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Chapter XVI. "A Poor Chap as is allus i' Trouble"
|Chapter XVII. A Flower→|
"It was nothing but a chance, after all," Murdoch said to Miss Ffrench, just as he had said to Haworth. "It happened that I was the first to see the danger."
She stood opposite to him upon the hearth in her father's house. Neither of them had sat down. She rested her arm upon the low mantel and played with a flower she held in her hand. She looked at the flower as she made the reply.
"You think of it very lightly," she said with rather cold deliberateness. He did not regard her furtively as Haworth had done. Raising her eyes suddenly, after she had said this, she met his, which were fixed upon her.
"No," he answered. "Not lightly at all. It was a horrible thing. I shall never forget it."
"Nor I," she said.
Then she added, rather in the tone of one reluctantly making a confession:
"I have not slept easily through one night since."
That is very natural," he returned; "but the feeling will wear away."He would have left her then, but she stopped him with a gesture.
"Wait a moment," she said. "There is something else."
He paused as she bade him. A slight color rose to her cheek.
"When I spoke," she said, "I did not understand at all what had happened—not at all. I was stunned and angry. I thought that if I was too near you, you might have spoken instead of doing as you did." Then with studied coldness and meeting his gaze fully, "It would have been a vile thing to have said—if I had understood."
"Yes," he answered. "It would have been a vile thing, if you had understood; but you did not, and I realized that when I had time to think over it coolly."
"Then at first," she put it to him, "it made you angry?"
"Yes. I had run some risk, you know, and had had the luck to save your life."
The interview ended here, and it was some time before they met again.
But Murdoch heard of her often; so often indeed that she was kept pretty constantly before him. He heard of her from Haworth, from the Briarleys, from numberless sources indeed.It became her caprice to make a kind of study of the people around her and to find entertainment in it. When she drove through the streets of the little town, past the workmen's cottages, and the Works themselves, she was stared at and commented upon. Her beauty, her dress, her manners roused the beholders either to lavish or grudging acknowledgment. Dirty children sometimes followed her carriage, and on its stopping at any point a small crowd gathered about it.
"She's been here again," shouted Granny Dixon one evening as Murdoch took a seat near her chair.
"Who?" he asked.
"Her. That lass o' Ffrench's—th' one I conna bide. She mak's out she's ta'en a fancy to our Janey. I dunnot believe her," at a louder pitch and with vigorous nods.
"Tha nasty tempert owd body!" cried Mrs. Briarley sotto voce. "Get out wi' thee!"
"What art tha say in'?" demanded her guest. " Dunnot tell me tha wur say in' nowt. I saw thee."
"I—I wur sayin' it wur a bad day fur th' wash," faltered the criminal, "an' fur them as had rheumatiz. How's—how's thine, Misses?"
"Tha'rt tellin' a lee," was the rejoinder. "Tha wert sayin' summat ill o' me. I caught thee at it." Then going back to the subject and turning to Murdoch:
"I dunnot believe her! She cares nowt far nowt at th' top o' th' earth but hersen. She set here to-day gettin' em to mak' foo's o' theersens because it happen't to suit her. She's getten nowt better to do an' she wants to pass th' toime—if theer's nowt else at th' back on it. She's Will Ffrench ower again. She conna mak' a foo' o' me."
"He made foo' enow o' thee i' his day," commented Mrs. Briarley, cautiously.
Granny Dixon favored her with a sharper glance than before.
"Tha'rt sayin' summat ill again," she cried. "Howd thy tongue!""Eh!" whimpered the poor woman. "A body dare na say theer soul's theer own when hoo's about—hoo's that sharp an' ill-farrant."
A few minutes after, Briarley came in. Janey piloted him and he entered with a smile at once apologetic and encouraging.
"He wur theer," said Janey. "But he had na had nowt."
