Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Marcella in Peasant Society
By Mary Augusta Ward (1851–1920)
From ‘Marcella’

ON the afternoon of the day which intervened between the Maxwells’ call and her introduction to the court, Marcella walked as usual down to the village. She was teeming with plans for her new kingdom, and could not keep herself out of it. And an entry in one of the local papers had suggested to her that Hurd might possibly find work in a parish some miles from Mellor. She must go and send him off there.  1
  When Mrs. Hurd opened the door to her, Marcella was astonished to perceive behind her the forms of several other persons filling up the narrow space of the usually solitary cottage—in fact, a tea-party.  2
  “Oh, come in, miss,” said Mrs. Hurd,—with some embarrassment, as though it occurred to her that her visitor might legitimately wonder to find a person of her penury entertaining company. Then lowering her voice, she hurriedly explained: “There’s Mrs. Brunt come in this afternoon to help me wi’ the washin’, while I finished my score of plait for the woman who takes ’em into town to-morrow. And there’s old Patton an’ his wife—you know ’em, miss?—them as lives in the parish houses top o’ the common. He’s walked out a few steps to-day. It’s not often he’s able, and when I see him through the door I said to ’em, “If you’ll come in an’ take a cheer, I dessay them tea-leaves ’ull stan’ another wettin’: I haven’t got nothink else.’ And there’s Mrs. Jellison: she came in along o’ the Pattons. You can’t say her no,—she’s a queer one. Do you know her, miss?”  3
  “Oh, bless yer, yes, yes. She knows me!” said a high, jocular voice, making Mrs. Hurd start: “she couldn’t be long hereabouts without makkin’ eëaste to know me. You coom in, miss. We’re not afraid o’ you—Lor’ bless you!”  4
  Mrs. Hurd stood aside for her visitor to pass in, looking round her the while, in some perplexity, to see whether there was a spare chair and room to place it. She was a delicate, willowy woman, still young in figure, with a fresh color belied by the gray circles under the eyes and the pinched sharpness of the features. The upper lip, which was pretty and childish, was raised a little over the teeth; the whole expression of the slightly open mouth was unusually soft and sensitive. On the whole, Minta Hurd was liked in the village, though she was thought a trifle “fine.” The whole family, indeed, “kept theirsels to theirsels,” and to find Mrs. Hurd with company was unusual. Her name, of course, was short for Araminta.  5
  Marcella laughed as she caught Mrs. Jellison’s remarks, and made her way in, delighted. For the present, these village people affected her like figures in poetry or drama. She saw them with the eye of the imagination through a medium provided by socialistic discussion, or by certain phases of modern art; and the little scene of Mrs. Hurd’s tea-party took for her in an instant the dramatic zest and glamour.  6
  “Look here, Mrs. Jellison,” she said, going up to her, “I was just going to leave these apples for your grandson. Perhaps you’ll take them, now you’re here. They’re quite sweet, though they look green. They’re the best we’ve got, the gardener says.”  7
  “Oh, they are, are they?” said Mrs. Jellison, composedly looking up at her. “Well, put ’em down, miss. I daresay he’ll eat ’em. He eats most things, and don’t want no doctor’s stuff nayther, though his mother do keep on at me for spoilin’ his stummuck.”  8
  “You are just fond of that boy, aren’t you, Mrs. Jellison?” said Marcella, taking a wooden stool,—the only piece of furniture left in the tiny cottage on which it was possible to sit,—and squeezing herself into a corner by the fire, whence she commanded the whole group. “No! don’t you turn Mr. Patton out of that chair, Mrs. Hurd, or I shall have to go away.”  9
  For Mrs. Hurd, in her anxiety, was whispering in old Patton’s ear that it might be well for him to give up her one wooden arm-chair, in which he was established, to Miss Boyce. But he, being old, deaf, and rheumatic, was slow to move, and Marcella’s peremptory gesture bade her leave him in peace.  10
  “Well, it’s you that’s the young ’un, ain’t it, miss?” said Mrs. Jellison cheerfully. “Poor old Patton! he do get slow on his legs, don’t you, Patton? But there, there’s no helping it when you’re turned of eighty.”  11
