion about her being very handsome. Anderson had looked full as grave as John expected, whether about the matter in hand, or the boy's past offence, was not clear; but the farmer's gravity was nothing to Mrs. Skipper's terror. She scolded everybody about her, ran from one neighbour to another for advice whether to barricade her windows, and could by no means attend to John's demand of a penny roll till he was on the point of helping himself; and, slipping the shilling into the till, Mrs. Skipper huffed him when he asked for change, and turned her back upon him so as to make him fear that he had made a more costly bargain, after all, than if he had bid for the lamb's bread and milk upon the moor. All this was not without cause. A friendly neighbour had come up from the river-side to warn her that it had been proposed by the people assembled round Kirkland's granaries, that, failing a supply of food from his stores, the hungry should help themselves out of the baker's shop. It seemed but too probable that the threat would be executed; for Mrs. Skipper found (and God forgive her, she said, for being sorry to hear it!) that Kirkland was prepared for the attack; having thrown open two granaries to show that they were empty, and promised that he had something particular to say about the wheat on board the lighters; something which was likely to send the people away as hungry as they came. A champion soon appeared in the person of Kay, who was almost the only man of the village who was not engaged on the more important scene of alarm. Women came in plenty, and children stood, like scouts, in the distance; but the women were found to be very poor comforters, and the children ran away as often as they were wanted for messengers. Mary was there; and her indifference to the danger served almost as well as Kay's promised valour to restore spirits to Mrs. Skipper. It was something to do when the most valuable part of the stock was carried away to be hidden in some safe place, and the oldest loaves ostentatiously placed so as to be stolen first, to taunt Mary with her not caring for what happened to her friends, and looking as indifferent as if she came merely to buy a threepenny loaf. Mary made no reply: but her brother declared that he must just say for her, that if she was indifferent about other people's concerns, so she was about her own. There was Chatham, very busy down by the river-side, with everybody listening to him but the one who had the most reason to be proud to hear what he said; and Mrs. Skipper would see, when she was cool, that it was rather hard to scold Mary for being better able to give assistance than if she was subject to being heated like some people. Mrs. Skipper begged a world of pardons. She was not half good enough for Mary to care at all about her, and she was ready to bite her tongue out for what she had said. As Mary did not intimate any wish to this effect, however, no such caillegibleastrophe took place, and the necessary disposition of affairs proceeded quietly.
Mrs. Skipper had not to wait long to know her fate. Chatham came to tell her that the people had been exasperated by finding that there was no good corn for them on Kirkland's premises, and had gone on towards Sheffield, to burn or pull down a mill or two, it was supposed, as some faces well known at the midnight drill were seen among them. If the few who remained behind should come and ask bread of Mrs. Skipper, he advised her to give it without any show of unwillingness.
“Mercy on me! that will be hard work, if they look beyond the bread on the counter,— two days old,” cried Mrs. Skipper. “Suppose they should get at the dough, what am I to do to-morrow? And the flour! There has not been time to hide half the flour! They will want to cut my head off every day for a week to come, if they strip me of my flour, and expect me to go on baking at the same price. O, Mr. Kay, what shall I do?”
“Do as dealers in com in another shape have done, often and often,” replied Chatham. “Bear your lot patiently as a dealer in that which the people want most, and in which they are most stinted.”
Mrs. Skipper looked doubtfully at Mary for a further explanation of what it was that she was to do.
“Do you mean,” asked Kay, “that they have stripped Kirkland of his corn, and expect him to sell more next week at the same price?”
“They would have done so, if Kirkland had had much wheat to part with. The trade of a corndealer, I have heard him and others say, has always been a hard one to carry on. All parties have joined against them, for as long a time as can be remembered.”
“Ay; the farmers are jealous, I suppose, of their coming between them and the people, thinking they could get better prices if there was nobody to be served between them and their customers. And the people, in the same way, think that they must pay higher for their bread, to enable the corndealers to live.”
“Forgetting that the farmers have something else to be doing than buying and selling corn, here and there, wherever it is wanted, and getting it from abroad when there is not enough at home, and government lets more come in. But it is not only the farmers and the people. The government used to punish the buying up of corn where it was plentiful, and selling it where it was scarce. Many a corndealer has been punished instead of thanked for doing this.”
“I do not see why any man need be thanked for doing what answers best to his own pocket, as it certainly does to buy cheap and sell dear. But to punish a man for coming between the people and want, seems to me to be more like an idle tale than anything to be believed.”
