HOMELESS

One grey, uncertain afternoon in November, when the vapour-laden skies were without a rent, and the trailing clouds, without a fringe, were passing imperceptibly into drizzle, that thickened with coming night, when the land was colourless, and the earth oozed beneath the tread, and the sullen sea was as lead—on such a day, at such a time of day, a woman wandered through Seaton, then a disregarded hamlet by the mouth of the Axe, picking up a precarious existence by being visited in the summer by bathers.
The woman drew her daughter about with her. Both were wet and bedraggled.
The wind from the east soughed about the caves, whistled in the naked trees, and hissed through the coarse sea-grass and withered thrift; whilst from afar came the mutter of a peevish sea. The woman was tall, had fine features of a powerful cast, with eyes in which slumbered volcanic fire. Her cheeks were flushed, her rich, dark hair, caught by the wind and sopped by the mist, was dishevelled under her battered hat. She was not above thirty-six years old.
The girl she held and drew along was about eighteen. She partook of her mother’s fineness of profile and darkness of eye. If there were in her features some promise or threat of the resolution that characterised her mother’s countenance, it was tempered by a lurking humour that would not suffer them to set to hardness.
This woman, holding her daughter with a grip of iron, stood in the doorway of a farm, talking with, or rather at, the farmer.
‘Why not? Have I not hands, arms? Can I not work?[2] Will not she work? Prove us. I ask why you cannot take us in?’
‘My good woman, we require no one.’
‘But you do. You have needed me. When your wife was ill, and your hussy of a maid had run away—did you not send for me? Did I hesitate to go to you? I left then my huckstering that I might be useful in your house. That was the hour of your need. Now it is mine. Did I not at that time do my work well? Perhaps over well. Your wife said I had scrubbed the surface off the table and rubbed into holes the clothes I washed. Anyhow I did naught by halves. And your drones, they guzzle and sleep, and when you are in straits—there is sickness, disaster—then they run away. Take me and Winefred.’
‘My dear Mrs. Marley, it is of no avail your persisting to thrust yourself on us. You can’t stable more horses than you have stalls. I have no vacancy.’
‘Your missus has turned away Louie Herne.’
‘And has engaged one in her place.’
‘Then give us leave to sleep in your barn, and I’ll work in the fields for you, hoeing, weeding, gathering up stones—ay, better than can a man.’
‘No, thank you. I do not care to have my barn burnt down. You have too much fire in you to be safe among straw.’
The woman quivered with disappointment and rage. Erect, with rigid arms and stiff neck, she flared out: ‘Ay! I could tear down your stacks, or fire them. I am “Dear Jane Marley” when you need me. “Out, you vagabond,” when I am in need.’
‘If you dared do what you threaten,’ said the farmer, suddenly becoming harsh in tone and manner, ‘into prison you should go, and then, indeed, your Winefred would be a vagabond, and all through you.’
The woman shut her mouth, but sparks scintillated in her eyes.
‘Mother, let us go elsewhere,’ said the girl and endeavoured to draw her mother away.
‘Not yet,’ answered the woman impatiently. ‘Do you not know, Moses Nethersole, that I and my Winefred are homeless? My cottage has gone to pieces, and the whole cliff is crumbling away. The wall is down already, and the lime-ash floor is buckled up and splitting. No one now may go nigh the place. It needs but the hopping of a wagtail to send the whole bag of tricks into the sea. And you—you have the heart to deny us shelter and bread, and work whereby to earn both.’
[3]
‘Bread you shall have and a cup of milk.’
‘I will have neither as an alms. I ask no charity. I desire to work for my meat and for my housing. Have I not done so like an honest woman hitherto? Would you make a beggar of me? Give me work, I ask. I seek nothing more.’
‘Mother, come away,’ pleaded the girl.
‘I will,’ said the woman curtly, and turned round with an abrupt action. Then suddenly she stooped, stripped off her shoes, and, running forward as the farmer backed, she beat the soles against the doorposts.
‘There,’ she said, ‘there is Scripture for you. I cannot shake off the dust o’ my feet as testimony against you, but I can the mud and the oozing of the water from the sodden leather. May that cling there till the Day of Judgment, and bring the blight to your wheat, the rot to your sheep, to your cattle, the worm and canker to your store, and fester into your blood. It is the curse of the widow and the fatherless that will lie on you.’
