The road from the Forester’s Cottage to Greenhythe Church happened, curiously enough, to lie between the grounds occupied by certain of Moth-Mullein’s admirers. The farm of the Underwoods was at the corner where the lane joined the main road. The house was a substantial modern one, square, with a stack of chimneys in the middle, and the slated roof drawn together from all sides to the stack, without showing a gable anywhere. It was one of those houses in which people of no taste delight, because so compact, but which are eyesores to such as have a sense of beauty, houses which, even when ugliness-hating Nature reduces them to ruins, will never make even picturesque ruins. With the advance of civilisation and cultured taste, and with increased facilities for the employment of dynamite, all these abominations will disappear; the men of culture and light will go about the country and blow them up for the common good.
It was, however ugly, a snug house, and the farm was a good farm. As Jessie Mullins followed the hearse in which her father was conveyed to the churchyard, seated in a mourning cab, she looked over her white pocket-handkerchief at the Underwoods’ farm, and saw that Sam was standing in the gate with his hat off, watching the mournful procession. Perhaps he would forgive her for having sent him away because she flirted with Mr Parkinson—that is, if Mr Parkinson did not offer her consolation. Further along the road was Joseph Ruddle’s shop. Joseph was a carpenter, with a good business, a handy man, steady—never drunk. He had been thrown back by breaking his leg in going after the Cinxia caterpillars for her. Perhaps he would be on the look-out—yes, he was. Jessie over her handkerchief saw him with his paper cap on his head, flattening his nose against the window of his workshop. Who could tell? Other things more unlikely might happen than that young Ruddle should offer her to share his home, and love her all the more dearly because she had broken his leg. He was a good-looking fellow; Jessie rather liked him. True he belonged to a lower stage on the social ladder than Sam Underwood, and Sam Underwood was a rung lower than Mr Parkinson, who was a brewer’s son. By the side of the main road, on the side opposite the carpenter’s shop, were the strawberry-fields of Ben Polson. He was a heavy, stout fellow with a flat face, who walked about with his hands in his pockets; he, however, looked after his interests well, and in the time of strawberries was active, and drew his hands out. Well—if Mr Parkinson did not propose to make her Mrs Parkinson, she would have Sam Underwood, and if Sam Underwood still sulked, she would waive the difference in social standing between the other two, and for the sake of his handsome face and general steadiness take Joe Ruddle. If, however, his broken leg made the carpenter halt in his love-making, she could always fall back on Ben Polson. Sure enough, there by the side of his hedge, with his hands in his pockets, was Ben, looking on at the funeral train, and—dolt that he was!—had forgotten to take off his hat, or thought, because he was on the other side of the hedge, that it was not necessary. That, in the time of her bereavement, she would not be overwhelmed with offers from these chivalrous young men did not occur to her. They had all admired her; it was true they had turned sulky, but then lovers’ quarrels are proverbially short, and are, as the Eton Latin grammar says, ‘the reintegration of love.’
Jessie cried a great deal for her father. She had really loved him, and was genuinely grieved at his sad end. But to all bitters, by a merciful provision of nature, there comes some sweet, and every cloud is given a silver lining; so Jessie thought that perhaps—nay, certainly—her great sorrow must lead to her advantage in the end. Some one or other of her lovers would—she did not put it in words, but she thought it—‘come to the scratch.’
As already shown in last chapter, Mr Parkinson did not at all come to the scratch, or only came within a near risk of getting his face scratched because he proposed that Jessie should become waitress at a refreshment-stall, instead of becoming Mrs Parkinson. Nor did Sam Underwood rise to the occasion. He still harboured his grudge. Nor did Joseph Ruddle; the lane was wet and rough, and he would not risk his leg on it. Nor did Ben Polson; he took time to think about it, and his hand was not available; it was in his pocket. So weeks passed, and Jessie was without a prospect of a fixed home. Little Dicky Duck had applied for the situation of woodman, vacated by old Mullins, and had got it.
‘At Lady-day,’ said Dick, ‘I shall have this house. I don’t want to turn you out, Moth; why should you not put your hand in mine, say the word—be my Duck and stay on?’
‘Because I’m not come down so low as that woman who
‘“Had a little husband
‘No offence meant, Moth; but as you have been accustomed to this house all your life—’
‘I suppose I am tired of it, and wish for a change.’
‘Why, Moth? I get now the wages your father had, fourteen shillings a week; the cottage I shall have—and then—’
‘O, if you are calculating on the cottage, I will turn out at Christmas. You need not wait till Lady-day. I’ll have a sale, and the house shall be clear for you then.’
‘I wouldn’t hasten you for the world, Moth. I don’t want you to leave the house, nor lose your sticks of furniture, but take me—’
‘I wonder that you can have the face to make such a proposal, so soon after my father’s death.’