  And she turned upon him a bright, philosophic eye; being herself a young thing not much over seventy, and energetic accordingly. Mrs. Jellison passed for the village wit, and was at least talkative and excitable beyond her fellows.  12
  “Well, you don’t seem to mind getting old, Mrs. Jellison,” said Marcella, smiling at her.  13
  The eyes of all the old people round their tea-table were by now drawn irresistibly to Miss Boyce in the chimney corner,—to her slim grace, and the splendor of her large black hat and feathers. The new squire’s daughter had so far taken them by surprise. Some of them, however, were by now in the second stage of critical observation,—none the less critical because furtive and inarticulate.  14
  “Ah?” said Mrs. Jellison interrogatively, with a high, long-drawn note peculiar to her. “Well, I’ve never found you get forrarder wi’ snarlin’ over what you can’t help. And there’s mercies. When you’ve had a husband in his bed for fower year, miss, and he’s took at last, you’ll know.”  15
  She nodded emphatically. Marcella laughed.  16
  “I know you were very fond of him, Mrs. Jellison, and looked after him very well too.”  17
  “Oh, I don’t say nothin’ about that,” said Mrs. Jellison hastily. “But all the same you kin reckon it up, and see for yoursen. Fower year—an’ fire up-stairs, an’ fire down-stairs, an’ fire all night, an’ soomthin’ allus wanted. An’ he such an objeck afore he died! It do seem like a holiday now to sit a bit.”  18
  And she crossed her hands on her lap with a long breath of content. A lock of gray hair had escaped from her bonnet, across her wrinkled forehead, and gave her a half-careless rakish air. Her youth of long ago—a youth of mad spirits, and of an extraordinary capacity for physical enjoyment—seemed at times to pierce to the surface again, even through her load of years. But in general she had a dreamy, sunny look, as of one fed with humorous fancies, but disinclined often to the trouble of communicating them.  19
  “Well, I missed my daughter, I kin tell you,” said Mrs. Brunt with a sigh, “though she took a deal more lookin’ after nor your good man, Mrs. Jellison.”  20
  Mrs. Brunt was a gentle, pretty old woman, who lived in another of the village almshouses, next door to the Pattons, and was always ready to help her neighbors in their domestic toils. Her last remaining daughter, the victim of a horrible spinal disease, had died some nine or ten months before the Boyces arrived at Mellor. Marcella had already heard the story several times; but it was part of her social gift that she was a good listener to such things even at the twentieth hearing.  21
  “You wouldn’t have her back, though,” she said gently, turning towards the speaker.  22
  “No, I wouldn’t have her back, miss,” said Mrs. Brunt, raising her hand to brush away a tear,—partly the result of feeling, partly of a long-established habit. “But I do miss her nights terrible! ‘Mother, ain’t it ten o’clock?—mother, look at the clock, do;—mother! ain’t it time for my stuff, mother? oh, I do hope it is.’ That was her stuff, miss, to make her sleep. And when she’d got it, she’d groan—you’d think she couldn’t be asleep, and yet she was, dead-like—for two hours. I didn’t get no rest with her, and now I don’t seem to get no rest without her.”  23
  And again Mrs. Brunt put her hand up to her eyes.  24
  “Ah, you were allus one for toilin’ an’ frettin’,” said Mrs. Jellison calmly. “A body must get through wi’ it when it’s there, but I don’t hold wi’ thinkin’ about it when it’s done.”  25
  “I know one,” said old Patton slyly, “that fretted about her darter when it didn’t do her no good.”  26
  He had not spoken so far, but had sat with his hands on his stick, a spectator of the women’s humors. He was a little hunched man, twisted and bent double with rheumatic gout,—the fruit of seventy years of field work. His small face was almost lost, dog-like, under shaggy hair and overgrown eyebrows, both snow-white. He had a look of irritable eagerness, seldom however expressed in words. A sudden passion in the faded blue eyes; a quick spot of red in his old cheeks: these Marcella had often noticed in him, as though the flame of some inner furnace leapt. He had been a Radical and a rebel once in old rick-burning days, long before he lost the power in his limbs, and came down to be thankful for one of the parish almshouses. To his social betters he was now a quiet and peaceable old man, well aware of the cakes and ale to be got by good manners; but in the depths of him there were reminiscences and the ghosts of passions, which were still stirred sometimes by causes not always intelligible to the bystander.  27
