|←Chapter XXIX. "Sararann"||Haworth's by
Chapter XXX. Mrs. Haworth and Granny Dixon
|Chapter XXXI. Haworth's Defender.→|
About this time a change appeared in little Mrs. Haworth. Sometimes when they sat together, Haworth found himself looking up suddenly and feeling that her eyes were fixed upon him, and at such times she invariably met his glance with a timid, startled expression, and released herself from it as soon as she had the power.
She had never been so tender and lavish with her innocent caresses, but there was continuously a tremulous watchfulness in her manner, which was almost suggestive of fear. It was not fear of him, however. She clung to him with all the strength of her love. At night when he returned home, however late, he was sure of finding her waiting patiently for him, and in the morning when he left the house he was never so early that she was not at his service. The man began to quail before her, and grow restless in secret, and be haunted, when he awakened in the night, by his remembrance of her.
"She is on the lookout for something," he said to himself, fearfully. "What have they been saying to her?"
On her part, when she sat alone, she used to try and think the matter out, and set it straight and account for it.
"It's the strikes," she said, "as has set them agen him and made 'em hard an' forgetful of all he's done. They'd never have spoke so if they'd been theirselves."
She could scarcely have told what she had heard, or how the first blow had struck home. She only knew that here and there she had heard at first a rough jeer and then a terrible outspoken story, which, in spite of her disbelief, filled her with dread. The man who first flung the ill-favored story at her stopped half-way through it, the words dying on his lips at the sight of her face.
It happened in one of her pensioners' cottages, and she rose from her chair trembling.
"I didn't think," she said, with unconscious pathos, "as the world could be so ignorant and wicked."
But as the ill-feeling became more violent, she met with the same story again and again, and often with new and worse versions in forms she could not combat. She began to be haunted by vague memories of things she had not comprehended. A sense of pain followed her. She was afraid, at times, to go to the cottages, lest she should be confronted with something which would overwhelm her. Then she began to search her son's face with a sense of finding some strangeness in it. She watched him wistfully when he had so far forgotten her presence as to be almost unaware of it. One night, having thrown himself upon a sofa and fallen into a weary sleep, he suddenly started up from it to find her standing close by him, looking down, her face pale, her locked fingers moving nervously.
"What is it?" he exclaimed. "What ails you?"
He was startled by her falling upon her knees at his side, crying, and laying her shaking hand upon his shoulder.
"You was having a bad dream, my dear," she said,—"a bad dream. I—I scarcely knowed your face, Jem it was so altered."
He sank back upon his cushions and stared at her. He knew he had been having no bad dream. His dreams were not half so evil and bitter when he slept as they were in these days when he wakened.
"You always had such a good face, Jem," she said, "and such a kind one. When you was a boy——"
He stopped her almost sullenly.
"I'm not a boy now," he said. "That's put away and done with."
"No," she answered, "that's true, my dear; but you've lived an innocent life, an'—an' never done no wrong—no more than you did when you was one. And your face was so altered."
Her voice died away into a silence which, somehow, neither of them could break.
It was Granny Dixon who revealed the truth in its barest form. Perhaps no man nor woman in Broxton knew more of it than this respectable ancient matron. Haworth and his iniquities had been the spice of her later life. The fact that his name was being mentioned in a conversation never escaped her; she discovered it as if by magic and invariably commanded that the incident under discussion be repeated at the top of the reciter's voice for her benefit, occasionally somewhat to the confusion of the honest matron in question.
How it had happened that she had not betrayed all to Mrs. Haworth at once was a mystery to remain unsolved. During the little woman's visits to the cottage, Mrs. Briarley existed in a chronic condition of fear and trembling.
"She'll be out wi' it some o' these days, mark me," she would quaver to Janey. "An' th' Lord knows, I would na' be theer fur nowt when she does."
But she did not do it at first. Mrs. Briarley had a secret conviction that the fact that she did not do so was due entirely to iniquity. She had seen her sit peering from under her brows at their guest as the simple creature poured forth her loving praise of her son, and at such times it was always Mrs. Briarley's province to repeat the conversation for her benefit.
"Aye," Mrs. Dixon would comment with an evil smile, "that's him! That's Haworth! He's a noice chap—is Haworth, I know him."
Mrs. Haworth learned in time to fear her and to speak timidly in her presence, rarely referring to the subject of her boy's benefactions.
"Only as it wouldn't be nat'ral," she said once to Mrs. Briarley, "I should think she was set agen him."
"Eh! bless us," was Mrs. Briarley's answer. "Yo' need na moind her. She's set agen ivverybody. She's th' nowtest owd piece i' Christendom."