The farmer slammed his door in her face, and retreated to the kitchen. He was a phlegmatic and amiable man, but the fury of the woman, and her denunciation of woes had shaken him; his ruddy face was mottled, and his hand shook as he let himself down into the settle.
‘By my soul, she’s a vixen!’ he gasped.
‘Moses,’ said his wife, ‘you’ve done right. If I hadn’t been minding ironing of your shirt-front for Sunday, I’d have gone out and given that same vixen a bit of my mind.’
‘I wish you had, Mary—I’m no match for the likes o’ she.’
‘If I had heard the smallest mite o’ wavering in your voice, I would have done so for certain,’ said Mrs. Nethersole; ‘and so you call her “dear Jane,” do you? Things come out unexpected at times, and “Mistress Marley” is she? You know as well as I do that she is no honest woman, howsomever she may brag of her honesty. She is just a wild lostrel as has got no belongings, save that girl as never ought to have come into this world of wickedness.’
‘Mary, perhaps it’s all along of it being a world of a wickedness that she did come. Jane Marley’s case is a sad one. She has been driven from her cottage.’
‘Turned out?’
‘The cliff has given way. You know where it stood.’
‘Not I—it is on the other side of the water.’
‘It was on the edge of the cliff, and the rock has been breaking away for some time—that is how she had it cheap. Now it[4] is part down, and they say there be a great crack right along the ground—and the whole cliff will go over, and be munched by the waves.’
‘That’s no concern of ours, Moses; she does not belong to the parish.’
‘True, but she has worked for us when we were short and in difficulties.’
‘And was paid for it—and we wiped our hands of her.’
‘Mary, you are over hard.’
‘And you like butter on dog-days. I know you men. Dear Jane, indeed!’
Mrs. Marley, with labouring bosom, heaving after the storm, drew her daughter with her into the village street, to the village inn, the Red Lion, kept by Mrs. Warne.
She walked in, with a manner almost defiant, and encountered the landlady issuing from the cosy parlour behind the bar, in which a good fire burnt, and where sat a couple of commercial travellers.
‘I have come,’ said Jane Marley, ‘and have brought my Winefred. Our house is going to pieces under our feet, over our heads, and we are homeless. I desire that you take my child and me. I do not ask it as a favour. Look at my arms. I can work, and will be an ostler for you, and she shall serve in the inn.’
‘I really do not require you,’ said Mrs. Warne. ‘I am sorry for your misfortunes, but I cannot help. You do not belong to this parish.’
‘And are love and mercy never to travel beyond parish bounds?’ asked the woman, with her vehemence again breaking out. ‘Is the tide of charity to flow on one side of the hedge and not on the other? Is the dew of heaven to moisten the wool on the fleece of the parish sheep only?’
‘Jane, be reasonable. Our duties are limited by the parish boundaries, but not our charity.’
‘Then extend some charity to Winefred and me, not alms, mind you, only consideration.’
17‘Charity must be governed by circumstances,’ said Mrs. Warne.
‘Oh, yes,’ retorted Jane scornfully. ‘It is like a canal, so much of it let out through the sluices as the dock-keeper thinks well.’
‘If you will be patient,’ said the hostess, a woman rubicund, plump and good-humoured, at the moment impatient to be back[5] with the commercials, especially with one who had an engaging eye and tongue. ‘If you will be patient, I will tell you how I can oblige you. I do not mind taking on Winefred.’
‘But Tom Man, your ostler, is dead.’
‘Well, but I must have a man in the stables, not a woman.’
‘No,’ said Mrs. Marley, ‘I will not leave the child unprotected in a public-house. See me, I have neither father, nor mother—no relation of any sort. What my story is, that concerns none but myself; but, such as it is, it has made me alone, with only my child to love. All the love you have to your mother and sisters and brothers and cousins, that with me is gathered into one great love for the one child I have. Where she is, there am I. She is a handsome girl, blooming as a rose. No, I will not let her be seen in a tavern, unless I be near also to watch over her against your leering bagmen.’
Mrs. Warne bridled up.
‘Bagmen, indeed! Tut, woman, surely you may trust me?’
‘I can trust none. You are not her mother. You must take us both.’