“Kirkland's father was taken up and tried for doing this very thing, not longer ago than a dozen years or so. The law was against him, (one of the old laws that we are learning to be ashamed of;) but it was too clear that he had done no harm, for anybody to wish that he should be punished. So they let him go.”
“Who told you this?”
“Kirkland himself told us so, just now. He said he had rather be brought to his trial in the same way, than have the people take the matter into their own hands to their own injury. I thought it was very brave of him to say so at the moment.”
“Why? Were the people angry?”
“Like to tear him to pieces.”
“And he within their reach?”
“Standing on the plank between the lighter and the wharf”
“Ugh! And they might have toppled him into the water any minute!” cried Mrs. Skipper. “I am sure I hope they won't come near me.”
“The most angry of them are gone on, as I told you,” replied Chatham. “And that is well for you, perhaps; for never did you see angrier faces. They called out, two hundred voices like one, that it was a sin they should have to pay twenty pence for their quartern while he had a houseful of wheat stored up, and more coming.”
“And so it is, if he can get more when that is done.”
“That is the very thing he cannot be sure of doing, as he told these people they must know very well. No one can be sure beforehand when and how he may get in corn from abroad; and, at any rate, it cannot be had till it has grown monstrously dear at home; and so he insisted upon it that he was doing the wisest thing in selling his corn as others sell it, and no cheaper; that we may not eat it all up now, and starve entirely before the end of the winter.”
“Well, I grumble as much as anybody else at our having to pay twenty pence for our loaf; begging your pardon, Mrs. Skipper, whose fault I know it is not. I, with a wife and children, can't reconcile myself to such a price, I grumble as much as anybody.”
“So do I,” said Chatham.
“Only you don't blame Kirkland.”
“Kirkland can't help the grievance, any more than you or I; and I am sure he suffers enough by it. There is a loss of some hundred pounds by this one cargo. It is more than half spoiled.”
“The sea-water has got to it, and it is downright rotten.”
“What a pity, when it is so particularly wanted! Such accidents signify twice as much at some times as at others; and that this should happen now—just when bread is at the highest! O dear! what a pity!”
“It would not signify half so much if there was more certainly coming, and the people knew what they had to depend on. But if more is ordered, it may come or it may not: and it may be in good time, or not arrive till the season is far advanced; and so much must be paid for shipping charges (always dear in autumn), that it may mount up as high as our own home supply, after all.”
“What a worry Kirkland must be in!” observed Kay. “He is not one of the quietest at any time; and now, between hurrying his correspondents abroad, and finding his cargo spoiled at home, and having the people gathering about him with their clamour, he must feel something like a dog with a saucepan tied to its tail.”
“Not like your master, Mr. Kay,” observed Mrs. Skipper. “There is no law to meddle with his selling his brass abroad or at home, as he likes; and so he knows what to expect, and how to live with his neighbours; and has little to worry him.”
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Skipper. My master is prevented selling freely abroad and at home; and prevented by the same law that worries Kirkland. And the worry is great, I can tell you; though Oliver does not run about, losing his breath and fidgeting himself like Kirkland, but walks so solemn and slow, you might take him for a Quaker.”
“Well, I thought, as his foundry is always at work, and people must have things made of brass, and nobody objecting,—I thought things went easily enough with Oliver.”
“His foundry works at night,” said Chatham, “and his metal runs as well at Christmas as at Midsummer; and yet Oliver's prosperity depends on rain and sunshine as much as if zinc and copper were sown in the furrows and came up brass.”
“There, now,” said Mrs. Skipper, “that is one of your odd speeches, Chatham. And Mr. Kay nods as if he knew what you meant.”
“I have good reason to know,” replied Kay. “I and my fellow-workmen must have higher wages when corn is scarce, and then Oliver must put a better price upon his brass, without either his or our gaining anything by it: and then——”
“O ay; there will be less brass bought; that is what you mean.”
“Moreover, there are plenty of people abroad that want brass, and would take it if they could give us corn in exchange,—so regularly as that they and we might know what we are about. And so, as sure as sunshine or rain falls short, some of Oliver's furnaces die out: and as sure as Kirkland's corn-vessels might come and go, without let or hinderance, our foundry would send a light, night and day, over all the vale.”
“That is the way Chatham's sayings come out,” observed the widow: “but I think he might as well speak plain at once, and make no mysteries.”
“I spoke plain enough about what was going to happen to you and your bread,” said Chatham, “and now you will soon see whether it comes out true; for here is the street filling fast, I see.”