A few days after Haworth had awakened to find his mother standing near him, Mrs. Haworth paid a visit to the Briarleys. She took with her a basket, which the poor of Broxton had long since learned to know. In this case it contained stockings for the little Briarleys and a dress or so for the baby.
When she had bestowed her gifts and seated herself, she turned to Granny Dixon with some tremor of manner.
"I hope you're well, ma'am," she said.Granny Dixon made no reply. She sat bent over in her chair, regarding her for a few seconds with unblinking gaze. Then she slowly pointed with her thin, crooked finger to the little presents.
"He sent 'em, did he?" she trumpeted forth. "Haworth?"
Mrs. Ha worth quailed before her.
"Yes, ma'am," she answered, "leastways——"
Granny Dixon stopped her.
He did nowt o' th' soart," she cried. "Tha'rt leein'!"
The little woman made an effort to rise, turned pale, and sat down again.
"Ma'am——" she began.
Granny Dixon's eyes sparkled.
"Tha'rt leein'," she repeated. "He's th' worst chap i' England, and aw Broxton knows it."
Her victim uttered a low cry of pain. Mrs. Briarley had left the room, and there was no one to help her. All the hints and jeers she had heard rushed back to her, but she struggled to stand up against them.
"It ain't true," she said. "It ain't—true."
Granny Dixon was just beginning to enjoy herself. A difference of opinion with Mrs. Briarley, which had occurred a short time before, had prepared her for the occasion. She knew that nothing would so much demoralize her relative and hostess as this iniquitous outbreak.
"They've been warnin' me to keep quiet an' not tell thee," she answered, " but I towd 'em I'd tell thee when I wur i' th' humor, an' I'm i' th' humor now. Will Ffrench wur a devil, but he's a bigger one yet. He kep' thee away because he did na want thee to know. He set aw th' place by th' ears. A decent woman would na cross his door-step, nor a decent mon, fur aw his brass—afore tha coom. Th' lot as he used to ha' down fro' Lunnon an' Manchester wur a shame to th' town. I've seed 'em—women in paint an' feathers, an' men as decent lasses hide fro'. A good un, wur he? Aye, he wur a good un, for sure."
She sat and chuckled a moment, thinking of Sararann's coming terror and confusion. She had no objection to Haworth's moral lapses, herself, but she meant to make the most of them while she was at it. She saw nothing of the anguish in the face from which all the fresh, almost girlish color had faded.
"An' yo' did na know as they wur na gentlefolk," she proclaimed again. "Tha thowt they wur ladies an' gentlemen when tha coom in on 'em th' fust night tha set foot i' th' house. A noice batch o' ladies they wur! An he passed 'em off on thee! He wur sharp enow fur that, trust him. Ladies, bless us! I heard tell on it—an' so did aw Broxton!"
The wounded creature gathered all her strength to rise from her chair. She stood pressing her hands against her heart, swaying and deadly pale.
"He has been a good son to me," she said. "A good son—an' I can't believe it. You wouldn't yourself if—you was his mother, an' knew him as—as I do."
She made her way to the door just as Mrs. Briarley came in. One glance told that excellent matron that the long-dreaded calamity had arrived.
"What's she been up to?" she demanded. "Lord ha' mercy! what's she been up to now?"
"She's been tellin' me," faltered the departing guest, "that my son's a bad man an' a shame to me. Let me go, ma'am—for I've never heard talk like this before—an' it's made me a bit weak an'—queer."
And she slipped past and was gone.
Mrs. Briarley's patience deserted her. A full sense of what Granny Dixon's worst might be burst in upon her; a remembrance of her own manifold wrongs and humiliations added itself to this sense; for the moment, discretion ceased to appear the better part of valor.
"What has tha been sayin'?" she cried. "What has tha been sayin'? Out wi' it."
"I've been telling her what tha wur afeared to tell her," chuckled Mrs. Dixon with exultation. "I towd thee I would an' I've done it."
Mrs. Briarley made no more ado. She set the baby down upon an adjacent chair with a resonant sound, and then fell upon the miserable old woman and seizing her by the shoulders shook her until her cap flew off and danced upon her back and her mouth opened and shut as if worked by a spring.
"Tha brazent, hard-hearted besom, tha!" she cried as she shook. "Tha ill-farrant nowt, tha! as nivver did no good i' thy days an canna bear as no one else should. I dunnot care if I nivver see thy brass as long as I live. If tha wur noine i'stead o' ninety-five I'd give thee a hidin', tha brazent, hard-hearted owd piece!"
Her strength failed her and she loosened her hold and sat down and wept aloud behind the baby, and Mrs. Dixon fell back in her chair, an unpleasant heap, without breath to speak a word or strength to do anything but clutch wildly at her cap, and so remained shrunken and staring.