  He had rarely, however, physical energy enough to bring any emotion—even of mere worry at his physical ills—to the birth. The pathetic silence of age enwrapped him more and more. Still he could gibe the women sometimes, especially Mrs. Jellison, who was in general too clever for her company.  28
  “Oh, you may talk, Patton!” said Mrs. Jellison with a little flash of excitement. “You do like to have your talk, don’t you! Well, I dare say I was orkard with Isabella. I won’t go for to say I wasn’t orkard, for I was. She should ha’ used me to ’t before, if she wor took that way. She and I had just settled down comfortable after my old man went; and I didn’t see no sense in it, an’ I don’t now. She might ha’ let the men alone. She’d seen enough o’ the worrit of ’em.”  29
  “Well, she did well for hersen,” said Mrs. Brunt, with the same gentle melancholy. “She married a stiddy man as ’ull keep her well all her time, and never let her want for nothink.”  30
  “A sour, wooden-faced chap as iver I knew,” said Mrs. Jellison grudgingly. “I don’t have nothink to say to him, nor he to me. He thinks hissen the Grand Turk, he do, since they gi’en him his uniform, and made him full keeper. A nassty, domineerin’ sort, I calls him. He’s allus makin’ bad blood wi’ the yoong fellers when he don’t need. It’s the way he’s got wi’ him. But I don’t make no account of him, an’ I let him see ’t.”  31
  All the tea-party grinned except Mrs. Hurd. The village was well acquainted with the feud between Mrs. Jellison and her son-in-law, George Westall, who had persuaded Isabella Jellison, at the mature age of thirty-five, to leave her mother and marry him; and was now one of Lord Maxwell’s keepers, with good pay, and an excellent cottage some little way out of the village. Mrs. Jellison had never forgiven her daughter for deserting her, and was on lively terms of hostility with her son-in-law: but their only child, little Johnnie, had found the soft spot in his grandmother; and her favorite excitement in life, now that he was four years old, was to steal him from his parents and feed him on the things of which Isabella most vigorously disapproved.  32
  Mrs. Hurd, as has been said, did not smile. At the mention of Westall, she got up hastily and began to put away the tea things.  33
  Marcella meanwhile had been sitting thoughtful.  34
  “You say Westall makes bad blood with the young men, Mrs. Jellison?” she said, looking up. “Is there much poaching in this village now, do you think?”  35
  There was a dead silence. Mrs. Hurd was at the other end of the cottage with her back to Marcella; at the question, her hands paused an instant in their work. The eyes of all the old people—of Patton and his wife, of Mrs. Jellison, and pretty Mrs. Brunt—were fixed on the speaker; but nobody said a word, not even Mrs. Jellison. Marcella colored.  36
  “Oh, you needn’t suppose—” she said, throwing her beautiful head back, “you needn’t suppose that I care about the game, or that I would ever be mean enough to tell anything that was told me. I know it does cause a great deal of quarreling and bad blood. I believe it does here—and I should like to know more about it. I want to make up my mind what to think. Of course, my father has got his land and his own opinions. And Lord Maxwell has too. But I am not bound to think like either of them,—I should like you to understand that. It seems to me right about all such things that people should inquire, and find out for themselves.”  37
  Still silence. Mrs. Jellison’s mouth twitched, and she threw a sly provocative glance at old Patton, as though she would have liked to poke him in the ribs. But she was not going to help him out; and at last the one male in the company found himself obliged to clear his throat for reply.  38
  “We’re old folks, most on us, miss, ’cept Mrs. Hurd. We don’t hear talk o’ things now like as we did when we were younger. If you ast Mr. Harden, hell tell you, I dessay.”  39
