It was considered, after this, a circumstance illustrative of Haworth's peculiarities that he had taken to himself a protégé from among the "hands;" that said protégé was an eccentric young fellow who was sometimes spoken of as being scarcely as bright as he should be; that he occasionally dined or supped with Haworth; that he spent numberless evenings with him, and that he read his books, which would not have been much used otherwise.
Murdoch lived his regular, unemotional life, in happy ignorance of these rumors. It was true that he gradually fell into the habit of going to Haworth's house, and also of reading his books. Indeed, if the truth were told, these had been his attraction.
"I've no use for 'em," said Haworth, candidly, on showing him his library. "Get into 'em, if you've a fancy for 'em."His fancy for them was strong enough to bring him to the place again and again. He found books he had wanted, but never hoped to possess. The library, it may be admitted, was not of Jem Haworth's selection, and, indeed, this gentleman's fancy for his new acquaintance was not a little increased by a shrewd admiration for an intellectual aptness which might be turned to practical account.
"You tackle 'em as if you were used to 'em," he used to say. "I'd give something solid myself if I could do the same. There's what's against me many a time—knowing naught of books, and having to tight my way rough and ready."
From the outset of this acquaintance, Murdoch's position at the Works had been an easier one. It became understood that Haworth would stand by him, and that he must be treated with a certain degree of respect. Greater latitude was given him, and better pay, and though he remained in the engine-room, other and more responsible work frequently fell into his hands.
He went on in the even tenor of his way, uncommunicative and odd as ever. He still presented himself ahead of time, and labored with the unnecessary, absorbed ardor of an enthusiast, greatly to the distaste of those less zealous.
"Tha gets into it as if tha wur doin' fur thysen," said one of these. "Happen"— feeling the sarcasm a strong one—"happen tha'rt fond on it?"
"Oh yes,"—unconsciously—"that's it, I suppose. I'm fond of it."
The scoffer bestowed upon him one thunderstruck glance, opened his mouth, shut it, and retired in disgust.
"Theer's a chap," he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, on returning to his companions, "theer's a chap as says he's fond o' work—fond on it!" with dramatic scorn. "Blast his eyes! Fond on it!"
With Floxham he had always stood well, though even Floxham's regard was tempered with a slight private contempt for peculiarities not easily tolerated by the practical mind.
"Th' chap's getten gumption enow, i' his way," he said to Haworth. "If owt breaks down or gets out o' gear, he's aw thee ; but theer is na a lad on th' place as could na cheat him out o' his eye-teeth."
His reputation for being a " queer chap " was greatly increased by the simplicity and seclusion of his life. The house in which he lived with his mother had the atmosphere of a monastic cell. As she had devoted herself to her husband, the woman devoted herself to her son, watching him with a hungry eye. He was given to taking long stretches of walks, and appearing in distant villages, book in hand, and with apparently no ulterior object in view. His holidays were nearly all spent out-of-doors in such rambles as these. The country people began to know his tall figure and long stride, and to regard him with the friendly toleration of strength for weakness.
"They say i' Broxton," it was said among them, "as his feyther deed daft, and it's no wonder th' young chap's getten queer ways. He's good-natured enow, though i' a simple road."
His good-nature manifested itself in more than one way which called forth comment. To his early friendship for Janey he remained faithful. The child interested him, and the sentiment developed as it grew older. It was quite natural that, after a few months' acquaintance, he should drop in at the household of her parents on Saturday afternoon, as he was passing. It was the week's half-holiday and a fine day, and he had nothing else to do. These facts, in connection with that of the Briarley's cottage presenting itself, were reasons enough for going in.
It occurred to him, as he entered the narrow strip of garden before the door, that the children of the neighborhood must have congregated to hold high carnival. Groups made dirt-pies; clusters played "bobber and kibbs;" select parties settled differences of opinions with warmth of feeling and elevation of voice; a youth of tender years, in corduroys which shone with friction, stood upon his head in one corner, calmly but not haughtily presenting to the blue vault of heaven a pair of ponderous, brass-finished clogs.
"What dost want?" he demanded, without altering his position. "Th' missus isn't in."
"I'm going in to see Janey," explained Murdoch. He found the little kitchen shining with the Saturday "cleaning up." The flagged floor as glaringly spotless as pipe-clay and sandstone could make it, the brass oven-handles and tin pans in a condition to put an intruder out of countenance, the tire replenished, and Janey sitting on a stool on the hearth enveloped in an apron of her mother's, and reading laboriously aloud.
"Eh! dear me!" she exclaimed. "It's yo'—an' I am na fit to be seen. I wur settin' down to rest a bit. I've been doin' th' cleanin' aw day, an' I wur real done fur."
"Never mind that," said Murdoch. "That's all right enough."
He cast about him for a safe position to take—one in which he could stretch his legs and avoid damaging the embarrassing purity of the floor. Finally he settled upon a small print-covered sofa and balanced himself carefully upon its extreme edge and the backs of his heels, notwithstanding Janey's civil protestations.
"Dunnot yo' moind th' floor," she said. "Yo' needn't. Set yo' down comfortable."
"Oh, I'm all right," answered Murdoch, with calm good cheer. "This is comfortable enough. What's that you were reading?"
Janey settled down upon her stool with a sigh at once significant of relief and a readiness to indulge in friendly confidence.
"It's a book I getten fro' th' Broxton Chapel Sunday Skoo'. Its th' Mem—m-e-rn-o-i-r-s——"
"Memoirs," responded Murdoch.
"Memoyers of Mary Ann Gibbs."
Unfortunately her visitor was not thoroughly posted on the subject of the Broxton Chapel literature. He cast about him mentally, but with small success.