“Poor souls!” cried the widow, having run out at her door to look. “They do not seem creatures to be afraid of, when one comes close to them;—so tired and lagging! I say, Dixon, won't you have something to eat after your walk? Smith, you look worse still, and I saw how early you were off to your work this morning, and you have a good way to go to supper. Try a roll, won't you? Come, that's right, Bullen, set to, and tell me if it is not good bread: and you. Taylor.—carry it home to your wife, if you scruple to eat it yourself.—Bless you, make no speeches! I only wish I had more; but this is all, you see, except the dough that is laid for the morning, and that belongs to my customers, not to me.—Well; I am pleased you like it. I would have thought to get in some cheese, if I had known, before the shop was shut, that you would be passing.—Never make such a favour of it. I'll ask the same of you some day. Or you will remember me when times mend with you.—Do look, Mr. Kay; if they be not going to cheer!—I never thought to live to be cheered.—Bless them! how hearty they are!”
And laughing, sparkling, and waving her right arm vehemently, the dame watched in their progress down the street the neighbours whose approach she had thought, an hour before, she could scarcely survive. Kay followed the munching groups, to see what they would do next; and Chatham drew Mary's arm within his own, to escort her home, leaving the widow to bolt herself in, and survey at her leisure her bare shelves, and sweep down her empty shop-board, —soliloquizing, as she went on,
“I forgot these little sweet-cakes, or some of the children should have had them,—for they are rather stale. It is well they did not press for the dough, for I don't believe I could have refused them anything at the moment,—and then what should I have said to the Fergussons' man in the morning?—Well; it does look forlorn, now it is all over; and it was but this morning that I refused to take Mrs. Holmes's ten-shilling bonnet because I thought I could not afford it; and now I have given away,—let me see how many shillings' worth of bread! Ugh! I dare not think of it. But it is done, and can't be undone; and besides I dare say they would have taken it, if I had not given it; and, as I bargained with them, they will do the same for me some day. Smith does look rarely bad, to be sure. I wish he be not going; though, if he be, it will be pleasant to think that one gave him a meal when he was hungry. Not that it won't be pleasant to remember the same thing if he lives. I wonder what his poor wife's expectation is concerning him. if she loses him, l hope she will find it no more of a trouble than I have done. So much less than I thought! I think poor Mrs. Kay droops almost as much as Smith. But there's no knowing. Those weakly people often live the longest;—except, to be sure, when they have got into a habit like hers. Not a word has her husband ever let drop about it. I wonder whether he knows as much as I do. He shall never hear a word of it from me, nor not even Mary, though I fancy she can't be blind. Catch Mary Kay blind to anything! For all she looks so dull and stony when she chooses, she sees as sharp as a hawk,—and has such a way of setting one down. She's a good creature too, with all she does for those children; and nothing could be more handy than she was about the bread to-night. I wish she might chance to look in in the morning, and give me more of her handiness, to help to make the place look a little less forlorn than it does with all these empty shelves. I was very hasty, to be sure, in emptying them; but, as the parson said on Sunday, God loves a cheerful giver. So now, I will cast a look to see if the dough is rising, and go to bed; for it must be full late, I am sure.”
Chatham and Mary were meanwhile walking home, conversing after their fashion,—making six words do where others would use twenty. An incident occurred on which they understood each other without any words at all. A gleam of light fell across the street as a door on the shadowy side of the way slowly opened, to let out a woman, who walked along under the houses, slowly and with her head hung down. It was the door of the gin-shop that opened, and it would have been absurd to pretend not to know the woman. Mary instantly slackened her pace, and motioned to cross over to the dark side.
“She is steady enough,” said Chatham. “She will get on very well by herself.”
“To be sure she will. It is not quite come to that yet. But let her get home first, and not know that we have been following her. It is only merciful.”
“She shall have mercy from me;—more perhaps than from those who are answerable for her failing and sinking as she does, poor soul!”
Mary consented to turn back to the end of the street, to give a little more time, and asked whether grindstone cutting was not warm work in these sultry noons. She had learned all she wanted about grindstones by the time she could safely knock at her brother's door with the hope that there was somebody stirring within to open it.
“I say nothing about coming in to sit with you all till Kay comes, because——”
“I was not going to ask you to-night. Tomorrow evening, perhaps. Good night. I hear her coming. Good night.”
And Chatham was out of sight from within, before Mrs. Kay, her bonnet off and her cap, somehow not put on, opened the door, and left Mary to fasten it.