  Patton allowed himself an inward chuckle. Even Mrs. Jellison, he thought, must admit that he knew a thing or two as to the best way of dealing with the gentry.  40
  But Marcella fixed him with her bright frank eyes.  41
  “I had rather ask in the village,” she said. “If you don’t know how it is now, Mr. Patton, tell me how it used to be when you were young. Was the preserving very strict about here? Were there often fights with the keepers, long ago?—in my grandfather’s days? And do you think men poached because they were hungry, or because they wanted sport?”  42
  Patton looked at her fixedly a moment, undecided: then her strong nervous youth seemed to exercise a kind of compulsion on him; perhaps too the pretty courtesy of her manner. He cleared his throat again, and tried to forget Mrs. Jellison, who would be sure to let him hear of it again, whatever he said.  43
  “Well, I can’t answer for ’em, miss, I’m sure; but if you ast me, I b’lieve ther’s a bit o’ boath in it. Yer see it’s not in human natur, when a man’s young and ’s got his blood up, as he shouldn’t want ter have his sport with the wild creeturs. Perhaps he see ’em when he’s going to the wood with a wood cart, or he cooms across ’em in the turnips,—wounded birds, you understan’, miss, perhaps the day after the gentry ’as been bangin’ at ’em all day. An’ he don’t see, not for the life of him, why he shouldn’t have ’em. Ther’s been lots an’ lots for the rich folks, an’ he don’t see why ee shouldn’t have a few arter they’ve enjoyed theirselves. And mebbe he’s eleven shillin’ a week,—an’ two-threy little chillen,—you understan’, miss?”  44
  “Of course I understand!” said Marcella eagerly, her dark cheek flushing. “Of course I do! But there’s a good deal of game given away in these parts, isn’t there? I know Lord Maxwell does, and they say Lord Winterbourne gives all his laborers rabbits, almost as many as they want.”  45
  Her questions wound old Patton up as though he had been a disused clock. He began to feel a whirr among his creaking wheels, a shaking of all his rusty mind.  46
  “Perhaps they do, miss,” he said; and his wife saw that he was beginning to tremble. “I dessay they do—I don’t say nothink agen it—though theer’s none of it cooms my way. But that isn’t all the rights on it nayther; no, that it ain’t. The laborin’ man ee’s glad enough to get a hare or a rabbit for his eatin’; but there’s more in it nor that, miss. Ee’s allus in the fields, that’s where it is; ee can’t help seein’ the hares and the rabbits a-comin’ in and out o’ the woods, if it were iver so. Ee knows ivery run of ivery one on ’em; if a hare’s started furthest corner o’ t’ field, he can tell yer whar she’ll git in by, because he’s allus there, you see, miss, an’ it’s the only thing he’s got to take his mind off like. And then he sets a snare or two,—an’ he gits very sharp at settin’ on ’em,—an’ he’ll go out nights for the sport of it. Ther isn’t many things ee’s got to liven him up; an’ he takes his chances o’ goin’ to jail; it’s wuth it, ee thinks.”  47
  The old man’s hands on his stick shook more and more visibly. Bygones of his youth had come back to him.  48
  “Oh, I know! I know!” cried Marcella, with an accent half of indignation, half of despair. “It’s the whole wretched system. It spoils those who’ve got, and those who haven’t got. And there’ll be no mending it till the people get the land back again, and till the rights on it are common to all.”  49
  “My! she do speak up, don’t she?” said Mrs. Jellison, grinning again at her companions. Then stooping forward with one of her wild movements, she caught Marcella’s arm: “I’d like to hear yer tell that to Lord Maxwell, miss. I likes a roompus, I do.”  50
  Marcella flushed and laughed.  51
  “I wouldn’t mind saying that or anything else to Lord Maxwell,” she said proudly. “I’m not ashamed of anything I think.”  52
  “No, I’ll bet you ain’t,” said Mrs. Jellison, withdrawing her hand. “Now then, Patton, you say what you thinks. You ain’t got no vote now you’re in the parish houses—I minds that. The quality don’t trouble you at ’lection times. This yoong man, Muster Wharton, as is goin’ round so free, promisin’ yer the sun out o’ the sky, iv yer’ll only vote for him, so th’ men say—ee don’t coom an’ set down along o’ you an’ me, an’ cocker of us up as he do Joe Simmons or Jim Hurd here. But that don’t matter. Yur thinkin’s yur own, any way.”  53