"I don't seem to have heard of it before," was the conclusion he arrived at.
"Hannot yo'? Well, it's a noice book, an' theer's lots more like it in th' skoo' libery—aw about Sunday skoo' scholars as has consumption an' th' loike an' reads th' boible to foalk an' dees. They aw on 'em dee."
"Oh," doubtfully, but still with respect. "It's not very cheerful, is it?"
Janey shook her head with an expression of mature resignation.
"Eh no! they're none on 'em cheerful—but they're noice to read. This here un now—she had th' asthma an' summat wrong wi' her legs, an' she knowed aw' th' boible through aside o' th' hymn-book, an' she'd sing aw th' toime when she could breathe fur th' asthma, an' tell foak as if they did na go an' do likewise they'd go to burnin' hell wheer th' fire is na quenched an' th' worms dyeth not."
"It can't have been very pleasant for the friends," was her companion's comment. But there was nothing jocose about his manner. He was balancing himself seriously on the edge of the hard little sofa and regarding her with speculative interest.
"Where's your mother?" he asked next.
"Hoo's gone to th' chapel," was the answer. "Theer's a mothers' meetin' in th' vestry, an' hoo's gone theer an' takken th' bahby wi' her. Th' rest o' th' childer is playin' out at th' front."
He glanced out of the door.
"Those—those are not all yours?" he said, thunderstruck.
"Aye, they are—that. Eh!" drawing a long breath, "but is na there a lot on 'em? Theer's eleven an' I've missed 'em nigh ivvery one."
He turned toward the door again.
"There seems to be a great many of them," he remarked. "You must have had a great deal to do."
"That I ha'. I've wished mony a time I'd been a rich lady. Theer's that daughter o' Ffrench's now. Eh! I'd like to ha' bin her."
"I never heard of her before," he answered. "Who is she, and why do you choose her?"
"Cos she's so hansum. She's that theer grand she looks loike she thowt ivvery body else wur dirt. I've seen women as wur bigger, an' wore more cloas at onct, but I nivver seed none as grand as she is. I nivver seed her but onct. She coom here wi' her feyther fer two or three week' afore he went to furrin parts, an' she wur caught i' th' rain one day an' stopped in here a bit. She dropped her hankcher an' mother's getten it yet. It's nigh aw lace. Would yo' loike to see it?" hospitably.
"Yes," feeling his lack of enthusiasm something of a fault. "I—dare say I should."
From the depths of a drawer which she opened with a vigorous effort and some skill in retaining her balance, she produced something pinned up in a fragment of old linen. This she bore to her guest and unpinning it, displayed the handkerchief.
"Tha can tak' it in thy hond an' smell it," she said graciously. "It's getten scent on it."
Murdoch took it in his hand, scarcely knowing what else to do. He knew nothing of women and their finery. He regarded the fragrant bit of lace and cambric seriously, and read in one corner the name "Rachel Ffrench," written in delicate letters. Then he returned it to Janey.
"Thank you," he said, "it is very nice."
Janey bore it back perhaps with some slight inward misgivings as to the warmth of its reception, but also with a tempering recollection of the ways of "men-foak." When she came back to her stool, she changed the subject.
"We've bin havin' trouble lately," she said. "Eh! but I've seed a lot o' trouble i' my day."
"What is the trouble now?" Murdoch asked.
"Feyther. It's allus him. He's getten in wi' a bad lot an' he's drinkin' agen. Seems loike neyther mother nor me con keep him straight fur aw we told him Haworth'll turn him off. Ha worth's not goin' to stand his drink an' th' lot he goes wi'. I would na stand it mysen."
"What lot does he go with?"
"Eh!" impatiently, "a lot o' foo's as stands round th' publics an' grumbles at th' mesters an' th' wages they get. An' feyther's one o' these soft uns as believes aw they hears an' has na' getten gumption to think fur his sen. I've looked after him ivver sin' I wur three."
She became even garrulous in her lack of patience, and was in full flow when her mother entered returning from the chapel, with a fagged face, and a large baby on her hip.
"Here, tak' him, Jane Ann," she said; "but tak' off thy apron furst, or tha'lt tumble ower it an' dirty his clean bishop wi' th' muck tha's getteri on it. Eh! I am tired. Who's this here?" signifying Murdoch.
"It's Mester Murdoch," said Janey, dropping the apron and taking the child, who made her look top-heavy. "Sit thee down, mother. Yo' needn't moind him. He's a workin' mon hissen."
When Murdoch took his departure, both accompanied him to the door.
"Coom in sometime when th' mester's here," said Mrs. Briarley. "Happen yo' could keep him in a neet an' that ud be summat."
Half way up the lane he met Haworth in his gig, which he stopped.
"Wheer hast tha been?" he asked, dropping into dialect, as he was prone to do.
"To Briarley's cottage, talking to the little girl."
Haworth stared at him a moment, and then burst into a laugh.
"Tha'rt a queer chap," he said. "I can no more than half make thee out. If thy head was not so level, I should think tha wert a bit soft."
"I don't see why," answered Murdoch, undisturbed. "The child interests me. I am not a Lancashire man, remember, and she is a new species."
"Get in," said Haworth, making room for him on the seat.Murdoch got in, and as they drove on it occurred to him to ask a question.
"Ffrench?" said Haworth. "Oh, FFrench is one o' th' nobs here. He's a chap with a fancy for being a gentleman-manufacturer. He's spent his brass on his notions, until he has been obliged to draw in his horns a bit. He's never lived much in Broxton, though he's got a pretty big place here. The Continent's the style for him, but he'll turn up here again some day when he's hard up enow. There's his place now."
And as he spoke they drove sharply by a house standing closed among the trees and having an air of desolateness, in spite of the sun-light.