Moth-Mullein’s temper did not improve that winter. She was subjected to slights, and was the victim of disappointment. She was constrained to leave her house, and she had not means of earning a livelihood. Partly because she would not be indebted to Dick, but also because she could not afford to be idle, she was led to the resolve to have a sale at Christmas, and to vacate the cottage. Though she made light to Dick of leaving, she was sore at heart. When she knew that go she must, the cottage all at once became dear to her, and the retrospect over her past life presented to her singular charms. She had been very happy on the edge of the wood, and very interested in her work collecting moths and butterflies.
She was vexed with herself, but would not admit to herself that she had acted foolishly. She had trifled with her chances and had lost them. Neither Sam Underwood, nor Joseph Huddle, no, nor Benjamin Polson showed tokens of relieving her from her difficulties by offering her the shelter of his name and roof.
Christmas Eve arrived; she had been down into Greenhythe to see the auctioneer. The sale was to take place two days after Christmas. It might not be on Christmas Day, and the day following was a Bank-holiday. Moth had also been about inquiring for lodgings, and had been unsuccessful. Greenhythe is a place which in certain seasons is very full of yachting men and their families. These guests are ready to pay a good price for lodgings, and those who have lodgings to let are indisposed to let them for a permanency at a low rent; they prefer a short and rich harvest in yachting time. Moth did not wish to leave the neighbourhood, because she desired still to collect lepidoptera for her usual customers. The pay was not great, but it was something, and something certain. Besides, it was an occupation she liked.
The days close in fast at Christmas, and, as it happened, that Christmas Eve was murky. The weather was rough, with a south-west wind, and heavy clouds discharging every now and then rain, and the darkness settled in earlier than Moth had anticipated.
The wind had shifted a little, a few points more to the north, whilst she was out, and after she left Greenhythe on her way home—to a dismantled and solitary home—the darkness fell like ink about her, and a storm of rain came on, so driving and so cold that Jessie took refuge from it in an old kiln that stood beside the road. The kiln-mouth was large, vaulted, and the shelter it afforded perfect. She retreated to the back part of it and seated herself on an overturned broken barrow, to wait till the storm had swept away and the sky was lighter.
As she sat there her utter disconsolateness made itself felt. She must vacate the cottage in three days, sell all her furniture, and be homeless. She had not settled whither to go. No friends had come forward to help her. Her pride had offended the young women who might have been her friends, and her want of consideration had alienated the men who might have offered her their homes. But it must not be supposed that Jessie blamed herself. She was bitter at heart against all the world. The fault was in her neighbours, her suitors, her acquaintance, not in herself.
Then, as she sat brooding, angry in soul, and with knit brows, she heard voices of men talking, and, a moment later, three persons entered the old kiln-mouth. As they talked she recognised them.
‘I say, Underwood,’ said the voice of Ben Polson, ‘we shall do in here. What a slashing shower! It can’t last long. I’ve just mulched my beds, and, darn it, this flood will wash all the goodness away into the runnels, and carry it to the Thames. What I like is a soft drizzle—that carries the goodness into the ground and nourishes the roots.’
‘I’m glad to be out of the storm,’ said the third, and the voice was that of the carpenter. ‘Since I’ve broke my leg I get twinges of rheumatic in it.’
‘I guess it is just as well you broke your leg instead of your heart about Miss Moth-Mullein,’ said Underwood.
‘Rather so,’ was the reply. ‘If I’d married her, she’d have broken my life, she’s that giddy and cruel and self-willed. But, Sam Underwood, I thought you were after her?’
‘So I was, but there were too many after her, and she kept our Oxford scholar skipping about her, and I didn’t like that.’
‘And I was after her, too,’ said Polson slowly. ‘I say, mates, what larks! she’s been trying to splice broken ties. She sent to say she’d be glad to earn a few shillings by weaving strawberry pottles; but I wasn’t to be taken in by that. I answered that I bought ’em wholesale, by the thousand.’
There ensued a laugh.
‘And she’s been down every day to my farm for a ha’porth of milk, thinking that she might find me in the way some evening, and the ha’porth of milk would bring the cow and the stable and the house and the farm and Sam Underwood. I keep out of the way. I see through her little games.’
‘And she has ordered of me a couple of boxes for her clothes and them odds and ends as don’t go into the sale,’ said Joseph Ruddle. ‘She thinks we’re moths to be caught, she’s such a dab hand at hunting; but we’re wary coves—eh, Sam? eh, Ben? In vain is the net spread in sight of the bird.’
‘The rain is ceasing, I’m off,’ said Underwood.
‘So be we,’ said the others.