  But she nudged him in vain. Patton had suddenly run down, and there was no more to be got out of him.  54
  Not only had nerves and speech failed him as they were wont, but in his cloudy soul there had risen, even while Marcella was speaking, the inevitable suspicion which dogs the relations of the poor towards the richer class. This young lady, with her strange talk, was the new squire’s daughter. And the village had already made up its mind that Richard Boyce was “a poor sort,” and “a hard sort” too, in his landlord capacity. He wasn’t going to be any improvement on his brother—not a haporth! What was the good of this young woman talking as she did, when there were three summonses—as he, Patton, heard tell—just taken out by the sanitary inspector against Mr. Boyce for bad cottages? And not a farthing given away in the village neither, except perhaps the bits of food that the young lady herself brought down to the village now and then,—for which no one, in truth, felt any cause to be particularly grateful. Besides, what did she mean by asking questions about the poaching? Old Patton knew as well as anybody else in the village, that during Robert Boyce’s last days, and after the death of his sportsman son, the Mellor estate had become the haunt of poachers from far and near; and that the trouble had long since spread into the neighboring properties, so that the Winterbourne and Maxwell keepers regarded it their most arduous business to keep watch on the men of Mellor. Of course the young woman knew it all; and she and her father wanted to know more. That was why she talked. Patton hardened himself against the creeping ways of the quality.  55
  “I don’t think naught,” he said roughly, in answer to Mrs. Jellison. “Thinkin’ won’t come atwixt me and the parish coffin when I’m took. I’ve no call to think, I tell yer.”  56
  Marcella’s chest heaved with indignant feeling.  57
  “Oh, but Mr. Patton!” she cried, leaning forward to him, “won’t it comfort you a bit, even if you can’t live to see it, to think there’s a better time coming? There must be. People can’t go on like this always,—hating each other and trampling on each other. They’re beginning to see it now, they are! When I was living in London, the persons I was with talked and thought of it all day. Some day, whenever the people choose,—for they’ve got the power now they’ve got the vote,—there’ll be land for everybody; and in every village there’ll be a council to manage things, and the laborer will count for just as much as the squire and the parson, and he’ll be better educated and better fed, and care for many things he doesn’t care for now. But all the same, if he wants sport and shooting, it will be there for him to get. For everybody will have a chance and a turn, and there’ll be no bitterness between classes, and no hopeless pining and misery as there is now!”  58
  The girl broke off, catching her breath. It excited her to say these things to these people, to these poor tottering old things who had lived out their lives to the end under the pressure of an iron system, and had no lien on the future, whatever paradise it might bring. Again, the situation had something foreseen and dramatic in it. She saw herself, as the preacher, sitting on her stool beside the poor grate; she realized as a spectator the figures of the women and the old man played on by the firelight, the white, bare, damp-stained walls of the cottage, and in the background the fragile though still comely form of Minta Hurd, who was standing with her back to the dresser and her head bent forward, listening to the talk, while her fingers twisted the straw she plaited eternally from morning till night for a wage of about 1s. 3d. a week.  59
  Her mind was all aflame with excitement and defiance,—defiance of her father, Lord Maxwell, Aldous Raeburn. Let him come, her friend, and see for himself what she thought it right to do and say in this miserable village. Her soul challenged him, longed to provoke him! Well, she was soon to meet him, and in a new and more significant relation and environment. The fact made her perception of the whole situation the more rich and vibrant.  60
  Patton, while these broken thoughts and sensations were coursing through Marcella’s head, was slowly revolving what she had been saying, and the others were waiting for him.  61
