Winefred went down the street in the direction of the curate’s house. She encountered the reverend gentleman. He was somewhat shabby in dress, his boots were worn, and his neckcloth far from fresh starched. He had a depressed, crushed look.
The girl went up to him confidently, and asked for Jack Rattenbury.
‘My child,’ answered the parson, ‘he is not at my house, nor at his lodgings.’
‘I have a pair of socks for him knitted by his father.’
‘I can give them to him.’
‘Thank you, a message goes with them. Where is he, sir?’
‘I believe on the White Cliff.’
‘What, wool-gathering? Is he doing that when supposed to be at his studies?’
‘You have a pert tongue. He likes to watch the birds.’
‘Thank you, sir. I will look for him there. It is all on my way back.’
Winefred, instead of taking the short lane, now made the circuit of the down, ascending by the last house of the long street above the tiny bay, where were a flagstaff and benches, on which latter in almost all weathers fishermen and boys sat and yarned, disputed and smoked.
She asked them about Jack, and learned that he was on the down. ‘I have socks for him from his father,’ she explained.
Her way led under and around fragmentary masses of chalk crag belted with flints; and where the flints had fallen out, leaving the surface pockmarked, gulls and guillemots flew about chattering and screaming, and now and again a nimble tern, the swallow of the sea, glanced by.
White Cliff was, in fact, a paradise of birds. The tooth of[27] the storm had gnawed into its friable surface, and bitten out chunks, and scooped caves so as to afford for the birds dry and abundant, and, above all, secure lodging-places where to breed. The brow overhung, rendering their nesting shelves inaccessible from above, and from below a scramble up the lower sandstone beds was absolutely impracticable owing to their friability.
The white face of the cliff was incessantly changing, though by slow degrees; masses fell off, fresh indentations were formed, and at the base lay a mass of broken rock about which the waves churned; under which and over which, by tunnels and by furrows, the water rushed and returned of a milky tinge.
Upon the headland, looking seaward, was the youth of whom the girl was in quest. He paid no attention to her as she approached, indeed did not appear to observe her till she named him, when he turned and confronted her.
‘What! Winny, the peddler woman’s child?’
Somewhat nettled, the girl stiffened her neck. ‘It is more honourable to peddle than to lounge,’ she said. ‘The peddler does something, and if she were away would be missed, but the loafer is no good to any one, and is bad company to himself.’
‘You are sharp of tongue,’ said the lad, laughing. ‘I am an unstrung bow just now. If you had been kept with your nose to a Latin grammar, you would wish to lift it to sniff the sea breeze.’
‘Well,’ she said, and laughed also, ‘I have been idling all the morning, and my work now is no more than to bring you a pair of socks from your father, and with it a message.’
‘Thank him from me for the socks.’
‘Oh! and no thanks for the message?’
‘I have not heard it.’
‘Well—he says you are to shut up the Latin grammar for a bit, and sit under David Nutall and take instructions from him.’
An expression of dissatisfaction came over the boy’s face.
‘And,’ continued Winefred, looking straight into his eye, ‘Thursday night at eleven, at Heathfield Cross.’
‘I thought as much,’ muttered Jack.
‘Well, am I to have thanks for the message?’
‘I don’t know,’ he returned, brooding.
‘Jack,’ said Winefred, ‘put your foot down and say—I won’t.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked, looking at her in surprise.
tumblr_od7c0ulwem1u1l8sno1_540‘I know—or can guess what it is about. I have not been up and down peddling here and hawking there, and not heard a thing or two. My ears are pointed, and I catch a good deal. Your father is just thrusting you on the same road as he has walked. It is my belief that if the little one of the flat fish said, I will swim straight, he would come out without crooked eyes, and not become a flounder, but be a mackerel. If once you begin to go in and out at the back door, you’ll never take to that in the front of the house.’
‘You do not understand—my father is not a man to be disobeyed.’
‘I’d peddle before I did it,’ said Winefred with vehemence. ‘A peddling woman is honest, and carries her wares slung in front of her, and a—you know what—bears his behind his back. A peddling woman goes about by day along the high road, and is not caught slinking in bye-lanes of a night. You are a fine fellow with your Latin grammar, and learning to be a gentleman, to turn up your nose at my mother because she hawks laces, and then sneak away to cheat the government over spirits. I don’t know whether it be a matter of right and wrong, all I know is it don’t look honest, and I hate crooked ways.’
‘I do not see what right you have to dictate to me.’
‘I am advising only. Why, I will tell you.’
She turned her peddler’s box round under her arm.
‘Last night mother and I were going over the down, and it was dark. Mother had her notions as to the way, and she was all wrong. She was making direct for the edge of the cliff; my eyes are younger, and I saw it, and I would go this way when she persisted in going that. Mother is an obstinate woman, and she would go her course; and because I stuck to it she was wrong, she caught me up and was going to carry me along her way. If we had gone three steps farther, we should have bounced into kingdom come, and our bodies would be washing now against the pebble ridge. As good luck would have it, up came your father with a lantern, and he saved us. I would return the favour. You are being drawn along the wrong path by him, and so I turn on you the lantern of common-sense and say, Go right instead of going wrong. That is my advice; take or leave it as you will.’
Then Winefred shifted her package again and trudged away.
When she reached the cottage on the undercliff, she found that Job Rattenbury was out.
Her mother sat by the fire on a stool engaged in needlework, at the same time that she watched a pot that was boiling.
Winefred laid the case of wares aside, and stood drawing in the scent of cooking through her nose.
‘Good!’ said she, ‘uncommon—the smell of onions is all over the place; I believe there is going to be beefsteak pudding.’
‘You are right,’ said Jane.
‘Thanks be to me for it,’ said Winefred.
Her mother looked up.
‘You have been out amusing yourself; I cut up the meat and onions and made the pastry.’
‘But you would not have done it, nor have been here to enjoy beefsteak pudding if I had not kicked and squealed last night. Listen to me, mother.’
Winefred got on the table and seated herself there, with her feet drawn under her.
‘Hearken to what I’ve got to say. But for me, we, both of us, instead of counting the minutes till the beefsteak pudding is ready for us to eat, would be serving as meals for the fishes. Mother, you are too hasty. Because the rain began to trickle down your back, and your nose was blue, you sought to throw yourself and me into the sea. Now learn a lesson. Don’t be hasty again. Winefred and beefsteak pudding for ever! Hurrah!’
‘Be serious, child.’
‘I am. It is a deadly serious question whether I shall eat or be eaten. I give you fair warning, mother, that is not a question I will have put to me again. I will not go over the cliffs however much rain trickles down your back.’
‘You have no love for me.’
‘I have so great a love for you, mother, that with teeth and claws, and yells and kicks, I will prevent you from ever casting yourself away or me either. I am in a haranguing, lecturing mood to-day. I have been giving my mind to Jack Rattenbury, and now I give it to you; and I am in downright earnest with both. I don’t like crooked ways.’
‘Forget what is past,’ said Jane, in a subdued tone.
‘Yes, but I shall take care of myself in the future.’