‘I cannot receive you both. I have made you a fair offer. If you will not accept, go over the river to your own parish.’
Then Mrs. Warne retreated into the bar, shut the door, drew down the window, and went to the fire and the commercials. Jane Marley left the Red Lion. The cloud darkened on her brow.
She said no word to her daughter, but directed her way up the street to a small shop, in which already a light was burning.
In the greensand beds about Seaton, or rather on the beach, washed from them, are found chalcedonies, green and yellow, red jasper, and moss agates, also brown petrified wood that takes a high polish. There was a little dealer in these at Seaton, an old man who polished and set them, and sold them as memorials to visitors coming there for sea-bathing and air. To this man, Thomas Gasset by name, the distressed woman betook herself.
He was sitting at his work-table, with a huge pair of spectacles in horn rims over his nose, engaged in mounting a chalcedony as a seal.
He looked up.
‘Got some stones for me, Mrs. Marley?’ he asked. ‘I hope good ones this time. Those Winefred brought last were worthless.’
‘No, Mr. Gasset, they were not,’ said the girl. ‘I know a stone as well as you.’
[6]
‘Thomas Gasset,’ said the mother, ‘I come to you with a proposal. Will you take Winefred and me into your service? That is to say, let us both lodge with you. She shall collect the precious pebbles, and as she says she knows one that is good from another that is worthless, she can help polish; turn the grindstone, if you will; and I will go about the country selling them, instead of tapes and papers of pins—or with them.’
‘My dear good creature,’ gasped the jeweller—as this dealer in such stones as jasper and agate elected to be called—more correctly a lapidary—’the business would not maintain all three. The season here is short, and I sell in that only.’
He looked out of the corners of his eyes at his wife, who was darning where she could profit by his lamp. She pursed up her lips and drew her brows together.
‘The business is a starving, not a living,’ said Mrs. Marley, ‘because it is not pushed. I have just been in at the Red Lion—there are commercials, them travelling for some habberdash or hosiery firm—they work up the trade. It pays to employ them. You make me your traveller, I will go about with your wares to Dorchester, to Weymouth, to Exeter—wherever there be gentlefolk with loose money to spend in such things. It will pay you over and over again. If this sort of working a business can keep those commercials in the lap of luxury in Mrs. Warne’s bar, drinking spirits and dining off roast goose, it will keep me who never take anything stronger than milk, and am content with a crust and dripping. Let me travel for you and look to this as my home, where Winefred is.’
‘No,’ said Mrs. Gasset, snapping the answer from her husband’s mouth; ‘no, indeed, we take none under our roof who cannot produce her marriage lines.’
‘Then I will lodge elsewhere if you will take my child, Mr. Gasset. You may trust her. Your goods will be safe with me. I will render account for every stone. You will have as security what is more to me than silver or gold—my Winefred.’
The man again peered out of the corners of his eyes at his wife, and again she answered for him.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t doubt your honesty. You have been honest always save once. But there are reasons why it cannot be. That is final.’
And she snapped her mouth, and at the same moment broke her darning-needle.
Jane Marley left the shop.
[7]
When her back was turned Mrs. Gasset flew at her husband.
‘You’d have given way—I saw it by the way you twitched the end of your nose.’
‘My dear Sarah! it was such an opportunity. The woman is right—my business——’
‘Oh! much you thought of your business. It was her great brown eyes—not your agates.’
‘My dear Sarah! surely at my age——’
‘The older a man is, the more of a fool he becomes.’
‘Well, well, my honey-bee, I didn’t.’
‘No, you didn’t, because I was by,’ retorted the honey-bee, and put forth her sting. ‘If I had been underground, you’d have taken her in. I know you; yah!’
And in the little parlour behind the bar, the comfortable Mrs. Warne settled herself before the fire, and drew up her gown so as not to scorch it, and looked smilingly at the more attractive bagman of the two, and said, ‘Ah! Mr. Thomson, if you only knew from what I have saved you.’
‘From what, my dearest Mrs. Warne?’
‘From fascinations you could not have resisted. There has been here a peculiarly handsome woman wanting a situation—as ostler. If she had come, there would have been no drawing you from the stables.’
‘Madame—elsewhere perhaps—but assuredly not here.’
The women were all against Jane Marley because she was still good-looking.