  At last he rolled his tongue round his dry lips, and delivered himself by a final effort.  62
  “Them as likes, miss, may believe as how things are going to happen that way, but yer won’t ketch me! Them as ’ave got ’ull keep,”—he let his stick sharply down on the floor,—“an’ them as ’aven’t got ’ull ’ave to go without and lump it, as long as you’re alive, miss: you mark my words!”  63
  “O Lor’, you wor allus one for makin’ a poor mouth, Patton!” said Mrs. Jellison. She had been sitting with her arms folded across her chest, part absent, part amused, part malicious. “The young lady speaks beautiful, just like a book, she do. An’ she’s likely to know a deal better nor poor persons like you and me. All I kin say is,—if there’s goin’ to be dividin’ up of other folks’ property when I’m gone, I hope George Westall won’t get nothink of it! He’s bad enough as ’tis. Isabella ’ud have a fine time if ee took to drivin’ of his carriage.”  64
  The others laughed out, Marcella at their head; and Mrs. Jellison subsided, the corners of her mouth still twitching, and her eyes shining as though a host of entertaining notions were trooping through her, which however she preferred to amuse herself with rather than the public. Marcella looked at Patton thoughtfully.  65
  “You’ve been all your life in this village, haven’t you, Mr. Patton?” she asked him.  66
  “Born top o’ Witchett’s Hill, miss. An’ my wife here, she wor born just a house or two further along, an’ we two been married sixty-one year come next March.”  67
  He had resumed his usual almshouse tone, civil and a little plaintive. His wife behind him smiled gently at being spoken of. She had a long fair face, and white hair surmounted by a battered black bonnet; a mouth set rather on one side, and a more observant and refined air than most of her neighbors. She sighed while she talked, and spoke in a delicate quaver.  68
  “D’ye know, miss,” said Mrs. Jellison, pointing to Mrs. Patton, “as she kep’ school when she was young?”  69
  “Did you, Mrs. Patton?” asked Marcella in her tone of sympathetic interest. “The school wasn’t very big then, I suppose?”  70
  “About forty, miss,” said Mrs. Patton with a sigh. “There was eighteen the rector paid for, and eighteen Mr. Boyce paid for, and the rest paid for themselves.”  71
  Her voice dropped gently, and she sighed again like one weighted with an eternal fatigue.  72
  “And what did you teach them?”  73
  “Well, I taught them the plaitin’, miss, and as much readin’ and writin’ as I knew myself. It wasn’t as high as it is now, you see, miss,” and a delicate flush dawned on the old cheek, as Mrs. Patton threw a glance round her companions as though appealing to them not to tell stories of her.  74
  But Mrs. Jellison was implacable. “It wor she taught me,” she said, nodding at Marcella and pointing sideways to Mrs. Patton. “She had a queer way wi’ the hard words, I can tell yer, miss. When she couldn’t tell ’em herself she’d never own up to it. ‘Say Jerusalem, my dear, and pass on.’ That’s what she’d say, she would, sure’s you’re alive! I’ve heard her do it times. An’ when Isabella an’ me used to read the Bible, nights, I’d allus rayther do’t than be beholden to me own darter. It gets yer through, anyway.”  75
  “Well, it wor a good word,” said Mrs. Patton, blushing and mildly defending herself. “It didn’t do none of yer any harm.”  76
  “Oh, an’ before her, miss, I went to a school to another woman, as lived up Shepherd’s Row. You remember her, Betsy Brunt?”  77
  Mrs. Brunt’s worn eyes began already to gleam and sparkle.  78
  “Yis, I recolleck very well, Mrs. Jellison. She wor Mercy Moss; an’ a goodish deal of trouble you’d use to get me into wi’ Mercy Moss, all along o’ your tricks.”  79
  Mrs. Jellison, still with folded arms, began to rock herself gently up and down as though to stimulate memory.  80
  “My word, but Muster Maurice—he wor the clergyman here then, miss—wor set on Mercy Moss. He and his wife they flattered and cockered her up. Ther wor nobody like her for keepin’ school, not in their eyes—till one midsummer—she—well, she—I don’t want to say nothink onpleasant—but she transgressed,” said Mrs. Jellison, nodding mysteriously,—triumphant however in the unimpeachable delicacy of her language, and looking round the circle for approval.  81