Briarley sidled forward and seated himself upon the edge of a chair; his smile broadened steadily, but he was in a tremendous minority. Granny Dixon transfixed him with her baleful eye, and under its influence the smile was graduated from exhilarated friendliness to gravity, from gravity to gentle melancholy, from melancholy to deepest gloom. But at this stage a happy thought struck him and he beamed again.
"How—how art tha doin', Misses?" he quavered. "I hope tha'rt makin' thysen comfortable."
The reception this polite anxiety met with was not encouraging. Granny Dixon's eye assumed an expression still more baleful.
"Tha'st been at it again," she shouted. "Tha'st been at it again. Tha'll neer git none o' my brass to spend at th' ale-house. Mak' sure o' that."
Mr. Briarley turned his attention to the fire again. Melancholy was upon the point of marking him for her own, when the most delicate of tact came to his rescue.
"It is na thy brass we want, Misses," he proclaimed. "It's—it's thy comp'ny." And then clenched the matter by adding still more feebly, "Ay, to be sure it's thy comp'ny, is na it, Sararann?"
"Ay," faltered Mrs. Briarley, "to be sure.""It's nowt o' th' soart," answered Granny Dixon, in the tone of the last trump. "An' dunnot yo' threep me down as it is."
Mr. Briarley's countenance fell. Mrs. Briarley shed a few natural tears under cover of the baby; discretion and delicacy forbade either to retort. Their venerable guest having badgered them into submission glared at the fire with the air of one who detected its feeble cunning and defied it.
It was Mr. Briarley who first attempted to recover cheerfulness.
"Tha'st had quality to see thee, Sararann," he ventured. "Our Jane towd me."
"Ay," answered Mrs. Briarley, tearfully. Mr. Briarley fell into indiscreet reverie.
"The chap as gets her," he said, "'ll get a han'some lass. I would na moind," modestly, "I would na moind bein' i' his shoes mysen."
Mrs. Briarley's smothered wrongs broke forth.
"Thee!" she cried out. "Tha brazant nowt! I wonder tha'rt na sham't o' thy face—talkin' i' that rood about a lady, an' afore thy own wife! I wonder tha art na sham't."
Mr. Briarley's courage forsook him. He sought refuge in submissive penitence almost lachrymose.
"I did na mean nowt, Sararann," he protested meekly. "It wur a slip o' th' tongue, lass. I'm—I'm not th' build as a young woman o' that soart ud be loike to tak' up wi'."
"Yo' wur good enow fur me onct," replied Mrs. Briarley, sharply. "A noice un yo' are settin' yore wedded wife below other people—as if she wur dirt."
"Ay, Sararann," the criminal faltered, "I wur good enow fur yo' but—but—yo——"But at this point he dropped his head upon his hand, shaking it in mournful contrition.
"I'm a poor chap," he said. "I'm nowt but a poor chap as is all us i' trouble. I'm not th' man yo' ought to ha' had, Sararann."
"Nay," retorted Mrs. Briarley. "That tha'rt not, an' it's a pity tha did na foind that theer out thirteen year ago."
Mr. Briarley shook his head with a still deeper depression."
"Ay, Sararann," he answered, "seems loike it is."
He did not recover himself until Murdoch took his de-parture, and then he followed him deprecatingly to the door.
"Does tha think," he asked, "as that theer's true?"
"That what is true?"
"That theer th' chaps has been talkin' ower."
"I don't know," answered Murdoch, "what they have been talking over."
"They're gettin' it goin' among 'em as Haworth's goin' to tak' Ffrench in partner."
Murdoch looked up the road for a few seconds before he replied. He was thinking over the events of the past week.
"I do not think it is true," he said, after this pause. "I don't think it can be. Haworth is not the man to do it."
But the idea was such a startling one, presented in this form, that it gave him a kind of shock; and as he went on his way naturally thinking over the matter, he derived some consolation from repeating aloud his last words:
"No, it is not likely. Haworth is not the man to do it."