  “What do you say?” asked Marcella innocently. “What did Mercy Moss do?”  82
  Mrs. Jellison’s eyes danced with malice and mischief, but her mouth shut like a vise. Patton leaned forward on his stick, shaken with a sort of inward explosion; his plaintive wife laughed under her breath till she must needs sigh, because laughter tired her old bones. Mrs. Brunt gurgled gently. And finally Mrs. Jellison was carried away.  83
  “Oh, my goodness me, don’t you make me tell tales o’ Mercy Moss!” she said at last, dashing the water out of her eyes with an excited tremulous hand. “She’s been dead and gone these forty year,—married and buried mos’ respeckable,—it ’ud be a burning shame to bring up tales agen her now. Them as tittle-tattles about dead folks needn’t look to lie quiet theirselves in their graves. I’ve said it times, and I’ll say it again. What are you lookin’ at me for, Betsy Brunt?”  84
  And Mrs. Jellison drew up suddenly with a fierce glance at Mrs. Brunt.  85
  “Why, Mrs. Jellison, I niver meant no offense,” said Mrs. Brunt hastily.  86
  “I won’t stand no insinooating,” said Mrs. Jellison with energy. “If you’ve got soomthink agen me, you may out wi’ ’t an’ niver mind the young lady.”  87
  But Mrs. Brunt, much flurried, retreated amid a shower of excuses, pursued by her enemy, who was soon worrying the whole little company as a dog worries a flock of sheep; snapping here and teasing there, chattering at the top of her voice in broad dialect as she got more and more excited, and quite as ready to break her wit on Marcella as on anybody else. As for the others, most of them had known little else for weeks than alternations of toil and sickness; they were as much amused and excited to-night by Mrs. Jellison’s audacities as a Londoner is by his favorite low comedian at his favorite music-hall. They played chorus to her, laughed, baited her; even old Patton was drawn against his will into a caustic sociability.  88
  Marcella meanwhile sat on her stool, her chin upon her hand, and her full glowing eyes turned upon the little spectacle, absorbing it all with a covetous curiosity.  89
  The light-heartedness, the power of enjoyment, left in these old folk, struck her dumb. Mrs. Brunt had an income of two-and-sixpence a week, plus two loaves from the parish, and one of the parish or “charity” houses,—a hovel, that is to say, of one room, scarcely fit for human habitation at all. She had lost five children, was allowed two shillings a week by two laborer sons, and earned sixpence a week—about—by continuous work at “the plait.” Her husband had been run over by a farm cart and killed; up to the time of his death his earnings averaged about twenty-eight pounds a year. Much the same with the Pattons. They had lost eight children out of ten, and were now mainly supported by the wages of a daughter in service. Mrs. Patton had of late years suffered agonies and humiliations indescribable, from a terrible illness which the parish doctor was quite incompetent to treat; being all through a singularly sensitive woman, with a natural instinct for the decorous and the beautiful.  90
  Amazing! Starvation wages; hardships of sickness and pain; horrors of birth and horrors of death; wholesale losses of kindred and friends; the meanest surroundings; the most sordid cares,—of this mingled cup of village fate every person in the room had drunk, and drunk deep. Yet here in this autumn twilight they laughed and chattered and joked,—weird, wrinkled children, enjoying an hour’s rough play in a clearing of the storm! Dependent from birth to death on squire, parson, parish, crushed often and ill-treated according to their own ideas, but bearing so little ill-will; amusing themselves with their own tragedies even, if they could but sit by a fire and drink a neighbor’s cup of tea.  91
  Her heart swelled and burned within her. Yes, the old people were past hoping for; mere wreck and driftwood on the shore, the springtide of death would soon have swept them all into unremembered graves. But the young men and women, the children, were they too to grow up, and grow old like these,—the same smiling, stunted, ignobly submissive creatures? One woman at least would do her best with her one poor life to rouse some of them to discontent and revolt!  92

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